The Curse of Caste;
or The Slave Bride
It’s likely that the remarkable but little known Williamsport, PA resident Julia C. Collins (d. 1865), author of the novel, The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride, would have regarded Black History Month with a sympathetic eye because she wrote essays for the 19th century African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Christian Register, “probably the leading, black-operated periodical of the time.” But Julia Collins might also have celebrated Women’s History Month. In either case her “Rediscovered African American Novel” novel, which was serialized in 1865, can lay claim, as its editors William L. Andrews and Mitch Kachun suggest, to being “the first novel by an African American woman” (as distinct from diaries and autobiographies). And note that date: 1865!
The Curse of Caste is a short, engaging narrative that might well recommend itself to teachers for inclusion in social studies and humanities curricula. It contains domestic scenes about middleclass blacks in the North and South at a crucial period—arguably the most critical turning point—in the history of our country. It also contains an impressive 68-page introduction by the editors that could be a model for how to do research. Professors William Andrews and Mitch Kachun carefully separate fact from fiction and move with care from hypotheses and speculations to conclusions, especially regarding the ending of The Curse of Caste. Readers must have truly been upset in September 1865, when, after seven months of exciting weekly installments, Mrs. Collins’ story suddenly stopped. The author had died (of tuberculosis, the editors surmise). In a fascinating last section, Andrews and Kachun offer alternative final chapters: one happy, the other tragic, and suggest which one Mrs. Collins would most likely have written. What a wonderful opportunity for to involve students in the elements of persuasive discourse: which ending would they prefer and which can be supported from evidence in the book and inquiry into antebellum and Civil War history?
By coincidence, The Curse of Caste might also be said to complement another book about blacks much in the news these days: the recently released, annotated new edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. The differences between the novels, however, are worth pondering, including Mrs. Collins’ thematic emphasis on interracial love and the burden of racial secrets; her putting the strongest anti-slavery rhetoric in the mouth of a Southern white aristocrat who marries the daughter of a white slave master and one of his slaves; and giving a Northern black nurse who helps rear the child of the mixed-blood union a major role in bringing everyone together. How prescient that the fictional young aristocrat, cast out by his powerful racist father, says that the institution is “accursed, and will yet prove the fatal Nemesis of the South,” and that God himself will not allow “any people so deeply wronged to go unavenged”—daring words to be published the very month of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Is The Curse of Caste great literature? Hardly—with its stereotyped heroines and villains and tepid style, including first-person plural interjections and labored Greek references (“After a lapse of eighteen years we renew our acquaintance with the worthy son of Aesculapius [the god of medicine and healing].” But the book is probably indicative of the style of women’s fiction at the time (“Was Claire indeed a relative of that strange, dark man, over whom a shadow seemed to have fallen, and, if so, why should she occupy the position she did in Col. Tracy’s house?”) It is also, like Mrs. Collins’ essays, some of which are included at the back of the book, revealing of the author’s hope to inspire educated young black women to assume a meaningful role in society. Andrews, a professor of English and a dean for Fine Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Kachun, an associate professor of History at Western Michigan University, scholarly authors both, provide as much information as they can about African American women writers at the time and especially about Julia C. Collins who would want black women, whether through marriage or writing, to rise to their full potential. It should be noted that The New York Times Book Review blasted The Curse of Caste for its melodramatic plot, academic preamble, stilted prose and “problematic” appearance as an incomplete work of fiction. But though “quality” may be found wanting the educational significance of The Curse of Caste as historical artifact should not be overlooked.
The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride
by Julia C. Collins. Eds. William L. Andrews and Mitch Kachun
Oxford UP., introd, notes, index, reading group guide, $11.95.#