Biracial promise and the new South in Minnie’s Sacrifice: a protocol for reading The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride
Leslie W. Lewis
Frances E. W. Harper, like Julia C. Collins, serialized a novel in the late 1860s in the Christian Recorder, the newspaper published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Besides its publishing history, Harper’s Minnie’s Sacrifice has a number of other elements in common with Collins’s The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride, including: a story line focused on a child or children whose father is a slave master and whose mother, at least initially, is enslaved; protagonists whose physical appearance includes skin color so light that they can pass for white; protagonists who are educated and whose vocation is teaching; and a focus on New Orleans, or some rural setting in close proximity to New Orleans, as the familial place of origin. While there are other details that serve to distinguish Minnie’s Sacrifice from The Curse of Caste, the significant elements these novels share, together with their publication in an African American newspaper, allow us to reconsider the appeal of stories about biracial characters for a post-bellum African American reading public. Further, both Harper’s and Collins’s novels demonstrate that 19th-century women writers present “mulatto” possibility rather than tragedy, and focus on the progeny resulting from master/female slave relations as a powerful and reconciliatory force in the context of an American family dynamic and/or American society at large. Considering Minnie’s Sacrifice in some detail allows us to explore Harper’s critique of white supremacist society as a patriarchal institution that might yet be transformed. Considering how Harper envisions such transformation also helps us to contextualize the (unwritten) ending of The Curse of Caste, since we might also speculate that Claire Neville’s very existence will transform members of her family of origin, including the white supremacist patriarch, Colonel Tracy.
Because Minnie’s Sacrifice, like The Curse of Caste, was published serially in the Christian Recorder, we know that Harper wrote the novel for a predominantly African American audience. Frances Smith Foster cautions that misreadings of Minnie’s Sacrifice and Harper’s later novel Iola Leroy (1892) spring from our misunderstandings of African American literacy and audience in the nineteenth century, and that scholarly disregard for the Afro-Protestant press has distorted even our sense of African American literary history. (1) Thus, it is important to understand the Christian Recorder’s history, its relationship to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the AME Church’s role in African American education, including the education of formerly enslaved persons, as we reconsider earlier readings of Harper’s novels. In this regard, Gilbert Anthony Williams’s history of the Christian Recorder that characterizes the paper as distinct from other 19th-century Black newspapers because it was not “a one-man enterprise, printed in plants owned and operated by whites,” seems significant (15). As Williams establishes, the Christian Recorder “received financial and other support from the AME Church, a church that was never controlled by whites. Ministers helped sell subscriptions and raised money for the Recorder, and church officials worked as writers and assisted in the paper’s publication” (15). Sponsorship by the AME Church, then, means that the early Christian Recorder reflected the concerns and interests of African American communities. As Williams contends, after 1865 “the front page featured secular issues more prominently,” and through its coverage of events “the Recorder naturally encouraged and nurtured the notion of a national–and later international–black consciousness” (16). Given this case, we must ask how both The Curse of Caste (1865) and Minnie’s Sacrifice (1869) participated in nurturing this national consciousness.
The Christian Recorder’s masthead declared its purpose as the “dissemination of religion, morality, literature and science,” and as Frances Smith Foster and Chanta Haywood demonstrate, the newspaper’s concerns were never strictly religious (24). Instead, the “editors of the Christian Recorder intended to create a paper that showcased otherwise ignored talent and opinions by Blacks. They specifically envisioned the paper as increasing literacy and strengthening the African-American literary tradition” (Foster and Haywood 25). When we consider publication of The Curse of Caste and Minnie’s Sacrifice in this cultural context, we cannot dismiss the near-white-ness of each author’s protagonists as simply a device through which to arouse white readers’ sympathies. (2) Instead, these stories about near-white characters appealed to an African American readership and leadership interested in self-determination as well as self-expression. Just why this is so becomes an interesting question. By interrogating the idea that biracial identity and its attendant lighter-in-skin-color physicality appeals only to African Americans interested in assimilation and integration, we begin to realize that biracial representations also allow for a critique of white supremacist ideology. Biracial characters are often presented as the children of white fathers. One reason for the appeal of such figures, I have argued elsewhere, centers on the narrative compulsion and satisfaction in telling secrets–here, the secrets of white paternity, which have been slavery’s secrets and as such forbidden to be told. (3) Particularly during Reconstruction and its aftermath, when white southerners often insisted on the social separation of the races, pointing out the progeny of biracial sexual relationships makes clear the hypocrisy of segregationist ideology.
