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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.

Remembering S.E.K Mqhayi, Imbongi ye Sizwe

S.E.K. Mqhayi
Known more commonly as S.E.K. Mqhayi, Samuel Edward Krune Loliwe Ngxekengxeke Mqhayi died July 29, 1945. Mqhayi was a Xhosa dramatist, essayist, critic, novelist, historian, biographer, translator and poet whose works are regarded as instrumental in standardising the grammar of isiXhosa and preserving the language in the 20th century. Xhosa is an ethnic group of people of Southern Africa mainly found in the Eastern and Western Cape, South Africa.

Among those who revered Mqhayi’s poetry was Nelson Mandela, who described him as the “poet laureate of the African people.” Mandela was proud that he had not only seen twice in person, but had on one occasion, heard Mqhayi recite his poetry.

Mqhayi’s addition of seven stanzas to “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, which was originally written by Enoch Sontonga in 1927, was adopted by several African states as their national anthem including South Africa, Namibia and Zambia.

Sinking of the SS MendiIn reading translations of some of Mqhayi’s work, I found “The Sinking of Mendi” a 1943 poem about the sinking of the SS Mendi during World War I after a collision which resulted in the deaths of 646 men. The dead were predominantly black South African troops from the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps on their way to serve in France. Most had never seen the sea before this voyage, and very few could swim.

According to Alan Straton’s article ‘The Cold Sea: Mendi Poems’, “S.E.K Mqhayi who was the Imbongi ye Sizwe (National Bard) of the Xhosa people at the time of the First World War felt deeply about the disaster as he had played a formative role in the recruitment campaign through a poem that he wrote calling men to arms titled, ‘The Black Army’.” Mqhayi intended to keep the “memory of this event alive in the oral narrative of the Xhosa communities in the Eastern Cape during the Apartheid years when black historical events were written out of the history books.”

Oral histories passed down from survivors and witnesses tell that the men trapped aboard the ship as it listed and sank into the fog covered sea were calmed by the words of Isaac Williams Wauchope, an interpreter and former minister, who called out to them:

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers…Swazis, Pondos, Basotho…so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”

The captain of the boat that collided with the Mendi, which sailed away rather than offer aid to survivors, was later found to have been operating recklessly in the thick fog. As he was responsible for the deaths of 646 men, his license was revoked for one year.

Mqhayi also wrote to lament the westernization of Africa as he lived through the culmination and collapse of European colonization of the continent.

“Human movement in search of land grabbing land from chiefs.

Using the word of God as a tool

and instrument to rule kings and nations.

An education so inferior became an institution to prepare slaves

for new masters.”

He saw that the education the missionary schools provided was meant to erase his people’s history and prepare them only to be subjugated and enslaved by ignorance. He understood the importance of his cultural history and advocated for it though his poetry and prose.

Mqhayi ultimately hoped to inspire his people to future greatness by reminding them of all they have achieved in their cultural history, striving for “students of History to have a critical eye on the events that happened thousands of years ago, have a broader perspective of events around him and get armed for what is to happen tomorrow.”


For more on S.E.K. Mqhayi and the Sinking of the Mendi check out the links below.

https://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/13291/auto/0/SINKING-OF-THE-MENDI

http://mype.co.za/new/the-cold-sea-mendi-poems/88359/2017/06#ixzz5YUpFYJB0

http://museum.za.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=57:sek-mqhayi&catid=25&Itemid=168

Listening to Remade in America

Having been a guest on former Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara’s podcast, “Stay Tuned With Preet,” Bassem Youseff decided that if Preet could get a show from Cafe, so could he.

ReMade in America with Bassem YoussefBassem was a surgeon in Egypt who, during the Arab Spring, started a YouTube series to show what was really happening on the front lines of the protests. This grew in popularity until he was offered a TV show, and that grew in popularity until he was hitting 14 million viewers a week and being called the Egyptian Jon Stewart.  And until the government decided his humor and honesty was dangerous and tried to arrest him. He tells a hilarious story while speaking with Preet about being brought in for questioning by the authorities, and as much as I laughed at this, I can’t believe someone in the government  or a member of the pro-Islamist faction that also hated him, didn’t find some reason to execute him.

That’s the shorter, less funny version of how Bassem essentially had to flee to America, so definitely go and listen to his appearance on “Stay Tuned” when Preet went live at the Apollo theater, and then check out his new podcast, “ReMade in America.”

It’s the second episode of his show that made me stop what I was doing and really listen, as it seemed to be a convergence of multiple ideas and stories that had been circling me recently. In this episode, Bassem  speaks with Baratunde Thurston about controlling your own story, your narrative, and how the United States was essentially built on destroying an entire race’s ability to do just that. As George Orwell said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

As Baratunde begins to talk about that, about the history of slavery and the systemic, institutional racism that is the inoperable cancer of our nation, I was reminded of a passage by James Weldon Johnson that I came across the other day, that I believe comes from his book “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man”.

“…but if the Negro is so distinctly inferior, it is a strange thing to me that it takes such tremendous effort on the part of the white man to make him realize it, and to keep him in the same place into which inferior men naturally fall.” 

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