Whether or not Thomas Jefferson had a mulatto daughter, Williams Wells Brown created a fictional one in his 1853 novel, "Clotel or The President's Daughter," as a vehicle to relate the psychological and sexual abuse of black women during slavery and after.
There is no recorded evidence that field hand Tom Burwell ever existed, but as the main character in Jean Toomer's 1925 short story, "Blood-Burning Moon," his death represented the ritualistic executions of scores of black men who were tortured, castrated, hung and burned in the South.
Black American fiction from its inception has served to chronicle the social, political and psychological history of a people often excluded from the mainstream documentation of events, fleshing out the skimpy, often distorted, view of them presented by white historians. That is the theme University of Maryland literature professor Joyce Ann Joyce uses as the basis for her eight-week Smithsonian Institution course, "Modern Black Writers."
"My students tend to think fiction is fiction and there is no correlation between fiction and reality," Joyce said, but "with black fiction, that is not true."
Joyce's views are shared by Toni Morrison, Margaret Walker, Ralph Ellison and others among the nine writers whose books Joyce explores in her teaching.
The topic will be one subject of discussion among two dozen writers and scholars at the fifth annual Black Writers Conference that opens today at Howard University.
"What to a lot of people seems to be 'gospel' truth is no more real than an historical novel," said Stephen Henderson, director of Howard's Institute for Arts and Humanities, which is sponsoring the two-day conference. "The novelist does as much research as the historian to generate an historical period" in fiction.
Joyce maintained that the study of fiction is "one approach to get a good feel for black history," because traditional historical writing neglects the subject and because of "what the novel reflects about the culture."
"Black literature differs from mainstream white fiction because it does not hide or spare itself," said Toni Morrison, author of "Song of Solomon," winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for the best book of fiction for 1977.
Black fiction "is much more biting," said Morrison, an editor at Random House, in a telephone interview from her Manhattan office. "If anybody seriously tackles it, it is hard to write an entirely superficial novel on . . . the central problem of being a human being in the 20th century, which is how to survive."
"Salt-Eaters" author Toni Cade Bambara, interviewed by phone last week from her home in Atlanta, where she is working on a book about the murders of black children in that city, said "fiction is just one of the ways in which we have documented history."
Although music and films today are more immediate tools, she added, "black literature is extremely important . . . as a potential instrument for change."
Morrison's first book, "The Bluest Eye," illustrates the insidious self-hatred that infects a black society, molded by a culture that believes in the superiority of white skin.
Similarly, John A. Williams' novel, "The Junior Social Club," televised this week as the adaptation, "The Sophisticated Gents," chronicled the changing life styles, values and expectations of growing up black in the 1940s. Another of his works, "The Man Who Cried I Am," gave a face to the hundreds of blacks who chose self-imposed European exile in the 1940s and '50s.
It from this view of literature that Joyce embarks on her historical guided tour through black fiction with her class of 20 adults and teen-agers. A motley assemblage that gathers weekly in the lower level of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, the class includes aspiring writers, librarians, District high school students and Internal Revenue Service employes.
Joyce's animated presentation, accentuated by her flashing eyes and an authoritative tone in her south Georgia speech, must breathe life into the works of nine black novelists, for the students, taking the course at a cost of $51 to $77 apiece, are not required to read the books.
She entices her listeners to explore the stylistic shifts in black fiction from one era to another as reflections of the changing views and issues in a community unknown to many from their formal study of history.
Joyce's historical journey begins with "Clotel," the first novel by a black American, by Brown, an escaped slave who emigrated to Britain to avoid the Fugitive Slave Act. Published in England, the novel is the tragic story of the fictional daughter of Thomas Jefferson, and thus of mulatto women of her time in general, Joyce said.
Clotel, separated from her family by their sale to different masters, marries her owner and bears him a daughter. The master takes a wife, who enslaves the daughter and has Clotel sold. Clotel escapes from the new master and is caught trying to rescue her daughter. Pursued and finally trapped on a bridge, she commits suicide by jumping into the Potomac River in view of the White House.
As with the other early black American novels published in the tide of the abolitionist movement of the mid-1800s, "Clotel" focused on the social problems arising from miscegenation in slavery and on characters' dilemmas, including a loss of cultural identity and the options of passing for white.
After the sentimental style of the 19th century, Joyce jumps to the Harlem Renaissance, that golden era of the 1920s and 1930s when black arts were in vogue. Probably the richest period of black American literary production, the period spawned not only fiction but also a wealth of poetry, drama and satire.
"The subject matter for the most part was racism. Stylistically, there was very much the Euro-American influence," Joyce told her students, noting the renaissance's intellectual protest, born of exposure to and acceptance by European cultures which was aided by World War I.
In weeks to come, Joyce said, she will use Jean Toomer's "Cane" and Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" to focus on racism and the rituals of black life that remained unchanged by international travel and urban migration.
The influcence of Gertrude Stein, Dostoevski and other European writers continued to be seen in the works of later writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ellison, Joyce said. In their distinctive styles, each captured a black America undergoing the metamorphosis of migration from a southern rural culture bound in religion, folklore and history to a northern urban culture stagnated by realism.
"I don't think any writer can reflect our entire complex history," said Ellison from his Manhattan apartment. "However, it is the nature of fiction [writers] to deal with social realities, and they come to focus in the lives of their characters."
Of his now-classic novel, "Invisible Man," Ellison said: "I was mainly trying to tell a story, but I would hope that the story was based on certain realities as perceived by the character."
The first truly historical black American novel, in Joyce's view, is Margaret Walker's "Jubilee," a saga chronicling one black family from slavery to Reconstruction. It was published at the beginning of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, when black Americans began exploring ties to a past that heretofore had been ignored or presented as shameful, at best.
"A novelist is basically a social historian," Walker said. "If you take black literature decade by decade, you will see current issues in many, but not all, works."
"If you look at Baldwin's books, you see psychological and emotional problems not connected with black history," Walker said, noting a distinction between a traditional historical novel and those of contemporary authors who tend to focus more on the psychological effects of events.
Joyce agreed, adding that that is part of Baldwin's appeal. She cited Baldwin's collection of short stories, "Going to Meet the Man," in which the title story, set in the South during the civil rights movement, is a psychological profile of a white sheriff whose libido has become linked with the brutality of lynchings and the rape of black women.
The story illustrates Baldwin's ability to get "into the consciousness of men" while maintaining the historical context of his characters' surroundings, Joyce said. She said Morrison and Bambara handle their characters similarly, but Bambara's works have a political dimension as well.
"Surely there never has been any major split in the black literary tradition between politics and art," agreed Bambara, a scheduled speaker at a panel on political dimensions of recent black literature at the writers' conference.
That panel, Howard's Henderson said, was included "to counteract . . . . a recent movement among black critics to disassociate themselves from the political roots of literature and concern themselves with aesthetics only. The idea is to bring people back to an awareness that whatever we do is political." CAPTION: Picture 1, Dr. Joyce Ann Joyce lecturing at the Smithsonian on modern black writers. By VANESSA BARNES HILLIAN; Picture 2, Ralph Ellison, The Washington Post; Picture 3, Toni Morrison, Copyright (c) 1981 by THOMAS VICTOR; Picture 4, James Baldwin, The Washington Post