When one thinks of 19th century America, slavery and the Civil War come to mind. American slavery, as we know, was a heinous, painful institution characterized by terrifying acts of violence. Whether it was the systematic rape of black women, the sale of black children away from their parents, squalid living conditions or enforced hard labor, slavery was designed to break the spirits of black people who built individual and national white wealth, which quickly made young America a global economic superpower.
A central aspect in the oppression of black slaves was the deliberate mission of white slaveowners to keep their slaves in ignorance. With knowledge, comes power—the power to think, to communicate and to take one’s freedom back by any means necessary. Thus, it was a severe crime to teach any slave to read or write. And yet, black Americans found a way to triumph even in such agonizing conditions.
Although largely ignored in the canon of Western literature, free black Americans educated themselves and published novels as early as 1853.
States scholar Dr. Gregg Hecimovich, “William Wells Brown’s novel Clotel was published in London in 1853, making Brown the first African-American novelist.” Wells, like many early black American novelists, drew from his personal experiences of slavery and racial violence in the United States, attempting to process these horrific experiences and regain selfhood through the act of finding his voice and speaking his truth on the page Now, a new discovery has come to light: the work of black novelist Sarah E. Farro. Farro published her novel, True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life in 1891, but had been widely forgotten until scholar Gretchen Gerzina, author of the books Black London and Black Victorians/Black Victoriana found a passing mention of Farro in an 1893 edition of the British Daily Telegraph. This chance discovery led Dr. Gerzina on a quest to find out more about Farro’s life and work.
Dr. Gerzina writes of Sarah E. Farro’s novel: “Surely those writers owe her a debt of gratitude, just as we have an obligation to bring her back into the fold of African-American and women novelists and to think about how these discoveries change our views of the African-American experience.”
In celebration of Dr. Gerzina’s discovery, here are 12 other black writers who wrote novels during the 19th century.
1. Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, by William Wells Brown
First published in England in 1853, later versions were published in 1861, 1864 and 1867 under the various titles Miralda: or, The Beautiful Quadroon; A Romance of American Slavery; Founded on Fact, Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States and Clotelle: or, The Colored Heroine. Loosely based on the rape of Sally Hemmings by Thomas Jefferson—and the lives of their children—this novel is unique in its value not just as a historical artifact but also for the quality of its literary craftsmanship. William Wells Brown, a former slave, established himself as an immensely talented writer, creating not just novels but also poetry, essays and plays.
2. The Heroic Slave: A Thrilling Narrative of the Adventures of Madison Washington, by Frederick Douglass
The abolitionist and former slave whose best known literary work is The Narrative of Frederick Douglass also wrote this novella. Published in 1853, it is based on the real-life mutiny led by Madison Washington onboard the slave ship Creole in 1841.
3. The Bondwoman’s Narrative, by Hannah Crafts (also known as Hannah Bond)
Discovered by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Hannah Crafts is the definite first female black American novelist of known record. States Dr. Hecimovich who helped authenticate the text: “Forensic details related to paper and ink, as well as internal evidence, demonstrate that the novel was begun in 1857 and completed in 1858.” The novel, however, remained unpublished until 2002. Here, Crafts, an escaped slave, writes a fictional account of a young girl who escapes from slavery for freedom in the North, dodging slave catchers and other perilous trials along the way.
4. The Garies and Their Friends, by Frank J. Webb
This 1857 publication is the sprawling, epic story of two mixed race families, one living in the North and one living in the South. Fearing for the safety of her biracial children, black slave Emily convinces Clarence Garie, her white owner and father of her children, to move North as well. However, racial prejudice is just as bad in the North and they must navigate continual violence that threatens their lives.
5. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, by Harriet E. Wilson
First published in 1859, Our Nig is the story of Frado, an abandoned half-black, half-white girl who grows up as an indentured servant to an abusive white family in 19th century Massachusetts. Although based on Harriet E. Wilson’s real-life, Wilson later overcame her harsh childhood and became Spiritualist and an advocate for children’s rights and labor reform.
6. The Rise and Progress of the Kingdoms of Light and Darkness, by Lorenzo D. Blackson
First published in 1867, Lorenzo D. Blackson’s novel is characterized as a Christian utopia exploring his deep Christian beliefs. Blending romance, family drama and philosophy, he crafts a picture of a better, more just society.
7. Clarence and Corinne, or God’s Way, by Amelia E. Johnson
In 1890, Amelia E. Johnson published the first of her novels, Clarence and Corinne, or God’s Way. In an experimental use of textual artifacts within the book, Johnson explores the story of alcoholism and addiction that destroys a family and renders two young children orphans.
8. Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted, by Frances Harper
A founding member of the National Association of Colored Women, Frances Harper was also a lecturer and poet. Here, Harper pens the fictional story of Iola Leroy, a young biracial woman raised as white only to be sold into slavery after her white father’s death. Iola, however, embraces her blackness and triumphs over adversity. This novel, published in 1892, became one of the bestselling African-American novels of the 19th century.
9. The Hazeley Family, by Amelia E. Johnson
The second of Amelia E. Johnson’s novels, published in 1894 by the American Baptist Publication Society, again draws heavily on religious and domestic themes that characterized Johnson’s work. Here, Johnson focused less on fictional drama and more on portraying Christian domestic values.
10. The Uncalled, by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Although best known for his acclaimed poetry, Paul Laurence Dunbar first published The Uncalled, one of his five novels in 1898. Here we are introduced to Freddie Bent, abandoned in an orphanage after the death of his mother. Adopted by Miss Hester Prime, who vows that young Freddie will become a preacher, Freddie struggles to come of age and gain his independence. Here is a master of language at work.
11. Imperium in Imperio, by Sutton Griggs
Eerily prophetic, Griggs’s novel explores the friendship between two young men: one is biracial and a black power militant along the lines of Malcom X, the other is a black man along the more nonviolent portrayals of Martin Luther King Jr. Together, the two men form a political movement for black empowerment. This is still a timely, powerful read that had immense success when it was first published in 1899.
12. Mandy Oxendine, and The House Behind the Cedars, by Charles Chestnutt
While Chestnutt’s novel Mandy Oxendine was written in 1897, it was not published until 1997 due to its content: an exploration of two biracial lovers, one who lives in the black community and one who lives in the white community. It was his novel House Behind the Cedars, another story of biracial identity and passing between white and black worlds, that was first published just after the turn of the century in 1900.