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Defiance as Strength in Clotel

Updated on January 15, 2016

William Wells Brown wrote Clotel in 1853, a time when America was still entrenched in the slavery system. Brown, however, wrote the novel while in England, which may say as much about the then current state of America as the contents of the novel itself does. Three years prior to the book’s publication, 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Law, making anyone who saw a fugitive legally obligated to report that person to authorities so they could be sent back to the plantation from which they escaped. The law caused Brown, himself born a slave, to flee to England, where he penned what is widely considered to be the first complete African-American novel. The novel’s title character, Clotel, is the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, although the novel itself ranges past just this character in terms of its scope. Brown uses his novel to incorporate not only his fictionalized narrative of America, but actual accounts of the treatment of slaves, African-Americans, and anyone of color in the United States. However, despite Brown’s efforts, many African-American critics of the 20th century criticized the novel for not depicting strong black characters. Yet, these critics, though well-intentioned, were wrong in their assessment. Brown may not prominently portray the image of the dark-skinned, militant, black panther type of character, but he does depict strength in more subtle ways, primarily through defiance. In the novel Clotel, Brown conveys the idea of black strength through his own defiance of readerly expectations in terms of novel’s form and genre, and also defiance within the novel’s central and more anonymous characters.

Brown defies readerly expectations of the traditional “white” novel form through his mixing of genres. The reader can see this before the novel even begins, when Brown includes an essay-like preface, followed by his autobiography, followed by the beginning of the fictional novel. However, even when one gets past this initial genre blending, Brown continues the trend by incorporating factual material within the actual novel section of Clotel. In the second chapter, Brown opens with a criticism of the South’s methods of catching runaway slaves and includes an actual advertisement. Brown writes, “The following advertisements, which we take from a newspaper published in the vicinity, will show how they catch their Negroes who believe in the doctrine that ‘all men are created free’” (317). Brown then proceeds to include a newspaper advertisement about using dogs to catch “runaway Negroes.” The inclusion of non-fiction into the fictional novel form is already an act of defiance, and Brown further shows that sort of defiant strength with his ironic quotation of Thomas Jefferson’s “all men are created equal.” For a former slave to call out and criticize a former president is certainly defiant, and also not something one might expect to see in the novel form.

Brown continues mixing genres later in the novel when he discusses the trial of Salome Miller and how she was declared a free woman, but not her children. Brown writes, “This, reader, is no fiction; if you think so, look over the files of the New Orleans newspapers of the years 1845-6, and you will there see reports of the trial” (1088). It is significant that Brown reveals the veracity of the event after writing about it, as that is another one of his tactics for invoking defiance. The novel form leads the reader to believe the story of Salome is fictionalized, but then he immediately defies expectations by declaring that it is not. Even the way he directly addresses the reader goes against the novel form by breaking the illusive element of most fiction that attempts to draw the reader into the world through a suspension of disbelief. Here, Brown requires no disbelief, and in fact demands belief through his assertions that this part of the story is true. The inclusion of this factual newspaper section, and others like it throughout the novel, serve to defy the traditional novel expectations of fiction.

Another example of mixing genres comes when Brown includes transcripts of speeches. When talking about Mary, a fair-skinned child of Thomas Jefferson, Brown quotes Jefferson. Brown writes, “This child was not only white, but she was the granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, the man who, when speaking against slavery in the legislature of Virginia, said […]” and then proceeds to include a somewhat lengthy speech from Jefferson (1200). Brown’s quotation of “all men are created equal” already showed his willingness to take sharp jabs at the former president, but this lengthier quotation from Jefferson shows that Brown is willing to take Jefferson on in an even more direct way. Immediately after the quotation, in which Jefferson seems to speak positively towards the slaves’ plight, Brown addresses Jefferson’s hypocrisy, writing, “But, sad to say, Jefferson is not the only American statesman who has spoken high-sounding words in favour of freedom, and then left his own children to die slaves” (1221). Here, Brown connects Jefferson’s quotation back to the more fictionalized elements of his novel to further blend his genres, thus continuing to show his willingness to defy traditional expectations.

Additionally, Brown subverts readerly expectations of the novel through his rejection of common novel tropes. For example, Brown’s work is titled Clotel, yet only a small part of the novel actually focuses on Clotel as a character. The reader can notice it with clarity when, about halfway through the novel, Brown opens chapter fifteen with the line, “Let us return for a moment to the home of Clotel” (1089). In the preceding several chapters, Brown made no mention of Clotel—hence why he would have to “return” to her, and still, only a for a moment—and seems to almost intentionally draw attention to that fact with this line. It seems probable that Brown is aware that he is defying expectations by not focusing on his title character. Finally, where many novels would end when the title character dies, Brown adds four chapters after Clotel’s death. In this same vein, for as dramatic as Clotel’s death is symbolically, Brown underplays her actual death, simply saying, “Thus died Clotel” (1941). Brown, again, seems aware of how he has defied the readers’ expectations by focusing so little on his title character. By only devoting three words to announce her death, he proclaims that defiance.

