“Not my mother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing …”: Alice Walker’s “The Child Who Favored Daughter” as Neo-Slave Narrative – Critical Essay
Neal A. Lester
When you can control a [person’s] thinking you don’t have to worry about [that person’s] actions.
–Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933)
… never would I be able to write a book about my life, or even a pamphlet, but … write something I could and would.
–Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992)
Frederick Douglass details the horrors of American slavery quite eloquently in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself(1845). In fact, for many scholars, teachers, and students, Douglass’s narrative is, as James Olney posits in his essay, “`I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature,” “the greatest of them all” in presenting “what slavery is really like” (Davis and Gates 154). Olney goes on to use Douglass’s narrative as the model upon which to compare and contrast all other slave narratives, establishing what he identifies as a “Master Plan for Slave Narratives,” a plan that is recognizably male-centered and focused on discovery of masculine selfhood, chronological and linear journeying spatially and temporally, emotional separations of family relations, Divine deliverance, attacks on Christian hypocrisy, existential pondering, veiled accounts of escape, physical beatings and other mutilations, a burning desire for and the attaining of literacy, and accounts of masculine physical prowess in “mastering the master.” Douglass’s narrative–with its clever turns of phrase, rich figurative language, and deep symbolisms–is also a testimony of how literacy transforms a slave into a man, or in Douglass’s words: “how a man was made a slave; [and] how a slave was made a man” (Douglass 685). While Douglass here speaks of his physical stamina demonstrated in the seemingly impossible two-hour scrape with Mr. Covey, one might easily see how literacy itself transforms an alleged barbarian and an uncivilized animal into a human capable of creative expression and intellectual pursuits.
Yet Douglass’s narrative does not address the peculiar and particular positioning of slave women except as objects of masters’ sexual desires and for masters’ economic gains. While Douglass offers emotionally provocative details of his Aunt Hester’s naked assault by a lecherous master, and of his old grandmother’s abandonment and exile after years of productivity–literally and figuratively–his narrative remains nevertheless a masculine-centered account of slavery. Harriet Jacobs moves beyond Douglass’s account of slavery to particularize the conditions of female slaves in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself(1861). Through Linda Brent’s experiences with an aggressively lecherous master, Dr. Flint, Jacobs shows the double noose of race and gender for female slaves. She includes no great awakenings to selfhood as does Douglass, but rather details experiences to stir Northern white abolitionist women to action on behalf of their enslaved’ sisters. Jacobs highlights the gender-specific complexities of a slave woman compelled to compromise her virtue in order to author her life.(1)
In her short story, “The Child Who Favors Daughter,” from the collection In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973), Alice Walker revisits and revises the slave narrative genre. An account of black female enslavement by black men who position themselves as “masters,” Walker’s story is a kind of inverted slave narrative with familial, racial, and gender reversals, with redefinitions of authority and power. While the story bears a striking resemblance to Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents and Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831), it complicates notions of enslavement and liberation. In the tradition of Harriet Jacobs’s account of her personal experiences as a slave, “The Child Who Favored Daughter”(2) is generally about female subjugation in a patriarchal society, a society of men who objectify women sexually. Females are abused by “masters” and violated in ways that might destroy the female slaves’ total sense of self if they allowed themselves to be defined by males’ physical, verbal, and psychological assaults on their persons. Unlike Frederick Douglass, who evolves into a (hu)man able to name himself–or at least grant his permission for someone else to name him–Harriet Jacobs is complete in her self-knowledge as she tells and recreates her stow. She does not take her readers through encounters that define her differently at the narrative’s end than she presents herself at the narrative’s beginning. This same sense of authority and assurance characterizes the daughter who favored Daughter in Walker’s stoW. While we are led to believe that this daughter has survived physical and emotional abuse from a father desiring to possess and manipulate her, this daughter remains the author of her spiritual liberation–a liberation symbolized in her literacy, not necessarily her spoken voice or her ability to speak. This daughter makes no effort to flee her father’s wrath; instead, she “masters her master” where she is through silent defiance and an unwillingness to let her father control either her mind or her actions.
Walker establishes slave narrative connections early on in language and imagery of the story’s anonymous epigraph: “That my daughter should / fancy herself in love / with any man! How can this be?” (Walker 35). The relation between this parent and child becomes analogous to a master/slave relationship. In fact, the situation is more specific in the analogy between males as masters and females as their slaves or objects. Men are thinkers, women told what to think or expected not to think at all. The daughter, as the possession of the father with his socially granted authorial voice, is not far removed from the traditional western marriage ideals that present daughters and wives as possessions of fathers and husbands respectively.(3) After all, it is a father who traditionally “gives” his daughter to be wed, a father who turns over the authority and ownership of his “possession” to yet another man. The epigraph also importantly announces the daughter’s unwillingness to be her father’s slave. Perhaps Douglass’s definition of slavery and enslavement is helpful: “To make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one” (Douglass 704). Herein lies a distinction between being enslaved and being liberated. This daughter–as does the daughter who favors Daughter in the story–thinks and acts, leaving her father/master ultimately unable either to control or know her completely.
