Clotel, by Williams Wells Brown, offers one of the first pieces of literature written by an African American novelist. Because of its time of publication, the work shows a lens that had never been seen in American literature. Wells tells a story of the society where black people have to navigate colorism and racism while being subjected to the hardships of slavery. There are several moments where the main characters express their optimism toward living a life where their color is no longer a defining factor in the way they are treated. Many of them believe that their life is this way because they live in the American South. Their expectation of fleeing and discovering a place where they are treated equally despite their color can be tied to the concept of American Exceptionalism. An example of this can be seen on page 93 of the book, where Clotel is urging Horatio to flee to France or England, “where colour is not a crime.”(93) Despite never being able to flee, it is safe to say that she spends the remainder of her life wishing she could have. Many enslaved people spend their life imagining their life in anywhere but America, yet the harsh reality is that even if they were free, they would not be equal.
In the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Brown is praised for being an educated black man and the writers state their belief that if there were more black men like him, slavery in America would be abolished. The article poses the argument that enslaved people in America must be as educated and live up to Brown’s standard in order to receive any sort of praise or respect.
This argument is racist, but to many people around this time, they believed racism was defined by their proximity to slavery. Based on this review, English audiences read Clotel and were moved by the emotions and situations regarding slavery in America while being complicit in their own country’s oppression of black people. The readers and critics who praised Brown’s work for exposing the cruelties of slavery are the same people who received the benefits of British colonization and forced black labor in countries all over Africa, the same way American white people benefitted from slavery. The only difference between the two is how close the people were to the labor. Whether it’s in the backyard or overseas, white people all over the world benefited from slavery, making positive reviews of Clotel hypocritical.
Clotel wanted to flee to England or France for a better life, not understanding that racism, especially during that time, is embedded in every aspect of society regardless of the presence of slavery. Today, this still holds true where forced labor by incarcerated men, mostly black men, benefit white people today. Yet most white people would not admit that there is modern-day slavery, let alone admit their role in keeping these racists systems alive, not just in America, but all over the world.
Brown, William Wells. Clotel, edited by Geoffery Sanborn, Broadview, 2016.
“W.W. Brown’s New Work .” National Anti-Slavery Standard , 31 Dec. 1853, p. 128.