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Finally, Brown defies readerly expectations of the novel form by making himself a character in his narrative. When describing the escape of a runaway slave, Brown gives no indication that the escape was real, but after the slave escapes through a window, Brown writes, “Fifteen days later, and the writer of this gave him passage across Lake Erie, and saw him safe in her Britannic Majesty’s dominions” (1343). In a traditional novel, the author would not interact with one of his characters in such a direct and real way, but again, Clotel is intentionally not a traditional novel. In his conclusion, Brown announces that all of the novel is actually true or at least based on true events. Brown writes, “I may be asked, and no doubt shall, Are the various incidents and scenes related founded in truth? I answer, Yes. I have personally participated in many of those scenes. Some of the narratives I have derived from other sources; many from the lips of those who, like myself, have run away from the land of bondage” (2236). Again, Brown almost makes himself a character in the novel by admitting to having interacted with his characters, but he also subverts the novel form, not by simply declaring his narrative is based on true events, as other authors of the time period have done, but by saying he was directly involved in those true events. Finally, the conclusion itself again returns to the more essay style of the introduction, thus completing the total blending of genres that Brown has been exploring for the novel’s entirety. Brown has defied nearly every aspect of the traditional novel, from form to genre, in order to strengthen his points.

Another way Brown shows strength emerging from defiance is through his central characters, primarily Clotel and Sam. Clotel’s strength can be seen through her actions throughout the novel. The way she manages to escape slavery in her disguise shows strength, but also her desire to risk her freedom to save her children shows an even greater strength. Most importantly however, Brown attempts to show Clotel’s strength in her death. While one may be tempted to think Brown is simply portraying Clotel as the victim in that scene, Brown is actually saying otherwise, as he writes, “She clasped her hands convulsively, and raised her eyes towards heaven, and begged for that mercy and compassion there, which had been denied her on earth; and then, with a s ingle bound, she vaulted over the railings of the bridge, and sunk for ever beneath the waves of the river” (1936). Clotel was searching for freedom and with the title of the chapter “Death is Freedom,” Brown implies that she got what she wanted. As the critic Ann DuCille states,

Instead of pining away for her daughter or lapsing into a neurasthenic swoon over her lost love, Clotel, through ingenuity and determination, thrice escapes from slavery, traveling hundreds of miles to rescue her child before she is cornered on that fateful bridge in the nation’s capital. She throws herself into the Potomac, true enough, but the text presents her suicide as a defiantly heroic act. Brown clearly sets her up as a martyr and uses her death to slam the US for its human rights hypocrisy. (duCille, 455)

Here, duCille insightfully frames Clotel as an empowered individual who works to achieve what she wants, mainly freedom for herself and her family. Ultimately, she makes the difficult decision to claim her freedom by martyring herself, but she makes a strong statement in the process. That Clotel defied her captors in order to get what she wanted shows strength on her part, as tragic as that strength may appear.

Sam also shows his defiant strength in an interesting way. Initially, Sam is depicted as a coon-type character. When Brown introduces the reader to Sam, he writes, “Although Sam was one of the blackest men living, he nevertheless contended that his mother was a mulatto, and no one was more prejudiced against the blacks than he” (937). In a later scene, when Carlton and Georgiana listen to the slaves sing, Brown writes, “Sam is there, I’ll warrant you: he’s always on hand when there’s any singing or dancing”(1147). All this singing and pretending to be white are textbook examples of coonish behavior. However, Brown defies the reader’s expectations when he reveals Sam’s true nature later in that same scene. Eventually, after another minstrel-esque description, Sam sings a lengthy song about the slave master dying which includes the lines, “Old master is dead, and left us at last,” and “‘Your old master is now about to die,’/ And says I, ‘God speed him on his way,’” and finally, “[T]he old parson’s groans did heavens fairly rend;/ But I tell you I felt mighty glad” (1152). Here Brown shows that Sam is in fact defiant. When he thinks no white people are watching, he shows his strength through his ability to insult the slave master towards whom he otherwise pretends to be obsequious. Then, after the song ends and Carlton and Georgiana catch up to Sam in his room, Brown writes, “On reaching the drawing-room, they found Sam snuffing the candles, and looking as solemn and as dignified as if he had never sung a song or laughed in his life” (1181). Brown is emphasizing the point that Sam’s appearance as a coon is just an act. Beyond that act is a defiant, and thus strong, individual.