In addition to characters who are the progeny of biracial sexual relationships, The Curse of Caste and Minnie’s Sacrifice also present the trope of the master/female slave relationship. This trope is central to new world modernity, and coincidentally is also a significant, and significantly gendered, revision of the Hegelian moment of the origin of self-consciousness. (4) For Hegel and such theorists who work with his dialectic, including Foucault, Derrida, Sartre, and Lacan, the metaphorical confrontation between master and slave represents the originating moment of human self-consciousness. (5) For all of these theorists, however, and for African Americanists who also work with the Hegelian master/slave moment of confrontation, such as Orlando Patterson and Eric Sundquist, both parties in this conflict are and must be men. (6) However, when we take seriously the both/and claim that African American women make about race and gender status, and we take into account how the peculiar American institution enslaved women as well as men, we see that enslaved women are as representative of slave status as men, in Hegelian terms. There are, of course, dimensions of enslaved women’s experience that are gendered specifically female; and this gendering creates a specifically heterosexual conflict or relationship between master and slave that also resonates within the collective American consciousness. Key moments of master/female slave conflict in well known narratives include Frederick Douglass’s description of Captain Anthony’s sadistic abuse of Douglass’s aunt Esther in My Bondage and My Freedom (Hester in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass), and also Harriet Jacobs’s characterization of Dr. Flint’s predatory interest in her, including the ways he was, as she says, “determined to keep me and to conquer me.” (7) Master/female slave moments are not always and need not be obviously abusive; other significant representations that reverberate in American life and African American letters include love relationships like those, presumably, of Richard and Lina Tracy in The Curse of Caste and perhaps Ellen and St. Pierre Le Grange in Minnie’s Sacrifice. (8)
Master/female slave relationships hold transformational potential not only because they produce, through reproductive labor, offspring with whom enslaved mothers identify. Racially, such children both white and Black are simultaneously neither white nor Black; moreover, they constitute some new identity that we might name mestizo. (9) Yet as the third term of the Hegelian dialectic, they also represent a kind of “always already” secret community of enslaved people. Collective identity is implied by the self-consciousness toward which enslaved people struggle, since to know one’s self as a slave is to know one’s self also as sharing a group identity. In this context, any confrontation between master and slave disrupts the social order by forcing questions of status quo citizenship and the definition of freedom, but confrontations between masters and female slaves further disrupt any neat distinction between public and private realms of existence and influence. Such disruptions, in fact, give fiction focused on the master/female slave trope its power. Fiction that presents master/female slave moments from inside the relationship focus on the private behavior of men not simply to make such behaviors public; this fiction seems also to tell secrets about white paternity so as to construct very deliberately a biracial foundation for race identity to define a new colored consciousness.
