William Wells Brown (1814-1884)

Study notes

Renowned antislavery lecturer and reformer. First African American novelist. Born into slavery on a plantation. Mother, Elizabeth, was a slave while his father was a white man. Tried to escape with his mother, but they were caught and brought back. He never saw his mother again. Brown was successful at his second escape attempt. He married a free black woman. Worked as a steamboatsman who secretly helped slaves escape to Canada. He became a reformer and president of a black temperance society. Began being paid to lecture for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. When he published Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, the book became very popular; some wanted to capture him and return him to slavery. After his novel Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter was published, Ellen Richardson, who helped Frederick Douglass become free, purchased Brown manumission papers for 300$. At this point Brown was able to return to the U.S. Brown was excellent at history and wrote in many different genres. Clotel examined the idea that a “free” country could sustain a system of slavery. Brown focused on Jefferson as a founding father who contributed to the Declaration of Independence as well as a slave owner who is the father of Clotel and her sister, Althesa. DNA testing suggests Jefferson was, indeed, the father of some of his slaves, but at the time this was only rumor. Brown used this rumor as the focus of his story. Clotel is a mixture of rumor, fact, personal experience and fiction. Other sources Brown incorporated in his novel were pro-slavery prayer books, racist medical studies, a speech by Andrew Jackson and a variety of other texts he arranged and used to show how text can obscure and create the “truth.”  “Brown’s comments on how his sources ‘made up’ Clotel point to Brown’s sense of the importance of storytelling as a form of knowledge beyond mere factuality as well as a way to construct and reconstruct one’s own identity. Therefore, as his views and purposes changed, he told different stories, publishing three revisions of Clotel, making major alterations to the plot and narrative structure (and even dropping Jefferson from the genealogical history). Brown also structured various autobiographical information that could not be said to hold together as one story. If we look at his work as a whole, he can be seen as “something of a confidence man and trickster.” He was also a serious moralist who felt writing was one of the most powerful tools to further justice in society.

From Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847)
Chapter VI Slavery’s Deceptions

Told in first person. Brown is complaining of his owner, Mr. Walker, who is gathering a gang of slaves. Brown was asked to prepare the old slaves for market. Her was in charge of blackening grey hair and shaving the whiskers of old slaves to make them look younger. Brown witnessed slaves being whipped. Tells the story of a slave wife who is sold. Her husband sneaks during the night to visit her. He is caught and put in jail where his master has to pay for the slave’s capture and keeping. Brown tells of how he obtained a scar over his right eye when he was strapped for sitting and talking in a place he should not have been.
During a slave auction “some were set to dancing, some to jumping, some to singing, and some to playing cards. This was done to make them appear cheerful and happy.” Mr. Walker made a housekeeper of one of his pretty slaves and began to negotiate sexual favors from her. “He took her back to St. Louis, established her as his mistress and housekeeper at his farm, and before I left, he had two children by her. But, mark the end! Since I have been at the North, I have been credibly informed that Walker has been married, and, as a previous measure, sold poor Cynthia and her four children (she having had two more since I came away) into hopeless bondage!” Brown witnesses children taken from their mothers. “Mr. Walker commanded her to return into the ranks with the other slaves. Women who had children were not chained, but those that had none were. As soon as her child was disposed of, she was chained in the gang.” Brown says he was to be whipped for pouring too much wine, but describes how he gets out of it. “This incident shows how it is that slavery makes its victims lying and mean; for which vices it afterwards reproaches them, and uses them as arguments to prove that they deserve no better fate. I have often, since my escape, deeply regretted the deception I practiced upon this poor fellow; and I heartily desire that it may be, at some time or other, in my power to make him amends for his vicarious sufferings on my behalf.”

