© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade
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Privilege, Citizenship, and Race
The social structures under question stem from the predominance of US white supremacy, defined as the “radical inequality” between whites and nonwhites in every aspect of social life (Gordon 174). White supremacy offers a standard of privileges that only certain humans can possess, simply by the accident of their birth (Gordon 175-76). The problem of privilege is that it grants things like safety, food, and shelter – all things that should not be privileges but rather ought to stand as basic human rights. So white supremacy, then, places humanity in the possession of whites alone (Gordon 175, 178). Accordingly in the world of Twain’s novel, Roxy does not enjoy the guarantee of these human rights. So in order to make a bid for these rights, these basic American freedoms, Twain has Roxy employ, with varying degrees of success, racial passing and blackface minstrelsy. Because Roxy is fifteen-sixteenths white, she appears to be a white woman, but because she is only one-sixteenth black, Roxy is legally a slave. Roxy’s legal status as white-skinned slave, with her potential for passing as free and passing freely into white society, challenges white supremacy and ideas of American citizenship.
Understanding citizenship as “taking responsibility for public life,” slaves are not American citizens (Buker 8). And before becoming a mother Roxy ostensibly does not attempt to control her public life. It is only after having her son that Roxy begins to think about participating in the public realm. By public realm, here, I refer to the white America that resides outside of Roxy’s immediate sphere of influence. Motherhood emboldens Roxy and equips her with “ways that help her cope more efficiently with the outside world” (Ellison 76). One way that mothers protect their children is by tending, which at times means fading into the scenery (Ellison 94). Furthermore, slave mothers’ need to protect their children frequently resulted in means of tending that became “exceedingly harsh or enterprising,” which often created “emotional distance” between mothers and their children (Giddings 44). For Roxy, tending to her son means helping him to disappear into the white American landscape. Her enterprising method, exchanging one baby for another, results in creating emotional distance between Tom and Roxy, but it also brings each of them closer to the ideals of liberty found in full American citizenship by putting both of them in contact with the more public white world, which due to its access to corporate citizenship is necessarily more public than black slavery. Eloise A. Buker further defines citizenship as the act of choosing how to perform subjectivity (157). So Roxy performs her first act as an American citizen when she decides to reinvent her son’s subjectivity and switches Tom and Chambers. By switching the boys, Roxy opts to turn her biological son’s public persona into that of a free white male with access to all of the benefits that American citizenship can offer. She introduces him to the life of privilege accessible through white supremacy. And in her burgeoning citizenship, Roxy yearns for the same privileges as her son.
Roxy as Racial Passer
Motherhood enables women to “become more flexible and resourceful, less fearful, and more ‘dominant’ – meaning focused and confident – in other realms of their lives” (Ellison 108). In other words, motherhood helps women develop and implement strategies that yield positive outcomes in their lives. After her re-enslavement, Roxy escapes from an Arkansas plantation to the St. Louis waterfront. Before motherhood, Roxy does not attempt escape. Only after becoming a mother and experiencing its power and tenacity does Roxy dare to escape from slavery. Not only the act of escape, but also her means of escape, reflect Roxy’s resourcefulness, fearlessness, and confidence.
As she flees from the plantation, Roxy does not attempt to disguise herself, a bold and counterintuitive tactic. In an area populated with people who could recognize her as her master’s slave, she floats down the river without any means of concealing her identity. Roxy then sights the Mogul, the steamboat she worked on for a few years, and approaches it confidently. She does not fear capture and even relishes the recognition of her identity because she hopes to rekindle old acquaintances. After boarding the Mogul, Roxy considers herself amongst friends and experiences no dread of her master, recognition, or capture. Even as the Mogul steams past her former plantation, Roxy remains on deck viewing the onlookers with amusement. She watches them search for her while she enjoys safety on the riverboat. But perhaps she is not safe on the boat; perhaps her sense of security is false. As the search party examines the shore for Roxy, it surely sees the Mogul pass. Twain does not indicate how near to shore the steamer is; however, if Roxy could see the search party, the search party may have been able to see her. Yet she feels no anxiety about recognition, most likely because she more closely resembles a free white woman than a runaway slave. To casual observers, Roxy becomes just another female American citizen traveling on a steamboat.
Roxy easily could have passed as white. A hindrance to her passing would have been her attire, for before her escape attempt on the Mogul, Roxy’s best dress is a “cheap curtain-calico thing” (Twain 14). But Sally Jackson, the head chambermaid of the Mogul, gives Roxy “good clothes” to wear (Twain 110). Sally does not just offer Roxy clean clothes, or fresh clothes, or dry clothes. She furnishes Roxy with “good clothes,” indicating that the articles themselves convey some level of social standing greater than, or at least different from, that of a slave.
But Roxy does not need to do anything to her physical appearance to be perceived as white. Roxy “was of majestic form and stature” with “imposing and statuesque” attitudes and “noble and stately” gestures (Twain 8). “Her complexion was very fair . . . her face was full of character and expression (Twain 8). Twain further describes Roxy’s face as “shapely, intelligent, comely – even beautiful” (8). Roxy looks like a white woman and “to all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody” (Twain 9). Roxy looks like a white woman and bears herself with a grace and dignity only ascribed to white people.