New Orleans and surrounding Louisiana represent a place of origin for colored consciousness, which comes as no surprise, given New Orleans’s history. Antebellum male writers seem to focus on the tragedy of “mulatto” existence, and we might consider New Orleans, birthplace of Victor Sejour, author of the 1837 short story “Le Mulatre,” as also the birthplace of these tragic texts. In William Wells Brown’s Clotel, the New Orleans slave marketplace defines destiny for women with light skin by condemning them to white men who are often sexual predators, and thus committing them to tragic deaths. (10) Because Collins could provide no ending for The Curse of Caste, it is hard to determine whether or not the biracial Claire Neville’s life will end tragically or not, but hers is also clearly a New Orleans story. The Tracy family resides in New Orleans, and while Claire herself was born in New England, New Orleans is the familial home to which she unwittingly returns. Minnie’s Sacrifice, which presents biracial characters clearly not fated to tragedy by their racial identifies, also points to Louisiana near New Orleans as the home of both the Le Grange and the Le Croix families, and the place of return for Minnie and Louis, when they move South to teach. Finally, moving from Reconstruction fiction to fiction at the turn into the twentieth century, we might also consider Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces as a novel that presents the successfully reconstructed African American family, including the strong-willed Sappho Clark, who reclaims her baby, born from the time in her life when she was sold into New Orleans prostitution by her white uncle (Hopkins 254-62).
While data that documents the extent of antebellum interracial relationships in New Orleans is not easily acquired, John W. Blassingame states: “By the time Reconstruction began, miscegenation had been going on for so long that more people of both the ‘white’ and ‘Negro’ populations in New Orleans had ancestors in the other race than did the residents of any other city or state in America. In fact, the population was so mixed that it was virtually impossible in many cases to assign individuals to either group” (201). Blassingame gives examples from the 1880 manuscript census of New Orleans that indicate census takers’ difficulties in attempting to classify people according to skin color. As one example, Blassingame notes a “mulatto” couple, listed as the parents of one “white” and four “mulatto” children; another of his examples is a “white” husband and “Negro” wife, “listed as the parents of a ‘white’ son” (201-02). Despite almost maniacal opposition from whites to interracial marriage during Reconstruction, Blassingame concludes that whites and Blacks did marry after 1870, when by Louisiana statute interracial marriage became legal. According to the figures Blassingame quotes from the 1880 census, for example, there were 176 white men married to Negro women and 29 white women married to Negro men in New Orleans at that time (206-07). Thus, Blassingame’s evidence provides us with another reason for the interracial imaginative worlds of writers such as Collins and Harper: the historical reality of the situations they depict.
For reasons I cannot explore in detail here, the most significant representation of Reconstruction by male imagination, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, dismisses the ongoing interracial reality of relationships between former slaveholding masters and enslaved women. Du Bois makes refer ence to the two figures that typify Reconstruction as “the one, a gray-haired gentleman, whose fathers had quit themselves like men, whose sons lay in nameless graves … and the other, a form hovering dark and motherlike, her awful face black with the mists of centuries … [who] had aforetime quailed at that white master’s command … and, too, at his behest had laid herself low to his lust, and borne a tawny manchild to the world” (21-22). (11) Yet, he describes this master and female slave as “passing figures of the present-past” who hate one another and whose children’s children hate one another (22). Collins and Harper, of course, give us a very different Reconstructionist image of the master/female slave relationship. In The Curse of Caste, Richard and Lina Tracy are depicted as loving one another; and in Minnie’s Sacrifice, while the relationship between Bernard Le Croix and Agnes is not consensual and the relationship between Ellen and St. Pierre Le Grange perhaps just barely so, in neither case do the children’s children hate one another–because, indeed, the children of both slaveholding master and enslaved mother are one and the same. This juxtaposition of Du Bois’s image of Reconstruction with that of Collins and Harper makes clear a difference in imaginative possibility that is perhaps accountable to gender. Women, after all, are likely to know who has fathered their children even when the children themselves do not know or choose to ignore their paternity. For the children’s children of the post-Reconstruction South, women’s memories as well as the very existence of biracial children contradicted claims by men like Booker T. Washington, who in his 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address stated that in all things “purely social we can be as separate as the fingers” (221-22). As strongly asserted in “Furnace Blasts II: Black or White–Which Should Be the Young Afro-American’s Choice in Marriage,” published in Pauline Hopkins’s Colored American Magazine (1903), “Shall the Anglo-Saxon and the Afro-American mix? They have mixed” (Shadrach 349). (12)
