Dolen Perkins-Valdez’ Wench is a hard novel. But it is so necessary. I remember reading it with recognition a few years ago. This imagined work brought to life the experiences of the enslaved and freedwomen and children who had the “favor” of southern white men while surviving unspeakable horrors.
I have always been drawn to one particular scene in the book. The four women accompany their masters to a resort that once existed in Ohio near present-day Wilberforce University.
Then comes the day they get to travel on their own to Dayton.
It is a day trip. The antebellum South seems to fade from view. Emerging urban life seems to appear. The latter had always been there. We often think of the cotton fields of the South as being a rural thing.
It would be if it stayed there.
If a planter was lucky, it did not.
The antebellum south traveled on water vessels, among them ones making use of new waterways like the Erie Canal, that shortened the trip around the Florida peninsula.
Indeed, this canal and the arrival of steamships brought the Eastern Seaboard closer to inland waterways, brought New York City and the mills of New England (and the mills in England and shops in Paris) closer to the Cotton Kingdom.
The sheer idea of movement announced a modern age. And these otherwise oppressed women were part of this pivotal moment. It is so easy to want to “save” them and only write about the horrors they survive. Perhaps we might see the horrors and analyze them, but also be inspired by these imagined (and real) women’s strength as they faced various challenges.
Indeed, studying them might enable us to help us endure far less urgent, but still critical matters, before us in these difficult times.
Will my graduate students be able to make ties between ideas concerning oppression and freedom in this book and earlier books and historical actors introduced in earlier readings? For example, can these women ever been shaped as the flaneuse that Lauren Elkin describes as they walk through Dayton in her study of the way in which white women made claims to power by walking without purpose in public spaces since the nineteenth century?
Why or why not?
How comfortable will they feel about addressing intra-group conflict? These women share oppression, but in vying for better position for themselves and in some cases, their children, they are not entirely victims. They must be more – if they are to survive. In this way, I am thinking especially of the experiences of Louisa Picquet, a mixed race woman whose 1861 memoir reveals her constant strategies to endure her difficult circumstance. As my 2015 book Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America (Northern Illinois University Press) makes clear, she was rarely idle, waiting for things to change. The one time she was, a dark-skinned woman named Helene nudged her. Told her to get moving as her recently deceased master’s brother was about to sell her and her children. Not unlike other women in her state, Picquet found herself in Cincinnati, a ground zero of sorts for relocated and runaway women of mixed race. The city’s position beside the Ohio River, the largest branch of the Mississippi River, eased access from the South. The abolitionist presence and opportunities for education all figured into this region having the highest per capita population of mixed race people outside of the South before the Civil War.
After settling in and marrying, Picquet once helped a woman of color who rarely went out of the house. According to Picquet, she tried “to make like she was free.” Her words tell us solidarity should not be assumed between black women then or now. This is a difficult topic to address, but more and more people are courageously addressing it. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author of another assigned reading, rightly asserts there is no monolithic blackness.
There is no monolithic black womanhood either, it would seem.
What do we do with this reality as so many sort through, or fail to sort through, share(d) varying oppressive conditions? My work as a scholar and artist often tackles this question in subtle and not so subtle ways. I learn with others including those who surveil us all.
This hiding woman that Picquet described was like Margaret Garner, the real-life runaway woman whose unsuccessful flight to Cincinnati found her killing her daughter, a topic the grad students will take up later in the semester while reading Nikki Taylor’s recent monograph.
But not entirely.
An overcome Garner slit the throat of her two-year-old daughter, a progeny of her master, rather than see the child return to slave territory. Garner would later die in a boat accident after being sold south. Taylor’s title suggests she was “driven to madness.” Picquet and countless others, among them, California, resisted her own desperate state by hanging amalgamation prints on her slave cabin walls. Doing as much brought her “closer to freedom,” as Stephanie M.H. Camp’s monograph, an earlier assigned reading, demonstrates.
And again, hovering over it all is the city. The marketplace. Those who themselves were commodities emerged in contradictory ways in such a moment. The grad students will be pushed to think through it all. Reel in Thomas Bender’s thoughts about some of the founding fathers’ thoughts concerning the worth of urban life. Reel in Carla Kaplan’s thoughts on the Miss Anne’s of the world.
What’s different about white womanhood in Wench when compared to the ones in Kaplan’s study?
What’s the same?
How are the women (and men) before us this week “becoming” themselves as a momentous war approaches? This is a worthy question with Hettie Jones still on our minds.
And also still on my mind: the laughter had last week in Mississippi with friends and most especially a couple we truly see as friends. With each passing day I hope our paths cross again. Bill, you live life fully. JB and I will remember your 70-30 march toward the 80-20 life plan. We’re looking for our 20. Thank you for always being an inspiration. And Fran, thank you for your joy.
PS Students, let’s return to an ongoing question: did the city as revealed in Wench permit greater freedom than the countryside? For whom?