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

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.

Because she looks like a slave, Mrs. Wheeler does not meet success on her political visit.  Rather, she finds herself the butt of a joke, just as if she were performing in a traditional blackface minstrel show.  Mrs. Wheeler’s show, however, differs in significant ways from the traditions.  On the minstrel stage, white women did not black up, and they frequently performed as white men.  Mrs. Wheeler breaks these cardinal rules when she performs in blackface as a woman.  Because she breaks the rules, she does not find the transformative power capable in blackface performances.  She instead leaves the stage dejected.  Mrs. Wheeler adheres to the tenets of white womanhood which contradict the mores of minstrelsy.  Attending to American rules of womanhood leaves women trapped, but accommodating the rules of minstrelsy yields a type of freedom to American women bold enough to chance the deception.  Nevertheless, Mrs. Wheeler’s blackface performance takes on the feel of the traditional cross-dressed wench theme and parades comedy to the audience.

Mrs. Wheeler, in her finery and blackface, approaches Mr. Cattell asking for a position for her husband.  Mr. Cattell scoffs at the idea that Mr. Wheeler is a black woman’s husband.  When he states that she may be his wife “‘by courtesy,’” Mrs. Wheeler promptly replies, “‘No, by law’” (Crafts 173).  Mr. Cattell and his guests find the humor in this interchange and laugh at the little black upstart.  The party sums up Mrs. Wheeler’s request as “‘very unconstitutionally indeed’” (Crafts 174).  Not only is Mrs. Wheeler’s blackface performance “unconstitutionally,” its lack of intentionality renders Mrs. Wheeler without the freedoms that blackface minstrel performances can yield.  It does not bring her closer to finding a spot in the citizenry; it only removes her further from it.  Hannah learns from Mrs. Wheeler the potential power of shaping identity, and she also learns that not all white women make good mothers.   


Patricia Hill Collins defines othermothers as “women who assist bloodmothers by sharing mothering responsibilities” (178).  Collins further defines othermothering as central to the “institution of Black motherhood” (178) and asserts that young black women become groomed for othermothering at an early age, citing a ten year old girl bearing othermothering responsibilities (180).  By these examples, then, Hannah becomes an othermother for the children on her plantation.

Hannah steps in as the plantation mammy.  The stereotypical mammy image depicts an asexual, overweight, dark, unattractive, matronly woman: a “surrogate mother in blackface” (Collins 74).  Conversely, Hannah is a young, slim, pretty, white-skinned girl ripe for the amorous attentions of white men.  In short, a mammy is an unsuitable sex partner for white men and Hannah is an ideal sexual object for white men.  While the mammy image represents the “split between sexuality and motherhood,” Hannah embodies the connection between sexuality and motherhood (Collins 84).  Hannah is both the asexual mammy and the hypersexual mulatta existing in one body.  Collins avers that stereotypes of black women stem from white men needing to control and define black feminine fertility (72, 81,89), but by toppling the stereotype, Crafts gives Hannah control over the minstrel mammy image and over her fertility.  With this control returned to her, Hannah finds power in her mothering.

Collins argues that mothering, whether bloodmothering or othermothering, empowers black women (198).  Katherine Ellison echoes Collins and discusses how othermothering, which she terms “alloparenting” (143) has emboldening effects on women similar to those experienced by biological mothers (139, 144).  The mammy experience empowers Hannah.  She learns to cope with all the “labor and trouble” her charges cause her (Crafts 11).  Likening the children to the “weak, the sick, and the suffering,” Hannah gains power in her ability to aid these unfortunate children and discovers more and different ways to discharge her help (Crafts 11).  She has the power to become a “repository of secrets,” and her service to the children yields the only “sunshiny period of their lives” (Crafts 11).  Exerting this type of influence over the children certainly fortifies Hannah’s character.  She stores up this inimitable force to use later during her escape.  Hannah’s othermothering, and thus her introduction to power and autonomy, begins with the plantation children and extends out to other women in Hannah’s life.

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