African American Novels

In the list of firsts – the first time a particular thing is known to have been done – two African American novels vie for the title.

In 1853, William Wells Brown published his novel, Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter.  This novel is believed to have been inspired by unsubstantiated but widely circulated rumors of the time that claimed Thomas Jefferson had fathered a daughter with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves.  Due, perhaps, to the book’s subject matter, the book was actually published in England instead of the United States.

In 1859, a book written by another African American, Harriet E. Wilson, was actually published in Boston by George C. Rand and Avery.  The book’s provocative title is Our Nig; Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, In A Two-Story White House, North. Showing That Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There By “Our Nig.”  It is a tale of the injustices meted out via the system of indentured servitude in the northern US before the American Civil War.

Literary purists claim Wilson’s novel is more autobiographical than fiction and don’t willingly acknowledge it as the first true novel written by an African American and published in the US.  This claim seems irrelevant to many other authors and teachers of literature who will be quick to recall the key to writing a successful novel – write what you know.

Harriet Wilson was born Harriet E. “Hattie” Adams in Milford, New Hampshire, on March 15, 1825.  Her father, Joshua Green, was a hooper of barrels until he died when Hattie was very young.  Her mother, Margaret Ann Adams Smith, was a washerwoman of Irish lineage who could not care for Hattie once her father died so she left Hattie at a Milford farm owned by the well-to-do Nehemiah Hayward, Jr., family.

Once Hattie worked through her indenture with the Haywards, she worked as a house servant and seamstress for other families until she married Thomas Wilson in 1851.

Documentary research undertaken in recent years seems to indicate some very strong parallels between the characters and events in Wilson’s novel and her life of indenture to the Haywards.  Names, of course, are different but events, including a dozen years of mental and physical abuse, bear striking similarities.  As any good novelist does, Wilson was apparently writing what she knew.

Wilson’s life remained tumultuous and full of hardship and strife until her death on June 28, 1900, at the Quincy Hospital in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Wilson’s book, the first of all African American novels to be published in the US, is currently available for sale and can be found in the library of the award-winning Project Guttenberg.

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