Reconfiguring Notions of Political Participation
Through the Narratives of Hannah Crafts and Harriet Jacobs
by Rebekah Hurt
In her narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs says, “If the secret memoirs of many members of Congress should be published, curious details would be unfolded” (142). Jacobs here, and throughout her narrative, reveals herself as a political outsider in all possible senses. She does not, herself, know what stories are told in the so-called “secret memoirs” of white, male, empowered politicians. She can only surmise what frightful and disturbing events and attitudes they must describe. In sharp contrast, Hannah Crafts, author of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, is and presents herself as the most intimate kind of political insider. She is for all intents and purposes – throughout her own story – writing the diary, the secret memoir, of her master, Mr. John Hill Wheeler. A focus on this point of intersection between the two women’s texts takes on a new and uncanny significance when one considers that the actual diary kept by the historical Congressman John Wheeler has been a major tool used in the authentication of the Crafts narrative. This important political figure kept a written record of virtually every day of his adult life. Records reveal, among other things, that at age twenty-one Wheeler became the youngest member ever elected to the North Carolina House of Commons. By his early forties, he would become a permanent presence on Capitol Hill, serving as close counselor and friend to Presidents Pierce, Jackson, Van Buren, Buchanan, and Johnson. He would also later serve as the American Minister to Nicaragua, then a Central American stronghold, where he would try to single-handedly claim the land and institute slavery, inadvertently ruining his political career in the process. That Hannah Crafts lives in and reproduces for the readers’ eyes the most intricate details of those secret political records and relationships ultimately has an enormous impact upon the connections she perceives herself as having to other slave women, to white Northern women, and to men of either race. Crafts’ recognition and narration of her unique personal position also subtly but profoundly alters the opportunities for political participation that she conceives as possible.
The Bondwoman’s Narrative, written by Hannah Crafts, self-described as “a fugitive slave, recently escaped from North Carolina,” was uncovered in 2001 and published in 2002 under the auspices of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. As the preface notes, the narrative is modeled on both gothic and sentimental novels, borrowing elements (and even whole excerpts of text) from Dickens, Scott, and Brontë, particularly, as well as from slave narratives such as that of Frederick Douglass and numerous Biblical passages. The narrative tells the story of Hannah’s upbringing at the ancient mansion of Lindale (cursed by patriarch Sir Clifford De Vincent and replete with moaning trees, moving paintings, and all mysterious occurrences imaginable), the marriage of her master to a “passing” mulatto, her attempted escape with the mulatto mistress, their capture by the evil slave-trader Mr. Trappe, and all the adventures that follow. After their brief imprisonment together, Hannah’s mistress dies suddenly of a burst blood vessel (in response to the immediate sexual threat posed by her “guardian”/tormentor Trappe) and Hannah is sold. Although, in a brilliant stroke of luck, the carriage conveying her to the home of her new master crashes, and she finds herself among a charitable white family. The matron of the family arranges for Hannah to be sold to a relative, Mrs. Wheeler, in order that Hannah should not fall once more into the hands of trader Trappe. At this, Hannah is swept away to Washington and into the high-profile world of Congressman Wheeler – that is, until an act of trickery on Hannah’s part forces the family to retreat to their North Carolina plantation in disgrace. When confronted there by a furious and embarrassed Mrs. Wheeler, Hannah is ordered to take a husband among and live with the vile field slaves; she chooses instead to run. Disguising herself as a white man and then as a white woman, and receiving help from an old white friend and childhood teacher Aunt Hetty, Hannah escapes successfully to the North where she marries happily, becomes a school teacher, and fortuitously meets up with the mother that she never knew.
While the particulars of their experiences and writing styles obviously differ, it is nevertheless evident that Harriet Jacobs and Hannah Crafts perform comparable acts of narrative resistance within their respective texts. Inevitably, many observations regarding The Bondwoman’s Narrative reinforce critical perspectives long-established on Incidents, while other points of the Crafts narrative seem to undermine or to render incomplete past analyses of Jacobs. One such analysis of Incidents requiring revision or amendment in relation to the post-Crafts canon is that offered by critic Lauren Berlant. Berlant, in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, uses Jacobs to establish a standard and example of stunning political and sexual revolt that she suggests should be more carefully attended to and analyzed as its legacy is perpetuated in the contemporary world of continued race and gender tensions. In short, Berlant claims that “Disgusted by the soul-killing effects of unjust rhetorical and sexual power, Jacobs seizes the master’s tools of misrecognition and affective distortion and turns them back, not on the master, but on the nation” (225). She cites one specific scene from Jacobs’ Incidents to prove her case:
One woman begged me to get a newspaper and read it over. She said her husband told her that the black people had sent word to the queen of ‘Merica that they were all slaves; that she didn’t believe it, and went to Washington city to see the president about it. They quarreled; she drew her sword upon him, and swore that he should help her to make them all free.
