The Discovery of the First Black Female Novelist

tags: African American history



Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

(The Root) -- Each February, the Swann Auction Galleries in New York City holds an auction of rare artifacts from the black past. It features all sorts of treasures, like slave chains and other instruments of torture, daguerreotypes and sepia-tinged photographs, rare books and lithographs and occasionally handwritten manuscripts, usually letters but sometimes something as rare as a work of literature written by a canonical author such as Phillis Wheatley, let's say. That auction is like taking a trip in a time machine to the black past; think of it as "black to the future." Anyway, scholars and collectors look forward to receiving the beautifully edited four-color catalog that rare-book dealer Wyatt Houston Day prepares each year for the auction with the same anticipation that children look forward to Christmas morning.

The catalog for 2001 contained an entry that riveted me. It was entitled The Bondwoman's Narrative, written by a woman named Hannah Crafts. It purported to be a "301-page handwritten manuscript purportedly written by a female fugitive slave." The manuscript was being put up for auction by the estate of my old friend, Howard University librarian and editor Dorothy Porter Wesley, who had actually mentioned the manuscript to me years before when I authenticated the identity of Harriet E. Wilson, who published the novel Our Nig in 1859, still the first novel actually appearing in print and written by a black woman (in this case, by a free Northern woman who had been an indentured servant). Dorothy told me that she had a treasure that was even more rare and valuable than Our Nig tucked away in a file cabinet, but she was too busy to undertake any thorough research about it or its author. 

To be honest, I really thought that she was just playing the dozens with me -- that is, until I read the Swann catalog. Now here was that same manuscript, which, according to the note in the catalog, Dorothy thought was authentic. I decided that I would purchase it and see....



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