Born a slave and kept functionally illiterate until he escaped at age nineteen, William Wells Brown refashioned himself first as an agent of the Underground Railroad and then as an antislavery activist and self-taught orator and author, eventually becoming a foundational figure of African American literature. His most ambitious work, Clotel; or, the President's Daughter (1853), the first novel written by an African American, purports to be the history of Thomas Jefferson's black daughters and granddaughters. Dramatizing the victimization of black women under slavery, the novel measures the yawning chasm between America's founding ideals and the brutal realities of bondage.
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by H.G. Wells
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