That poor, ignorant woman thought that American was governed by a Queen, to whom the President was subordinate. I wish the President was subordinate to Queen Justice. (Jacobs 45)
Berlant claims that in envisioning an alternate political atmosphere, entirely incompatible with the popularly recognized fantasies and accepted restraints of the existent system (in the form of the militant American savior the Queen of ‘Merica/Justice), Jacobs performs an act of substantial personal revolt. Berlant and others have extended this argument to encompass Jacob’s narrative Incidents as a whole.
In describing the act of political and sexual struggle or self-validation potentially submitted by such a testimony and such a text, Berlant coins the term “Diva Citizenship” to define the act which occurs when
A person stages a dramatic coup in a public sphere in which she does not have privilege…she renarrates the dominant history as one that the abjected people have once lived sotto voce, but no more; and she challenges her audience to identify with the enormity of the suffering she has narrated and the courage she has had to produce, calling on people to change the social and institutional practices of citizenship to which they currently consent. (223)
Harriet Jacobs is, then, Berlant argues, worthy of being called a Diva Citizen herself.
While Berlant’s reasoning seems initially flashy, thrilling and perhaps intuitively correct, it is nonetheless difficult to articulate exactly how Jacobs’ “diva speech” performs a truly lasting and substantial act of political or ideological reformation – whether within or without of the narrative itself. Dana Nelson in The Word in Black and White agrees with Berlant, saying that “Incidents effectively undercuts racialist epistemology of the pre-Civil War era,” (3) yet it is my observation that Jacobs confronts the political reality of her era on only several occasions, and even then indirectly and to questionable consequence. First, in the instance where Jacobs is speaking of the Queen of ‘Merica, she simultaneously claims and disowns an alternate notion of political reality. Ultimately, I come down on the side of Berlant, in saying that Jacobs’ rhetorical and ideological commitment, here, are to a different kind of government and people, however apparently nonsensical that alternative might be. I merely wish to show, by pointing to this rhetorical instability, that a case for Jacobs as the model Diva is complicated and somewhat shaky from the very start.
Moving beyond this one specific excerpt, we see that Incidents’ interplay with political reality is extraordinarily limited. Aside from this moment where Jacobs speaks of the Queen of ‘Merica and the other things that “slaves are taught to think of the North,” we might say that Jacobs confronts the political in her generalized description of the Nat Turner Rebellion or in her sexual liaison with Mr. Sands, who eventually becomes a senator of slight merit. Admittedly, the structure of the narrative is such that, interestingly, (as Rowe notes in At Emerson’s Tomb) the brief allusions to moments of political rebellion seem deliberately juxtaposed with moments of domestic, personal, sexual intrusion. This creates enhanced meaning for both the political and sexual limitations and invasions that Berlant is talking about. For example, the pairing of the scenes from chapters X/XI and XII in Incidents, depicting Jacob’s acceptance of Sands, her pregnancy, and the pillaging and violence following the Turner rebellion create a tension between the limits of sexual and socio-political or legal violation and suppression. However, for all this potential connection, Jacobs still retreats wholeheartedly into the “loophole of domesticity” for the majority of her narration. As part of a pre-Crafts canon, these types of narration might logically be focused upon, as the most relatively important political encounters. But now these moments pale in comparison to the non-stop political whirlwind created by The Bondwoman’s Narrative. I will argue that Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative represents a much more viable act of narrative resistance, of “diva speech” than does Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl.
“Technologies of Patience,” Depictions of the Dominant
For all of its veiled historical veracity (the correspondence of Jacob’s locations, characters, and frames of reference to actual places, people, time periods and events), Jacob’s Incidents does not engage at length with any of the political figures or events of its era, at least, not nearly to the extent that The Bondwoman’s Narrative sets out to do. While Incidents does depict the “politically” overarching system of slavery and the lack of “participation” or “representation” afforded voices like those of women or slaves or slave women, it does not seem effectively conscious of or directed against the real political actors responsible for those shortcomings. What most immediately weakens an analysis of Jacobs’ narrative as an incidence of diva speech is its failure to directly establish a background of the dominant ideology to stand out against. It fails, in Berlant’s terminology, to adequately illuminate the “technologies of patience” that “enable subaltern people to seem to consent to, or take responsibility for, their painful contexts” (222) in relationship to the narrative revolts which are meant to correspond to and contrast against them. Ideally, an act of Diva Citizenship would be clearly established as a revolt against not some entirely abstract and unidentifiable perpetrator, but against the specific “technologies of patience,” the tools or fingers of the dominant political mytho-logical structure which manifest themselves in practical and observable ways. In The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Crafts recognizes and neatly establishes for the reader an informed and detailed outline of these technologies. The Bondwoman’s Narrative engages the reader with the personal and public political histories of Mr. John Hill Wheeler. In so doing, Crafts’ narrative creates a depiction of Washington as unabashedly corrupt, misguided, and condemnable, but not impenetrable.
