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


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. 

Although readers meet Roxy after she gives birth, we can reasonably imagine that Roxy, a socially powerless slave before motherhood, discovers the generative power of carrying a baby to term, unleashes previously untapped power during childbirth, and experiences the domestic power of creating and ordering a world for her son.  Becoming a mother forces Roxy to examine her slave status and the slave status inherited by her son.  Her priorities shift from pleasing her master to freeing her son, because she sees freedom as his only means of survival.  In other words, motherhood gives Roxy a type of power previously unknown.  With this increased power and resourcefulness, Roxy devises a plan to free her son.  By conceiving and executing the plan to switch babies, Roxy challenges the restrictive social strictures of white supremacy.  Roxy turns her black slave son into a free white male citizen.  Providing freedom for her son eventually induces Roxy to fight for her own freedom, which, in turn, introduces her into the public realm and yields more power to rail against social fetters.    She later, albeit temporarily, endows herself with free citizen status as she performs a blackface minstrel act. 

The troubles and anxieties in Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson stem from notions and misconceptions of racial identity.  In order to appreciate how race impacts privilege and freedom, it becomes necessary to understand white supremacy, racial passing, and blackface minstrelsy.  Theories of white supremacy establish the US as a country that only allows full humanity, freedom, and citizenship to its white inhabitants.  Racial passing, then, becomes a way for non-whites to use deception in order to enter into this system and to achieve and maintain the rights denied them by white supremacy.   And blackface minstrelsy locates the height of American privilege in the ability to accommodate blackness temporarily.  Blackface minstrelsy places white males at the site of racial crossover.  This theory denies white women opportunities temporarily to put on blackness, and this male-domination further removes black women from participating in mainstream American cultures.  In other words, blackface minstrelsy allows access to US privilege to white men alone.

Twain, although ultimately upholding American social norms, uses and upends both passing and blackface minstrelsy to allow Roxy to attain some benefits of white American citizenship.  He subverts minstrelsy and passing by using them as feminist tools to create agency.  Through Roxy, Twain challenges prevailing notions of blackface minstrelsy and gender, and by exploding those notions gains her access, rather than denial, to the privileges of antebellum American citizenship.  Twain evokes the “experience of freedom through images of divided selves,” with Roxy standing as an example (Horn 2).  In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Roxy exists as mulatta and mama, female and male, black and white, slave and free.  Her travels between these dualities introduce her to American citizenship and the liberties inherent in that citizenship.  Using motherhood as a catalyst and Harriet Beecher Stowe as a backdrop, Mark Twain dismantles white supremacy, racial passing, and blackface minstrelsy through the lens of Roxy, a seemingly “contained and constrained” mulatta slave mother.

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