From The Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown
Escape; Self-Education

This text in written in third person about himself. He speaks of escaping during January. He travels by night and forages for food. “…the fugitive began to think of an additional name” and saw this renaming as a rebirth. William becomes sick from exposure and has to ask for help. “…he still halted between two opinions, whether he should enter or take to his heels; but he soon decided after seeing the glowing face of the wife. He saw something in her that bid him welcome, something that told him he would not be betrayed…He saw nothing but kind looks, and heard nothing but tender words.” William feared the white men, but also found a savior in a white man. He wanted to shout his freedom to the world. “I was no more a chattel, but a MAN…The fact that I was a freeman—could walk, talk, eat, and sleep as a man, and no one to stand over me with the blood-clotted cow-hide—all this made me feel that I was not myself.” He befriends a Quaker who asks if he has chosen his new freeman’s name yet. William says he wants to retain “William” because it had been taken from him once before. Then he tells the Quaker that he would like him to give him a name. The Quaker names William after himself. He thus becomes “William Wells Brown.” He lives in Ohio until the spring when he wants to travel to Canada. The story of how William learns to read and write.

From Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter
Chapter 1. The Negro Sale

As the population of slaves grows, so too does the population of half-white slaves. “Society does not frown upon the man who sits with his mulatto child upon his knee, whilst its mother stands a slave behind his chair.” Slave owners are not viewed as immoral for having slave children outside of marriage. “This fact is, of itself, the best evidence of the degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave in the United States of America.” He gives a popular definition of “slave” then: “Where the slave is placed by law entirely under the control of the man who claims him, body and soul, as property, what else could be expected than the most depraved social condition? The marriage relation…is unknown and unrecognized…” “Marriage is, indeed, the first and most important institution of human existence…most intimate covenant of heart formed among mankind…” The union of marriage is sacred and has many far-reaching positive effects, yet they take that away from us. Taking away marriage leads to moral degradation.
Quadroons can pay to be on their own. Many half-white slave women aspire to be a kept mistress so they can have a place of their own and wear fancy clothes. This is the best to which they can aspire.
There was an announcement for a group of slaves to be sold, all from one plantation. Among them were Currer and her two daughters: Clotel and Althesa. Clotel was seen as extremely superior. Clotel is pursued at a Quadroon Ball by college-educated Horatio Green. At the party he says he will buy her and make her the mistress of her own house. Clotel’s mother and sister are sold together. When Clotel is put on the auction block it is noted that her virginity is in tact. H. Green buys her for 1,500 dollars. Clotel does get her own house and has a daughter, Mary, with Horatio. Green’s political ambitions lead him to marry the white Gertrude who is the daughter of a wealthy man. Clotel is sold South. At some point, she escapes and returns to Richmond because she wants to be reunited with her daughter.

Chapter II
Going to the South
Currer and Althesa were temporarily held in a prison where Clotel visited them every day. The trader loaded everyone up early for New Orleans so there would be no crying and fighting at their departure. The trader would send posters ahead announcing how many slaves were in his group and their ages. He would make the older slaves younger than they were and then ask his personal slave to coach them about their “new” age and how to appear younger. Due to the gambling of slave owners, “such is the uncertainty of a slave’s position. He goes to bed at night the property of the man with whom he has lived for years, and gets up in the morning the slave of some one whom he has never seen before!” Later, a man comes on board in need of a cook and cleaning woman. Currer is pointed out. She asks if she can be sold with her daughter. She is not. Althesa cries for days.

Chapter IV.
The Quadroon’s Home
Horatio Green hired a cute little cottage for Clotel way back in the woods. Clotel places a “high value…upon virtue, [which] required an outward marriage; though she well knew that a union with her proscribed race was unrecognized by law, and therefore the ceremony would give her no legal hold on Haratio’s constancy.” They were together in happiness for a while. “…the young couple lived secluded from the world, and passed their time as happily as circumstances would permit.” Their first born was named Mary. She grew lighter and prettier every day. This made Clotel feel very nervous for her beautiful daughter. Horatio began to spend more time with his friends in the city. Later, he became interested in politics. There was a powerful man who could help him who had a single daughter of marrying age. Clotel began to feel that her hold on Horatio was weakening.
Currer becomes a cook in the home of John Peck. The courtship of Peck’s antislavery daughter, Georgiana, by Mr. Carlton, a freethinker, arouses much debate about abolition among the principal white characters. Meanwhile Horatio discards Clotel and Mary for marriage to a white woman. Although initially purchased by a New Orleans bank teller, Althesa wins the love of a white man, Henry Morton, who buys, frees, and marries her.

