Most American students are familiar with the genre of slave narrative. We’ve all at some point been assigned autobiographies such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. These books are the product of a peculiar class of African-Americans, fugitive, yet often famous, risen from ashes to become leaders in the most pivotal movement in American history.
The contents of these books tend to follow similar structures: the horrors of slavery, the moment of enlightenment and desire for freedom, the failed attempt, the daring escape, the perilous journey, and the struggle to establish oneself afterward. Among the pages is usually chronicled the method by which the former slave learned to read, and pleas to the reader against slavery in the name of reason or religion punctuate it all.
There’s a disparity, though.
Writers like Frederick Douglass or the subject of this biography, William Wells Brown, became respected intellectuals in their time. Female authors like Harriet Jacobs or Harriet Wilson, who wrote Our Nig about her indentured servitude in the North, received no such accolades. The most prominent female abolitionist author was always Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white woman. Even famed poet Phillis Wheatley died in poverty. The pre-emancipation manuscripts we have that are written by black women have largely been dug up by historians over one hundred years later.
The same problem exists for the writings of black men, of course. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave was also lost to history for a time. Still, the lives and work of black female authors have been systematically devalued to an even greater extent, and during the time of slavery, there was little hope for them to achieve similar literary success to their male counterparts.
Josephine Brown didn’t write in order to get credit for it, that much is clear. At the beginning of the books, she clearly states that the reason for her publishing this biography is that her father’s autobiography was out of print at the time. What follows is a staid, no-frills biography that one would scarcely believe was written by Mr. Brown’s daughter, were it not stated in the title. She takes excerpts from her father’s writings and from critics of his work, transcribing paragraphs at a time without hesitation. Her concern is not literary quality, but rather historical documentation.
Her most egregious fumbling with words takes place in the first chapter, where her hyperbole is particularly effusive. “A finer situation for a farm could scarcely have been selected in any part of the country,” she writes. “…Distinguished for her strength both of body and mind, and a woman of great courage, Elizabeth was considered one of the most valuable slaves on the place. Although Dr. Young was not thought to be the hardest of masters, he nevertheless employed, as an overseer, a man whose acts of atrocity could scarcely have been surpassed in any of the slave States.”
She does include occasional anecdotes, some more believable than others. The story of her father arguing his fare with a white train conductor, for example, seems like it ought to have gotten him arrested rather than a clean moral victory. The tales of his setting up shop as first a barber, then a banker, are similarly lively, but somewhat less outrageous. She also injects a certain amount of family pride into the narrative when she lists the various elites with whom her father hobnobbed in Europe as well as excerpts of glowing reviews of his books.
Brown is not the most engaging writer, but she knows this, and so she keeps her narrative short and to the point, sparing the reader most poor attempts at flourishes. This is a woman who wrote out of necessity, not wanting her father’s efforts to be forgotten, and for that, I admire her.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in African-American history or in slave narratives. It’s a dry but not terrible read that provides valuable historical information.
Rating: 2/5 Stars.
You may also like:
Check out my masterlist for the rest of my reviews!