Clotel by William Wells Brown follows the enslaved progeny of Thomas Jefferson through the deep south in the early 1800s. Clotel and her sister are the daughters of Jefferson. The first chapter of the book describes their being sold at auction. By this, we are right away made aware of how damning it is to be black in America at this time. It doesn’t matter if you are a direct descendant of one of the most influential men ever. Beyond that, Clotel is even described as “the most beautiful girl, coloured or white, in the city” (78). But neither looks nor heritage will set you free. If you’re black in the south, your fate is sealed.
American Exceptionalism is no new concept. It’s a theme still evident in the modern zeitgeist (think of the t-shirts that say “America: Back to Back World War Champs”). Brown gives us a couple examples of American Exceptionalism throughout the book, some of which are particularly egregious. The preacher Snyder in his sermon to the enslaved people lets them know just how “fortunate” they are to have been captured.
“Your fathers were poor ignorant and barbarous creatures in Africa, and the whites fitted out ships at great trouble and expense and brought you from that benighted land to Christian America, where you can sit under your own vine and fig tree and no one molest or make you afraid. oh , my dear black brothers and sisters, you are indeed a fortunate and a blessed people.(104)”
America must be a truly incredible place. How bad must their homeland be for it to be preferable to be enslaved in America than free in Africa? He conveys the white man as a hero, and the black man as someone who needs saving. They’re really able to control the entire narrative that black people hear and severely limit the information that they know. Since they can’t read, they only have one option for getting information.
The supplemental reading that stood out to me was from the Hereford Times. The themes of the passage indicate that Brown was well received, as was Frederick Douglass. The author was particularly impressed that Brown was illiterate until he was in his twenties, yet still is able to “wield the pen of a ready writer” (216). If this author’s review is indicative of how Brown was received, we can be sure that he was held in high esteem.
Brown, William Wells. Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.