There are a plethora of great stories to read as a means to explore and celebrate Black History (and to keep that celebration going all year!). If you are looking for stories that are Austen-adjacent, we have suggestions!
The following list ranges from harrowing factual accounts to lighter-hearted adaptations and contemporary novels. Titles that record historical trauma or confront the legacy of that trauma obviously aren't in the "light, bright, and sparkling" vein we might associate with Austen, but they are tremendously important stories and a crucial part of the context in which Austen wrote. We cannot ignore them. The list below is not exhaustive by any means, but we hope you'll find something to tempt you, and that you'll be inspired to deepen your knowledge of Black history during Austen's lifetime.
If you are the kind of reader to focus on the "history" part of Black History Month there are several authors and titles to check out from the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.
Aphra Behn's novella Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (1688) tells the tragic story of the titular prince and his beloved Imoinda's abduction into slavery in the new world, and the dignity with which they meet their fate (tw: extreme violence). Behn, a white woman, narrates the novella, and claims all the events are factual. The story is buttressed by considerable detail about the plantations in Surinam, but the veracity of Oroonoko's existence seems unlikely. Though novels by Behn and Austen book-end many women's literature courses on college campuses, Austen probably had not read Oroonoko, but it was influential enough in its day to spawn two different successful theatrical adaptations (as seen in the illustration, the adaptations retain Oroonoko's origin in modern-day Ghana, but changes his love interest Imoinda's race to white).
It is much more likely Austen was aware of the multiple first-hand accounts of kidnapping, enslavement, and struggles for freedom published as part of the abolitionist movement in the late eighteenth century. The Letters of Ignatius Sancho (1782), Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Commerce of the Human Species by Ottobah Cugoano (1787), and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vasa, the African (1789) were all popular and influential texts by formerly enslaved Black men who found a place in London society and used their voices to speak out for others of their race. Forming a group known as The Sons of Africa, Cugoano and Equiano worked with white abolitionists like Granville Sharp to bring an end to the slave trade. Sancho, the subject of an acclaimed new novel, The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph (2023), was a published composer and the first Black man to vote in England (voting requirements were based on property, not race). The writing of all three men would have been of interest to Fanny Price.
Fanny might also have been drawn to the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, the first enslaved Black author from the American colonies to publish her work. Her collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published 1773; Wheatley was unable to find an American publisher, so journeyed to England to see her book through the press. Many of the poems are occasional, dedicated to friends as well as to celebrities like George Washington (who actually wrote to thank her for her verses!). Wheatley displays her familiarity with the poetic conventions popular in the eighteenth-century, fluidly moving between heroic couplets, odes, and poetic epistles. She has been variously criticized as poetically derivative or too much of an apologist for her white enslavers, but is now recognized for her original talent.
If you're looking for a regency novel with a heroine of color, look no further! The anonymous author of The Woman of Colour (1808) tells the story of Olivia Fairfield, a mixed-race heiress whose father has stipulated in his will that she must marry her white cousin to maintain possession of her considerable fortune. Scholars speculate that the author may have been a mixed-race woman from Jamaica, and the case Olivia makes for equality - both by argument and example - is moving and compelling. This novel blends many of the novelistic conventions from the late eighteenth-century that feature in Austen's work as well; it is written in the epistolary style, with elements of gothic romance and social satire and memorable characterization.
Maybe your taste runs more to current titles? Here are a few outstanding recent books that enlarge our understanding of race in the Regency era:
The Book of Night Women (2009) is a an engrossing novel by Booker-Prize winner Marlon James. Compared to Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and William Faulkner for its ability to confront brutality in breathtaking language and with unflinching honesty, this story of the reciprocal violence on Jamaican plantations doesn't offer easy answers to the painful questions it explores. It is at times a painful read (tw: extreme violence, including sexual), but a memorable one, and the heroine Lilith is as complex as they come.
Island Queen, published by Vanessa Riley in 2021, grew out of the author's fascination with Austen's incomplete Sanditon and the character of Miss Lambe. When looking for real-life analogs to Miss Lambe, Riley encountered Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, who lived from 1756-1846. Born into slavery on Montserrat, Thomas finds freedom, fortune, and love, but at significant personal and spiritual cost, including profiting off of enslaving others. Thomas created a commercial network of "hucksters" as well as running a plantation and a luxury hotel, and was one of the richest women of her day. Riley has done her homework thoroughly, and though she is clearly sympathetic to Thomas, she does not smooth over the moral complexities of her heroine's economic rise. This is a fascinating novelized treatment of Thomas' biography.
The Age of Phillis (2020) is Honorée Fanonne Jeffers' ambitious novel in verse - fittingly - about Phillis Wheatley. Beginning with Wheatley's childhood in Gambia before her kidnapping - referenced only briefly in Wheatley's poetry - Jeffers' series of poems explores Wheatley's life with her enslavers, her friendships with other African artists, her writing, her freedom, and her marriage (shrouded in mystery like her early life). Based on fifteen years of archival research, this award-winning and lyrical narrative gives voice to the silent parts of Wheatley's life.
Maybe an adaptation that explores issues of race via Austen's stories is more to your taste? Here are some titles to revisit or explore!