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Brown also takes it a step further and explains why Sam behaves this way when we writes, “Our system of slavery is one of deception; and Sam, you see, has only been a good scholar” (1181). Sam deceives his master by pretending to be a coon because it is the only way he knows how to survive under the slave system. With Sam too, Brown provides a counter example to the arguments of later critics such as Addison Gayle, who says that Brown, “[A]dhered to the convention of the tragic mulatto established by the Plantation School of writers,” and that “his serious characters are quadroon, octoroons, and mulattoes; those who, being closest to the gods, are worthy of salvation” (Gayle, 79). While there are many light-skinned people in Brown’s narrative, their function is not to serve some white hegemony, but rather to point out the fluidity of race and show how racial categorization is a falsehood. Furthermore, even if one disregards that point, Sam has dark skin and Brown ultimately shows that he has his own sort of strength in his ability to survive under such oppression. He and Clotel both defy in their own ways, and although only one is dark-skinned, they both represent strong characters of color.

Aside from these central characters, Brown also uses a chorus of anonymous characters to convey a more general sense of the strength of slaves in the time period. One striking scene early on is when Brown recounts the story of two slaves that attempted to escape. Brown writes,

After this man was secured, the one in the tree was ordered to come down; this, however, he refused to do, but a gun being pointed at him, soon caused him to change his mind. On reaching the ground, the fugitive made one more bound, and the chase again commenced. But it was of no use to run and he soon yielded. While being tied, he committed an unpardonable offence: he resisted, and for that he must be made an example on their arrival home. (354)

This scene contains several moments of defiance. The slave escaping on its own shows defiance. Then, Brown writes that the slave “refused” to come down from the tree when ordered to do so. When a gun enters the equation, the slave gets down from the tree, but he again defies when he makes “one more bound.” Finally, Brown writes that “he committed an unpardonable offence: he resisted.” The idea of defiance is something which the masters cannot forgive, which in itself implies the inherent strength of defiance, but it also shows that the slave most likely knew the cost of running away and resisting, yet did it anyway, which also shows a strength to be able to oppose that level of oppression with such a clear will.

Brown also shows defiance in a more light-hearted scene. After the preacher, Snyder, has given the slaves a lengthy sermon, Brown writes, “With all Snyder’s gesticulation, sonorous voice, and occasionally bringing his fist down upon the table with the force of a sledge hammer, he could not succeed in keeping the Negroes all interested: four or five were fast asleep, leaning against the trees; as many more were nodding, while not a few were stealthily cracking, and eating hazelnuts” (595). Here Brown shows how much effort Snyder puts into imposing his oppressive version of Christianity onto the slaves as he pounds the table with his fists, yet the slaves are either asleep, about to fall asleep, or pretending to pay attention but actually just eating some nuts. Afterward, Brown includes the slaves conversation about the sermon, beginning with the character Dick saying, “Dees white fokes is de very dibble […] and all dey whole study is to try to fool de black people,” to which the character Uncle Simon inquires, “Didn’t you like de sermon?” to which “four or five voices” respond “No”(618). Here, the reader sees strong defiance as white people are called the devil, and four or five people outright declare their dissatisfaction with the preacher’s sermon. The slaves also defy Christianity itself, as Brown writes that a character Ned says, “I think de people dat made de Bible was great fools,” and adds that the reason is, “Cause dey made such a great big book and put nuttin’ in it, but servants obey yer masters” (623). This shows defiance because it was likely that the reader of Clotel at the time was Christian, yet Brown directly calls out anyone who would use Christianity to defend slavery, saying that the very writers of the Bible are “fools.” These slaves critique of religion may not seem as drastic as a slave’s attempt to escape the plantation, but both represent acts of defiance and to defy in any way is a sign of strength.

Brown includes many more scenes or defiance where slaves disobey masters, run away, criticize the slave system, or otherwise subvert the social order, and to list each of these moments would be no small task. Yet, even without every single instance laid out, the overall point is still clear. Brown has a multitude of defiant moments, all included within an overall text which itself is defiant against what the traditional white reader would expect of a novel. So, Although some scholars discount Brown for his lack of strong characters, in reality, Brown simply shows strength in a different way. Whether it be the blending of genres, the strength of some of the central characters, or just the small moments of strength from minor characters scattered throughout, Clotel embodies strength given the context of the time. For a former slave to even write a novel is in many ways a show of strength, and Brown certainly only makes his strength more apparent with his clear call to abolition, both indirectly through the message of his novel, and directly in his novel’s conclusion. Those who criticize Brown as lacking strength are correct in one sense: Brown embodies a more quiet strength than some other African-Americans, especially those who came later in history, but in no major way is Brown’s novel subservient to a dominant white culture. In this sense, Clotel more than deserves to be recognized as an originary African-America text, and not cast aside as some sort of sloppy mistake emerging from the other tragedies of slavery.

Clotel Audiobook

Works Cited

Brown, William Wells. Clotel; Or, The President's Daughter. N.p.: Project Gutenberg, 2000.

Kindle.

DuCille, Ann. "Where in the World Is William Wells Brown? Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings

and the DNA of African-American Literary History." American Literary History (2000):

443-62. Print.

Gayle, Addison. “The Harlem Renaissance: Towards a Black Aesthetic”. Midcontinent

American Studies Journal 11.2 (1970): 78–87. Web.

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