© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Although Palumbo-DeSimone recognizes the power of subverting the “tragic mulatta” stereotype, she does not find this subversion in either Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Clotel. Instead she asserts that Stowe and Brown treat their mulattas “compassionately,” but that they never develop them past the tragic stereotype (Palumbo-DeSimone 126), Palumbo-DeSimone does not consider Roxy in Twain’s text, and due to the time of her publication, she may have been unaware of Crafts’ text. Instead of removing these four authors from the profound literary work of undermining the tragic mulatta, I suggest that they exemplify that work through their use of minstrel passing.
In Stowe’s text, Eliza minstrel passes when she uses her white skin to affect the mien of a white male on her boat trip to freedom. But because she travels escorted by her husband, she relies on his strength and not her own. Eliza never fully develops the male character and thus never fully acquires the privileges of white manhood. Stowe creates an excellent starting point. Even though her character does not fully acquire the privileges of citizenship, the idea that Stowe allows her to perform in this way speaks volumes to how black women could be understood and portrayed. Her pioneering efforts at humanizing black women through racial play and minstrel passing allows other authors to treat their female protagonists similarly.
Clotel minstrel passes in Brown’s novel when she travels as a white man. She exercises white privilege while traveling in the carriage. She toys with the exalted privilege of having a white woman. The white planter’s daughter seeks Clotel romantically. White women are the ultimate privilege denied to black men, but through minstrel passing, Clotel accesses the taboo. She embodies the power of her presidential father. In Brown’s novel, President Thomas Jefferson could and did command the bodies of white women: his legally white wife and his white-skinned paramour Currer, Clotel’s mother. Clotel approaches that privilege herself when she attracts the attention of the eligible white woman.
Hannah minstrel passes in Crafts’ novel. Crafts’ work through Hannah stands out as the most dangerous. As an orphaned white boy, Hannah’s character has the most potential to grow into a white male and upend society. Once a white boy reaches maturity, his possibilities as an American citizen seem almost limitless. This is the power Hannah embodies as an orphaned white boy – the power to become a great American.
If Hannah’s minstrel passing performance stands as the most dangerous, Roxy’s performance is the most complex. Initially it seems that Roxy performs blackface minstrelsy and she passes, but that she does not do both simultaneously. In her blackface guise Roxy accesses the privileges of white male citizenship, but she cannot experience them with the liberty of her own complexion, in other words, she cannot experience them as a white woman – only as a white man in blackface. That she experiences them as a white man is key to Twain’s use of minstrel passing. Not experiencing liberty as a white woman seems to limit Roxy’s citizenship to the stage, as it were, and not into a fully integrated society. In this performance, Twain affords Roxy, a black woman, equal status with a white male while on-stage only. The equality and accordant access to privilege ends when the blackface performance ends, it would seem. But because Twain grants Roxy the cork grease mask, he does accord her the full scope of minstrel passing, which yields the full privileges of minstrelsy.
Minstrel passing in Twain takes on a slightly different mode than it does in the other texts, for without Roxy’s white skin, she could not have been a minstrel player (ie: she could not have portrayed a white man in a blackface disguise if she did not have the white skin to begin with). So she banks on the whiteness that in turn allows her to use and ultimately upend the formulaic nature of blackface minstrelsy to pass as a free person while passing as black. This minstrel passing is more sophisticated because it doubly uses the currency of white skin. In Stowe, Brown, and Crafts, the women’s white skin allows them to pass for white while performing male minstrelsy. In Twain, Roxy must first use her white skin to pass as a white man (which occurs after she has put on the men’s clothing but before she blackens up, while she is still off-stage and prepping for her performance), and then she uses the cache of white masculinity to black up and perform minstrelsy (a performance, which exists amid varied traditions as I have discussed, that nevertheless yields the most dominance to white men). Roxy relies on her white skin just as much as Eliza, for example, but not as obviously. Eliza’s white skin is the mask and Roxy’s white skin is the pass that allows her to put on the minstrel mask, and because of the blackface mask being allowed only for men, more thoroughly enter into maleness and thus citizenship.
[Another connotation of passing is passing as a euphemism for death. When white-skinned blacks choose to live as white rather than black, they kill many past ties and essentially become dead to their loved ones who are unable to, or choose not to, live as white. Thus, not only to the ones left behind, but also to society at large, the black person who once existed passes into death while a new white persona emerges.]