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The Almost Accurate History of American Literature

From William Wells Brown to Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon—meet the first African American authors in reverse.

If you follow @gasstation_b on Instagram you may have seen a quote recently from William Wells Brown to commemorate his death on November 6, 1884. I also mentioned that with the publication of his novel “Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States” in 1853 he became the first African American author to be published in the United States.

And that’s almost accurate.

If you’re not familiar with the novel, it follows Clotel and her sister, fictional slave daughters of Thomas Jefferson and explores the destructive effects of slavery in the United States on African-American families, the difficult lives of American mulattoes or mixed-race people, and the degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave. Its general premise pulls from the common knowledge of the time that Jefferson had fathered several children by his slave Sally Hemings (herself believed to be the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife).

A short time after posting that quote from Brown I came across a post from @andresawilson of the Phillis Wheatley monument that is part of the Boston Women’s Memorial. It’s located between Fairfield Street and Gloucester Street on Commonwealth Avenue, if you’re in the neighborhood and have a thing for literature, history or even just statues.

I mention this since Phillis Wheatley is also commonly given the distinction of being the first African American author to be published, with her book, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” having been published September 1, 1773.

And that’s almost accurate.

Now, I know you might want to argue that since Wheatley’s book of poetry predates the founding of the United States, Wells earns the distinction instead of Wheatley, because semantics—but don’t be that guy.

Wheatley was a fascinating historical figure and gifted writer, as was Wells. Although separated by decades—Wheatley died thirty years before Brown was born—both writers were former slaves and gave an unprecedented voice to their experiences. Their respective works were widely read and celebrated with even George Washington said to have been a fan of Wheatley’s work, and they served to inspire other artists and writers of their time.

And also neither of them was the first African American author to be published.

After all that misinformation the distinction truly goes to Jupiter Hammon, who’s poem “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries” was published as a broadside in 1760.

Jupiter Hammon

Hammon, by the way, was quite a fan of Wheatley’s work when she became the first African American woman to be published, and his second published work was a poem titled, “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley”. Hammon would die nearly fifty years before William Wells Brown would become the first African American to publish a novel, but he probably would have written a poem about it if he’d still been around.

Regardless of who holds the title of first published African American author, all three of these literary figures, and the many who followed who were inspired by their work, should be celebrated for their lasting contributions to literature and history.

That, at least, is accurate.

Give a Good Read Week and Little Free Libraries

Give a Good Read Week runs through Sunday, September 22. Which book are you going to share? 

In 2009, Todd Bol created the first Little Free Library book exchange in the front yard of his home in Hudson, Wisconsin as a tribute to his mother—a teacher.

Ten years later there are more than 90,000 Little Free Library book exchanges in 91 countries, and all 50 U.S. states. There’s a good chance there’s one near you that you can donate to or browse. See if there’s one near you on this interactive map.

If you’ve always wanted to start your own Little Free Library, this is the perfect opportunity! Browse the ready-to-use libraries here, and blueprints for building your own library here. You can check out some of the incredibly creative libraries others have built here.

If you’re unable to install a Little Free Library near you, another option is the Impact Library Program, which provides no-cost Little Free Libraries to high-need communities throughout the U.S.

Those prebuilt libraries can be a little pricey, even with the sales they’re running, but you could always pick up the new picture book instead. By Miranda Paul and John Parra, “Little Libraries, Big Heroes” tells the story of the organization’s history and goals, from the very first Little Free Library.

If you’re able to donate to a Little Free Library near you, (or find a great book you can’t resist) don’t forget to share a photo on social media tagging @goodreads and using the hashtags #GiveAGoodRead and #LFL10.

What book would you love to donate?

Listening to “Long Way Down”

There’s such a rough poetry to this story, a rhythm that carries the shaking, emotionally charged and physically unsteady words that I’m not sure would have been as captivating had I not listened to the author read it himself.

It needs to be performed and witnessed to be experienced, and Reynolds acknowledges as much in the interview that follows the audiobook edition as he explains why he wrote it as he did.

There is a universe of all the unwritten backstory that populates the neighborhood surrounding this short novel, that surrounds the elevator Will rides as the ghosts of his life; his father, uncle, friends—one by one enter and tell their story, their stories, the stories that are all connected, linked together like chains around the living left behind that drag Will down.

These stories piece together the reality that their violence obscured, and Will begins to understand how the rules he has lived by, that his world is governed by serve only to keep them all locked in an unending cycle of ignorance and violence.

This brought to mind several things I’ve read recently, and quickly, for subject and style this should be read with:

📙Walter Dean Myers’ “Monster”

📕Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give”

📘Kwame Alexander’s “Swing”

📙Elizabeth Acevedo’s “The Poet X”

📕John Edgar Wideman’s “Brothers and Keepers”

📘James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk”

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