This theme of possessing and possession is demonstrated in the relationships among all of the men in the family toward the women, revealed in the story’s flashback to the father’s early adolescence and his attraction to his sister, nicknamed Daughter. Walker implies through the character’s generic naming that this treatment of the father’s sister and, later, his daughter, derives from his treatment of his aunt and his wife. Although physically and emotionally tortured by the men, the women make choices that become affronts to men wishing to control them. In fact, while the women “knew nothing of master and slave” (Walker, Love 39), the men seek to impose this illusory patriarchal order upon the women. The father’s sister takes a white lover despite her brother’s disapproval and outrage, and the daughter’s father, having never “owned” her, cannot “disown her” (42) because of her adulterous behavior and/or because of his compelling incestuous attraction to her. Walker’s emphasis on fathers is interesting and poignant since many a (male) slave recording his story hears that his father is also his master. Such is the case for Frederick Douglass as well as for Booker T. Washington, whose life story is detailed in Up from Slavery (1900). Walker shows that sons become their fathers with pride and with the social power and legal authority to possess things, even women–wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers. Daughters, on the other hand, become their mothers in the same way that slave law mandated that the condition of the child, whether free or slave, followed the condition of the mother. Walker summarizes this point: “But [Daughter’s mother, who committed suicide] left a child, a girl, a daughter; a replica of Daughter, his dead sister. A replica in every way” (40). Daughters and their mothers and sisters, believed to be the possessions of men, are subjected to the same violent and incestuous whims of males who are masters, fathers, sons, and brothers.
Just as Douglass offers an appendix to clarify his attack on slaveholding Christians, and Jacobs also reveals her commitment to Christian ideals, Alice Walker also complicates traditional western Judeo-Christian mythology by connecting it with a patriarchal authority that tries to silence women. Here, it is not coincidental that this father sees himself as the ultimate “Father, judge, giver of life” (35). In fact, throughout the story the father sits on the front porch as if it were his throne, looking down the path as his daughter comes toward him. Walker makes this God/father/slavemaster image clear:
He is sitting on the porch with his shotgun leaning against the banister
within reach. If he cannot frighten her into chastity with his voice he
will threaten her with the gun. He settles tensely in the chair and waits.
He watches her from the time she steps from the yellow bus. (37)
Walker’s use of an ambiguous “He,” which opens section two of the story, clearly calls into question the western perception of God, the father and son, as a patriarchal construct that survives largely because it idealizes the submission of and expects submission from women. In providing the details that this father reads scripture, prays, and goes to church, Walker challenges a prevailing mythology that uses the Bible and scripture to justify slavery and the subjugation of women to men.(4) When daughter returns from school, her father sits ready to pass judgment on her alleged and intended actions. And when her “sinful” ways cannot be changed through his prayers, or when he can no longer deal with his own “sinful” incestuous attraction to his daughter, he determines and makes what is to him the ultimate sacrifice–to destroy her: “He knows that as one whose ultimate death must conform to an aged code of madness, resignation is a kind of dying A preparation for the final event” (44). Just as God punishes those who have sinned against Him, according to Christian tradition, so too does this father whose mercy has gone unappreciated by his wayward daughter. The morning after the brutal torture of the daughter–beating and rape literally and metaphorically–is presented as a cosmic resurrection image of one meant to save the world: “In the morning, finding the world newly washed but the same, he rises from stiff-jointed sleep and wanders through the house” (43). As Jesus rose on the third day after being crucified and “sleeping” in a tomb, so too does this father in section three of the story. If his daughter’s disobedience has meant a certain death and betrayal to him, surely her physical death, in his mind, means he can sit comfortably on his throne once again.
Walker’s use of animal imagery closely parallels that of Douglass and Jacobs. In revising notions of savagery and barbarism, both narratives and this story take perceptions of slaves as animals and make clear that masters and overseers are the real savages. For instance, Douglass specifically details the eating arrangements of slaves to highlight a master’s inhumane treatment of slaves:
Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into
a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children
were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come
and devour the mush; some with oystershells, others with pieces of shingle,
some with naked hands, and none with spoons. (Douglass 664)
Similarly, Walker presents a scene of the torture or daughter’s mother by her brother and father. Tying her to a bed, “they took to flinging her food to her as if she were an animal and at night … she howled at the shadows thrown over her bed by the moon” (39). The analogy is further rendered when the father and brother choose not to “free” her from the bed, or cage, for fear “that if [t]he[y] set her free she would run away into the woods and never return” (39). While Walker presents these suffering women with compassion and power, she reserves the image of monster, fiend, and brute–images consistently associated with the masters and overseers in both Douglass and Jacobs–for the men who beat, mutilate, torture, threaten, and destroy.
