William Wells Brown's Clotel (1853), the first novel written by an African American, was published in London while Brown was still legally regarded as property within the borders of the United States.
The novel was inspired by the story of Thomas Jefferson's purported sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. Brown fictionalizes the stories of Jefferson's mistress, daughters, and granddaughters, all of whom are slaves in order to demythologize the dominant U.S. cultural narrative celebrating Jefferson's America as a nation of freedom and equality for all.
The documents in this edition include excerpts from Brown's sources for the novel, fiction, political essays, sermons, and presidential proclamations; selections that illuminate the range of contemporary attitudes concerning race, slavery, and prejudice; and pieces that advocate various methods of resistance and reform.
Clotel is the first African American novel. An escaped slave from Kentucky, Brown wrote Clotel while exiled in London. It was inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings. The plot here is convoluted, and subplots abound, lending a fractious and haphazard air to the characters’ shared environment. The random, detour-filled actions and events exemplify the chaos of slavery. Brown also captures the perverse intimacy of the master-slave dynamic. Seasoned narrator Peter Jay Fernandez sounds scholarly and distant. His detached tone turns the text to reportage, enabling Fernandez to share harrowing details without resorting to hysteria. His sober performance helps listeners to thoroughly absorb the real horrors of slavery recounted by Brown via this seminal work of fiction.
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