There is a saying that each person has strength enough to bear the misfortune of others; this story tests the limits of those words. It is difficult to imagine how owning slaves could ever be rationalized, particularly when the voice of one oppressed human being tells the tale of such inhumanities. The Narrative of William Wells Brown, though short, is emotional reading. Though not as well remembered as Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, or other famous African American's of the Civil War Era, William Wells Brown was one of the major Black political and intellectual leaders of the 19th Century. In addition to being an antislavery activist, he was one of the first to write works of African American history. Brown was among the first African Americans to publish a novel (Clotel, the President's Daughter). Brown's slave narrative provides the usual chilling view of that evil: it also celebrates the ability of Black men and women and their supporters to rise above, outwit and out struggle the slave masters. Clear political foresight is also provided, as Brown's narrative enters into a discourse that was opened by the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin about what force would bring an end to slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe put forward the idea of becoming born again in Christ through the evangelical experience inspired by the heroism of slaves, leading to a religious revival that would recognize slavery as the number one sin in the World. Delany proposed a Pan-African cultural revolution to set up a free Black nation that would lead an international slave revolt. Brown's prediction of the solution, and his recognition of the nature of the conflict, not simply between slavery and abolitionism, but between slavery and industrial capitalism, the actual lines of the civil war, was brilliant, prescient, and right.
About the Author
William Wells Brown (November 6, 1814 - November 6, 1884) was a prominent abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian. Born into slavery in the Southern United States, Brown escaped to the North, where he worked for abolitionist causes and was a prolific writer. Brown was a pioneer in several different literary genres, including travel writing, fiction, and drama, and wrote what is considered to be the first novel by an African American. An almost exact contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Wells Brown was overshadowed by Douglass and the two feuded publicly. William Wells Brown was born into slavery in Lexington, Kentucky. His mother, Elizabeth, was owned by a Dr. Young and had seven children, all with different fathers. (In addition to Brown, her children were Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Milford, and Elizabeth.) Brown's father was George Higgins, a white plantation owner and cousin of the owner of the plantation where Brown was born. Even though Young promised Higgins never to sell the boy, he was sold multiple times before he was twenty years old. Brown spent the majority of his youth in St. Louis. His masters hired him out to work on the Missouri River, then a major thoroughfare for the slave trade. He made several attempts to escape, and on New Year's Day of 1834, he successfully slipped away from a steamboat at a dock in Cincinnati, Ohio. He adopted the name of a Quaker friend of his, who had helped him after his escape by providing him with food, clothes and some money. Shortly after gaining his freedom, he met and married Elizabeth Schooner, a free African-American woman, from whom he separated and later divorced, causing a minor scandal. Together they had three daughters. From 1836 to about 1845, Brown made his home in Buffalo, New York, where he served as a conductor for the Underground Railroad and as a steam boatman on Lake Erie, a position he used to ferry escaped slaves to freedom in Canada. There Brown became active in the abolitionist movement by joining several anti-slavery societies and the Negro Convention Movement.