Dissertation – Chapter 1 – Introduction (3 of 3)

Post it Notes like I used copiously while writing my dissertation. Image by Pexels on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/post-it-notes-sticky-notes-note-1284667/
Post it Notes like I used copiously while writing my dissertation. Image by Pexels on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/post-it-notes-sticky-notes-note-1284667/

© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
2009

I study passing and minstrelsy in the selected texts because the action in all of them occurs shortly after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law comes to prominence, and because they all consider how slave women use motherhood and race in order to gain access to and enjoy the benefits of U.S. citizenship.  While Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin more than 40 years before the publication of Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, the two texts treat the same time period, as do Clotel and The Bondwoman’s Narrative.  Stowe, Brown, and Crafts’ works come on the heels of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which required the extradition of escaped slaves from their homes in free states back into the throes of slavery.  The laws demonstrated that U.S. blacks were property – not human and certainly not U.S. citizens.  The Fugitive Slave Law also fueled the abolitionist cause, as did Stowe’s novel.  By setting his novel in the early 1850’s, Twain deliberately sets his work as contemporary with the other authors and with the issues of their time.  All of these novels treat antebellum issues of race and citizenship.  Additionally, all four texts treat both blackface minstrelsy and passing, not one or the other, in close proximity in the text.  In all of the texts, passing and minstrelsy, at some point, take place in the same female body.    

Slave mothers hold the lowest position in the US hierarchy because they live in complete opposition to the paradigm of American citizenship – a free, white male capable of siring more US citizens.  Slave mothers live as bound, black, and capable of birthing more US slaves.  As such, these women have the least to lose and the most to gain by toying with race and gender.  The communities which systematically squash them concurrently situate them in positions to upend society the most as they search for freedom.  Slave mothers turn to minstrelsy because in one deception they gain the appearance and trappings of free, white, male citizenship.  They use W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of double consciousness, the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” in order to become that other (3).  Passing and minstrelsy serve as the vehicles to create the other, free, persona.  For black women motherhood serves as a site to “express and learn the power of self-definition, the importance of valuing and respecting ourselves, the necessity of self-reliance and independence, and a belief in Black women’s empowerment”  (Collins 176).  And if these slave women had not become mothers, they probably would not have fought so virulently and creatively to attain the freedom that they categorically had been denied.

I examine the novels in order of their time of writing, not a strict adherence to publication dates.  I begin with Harriet Beecher Stowe.  In Chapter 2, “Creating Citizenship through Motherhood, Minstrelsy, and Passing in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” I explore Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal work and how through it she creates space for women in the American citizenry.  1850 finds Harriet Beecher Stowe in a new home, in a new state, and with a newborn child.  Yet at this height of her maternal and domestic responsibilities, she undertakes the roles of feminist and abolitionist when she responds to the newly passed Fugitive Slave Law by writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, Stowe crosses into the decidedly male venue of engaging in political discourse.  And in so doing, Stowe births herself as a new type of female citizen, creates and solidifies a space for women in the American literary canon, and fosters renewed interest and vigor in the abolitionist movement.  By writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe’s motherhood moves from the domestic into the public sphere.  In 1850 Stowe gives birth to her seventh child, but she also gives birth to new ways of understanding and using American literature. 

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe interweaves the life stories of a number of slaves of various complexions, but all legally black, and in so doing demonstrates how race influences perception and how race can be used to one’s best advantage.  In her novel, a strident abolitionist call, she depicts nearly all of her black characters as slaves who are racial passers (or potential racial passers) or minstrels. Stowe’s character Eliza, a slave mother whose white skin belies her servitude, becomes both racial passer and minstrel in her efforts to procure freedom and the privileges of citizenship for herself and her son. 

Eighteen fifty as an historical moment, and Harriet Beecher Stowe as a representative of that moment, inform the works of other authors.  My research looks at three authors influenced by Stowe: William Wells Brown, Hannah Crafts, and Mark Twain.  The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law impels these authors to write, and Stowe opens a passageway for them to do so.  Stowe becomes their literary mother and a lens through which to understand their texts.  In this chapter dedicated to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I argue that Stowe uses and appropriates gendered and racialized ideals of citizenship in order for the slave mother Eliza to use passing and minstrelsy to attain freedom and other basic human rights afforded to white U.S. citizens.  I further argue that the work she accomplishes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin influences other writers and transforms Stowe into a mother in the public sphere.

My third chapter, “Securing Liberty and Citizenship through Passing and Minstrelsy in William Wells Brown’s Clotel,” analyzes William Wells Brown’s use of women of indeterminate race as sites of contesting citizenship.  Clotel, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, also intertwines the accounts of various slaves, but the shared connection among all of their stories is a link to Thomas Jefferson and the founding principles of the United States.  Through many characters, but particularly via the novel’s namesake, Clotel, her sister Althesa, and their mother Currer, Brown demonstrates the fluidity of race and gender and advocates capitalizing on that fluidity as a means of attaining the principles espoused by Thomas Jefferson.  Furthermore, Brown depicts the role that motherhood plays in slaves’ bids for freedom and the privileges afforded to American citizens.  In my chapter on Clotel, I argue that for slave mothers, racial passing is a feminist act of American citizenship.

