Black Authors in the Public Domain


Harriet E. Wilson

It isn’t until you start researching black authors, artists, poets and musicians in the public domain that you realise just how ‘beyond the pale’ the shade is.

Not that it’s a reflection of the public domain per se, but rather of the lack of representation of the black community in the arts, especially when we think back to the time-frame or era which would put their work in the public domain now.

Restrictions imposed upon them by lack of education, lack of sponsorship, lack of acknowledgement and possible avenues to be published, seen or heard.

Many a potential scribe passed on their tales, poetry, songs and lamentations via the art of oral lore or oral tradition. From generation to generation they wander from man to woman, from woman to child without their presence ever gracing pen to paper. Best not to think about all the fabulous words, music or images we will never partake of.

The object of this particular post is to showcase some of the public domain work by black scribes and artists, and not just because it is Black History Month, but rather to shed a light and share lesser known work to darken to the very pale pool of the immense public domain.


Paul L. Dunbar

That brings me to something I was discussing with a fellow bookworm. Would you ever judge a book by the colour of the author’s skin? A loaded question, right?

Not really an issue I have ever spent any time or reflection on. The name of the author is usually completely irrelevant to me, except perhaps if it is a ‘known’ name, then often one can find oneself influenced by prior works one has read. Other than that it is just an appendage to the complete package, much like the title.

What I do have a thing about it is theorists vs practical experience. Depending on the subject it is a pet peeve of mine. Some things you have to experience to comprehend completely. Book learning is fine and dandy, imagination and empathy is a bonus, but nothing is quite like knowing by doing or knowing by being.

During one of my pregnancies, and by then I was a seasoned professional in childbirth, I decided it would be a laugh to do a birthing class, to see if they could teach me anything new. I had my kids in the Netherlands, all natural, no pain relief and no oxygen. Our teacher was a midwife with no children who preceded to show pretty pics of contraction graphs and then told the young girls and women ‘don’t worry it won’t hurt.’ So I told her not to lie to them.

Childbirth is different for everyone, some have no pain and others feel like they are being drawn and quartered. I told her she would teach differently if her knowledge wasn’t all theoretical and from watching others. She didn’t agree at the time, but a few years later, after the birth of her first child, she admitted to teaching a completely different birthing class to expectant mothers.

Where the heck is she going with this? I can hear you asking. Public Domain, black authors and childbirth? No worries I am getting to it, don’t I always…eventually.


Alexandre Dumas

My point is, if you want to understand the lives of black men, women and children during the age of slavery, then their words are far more poignant than those of an observer. Their pain, their experiences and their lives.

Fact is one can empathise and try to imagine oneself in the skin of another person, but unless you are actually in their body and have experienced life as them, well it makes you nothing but a theorist.

Without further ado, let’s start with a favourite on the blog: Alexandre Dumas. The paternal grandmother of Alexandre Dumas was an African slave called Marie-Cessette (although variations of the name are also noted). She was bought by his paternal grandfather Antoine de l’Isle and later sold by him with two of her daughters. Dumas is known for his Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeer stories, The Vicomte de Bragelonne and the The Man in the Iron Mask.

Solomon Northup was born a free man. He was tricked, drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. Twelve Years a Slave is based upon this period in his life.

Harriet E. Wilson, is generally considered to be the first black on the North American continent, of either gender, to publish a novel. Our Nig, or Sketches from the life of a free black is a semi-autobiographical novel, based on her own tragic circumstances.

William Wells Brown was born into slavery and escaped as a young adult. He was one of the first writers to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. He wrote Clotel.

Frances E.W. Harper was also born free, and she spent her life supporting the suffragette and abolitionist movement. She worked actively on the Underground Railroad and was the co-founder of the Nathional Association of Colored Women. She wrote Minnie’s Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping and Iola Leroy.


Francis E. W. Harper

Langston Hughes known for his innovative jazz poetry, had two paternal great-grandfathers, who

were slave owners and one was even a slave trader. His book The Crisis contains his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of first African-American authors to become known and establish a reputation for his writing internationally. He wrote Lyrics of Lowly Life. ( I highly recommend his poems, they are exceptional)

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was a journalist, editor, suffragist and a leader in the early (she died in 1931) Civil Rights Movement. She launched an anti-lynching campaign after extensively researching and documenting the horrors of lynching. She wrote Southern Horrors, Lynch Laws in all its Phases and The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. (Both of these are shocking and yet of historical importance, definitely worth the read)

These are only a few of the immensely talented men and women, whose words and work is not only part of the public domain, but also part of our historical heritage and conscience.

Download, read or listen to Trial and Triumph, Poems by Frances Harper, Iola Leroy, Shadows Uplifted, The Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Clotel or The President’s Daughter, The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States free at Feedbooks or the Internet Archive. Alternatively you can listen to Southern Horrors, Lynch Law in all its Phases, A Negro Love Song by P.L. Dunbar or The Negro Speaks of Rivers at Librivox.

Read The Three Musketeers Shoot Up the Desert, When Men Were Men, Lust, Love and Loyalty, Why Black History Month is Important, Poems on Slavery, Yes, The Flag is Racist, The Water-Babies, Wilde About Oscar, Peculiarly Sharp Teeth, House on Haunted Hill or Be Pretty or Else right here on the blog.

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