Hazel Carby’s important refiguration of the role of the mulatto figure in African American fiction allows that the “dominance of the mulatto figure … has too often been dismissed as politically unacceptable without a detailed analysis of its historical and narrative function” (Reconstructing Womanhood 89). Carby’s consequent presentation of the mulatto “as a vehicle for an exploration of the relationship between the races,” taking place during a time when politics insists no such relationship exists, seems therefore appropriate. In addition, I have suggested that Harper’s “mulatto” characters function as affirmations of race consciousness because characters light enough to pass for white often choose not to, thus rejecting whiteness and affirming a distinctive racial identity. Claudia Tate makes the point that, unlike their 20th-century readers, Harper and Hopkins “regard mulatto as a generic term for designating the emancipated population and their heirs” (146). Neither author, in Tate’s words, intended to present “racially ambivalent African Americans who rely on their light skin color to bolster their self-esteem and bourgeois ambitions,” a commo late-20th-century misreading of these authors’ texts (146). As I will argue in detail, Harper’s Minnie’s Sacrifice presents white-skinned biracial characters as affirmations of race (that is, “colored”) consciousness; only because Harper constructs her characters as able to pass for white can they choose not to do so, and thus the novelist depicts a rejection of whiteness and an affirmation of blackness as a racial identity.
Harper’s very light-skinned protagonists grow up believing they are white until some event forces them to realize their “true identities,” yet their stories are more than melodrama. In both Minnie’s Sacrifice and her later Iola Leroy, also set during the Civil War and Reconstruction, these events allow Harper to make connections between matrifocal knowledge, racial identity, and a higher or “new” consciousness among African American peoples. Harper’s Minnie’s Sacrifice returns again and again to the figure of the slave mother because race consciousness is born of slave mothers: characters identify with the race in direct proportion to the extent with which they refuse to forsake their mothers. By choosing formerly enslaved mothers over white, often powerful, fathers, characters in Harper’s novels demonstrate a system of values in deep contrast with, yet clearly superior to, dominant America’s. As Harper presents it, first-generation freed men and women endowed with a potentially world-transforming new consciousness comprise the African American community formed from the choice to stand in opposition to America’s “arrogance, aggressiveness, and indomitable power” (Iola Leroy 260). In Minnie’s Sacrifice, the Louisiana community that Minnie and Louis live within is both religious and politically astute, and the values of that community include “lessons of faith and trust … taught in the lowly cabins of these newly freed people,” in spite of the violent assaults experienced by these same people (75). For this reason, the teaching that involves Louis, and most particularly Minnie, is reciprocal; and Minnie explicitly names the debt of knowledge that she owes the freed people purported to be her students.
Following Foster’s lead, critics recognize Minnie’s Sacrifice as the precursor to Iola Leroy, which it precedes in publication by more than 20 years. Minnie’s Sacrifice tells two stories about young African Americans who grow up believing they are white but subsequently realize they are Black. The first story, which opens the novel focuses upon Louis Le Croix, son of a wealthy white planter and an enslaved mother who dies in childbirth. The second story, which ultimately eclipses the first, focuses on Minnie Le Grange, also the child of a wealthy white planter and an enslaved mother. Louis and Minnie, neither of whom knows the race of their mothers, are both sent north to school by well-meaning fathers. They meet, fall in love, are estranged while their racial identities are in flux, but marry in the end. After the two move back to the South to do racial uplift work, Minnie is killed, presumably by the Ku Klux Klan (thus, her sacrifice). (13) For the rest of his life, Louis devotes himself to social justice work in her honor.
