Dissertation – Chapter 5 – Mulatta Mama in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (5 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

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.

As the scene in Tom’s St. Louis apartment unfolds, it becomes more ludicrous in its adherence to the conventions of blackface minstrelsy.  A blackface man, in an exaggerated low voice, commands a white society male, “Keep still – I’s yo’ mother!” while simultaneously shutting and locking the door (Twain 105).  Roxy, like Stowe’s Eliza performs both passing and minstrelsy.  Also like Eliza, Roxy’s first words while in her male disguise, address her son and his recognition of her.  “‘Does Harry know mamma?’” Eliza asks as she stretches her arms toward her son (Stowe 546).  Both women seek to belie their male disguises so that their sons will know them.  Both women also accompany this request with a type of embrace.  Eliza stretches her arms to Harry to lock him in a hug of motherly love, while Roxy simply seeks to lock up her son. 

As a small woman speaking a in false male voice, Roxy appears to make a childlike request given in ridiculous speech, a hallmark of on-stage minstrel productions.  The rest of Tom and Roxy’s encounter follows this pattern of comic dialogue.  With the lights dimmed low, this blackface impostor settles in to tell a story.  He relates to Tom the incredulous tale that he is a white-skinned woman escaping from slavery who arrives at Tom’s doorstep because she is his mother.  The scenario ends with the small-framed blackface man, whom I envision tripping over his baggy costume, marching white Tom through a rainy St. Louis night at knifepoint.  Surely Twain wants his readers to find the comedy in this situation.  It seems inconceivable that Tom, or anyone else, could take this little blackface upstart seriously. 

Carolyn Porter asserts that Twain’s portrayal of Roxy reveals a world “where mothers are sexual, slaves are powerful, and women are temporarily out of (and thus in) control” (124).  Women not under the control of men (i.e.: out of control) are in control of themselves.  Being an out of control mother, a slave mother no less, instead of resigning Roxy to the powerless margins of society, allows her to shirk off social restraints and employ the boons of white supremacy to her benefit, which occurs as the blackface minstrel scene unfolds.  In this scene, Twain inverts the blackface minstrel conceit of the cross-dressed wench.  The cross-dressed wench typically remained silent, and “was established as a thoroughly contained and constrained African American woman” (Bean 174).  Ordinarily white men played blackface roles, but Twain shifts stereotypes of blackface minstrelsy by applying them to an ostensibly black woman.  Having a white man dress as a black man and portray a silent and domesticated black woman would have followed custom.  Instead, Twain has a white-skinned slave woman pose as a white man in order to don blackface and lampoon a black man.  This blackface character that Twain creates adheres to the customs of the minstrel stage.  But because the role is played by Roxy, an enslaved female who recognizes in herself both black and white femininity, the act gives agency to a black woman instead of removing it.  Twain’s version of the wench conceit is anything but silent, contained, and constrained.  Instead it explodes with comic dialogue and acerbic parody. 

This blackface scene also recalls the lesser-known tradition of black female blackface minstrel performers.  Black women, mostly very fair-skinned, in these performances subverted the “dominance of minstrelsy’s containment of the black female body as fixed, unmoving, and confined to the two categories of mulatta or mama,” or in Roxy’s case, “mulatta” and “mama” (Bean 181).   While Roxy is both “mulatta” and “mama,” her disguise reads as black and male.   Roxy as the cross-dressed wench embodies numerous dualities: male/female, white womanhood/black womanhood, white manhood/black manhood, slave/free.  It is at this point in the novel that Roxy most fully realizes citizenship and liberty.  She does so through the feminist performances of passing and minstrelsy.  Roxy becomes a citizen through her pursuit of the public life (Buker 198).  She becomes the hybrid being embodying polarities (Buker 166).  And if liberty is the “continuous activity of differently . . . articulating . . . our associations with others and things about us,” then Roxy certainly finds freedom in creating this new publicly performed self (Flower 67).

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