William Wells Brown’s intrepid journey as the first African-American playwright

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/02/05/william-wells-browns-intrepid-journey-as-the-first-african-american-playwright/
Fugitive Slave Law era poster,1851 (Wikipedia)

Fugitive Slave Law era poster,1851 (Wikipedia)

After his dramatic escape from slavery, William Wells Brown (1814-1884) became the first published African-American playwright, and also the first to write a novel. His creative use of musical imagery in his stories had a powerful effect on his readers, and influenced other authors who imitated his technique. After many adventures, Brown settled down in Boston, and became a renowned abolitionist, lecturer, and historian.

Brown was born in Mount Sterling, Kentucky to a slave named Elizabeth. She was owned by Dr. John Young, whose cousin, George Higgins, was William’s father. After being sold a number of times, Brown escaped in 1833 with his mother as they were crossing the Mississippi River. Although the pair was caught in Illinois, Brown tried again a year later, and successfully fled to the free state of Ohio. He was rescued by a Quaker man named Wells Brown, who also taught him to read and write.  Brown later honored him by using his name as a surname.

Brown moved to New York in 1836, where he worked on a steamboat in Lake Erie. He hid many fugitive slaves on the boat and helped them escape to safety.

In 1849, Brown traveled to England for a lecture tour. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, he was forced to stay there until 1854 to avoid capture. While in London, Brown wrote his famous novel, Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States in 1853.

Brown recognized music’s unique capacity to penetrate the innermost recesses of the human spirit, and he wielded its power like a sword to pierce through the armor of the reader’s prejudices.

When a British couple purchased his freedom in 1854, Brown was able to move to Boston, where he spent the rest of his life. He wrote about his travel experiences in his book, Three Years in Europe: or Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met.

Although he penned many works, Brown was best known for his novel, Clotel. He placed abolitionist songs and Spirituals in the book to highlight the humanity and plight of African-Americans. It was an effective technique that implored readers to imaginatively listen to his characters sing about their sorrows.

Brown understood very well how to combine the media of text and song because he had both a literary and musical background. In 1848, he published The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings. Many of the ballads in that album were used in Clotel.

Brown recognized music’s unique capacity to penetrate the innermost recesses of the human spirit, and he wielded its power like a sword to pierce through the armor of the reader’s prejudices. Even the word “Spirituals” implies a type of song whose lyrics speak to the most profound core of the human being.

Brown reinforced the dramatic sensation by telling his audience that, “you will hear the burst of bitter lamentation.” He made the readers active participants in the powerful scenes he presented, enlisting them as witnesses to what was occurring. Brown then focused their mind’s eye so they could visualize the destiny of the slaves in the Southern cotton and rice plantations.

Using the words of a song, Brown created a lasting impression of the plantation’s dreadful panorama:

Where the slave-whip ceaseless swings,
Where the noisome insect stings,
Where the fever demon strews
Poison with the falling dews,
Where the sickly sunbeams glare
Through the hot and misty air.

Every human sense was involved in this passage. The reader saw the slave-whip swing; he heard the noisome insect and felt its sting; and he could taste and smell the poison with the dew.  He was also enveloped by the oppressive heat and humid air.

Illustration from Clotel, by William Wells Brown,1853 (Wikipedia)

Illustration from Clotel, by William Wells Brown,1853 (Wikipedia)

The word choice of the Spiritual was very precise. In lines 4 and 5, the image of the poison was transferred to the “sickly” sunbeams, causing burning and nauseating sensations. The personification of the slave-whip in line 1 was a menacing, life-like figure who viciously struck the slave without pause.  The “fever demon” was also a frightening personification of disease, whose ominous presence among the slaves threatened their existence.

Brown understood how music, even in the imaginative sense, could combine with text to create a powerful impression on his audience. The passage was also reminiscent of the sensory images in the Witches’ scene in the opening of Macbeth: “In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” and “Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

Brown’s use of musical imagery in his writing influenced other authors, such as W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). Du Bois also placed excerpts from Spiritual songs at the beginning of each chapter in his book, The Souls of Black Folk. He described the effect of this textual music:

“The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence.  Sometimes it is a faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond.”

Du Bois used the imagery as a plaintive challenge against the horrors of slavery. The song excerpts were familiar to the general population, and his inclusion of them helped reinforce his message. His style clearly reflected Brown’s creative technique.

Brown’s literary output and professional achievements were remarkable, especially considering he was a self-made man who survived extraordinary hardship before and after his captivity.

Besides Brown’s literary works, he also wrote non-fiction books, such as The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863), and the first historical study of African-American soldiers in the Revolutionary War, The Negro in the American Rebellion (1867). His play, “The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom” (1858), was the first to be published by an African-American.

In addition to writing, Brown opened a medical practice in the 1860s in Boston’s South End. He first learned about the trade while working in the medical office of his former slave master in St. Louis. Brown pursued both professions while residing in Cambridge, and later in Chelsea, Mass., where he lived until his death in 1884.

Brown’s literary output and professional achievements were remarkable, especially considering he was a self-made man who survived extraordinary hardship before and after his captivity. His legacy inspired authors and abolitionists in the U.S. and abroad, and he continues to be a model of excellence and perseverance today.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].

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