As Foster notes in her introduction, Minnie’s Sacrifice is “a deliberate retelling of the Old Testament Moses story” (xxx). Here, Harper focuses on the Moses child rather than the adult leader of an enslaved people. Significantly, Harper seems to have been writing two versions of the story of Moses at approximately the same time. Her poem Moses: A Story of the Nile was perhaps initially published in 1868 (the extant second edition was published in 1869), and yet, as Foster also points out, as early as 1859 Harper demonstrated her interest in Mosaic legend by writing, “I like the character of Moses. He is the first disunionist we read of in the Jewish Scriptures…. He would have no union with the slave power of Egypt” (Foster, Minnie’s Sacrifice xxvii). Yet even in Moses: A Story of the Nile, apparently meant to follow the story of Moses in Exodus, Harper’s interpretation includes, as another critic notes, the “radical presentation of Moses’s mother as the key molder of his political and religious consciousness” (Boyd 80). This Moses, precisely because of his mother’s influence, cannot help but identify himself as a son of Israel; and because he knows, again from his mother, the stories of his forefathers, he obeys destiny to join his people to lead them to freedom. In Minnie’s Sacrifice, a companion piece of sorts to Moses: A Story of the Nile, the young Louis Le Croix’s early life imitates that of Moses in that a white slaveholder’s daughter saves him by claiming him as her own. But in this version of the Mosaic legend, strong maternal guidance is unavailable to Louis and, consequently, he is not able to understand his own identity–until, that is, he can join with Minnie Le Grange and become sure of himself through his union with her.
Harper begins Minnie’s Sacrifice by presenting the retelling of “Moses in the Bulrushes.” Camilla, young daughter of the slavemaster Bernard Le Croix, is fascinated by a baby recently born in the slave quarters to Agnes, a woman who has died in childbirth. “‘I wonder,’ Camilla says to herself, ‘if I couldn’t save him from being a slave'” (5). She had been reading just the day before, she tells the baby’s grandmother, ” ‘the beautiful story in the Bible about a wicked king, who wanted to kill all the little boys of a people who were enslaved in his land,’ and how the king’s daughter ‘found him and saved his life'” (5). Camilla means to follow the example of “that good princess,” and so convinces her father that the baby, who looks white, should be brought up as his son. Le Croix agrees to this plan in large part because the baby is his son and this adoption relieves his conscience without adding the necessity that he acknowledge his relationship with the baby’s mother. Consequently, Louis is raised as a wealthy southerner, and sent to school in the North.
Unlike Harper’s Moses in Moses: A Story of the Nile, Louis does not know his heritage and so cannot choose “his people” over the southern aristocratic class in which he is being raised. Instead, as a young man in the North, even with Abolitionists as friends, he identifies as a southerner and feels “a sense of honor in defending the South” (36). At this juncture, Harper strays from the emphasis of the Biblical story that perhaps had been her first inspiration to focus on what happens when a young man does not know his own background. Louis believes he knows who he is, and based on that identity he feels a strong loyalty to the South, which develops into a loyalty to the Secessionists. As Harper makes very clear, however, Louis makes his mistake of allegiance because he has never known his mother and never, from her lips, heard tell of “the grand traditions” of his race. (14) In Louis’s case, without matrifocal knowledge to guide him, he can only act according to chivalric principle: the South is his mother, he says, “and that man is an ingrate who will not stand by his mother and defend her when she is in peril” (36). Thus, he displays a false heroism based on faulty self knowledge.
Louis does have matriarchal figures in his life, however, and they finally reveal his ancestry to him when they hear he is scheduled to march with the Secessionist army. Louis tells his sister, Camilla, and his maternal grandmother, Miriam (whom he thinks of as “Mammy,” the housekeeper) that “his country” calls him because “she” is in danger. (15) As a Unionist, Camilla is incensed. “‘Your country[ Louis,’ she says, ‘Where is your country?'” (58). She then attempts to argue politics with her brother. He is not swayed, however, and when Camilla hesitates to say more, Miriam picks up an unfinished sentence and tells her grandson that “to join the secesh is to raise your hands agin your own race” (59). This pronouncement understandably captures Louis’s attention, as do the “free papers” that prove it valid. During this exchange, Miriam, standing “like some ancient prophetess, her lips pronouncing some fearful doom,” replaces Camilla in her position as surrogate mother to Louis, as another critic has pointed out. Readers understand that “the speech of Miriam, the slave, comes from a spiritual strength much more transformative and powerful” than Camilla’s political discourse (Toohey 208-09). Louis then immediately declares that he can never raise his hand against his “mother’s race,” but has no understanding of any other implications of his new self-knowledge.
