The first African American man of letters, William Wells Brown is a representative of the earliest great age of black writing in America, from 1830 to 1860. Without having had formal schooling, Brown was a pioneer in African American writing—especially fiction, drama, history, biography, and travel literature—and one of the most widely read authors of the mid-nineteenth century. Certain of his literary techniques were followed well into the twentieth century. In the many lectures that he gave, Brown spoke of the five phases of his life: as slave, laborer, lecturer, author, and physician. It was his life as a slave that was most memorable. Born on a farm outside Lexington, Kentucky, most likely in 1814, he was the youngest, or one of the youngest, of seven children born to a field slave named Elizabeth; each of the children had a different father. Brown’s owner was John Young, a physician and farmer; his father, whom he never knew, was probably Young’s half brother.
As a child, he saw people divided into two groups. People in the larger group, to which he and his mother belonged, had complexions ranging from ivory to ebony. These people did all the work of the farm but had little food or clothing and lived in small, cramped, airless, floorless, windowless cabins. People in the smaller group, mostly but not entirely light-skinned, did little or no work yet expected the best of everything and always wanted more than they could use. When the Youngs brought a nephew to live with them, whose name was also William, Brown discovered how very little he could call his own. Not only did the Youngs now have in their household two nephews of the same name, one enslaved, the other not, but all noticed that the slave resembled his owner more than did the free child. The Youngs removed one source of embarrassment by changing the slave’s name from William to Sandford, a designation that he endured like a stigma until his escape.
Because Brown was intelligent and alert, he was not sent out into the fields but hired out to work in larger cities. Between his fourteenth and twentieth years, he was owned or hired out to ten different men. This circumstance gave him broad knowledge of the mechanics of slavery, and he put his knowledge to good use on New Year’s Day, 1834, when he...
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