Dissertation – Chapter 3 – Securing Liberty in William Wells Brown’s Clotel (2 of 5)

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

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.   

Althesa’s Attempts at American Liberty

Although a slave, Althesa courts a white beau.  Henry Morton finds Althesa, a “beautiful young white girl,” and he quickly becomes infatuated (Brown 165).  The two fall in love, Morton purchases Althesa, and the lovers wed.  Morton “immediately” removes the couple to “another part of the city” and hires a “private teacher” to instruct Althesa in “some of those accomplishments which are necessary for one’s taking a position in society” (Brown 166).  Away from old associates, and with newly refined skills, Althesa steps into the role of legitimately married white society woman, although hers was a marriage “which the law did not recognize” (Brown 246).

Because Morton does not free Althesa, she passes as white, as legally married, and as free.  She passes as white in order to marry and to fit into Morton’s social circles.  She passes as married because legal unions between black and whites did not exist. And Althesa passes as free because Morton never manumits her.  Althesa makes the feminist choice to fashion herself and pass as white in order to enact the semblance of citizenship. 

For Eloise A. Buker, being a citizen means choosing how to perform identity.  So when Althesa decides to create, present, and represent herself as a married white woman, she enters into citizenship.  With passing as her first act of citizenship, Althesa bestows herself with the rights of a citizen.  Through the pretext of racial passing, Althesa transforms her old self and creates a new self as subject.  Migrating between black and white propels Althesa closer to citizenship, which allows for even more social movement because it disguises the slave as a citizen. 

Because Althesa makes overtures at plaҫage and lives life passing as a white woman, she gains freedoms that would have been denied her had she not done so.  And while her deceptions do not render her a full-fledged free American citizen, acting out the roles impels her toward citizenship.  Althesa becomes a citizen when she enacts racial and social transgressions.  She may not move completely to the privilege of white males, but she moves in that direction.  Her passing is an act of citizenship, but not performing minstrelsy keeps her from the full liberties of white supremacy.  Because Althesa never poses as a minstrel man, she never tastes as much freedom as does Clotel.

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