Dissertation – Chapter 6 – Conclusion: Minstrel Passing into American Citizenship (4 of 5)

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

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.

Brown and Twain, both male writers, use paint to accentuate maleness and bring Clotel and Roxy closer to male citizenship.  Like Stowe’s George who need only blacken up a “little” to achieve the “genteel brown” of a Spaniard (182), Clotel also blackens up a little so she can look more white and European, the original paradigm of American.  Roxy, however, blackens up a lot so that she can look like a black American.  The act of donning the blackface mask yields more citizenship privileges.  A little paint gives Clotel a relatively minor, although wholly unattainable without the ruse, privilege.  Clotel’s slightly darkened Spanish complexion gives her mastery over a white woman, the woman on the carriage with a romantic interest in Clotel.  A lot of paint gives Roxy mastery over a (presumably) white man.  Roxy orders Tom to get the money to buy her freedom, and he kowtows to her request.  Although Tom is not legally white, he is socially white in every way, and it is the social status that confers privilege to his whiteness.  So while Tom is not legally white, he is, in effect, a white man because society recognizes him as such.  Both episodes bring Clotel and Roxy closer to white male privilege, because of their blackened faces.  The blackening agent, according to William J. Mahar, allows the players to critique majority values while simultaneously upholding societal beliefs (1). Brown and Twain upend cultural notions of race and gender through Clotel’s and Roxy’s performances.  Yet these male authors bring their female characters closer to ideals of male citizenship because that is what they understand citizenship to be – male. 

Jocelyn Chadwick asserts that not until Twain’s Roxy do readers find a fictional mother “taking such measures and being rewarded in such a fashion” (90).  Linda A. Morris agrees with Chadwick averring that no Roxy “prototypes” exist in “male-authored literature” (69).  I submit the title character of William Wells Brown’s Clotel as the maverick mother predecessor of Mark Twain’s Roxy.  Both Twain’s Roxy and Brown’s Clotel take extreme measures that produce dubious rewards.  Like Roxy, Clotel reaches freedom yet willfully travels back into slave territory in order to find her child.  Again like Roxy, Clotel displays enough daring to perform in a blackface disguise.  Both characters are rewarded with the loss of their children.  Certainly Twain’s use of blackface and his characterization of Roxy differ from Brown’s use of the performance and his depiction of Clotel.  Both authors demonstrate distinction in purpose and style.  Nevertheless, instead of blazing a motherhood trail, Mark Twain travels down a fork in the path already established by William Wells Brown.  Both male authors find power in motherhood, but then by so stridently imposing maleness through the use of blackening agents, they virtually eradicate the mother bond.  Clotel dies before she finds her daughter, Mary.  Mary, who eventually lives abroad as a white woman, ultimately would have had to disown Clotel.  When Roxy switches the babies and the changeling Tom becomes her “accepted and recognized master,” she no longer views him as her son (Twain 20).  This self-deception varies little throughout the course of the novel.  At the novel’s conclusion, when all racial deceptions have been revealed, Roxy cannot share a maternal bond with anyone.  She feels nothing for her true son who gets sold down the river, and she cannot cross the racial gulf that now separates her from her adopted son.  In these novels, the female slave characters most closely approximate white male citizenship, which is US citizenship of the highest order, but they do so at the price of their motherhood, which initially animates and impels them to strive for that citizenship.

Conversely, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Hannah Crafts, the female authors, allow their slave women to retain and maintain their maternity and reunite permanently with their loved ones.  Eliza drops the male minstrel attire and resumes as Harry’s mother.  Hannah discards her male disguise, finds her mother and her friends, and begins her school.  It seems the feminine ideal of citizenship calls for forcing self into a male arena, grabbing privilege while it is available, and returning to womanhood to live out the privilege acquired while male.  This type of citizenship prohibits women from fully entering into the citizenry, but it allows them to exercise the virtues and equalities of feminism, while simultaneously allowing them to be women and mothers.  The male paradigm, as seen through Brown and Twain, erases the possibility to be both citizen and mother.  Stowe and Crafts, however, create a world in which women can be both.

In all four texts, feminism and racial deception form an alliance to demonstrate that women can use and usurp patriarchy and white supremacy to define their own spheres and to create their own lives and futures.  This partnership allows them to enact feminist narratives that become truth and believable.  Feminism also acknowledges the power of mothering and othermothering.  This power works in the novels through these women who create and fashion themselves.  They either are emboldened by motherhood, searching for a lost mother, attempting to control their own fertility, or any combination of the aforementioned.  The role of mothers cannot be separated from the theories of feminism.  And if mother/motherhood impels these slave women to enact racial deceptions, then those deceptions trace back to feminism, even if in its most nascent forms.

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