Althesa’s Daughters in Clotel

“A celebrated writer has justly said of woman, ‘A woman’s whole life is a history of the affections. The heart is her world; it is there her ambition strives for empire; it is there her avarice seeks for hidden treasures. She sends forth her sympathies on adventure; she embarks her whole soul in the traffic of affection; and, if shipwrecked, her case is hopeless, for it is a bankruptcy of the heart.'”

William Wells Brown closes his novel, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, with the above quote from author Washington Irving’s “The Broken Heart.” Brown seemingly includes this quote to clarify (or justify) his one-dimensional portrayal of black females throughout the novel. Although he notes the truthfulness of his narrative and admits incorporating stories he received from “the lips of those who. . . ha[d] run away from the land of bondage,” it seems that at least some of the women with whom he spoke might have offered a slightly more varied history of their lives and perspectives. Yet, since several of the primary characters – Clotel, her daughter Mary, and her sister Althesa – risk all for the sake of the people they love most, perhaps readers are to assume that Brown uses their sentimentality to appeal to his white audience by showing them that enslaved people were capable of traditional, human emotions. Perhaps readers should believe that it is exceptionalism, Thomas Jefferson’s blood coursing through their veins, that makes the women remarkable and causes them to have such feelings. Perhaps the tragic mulatto trope appealed more strongly to Brown since it was linked to his personal history and heritage, being the son of an enslaved woman and a white man.

Nevertheless, as he and so many other abolitionists fought for the emancipation of enslaved people, their attention, when applied to female characters, typically focused on the struggles facing black women, rather than girls, except when including them as backstory for the adults in the narratives. But, considering this common tendency and reconsidering the above quote, I wonder how we might focus more attention on the hearts and lives of black girls like Althesa’s daughters, Ellen and Jane or on the early experiences of women featured in such novels. Shall we not concern ourselves with their lost childhoods and innocence and the experiences of so many other black female children and adolescents who endured slavery?

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