Pioneering Pages: First Black Authors to Publish

We explore the spirit of African American literature with the first two African American authors to publish: William Wells Brown and Phillis Wheatley.

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Welcome back to Bookstr Trivia. This week, we’re discussing the first Black authors to publish novels. In literary history, the contributions of African American authors stand as powerful examples of strength and creativity. Among these authors, the first Black man and woman to publish books were William Wells Brown and Phillis Wheatley. Their works not only paved the way for future generations of writers but also offered insights into the African American experience during the time of enslavement. This article explores their remarkable lives and literary publications, celebrating their enduring impact on literature and history.

William Wells Brown

William Wells Brown was an American writer who is considered to be the first African American to publish a novel and a play. His play, The Escape, reflects Brown’s own escape from slavery and his abolitionist efforts. The play offers insight into both Brown’s background and his literary contributions.

William Wells Brown’s Escape to Abolitionism

He was born in 1814 near Lexington, Kentucky, to a black slave mother and a white slaveholding father. Growing up, he served many masters, including the abolitionist Elijah P. Loverjoy.

In his youth, Brown escaped twice but was recaptured both times. At the age of 20, however, after being sold and put to work on a steamship, he succeeded in his attempt once the ship reached Ohio. The first person he’d encountered was a man riding in a horse and a buggy who was a Quaker, an individual who advocated for equality for men and women and played a key role in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Aided by Quaker Wells Brown, whose name Brown adopted as his own, Brown found himself at home with the Wells Brown family. From there, Brown began writing about his adventures and escapes, testifying that his escapes filled him with raw emotions and anger towards others in his narrative, The Escape of William Wells Brown, written by himself. 

A picture of William Wells Brown.
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Beginning a new chapter in his life, Brown arrived in Cleveland and began working on a steamboat, where he became active in the Underground Railroad, assisting many escaping slaves and carrying sixty-nine fugitive slaves to Canada. In 1843, Brown’s abolitionist career became a turning point when he befriended a number of black abolitionists, including Fredrick Douglass and Charles Leonix Remond, after he attended a national anti-slavery convention and the National Convention of Colored Citizens.

Brown’s service to the antislavery movement expanded, increasing his sophistication as a speaker and his reputation in the antislavery community. By the end of 1847, he departed to Boston, where he began to publish his works. This period marked another chapter in Brown’s life, deeply influencing his literary works and commitment to the abolitionist cause.

Clotel (1853): Brown’s only novel, Clotel, explores the lives of Thomas Jefferson’s mixed-raced daughters and his enslaved mistress. The story follows Clotel, the fictional daughter of Jefferson, and her sister Althesa as they navigate the realities of slavery in the United States while also exposing the moral and social contradictions of American society.

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The Escape; or A Leap for Freedom (1853): Brown’s only play, sometimes called A Leap for Freedom, was published in 1858. The play centers around the escape of a slave named William, drawing parallels to Brown and his family, from a Kentucky plantation to Canada via the Underground Railroad. The play was one of the earliest works of African American drama and contributed to the abolitionist movement in the United States.

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Some of his historical writings include The Black Man (1863), The Negro in the American Rebellion (1867), and The Rising Son (1873). To read more of Brown’s historical writings, dive into these other works of his.

Phillis Wheately

Phillis Wheatley was an American poet who accomplished what no other woman of her status had. She became the first American slave, the first person of African descent, and only the third colonial American woman to have her work published.

Born in Gambia, Africa, in 1753, she was sold as a slave in Boston in 1761. Phillis was a small, sick child who caught the attention of John and Susanna Wheatley and was purchased as a domestic servant for Susanna.

Her first name, Phillis, derived from the ship that brought her to America, “The Phillis.” 

A picture of Phillis Wheately.
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Within the sixteen months of her arrival in America, Susanna discovered that Phillis had an extraordinary capacity to learn. She relieved Phillis of most of her domestic duties and educated her, teaching her how to read the Bible, Greek and Latin classics, and British literature. Phillis also studied astronomy and geography.

Phillis published her first poem in 1767, at age twelve, and her fame spread across the seas. In 1773, with financial support from the English Countess of Huntingdon, Wheatley traveled to London, where she published her first collection of poems.

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)

Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is a collection of 39 poems that explore themes of faith, mortality, and the human condition. The collection reflects Wheatley’s experiences as an enslaved African woman living in colonial America as well as her deep Christian faith. Some of her notable poems are On Being Brought from Africa to America, To His Excellency, General Washington, and An Hymn to the Evening.

Cover image of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
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On Being Brought from Africa to America reflects Wheatley’s own journey from Africa to America and her conversion to Christianity. This poem highlights the complexities of race, religion, and identity.

To His Excellency, General Washington is a tribute to George Washington in celebration of his leadership during the American Revolution.

An Hymn to the Evening is a lyrical poem that celebrates the beauty of the evening, evoking a sense of peace and serenity. 

William Wells Brown and Phillis Wheatley were not only the first African American man and woman to publish books, but they also laid the foundations for generations of African American writers to come, opening doors and inspiring countless others to do the same. Their legacies continue to remind us of the enduring power of literature to challenge, encourage, and transform.


If you want to check out Anti-Slavery texts leading to American Emancipation, click here.

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