Published in 2013, Jo Baker's acclaimed novel Longbourn tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from below-stairs. When the Bingleys arrive at Netherfield and begin socializing in the area, Bennet family maid Sarah meets Ptolemy, Mr. Bingely's handsome and sophisticated mixed-race servant. We learn that Ptolemy was born to an enslaved woman on the Bingleys' West Indian plantation, and he opens Sarah's eyes about social and racial nuances she had not previously considered. This compelling novel gives a historically-detailed glimpse at what the lives backstage behind the Bennet sisters' drama would have been like, tracing the intricacies of race and class.
Ibi Zoboi's Pride (2018) simultaneously adapts Pride and Prejudice to both YA and New York, establishing the familiar enemies-to-lovers conflict between Afro-Latina Zuri Benitez and wealthy Darius Darcy, whose family is part of a move to gentrify Bushwick. Just like Austen's precursor, there is much more at stake than romance here. Neither teen is in want of a spouse; Zuri is firmly focused on acceptance to the HBCU of her dreams. Deftly adding race to the exploration of class Austen began nearly 200 years before, this is an energetic updating of Austen's best-known novel.
Pride and Protest (2022) by Nikki Payne also looks to modern real-estate conflicts as a way to translate Austen's portrayal of social hierarchy into a modern idiom. This novel pits Alizé Bennett, activist by day and DJ by night, against the encroaching Pemberley Development company, headed by Dorsey Fitzgerald. Payne's book has been praised for wit and sparkle, along with a little heat.
If you're in the mood for something slightly frothier, the Regency in Color series should do the trick. Written by Hildie McQueen, this series features heroines of color in Heyer-esque plots with a broader range of social classes represented and a little steam to the romance. At a recent JASNA-SW presentation, Dr. Leigh-Michil George described these as "counterfactual, speculative histories" that reimagine a Regency full of positive pasts for Black heroines.
Looking for a video or movie to watch that addresses questions of Black identity in the Regency? We've got you covered there, too.
Premiering in 2013, Belle is based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the Black woman depicted in one of the most-reproduced paintings from the late 1770s. Though director Amma Asante takes liberties with the details of the historical Dido's life, she does so to good narrative effect, and offers a stirring picture of a brave young woman caught between two worlds: that of her race, and that of her economic status.
The performances and costumes are all beautiful, and the prominence of Lord Mansfield as Dido's great-uncle and guardian will of course have Austen readers thinking of another uncle and niece at Mansfield Park. Asante has combined the Zong and Somersett cases, and hypothesizes how Belle might have responded to them. This film pairs especially well with The Woman of Colour (above), as both heroines navigate what it means to be wealthy, gently-raised, and Black in a society deeply enmeshed in the slave trade.
The lavish biopic Chevalier (2022) brings to the screen the life of Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) a mixed-race phenom who set hearts racing in Paris. Saint-Georges was born to his father's enslaved mistress on the island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies. Given a gentleman's upbringing by his nouveau riche white father, the young man rose to prominence first as an accomplished fencer and then as a musician and composer. Equally talented with a rapier and a bow, he was admired by Parisian elites.
Having experienced racial prejudice despite all of his wealth and accomplishments, Saint-Georges embraced the lofty visions of equality promised by the Revolution, and led a light cavalry legion composed free
men of Western Indian and African origin. The movie takes considerable liberties with history, and has been criticized for uneven pacing and squandering supporting roles, but Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s turn as the dynamic "Chevalier" has been widely praised, and it's exciting to see Saint-Georges' story get more attention.
PBS and Masterpiece theatre have confirmed that Sanditon will return for a third and final season, airing next month. As many have noted, director Andrew Davies burned through Austen's unfinished fragment of a novel in the first thirty minutes of the first episode in season one, but clearly that doesn't prevent spinning the world out to fill multiple seasons with a speculative energy that would do Tom Parker proud. Dr. Misty Krueger notes that Georgiana Lambe is much more like Olivia Fairfield from The Woman of Colour than she is the "chilly and cold" heiress briefly introduced by Austen, and it's easy to understand why Georgiana comes to share center-stage with Charlotte Heywood.
In Georgiana's season one romance with Otis Molyneaux (presented as a member of The Sons of Africa), we are treated to beautiful moments of joyful affection between the pair, though the ending of the story arc has been criticized for how it marginalized Georgiana's story in favor of the love story between white leads Charlotte and Sidney. The series has continued to try to address issues of Regency race through Georgiana's character with mixed success. Dr. Robin Runia's article "Un-silencing Miss Lambe" places the racial questions raised by the show in a carefully constructed historical context, and is a perceptive companion piece to read before (re)watching seasons one and two in preparation for next month's airing.
Last but not least. . .
As devoted readers might remember, the 2021 Jane Austen & Co. series focused on Race and the Regency, with talks on the institution of slavery and abolitionist efforts to dismantle it, The Woman of Colour, Bridgerton, Black womanhood in the nineteenth century, and much more. Recordings of all nine talks are available online. This year's line up included a talk on Phillis Wheatley as well - if you missed it in January, the recording awaits!
Early Bird Registration will end this Friday, February 17th. There are still a few spots left at the discounted rate - treat yourself to a belated valentine present and secure your spot for JASP 2023, June 15-18, now!
Amazon will be ending their Smile donation program effective February 20th. If you want to purchase any of these books or the titles for JASP 2023, please consider taking advantage of Amazon Smile before it closes to benefit JASP by your purchase.