Dissertation – Chapter 4 – Motherhood and Deception in The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts (2 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

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. 

Annemarie Bean argues that traditional minstrel performances designate black women as either mulattas (and thus available for sexual advances) or mamas (as asexual mammies) (181).  Mulatta women are seen only as objects of sexual desire, and certainly not as mothers.  But if these women do not become mothers, there will be no new generation of mulatta women for white men to sell into concubinage and continue the cycle.  Mulattas must be mamas, but they must dwell outside of the maternal illusion for their masters to continue to use them as sexual slaves.  They are never afforded the maternal domestic ideal.  They are close enough to being white women to justify white men’s arousal; yet, they are far enough away from the ideal to justify white men’s brutality against them. The off-stage ousting of Hannah’s mother also begins to explain Hannah’s dual quest for her mother and the control over her body that her mother had been denied.  Feeling alone and unloved, Hannah turns to mother nature for succor.  Hannah notes, “Those to whom man learns little nature teaches little, nature like a wise and prudent mother teaches much” (Crafts 18).  Hannah relies on nature who simultaneously teaches and mothers.  And because she never experiences the unconditional love of a mother, Hannah seeks to “win” love by being optimistic, “industrious, cheerful, and true-hearted” (Crafts 11).  She earns this love through her search for mother figures and by becoming a surrogate mother herself to several characters in the novel.

Hannah relies on nature, termed a “prudent mother” by Crafts (18), as her mother not because she devalues her matrilineal lineage, but rather because Crafts wants to divorce Hannah from the cyclical concubinage of that lineage.  Had she remained in Hannah’s life, her mother would have stood for the slavery that engulfs all aspects of womanhood.  Conversely, Mother Nature as a surrogate bequeaths a legacy of freedom in fecundity and the power to create a world instead of being dominated by one. 

Hannah looks to Mother Nature as the novel begins and later, when her reproductive freedom becomes most threatened.  During the interim Hannah turns to mortal women, beginning with Aunt Hetty, as her first potential mother.  Aunt Hetty is a Northern white woman who takes a “motherly interest” in Hannah and teaches Hannah to read (Crafts 9).  Aunt Hetty’s maternal influences have the most lasting effects on Hannah.  Hannah also turns to white, or presumably white, female slave owners as mother figures. 

When Hannah’s owner takes a wife, Hannah immediately feels a kinship with her.  Readers quickly discover that, like Hannah, her new mistress is a white-skinned slave.  Unlike Hannah, her mistress only becomes aware of her race and caste later in life.   Mrs. Vincent, her first master’s wife, briefly serves as a mother, but the relationship quickly reverses.  Haunted and hunted by the evil Mr. Trappe, Hannah’s mistress decides to flee, and Hannah accompanies her.  Hannah joins her not because she desires her own freedom, but rather because she does not want to send her mistress out, unattended, into a harsh world.  As the two escape, Hannah’s mistress drifts into insanity, and Hannah finds herself mothering her mistress.  During their escape Hannah and Mrs. Vincent encounter Mr. Trappe’s sister. 

Crafts never names this sister, but readers discover that she calls her husband “Father” (61).  Readers can assume that her moniker, then, is “Mother.”  This mother shelters the fugitives for only a short time, but her kindnesses endear her to Hannah.  As the pair travels, they hide in a cabin for a time and eventually are discovered and arrested.  While imprisoned, Hannah meets Mrs. Wright.  Mrs. Wright becomes incarcerated because she aids the escape of a slave girl disguised as a boy.  Hannah gleans maternal advice from Mrs. Wright before Mr. Trappe removes Hannah and Mrs. Vincent.  Eventually Mr. Trappe retrieves Hannah and her mistress from prison and sequesters them away from society in order to prepare them for their imminent sale. 

Hannah’s mistress dies while in seclusion, and Hannah gets sold to Saddler who trades solely in “good-looking wenches,” which he defines as “young and beautiful women without children” to fill orders in the New Orleans market (Crafts 107).  In other words, Saddler sells white-skinned bondwomen into sexual slavery, for which the New Orleans Market was famous.  Throughout the novel, Hannah condemns and avoids marriage and all amorous relations (Crafts 212-13), and she evades this fate again.  En route to New Orleans, Saddler’s carriage overturns; Saddler dies; Hannah passes out and awakens to discover a woman’s “benevolent countenance” that warms her heart as if she were the mother she had never seen (Crafts 118).  This new mother figure is Mrs. Henry.  After several narrative twists, Hannah becomes liberated from Mr. Trappe, happens upon Mrs. Henry, and clings to her as yet another surrogate mother.

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