Crafts demonstrates from the first page of her narrative her “silent unobtrusive way of observing things and events, and wishing to understand them better than I could” (5). Time and time again throughout her narrative she will employ this “way of observing” to depict the very mechanisms of intimidation, the technologies of patience, which hang out of the prevailing political fabric to entangle the minds of less perceptive slaves. Part of the dominant mythology she observes and works against from the beginning is the sort represented by the De Vincents, whose imposing portraits she secretly surveys hanging on the gloomy Gothic walls of her first home. This line of men represents white wealth and white power, but also a usurpation of fundamental humanity and values which Hannah grasps in a way not understood by any of her fellow slaves. Again, she repeats, “I have said that I always had a quiet way of observing things…instead of books I studied faces and characters, and arrived at conclusions by a sort of sagacity that closely approximated to the unerring certainty of animal instinct” (28). Hannah’s observations about the political characters and legacies around her are detailed, honest, and striking for what they reveal about the manipulation and trickery necessary for personal survival in her world.
Crafts also observes and fights against the hypocrisy of philosophies such as the one presented, later, by Mr. Trappe as he apprehends Hannah and the mulatto Mistress mid-way through their first escape attempt. When Trappe sermonizes,
We are all slaves to something or somebody. A man perfectly free would be an anomaly and a free woman yet more so. Freedom and slavery are only names attached surreptitiously and often improperly to certain conditions. They are mere shadows the very reverse of realities, and being so, if rightly considered, they have only a trifling effect on individual happiness. (101)
Hannah recognizes and narratively attacks the kind of moral relativism that allows this passive, blameless approach to slavery and other types of personal cruelty and corruption. In her essay, Berlant notes a parallel attitude in the Mr. Sands of Incidents. For example, she says, “The Congressman whose sexual pleasure and sense of self-worth have been secured by the institution of slavery is corrupted by his proximity to national power…Sawyer (Sands) speaks the language of personal ethics…his privilege under the law makes its specific constraints irrelevant to him” (234). However, it is Berlant’s and not Jacobs’ voice that presents the recognition of Sand’s ethical sleight-of-hand. Part of the increased power of The Bondwoman’s Narrative over Incidents is that Crafts clearly recognizes the existence of such moral maneuvering, while it is not clear that Jacobs ever sees the attitudes of her lover-turned-politician for what they really are. Jacobs is not able to gauge effectively the standards which govern the interactions of her acquaintances, and therefore, is entirely unable to manipulate them in a manner advantageous to herself.
Moving beyond these two examples of family/capitalistic/genealogical and moral/philosophical technologies of patience, I want to re-center my focus on the realm of “hard politics,” to illustrate precisely the engagement with technologies of patience that seems to matter most. When speaking of the nation’s capital and its political systems, Crafts creates a Washington that is, as she understands it, not simply divided on racial terms, but also segregated by nuances of economic class, social disposition, and personal morality and reputation. For instance, in one episode Hannah recounts a conversation she overhears between Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler regarding the white competition for office:
“If I could only obtain that situation.”
“Why can’t you, is there opposition?” inquired the lady.
“Opposition,” repeats her husband, “why there were two hundred applicants there today, crowding and jamming each other…There was one, a blacksmith’s son from New York, who actually had the insolence to smile when I recommended myself as being the most proper person from my extensive acquaintances with political business.”
“A blacksmith’s son,” repeated the lady with a sparkle of the eyes and an agitation of manner. “A blacksmith’s son indeed; an Abolitionist I dare say, who would reverse the order of nature, and place Negroes at the top instead of at the bottom of society. Really smiled at you, the wretch.”
The next day it was ascertained that the blacksmith’s son had obtained the appointment. (166)
In identifying the numerous factors that determine one’s political influence in Washington, Crafts demonstrates not only her knowledge of the system, but her growing acceptance of the fact that while excluded and disenfranchised on many fronts, her opportunities are not entirely absent nor, at any point, destroyed.
“Diva Speech,” Redefining the Power and Purpose
Having established some sense of the dominant political backdrop which Hannah and her speech acts threaten to overthrow, I now turn to inquire, what is the “power” of these speech acts? How do they work within the narratives? In The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Hannah, the character, creates alternative realities for herself much in the same way that Hannah the author does, by throwing together the real and the fictionalized, the cruel and exclusionary with the imagined and the empowered. She takes political anecdotes and existing conditions such as the obvious class and political schisms within the political stratums and exploits such observations for her own, personal benefit. What determines the varying success or “power” of her multiple incidences of diva speech are the extent to which the rest of the community sits up and takes notice and the extent to which they are able to grasp her real, underlying political motive and agenda (which involves recognizing their own shortcomings or hypocrisies) rather than simply passing it off as amusing or exceptional. In part, this building of resistive power, the honing of narrative skills and personal prowess comes from watching others. Hannah Crafts becomes a diva citizen by learning from the women and the slaves around her.
