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19th Century Black Woman Author Discovered

30 May

Don’t believe everything someone says about “the only” or “the first” when it has to do with 19th Century black achievement.

In my personal book collection, I have books going back to the 1840’s. I know of, have seen (but do not own) and read a book of poetry published by a black woman (a distant cousin) named Anne Drummond, back in the 1850’s. She was a free black woman, and I don’t recall the story about how she learned to read and write. Being free, of mixed race, and living in Virginia – I don’t believe she was ever identified as “black”, at least by the people who published her work. I will have to get a scan of that and publish it from one of her descendants.

So I am not convinced, as this article claims, there  were only 4 black authors in the 19th Century.

Part of my personal collection includes a 19th Century Set of these McGuffey’s, and a copy  of the EPAMINONDAS AND HIS AUNTIE –

“True Love”: The Victorian (re)discovery that transformed our understanding of black women’s literature

Overlooked by historians, Sarah E. Farro was the lone black novelist of her era to write for a white readership

Two years ago, I was in the United Kingdom working on a follow-up project for my books “Black London” and “Black Victorians/Black Victoriana.” While looking through old British newspapers, I was astonished to read an 1893 announcement in The Daily Telegraph proclaiming Sarah E. Farro to be “the first negro novelist” with the publication of her novel “True Love.”

 I wondered: who was this woman? And why didn’t we know about this reportedly groundbreaking novel?

The Daily Telegraph didn’t get it exactly right: we know now that Farro wasn’t the first African-American novelist. Nonetheless, she appears nowhere in the canon of African-American literature.

After doing more research, I soon realized that Farro had made her mark writing about white people – and that this may also be the reason her work was forgotten. Learning of a black woman whose race was documented, whose novel was published – but who disappeared in the historical record – can change how we think about African-American literature.

Farro joins a small club

Searches of American census records show that Sarah E. Farro was born in 1859 in Illinois to parents who moved to Chicago from the South. She had two younger sisters, and her race is given as “black” on the 1880 census.

Her novel, “True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life,” was published in 1891 by the Chicago publishing house Donohue & Henneberry. It was one of 58 books by Illinois women writers exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exhibition (World’s Fair) in 1893. Newspapers in the U.K. and the U.S. heralded the book. Toward the end of her life, in 1937, Farro was feted at a celebration of Chicago’s “outstanding race pioneers.” Apparently, she never wrote another novel.

“True Love” disappeared from the historical record, and for decades historians recognized only three other 19th-century novels written and published by African-Americans.

One other, “The Bondswoman’s Narrative,” was recently found in manuscript and published, even though the author, Hannah Crafts, is only circumstantially (although convincingly) identified. With my discovery, Farro becomes only the second known African-American woman novelist published in the 19th century. And she now joins William Wells Brown, Harriet E. Wilson, and Frank J. Webb as the only African-American published novelists in the entire century.

When I returned to the U.S. from the U.K., I was able to track down only two copies of “True Love” in libraries – one at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago and the other at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – and headed to Chicago to read it. To briefly summarize: the novel tells the story of a man whose quest to marry his love, Janey, is thwarted by Janey’s selfish sister and mother. Generous and beloved Janey nurses her sister through a fever, only to catch it herself and die.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign later digitized it for me, and now it’s available online for anyone to read. Just two weeks ago I found an original copy on eBay and immediately bought it for US$124.

The eBay listing makes no mention of her race; nowhere except in early newspaper pieces is she identified as a black woman, so this important piece of history has remained invisible until now.

An unexpected subject matter?

The reason for “True Love’s” disappearance might be simple: it takes place in England, a place Farro probably never visited, and all of its characters are white….Read the Rest Here

 

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2016 in Black History

 

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