William Wells Brown: The Pioneer of Coins


William Wells Brown was an extraordinary man, an escaped slave who went on to write the first novel authored by an African American.  It seemed inappropriate to term such an accomplished individual a “Page" as in a traditional Tarot deck, and so I've named Brown the “Pioneer" of African-American fiction.  In the Tarot, the Page of Coins is someone who is first learning how to hold a job, perform a skill, or run a business.  Thus we've chosen to memorialize Brown in one of the first business ventures he made as a free man living in Buffalo, New York, described in his slave narrative.  What I love about Brown is the sense of humor he maintains even in the most bitter of circumstances (privately I refer to him as William Wells Clown).  His autobiography is as much picaresque as polemic, and this barbering scene provides an example of his humorous style.

This card has not yet been sketched and is available for commission.  Click here to learn more about our Black History Month Promotion, or go to our shop page for details.  Below please find my book chapter about William Wells Brown for The American Renaissance Tarot.     

William wells brown:

The pioneer of coins

Clotel:  The first novel written by an African American.

Clotel: The first novel written by an African American.

William Wells Brown (1814-1884) is the Pioneer of Coins for The American Renaissance Tarot.  He was the first African American to write and publish a novel, the first African American playwright, and a pioneer in other genres as well.  As a ferryman on Lake Erie, he helped sixty-nine fugitive slaves escape to freedom in Canada, and he traveled tirelessly in the United States and abroad as an abolitionist speaker.  His novel Clotel was no conciliatory effort, but rather a full-scale indictment of the institution of slavery: Brown’s subject was the children of Thomas Jefferson by one of his slaves and their pitiable destiny under slavery.  The part about Jefferson’s paternity was true; Clotel’s subtitle is “The President’s Daughter.”


Since the theme of the Coins suit is material survival, the Pioneer card focuses on one of Brown’s early moneymaking ventures as an escaped slave.  After a barber in Buffalo refused to give him work, Brown set up his own shop across the street.  Brown emerges as an ambitious but somewhat unscrupulous capitalist in this humorous episode, in harmony with the enterprising but untried spirit that
characterizes the youthful stage of Coins energy:

I took the room, purchased an old table, two chairs, got a pole with a red stripe painted around it, and the next day opened, with a sign over the door, “Fashionable Hair-dresser from New York, Emperor of the West” … Of course I had to tell all who came in, that my neighbor on the opposite side did not keep clean towels, that his razors were dull, and, above all, he never had been to New York to see the fashions.  Neither had I.  In a few weeks I had the entire business of the town, to the great discomfiture of the other barber.

A cartoon about the bank panic of 1837

A cartoon about the bank panic of 1837

Brown’s barbering adventure quickly leads “Emperor” to try his hand at banking.  He prints his own money for a “Wildcat Bank,” then common in the United States, issuing notes for various amounts under one dollar.  Brown’s “shinplasters” are soon in circulation, but a gang of rogues decides to make a run on his bank.  Our author is “done Brown”  and almost ruined, but some wise advice from a friend helps him out of his scrape, and his bank survives.  If you’ve drawn the Pioneer of Coins, it may be time to think about starting your own business or adding to your resources in some way.  Like William Wells Brown in these picaresque tales, you may not have it all figured out right at the beginning, but the important thing is to make a start.

in a reading

The beginnings of …
Survival         Stability         Tradition           Growth          Mastery

You or someone else is (a/n):
Clown                   Earthy                       Hairdresser                     Server
In Search of a Name                     Boastful                Competitive
Ferryman                   Bi-Racial                        Banker