One woman from whom Hannah learns, not the art of diva speech, but a complicated form of submission and “passing,” (which in itself betokens a different cultural resistance of sorts) is her first mistress, a woman initially described by Hannah with suspicion. Even before anyone else in the community has any reason to doubt the “purity” of the mistress’ blood line, Hannah says, “I felt that there was a mystery, something indefinable about her. She was a small brown woman, with a profusion of wavy curly hair, large bight eyes, and delicate features with the exception of her lips which were too large, full, and red” (27). The mystery behind Mistress’s identity, in short, is that she is actually the daughter of a slave woman and her master. Hannah comes upon this dramatic piece of information by accident, as she is situated behind a heavy curtain in the library reading a book, unable to remove herself when the conversation between Trappe and her mistress begins just feet away. The discovery of her mistress’ African heritage is not shocking to Hannah, but proves a major source of turmoil for the girl as she considers how to best protect and free herself. The mistress’ apparent weakness, indecision, and psychological instability make for a tremendous source of inconvenience and irritation for Hannah as she attempts to construct a plan of escape. The technology of patience in this instance is Mr. Trappe’s constant threats to reveal the mistress’ secret, as he tells her, “It is not your secret, but mine, and may be your husband’s before another day, as any former reason that I might have, and did have for keeping it have ceased to exist” (39). This looming possibility had haunted the mistress for her entire life, and the example of terror set by her and the domineering Mr. Trappe to whom she submits, in turn provides the oppressive mythology necessary to keep Hannah in her place – at least temporarily. Hannah and the Mistress escape at Hannah’s prompting and it is Hannah’s interpretation of and response to the Mistress’ story that fuels her continued motivation to be free, long after the mind of the Mistress becomes “seriously effected” and “decidedly insane” (69).
Along the route of their escape, the mistress and Hannah come in contact with one other potential source of diva speech who, although a relatively minor character, provides an important addition to the heroine’s evolving outlook. Old woman Wright is the sole inhabitant of the prison into which the two fugitives are temporarily thrust. Even upon their meeting, Hannah is already communicating the irony and protest of her position, saying, “At finding ourselves and without having committed any crime, thus introduced into one of the legal fortresses of a country celebrated throughout the world for the freedom…of its laws, I could not help reflecting on the strange ideas of right and justice that seemed to have usurped a place in public opinion” (78-9). Hannah describes the woman by saying, “She was the victim of mental hallucination, and strangely enough believed that these miserable cells were palace halls” (82). When Wright is allowed to speak for herself, she makes a striking comment to the women, saying, “I see you are strangers here…I was a stranger here myself, and it was sometimes before I learned to appreciate all the comforts of the place. I have the honor of living here now, and I live well and easy too” (83). She continues – and it is in this fragment that I am most interested – noting, “The state cares for me, provides for me, furnishes me a home – very motherly and good is the state” (83). Crafts concludes with Wright’s lament, “ ‘Misery dwells in palaces, I always heard that’ and her eyes wandered over the rough walls, and the high dark ceiling with an admiring and complacent look” (83).
The configuration of the state as maternal – a strange reformation of the “domestic” front – is consistent with Berlant’s observation that part of the power of diva speech is that it seeks to banish “the ‘private identity / public world’ distinction to the dustbin of modernist history” (223). Hannah understands the process that Mrs. Wright is rhetorically presenting, she says, “She [Mrs. Wright] connected it with ideas of home, a home that the state with great trouble and expense prepared for her…all this she told me…in a way that would have been diverting, had I not reflected on all she must have suffered before her mind gave way” (86). Mrs. Wright’s revolt is also against the values of domesticity and her imprisonment provides the danger of being falsely assumed as punishment for that particular transgression, as Hannah says quite particularly, “Without consulting her husband, or informing her children, she…took Ellen by her side and drove away” (85).
Hannah, at this point, reclaims the narration, saying, “I felt a strange curiosity to ascertain what grand or beautiful semblances her diseased fancy had given to the hard coarse stones” (83). Hannah’s curiosity and lapping up of Wright’s mythology does not end here. In a sumptuous style which comes to characterize all the text, this woman’s story contains multiple others, all meant to convey powerful political and personal agendas and slants of half-shaped counterpropaganda. Mrs. Wright tells the story of how she assisted her slave Ellen to escape. This is a portentous tale because it foreshadows exactly the means whereby Hannah will finally remove herself from the Wheelers’ plantation and the grasp of Mr. Trappe. Even at the moment of its digestion, we can see the effects of Mrs. Wright’s own watered-down version of pseudo-diva speech working on Hannah as she snaps to the prison guard, “Who cares for the rules…You must certainly be an independent man, you know very well what is necessary” (80).
