Dissertation – Chapter 3 – Securing Liberty in William Wells Brown’s Clotel (5 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/

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Roshaunda D. Cade

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.

Clotel realizes her full potential only when disguised as a white man performing blackface minstrelsy.  In her second minstrel performance, she poses as white and as male and thus necessarily as free.  In this freedom Clotel finds a public voice and social acceptance, but she does not find her daughter.  The boons of citizenship come only after Clotel uses minstrelsy to transgress boundaries between North and South, male and female, white and black, slave and free.  Unfortunately Clotel’s excursion into citizenship leaves her daughterless and ultimately dead.


For Brown’s slave mothers, full participation in American liberty requires performing feminist acts of citizenship via passing and minstrelsy.  Black women use minstrelsy, so painfully designed for their ridicule and censorship, to explore the same freedom found by white men.  Through acts of racial passing and minstrelsy, Clotel experiences whiteness, maleness, and their contingent benefits.  If being a citizen is being a political agent who affects change, and if race and gender deceptions, as presented through the unique character of minstrelsy, characterize American-ness, then black slave mothers who racially pass and perform minstrelsy use these acts to enter the arena of citizenship and further use them to attain liberties guaranteed by and associated with that citizenship.  William Wells Brown undertakes these transgressions in the wake of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s literary phenomenon, connecting his work to hers through similarities of character and theme.  He finds in Harriet Beecher Stowe not just characters to appropriate, but also an avenue to discuss black femininity.  Brown mitigates the tragedy of the classic mulatta by allowing Clotel to enact the feminist performances of passing and minstrelsy in a bid for citizenship.

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