Walker shows–as do Mary Prince and Harriet Jacobs–that, for female slaves, violence and sexual violation were often one and the same. As Frederick Douglass describes his Aunt Hester’s beating for disobeying her master and for daring to carry on amorously with another person, one senses Douglass’s own voyeuristic attraction to the violence/sexuality thus described:
[Mr. Plummer, the overseer,] was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of
slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a
slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most
heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a
joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with
blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move
his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder
he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He
would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not
until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted
cowskin. (Douglass 652)
Douglass’s account is full of sexual imagery: “pleasure in whipping,” female nakedness, shrieks and screaming, tying up and whipping, blood flowing and bloodclotted. The rhythm of the passage even simulates a male’s sexual encounter from arousal to climax and sexual fatigue. Erection imagery is prevalent: “hardening” and “long,” “his iron heart [with its] bloody purpose,” whipping “harder” and “faster,” screaming and hushing, being “overcome by fatigue,”(5) and then “swinging” the phallic cowskin. While the violence may sexually excite Plummer, it seems to arouse Douglass as well in his recreating and re-telling. Separately, these images may not move beyond graphic description; however, the juxtaposition of these images borders on the erotic. The reason for the beating, Douglass offers, is jealousy of another man–in this instance another slave: she was “absent when my master desired her presence. He had ordered her not to go out evenings, and warned her that she must never let him catch her in company with a young man, who was paying attention to her belonging to Colonel Lloyd…. Aunt Hester had not only disobeyed his orders in going out, but she had been found in company with Lloyd’s Ned” (Douglass 652-53). Douglass recreates the beating of Aunt Hester–“a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions, having few equals, and fewer superiors, impersonal appearance, among the colored or white women of the neighborhood” (Douglass 653)–as an emotional ploy to make abolitionists see the full horrors of slavery. Other graphic details reveal Douglass’s own voyeuristic tendencies:
Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and
stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders and back,
entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the
same time a d–d b–h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong
rope, and led her to a stool under a large book in the joist, put in for
the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the
hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched
up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He
then said to her, “now, you d–d b–h, I’ll teach you how to disobey my
orders!” and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy
cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid the heart-rending shrieks from
her, and the horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. (Douglass
Just as Douglass explains that he “hid” in a closet witnessing the event, he may well be using this vividly sensual recollection of violence against female slaves as a means of satisfying some other private purposes.(6)
This father’s attraction to his daughter who favored Daughter is equally violent and sexual in nature. He suggestively watches her as she leaves the bus and nears the house where he sits omnipotently on his porch. As she approaches him, his eyes and mind focus increasingly on her physical body–her feet, ankles, “the casual slope of her arm,” “the long dark hair in bits about her ears and runs in corded plainness down her back,” her “eyes, perfect black-eyed Susans” (37-38). We already know that the father, as an adolescent, had been sexually attracted to his rebellious sister: he and his father had “tied her on the bed…. They threw her betrayal at her like sharp stones, until they satisfied themselves that she could no longer feel their ostracism or own pain” (39). That this female is tortured-on a bed by two men communicates rape literally and metaphorically. The “throwing of sharp stones” until they, the men, are “satisfied,” drives this point home. Even the description of the death of the daughter’s aunt is connected with phallocentric rape imagery: she is “found … impaled on one of the steel-spike fence posts near the house” (39). This sexual imagery is further connected with Douglass’s account of Aunt Hester’s beating and, in Walker’s account, of the father’s shed-beating of the daughter who favored Daughter. Even with his gun at his side or in his lap at all times, the father is unable to control his “unnatural” and “sinful” attraction to his daughter. As is the case with the daughter who favored Daughter and Douglass’s Aunt Hester, Harriet Jacobs explains that part of Dr. Flint’s attraction to her as his favorite female slave has to do with her physical attractiveness: “If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will be her greatest curse” (Jacobs 28), again reiterating the gender-specific nature of female enslavement.
