Through a quirk of fate, Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter, a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, is considered the first novel written by an African-American, but not the first novel to be published in America by an African-American. Since author William Wells Brown published the novel in England in 1853 and not in the United States, the honor of first African-American novelist in America goes to Harriet Wilson despite the fact she did not published Our Nig until 1859.
As the entire official title indicates, the subject of this novel is one that would be well covered by those who preceded as well as those who followed Brown. The slave narrative was the easiest means of drawing the attention of a publisher for a writer with black skin. For one thing, it was an extremely popular genre among readers. The other reason is less inspiring: it was not widely assumed that they had any story to tell that would be of interest to white readers and the audience of black readers was not substantive enough to make the cost of publishing economically feasible.
Nevertheless, Clotel staked out a different path than the usual slave narrative. The central conceit of the narrative likely enough to explain why the author had to travel to England to get it published rather than finding a willing printer in America. His title character is the presumed offspring of a relationship between Thomas Jefferson and one of his female slaves. Further blurring the line between fact and fiction, history and historical recreation is the introduction of articles actually published in newspapers as well as other historically relevant texts to introduce confusion into his narrative so as to force the reader to question the veracity of what had been passing for truth.
Clotel does not hold back on this force-feeding of the truth about slavery in American that was direct opposition to the varnished version many people accepted unquestionably as true. The account does not just reveal daily dehumanization of people being told they are property, it also powerfully condemns a systemic oppression of women in a way that essentially trains them to eventually submit t the sexual desires of their white masters as well as to be paired with mates as they were animals capable of producing the most desire characteristics for offspring.
Clotel also gained historical relevance for being the primary instigator of what would come to be a dominant theme in African-American literature for almost a century: the struggle of the “tragic mulatto” who matures into an adult before learning that their light skin is not purely white, but “stained” by impurity of miscegenation. This revelation inevitably leads to a moment of self-determination: either the reject their African blood and continue “passing” as white or they admit to being of mixed racial heritage and accept the consequences of prejudice.