Dissertation – Chapter 5 – Mulatta Mama in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (4 of 7)

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
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
2009

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.

 Roxy looks white and carries herself like a white person.  Roxy is white in many ways except by social recognition and legal identification.  Although Twain never declares Roxy a white citizen, or even a black slave passing as a white woman, Roxy’s acts of escape and tacit passing indeed make her a citizen.  Twain adheres to a feminist model of citizenship which entails shaping self-representation.  Instead of cowering as a fearful slave (an expected depiction), Roxy boldly rides the steamer looking every bit the free white woman.  And if citizens “can be thought of as hybrids who even embody polarities,” Roxy’s race manipulation brings her even more into the realm of citizenship (Buker 166).  Onboard ship, Roxy simultaneously stands as an enslaved black woman and a free white one.  Roxy’s created public persona, a white woman, could not bestow full American citizenship, yet it could confer freedom.  For Roxy, motherhood instills principles of power, privilege, and liberty that carry over from the domestic realm into the public sphere.  Yet instead of utilizing her naturally white appearance and white-associated attributes to pass as white to gain freedom and access an American dream, Twain chooses to have Roxy pass as black upon her arrival in St. Louis.  In order to avoid detection as a runaway slave, Roxy dresses as a black man and puts on blackface in lieu of walking unhindered to freedom as a white woman. 

Roxy as Blackface Minstrel

Roxy has few acquaintances in St. Louis; and therefore, almost no one could identify her as a black person or a slave.  Yet it is in this town of strangers, away from the Arkansas plantation, that Twain decides to conceal Roxy’s white skin as well as her gender.  Roxy spies her master at a market place in St. Louis.  This naturally arouses alarm for Roxy and perhaps the situation warrants a disguise.  But choosing to look like a man with a blackened face hardly seems the appropriate ruse for Roxy to employ.  Although the sight of a very dark black man would not have piqued her master’s suspicions, it would most likely raise questions from others.  Antebellum Missouri was not free, so Roxy, disguised as a black man walking the St. Louis streets, likely would have been stopped and required to produce free papers.  This sort of apprehension would explode Roxy’s counterfeit appearance.  She would be unable to produce free papers because she did not own any, her blackened face would be recognized as false, and upon close inspection, Roxy’s long brunette curls and feminine physique easily would reveal her as female.  A blackface disguise potentially could be more hazardous for Roxy than relying on her naturally white features.  If Roxy had worn her “good clothes,” she could have roamed freely around St. Louis with little concern of being revealed as black or being discovered by her master.

Roxy’s imposture as a black man seems to distort color and gender designations more so than a decision to remain a white woman would have, but it is not necessarily ineffective.  Early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft posited that in order for women to become citizens that they must become men (Crittenden 47).  In St. Louis, Roxy needs to continue her quest for freedom and full citizenship, and she needs to find her son.  She calls on her inner fortitude, initiated by motherhood and her forays at liberty, to do whatever seems necessary to realize her goals.  So Roxy becomes a man.

While precluding her from assimilating into white society, Twain does, however, allow Roxy to pass as a man in blackface.  On the surface, Roxy’s blackface guise appears to be just that, a disguise, a convenient way to defy detection.  But her blackface ploy is not convenient; it requires more effort to assemble and maintain than passing as white would have.  And it draws more attention to Roxy than posing as a white woman would.  In order to transform into a white woman, Roxy would only have to put on the “good clothes” that Sally Jackson had given her.  The blackface costume, however, requires finding a black man to buy clothes from, garnering money to pay him one dollar for the attire, procuring cork or greasepaint with which to blacken her face, blackening her face (which no doubt entailed the aid of a mirror or other looking glass), and maintaining the black make-up in a heavy St. Louis rain. 

Twain does not reveal the blackface figure as Roxy until after he introduces the “black face under an old slouch hat” that startles Tom (Twain 105).  The black face alone is sufficient to invoke clichéd characterizations of black men.  Twain temporarily depicts Roxy in blackface, the “singing-dancing-comedy characterization portraying black males as childish, irresponsible, inefficient, lazy, ridiculous in speech, pleasure-seeking, and happy” (Davis 51).  At this point in the novel, Roxy becomes a disembodied black face devoid of any attributes outside of the hackneyed ones associated with blackface minstrelsy.

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