Not only is the father/brother/master sexually attracted to his daughter/sister/slave, but the physical torture itself echoes descriptions offered by Frederick Douglass. For instance, when the father escorts daughter to the shed–metaphorically a slave quarters–for her punishment, he is sexually aroused by her:
She leads the way to the shed behind the house. She is still holding her
books loosely against her thigh and he makes his eyes hard as they cover
the small light tracks made in the dust. The brown of her skin is full of
copper tints and her arms are like long golden fruits that take in and
throw back the hues of the sinking sun. Relentlessly he hurries her steps
through the sagging door of boards, with hardness he shoves her down into
the dirt. She is like a young willow without roots under his hands as she
does not resist he beats her for a long time with a harness from the stable
and where the buckles hit there is a welling of blood which comes to be
level with the tawny skin then spills over and falls curling into the dust
of the floor. (41-42)
Erection imagery prevails the passage, and the scene that immediately follows presents the father “stumbling weakly” (42)–fatigued and/or overcome by the violent/sexual episode that has occurred with his daughter–through the house to the front porch where he “picks up the gun that is getting wet and sits with it across his lap, rocking it back and forth on his knees like a baby” (42). It matters not that Walker does not spell out that a forced sexual encounter is attempted or has taken place. What matters is that this daughter is violated by a father because of his attraction to her, his jealousy of her lover, and his outrage at her parental defiance. Even the letter written by the daughter to her lover is described in phallic terms:
It is rainsoaked, but he can make out “I love you” written in a firm hand
across the blue face of the letter. He hates the very paper of the letter
and crumples it in his fist. A wet storm wind lifts it lightly and holds it
balled up against the taut silver screen on the side of the porch. He is
glad when the wind abandons it and leaves it sodden and limp against the
slick wet boards under his feet. (42)
Whatever transpires in the shed beyond the beating has not sexually satisfied this father. If he has raped the daughter, his satisfaction is incomplete since she has not remained faithful to him spiritually, emotionally, perhaps even physically. She has without verbal proclamation boldly demonstrated in her actions that her father cannot, does not, and will not satisfy her needs. Hence, after the encounter, he metaphorically masturbates himself to satisfaction for the moment. Masturbation imagery reiterates the father’s impotence in controlling a world that extends beyond himself. When he returns to the shed the next morning to “cleanse” his world of wayward daughter, he is once again sexually aroused by her:
… he rises from stiff-jointed sleep and wanders through the house…. At
the back door he runs his fingers over the long blade of his pocketknife
and puts it, with gentleness and resignation, into his pocket….
In the shed he finds her already awake and for a long time she lies as she
was…. and except for the blood she is strong-looking and the damp black
hair trailing loose along the dirt floor excites him. (44)
This father is unable to accept the power his daughter has over him. Her beauty, his thoughts of her, his thoughts of her words to her white lover, perhaps even his thoughts of violence against her make his body and mind respond uncontrollably. Hence, according to his all-consuming worldview, the source of his attraction and repulsion must be destroyed. His final violent act against her–cutting off her breasts–serves to de-feminize her, to make her less beautiful and less tempting to him and to other men:
He can only strike her with his fist and send her sprawling once more into
the dirt. She gazes up at him over her bruises and he sees her blouse, wet
and slippery from the rain, has slipped completely off her shoulders and
her high young breasts are bare. He gathers their fullness in his fingers
and begins a slow twisting. The barking of the dogs creates a frenzy in his
cars and he is suddenly burning with unnamable desire. In his agony he
draws the girl away from him as one pulls off his arm and with quick
slashes of his knife leaves two bleeding craters the size of grapefruits on
her bare bronze chest and flings what he finds in his hands to the yelping
In this father’s eyes, he has destroyed his daughter in this act. We learn nothing more about her after this account. Yet what is important here is not necessarily what happens to the daughter after the horrendous amputations, but rather that her father’s perverted sacrificing/punishing of his daughter–allegedly to protect her from the sins of the world and to protect himself from his sinful attraction to her–does not destroy the fact that the daughter acted and thought independently and defiantly, behavior that according to patriarchal ideals de-feminizes her as well. Whether or not she dies is less important than the fact that her letter will forever remind him of the daughter, the sister, and the wife he could never possess.
As do all slave narratives by virtue of their existence as accounts by former slaves, Walker’s story redefines notions of authority and authoring. While it would seem that masters had complete control over slaves, both Douglass’s and Jacobs’s narratives show that slaves did not define their power by the. same terms. A slave’s defiance, a slave’s literacy, a slave’s “signifying” when asked how he or she liked being a slave, a slave’s sorrow songs and work songs, a slave’s folktales were all ways of asserting an individual and collective identity and a humanity publicly denied them but privately and communally realized. In Walker’s story, these women survive physical and emotional abuse because they are strong-willed and are thinkers. The women’s power, like the slaves’, is not necessarily a spoken authority but a power manifest in their defiant thinking and actions.
