Dissertation – Chapter 4 – Motherhood and Deception in The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts (5 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

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.

Hannah mothers her mistress Mrs. Vincent during their escape.  Upon hearing the revelation that she is a black slave and not a free white woman, Mrs. Vincent decides to flee from the evil influences of Mr. Trappe.   Some posit that Hannah escapes with Mrs. Vincent because she sees her as a surrogate mother (Castiglia 244).  I agree that when Hannah believes Mrs. Vincent to be a white woman, she elevates her mistress to surrogate mother status, but once she discovers Mrs. Vincent’s secret, Hannah transforms into the mother and Mrs. Vincent becomes the helpless daughter.  In that moment of revelation, Hannah forgets the “disparity” between them and rocks the sobbing Mrs. Vincent like she would a crying baby (Crafts 45).  Hannah refuses to allow Mrs. Vincent to escape alone, which works out fortuitously for Mrs. Vincent.  During their journey, Mrs. Vincent sinks into insanity and Hannah cares for her, feeds her, clothes her, and guides her toward safety.  Like a faithful daughter, Mrs. Vincent “quietly acquiesce[s]” to Hannah’s leading (Crafts 57).  At Hannah’s suggestion, the two alternately pass as poor white women or skulk as fugitives on their trek to freedom.  Just as any vigilant mother would, Hannah directs where they travel and by what means they journey.  Without Hannah’s mothering influences, Mrs. Vincent could not have survived her escape.

Charlotte, a white-skinned slave Hannah meets on the Henry estate, similarly asks for Hannah’s help as she escapes.  Charlotte seeks a “good stout-hearted woman, who can look danger in the face unblenched {undaunted}, whose counsel could guide us in emergencies, who would be true, and zealous, and faithful” (Crafts 146).  In short, Charlotte seeks a surrogate mother to journey toward freedom with herself and her husband William.  She does not ask Hannah because she worries about Hannah finding freedom; no, she asks Hannah to join them because she wants a mother’s support to guide them safely to freedom.  Hannah, who before the couple’s imminent escape attempt serves as Charlotte’s confidante, declines their offer for her to join them.  Her refusal is twofold.  Unlike Mrs. Vincent, Charlotte will travel with her husband, her protector; therefore, she does not need the maternal support and influences that Hannah can provide.  Secondly, Hannah shuns any intimation of marriage and sexual contact.  She refuses to travel with the couple because she does not approve of marriage between slaves because slavery does not allow them the freedom to behave as husbands and wives (123).  Marriage, Crafts implies, must be between two citizens, not two chattels (212). 

Shortly after Charlotte and William’s escape, Hannah finds herself with her new mistress, Mrs. Wheeler.  Mrs. Wheeler, in a fit of rage, betroths Hannah to Bill, the black field hand whom she could only “hate and despise” (Crafts 212).  I insert that Bill, Hannah’s betrothed, is black not because Crafts specifically delineates his color, but rather because she does not describe his complexion.  Crafts relies heavily on Stowe’s often stereotypical depictions of race.  Stowe’s field hands, for example, uniformly exhibit dark complexions.  Crafts needs only to refer to the stereotype for readers to illustrate it correctly.  Crafts notes complexion when something about the character differs from the stereotypical images conjured up by Stowe.  So precisely because she does not name him as black, Bill is a stereotypically black field hand, whom Hannah refuses to wed.  Hannah terms this union a “crime against nature” and balks at its consummation (Crafts 213).  This is a crime against Nature, Hannah’s ostensible mother, because black, as a complexion and because of what it symbolizes, is a color so dissimilar to Hannah’s own nature.  At this point in the novel, when marriage becomes imminent and unavoidable, and control of her fertility and fecundity will pass into a man’s domain, Hannah invokes the feminine power imbued to her through othermothering and escapes.

Little Orphan Hannah

Distressed by her circumstances, Hannah turns to her bible to find comfort.  She opens it by “chance” to the story of Jacob fleeing from his brother Esau (Crafts 213).  Hannah takes this as a sign to escape, and she prepares for her journey.  She secrets herself in a garret in the Wheeler home, where she discovers a “suit of male apparel exactly corresponding to [her] size and figure” (Crafts 216). Hannah cuts her hair and thus creates her male disguise.  She tells strangers that she is an orphan traveling North looking for her mother’s relatives.  This explanation offers several insights into Hannah’s plight.  It points, again, to Hannah’s search for her lost mother.  It also affords Hannah the opportunity to create herself and in essence become her own mother.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s