Newswise — "The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride" by Julia C. Collins was published in 1865 as a serial in the Christian Recorder, the national newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Dr. William L. Andrews at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill believes it to be the first novel by a black American woman ever to appear in print.

"This is indisputably the first serialized novel by an African-American woman to be uncovered, and the first that is not grounded in autobiography but is instead a fully-fledged creation of the imagination," he said.

Andrews, the E. Maynard Adams professor of English and senior associate dean for fine arts and humanities in UNC's College of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Mitch Kachun, associate professor of history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, have published Collins' serialized story in book form for the first time, through Oxford University Press (October 2006).

Collins, a schoolteacher who lived in Williamsport, Pa., left few traces in historical records. "We hope that by publishing Collins' novel, we might hear from those who know more about her life, including, perhaps, her descendants," Andrews said.

Kachun noticed the installments of the novel in the Christian Recorder while pursuing unrelated research. He contacted Andrews, a leading specialist in African-American literature. Andrews suggested they edit and find a publisher for the novel.

Collins had died of tuberculosis on the verge of completing the novel. Andrews believed that today's readers should have what Collins was unable to deliver: a conclusion for "The Curse of Caste."

Andrews wrote two different endings, either of which he and Kachun believe could have been Collins' intended conclusion. They leave it up to the reader to decide whether the story should have a tragic or happy ending.

In the book, the professors preface the story with discussion of the novel's literary and historical significance. Essays by Collins, published in the Christian Recorder a year before the novel appeared, are included at the end.

For decades, many literature scholars have taught that "Our Nig," written by Harriet Wilson in 1859, was the first novel written by a black American woman. But research has proven that the book is almost entirely autobiographical and therefore not a work of fiction, Andrews said.

In 2002, African-American literature scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University published "The Bondwoman's Narrative" by Hannah Crafts, which dates to the early 1850s. Andrews helped Gates investigate the authenticity of the manuscript.

"'The Bondwoman's Narrative' might be the first novel by a black American woman, but no one knows for sure who Hannah Crafts was," Andrews said. "We think she was a black woman, but there is no proof of that or even if there ever was a Hannah Crafts. We can't verify who wrote it.

"By contrast, Julia Collins is a historically traceable and identifiable black American woman," Andrews said.

Another crucial difference: "The Bondwoman's Narrative" also seems to be autobiographical. But with "The Curse of Caste," Andrews said, "Collins doesn't say 'Let me tell you the story of my life.' She says 'Let me tell you a story - about the choices black women ought to be able to make in their lives.'"

Set in antebellum Louisiana and Connecticut, Collins' novel focuses on a beautiful mixed-race mother and daughter whose opportunities for fulfillment through love and marriage are threatened by slavery and caste prejudice. The daughter, Claire, is unsure of her parentage and history but haunted by the sense that she is somehow different. The story traces Claire's journey as she finds love and insights into her ancestry.

Andrews has written or edited more than 40 books, including "The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt" (1980) and "The North Carolina Roots of African American Literature" (2006).

He edited "North American Slave Narratives," 280 narratives that are part of the historical Web site "Documenting the American South," created by the UNC Library. Andrews earned master's and doctoral degrees from UNC and has taught at the university since 1996.

"William Andrews is the leading scholar of 19th-century African-American literature," said Harvard's Gates. "The work of Andrews and Mitch Kachun on 'The Curse of Caste' is a model of judicious and sensitive editing."

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