We can often be wrapped up in the classics of the 18th and 19th centuries such as Austen or the Bronte sisters. This is what we are taught in school and told to be the most popular novels. However, this style of learning does us a disservice, excluding many important Black authors.
At university, I was lucky enough to focus my studies on 18th and 19th Century British literature. Though not all of the authors below are from the United Kingdom, through much writing and historical documents of the period, I was able to gain an understanding of the laws and regulations that were passed concerning enslaved persons.
Though many historic documents exist, most, if not all of them, were from a white perspective. I cannot begin to explain what an advantage it is to have pieces of literature from those that were oppressed. It provides a clear and rich understanding of the horrific and unjustifiable acts of enslavement.
Read on to discover four Black authors that have made a huge contribution to our literary world.
Phyllis Wheatley 1753-1784
Phyllis Wheatley was born in West Africa before she was sold into enslavement at the young age of seven or eight. She was then transported to Boston where she was bought as a slave for Susanna Wheatley of the Wheatley family. Mary Wheatly taught Phyllis how to read and write.
The Wheatley family was very impressed by her intelligence and writing abilities. After she wrote her first poem, “To the University of Cambridge, in New England”, at 14, the family no longer had her do household labor, only having her focus on her studies. They were very encouraging of Wheatley’s work and made an effort to have it published.
Phyllis Wheatley is known to be the first African-American author who published a book of poetry. I am so impressed and inspired by her. Her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, is well-loved and still read in many classrooms today. I have read Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage by Vincent Carretta in my university classroom.
Though she was a published poet and emancipated woman, she had a tragic loss of three children and died at the young age of 31.
Frederick Douglass 1818-1895
Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, was born into enslavement on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Douglass was not able to attend school, so he taught himself to read and write on the streets of Baltimore instead. At around 15 years of age, Douglass met and fell in love with Anna Murray a free Black woman in Baltimore. The knowledge that freedom was attainable encouraged him to escape enslavement. On September 3rd, 1838, Douglass disguised as a sailor boarded a train taking him to New York City as a free man.
Not long after moving to New York, Douglass and his new wife Anna moved to New Bedford Massachusetts to be safer. There he was an agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and spoke about his experience in enslavement at abolitionist meetings.
All his life he spoke out against slavery and used his words to dictate his experience. His autobiography and memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass continues to educate us on the life of an enslaved man during the 19th century. I was lucky enough to have read excerpts of this memoir at my university.
Olaudah Equiano 1745-1797
What we know about Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa, is according to his memoir The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African which he wrote at forty-four. It depicted the horrors of enslavement and his memories of Africa before his kidnapping. His narrative was the first piece of influential slave narrative that lead to the large literary genre.
Equiano was enslaved for ten years throughout North America before he bought his freedom. He moved to London as a freedman and joined an abolitionist movement made up of Africans in Africa called Sons of Africa. His work with abolitionist groups and his detailed memoir heavily impacted the abolishment of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which happened after his death.
Hannah Bond 1830s
Hannah Bond, or better known by her pen name Hannah Crafts, was born sometime in the 1830s. Much of her life and identity are unknown, but we do know that she escaped slavery around 1857 and lived most of her life in New Jersey. Her semi-autobiographical novel The Bondwoman’s Narrative was thought to be the first novel written by an enslaved Black woman.
From her writing, we can infer that she was an enslaved woman in Virginia. Her work was not published during her lifetime but instead almost one hundred and fifty years later by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2002. By reading her work, it is evident that Bond was inspired by writers such as Charlotte Bronte and Sir Walter Scott.
A discovery was released in 2013 in The New York Times by Gregg Hecimovich of Winthrop University. He has claimed to have found the true identity of Hannah Bond. I truly wonder if we have revealed her identity so she can receive credit for her work almost two hundred years later.
There is so much more work to discover that ranges from popular, studied literature, to anonymous journal entries by enslaved individuals. I hope this article has sparked your interest in learning more about authors of color from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Interested in learning about modern Black Authors as well? Check out this article from us here at Bookstr!