The real power of counter-narrative, however, is demonstrated by Hannah’s lingering knowledge of a Mrs. Jane Johnson. As the bits and pieces of Jane’s story come out through the text, we eventually learn that this woman is in fact one of the most famous escapees of her era. As Gates notes, “This case was one of the first challenges to the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850…This single observation would turn out to be the most important clue in establishing crucial details about Hannah Crafts’ life as a slave” (lix). Mrs. Wheeler, the former owner of Jane and soon-to-be-mistress of Hannah recounts the anecdote of Jane’s escape, beginning, “As I knew that Washington was swarming with the enemies of our domestic institution...” (154). Whereas the story of her first mistress kept Hannah temporarily submissive, Jane’s story refigured her new masters, the nation’s capital, and the political system in general as more accessible than previously proven or imagined.
Jane refuses to be stifled by Wheeler. While the narrative itself does not entirely fill all the gaps for the modern-day reader, Gates’ introduction completes the story and it seems these comments must be taken hand-in-hand with our present understanding of the unearthed text. In any case, Jane had been instructed by Wheeler not to speak to any of the Washington blacks. She broke the silence of Wheeler’s watch by, as Still’s notes recount, repeatedly saying “distinctly and firmly, ‘I am not freed, but I want my freedom – ALWAYS wanted to be free. But he holds me’ ” (lxiv). In sum, Hannah is tremendously influenced and empowered by the actions, the counter-mythologies, the acts of diva speech of women such as Jane. In fact, this impact is mirrored in a material sense, when Hannah finds the costume and implements she needs to dress as a man, to escape, laid in a trunk as if left specifically for her by someone (i.e. Jane) with the same idea. The diva mentality functions almost like a pair of clothing just waiting for her to put it on. Hannah says, then,
Here was a suit of male apparel exactly corresponding to my size and figure. To whom it had belonged or who had worn it was alike a mystery to me. Neither did I care; it would answer my purpose and that was sufficient…they wonderfully facilitated my transformation of myself. That done….I stood a moment to collect my thoughts and then starting ran for my life (216).
“A Turn of the Wheel,” A New Diva Citizen
Hannah soon performs her own act of Diva Citizenship. The anecdote I am particularly interested in appears in chapter thirteen of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, ironically entitled “A Turn of the Wheel.” In this chapter, Hannah Crafts’ master, John Wheeler, has just been dishonorably dismissed from his most recent political post, and he continues searching for a new job in Washington. When none of his dirty tactics are successful in procuring a position for Wheeler, an important, gendered turn in made in the narration to discuss the role of political wives in swaying public policy. Ultimately, Mr. Wheeler convinces his wife to make a specific chain of visits around the capital in the hopes of furthering his professional agenda. Just before going out, Mrs. Wheeler commands Hannah to cover her with a new and trendy miracle cosmetic powder. When she returns home, bewildered by the humiliation and rejection she has experienced, Mrs. Wheeler is informed by the mistakably white mulatto Hannah that her perfume has reacted with the powder to dye Wheeler’s face completely black.
He [her husband] inquired who had insulted her.
“Why everybody” she replied, making another demonstration of hysterics… “At any rate I gave your name as that of my husband, and when Mr. Cattell said ‘by courtesy perhaps.’ I said ‘No, by law’ when they all burst into a titter.”
“Then you really asked Cattell for the office?”
“Certainly I did.”
“And what did he say?”
“That it was not customary to bestow offices on colored people, at which Mrs. Piper blustered and said that ‘would be very unconstitutionally indeed.’ ‘Then you positively refuse this office to my husband?’ I said going down on my knee. ‘Positively, and if either you or him had possessed a particle of common sense, you would not have asked for it.’…I bade him farewell and came away, determining as that was my first, it should be my last attempt at office seeking.” (154)
How does this act of diva speech do what it does? In speaking of the Jacobs’ excerpt presented earlier, Berlant says that Jacobs, in entertaining this alternate possibility of political participation, counters “what Haraway has called ‘the informatics of domination’ ” (226). She continues,
Jacobs dislocates the nation from its intelligible official forms. She opens up a space in which the national politics of corporeal identity becomes displayed on a monarchical body, and thus interferes with the fantasy norms of democratic abstraction; in doing so, she creates an American history so riddled with the misrecognitions of mass nationality that it is unthinkable in its typical form, as a narrative about sovereign subjects and their rational political representation. (226)
Crafts, in the above “black face” excerpt, performs an equally captivating, if not far stronger, “dislocation” involving the politics of the body and the American body politic.