In my fourth chapter, “Motherhood and Deception as Freedom in The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts,” I demonstrate how, for a white-skinned slave woman, a search for motherhood equals a quest for freedom.  Hannah Crafts’ novel, relates the freedom story of Hannah, a white-skinned slave who never knew her mother.  Trying to recreate filial relationships, Hannah seeks out surrogate mothers and becomes a mother figure to several characters in the novel, all while she avoids the concubinage and childbearing that seem her inevitable lot as an attractive mulatta slave.  Hannah’s search for her mother (and autonomy over her own motherhood) drives her quest for freedom.  On this freedom journey Hannah performs racial passing, minstrelsy, and maleness.  This chapter considers how acts of racial passing and blackface minstrelsy create access to the benefits of white American citizenship and how the search for motherhood furthers the pursuit of liberty. 

Although white men dominate blackface minstrel performances, female minstrel traditions exist.  Crafts uses and inverts gendered minstrel traditions and race categories as Hannah poses as an orphaned white boy on her quest for liberty.  This confusion of custom, race, and gender highlights blackface minstrelsy and racial passing as means for Hannah to appropriate the civil rights afforded to full U.S. citizens.  Hannah must enact racial and gender deceits and become least like what she is to become what she most wants to be – free and in control of her body.  I argue that through passing and minstrelsy, Hannah births herself as an American and that the combined quests for mother/motherhood and freedom require racial subterfuge. 

Chapter 5, “Mulatta Mama Performing Passing and Mimicking Minstrelsy in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson,” explores the relationship between motherhood and the gumption to flout societal norms to secure freedom.  Mark Twain’s novel relates the freedom stories of three racially ambiguous people: the slave Roxy, her son Chambers, and the master’s son Tom.  The three find themselves searching for truth and freedom in complex webs of deceit.  This chapter focuses on how, when combined, acts of racial passing and blackface minstrelsy align with motherhood to create the ability and opportunity to pursue the trappings of citizenship.

  Twain, knowledgeable of male-dominated blackface customs, chooses to have the slave woman Roxy perform as a white male in blackface.  Instead of the cross-dressed wench conceit being played by a white male performer, Twain inscribes white maleness (the pinnacle of US freedom) in blackface on a female enslaved body that, while legally black, appears white and could easily pass into white society.  This confusion of custom, race, and gender highlights blackface minstrelsy and racial passing as means for Roxy to appropriate the civil rights afforded to full US citizens. 

Roxy performs racial passing and blackface minstrelsy in her quest for freedom and a good American life for herself and her son, and through her character Twain challenges prevailing notions of blackface minstrelsy, race, and gender.  But Roxy does not seek freedom or manipulate race before she becomes a mother.  Being a mother changes women’s public as well as private lives.  In this chapter on Twain, I demonstrate how exploding notions of race gains access, rather than denial, to the privileges of antebellum American citizenship, and I argue that Roxy’s desire and ability to employ race in order to garner freedom and access the benefits of American citizenship for herself and her son stem from being a mother.

Through this dissertation I join several critics in discussing minstrelsy and passing and their effects on the US cultural landscape.  To this discussion I add enlarged definitions of minstrelsy and passing that allow for the two performances to become the obverse and reverse of the same coin.  In other words, blackface, minstrelsy, and blackface minstrelsy become largely synonymous terms that describe the exaggerated artifice of white performers, most often white males, who attempt to appropriate, while simultaneously lampooning, characteristics they apparently believe intrinsic to an essentialized blackness.  Physically blacking up is not necessary to the performance because this type of imposture underlies and reflects much of US society.  So minstrelsy, then, seems rooted in US society. 

Passing also appears rooted in American cultures.  White American society, arguably revolving around a white center, practically demands that people who are not categorized as white use any means available in order to achieve a white classification.  Both minstrelsy and passing serve as vehicles to heighten whiteness and attain full American citizenship.  When combined, these performances become minstrel passing, an act that grants greater access to the freedoms of American citizenship than either passing or minstrelsy do alone.  Through this treatment of racial performances, I also assert that fair-skinned black women can be more than just “mulattas” or “mamas,” as suggested by Annemarie Bean (181).  These women can be both mulattas and mamas.  And motherhood can empower these women to use their mulatta status to manipulate their way into mainstream American citizenship instead of settling for permanent residence on the margins of American cultures.

2 comments

  1. You are brilliant. I love that you were able to pour your passion into your dissertation. I haven’t read the other stories besides Uncle Tom’s Cabin but they are now on my list. Thanks for inspiring me!

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