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William Wells Brown, 1814?-1884
My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People
Boston: A. G. Brown & Co., Publishers, 1880.

Summary

William Wells Brown was a groundbreaking African American abolitionist, writer, lecturer, and historian. In addition to his autobiographical and academic works, he authored Clotel (1853), one of the first novels published by an African American. Born in Lexington, Kentucky in or around 1814, Brown was the son of an enslaved woman named Elizabeth and a white man named George Higgins—the cousin of her master, Dr. John Young. Soon afterwards, Young moved to a Missouri plantation, taking his slaves with him. Brown was hired out to various masters as a boy, and while he was away from the plantation, his mother and six siblings were sold to different masters. While enslaved, he worked as a house servant, a field hand, a tavern keeper's assistant, a printer's helper, an assistant in a medical office, and a handyman ("Brown"). After two failed attempts, Brown successfully escaped from slavery in 1834, when the steamboat he was aboard made a stop in Ohio. Originally known as William Young (and later as "Sandford," after his master adopted a nephew named William), he eventually took the name of a Quaker man, Wells Brown, who had aided him as a fugitive. Brown worked for nine years as a steamboat crew member on Lake Erie and served as a conductor for the Underground Railroad before moving to England to escape capture under the Fugitive Slave Law. Brown was therefore an "unusually well-traveled slave" who "had seen and experienced slavery from almost every perspective, an education that he would put to good use throughout his literary career ("Brown"). Brown died in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on 6 November 1884.

In addition to his autobiographical Narrative (1849) and multiple versions of Clotel (sometimes spelled Clotelle), Brown also published Three Years in Europe, or Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (1852); The American Fugitive in Europe: Sketches of Places and People Abroad (1855); The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863); The Negro in the American Rebellion (1867); and The Rising Son: or, The Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race (1874). Many of these works were pioneering efforts in African American fiction, history, and travel writing. His final book, My Southern Home; or, The South and Its People (1880), provides a more intimate description of the relations between southern blacks and whites both before and after the Civil War. Due to its autobiographical nature, My Southern Home revisits many of the individuals and incidents described in his previous writings, but its tone is less strident than Brown's earlier works, even whimsical at times. For example, he recalls the humorous story of a "city gentleman" from St. Louis who was eager to experience "coon-hunting." When the city slicker makes the mistake of shooting at a skunk, he is thoroughly sprayed and has to be buried naked in a large pit to remove the smell, much to the slaves' amusement. Brown writes that "‘de coon hunt' and ‘de gemmen fum de city' was the talk for many days" (p. 11). This book also provides a more or less factual basis for elements of his famous novel, Clotel, describing scenes from Brown's service under the infamous St. Louis slave trader, James Walker. However, the line between fact and fiction becomes blurry at times, as Brown changes the names of individuals even in his "autobiographical" accounts, and he provides very detailed, psychological accounts of other slaves' experiences. For example, in his 1849 Narrative, Brown admits that on one occasion he tricked a fellow slave into taking a whipping for him (p. 54), but in My Southern Home, he assigns this cruel trick to a slave named Pompey (p. 117). Likewise, the name of his original master, given as Dr. John Young in his original narrative, is changed to Dr. John Gaines in the later work. Brown's detailed description of the slave Cato's escape, in which he is harassed by "a pelting rain that froze as fast as it fell" (p. 142), might prompt readers to wonder whether "Cato" is a pseudonym for Brown himself, or whether Brown is merely adding creative details to a factual story that he had been previously told. These narrative touches demonstrate the overlaps and gray areas between "fact" and "fiction," "truth-telling" and "story-telling," particularly regarding "true stories" recalled many years after the fact.