Another mechanism whereby diva speech functions as such is in the extent to which its speakers “behave as native informants to an imperial power; that is, they mimed the privileges of citizenship in the context of particular national emergencies” (Berlant 227). This “miming” of citizenship seems an essential point of analysis. Before we go on to examine the more complex political effects and reaches of these texts, we must first admit their fundamental importance on this point of establishing, taking unpermitted, the privileges of citizenship – the privilege to speak at all.
Berlant calls the production of this undercover act, “what might be read as a counter-pornography of citizenship” (228). Berlant’s terming of this a “counterpornography” is fascinating and instructive. In the same way that the exploitation of black women, particularly, is violently suited to the satisfaction of some perverse psycho-social need or desire, the acts of narrative resistance performed by these women create a titillating, threatening, and above all, overwhelming wave of stimulus. They imply something voyeuristic or still latently corrupt. A question prompted by Berlant’s terminology might ask whether the narrators continue to exploit themselves, just in a different way, through their particular acts of diva speech and through their narratives themselves. The risk for Jacobs, it seems, was to fall outside the feminine norms and prevailing public sensibilities. For Crafts, the stakes constituted an immediate threat to her dignity, sexual control, and means of subsistence. If these were the consequences of her diva speech, what did she stand to gain? What kind of social impact would really justify the personal sacrifice that Diva Citizenship necessitates?
The evidence of Hannah’s influence, within the narrative, is wrought on several significant levels, among them, the personal level of Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler, the societal level in Washington, among the slaves at the North Carolina plantation, and in the consciousness of Hannah herself. These are the primary tiers upon which Hannah’s diva speech have power. On the personal level, as effecting her relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler, Hannah has the bemused privilege of hearing ironic and hypocritical reversals of her masters’ opinions that prove her own impact. Hannah says, listening to Mrs. Wheeler on the trip out of Washington, “It was really astonishing what a bad opinion she entertained of the Capital, how heartily she detested office-seekers, and how much she pitied that poor man, the President, who was dunned and worried by them till almost ready to break his neck to escape their importunities” (202). She goes on to quote Mrs. Wheeler further,
It really appears that some of them must pass their whole lives looking and intriguing for an office, and it matters little how it is what it is, or what principle it involves. It matters still less what duties are attached to it; for all these gentlemen consider themselves competent for any station under the sun…in short their is nothing short of possible or impossible that they would not do or try. (202)
Hannah closes, saying, “I thought it very funny that Mrs. Wheeler should inveigh so loudly against office-seekers when herself and husband had both tried their hands at the same game” (203). Here, it is obvious that Crafts notes the irony of the situation, that the suddenly self-righteous couple “had both tried their hands at the same game.” Hannah also seems to realize her own act in effecting that transformation of their opinions (or at least professed opinions). Although in the narrative Hannah claims not to have had anything to do with the blackface episode and passes off Wheeler’s reaction as a failure to recognize the real heart of the matter, her own “vanity,” the narrative makes clear that the insult is far beyond a matter of “vanity,” and rather one of dire political satire. On this point alone, the level of a slave to her masters, we see that there can be no corresponding cause-and-effect relationship in Incidents. There is no evidence in Jacobs’ narratives that her Queen Justice or her translation of the Queen of ‘Merica fantasy effects any members of the dominant, controlling socio-political group.
On the social level, it is clear that word of Hannah’s act of revolt has spread with equally curious consequences. Hannah laughingly says, “Mrs. Wheeler like Byron woke up in the morning and found herself famous” (174). Several excerpts from the text illustrate this point, and in this instance, I would like to quote from them at length in order to demonstrate the real extent of Hannah’s impact.