Louis’s story, which began as a retelling of the Biblical story of Moses, has changed to depict a somewhat confused man who has lost his way. Harper’s shift away from the depiction of Louis as a Mosaic leader further emphasizes the novel’s other story of Harper’s strong belief in the importance of mothers; that story now becomes dominant. Consequently, Minnie’s Sacrifice insinuates that Harper’s interest in a racial discovery of identity overwhelms her African American retelling of the story of Moses, and forces her to forego the idea of a leader ever cognizant of his identity and his destiny. Harper turns the loss of this primary element of the Moses story to her advantage, however, and uses it to complement her portrayal of a different kind of leader. In Moses: A Story of the Nile, the people whom Moses leads, as characterized by Harper, are in body free but in soul still enslaved. (16) In Minnie’s Sacrifice, another Harper protagonist, Minnie Le Grange, recognizes this potential problem and becomes, with Louis, a leader focused on the soul as well as the body. Together, the two teach not just the knowledge of books, but also the values of homemaking, thrift, and industry (74). At the same time, they encourage, and are themselves encouraged by, the strong inner lives of freed Blacks (83-84).
Louis’s life and story gain meaning again only after he reconnects with Minnie Le Grange, who has herself been transformed through her reestablished connection with her own mother. Minnie’s story ultimately preempts Louis’s, which demonstrates the depths of Harper’s interest in the connection between matrifocal knowledge and racial identity. Minnie grows up in a northern Quaker household, believes strongly in the abolition of slavery, and feels that prejudice is “wicked.” Yet she also states, just before her identity is revealed to her, that she “should hate to be colored!” because of society’s prejudice (48). When Minnie and her mother meet on the street, however, and Minnie’s mother immediately recognizes Minnie as her daughter, Minnie does not seem so much surprised as relieved: she feels that the “mystery which enshrouded her young life” will soon be solved (50-51). Minnie’s attitude suggests that she has, in some way, suspected her racial identity, and that her mother’s presence has simply confirmed it for her. Later, as she is recovering from the “nervous affection” to which she succumbs after understanding that she is colored, Minnie declares that her early life comes back to her “like a dream” and that she has “a faint recollection of having seen” her mother before (53).
Once Minnie reconciles herself to her ancestry, her future and her reasons for wanting to leave her life of privilege to “help build up a new South on the basis of a higher and better civilization” become clearer to her (68). She inspires Louis, telling him that in the future “they should clasp hands … and find their duty and their pleasure in living for the welfare and happiness of [their] race…. A race upon whose brows God had poured the chrism of a new era–a race newly anointed with freedom” (67). Further, when asked about this hard choice she has made, and given the suggestion that she and Louis might live as whites rather than as “colored” people, Minnie is quite clear: “the prejudices of society are so strong against the people with whom I am connected on my mother’s side,” she says, “that I could not associate with white people on equal terms, without concealing my origin, and that I scorned to do” (72). While Harper continues to develop the connection between matrifocal knowledge, racial identity, and, ultimately, a higher or new consciousness in Iola Leroy, she suggests this connection first in Minnie’s Sacrifice by pointing to Minnie’s dedication to the work of building up the race made hers through matrilineal connection. Further, in Minnie’s Sacrifice Harper delineates the significance of what she terms “standpoint,” and suggests a relation between it and the highest state of consciousness that she names “blessed.” As an epistemological model, Harper’s characterization of the way that “standpoint” becomes the precondition for the state of “blessedness” prefigures feminist standpoint theory and Black feminist epistemology as defined by Sandra Harding and Patricia Hill Collins, respectively. (17)
