Dissertation – Chapter 5 – Mulatta Mama in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (6 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

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).

According to Laura Browder, blackface minstrelsy creates a hyper-whiteness, which emerges from the performers’ ability temporarily to “embody” cultural norms associated with blackness (49).  This hyper-whiteness also relies on “denying blacks the same options for self-transformation” (Browder 49, 50).  Only whites can put on and take off racial stigma at will, so blackface minstrelsy simultaneously allows white men to explore a different race and yet remain completely white while doing so.   If blackface minstrelsy is a way for white men to attain hyper-whiteness, it becomes a means for white men to participate fully in the human privileges afforded by white supremacy as it gives them access to all of the benefits of American citizenship.  But if white males’ acting in blackface productions reveals their desire to try on blackness and their success in procuring the benefits of American white supremacy, then Roxy’s blackface portrayal indicates the same desires and successes.  In order to find her son, Roxy necessarily becomes a white male who can enact blackness within the social safety of a blackface minstrel performance.  This performance generates admission to the human rights and freedoms endowed by white supremacy, which allow Roxy to search for and confront her son.  To fulfill her role as a mother, Roxy, a slave woman, must transform into a free white man. 


Roxy asks Tom,

‘Ain’t you my chile?  En does you know anything dat a mother won’t do for her chile?  Dey ain’t nothin’ a white mother won’t do for her chile.  Who made ‘em so?  De Lord done it.  En who made de niggers?  De Lord made ’em.  In de inside, mothers is all de same.’ (Twain 100)

Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Twain appeals to all mothers noting that on the inside all mothers are the same.  Although Stowe’s character Eliza had to become a white man and Roxy had to emerge as a white man in blackface, they both exhibit the same concern for their children as Roxana Beecher.  Their differences in circumstance determine their varying modes of action, but in light of the enormity of the task of raising future citizens, the disparities in their individual statuses as citizens seems small.  Katherine Ellison argues that motherhood introduces power into women lives, and she further argues that once accustomed to the domestic power of motherhood, women extend this power into the public realm and become more inclined to buck repressive social systems (106, 112, 113).   Motherhood motivates much of Pudd’nhead Wilson, and these byproducts of motherhood impel Roxy to action. 

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