An African American short story in French

Le Mulâtre by Victor SéjourBorn in New Orleans, Victor Séjour (1817-1874) was a Creole writer who moved to France at the age of 19 to continue his education, find work, and flee the racial oppression of Louisiana. His short story “Le Mulâtre” (“The Mulatto”) was first published in the abolitionist journal Révue des Colonies (March 1837) not long after his arrival in Paris and is now freely available through Gallica—the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. It is the first work of fiction written by an African American author. Set in Saint Domingue before the Haitian Revolution, Séjour’s work centers on the injustice and cruelty of slavery. According to Marlene Daut and David O’Connell in her article “Sons of White Fathers: Mulatto Vengeance and the Haitian Revolution in Victor Séjour’s ‘The Mulatto'” published in Nineteenth-Century Literature 65:1 (June 2010), the tale was “not simply a blow . . . struck for the cause of abolition in the French colonies, but [was] . . . also one of the first manifestations of a ‘literature of combat’ written by an American black.””

A full English translation of “The Mulatto” was published more than one hundred years after his death in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1997). Remembered as one of the first black writers of both the African American and French literary traditions, Victor Séjour enjoyed a period of success as a playwright, was naturalized as a French citizen, and is buried in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. The Library has reprints in French and a few English translations of his works in the Main Stacks while The Bancroft Library houses two rare first editions – La madone des roses : drame en cinq actes, en prose (1869) and La tireuse de cartes; drame en cinq actes et un prologue, en prose (1860) in its African American Writers collection.

This post has been shared as part of a UC Berkeley initiative announced by Chancellor Carol Christ to mark the 400th anniversary of the forced arrival of enslaved Africans in the English colonies.



The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

First page of – Iwe Alọ (1885) – a collection of riddles

Yoruba, a tonal language, is spoken by nearly 40 million of the 185 million people living in Nigeria (2016 World Bank estimates). Some two hundred thousand Yoruba speakers also live in neighboring Benin and Togo. In Nigeria, Yoruba claims the second most speakers nationwide behind only English, the former language of colonial British Nigeria. In turn, Yoruba along with the two other national indigenous languages (Ibo and Hausa) are hegemonizing smaller, local languages throughout the country. Yoruba is part of the Yoruboid branch of the Niger-Congo language family, of which there are some 1,500 other languages. It includes numerous loanwords from English and as a result of the slave trade was important in Brazil, Cuba and other American countries.

Published in Lagos, Nigeria in 1885, Iwe Alọ is a collection of nearly 200 riddles and puzzles written in Yoruba. The author, Nigerian born David Brown Vincent, changed his name to Mojola Agbebi and preferred African to European fashion, due largely to his anti-colonial sentiment. After his ordination as a Baptist minister in Liberia in 1894, he summed-up his feelings: “I believe every African bearing a foreign name to be like a ship sailing under foreign colours and every African wearing a foreign dress is like the jackdaw in peacock feathers.” The print edition of Iwe Alọ, housed in the Bancroft Library, is part of the renowned Yoruba collection of William and Berta Bascom, which comprises some 470 volumes with plenty of examples of similarly early Yoruba language publications. The digitized edition of the Iwe Alọ is freely available through the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Contribution by Adam Clemons
Librarian for African and African American Studies, Doe Library

Iwe Alọ
Title in English: [Booklet]
Author: Agbebi, Mojola, 1860-1917. (David Brown Vincent)
Imprint: Lagos: General Printing Press, 1885.
Edition: 1st edition
Language: Yoruba
Language Family: Niger-Congo
Source: HathiTrust Digial Library (UCLA)

Select print editions at Berkeley:

  • Iwe Alọ. Foreward by D.B. Vincent. Lagos: General Printing Press, 1885.

The Languages of Berkeley [fan]
previous | about | next

The Languages of Berkeley is a dynamic online sequential exhibition celebrating the diversity of languages that have advanced research, teaching and learning at the University of California, Berkeley. It is made possible with support from the UC Berkeley Library and is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Language Center (BLC).

Follow The Languages of Berkeley!
Subscribe by email

What’s your favorite language?