Harper first introduces her conceptual “standpoint of observation” with regard to Camilla, to explain her earliest understanding of slavery’s human toll. According to the narrator of Minnie’s Sacrifice, Camilla “had lived so much among the slaves, and had heard so many tales of sorrow breathed confidentially into her ears, that she had unconsciously imbibed their view of the matter; and without comprehending the injustice of the system, she had learned to view it from their standpoint of observation” (15). Camilla’s “standpoint of observation” allows her to “see the old system [of slavery] under a new light” and also becomes, for the narrator, a “good seed” planted, which “was yet to yield its harvest of blessed deeds” (15). Akin to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s little Eva, or, more tellingly, Toni Morrison’s Amy Denver, this white girl Camilla, through compassion and perhaps empathy, is able to know slavery from the position of those oppressed by it, and understand, as well, the subjugated aspect of such knowledge, marked as secret, and “breathed confidentially into her ears.” While Harper does not go so far as to portray Camilla as having reinvented herself as “other,” this is precisely how she portrays Minnie Le Grange and, through Minnie, Louis Le Croix as well, and consequently, both achieve a state that Harper calls “blessedness,” indicative of wisdom and commitment to life work that, to use Collins’s language, demonstrates an ethic of caring and personal accountability. (18)
Minnie makes reference to her own transformation in conversation with Camilla. The two meet not quite as social equals, yet “mutually … attracted to each other” (69). After stating that she refuses to conceal her origin, Minnie explains: “there are lessons of life that we never learn in the bowers of ease. They must be learned in the fire…. But now, when I look back upon those days of gloom and suffering, I think they were among the most fruitful of my life, for in those days of pain and sorrow my resolution was formed to join the fortunes of my mother’s race, and I resolved to brighten her old age with a joy, with a gladness she had never known in her youth” (72). Minnie recognizes that her new societal position gives her the vantage of being “other,” and allows her to “do for my race, as a colored woman, what I never could accomplish as a white woman” (72), or, as Camilla paraphrases, allows Minnie “to live out the earnest purpose” of her life (73). According to the narrator, Minnie works with the newly freed people as a “labor of love.” And with the understanding that they all must “plant the roots of progress under the hearthstone,” she teaches not a “mere knowledge of books,” but also “how to make their homes happy and bright,” how, in other words, to locate themselves, make themselves at home in the world, and recognize this location as the foundation of self–and race–knowledge (74-75). (19)
As teachers in the South, Minnie and Louis would be recognizably familiar to readers of the Christian Recorder, and their work of building up the South through schools for the newly freed people would be under stood by readers in the context of the AME Church’s school sponsorships and educational philosophy. The AME Church was deeply involved in education in the South, and in its endeavors it was often in conflict with other organizations, particularly the American Missionary Association, because of its insistence on schools and colleges led by African American, not white, administrators and teachers. This insistence on Black leadership in Black schools was coupled with an educational philosophy that emphasized the liberal arts, including “Greek, Latin, mathematics, instrumental and vocal music, natural sciences, English, and theology” (Williams 63). Later, the Church opposed the industrial school movement of the 1880s. At the same time that the Church was involved in education, its membership in the South was also growing: pre-Civil War membership was approximately 20,000, but by the end of the nineteenth century this number had grown to almost 450,000 (Williams 46). Furthermore, in addition to sponsoring colleges and normal schools, the Church also supported teaching through the Sunday school movement, which must be understood in its postbellum context to understand its significance. Sabbath schools, as they were sometimes called, were, according to James Anderson, “operated largely on the strength of the ex-slave community” and operated mainly in the evening and on weekends, providing basic literacy instruction to thousands who were not able to attend weekday schools (12). Study was not focused strictly on the Bible; as Booker T. Washington recalls, “the principal book studied in the Sunday school was the spelling book” (qtd. in Anderson 13-15). Significantly, while the AME Church built its educational support to 11 colleges and normal schools with about 2,000 students by 1886, the AME Church Connectional Sunday School Union supported the teaching of 200,000 students (Williams 49). By the late nineteenth century Black Sunday schools were part of an organized, autonomous African American educational system wherein Black teachers taught Black children and emphasized education as a significant African American cultural value. In Minnie’s Sacrifice, Minnie and Louis help build this educational system. Later in Iola Leroy, Harper’s declaration that her title protagonist will become a Sunday school teacher demonstrates the novelist’s commitment to women’s roles in sustaining the ideals of self-sufficiency and self-determination within the context of an African American educational movement.