The most threatening source of power to the father here is his daughter’s literacy. Although she says but one defiant “no” when he commands her to deny the contents of her letter to the white lover, and although the father threatens and beats her, it is she who controls his actions by documenting her thoughts and overpowering his verbal and physical assaults. Throughout the story, the daughter who favored Daughter carries her books, symbols of her mental liberation and weapons against her father’s efforts to control her. The father’s inability to know her–her thoughts and her actions–decenters him in her life. Notice that she condescendingly “look[s] over his head at the brilliant … sky” (37) when he confronts her with the letter. And while the father can read–he reads the Bible and the letter–there is no real sense that the father writes–or creates–as does the daughter. The daughter becomes, in a sense, her own creator, displacing her father as “Father, judge, giver of life.” That this father is threatened by the daughter’s words on a page is further symbolized when he destroys the baby wasps building their “paper houses”:
… just as the babies are getting big enough to fly he will have to light
paper torches and burn the paper houses down, singeing the wings of the
young wasps before they get a chance to fly or to sting him…. (37)
Whereas this father can easily destroy the baby wasps before they are able to sting him, he is not so lucky with his maturing daughter who has denied him authority in her life. She has instead authored her own life in the face of threatening outrage. That she is able to write signifies her ability to think. To think independently and to act accordingly is the “sting” the father gets from the fact of her letter and the act of her letter-writing. And while he may hold, possess, even destroy the letter by destroying the actual paper on which the letter is written, he cannot possess the creator of the words or diminish the “sting” of their words. Indeed, the source of her empowerment is formal education, learning to read and write. As the story opens, the daughter is returning from school and getting off of the school bus. As she nears her father sitting on the porch, he is attracted to her physical person, which Walker conjoins imagistically with the power of education for this daughter: “the school books against her hips” (37). Except for slave narratives given orally and recorded by an interviewer, slave narratives generally, especially Douglass’s and Jacobs’s, are triumphs based on a slave’s literacy.(8) Again, both Douglass’s and Jacobs’s rifles emphasize the connections among literacy, self-identity, and self-liberation when they clarify that they–not someone else-had “written” their own narratives. Douglass reminds the reader how literacy and the ability to write were particularly threatening to slaveowners because slaves could write their own passes to freedom (Douglass 672). Mr. Auld’s command to his wife to stop teaching Frederick Douglass to read and write signals, for him, one of the slave’s greatest weapons against enslavement:
Mr. Auld… forbade Ms. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among
other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to
read…. “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger
should know nothing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do.
Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now … if you teach
that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping
him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” (Douglass 667)
It is what Douglass terms the “incompatibility of education and slavery” (Douglass 670) that proves the ultimate destruction of this father who can physically, but not intellectually and spiritually, destroy his daughter. Even when she is no longer a presence in the story–at the beginning when she is at school and at the end after the breast-cutting when she is no longer mentioned–her presence is real and documented in the letter that remains a testimony of her defiance. Her letter triggers his thoughts to his past with his’ sister and with his wife as well. Daughter’s letter conveys the ultimate power of literacy and creation of the word, especially for females. Perhaps this fact explains why Jacobs represents a tradition of black writers generally, and black women writers specifically, who feign a humility in taking up pen to write at all. The very act of writing, particularly in a public space, assumes an authorial position for those neither expected nor meant to be literate.(9) Not only are the daughter’s thinking and writing affronts to her powerless father, but the very act of publishing–here symbolized in her intent to send the letter to another person, her white lover–is the ultimate symbol of his defeat and her triumph: “He hates the very paper of the letter and crumples it in his fist” (42). Still, the words are indelibly imprinted on his mind: “Words of the [crumpled and rainsoaked] letter are running [and will continue to run] on a track in his mind” (42). Hers is yet another act of female defiance left to remind him of his own illusory power.
The women in the story are also empowered by their actions, actions that oppose their male family members’ commands and desires. In the father’s past, his sister, called Daughter, participated in an adulterous relationship with a white man despite her brother’s jealousy, outrage, and disapproval. The sister’s sexual liberation threatens the brother, and he can only control her when she is physically restrained. What he cannot control, however, even when she is physically restrained, are her mind and her desires. According to the brother’s blurred thinking, his sister’s “own mind seemed to have struck her down…. for she had chosen to give her love to [another] man” (38). That the sister thinks and makes choices means that she is not enslaved to her brother or father. And while it is suspected that she is killed by the father for humiliating the son and possibly the father because of her “sinful” ways, her death is not her defeat. That her actions “shamed them all” (39)–the men in the family–is her triumph, and her death neither diminishes nor destroys her self-fashioned authority. This same pattern of patriarchal resistance occurred in the life of daughter’s mother, who “beaten into a cripple” (40) by her husband, committed suicide, the ultimate escape, the ultimate self-empowerment.