Chapter XV
To-Day a Mistress, To-Morrow a Slave
Horatio’s wife knows all about Clotel and their daughter. Horatio’s father-in-law is put in charge of the matter and sells Clotel to Walker for sale, just like Walker had split up Clotel’s family years before. In a cruel twist, the new Mrs. Green keeps Mary, Clotel’s daughter, as her own house slave and gives her the hardest work even though she is only ten. Clotel was sold as a waiting maid to Mr. James French, a merchant in Vicksburg. Mrs. French is extremely severe to her servants and has Clotel’s long, beautiful hair cut off. Clotel was near thirty. She could not stop grieving for her lost child so she was sold at a private sale to a young man for a housekeeper. Clotel’s mother, Currer, dies of yellow fever.

Chapter XIX
Escape of Clotel
Chapter opens with tales of runaway slaves. “There are men in the Free States, and especially in the states adjacent to the Slave States, who make their living by catching the runaway slave, and returning him for the reward that may be offered.”
Clotel’s new master treated her with respectful gentleness. There was a male servant, William, who wanted to give Clotel enough money to escape. Clotel came up with a plan where she would dress as a man and William would play her servant. She assumed the name of Mr. Johnson and she and William got on a steamboat. They successfully board another boat and are now effectively free. Clotel tells William their partnership is over; he can now go on to Canada. She plans to go back into a slave state in order to find her daughter. William tries to talk her out of this dangerous plan.
A series of examples of black people, or people mistaken for black people, trying to travel and lodge.
William found that simply escaping to a free state did not free a black person from prejudice. The story ends (in this Norton edition) with the following summary:
Dying young of consumption, Georgiana Carlton frees her slaves. Disguised as a “Spanish or Italian gentleman,” Clotel goes to Richmond to find her daughter. Althesa and her husband die in a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans. Their two daughters are sold into slavery and soon die tragically. Clotel is apprehended in Richmond and conveyed to Washington, D.C., to be sold back into slavery. When her dramatic escape attempt is thwarted, she chooses to drown herself in the Potomac River, within sight of the White House. Clotel’s daughter, Mary, ultimately marries the light-skinned George Green, a fugitive slave with whom she is providentially reunited in France after a ten-year separation.

Chapter XXIV
The Arrest

Clotel was willing to risk returning to a city where she was known in order to rescue her daughter. Three days pass with Clotel dressed as a man searching the town for her daughter. Half-white begin to feel they have or want the same rights as whites. Nat Turner stirred up a rebellion, so the town is on high alert. Clotel happened to be in town during the uprising. Authorities came to check out her room and they found female clothes in her trunk. She is arrested and taken to prison. During the rebellion, all blacks who were found off their plantation were killed. The slaves set fire to houses. Everything was crazy and slave bodies were left to rot in the streets.

Chapter XXV
Death Is Freedom

There were several slave prisons or “negro pens.” Clotel was kept in one and one night as the guard was locking the gate she ran past him as fast as she could. A small group of people began to follow, but she was running super-fast. At one point, Clotel is running across a bridge. There are three men coming from the opposite direction. They are notified and spread out in order to catch Clotel. She raises her hands up to the sky as if to pray before she makes her fateful decision: she jumps over the side of the bridge into the water where she never again rises to the surface. “Thus died Clotel, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, a president of the United States; a man distinguished as the author of the Declaration of American Independence, and one of the first statesmen of that country.” When Clotel’s body was found she was buried right there on the side of the river. No prayers, nothing. If she had been white her life would have been so different.

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I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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