Dissertation – Chapter 4 – Motherhood and Deception in The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts (7 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

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. 

Hannah spies on Jacob and his sister, presumably to determine the nature of their relationship, before she reveals herself to them.  While surveilling them, Hannah notices that the sister is dying.  The sister suffers a “paroxysm” of fever and falls into a deathlike sleep, and Jacob rests beside her (Crafts 221).  At precisely that moment, when Hannah realizes that the woman soon will die leaving the man alone, Hannah loses the “consciousness of [her] identity” (Crafts 221).  This could mean that Hannah begins to think of herself as her male disguise rather than as her feminine reality.  This line of thought, however, quickly fades.  As Hannah notes losing consciousness of her identity, she recalls Lindendale and the jail, both places where she presented herself and was accepted as decidedly female.  Jacob’s presence, consequently, reminds Hannah that she is a woman, a young, single, attractive woman, and not a little boy.  Hannah falls asleep feeling like a woman and wakes to find a “black man,” Jacob, staring at her (Crafts 222).  Jacob, like his biblical counterpart, removes himself from his sibling and extends an invitation for Hannah to join him.  Hannah “[c]heerfully” complies “without the least apprehension” (Crafts 222).  Hannah obeys the biblical Jacob by fleeing from one man’s arms, and she obeys this bodily Jacob by coming into his.  Neither Jacob’s invitation nor Hannah’s acceptance reflect the reality of fugitive slaves.  Had Jacob believed Hannah’s white orphan boy disguise, he would not have hovered over her sleeping body and invited her to join them.  And if Hannah believed in the verisimilitude of her white orphan boy persona, she would not have risked possible detection by joining a pair of fugitive slaves.  Viewed as a minstrel performance, readers can find humor in the comic tension between the two would-be lovers. 

Their infatuation grows after the sister’s death.  Jacob and Hannah keep house in a cave, and one evening Jacob returns home late.  Hannah worries about him as the evening waxes and a thunderstorm brews.  She also fears for her own safety.  More than for her safety, however, Hannah fears that Jacob will desert her.  This anxiety keeps Hannah up all night (Crafts 228).  When Jacob returns, it is still dark, but Hannah forgets her doubts, and the two happily reunite.  Readers must imagine the content of the reunion, because Crafts glosses over it and moves forward to the morning sunshine that finds Jacob and Hannah boarding up their cave home and resuming their journey.  Their relationship speaks more of a comic love on a minstrel stage than the companionship between two fellow male travelers.

If produced on stage, Jacob and Hannah’s loving, but platonic, relationship probably would have earned laughter.  Their scenes together do not reflect the slapstick humor often associated with minstrel shows, but the nuances of their relationship, viewed through the minstrel lens, replicate the more subtle humor of those performances.  Like Hannah’s mistress, Mrs. Vincent, and Saddler, Jacob boosts Hannah closer to freedom.  And also like them, Jacob dies leaving Hannah to pursue liberty in a new and different way.

Shortly after Jacob’s death, Hannah and Aunt Hetty reunite while Hannah is in her male disguise.  Hannah reveals herself to Aunt Hetty, greeting her with “‘Mother, good mother,’” and once again enjoys Aunt Hetty’s maternal influences (Crafts 233).  Aunt Hetty urges Hannah to ditch the disguise and continue her travels not as a lone young male in the woods, but rather as a woman on the main roads.  In effect Aunt Hetty suggests that Hannah lose the minstrel disguise that brought her near freedom and adopt the mien of a racial passer.  It is as a white woman that Hannah finally reaches Northern freedom in New Jersey.

Conclusion; or, White Womanhood Revisited

It is plausible that Hannah lives out her life as a black woman.  Henry Louis Gatess, Jr. and others discovered an all-black New Jersey community of which Crafts may have been part.  Many critics, including Henry Louis Gatess, Jr., Jean Fagan Yellin, and Karen Sanchez-Eppler assume that Crafts and her creation Hannah drop the white façade upon finding freedom.  The text, however, is not exactly clear on the point of which race Hannah adopts as a permanent identity, while it is clear that Hannah bends race to suit her purposes.  I am not convinced that Hannah the narrator, and perhaps by extension Hannah Crafts the novelist, lives out her days as a black woman.

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