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Tom Chaney: The First Black Novel (More than Likely)

Of Writers And Their Books: The First Black Novel (More than Likely). Tom discusses William Wells Brown who took the story of the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings story down one generation and penned a reasonably good novel, Clotel, or the President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. This column first appeared 7 November 2010.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Doing History -- Celebrating Feet of Clay

By Tom Chaney

The First Black Novel (More than Likely)

Last week I wallowed about in Annette Gordon-Reed's book about the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings relationship. That set me to thinking about the subject of black literature and my feeble efforts to teach it at Southern State College back in the 1960's.

SSC was one of several agricultural schools scattered about Arkansas. Located in Magnolia in the far southwest corner of the state, it was renamed Southern Arkansas University -- quite appropriately if you pronounce SAU as "sow."

'Twas a very good school in which to teach English in those days, and I took three hitches at it between the summer of 1964 and the spring of 1970 when I left for Iowa.

SSC was a good school for two reasons. The chair of the English Department was Dr. George L. Sixbey who had degrees from a couple of the best eastern schools. He was the first reason and the cause of the second.

George had put together an interesting group of faculty. Some had their doctorate; others did not, some such as I were lackadaisically working on the degree at one place or another. Didn't seem to matter too much. He picked good teachers and stood behind them when the administrative winds blew too hard.

Consequently we were inclined to jump through any hoop he cared to hold out. I was fired by the president in 1967. George turned that into a leave of absence for doctoral work at the University of Kentucky, and then called me back two years later.

I could just see the president cringe. And he got really squinchy when I rented a house in the country with the nearest neighbor half a mile away. That neighbor was black. He thought I had moved into a black neighborhood since my neighbor was there first. There was no thought that he lived in a white neighborhood. The foxes which roamed the pine forest were red -- another ominous note for that place and time.

When I arrived on campus in the fall of 1969 George called me into his office. He had scheduled me for an afternoon freshman English class that had only about ten students enrolled.

With that reduction in load, he opined that I could do him and the school a favor. Arkansas higher education had been integrated by the same Governor Faubus who confronted the Eisenhower soldiers at the Little Rock High School early in his term. The Gov avoided any ruction in the integration of the state colleges by the simple expedient of removing any reference to race from the admission forms.

Integration of the student body had taken place, but we had not made much academic effort to deal with the fact of black culture.

In a word, George asked me to teach a course in black literature come spring. To hire a black faculty member was out of the question at the time.

I knew less than nothing about black literature. Of course, I agreed. I'd of done anything George Sixbey asked. And the start of the spring term was four months away. I spent the fall reading everything I could get my hands on. By the way, it was that fall that I discovered Albery A. Whitman, the Hart County poet.

But I started to talk about a black novelist before I wandered.

That novelist is William Wells Brown who took the story of the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings story down one generation and penned a reasonably good novel, Clotel, or the President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853).

Brown, born in Lexington, Kentucky In 1814, was himself an escaped slave and his novel tells the story of "the slave Currer and her daughters, Clotel and Althesa, and of their attempts to escape from slavery."

The novel opens as Currer, alleged mistress of Jefferson, is sold at auction along with her daughters. Clotel is sold to a white planter who marries her. Althesa and Currer are sold into deep south tragedy. Currer dies of yellow fever just before rescue. Althesa's marriage to a white owner does not prevent their daughters from being sold into slavery.

Clotel lives in secret harmony with her white politician husband Horatio Green for a time. They've a daughter Mary. As Horatio works his way into Virginia politics he abandons Clotel and Mary. The marriage was illegal at any rate in Virginia. Green's wife discovers the mother and daughter and demands that Clotel be sold and that Mary be enslaved. Clotel escapes and attempts to rescue Mary. Imprisoned she escapes again and, rather than face further degradation, drowns herself in the Potomac River scarcely a mile from the White House where her father once lived.

Clotel focuses, as did Brown, on the abuse of the slave system. He evinces little sympathy for the Jeffersons or the Horatio Greens who participate in slavery when it is convenient to their purposes, and who are willing to discard those in bondage when it suits them.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

This story was posted on 2015-10-11 05:48:24
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