© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
SECURING LIBERTY AND CITIZENSHIP THROUGH PASSING AND MINSTRELSY IN WILLIAM WELLS BROWN’S CLOTEL
Published in 1853 on the heels of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William Wells Brown presents mixed race slave mothers in his novel Clotel; Or The President’s Daughter. Several critics link Brown and Stowe’s novels. Christine Palumbo-DeSimone finds that both authors treat the idea of the tragic mulatta “compassionately,” but that neither author pushes past this stereotype (126). I also find vital connections between the two texts and assert that their compassion for their tragic mulattas does indeed extend past stereotypical notions. In Clotel, Brown relates a fictionalized account of Thomas Jefferson’s alleged slave family. Brown casts Currer as Jefferson’s paramour and Clotel and Althesa as daughters of that union. Both Brown and Stowe undertake the plights of mixed race slave mothers, and their paths to citizenship. Instead of traditional escape narratives, Brown advocates racial passing and minstrelsy as vehicles to citizenship and freedom. Brown’s legally black female characters become more like white men, the US paragon of liberty and citizenship.
Growing up with Currer
Currer, a “bright mulatto” woman of “presupposing appearance,” keeps house for Thomas Jefferson and has two daughters by him, Althesa and Clotel (Brown 119). She also operates a laundry business by which she earns enough money to support herself and her daughters (Brown 119). Currer uses her status and relative freedom as a mulatta slave woman to advance the status of her daughters.
Because Currer enjoys relative freedom, she raises her daughters to enjoy similar liberties. Currer resolves to rear her daughters as “ladies” thus situating them as marriageable white women (Brown 120). For white-skinned but legally black women, the best matches often occurred with white men, not black. Black men offered a meager future in antebellum US, while white men offered financial security and social mobility (if not freedom). Their fictive freedom, their marital prospects, and their complexions open Althesa and Clotel to plaҫage. Plaҫage was a relationship that allowed free “mixed-race women to form liaisons with wealthy white men through a system of concubinage” (Guillory 68). These relationships frequently commenced at Negro balls (Blasingame 17). Currer raises Althesa and Clotel, specifically “to attract attention, and especially at balls and parties,” termed Negro balls, that consist of “quadroon and mulatto girls, and white men” (Brown 120). Brown presents Althesa and Clotel as raised to attract and capture the financial and passionate attentions of white men at Negro balls, with this capture becoming the ultimate “conquest” (Brown 120).
Although all three women are slaves, Brown suspends their servitude status to portray Currer, Althesa, and Clotel as at liberty to pursue their interests, financial or other. Brown demonstrates that he recognizes the plaҫage system and demonstrates its prevalence, or at least its seductiveness, for mixed race women. Currer raises Althesa and Clotel to use plaҫage to gain the trappings, if not the legal status, of free white womanhood. And in enacting white womanhood via plaҫage, Althesa and Clotel navigate between the dualities of free and slave and white and black, which brings them closer to American citizenship and its privileges.