In addition to her bold acts of authoring and publishing–acts of patriarchal defiance–the daughter also controls, as did her deceased aunt and mother, Aunt Hester, and Harriet Jacobs–their masters/brothers/fathers with their physical bodies. The alleged promiscuity of Daughter’s aunt–“sleeping here, sleeping there” (38)–leads to the brother’s emotional chaos and ultimate powerlessness. The father’s wife allegedly received “imaginary overtures [from] a white landlord” (40), overtures that the husband refused to allow her the opportunity to return. And finally, daughter’s physical body in her father’s presence creates physical and emotional turmoil for him:
Without wanting it his eyes travel heavily down the slight, roundly curved
body and rest on her offerings to her lover in the letter. He is a black
man but he blushes, the red underneath his skin glowing purple, and the
coils of anger around his tongue begin to loosen. (41)
Her presence upsets his physical and psychological equilibrium:
His hands are not steady…. The palms of his hands are sweating, his
throat is dry. He swallows compulsively and rapidly bats his eyes…. he
cannot …, facing her strange familiar eyes, speak. (40-41)
The daughter’s power, in this instance, has little to do with anything she does consciously than with what she is and represents.
Frederick Douglass signals his move into manhood and humanity from slave status with his ability to “Subscribe himself–Frederick Douglass.” Harriet Jacobs need not name herself–although she does present her story through the fictional Linda Brent–to disclose the horrors of female enslavement. As in both Douglass’s and Harriet Jacobs’s narratives, Walker’s stoW presents a daughter’s authority and self-definition assumed through literacy–of reading, writing, and publishing. As a writer, she is a creator, a self-empowering agent ultimately controlling her father’s thoughts and actions. A silent warrior, she need not defend herself verbally against his assaults. Her actions proclaim her defiance. That the tale is not rendered from a first-person narrative perspective as are most slave narratives does not mean that this daughter does not have a voice, her own voice. She has thought, has acted, and has ultimately documented–in the confiscated letter to her lover–her defiance and ultimate liberation. And while Walker does not minimize the physical violence, torture, or abuse of the women in this family by a father, brother, or husband, she demonstrates that enslavement of the mind is far greater than physical enslavement. The women in this tale are thinkers: they “know” (35, 37) the sources of their own powers–that they are unknowable and “pledge no allegiance to banners of any man” (45). Hence, their independence in thought and deed signifies their ultimate authority over themselves, their ultimate authority over impotent men.
(1) Joanne Braxton (379-87) argues that Frederick Douglass’s narrative offers little complexity to the experiences of black female slaves who negotiate both racial and gender dynamics to survive. She posits that Jacobs’s narrative establishes “the archetype of the outraged mother.”
(2) Walker blurs the lines between family relations in this story. The generic naming of family relations reiterates her position that the politics of power, even within families and among blood relations, is negotiated along gender lines. Brother, lover, father, and husband fight to establish male authority over aunt, sister, lover, wife, and mother who all struggle for authority over themselves. Walker’s title speaks of a daughter who, in her father’s eyes, resembles–either in physical appearance, in behavior, or her attractiveness to him–his sister, or daughter’s aunt who is called “Daughter” by daughter’s grandfather and father. In the story, Walker challenges what it means to be a “favored” daughter or favorite child based on a parent’s futile efforts to control the favorite child. The father’s behavior becomes more “childlike”–his jealous outrage, his name-calling, his threats and acts of violence–than his daughter’s.
(3) This wife-as-slave and husband-as-master scenario is acted out in Octavia Buffer’s neo-slave narrative/slave novel Kindred (1979) about an interracial married couple–Kevin is white and Dana is black–miraculously snatched from their 1970s California home back to plantation life in 1800s Virginia. With much irony, Buffer shows how the couple’s survival in another time and place depends upon their ability to play the roles of white male master and black female slave. Kevin settles quite comfortably into his role while Dana, a modern woman of the 1970s, has to make many dramatic adjustments to survive.
See also the wife/slave and husband/master analogy in Judy Syfers’s satire “I Want a Wife,” wherein Syfers argues that anyone, male or female, would want a wife that is all–lover, secretary, chauffeur, housekeeper, childbearer, nanny, cook, servant, bookkeeper. This concept of wife as husband’s slave is parodied in the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoon, “Wild Wife” (Nickelodeon Studios, 1956), about a mother and wife who retaliates on her insensitive husband for diminishing her exhausting day of errands and chores while he spends his day more importantly at the office.
