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Research focuses attention on early African-American novel

Dec. 13, 2006

KALAMAZOO--A research discovery made and filed for future attention more than a decade ago is the focus of a new book by a Western Michigan University historian that is attracting the attention of scholars and media around the nation.

"The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride," published in October by Oxford University Press, is actually a republication of the work of a 19th-century African-American woman that was edited by WMU's Dr. Mitch Kachun, associate professor of history, and Dr. William L. Andrews, a literary scholar from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The novel at the heart of their work is, they believe, the first novel ever published by a black American woman and, as such, is key to understanding a literary tradition developed by a newly freed people after the Civil War. Julia C. Collins' story, serialized in a national newspaper in 1865, was not finished at the time of her death in November 1865. Before she died, however, she produced 31 installments of "The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride." Those installments had an avid following among readers of the Christian Recorder, a national newspaper published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

"It was common for newspapers of that time to carry serialized novels," Kachun says, "Only recently have scholars of African-American literature begun to look at newspapers as a source of writing for those early authors who gave birth to an emergent literary tradition."

Collins' melodramatic story revolves around the marriage of a mixed race enslaved woman to the white son of a New Orleans slaveholding family. The woman dies in childbirth, and her daughter grows up never knowing her true ancestry. She attracts the attention of a European count and just as avid readers wondered if the count would propose or if the woman's family would interfere with another interracial union, the series abruptly ended. Julia Collins died of tuberculosis, leaving the story unfinished.

Kachun says the story caught his eye in 1994 when he was a graduate student at Cornell University doing his dissertation work on African-American emancipation celebrations. He was intrigued by what he read, and he photocopied the installments of the tale for future study. It was not until 2002, however, that he began to look more systematically at Collins' work. He won a 2003 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to fund a summer of research aimed at learning all that he could about the free black woman who lived and wrote in Pennsylvania.

A historian, Kachun felt the need to collaborate on the project with a literary specialist. A chance encounter with Andrews during a professional conference set the publication project in motion. Andrews is a specialist in the area of 19th-century African-American literature.

Their new publication mark's the first time Collins' work has been published in book form. It includes six nonfiction essays by the previously unknown author, about whom little is known, as well as an in-depth introduction that puts Collins' writing in the context of the time in which she lived and wrote.

With the central story to "The Curse of Caste" left unfinished, Kachun and Andrews also indulged in some scholarly conjecture and included two endings based on their interpretations of what Collins intended for her characters. One ending is happy, and the other tragic.

"It leaves us with an interesting teaching tool," Kachun says. "Those of us teaching African-American history or literature courses, can ask our students to try their hand at writing their own endings."

Publication of the Collins work has sparked some controversy because of the co-editors' contention that her work is the first novel published by an African-American woman. For years, scholars have viewed a book called "Our Nig" by Harriet E. Wilson as the first such novel. That book was uncovered by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 1982, and Gates recently disputed claims that the Collins book is the first novel--and did so very publicly, in the New York Times.

But Kachun says "Our Nig" is more autobiography than novel, since it closely follows the author's life story. He and Andrews are convinced the distinction belongs to Collins, and they say her novel strongly influenced later novels by African-American writers.

"The question of whether this is the first novel is important, but the controversy loses sight of what's even more important," says Kachun. "It is critical to see all of these 19th-century authors as the foundation of an African-American women's literary tradition. Collins' work in particular--written as the Civil War ends and Emancipation becomes a reality--represents the first literary expression of a newly freed people."

Kachun notes that the melodramatic writing used in the work of Collins and her contemporaries may fail to meet some modern literary critics' expectations and standards, but that misses the point of its importance.

"We need to look at the writing as an expression of a momentous time when people were trying to establish an authentic voice for themselves," Kachun says. "Whether a modern critic likes it is irrelevant. I hope it's widely read simply because it provide us some insight into this period of emancipation. Collins was an important part of a new American literary movement."

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, (269) 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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