Dissertation – Chapter 3 – Securing Liberty in William Wells Brown’s Clotel (3 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

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.    

Clotel’s Migration from Black Female Slave to Free White Man

Clotel has white skin and a pleasing womanly figure.  Brown describes her as the “most beautiful girl, coloured or white” in the area (120).  Clotel captures the love of Horatio Green at a Negro ball.  Green promises to purchase Clotel, free her, and “make her mistress of her own dwelling” (Brown 121, 120).  Like Morton and Althesa, the couple celebrates an “outward marriage,” which goes “unrecognized by law,” and quickly remove to a secluded cottage (Brown 136).  Green never frees Clotel, but they live happily, for a time, and give birth to a daughter, Mary.  Unlike Althesa, Clotel refuses to pass into society as a white woman.  Because she never actualizes her role as white wife, Green eschews Clotel and marries a legally white woman.  Green’s new wife demands that Horatio sell Clotel, but she takes Mary into their household as a slave.  Clotel braves the harsh realities of her slave status, but she finds her separation from her daughter unbearable.  Reuniting with her lost Mary becomes Clotel’s ultimate obsession.  This desperate mother makes the feminist choice to define herself and turns to two culturally available performances – passing and minstrelsy – to find her daughter.  She undertakes these racial deceptions as she vies for freedom from her new owners.

Clotel’s new mistress sees Clotel as a “rival” for her husband’s affections and forces her to cut her hair (Brown 194).  Even with shorn hair, Clotel remains “beautiful” and “handsome” (Brown 194).  Yet Brown, who repeatedly classifies Clotel as beautiful and womanly, interjects that she looks “a good deal like a man” with her short hair, and that she “would make a better looking man than a woman” (213).  Clotel dons a male disguise to escape, and William, the slave with whom she escapes, tells her how much like a man she looks.  He also says that she is “‘much fairer than many of the white women of the South, and can easily pass for a free white lady’” (Brown 214).  William tells Clotel she looks like a man but should pass as a white woman.  Brown creates confusion regarding Clotel’s feminine black form. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Eliza follows a similarly conflicted model.  Despite the successful legacy of this type of escape in Stowe’s literature, Brown’s William balks, fearing detection.  Brown does not state what part of the ruse seems transparent to William, but it would appear that, based on Clotel’s descriptions throughout the novel, Clotel could never look like a man.  Brown does not intend for Clotel to resemble a man perfectly.  Rather, Brown offers Clotel as a female minstrel performer who enacts maleness.

Eve Allegra Raimon highlights cross-dressing as vital to attaining freedom in Brown’s text, but she does not align the cross-gendered bids for freedom with minstrelsy.  Paul Gilmore discusses blackface minstrelsy in Clotel, arguing that Brown weds whiteness with masculinity and blackness with femininity, and that he uses minstrelsy to redefine those categories.  Also exploring minstrelsy in Clotel, John Ernest argues that Brown employs minstrelsy “to redirect the cultural play of race ideology” (1114).   While Gilmore and Ernest both find power in Brown’s depictions of minstrelsy, they only apply it to the male characters in the novel.  Male minstrel characters appear throughout Brown’s text, but women play minstrel roles in Clotel as well.

Clotel’s minstrel performances create and transform her subjectivity, thus highlighting them as a feminist (re)course for citizenship.  Instead of passing as a white woman, Clotel dresses as a man, in order to escape North.  Her disguise consists of a “neat suit of black,” a white silk handkerchief “tied round her chin, as if she was an invalid,” and a pair of green glasses (Brown 214-15).  On the surface, this guise seems apt enough to conceal Clotel’s womanhood.  But a neat fitting suit would enhance, not conceal, Clotel’s womanly figure.  Further description reveals that Clotel, posing as Mr. Johnson, wears a “capacious overcoat,” and that her handkerchief and “enormous spectacles” hide her face “entirely” (Brown 217).  Additionally, Mr. Johnson walks “gingerly” (Brown 218).   Since Clotel does not learn to hide her womanly gait until later in the novel, Mr. Johnson conceivably switches and sways like a woman.  He is a “handsome” man with a “Spanish” complexion, “slight” build, “black hair and eyes,” and a “womanly voice,” who attracts attention with his “mysterious and unusual” appearance and mannerisms (Brown 217).  Clotel, therefore, does not look like an unassuming man on a trip.  Her man’s suit reveals a woman’s form partially covered by a too large coat.  The figure of Clotel surely attracts attention rather than dispels it.  Imagine a nearly disembodied, faceless head entombed in a white handkerchief and further covered by colossal green glasses.  This head floats over a huge coat that tantalizingly reveals a sauntering woman’s body.  Furthermore, this head speaks with a womanly voice.  This is no disguise; this is the costume of a female minstrel player.  Clotel remains in her male guise until she reaches Cincinnati, where she abandons her male disguise and resumes a feminine physique.

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