Dissertation – Chapter 4 – Motherhood and Deception in The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts (1 of 9)

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



Unearthed in 2001 and published in 2002 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Hannah Crafts’ novel, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, and Crafts herself, exist amid scrutiny.  According to Gates’ research, Crafts pens her novel some time after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and before the start of the Civil War.  She titles her work after the popular slave narratives of the era, and she shares her first name with her protagonist, Hannah.  While the autobiographical tenor of Crafts’ work could make it seem something other than a novel, critics agree that this book is a work of fiction.  Scholars remain unsure as to the actual identity of Hannah Crafts, but most agree that she is a well-read woman who, at some point in life, was a slave.  Several historical figures stand as possible people who could have written The Bondwoman’s Narrative, but no one, Gates included, reports discovering the real identity of Hannah Crafts.

Crafts’ novel situates itself among several genres, including slave narrative and sentimental fiction.  Jean Fagan Yellin links Crafts’ work to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a model of sentimental fiction as well as an abolitionist call.  I agree with the correlation finding layers of similarity between the two novels and novelists.  In their fiction both women carve models of black womanhood for their characters through passing and minstrelsy.  I argue that Crafts follows Harriet Beecher Stowe’s feminist example and creates access to citizenship through performances of passing and minstrelsy combined with a quest for mother/motherhood and freedom.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative relates the freedom story of Hannah, a white-skinned slave who never knew her mother.  Trying to recreate filial relationships, Hannah seeks out surrogate mothers and becomes a mother figure to several characters in the novel, all while she avoids the concubinage and childbearing that seem her inevitable lot as a white-skinned slave woman.  Hannah’s search for her mother (and autonomy over her own motherhood) drives her quest for freedom.  On this freedom journey Hannah performs racial passing, minstrelsy, and maleness. 

According to many scholars, white men dominate blackface minstrel performances, yet female minstrel traditions exist.  Crafts uses and inverts gendered minstrel traditions and race categories as Hannah poses as an orphaned white boy on her quest for liberty.  This confusion of custom, race, and gender highlights blackface minstrelsy and racial passing as means for Hannah to appropriate the civil rights afforded to full U.S. citizens.  Hannah must enact racial and gender deceits and become least like what she is to become what she most wants to be – free and in control of her body.

Searching for Mother

As the novel opens readers discover that the narrator, Hannah, is an orphan.  Hannah was reared by nobody “in particular” and never knew her father or mother (Crafts 5-6).  Crafts reveals that Hannah longs for the mother that she never met.  Hannah’s mother, although off-stage, so to speak, probably looks just as white as Hannah.  The novel never directly states that Hannah’s birth results from a liaison between Hannah’s mother and her owner, but we do know that Hannah’s mother gets sold while Hannah is quite young.  Later in the novel Crafts portrays a wife so jealous of her husband’s white-skinned slave paramour that she ousts her and her children from the house.  I presume that similar circumstances existed between Hannah’s parents and led to the removal of Hannah’s mother.  This ejection opens a path to the mulatta-mama dichotomy as articulated by Annemarie Bean.

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