Dissertation – Chapter 3 – Securing Liberty in William Wells Brown’s Clotel (4 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
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
2009

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.

As a reader, I question why Clotel initially travels to Cincinnati.  She lives in the South and wants to look in the South for her daughter.  I wonder what purpose her elaborate escape serves.  It seems that Clotel needs to escape to a place where she is unknown, so that she can live and freely work and save her earnings to launch her search for her daughter.  In other words, Clotel needs to go somewhere that she can pass as white.  If she lives as a black woman in the South, Clotel cannot work and retain her own wages; she cannot save money.  In short, as a black woman, Clotel cannot prepare for her eventual trip to Richmond.  She travels stylishly in a carriage, which requires money, which Clotel could not have earned living as a black woman.  Brown removes Clotel to Cincinnati so she can pass as a white woman in order to prepare for her return South and her reclamation of her daughter.

When Clotel leaves Ohio, she resumes her male disguise.  Her costume alters slightly, but in some significant ways.  “This time” Clotel has “more the appearance” of a “Spanish gentleman” (Brown 234).  In some way, Clotel further highlights her Spanish appearance.  George Harris in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, also appears as a “Spanish-looking fellow” during his travels (Stowe 182).  To achieve his Spanish complexion, George applies a “little walnut bark” to his face (Stowe 182).    By emphasizing the Spanish European nature of Clotel’s disguise, Brown correlates her to George Harris who boasts a “set of fine European features” (Stowe 182).  If George needs to black up to look more European, perhaps Clotel does also.  If Clotel does don the paint of blackface minstrelsy, as will be assumed in this writing, it brings her much closer to the paragon of citizenship exercised by American men.  Only a white man exercising total liberties of citizenship can choose to put race on and off like a set of clothes.  By blackening her face, Brown aligns Clotel’s second minstrel foray with the white male tradition as well as with female traditions.  Most minstrel traditions only allow the paint to men.  So Clotel passes as a white man so that she can add paint to her face to look even more like a white man.  Here Brown opens Clotel to the possibility of according even more freedom by simply having her blacken her face, quite ironically, to appear more white.

Clotel’s disguise also includes a “splendid pair of dark false whiskers” and a “curling mustache” (Brown 234).  And after much practice, Clotel learns to walk “without creating any suspicion as regarded her sex” (Brown 234).  Interestingly on this “cold evening,” Brown makes no mention of a capacious overcoat covering the “fine suit” of her last disguise (Brown 234).  Clotel more closely resembles a man, as opposed to an apparition in an overcoat, yet her womanly figure shows.  Clotel uses this revealing disguise to hire passage on a carriage heading South. 

At the outset of the carriage ride, Clotel does not join in the discussions, but by the journey’s end she freely gives her political opinions (Brown 235, 243).  During her first minstrel performance, Clotel avoids conversation, but during her second minstrel performance Clotel grows into her role as free white male citizen and takes part in public acts of citizenship.  Her ruse goes over so well that she attracts the amorous attentions of young white girls of marriageable age (Brown 243).  This Mr. Johnson presents an evolved minstrel image differing from the first one enacted by Clotel.  During her second minstrel episode, Clotel accesses more American liberties.  Based on the customs of blackface minstrel performance, which make whiteness and transgression normative, Clotel briefly enjoys freedoms of male white supremacy, culminating in ultimate white male privilege: her pick of white women, and, by extension of that privilege, slave women.  Instead of seeking a free white woman, however, Clotel seeks to free her white-skinned daughter Mary from slavery.

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