Feb 242011

Clotel is an 1853 novel written by escaped slave William Wells Brown. This is a classic abolitionist novel, much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it also borrows from the sentimental novel with separated lovers and broken-up families. It’s rather anecdotal and melodramatic, but it does explicate the idea that the institution of slavery creates misery, and furthermore, that this is not restricted to blacks.

It does give a good sense of what life was like in the ante-bellum South:

“Yes,” interrupted Huckelby [an overseer of slaves]; “them’s just my sentiments now, and no mistake. I think that, for the honour of our country, this slavery business should stop. I don’t own any, no how, and I would not be an overseer if I wern’t paid for it.”

(Were there amateur slave overseers?) I can easily imagine some white person in the ante-bellum South saying that with a mild shrug. It indicates just how entrenched the peculiar institution was in the culture of the South, so much so that people who didn’t care for it still couldn’t really do much.

It’s also based on what must have been quite the sex scandal of the day, the rumored progeny of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. In this case, it’s a slave woman named Currer and her daughters, Althesa and Clotel, who can pass for white. Currer and her daughters looked and acted like they could have been part of the new American aristocracy; instead, they were sold as slaves.

Slavery promoted sexual jealousy between women and destabilized family life in general:

Mrs. French was severe in the extreme to her servants. Well dressed, but scantily fed, and overworked were all who found a home with her. The quadroon had been in her new home but a short time ere she found that her situation was far different from what it was in Virginia. What social virtues are possible in a society of which injustice is the primary characteristic? in a society which is divided into two classes, masters and slaves? Every married woman in the far South looks upon her husband as unfaithful, and regards every quadroon servant as a rival. Clotel had been with her new mistress but a few days, when she was ordered to cut off her long hair. The Negro, constitutionally, is fond of dress and outward appearance. He that has short, woolly hair, combs it and oils it to death. He that has long hair, would sooner have his teeth drawn than lose it. However painful it was to the quadroon, she was soon seen with her hair cut as short as any of the full-blooded Negroes in the dwelling.

An unexpected aspect of this novel is the strong emphasis on destabilizing the simple equation of black=slave/white=free. Most of the main characters are “tragic mulatto” types. Race is fungible, and transformation is possible, as Mrs. French attempts to make Clotel “blacker” (and presumably less attractive) by cutting her hair. In another passage, Horatio’s wife is jealous of his child by Clotel, Mary, and “broils” her:

At first Mary was put to work in the kitchen, where she met with little or no sympathy from the other slaves, owing to the fairness of her complexion. The child was white, what should be done to make her look like other Negroes, was the question Mrs. Green asked herself. At last she hit upon a plan: there was a garden at the back of the house over which Mrs. Green could look from her parlour window. Here the white slave-girl was put to work, without either bonnet or handkerchief upon her head. A hot sun poured its broiling rays on the naked face and neck of the girl, until she sank down in the corner of the garden, and was actually broiled to sleep. “Dat little nigger ain’t working a bit, missus,” said Dinah to Mrs. Green, as she entered the kitchen.

“She’s lying in the sun, seasoning; she will work better by and by,” replied the mistress. “Dees white niggers always tink dey sef good as white folks,” continued the cook. “Yes, but we will teach them better; won’t we, Dinah?” “Yes, missus, I don’t like dees mularter niggers, no how: dey always want to set dey sef up for something big.” The cook was black, and was not without that prejudice which is to be found among the Negroes, as well as among the whites of the Southern States. The sun had the desired effect, for in less than a fortnight Mary’s fair complexion had disappeared, and she was but little whiter than any other mulatto children running about the yard.

Another episode, reportedly a true story, tells of a German woman who was basically press-ganged into slavery.

When the hot season came on, my master [not her owner], with his wife, left New Orleans until the hot season was over, and took me with them. They stopped at a town on the banks of the Mississippi river, and said they should remain there some weeks. One day they went out for a ride, and they had not been one more than half an hour, when two men came into the room and told me that they had bought me, and that I was their slave. I was bound and taken to prison, and that night put on a steamboat and taken up the Yazoo river, and set to work on a farm. I was forced to take up with a Negro, and by him had three children. A year since my master’s daughter was married, and I was given to her. She came with her husband to this city, and I have ever since been hired out.

In other words, no woman is safe in a slave society, a “virtue in distress” situation which can easily be re-read or mis-read as erotic:

Morton was overwhelmed with horror at the idea of his nieces being claimed as slaves, and asked for time, that he might save them from such a fate. He even offered to mortgage his little farm in Vermont for the amount which young slave women of their ages would fetch. But the creditors pleaded that they were “an extra article,” and would sell for more than common slaves; and must, therefore, be sold at auction. They were given up, but neither ate nor slept, nor separated from each other, till they were taken into the New Orleans slave market, where they were offered to the highest bidder. There they stood, trembling, blushing, and weeping; compelled to listen to the grossest language, and shrinking from the rude hands that examined the graceful proportions of their beautiful frames.

After a fierce contest between the bidders, the young ladies were sold, one for 2,300 dollars, and the other for 3,000 dollars. We need not add that had those young girls been sold for mere house servants or field hands, they would not have brought one half the sums they did. The fact that they were the grand-daughters of Thomas Jefferson, no doubt, increased their value in the market. Here were two of the softer sex, accustomed to the fondest indulgence, surrounded by all the refinements of life, and with all the timidity that such a life could produce, bartered away like cattle in Smithfield market. Ellen, the eldest, was sold to an old gentleman, who purchased her, as he said, for a housekeeper. The girl was taken to his residence, nine miles from the city. She soon, however, knew for what purpose she had been bought [i.e. sex]; and an educated and cultivated mind and taste, which made her see and understand how great was her degradation, now armed her hand with the ready means of death. The morning after her arrival, she was found in her chamber, a corpse.

There’s also a lot of cross dressing, just to up the queerness quotient. Slavery creates the conditions for sexual chaos.

So, even in the early days of the abolitionist novel, there was considerable blurring of racial lines and eroticism, though carefully couched in circumspect language. I think this is when the idea of white people as slaves began.

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