Biblical passages reiterate the notion of marriage as a kind of parent/child or master/servant relationship where it is wives’ Christian responsibility to submit to their husbands:
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the
head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the
church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their
husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5: 22-24)
In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even
if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word
by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful
behavior…. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped
in God, … being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed
Abraham, calling him lord. (1 Peter 3: 1-2, 5-6)
Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I
do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to
remain quiet. (1 Timothy 2: 11-12)
Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to
speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if
they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for
it is improper for a woman to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14: 34-35)
While these scriptures call for a quiet submission of Christian women to men whether Christian or not, Walker shows in this story women’s quiet defiance. The women possess a power over men that moves beyond speech and speaking.
(4) See Slavery Sanctioned by the Bible. In a treatise on family relations, Ephesians 6: 4-6 make the parent-as-master/child-as-slave analogy clear:
And, fathers, do no provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in
the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Slaves, be obedient to those
who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in
the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as
menpleasers, but as slaves of Christ.
Judeo-Christian ideology is replete with master/slave or father/child images in its instruction to Christian living.
The following rifles from The AME Hymnal highlight these prevailing images: “Father Almighty, Bless us with Thy Blessing” (30); “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand” (47); “My God, My Father, Blissful Name” (62); “My Father Is Rich” (84); “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy” (255); “I Am Thine O Lord” (267); “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee” (321, 299); “Almighty Father, Hear Our Prayer” (395A); “Children of the Heavenly Father” (334); “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” (356); “We Are the Children of the Church” (363); “Father, Hear the Prayer We Offer” (381); “Father of Mercies” (385); “Our Heavenly Father, Hear” (390); “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee” (440-41); “Servant of God, Well Done” (463); “Lead Me Gently Home, Father” (505); “Stay, Master, Stay” (519); “I Know My Heavenly Father Knows” (520-21); “To Father, Son and Holy Ghost” (523); “Give of Your Best to the Master” (539); “Hear Us, Heavenly Father” (549); “I Am So Glad that Our Father in Heaven” (553-54); “How Happy Every Child of Grace” (586); “Glory Be to the Father” (601); “Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me” (607).
The following titles from The United Methodist Hymnal highlight father/child or master/slave Judeo-Christian images: “This Is My Father’s World” (144); “Make Me a Captive, Lord” (421); “Our Parent, by Whose Name” (447); “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (184); “Father, We Praise Thee” (680); “Father, We Thank You” (563, 565); “I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath” (60); “Maker, in Whom We Live” (88); “Ye Servants of God” (181); “Trust and Obey” (467); “Here, O Lord Your Servants Gather” (552); “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise” (611); “Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters” (605); “O Sons and Daughters, Let Us Sing” (317); “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” (206); “My Master, See, the Time Has Come” (226); “I Am Thine, O Lord” (419).
(5) Such violence associated with sexuality is communicated in Mary Prince’s details about a beating she receives from her master for breaking a valued vase. The beating is likened to a man’s sexual performance:
He tied me up upon a ladder, and gave me a hundred lashes with his own
hand…. When he had licked me for some time he sat down to take breath;
then after resting, he beat me again and again, until he was quite wearied,
and so hot (for the weather was very sultry), that he sank back in his
chair, almost to faint. (8)
Although the mistress also strips and flogs Prince, only the master’s beating is described in sexual terms.
(6) This same kind of voyeurism is present in The Rolling Stones’ song “Brown Sugar,” from the album Sticky Fingers (Atco Records, Atlantic Recording, 1971), wherein a white male romanticizes the historical past and the sexual liaisons between slave masters and their black female slaves. In the song, a white male narrator celebrates the sexual “performances” of black females who are most probably forced to participate in midnight love/dance sessions with their masters. The young white boy also boasts that he, too, has participated in such love rituals. It is not clear whether the white males are sleeping with the same “young girl slave” who has been “sold in the market down in New Orleans”–the worst place to be sold in the south, according to slave history–or whether the young boy has his own young girl slave to exploit sexually. Importantly, the voyeurist boy interprets what are probably shrieks of pain from the young slave girl for shrieks of pleasure; it is also possible that he derives pleasure from the pain being inflicted upon her. Whatever happens routinely–hearing the scarred old slaver “whip the women just around midnight”–these slave girls, in the narrator’s opinion, “dance” and “taste so good … just like a young, black, good girl should.”
(7) Connect this attention to female enslavement and breasts with Sethe’s experience in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), another neo-slave narrative, before she kills her baby Beloved. The ultimate violation of her person as a mother is the taking of her breast milk, nourishment intended for her newborn baby, a fact that even the sensitive Paul D cannot fully grasp:
“Anybody could smell me long before he saw me. And when he saw me he’d see
the drops of it on the front of my dress. Nothing I could do about that.
All I knew was I had to get my milk to my baby girl. Nobody was going to
nurse her like me…. Nobody has her milk but me….
“… those boys came in there and took my milk. That’s what they came in
there for. Held me down and took it …” (16)
And when Paul D can only focus on the physical beating Sethe received from the white boys; for her, her greatest remorse in the encounter is that “they took my milk” (17).
