Dissertation – Chapter 4 – Motherhood and Deception in The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts (9 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

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. 

Hannah finds her freedom “all [her] fancy had pictured it to be” (Crafts 244).  The realities of freedom for most escaped slaves were anything but picturesque.  William Andrews ascribes this idealized freedom to Hannah’s belief that she “could aspire, through her own efforts, to freedom and the social and economic accouterments (husband, home, work, community) that women of the highest caste believed they deserved” (40).  By “her own efforts,” Andrews means the power of fiction.  I suggest that the power of fiction extends to Hannah’s efforts at becoming a white woman, because only a white woman in the U.S. freely could attain the above mentioned accouterments, which noticeably omit children.

Another argument in favor of Hannah living out her days as a white woman grows out of the mid-Nineteenth Century Women’s Rights Movement.  Hannah, although married, works outside of the home and her husband encourages her to write.  We do not know his occupation, but maybe like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hannah’s writing supports the family.  While many, if not most, black women worked outside of the home, it was as part of the growing Women’s Movement that white women began to demand that they could work outside of the home, earn equal wages, and retain those wages.  Control over their reproductive bodies also grows out of the Women’s Movement.  Hannah the narrator seems modeled in part after Harriet Beecher Stowe, the novelist.  Both write to earn money for their families, and both adhere to burgeoning feminist tenets.  Stowe has children, but Stowe does not live in fear of the discovery of her racial background.  Nevertheless, both Hannah and Stowe rule their reproduction – Stowe has children because she is amenable to it, and Hannah does not have children because she opts against it.  Through feminist citizenship, both Stowe and Hannah gain control over their money and their motherhood.

Hannah poses as what she is not, a white boy, to earn the freedom to live as what she is, a white woman, even though the law would classify her as black chattel.  The novel’s end beautifully leaves Hannah’s condition in freedom up for question.  Perhaps she lives as a white woman.  Perhaps she lives as a black woman.  Maybe she has children some day, and maybe she never does.  Regardless of the eventual outcome, the novel’s conclusion situates Hannah as having found freedom through her longing for her mother.  Each surrogate mother propels her closer to freedom and to the eventual reunion with her real-life mother. 

Hannah’s maternal pursuit yields a twofold freedom.  She is free from the system of slavery, and she is free from this system’s concomitant bondage of her body.  Hannah freely chooses to marry and chooses not to have children.  No one, including her husband, owns Hannah’s body any longer.   We do not know Hannah Crafts, the novelist, but as a slave, Crafts could not exercise complete autonomy over her body or her freedom.  But she evidently was literate, privileged, and socially and culturally savvy.  Crafts uses these gifts to write a world of “anti-patriarchal feminism” that “takes her far beyond ‘women’s sphere’” (Buell 27).  Again like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Crafts uses narrative to reconfigure women’s sphere and preserve women’s wisdom during a time of intense misogyny and racism (Buker 215).  Crafts finds freedom in writing fiction, but the publication of her fiction during her lifetime might have meant capture (Rohrbach 11, 12).  If Crafts lived as a white person after her escape to freedom, publishing The Bondwoman’s Narrative would have demolished her white image.  If Crafts lived as a black person after her escape, her publication would have courted danger under the Fugitive Slave Law.  While she may not have been able to enjoy completely the freedoms of American citizenship, Hannah Crafts could and did create a world wherein a black woman, much like herself, could obtain the fulfillment of American liberty through the feminist performances of blackface minstrelsy and racial passing.

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