Dissertation – Chapter 4 – Motherhood and Deception in The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts (3 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

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. 

Mrs. Henry treats Hannah as neither servant nor guest, although she knows Hannah’s fugitive slave status (Crafts 128).   When Hannah’s legal owner finds her location, Hannah pleads with Mrs. Henry to save her from the auction block.  Hannah cries, “‘You are so good, accomplished, and Christian-like, could I only have the happiness to be your slave, your servant, or –’” (Crafts 129).  I imagine that the omitted phrase easily could be “your daughter,” but Crafts decides to leave Hannah’s happiness unfulfilled at this point in the novel.  Nevertheless Hannah’s plea continues.  She longs to know “‘of a certainty’” that she has a “‘home’” and that “‘some one cares’” for her (Crafts 130).   In other words, Hannah wants Mrs. Henry to provide motherly solace.  Despite her goodness and Christianity, Mrs. Henry refuses to take in Hannah.  Instead she arranges to transfer Hannah’s ownership to Mrs. Wheeler.  Mrs. Wheeler, yet another white slaveholding woman, seems part of the litany of Hannah’s surrogate mothers.  While Hannah learns much during her time with Mrs. Wheeler, none of her lessons are maternal.

White Womanhood

Mrs. Wheeler, the worst in a long line of Hannah’s mistresses, models a paradigm of white womanhood.  She is childless and childish.  She is fractious and demanding.  She prides herself in her husband’s station.  The power she exerts is through her feminine wiles.  Mrs. Wheeler only actively participates in citizenship when she appeals to some politicians to grant her husband a political position.  And this she does while in an unintentional blackface guise.

With her husband’s political prospects dwindling, Mrs. Wheeler decides to visit some politicians and seek a post for her husband.  She dresses grandly for the occasion, with the culmination of her beauty stemming from a “very fine, soft, and white” powder (Crafts 170).  Mrs. Wheeler urges Hannah, “‘Don’t be sparing of it Hannah, dear, as I wish to look particularly well’” (Crafts 170).  Both Hannah and Mr. Wheeler compliment Mrs. Wheeler’s beauty, but when she arrives back from her foray, they do not recognize her because her face is black.  Hannah gives Mrs. Wheeler a mirror to gaze upon herself as Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler puzzle about how the blackening occurred.  Hannah suggests that it may have been similar to an article that she read in the paper.  (I cannot help but acknowledge that the Wheelers take Hannah’s literacy for granted.)  The article explains that the powder, when mixed with the fumes from smelling salts, turns the face black. 

Mrs. Wheeler berates Hannah for not sharing that information before she submits to having Hannah clean her face.  Between the berating and the submitting, Mr. Wheeler suggests that Hannah is not to blame.  Mrs. Wheeler retorts, “‘Slaves generally are far preferable to wives in husbands’ eyes’” (Crafts 172).  At this point Mrs. Wheeler, the white wife, literally has a black face.  Her fancy attire makes her situation all the more comic becomes of the incongruity of a black face wearing social finery.  She rails against the white slave as a rival for her husband’s love, which makes the white slave her domestic equal.  Crafts demonstrates how white men may view their wives as embodying the dark nature associated with blackness. This embodiment impels, in a sense, white men into the arms of their white property.  Mr. Wheeler blushes at the implication, which is “most uncalled for, and ungenerous,” but not necessarily untrue (Crafts 172).  Mrs. Wheeler’s retort comes only pages before a detailed view into the life of Mr. Cosgrove, the new owner of Lindendale, Hannah’s old plantation, Mr. Cosgrove’s wife, and his harem of white slaves.

Evelyn, Mr. Cosgrove’s enslaved petted paramour, lives in many senses as Mr. Cosgrove’s wife, while his wife lives as a spurned household object, much like slave.  Evelyn and her twin sons reside secreted in the Cosgrove household, well away from Mrs. Cosgrove.  Mrs. Cosgrove discovers Evelyn and her children who are “quite as beautiful and fresh and healthy as if the most favored lady in the land had been their mother” (Crafts 187).   Mrs. Cosgrove confronts Evelyn and accuses her of entrapping her husband, but Evelyn responds, “‘I have received favors from my master, but I couldn’t help it, indeed I couldn’t’” (Crafts 187).  Evelyn cannot control her white skin or her master’s reaction to it.  She seems doubly enslaved – white wife and legal chattel.  Evelyn becomes the model of enslaved white womanhood.  Evelyn, a legal slave, looks like a free white woman.  Mrs. Wheeler, accused of being a slave paramour, looks the part with her blackened face.

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