(8) Not only is Jacobs concerned about her daughter’s delayed literacy when she meets her at the story’s end and when she is invited to Bible study among her fellow slaves because she is literate, but, as Joanne M. Braxton points out, Jacobs denies her literacy when Dr. Flint endeavors to seduce her with “foul” love notes. On the other hand, it is Jacobs’s literacy that is used against Dr. Flint when she writes letters and has them mailed from New York to deceive Flint of her true whereabouts (Braxton 385).
(9) This sense of humility is presented in Harriet Jacobs’s Preface to Incidents in the Life or a Slave Girl, Written by Herself
When I first arrived in Philadelphia, Bishop Paine advised me to publish a
sketch of my life, but I was altogether incompetent to such an undertaking.
Though I have improved my mind somewhat since that time, I still remain of
the same opinion…. I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to
convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really is…. May the
blessing of God rest on this imperfect effort in behalf of my persecuted
While Jacobs is certainly in the best position to tell the story of her life as she has fashioned this creation, she nevertheless signifies her own self-empowerment by telling and writing, by writing and telling her story.
Harriet Wilson offers this same humility in writing her story in her Preface to Our Nig (1859): “In offering to the public the following pages, the writer confesses her inability to minister to the refined and cultivated, the pleasure supplied by abler pens. It is not for such these crude narrations appear” (3). What Wilson attacks in her novel/autobiography are social ills that well-meaning northern abolitionists would not think appropriate for “refined” and “cultivated” public discussions–miscegenation, a mother’s abandonment of her child, ineffectual abolitionists, female sexual liberation, modern views on marriage, economic differences along race and gender lines.
W. E. B. DuBois writes in The Forethought to The Souls of Black Folk (1903): “I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there”(xxxi). DuBois seems less apologetic about the fact that he has written than on the nature of what he writes, clearly a gender difference here as the women apologize for writing altogether.
Perhaps the most illustrative example of a slave apologizing for her literacy is the case of Phillis Wheatley on the occasion of publishing her first volume of poetry. After being examined orally by a roomful of white male dignitaries and men of state, she writes in her Preface to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773):
As her Attempts in Poetry are now sent into the World, it is hoped the
Critic will not severely censure their Defects; and we presume they have
too much Merit to be cast aside with Contempt, as worthless and trifling
Effusions…. With all their Imperfections, the Poems are now humbly
submitted to the Perusal of the Public. (iv-v)
Notice that Wheatley is not even privileged to speak in first-person, for to have an individual personal identity, despite having created sophisticated allusory poetry, is to challenge overtly her prescribed social position of”a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa” (vii). After Wheatley’s oral examination, the men’s statement “To the Publick” concludes: “She has been examined by some of the best judges, and is thought qualified to write them” (vii).
The AME Hymnal. Nashville: AME Sunday School Union, 1954.
Braxton, Joanne M. “Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: The ReDefinition of the Slave Narrative Genre.” The Massachusetts Review 27 (1986): 379-87.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1845). The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Gen. ed. Maynard Mack. New York: Norton, 1985. 649-719.
DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Bantam, 1989.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself 1861. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
New American Standard Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1979.
Olney, James. “`I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” The Slave’s Narrative. Eds. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.148-74.
Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831). Six Women’s Slave Narratives. Intro. William L. Andrews. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. i-40.
Slavery Sanctioned by the Bible: A Tract for Northern Christians. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1861.
Syfers, Judy. “I Want a Wife.” Ms. 31 Dec. 1971. Rpt. in Reading and the Writing Process. Eds. Susan Day et al. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1994.490-92.
The United Methodist Hymnal: Book of United Methodist Worship. Nashville: United Methodist, 1989.
Walker, Alice. “The Child Who Favored Daughter.” In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women. New York: Harcourt, 1973. 35-46.
Walker, Alice. Possessing the Secret of Joy. New York: Harcourt, 1992.
Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. 1901. New York: Bantam, 1963.
Wheatley, Phillis. The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Ed. John Shields. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
“Wild Wife.” Looney Tunes Cartoon. Warner Brothers. Nickelodeon Studios. 1956.
Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. 1859. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Vintage, 1983.
Woodson, Carter G. The Mis-Education of the Negro. 1933. Trenton: Africa World P, 1990.
NEAL A. LESTER is professor of English at Arizona State University, where he teaches African American literature. He has published on dance and womanism, brown angels in American culture, rap, African American female sexuality, and the gender and racial politics of African American hair. He has written the first comprehensive study of the theater of the poet-playwright Ntozake Shange, Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays (1995), and his casebook on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is forthcoming in November 1999.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Studies in Short Fiction
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group