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The African-American Author History Forgot

If you haven’t heard the name, “Sarah E. Farro” before, you’re not alone. Gretchen Gerzina, Professor of English at University of Massachusetts Amherst discovered Farro while researching in the UK for her novels, Black London and Black Victorians/Black Victoriana.

Gretchen Gerzina

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In an article Gerzina wrote for The Independent, she notes that Farro “appears nowhere in the canon of African-American literature.” She continues:

After doing more research, I soon realized that Farro had made her mark writing about white people – and that this may also be the reason her work was forgotten. Learning of a black woman whose race was documented, whose novel was published – but who disappeared in the historical record – can change how we think about African-American literature.

Farro was born in Illinois in 1859. Her book, True Love is available online through Google Books for free. It was published in 1891 by Donohue & Henneberry

It was one of 58 books by Illinois women writers exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exhibition (World’s Fair) in 1893. Newspapers in the U.K. and the U.S. heralded the book. Toward the end of her life, in 1937, Farro was feted at a celebration of Chicago’s “outstanding race pioneers.” Apparently, she never wrote another novel.

How could someone like Farro go undocumented, even if she did only write one book? Her choice to write a love story centered around white characters is a choice that should have set her apart and awarded her a more cohesive biography, because books being written by African-Americans at that time centered around slavery.

Perhaps Farro’s story was lost, because of the fact that she was black, and her literary subjects are white, but one could argue that Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a book about slaves written by a white woman, and we certainly know a lot about her. 

If Farro, as The Independent suggests, was looking up to writers of the time like, “Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and Oliver Wendell Holmes,”and she liked the stories they wrote, where’s the harm in constructing a similar narrative?

I believe any literature written by an African-American person should be deemed African-American Literature, but that’s another argument altogether. I’m sure Kenneth Warren, who wrote What Was African American Literature would disagree. In short, Warren argues that African-American Literature as a movement is only relevant to the work in the era protesting Jim Crow segregation.

We have studied “American” Literature written by white Americans for many years. There was a need for African-American Literature because African-Americans were not included in the “American” literary category. African-American slaves were either forced to learn to read and write in secret (a dangerous risk) or remain illiterate.

I would argue that anything written by an African-American at any time between enslavement (1619) and the end of Jim Crow segregation (1964), is African-American Literature. I would also argue that anything written following segregation, bringing us to modern day is also African-American Literature.

In Warren’s case, Farro would not appear in the African-American literary canon because it would not have existed. Warren would argue that since African-American Literature was a movement opposing segregation, Farro’s work would not be under that category, as her novel focuses on an entirely different subject matter.

According to Gerzina, she only found two copies of the book in Illinois. Gerzina says, “Had Farro’s role models been black female authors who had written novels about black women, she may have crafted a different kind of novel.”

Nevertheless, Farro was a writer who overcame the odds against her and created a work of literature that should be recognized today. Farro, being only one of four African-Americans published that entire century is something we should have known, and been exposed to.

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