In the circle where Mrs. Wheeler has been most popular she is discussed with the most perfect freedom…the rumor flies from sphere to sphere, from circle to circle… Even kitchens and cellars grew merry and chatty over it. Faces black by nature were puckered with excessive exultation that one had become so by artificial means…Mrs. Wheeler’s notoriety extended to her husband…His affairs were sagely discussed in financial circles…Even the price of his last year’s cotton crop, the value of his estate in North Carolina, and the number of his slaves was retailed by bar-tenders and post-boys with great satisfaction. Some went so far as to think that political capital might be made of it, and even the nomination of the next President influenced thereby. Finding themselves [Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler] the subjects of such unwelcome notoriety, they concluded to forsake the capital and remove to their estate. (175)
Back on the plantation, the news of Hannah’s trickery fuels differing emotions among her fellow slaves. In particular, Mrs. Wheeler’s regular waiting-maid Maria becomes fiercely jealous of Hannah’s proximity to Wheeler and undertakes to exclude and to sabotage Hannah in every possible way she can conceive. By this point in the narrative, it becomes clear to the reader that Hannah’s continual internalization and repetition of diva speeches (within, as oppossed to through, the narrative) is forcing her into a more direct, physical, practical kind of personal revolt. Wheeler says to her,
You don’t pretend to say that you haven’t told all the servants in this house the misfortune that happened to me at Washington…With all your pretty airs and your white face, you are nothing but a slave after all, and no better than the blackest wench. …Your pride shall be broke, your haughty spirit brought down. (208-10)
“A Shaming Exposé,” Short and Long-Term Impacts
In his essay “Of Human Bondage and Literary Triumphs,” Adebayo Williams comments on the value of this blackface excerpt, saying, “In this capping scene, Hannah Crafts revealed herself as an authentic black heroine. She identified the mission of her generation and then fulfilled it, to leave for posterity a shaming exposé of the society that permitted slavery” (5). Williams goes on to laud Crafts as a “freedom fighter,” a “liberator,” and a “female conquistador” (5). While I agree with his assessment of Crafts as a veritably remarkable figure, a real Diva Citizen, I strongly disagree with his criteria for that evaluation. I disagree with Williams’ suggestion that Crafts’ narrative is merely a “shaming exposé” and likewise I disagree with Berlant’s statement that “diva speech does not change the world,” meaning the real, concrete, contemporaneous socio-political world in which the speech occurs. I will argue that while Diva speech does leave the “shaming exposé” it sometimes does – and therefore should be expected to – also hold immediate, concrete, transformative potential for the individual who dares to speak it.
Hannah Crafts’, the character’s, act of diva speech is meaningful to her in her immediate situation as it helps her to escape from slavery. The character Crafts’ diva speech, we can reasonably believe, is also meaningful for the example that it establishes for her contemporaries, for her fellow slaves and women. Just as the narratives of her mistress, old woman Wright, Wright’s slave Ellen, and, especially, Jane Johnson impact Hannah’s ability to create free space and participation for herself, it seems logical to conclude that Hannah’s narrative, in turn, provides this possibility and this ideological stimulus for others in her community.
Of course, it bears noting that even within the political realism of Crafts’ narrative as a whole, this blackface episode may very likely be partially or entirely made-up. How might this imaginative liberty be incorporated into our analysis? In my estimation, the fact that Crafts fictionalizes this powerful episode does not diminish its strength as a point of personal narrative resistance and political reconfiguration. Rather, the fact that Crafts is able to so expertly shape such a meaningful fictional scene from her factual, real, political experiences further demonstrates her mastery of Washington’s dominant psycho-social dynamics. In short, she knows the white, powerful, male, political in-group better than it knows itself.
All this is not to undermine the additional importance of that “shaming exposé” mentioned by Williams. The legacy and continued message these echoing acts of diva speech provide to readers after their authors’ deaths, today, in the future, will be of equal importance. So, then, what is the comparison to be made between the effects of these texts as literary texts, as they appeared both in their period of composition and in our time, today? At the time of its publication, Incidents cannot be said to have reached a wide or expansive audience. In our own time, Jacobs’ narrative nearly remained relegated to the shadows, until the extensive work of Jean Fagan-Yellin authoritatively and finally authenticated the narrative and made claims for its canonical importance. Obviously, The Bondwoman’s Narrative was not published at all in any period even remotely connected to its era of composition. What are we to make of this? Is publication a standard by which the impact of “diva speech” should be decided? If not, what
changes or clarifications does this necessitate in our definition? The work that The Bondwoman’s Narrative has done, is doing, and may continue to do in the twenty-first century sheds light upon this debate.
As scholars continue fighting to determine once and for all the historical identity of the author of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, her race, and circumstances, these questions continue to be relevant. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has touted several particular possible identities for Hannah. Thomas Parramore in his 2004 essay “The Bondwoman and the Bureaucrat” provides extensive biographical information on John Wheeler, Hannah’s supposed master, and his contemporaries, suggesting, ultimately, that the woman who wrote The Bondwoman’s Narrative most likely never set foot in North Carolina and other of the narrative’s settings. Regardless of the circumstances of their composition, the “secret memoirs” will indisputably have returned our focus to this tumultuous historical period and provided greater insight into the fallibilities of racial politics and the challenges that continue to plague our contemporary socio-political systems.
“Sex and Citizenship,” Finding a Distinction
In Berlant’s analysis, the lines between political and sexual subjugation are blurred. Berlant asserts that the nation’s “coerced sexualization is both banal and a terrorizing strategy of control in the interstices of democracy” (221). In order to understand the real stakes of this “terrorizing strategy,” we must look to Jacobs’ and Crafts’ responses to “coerced sexualization” in their narratives. In the same way that Jacobs’ avoids engagement with the political realities of her time, she also shies away from discussion of the sexual politics involved in her experience and exploitation. Crafts, by contrast, in constructing her portrait of Washington politics, links
that portrayal inextricably with the scenes of sexual bartering, badinage, and betrayal that always underlay it.
