Book Excerpt: My Southern Home, by William Wells Brown

The culmination of William Wells Brown’s long writing career, My Southern Home: The South and Its People is the story of Brown’s search for a home in a land of slavery and racism. Brown (1814-84), a prolific and celebrated abolitionist and writer often recognized as the first African American novelist for his Clotel (1853), was born enslaved in Kentucky and escaped to Ohio in 1834. In the new comprehensive edition of My Southern Home, John Ernest acts as a surefooted guide to this seminal work, beginning with a substantial introduction placing Brown’s life and work in cultural and historical context.

“Contemporary of Frederick Douglass, precursor to Langston Hughes, and obvious progenitor of Richard Pryor, William Wells Brown connects the dots between African American street and schoolhouse literature. His classic work, My Southern Home, is a scrapbook portraying the good and bad, the ugly and beautiful of nineteenth-century African America via portraits of devilish tricksters, erudite political analysts, sorrowful situations, and empowering encounters.”
—Frances Smith Foster, Emory University

The following is an excerpt from My Southern Home that displays some of the elements Foster describes. (pp. 15-16):

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Slave children, with almost an alabaster complexion, straight hair, and blue eyes, whose mothers were jet black, or brown, were often a great source of annoyance in the Southern household, and especially to the mistress of the mansion.

Billy, a quadroon of eight or nine years, was amongst the young slaves, in the Doctor’s [Dr. John Gaines’] house, then being trained up for a servant. Any one taking a hasty glance at the lad would never suspect that a drop of negro blood coursed through his blue veins. A gentleman, whose acquaintance Dr. Gaines had made, but who knew nothing of the latter’s family relations, called at the house in the Doctor’s absence. Mrs. Gaines received the stranger, and asked him to be seated, and remain till the host’s return. While thus waiting, the boy, Billy, had occasion to pass through the room. The stranger, presuming the lad to be a son of the Doctor, exclaimed, “How do you do?” and turning to the lady, said, “how much he looks like his father; I should have known it was the Doctor’s son, if I had met him in Mexico!”

With flushed countenance and excited voice, Mrs. Gaines informed the gentleman that the little fellow was “only a slave and nothing more.” After the stranger’s departure, Billy was seen pulling up grass in the garden, with bare head, neck and shoulders, while the rays of the burning sun appeared to melt the child.[1]

This process was repeated every few days for the purpose of giving the slave the color that nature had refused it. And yet, Mrs. Gaines was not considered a cruel woman,—indeed she was regarded as a kind-feeling mistress. Billy, however, a few days later, experienced a roasting far more severe than the one he had got in the sun.

The morning was cool, and the breakfast table was spread near the fireplace, where the newly-built fire was blazing up. Mrs. Gaines, being seated near enough to feel very sensibly the increasing flames, ordered Billy to stand before her.

The lad at once complied. His thin clothing giving him but little protection from the fire, the boy soon began to make up faces and to twist and move about, showing evident signs of suffering.

“What are you riggling about for?” asked the mistress. “It burns me,” replied the lad; “turn round, then,” said the mistress; and the slave commenced turning around, keeping it up till the lady arose from the table.

Billy, however, was not entirely without his crumbs of comfort. It was his duty to bring the hot biscuit from the kitchen to the great house table while the whites were at meal. The boy would often watch his opportunity, take a “cake” from the plate, and conceal it in his pocket till breakfast was over, and then enjoy his stolen gain. One morning Mrs. Gaines, observing that the boy kept moving about the room, after bringing in the “cakes,” and also seeing the little fellow’s pocket sticking out rather largely, and presuming that there was something hot there, said, “Come here.” The lad came up; she pressed her hand against the hot pocket, which caused the boy to jump back. Again the mistress repeated, “Come here,” and with the same result.

This, of course, set the whole room, servants and all, in a roar. Again and again the boy was ordered to “come up,” which he did, each time jumping back, until the heat of the biscuit was exhausted, and then he was made to take it out and throw it into the yard, where the geese seized it and held a carnival over it. Billy was heartily laughed at by his companions in the kitchen and the quarters, and the large blister, caused by the hot biscuit, created merriment among the slaves, rather than sympathy for the lad.

~~~

From My Southern Home: The South and Its People by William Wells Brown, edited by John Ernest. Copyright (c) 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press.

John Ernest is Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of American Literature at the University of West Virginia. He is author or editor of many books, including Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History, and Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself. Read his guest blog post from July about Michele Bachmann and historical recklessness in contemporary politics.

  1. [1]Brown tells this story often in his work. He offers a version of it in Clotel, involving Mary, the child of Horatio Green and Clotel, which corresponds to the ending he presents to this story here: “The child was white, what should be done to make her look like other negroes, was the question Mrs. Green asked herself. At last she hit upon a plan: there was a garden at the back of the house over which Mrs. Green could look from her parlour window. Here the white slave-girl was put to work, without either bonnet or handkerchief upon her head. A hot sun poured its broiling rays on the naked face and neck of the girl, until she sank down in the corner of the garden, and was actually broiled to sleep.” Brown expands on that story in Clotelle, emphasizing the girl’s experience in the sun (and the response of the other slaves to this treatment). He returns to this story in The Escape, though there he presents only the main encounter and not the subsequent attempt to darken the skin. When he tells the story in the “Memoir of the Author” at the beginning of The Black Man, Brown tells the larger story as something that happened to him in his youth, adding that he was flogged after being mistaken for his owner’s son. Finally, Brown tells this same story from his youth in The Negro in the American Rebellion, though in this case closer to the version he relates in The Escape and in My Southern Home.

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