Dissertation – Chapter 4 – Motherhood and Deception in The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts (8 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

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. 

Hannah looks white, and as the novel closes, she reunites with her white-looking mother and white-appearing Charlotte.  Crafts does not state William’s complexion, but she does align him with the stereotype of an industrious white-skinned mulatto, like Stowe’s George in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, so he probably was as light as Charlotte.  Hannah marries, but the text does not state her husband’s race or complexion.  Rather the text asserts that her husband “is, and has always been a free man” (Crafts 246).  While many U.S. blacks in the mid-Nineteenth Century never lived as slaves, the first image that comes to mind of a man who “is and always has been” free is that of a white man.  It is very conceivable that she marries a white man or a light-skinned black man, who may pass as white.  She lives in a close-knit community and teaches at a colored school.  Teaching at a colored school is one of the few clues that Hannah may live in a black community.  The most compelling textual evidence that supports the idea of Hannah living out her days as a white woman is that she marries and remains childless. 

Throughout the novel, Hannah iterates that marriage is not for slaves because they cannot enter into it freely and legally, and in marriage, the country denies them the opportunity to fulfill the God-ordained roles of husband and wife.  Also throughout the novel, Hannah eschews becoming a mother because becoming a mother most likely means a violation of her body; it means perpetuating the mulatta syndrome and cycle; and it also means bringing another human into slavery’s bondage.  Hannah believes that marriage is “designed for the free, and something that all the victims of slavery should avoid” (Crafts 212).  In some sense all blacks in the US suffer as victims of slavery, and even those who could claim legal freedom could not live freely in the mid-Nineteenth Century U.S.  It would seem that even in finding freedom, Hannah would not advocate marriage and family for black people because they could not act as equal citizens in the American arena.  Yet she marries.  Perhaps she overcomes her misgivings when she finds freedom and the right man.  Perhaps freedom and the right man come because she eschews her black designation for a white one. 

Also, Hannah remains childless.  Had she not quested for her mother and her own freedom of fertility, Hannah’s life may have twinned with Evelyn, Cosgrove’s concubine.  Evelyn personifies the hypersexuality and hyperfertility of mulatta women.  Evelyn births twin boys, a testament to her fertility, who if not for her slave status could grow up to be white men and citizens.  Their father, after all, is white and their mother, the “most favored lady” in the household (Crafts 187).  Time and again Hannah evades the fate of a concubine, but once she reaches freedom, her only assurance to maintain her unbelievable control over her fertility is to remain a childless white woman.  As an escaped slave Hannah knows, as do all black people of the era, of the Fugitive Slave Law (Andrews 34).  One of the best ways to avoid becoming re-entangled in slavery’s snare is to cease being black.  If she is not black, she cannot be a fugitive slave, and therefore cannot be returned to slavery.  Living as a white woman shields Hannah from the harsh extradition espoused by the Fugitive Slave Law, because fewer people would suspect that the unassuming white schoolteacher is a fugitive slave, while more would question the background of the black schoolteacher. 

Another way to keep the Fugitive Slave Law at bay is not to have any children who may exhibit physical characteristics ascribed to black lineage.  Not having children who look black assures that a black ancestry cannot be traced to Hannah.  Many racial passers remain childless in the fear of having a “throwback” baby – a child who has visible black characteristics (Graham 382).  This seems the best reason for Hannah not to have children.  A “throwback” baby would reveal Hannah (or her husband) as black and disqualify them from an all-white America. 

Hannah’s story ends very differently than it begins, but similarities exist.  The novel begins with Hannah as a sort of mammy – a foil to white womanhood and a surrogate mother to potentially countless black children.  The novel ends with Hannah, possibly as a white woman, becoming once again a surrogate mother to potentially countless black children.  As a mammy Hannah teaches the children how to live as slaves, but as a teacher, Hannah educates them in how to live as citizens.  Between her stints of mothering children, Hannah mothers ostensibly white women: Mrs. Vincent and Charlotte.  In mothering white women, Hannah is a mother to the image she wants to become.  Through mothering black children, Hannah also finds a link to her own identity.  The black children that she cares for represent the children of her womb had she stayed with Bill or Jacob.  Hannah, however, does not want these children to exist in the natural (in her future), because if they did, and if the relationships that bore them did, she could not live as a white woman, which seems her ultimate goal.  By othermothering black children Hannah becomes a mother to the image she was, a black child.  Because she cherishes black children, Hannah becomes their teacher, but because she also values her citizenship and its attendant amenities, Hannah refuses to give birth to any black children of her own.

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