© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
MULATTA MAMA PERFORMING PASSING AND MIMICKING MINSTRELSY IN MARK TWAIN’S PUDD’NHEAD WILSON
Published serially in 1893 and in book format in 1894, Mark Twain’s novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson comes approximately forty years after the other texts under discussion. His text, like the others, depicts a mulatta mother, Roxy, railing against society and pining for citizenship. Above all else, most mothers seek to protect their children. But as property, slave mothers lack the power and authority to provide basic necessities for themselves and their children, because they are not American citizens, but rather American chattel. Mothers, however, regardless of station or servitude, prove resourceful and find strength in motherhood because “motherhood provides an introductory experience of having real power in the world” (Ellison 106). And if motherhood is “powerful assertiveness training” that produces a willingness in mothers to “stand up against society and authority,” then motherhood must prepare and impel some slave women to fight the institution that hinders them (Ellison 112, 113). Motherhood gives slave women the gumption to flout societal norms and seek freedom. In freedom lies the power and authority to protect self and children. The most effective way in the U.S. to obtain public political liberty is to be white and male. White supremacy and maleness define U.S. citizenship, so Roxy, a mulatta slave mother in Mark Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, becomes a white man to find freedom. Impelled by motherhood, Roxy uses blackface minstrelsy and passing as feminist tools to construct agency and grasp at the freedoms of American citizenship.
During the 1890s the U.S. faced similar questions of race, gender, and citizenship as it did during the turbulent 1850s. By setting his novel in the 1850s, Mark Twain aligns the problems of his time with the tribulations of antebellum America. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin arise as central to both the 1850s and the 1890s and America’s collective memory of them. Barbara Hochman argues that a revival of Stowe’s seminal text and its popularity occur during the 1890s as a “self-congratulatory narrative” of the moral and social progress undertaken by the US since the Civil War (83). Barbara Hochman notes, that during the 1890s, Americans returned to Stowe in an effort to mitigate the harsh reality that the US had not seen much progress since her original publication. America’s reminiscence peaked in 1893 with an exhibit celebrating Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the World’s Fair in Chicago.
Many critics, including Leland Krauth, Linda A. Morris, Leslie Fiedler, and Judie Newman link Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain. Linda A. Morris asserts that Twain’s Roxy in Pudd’nhead Wilson and Stowe’s Cassy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin stand as the only early fictional black woman who exhibit enormous “strength and daring” (70). While I question if those are the only strong and daring black women in Nineteenth Century fiction, I also discern a connection between Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. During the midst of a Stowe revival, it is not coincidental that Twain sets his novel in the same period about which Stowe writes. Twain links his treatment of 1850’s issues to Stowe and her treatment of the same issues. Both write about the Fugitive Slave Law. Both write about the malleability of race. Both authors undermine the immutability of gender. Two of the most notable links between Stowe and Twain, however, are motherhood and a reliance on passing and minstrelsy as behicles of freedom.
Mark Twain and Motherhood
Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson takes place during the early 1850s in a small slaveholding Missouri town, slightly south of St. Louis. It relates the freedom stories of three racially ambiguous people: the slave Roxy, her son Chambers, and the master’s son Tom. Roxy, who is only one-sixteenth black, looks like a white woman. Her son Chambers, a mere one-thirty-second black, also appears white. Tom, as the master’s son, stands as the only “real” white person of the trio. Chambers and Tom share the same birthday, and Roxy, who rears them both, is the only person who can tell the two apart. Early in the novel, Roxy switches Chambers and Tom in the crib, thus bestowing freedom on her son and enslavement on her master’s son. She never reveals their true identities. (From this point forward, I will follow Twain’s example and call the slave-born Chambers, Tom; and the freeborn Tom, Chambers.) When Tom’s father dies, he frees Roxy, who becomes a chambermaid on a steamer, and Tom and Chambers go to live with Tom’s uncle. Tom later sells Roxy back into slavery, and she escapes from an Arkansas plantation to find freedom.