Dissertation – Chapter 4 – Motherhood and Deception in The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts (6 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

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. 

Although Hannah could have created any persona for herself, she remains constrained by an orphan mentality.  She could not say that she was looking for her mother, for few would have believed the orphan story, so she inserts “relatives” after “mother.”  Going North to look for her mother and her relatives signals that Hannah believes, or at least hopes, that her mother has found freedom, and that she would welcome Hannah into this freedom.  Becoming her own mother, through the male minstrel disguise, demonstrates how Hannah aligns her own motherhood with freedom.  She too could use her mothering experiences to impel her toward her own motherhood and thus her own liberty.  This orphan explanation, while true, belies the tenuous nature of Hannah’s circumstances.  This true story ultimately endears Hannah to several motherly women who help her along her way.  After some too-close encounters, Hannah retreats to the woods for safety and meets, not the biblical Jacob who urged her on her journey, but a physical, flesh and blood Jacob. This new corporeal Jacob, a “black man” and his sister, are also fugitive slaves (Crafts 222).  It is in the dark woods that the minstrel nature of Hannah’s disguise comes to light.

The only time readers find a situation in which Hannah could have a romantic interest is when she is on the lam with Jacob and his dying sister.  She does not want to be near them when she believes that they are husband and wife, but once Hannah learns that they are siblings, she approaches them.  It seems plausible that a romantic link could form between Jacob and Hannah, particularly after Jacob’s sister dies.  One obstacle is that Jacob is black, a complexion, with its attending attitudes, that Hannah seems to spurn.  Crafts, however, names Jacob’s blackness, and by so doing, she removes him from the stereotypical assumptions assigned to Bill, whose blackness remains unnamed.  Jacob proves himself a strong and caring man, not a loud and caricatured minstrel (although readers will find that Jacob, like Hannah, plays a minstrel role).  Another obstacle is the fact that Hannah is disguised as male and Jacob never pierces through her ruse.  However, Jacob not recognizing her disguise as such is even less plausible than Hannah, albeit avowedly single, having a romantic tryst.  Read through the lens of blackface minstrelsy, Hannah’s disguise takes on new meaning as does the encounter between Hannah and Jacob.

Although males dominate minstrelsy, females play roles in the minstrel tradition.  Part of the female tradition in minstrelsy is not to black up.  The absence of a blackening agent emerges in minstrelsy as performed by both whites and blacks.  Women, white and black, play the role of white men on the minstrel stage.  This signifies that the black women of the minstrel stage necessarily had white skin.  Their white male counterparts play the roles of blacks, both male and female.  And their black male counterparts don the cork paint to play the roles of black men.  Little female impersonation exists in black blackface minstrel shows because audiences seem to prefer to watch actual light-skinned black women.  So black women in minstrel productions play both white men and black women because they look like white women, whom they also may have played on stage (Bean 173-81).  The minstrel arena, although proscribed, offers black women freedom in fashioning their personas – a freedom not offered to them off-stage.  If we choose to envision Hannah on a white minstrel stage or on a black one, her role as a white orphan boy rings true to either tradition. 

Part of the popularity of women on the minstrel stage stems from their costuming.  Women wore “closely tailored men’s clothes,” according to Annemarie Bean, so regardless of the outfit, the feminine physique remained fully visible (175, 176).  In Crafts’ own words, Hannah’s male outfit corresponds “exactly” to her “size and figure,” which indicates garments that flaunt, rather than conceal, Hannah’s femininity (216).  Imagine a white-skinned Hannah outfitted in masculine attire neatly fitting her female figure.  She conceivably looks very female while in the woods with Jacob, yet to borrow Crafts’ term, he never “penetrate[s]” her disguise (230).  Perhaps Hannah wishes Jacob to unmask her, so to speak.

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