The key point where Berlant’s analysis takes flight into the arguably apolitical is when she states, “Here I want to focus on how these intimate encounters with power structure Jacobs’ handling of the abstract problem of nationality as it is experienced – not as an idea, but as a force in social life, in experiences that mark the everyday” (233). Something more complex is going on in Crafts. In fact, an examination of the precise bodily alteration that occurs in The Bondwoman’s Narrative is crucial to an understanding of both the sexual/sentimental and hard “politics” that are at play. The most dramatic instance of this physical focus is, again, the moment in the narrative when Mrs. Wheeler’s face is dyed black. What is happening here? In the moment of Crafts experience sexual threat and her subsequent escape from slavery, what is going on that makes her story different from Jacobs’? As Gates notes, “Crafts chooses her blackness willingly, in other words, just as she chooses her class identity” (lxxxiii) and, I might add, just as she chooses her sexuality and gender.
What is fascinating about the Crafts text is that it performs such an active engagement of narrative revolt, against what appears to be such a wide range of generalized social and political targets, but ultimately it becomes less clear against whom exactly her rhetorical attacks are aimed. Specifically, I am thinking of the beginning of chapter twenty-one, “In Freedom,” where Crafts says, “I found the friends of the slave in the free state just as good as kind and hospitable as I had always heard they were” (244). This statement strikes an instant discord with the chapter of Jacobs’ narrative, “What Slaves are Taught to Think of the North,” which Berlant takes up with such fervor. Where Incidents takes great pains to illuminate the numerous falsehoods that slaves are indoctrinated with, The Bondwoman’s Narrative seems to affirm the surety and lack of apprehension as a natural condition in the process of learning and becoming free.
What are the consequences of such an analysis? As Berlant demands, “What would it mean to write a genealogy of sex in American in which unjust sexual power was attributed not to an individual, not to patriarchy, but to the nation itself?” (221). Berlant’s answer is to suggest that “such an account would expose the circuits of erotic and political dominance that have permeated collective life in the United States…and it would demonstrate the perverse play of attraction and aversion in the political life of the polis” (221). What are the hopes for the audience? What purpose does the Diva-speaker hope to accomplish? Berlant suggests that “Her witnessing turns into a scene of teaching and an act of heroic pedagogy, in which the subordinated person feels compelled to recognize the privileged ones, to believe in their capacity to learn and to change; to trust their desire to not be inhuman; and trust their innocence of the degree to which their obliviousness has supported a system of political subjugation” (222). As Berlant states, the synergy between texts of this nature offers “an opportunity to rethink and to remake radically the lexicons, contexts, and publics central to the story of being American” (222). The most central idea to take away from this re-reading of Crafts (and Jacobs) is, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. states in his introduction to The Bondwoman’s Narrative,
Often when reading black authors in the nineteenth century, one feels that the authors are censoring themselves. But Hannah Crafts writes the way we can imagine black people talked to – and about – one another when white auditors were not around, and not the way abolitionists thought they talked, or black authors thought they should talk or wanted white readers to believe they talked. This is a voice we have rarely, if ever, heard before. (xxxvii)
In sum, I would like to point out that not only does The Bondwoman’s Narrative inarguably provide a much more useful political sourcebook for our time than narratives such as Jacobs’. Not only will it withstand the same critical proddings and pressures as have been applied to Jacobs’ text. But, moreover, because it appears as an unmediated text, and because it was written by a woman who occupied such an extraordinarily unique role within the political atmosphere of her time, the Crafts narrative offers a far greater wealth of information on a far broader spectrum of political issues. Simply because of its primary status as a slave narrative, continuing critical work on The Bondwoman’s Narrative should not hesitate to draw from the text previously untapped kinds of socio-political conclusions.
Berlant, Lauren. The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and
Citizenship. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1997.
Crafts, Hannah. The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York:
Warner Books, 2002.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Hollis Robbins, Eds. In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on
The Bondwoman’s Narrative. New York: BasicCivitas, 2004.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987.
Nelson, Dana D. The Word in Black and White: Reading “Race” in American Literature,
1638-1867. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
Parramore, Thomas. “The Bondwoman and the Bureaucrat.” Gates 354-370.
Rowe, John Carlos. At Emerson’s Tomb: The Politics of Classic American Literature.
New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
Williams, Adebayo. “Of Human Bondage and Literary Triumphs: Hannah Crafts and the
Morphology of the Slave Narrative.” Research in African Literatures. 34.1 (2003):