© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Instead of endowing Harry with her own inheritance of maternal bereavement and abandonment, Stowe offers up a legacy of maternal support that she herself longed for but never received. I find it telling that Stowe offers this maternal support for a son. As a woman of the mid-Nineteenth Century, Stowe’s societal objective was to produce and raise sons to become the next generation of American citizens. And Eliza, as a white looking American woman, has indeed produced and raised Harry, who looks for all purposes a white boy, who one day will assume his majority and full citizenship. By creating a situation that lets a mother and child stay together (as Stowe never experienced), Stowe fashions a black woman as an ideal American woman.
As Eliza and Harry travel toward freedom and citizenship, Stowe appeals to all American mothers. Stowe asks her readers: “If it were your Harry, mother, . . . that were going to be torn from you. . ., if you had seen the ad and heard that the papers were signed and delivered, and you had only from twelve o’clock till morning to make good your escape, – how fast could you walk?” (105). Stowe accomplishes two purposes in this appeal. She acknowledges motherhood as an empowering motivating force, and she universalizes motherhood as human experience – not just a free one sanctified and set aside for citizens. Through this narrative appeal, Stowe brings Eliza into the American landscape as a woman and mother who would and should do everything in her power to protect her offspring (and by doing so the future of the country) as the duty of American womanhood and domesticity. Stowe casts Eliza as a model American woman. But an ideal American woman is not an ideal American. Eliza must undergo other transformations before attaining this pinnacle.
Eliza relies on Harry’s and her own white skin as they walk for freedom. That is to say, they pass as white along their freedom journey. The further they get from the Shelby home, the more Eliza employs tending to protect herself and her son In other words, Eliza and Harry fade into the scenery and begin looking like “constitutional” Americans. This guise comes to them easily and serves them until they reach the Ohio River. At the river their legal identities are recognized by slave catchers, who try to apprehend them under the statute of the Fugitive Slave Law. Eliza undertakes her fabled river crossing on ice floes and finds shelter with a Quaker family. There Eliza and Harry reunite with George.
Eliza, George, and Harry’s long journey toward freedom culminates in an odd minstrel performance by the trio. Before delving into the three-person act performed by the Harris family, I first want to explore George Harris’ escape and solo minstrel performance. George Harris flees to freedom haunted by the following advertisement.
Ran away from the subscriber, my mulatto boy, George. Said George six feet in height, a very light mulatto, brown curly hair; is very intelligent, speaks handsomely, can read and write; will probably try to pass for a white man; is deeply scarred on his back and shoulders; has been branded in his right hand with the letter H. (Stowe 178)
In his escape George capitalizes on all of his white-ascribed characteristics, and does indeed pass as a white man, a white gentleman, no less.
George travels in a buggy attended by a black servant. A “well-dressed, gentlemanly man” with a “genteel appearance,” George commands the attention of the guests of the inn at which he stays (Stowe 180). He is
very tall, with a dark, Spanish complexion, fine, expressive black eyes, and close-curling hair, also of a glossy blackness. His well-formed aquiline nose, straight thin lips, and the admirable countour of his finely-formed limbs, impresse[s] the whole company instantly with the idea of something uncommon. (Stowe 180)
George plays the part of a white gentleman quite well. He demands attention and respect and conducts himself with the ease and indifference of one from a high social position. Stowe further informs readers that acting the part of a white man comes naturally to George. From his father, the white man who forced himself on George’s mother, George inherited a “set of fine European features, and a high, indomitable spirit” (Stowe 182). Stowe further reveals that the “gracefulness of movement and gentlemanly manners had always been perfectly natural to him [so] he found no difficulty in playing the bold part he had adopted – that of a gentleman traveling with his domestic” (Stowe 182-83). All of this points toward George as a successful racial passer, or perhaps as a white man with the unfortunate legal legacy of a slave, but when George encounters an old acquaintance, the minstrel nature of his disguise comes to light.
Upon seeing his former employer (not owner) Mr. Wilson at the inn, George invites him to his private quarters and reveals his disguise. Mr. Wilson stands amazed by George’s revelation. George remarks, “‘A little walnut bark has made my yellow skin a genteel brown, and I’ve dyed my hair black; so you see I don’t answer to the advertisement at all’” (Stowe 182). George’s transformation into a white man via the use of a blackening agent speaks to the power of blackface minstrelsy to endow white men with unsurpassed access to American privilege. Without the walnut bark, George looks like and carries himself like a white man, like a person entitled to protection under American laws. Yet without the walnut bark, George stands as chattel without any rights under the American legal system. When he applies the blackening agent however, George becomes free to move in and enjoy American liberty and privilege. Laura Browder suggests that the ability to put race on and off as easily as clothing affords white men a “hyper-whiteness,” because only someone who lives with and enjoys the full privileges of American citizenship can play with race in such a way and not suffer from the ramifications (49). George Harris exemplifies this idea. Because he looks like a white man, he can enact a minstrel ruse. Putting on the paint makes George appear, both literally and figuratively, more white. The “genteel brown” of the walnut bark turns George into a gentleman with a “genteel appearance.” In other words, the white-skinned black slave must don blackface in order to access the privileges of a white man. Enacting the blackface ruse catapults George into American citizenship, which in turn entirely disarms Mr. Wilson.
Mr. Wilson, unable to decide whether to treat George as the man and citizen he appears to be or the property that he legally is, rambles on about “maintaining law and order” (Stowe 183). The law he refers to is the Fugitive Slave law. Wilson admonishes George for railing against the laws of his country, to which George responds incredulously, “‘My country!’” (Stowe 183). George asserts that he has no country and that the U.S. has no laws for slaves: “‘What laws are there for us? We don’t make them, – we don’t consent to them, – we have nothing to do with them; all they do for us is to crush us, and keep us down’” (Stowe 185). As a person born in the U.S., George should be a U.S. citizen, but since he cannot claim that citizenship, upholding the Fugitive Slave Law does not apply to him. The Fugitive Slave Law specifically calls on citizens to help hinder runaway slaves, and as Stowe points out so adroitly through George, slaves are not citizens and have no part in perpetuating the Fugitive Slave Law. Mr. Wilson wants George the slave to maintain law and order by ceasing his escape attempt, but Wilson really speaks to George the citizen when he expects him to follow the laws of the land. When he looks at George, Wilson sees both slave and citizen and has difficulty reconciling the two. The interplay between George and Wilson highlights racial indeterminacy as an inevitable part of the American landscape and solidifies the performance of minstrelsy as part of that landscape. It is this indeterminacy that propels George’s solo escape attempt as well as the escape plans he makes with his family.
When George, Eliza, and Harry escape, they look like the cast of a minstrel show. George dresses as a white man. I assume that he uses the same disguise and walnut bark as he does in the earlier escape episode. Stowe is not explicit in the matter, but it stands to reason that what enjoyed earlier success would be repeated. Eliza dresses as a white man and Harry dresses as a white girl. George stands as a black man mimicking a white man using blackface to mimic a black man. Harry plays the role of a cross-dressed wench. And Eliza, without blackening agent, follows the customs of women on the minstrel stage. According to Annemarie Bean, women, who did not black up, played white men on the minstrel stage. In the African American minstrel tradition, the women necessarily needed to have white skin in order to play white men. Furthermore, women wore “closely tailored men’s clothes,” so regardless of the outfit, the feminine physique remained fully visible (Bean 175, 176).