In addition to depicting familiar conflicts and tensions between blacks and whites in the South of Brown's youth, My Southern Home describes various forms of entertainment that were enjoyed by both groups, including hunting (p. 95), gambling (p. 63), and snuff-dipping (p. 68). Brown describes the violent (but remarkable) sport of "gander snatching," in which a live goose was "well-greased" and suspended upside-down from the limb of a tree; the competitors attempted to "snatch" off the bird's head while riding past on horseback at high speed. The sport "never failed to draw together large numbers of ladies as well as gentlemen, the elite as well as the common," he writes (pp. 61-62). Interestingly, he makes no mention of race here, seeming to take for granted that both whites and blacks would be in attendance. On one occasion, gander snatching led to a duel, after one competitor charged another with cheating by lining his hand with sandpaper, and "both parties were severely wounded" (p. 62). Such "entertainments" reveal that human life was often held cheaply in the antebellum South. On another occasion, a young man gambles away a "bright-eyed mulatto boy, apparently about fifteen years of age" in a hand of poker, despite having promised his father "not to part with him," suggesting that the younger boy might have been his half-brother (pp. 64-65).

Like many of Brown's other works, My Southern Home takes a critical view of white southerners' religion and its prescriptions for African Americans. The slaves are instructed by one visiting minister that when they are disciplined, "whether you really deserve it or not, it is your duty, and Almighty God requires that you bear it patiently" (p. 16). While another minister is visiting, Mrs. Gaines upbraids her slave Hannah for speaking to him, threatening to "whip you well" when he leaves—and she makes good on her promise (pp. 25-27). Brown quotes a speech from the 1860 Democratic State Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, in which a proponent for reopening the transatlantic slave trade argued that "the African slave-trader is a true missionary, and a true Christian," to warm applause (p. 151). But Brown is equally critical of African American religious practices, both Christian and otherwise. Superstitions, "voudooism," and belief in witchcraft were common, especially among blacks and poor whites: "the influence of the devil was far greater than that of the Lord" (p. 68). And the representatives of Christianity were sometimes less than savory characters. Brown disparages the "tramps" and "lazy fellows" who traveled around leading religious revivals, always including a collection for their nourishment and support (pp. 196-197). He also bemoans the belief that "where the grace of God is, there will [necessarily] be shouting" (p. 194), which some congregations seem to hold dear. Brown recalls (with apparent amusement) a sermon in which Rev. John Jasper of Richmond, Virginia preached against the notion of a heliocentric solar system: "the sun do move . . . [it] rises in the east and sets in the west; do you think . . . the earth can run around the world in a single day so as to give the sun a chance to set in the west?" (p. 206).

Since it follows a loosely historical trajectory, the latter part of My Southern Home addresses the challenges of living amidst racial strife and the collective project of racial uplift. Brown chronicles the high notes of the Reconstruction period, in which "five millions of uneducated, degraded people, without any preparation whatever, [were] set at liberty in a single day, without shedding a drop of blood, burning a barn, or insulting a single female. They reconstructed the State Governments that their masters had destroyed; became Legislators, held State offices, and with all their blunders, surpassed the whites that had preceded them" (pp. 182-183). But this triumphant period gave way to the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, ushering in a "reign of terror that has cursed the South ever since" (p. 182). Brown therefore advises African Americans who remain oppressed to leave the South: "follow the example of other oppressed races [and] strike out for new territory" (p. 245). Wherever they should decide to live, he emphasizes the importance of education, thrift, restraint, self-reliance, and hard work. "Get a profession or a trade . . . give your time to the work that you have undertaken, and work, work" (p. 247). Brown concludes by encouraging African Americans to take pride in their racial identity and to support each other's endeavors: "Black men, don't be ashamed to show your colors, and to own them" (p. 253).

Works Consulted: Brown, William Wells, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself (Boston: The Anti-slavery officer, 1847), accessed via DocSouth, 17 Dec 2011; "Brown, William Wells," The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, 2010, accessed via Oxford African American Studies Center, 12 Dec 2011; Candela, Gregory L., "William Wells Brown," Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance, Ed. Trudier Harris-Lopez and Thadious M. Davis, Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 50 (Detroit: Gale, 1986), via Literature Resource Center.

Patrick E. Horn

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