While missing pages or issues of the Christian Recorder block current readers” access to the details of Minnie Le Grange’s death, later references in the novel indicate Minnie’s murder at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. (20) This tragedy suggests a moment of confrontation between Minnie and her white male tormenters, another version of a master/female slave dynamic. However, here in Minnie’s Sacrifice, Harper presages a later time when “peace like bright dew should descend where carnage had spread ruin around, and freedom and justice should reign triumphant where violence and slavery had held their fearful carnival of shame and crime for ages” (90). Even as Minnie herself dies, Louis and the nation continue to labor and wait for the new era when peace and love span “the chasms rent by hate and pride” (90). For Harper, hope, even in the face of violent atrocity, is not dead. Louis, who is, as Farah Jasmine Griffin points out, Harper’s political spokesperson for Radical Reconstruction, also in the end works and waits with faith and hope (314-16). Earlier, at his most distressed, he thinks: “We must trust and hope for better things so what else could he say? And yet there were times when his words seemed to him almost like bitter mockery. Here was outrage upon outrage committed upon these people, and to tell them to hope and wait for better times, but seemed like speaking hollow words” (86). Nonetheless, it is with this sentiment and these words that Harper leaves her readers.
If we read Harper as presenting something other than political naivete, then we must be swayed by her belief in the beliefs of the people she represents as the spiritual leaders of the new southern society. The ethos of this society is represented most vividly perhaps as Pieta in the form of Mrs. Susan Thomas, whose daughter Amy has been beaten and killed by Secessionist soldiers for exclaiming her joy in seeing the Union soldiers come through. (21) Specifically, Amy has declared her intent “to marry a Linkum soger” and set up housekeeping with him (87), and so the Secessionist soldiers try her and hang her for uttering incendiary words. As Harper’s readers, we receive this story from Amy’s mother because Minnie, just before her death, had been lending comfort in response to this injustice. Yet in spite of her daughter’s and Minnie’s murder, Mrs. Thomas illustrates Harper’s “hope in a better world,” a hope like that which inspires Louis and is meant, apparently, to inspire Harper’s readers.
After Minnie’s death, Louis pictures “her shining robes and the radiant light of her glorified face” (89), and faithfully continues the work they began together. For his devotion to his wife’s memory and to the construction of a new South, the narrator declares Louis “blessed in his labors of love and faith.” The power of Harper’s story is only fully realized, however, when we reconsider the young man Louis represented before he met Minnie or knew his matrilineal identity. Characterized as “strongly Southern in his feelings,” he at first has, we recall every intention to join the Confederate cause, yet through his experiences as a deserter running from the Confederate army and as a soldier with first-hand experience of the heroism of Black soldiers, he begins an identity transformation that readers witness as he continues to change and develop through his association with Minnie and their life’s work together. Harper ends her novel with her own pronouncement of its meaning and message:
The lesson of Minnie’s sacrifice is this,
that it is braver to suffer with one’s
own branch of the human race,–to
feel that the weaker and the more
despised they are, the closer we will
cling to them … than to attempt to
creep out of all identity with them …
for the sake of mere personal advantages,
and to do this at the expense of
self-respect, and a true manhood, and
a truly dignified womanhood, that
with whatever gifts we possess,
whether they be genius, culture,
wealth or social position, we can best
serve the interests of our race by a generous
and loving diffusion, than by a
narrow and selfish isolation which,
after all, is only one type of the barbarous
and anti-social state. (91-92)
With Louis, too, Harper suggests hope for that future where “true manhood, and a truly dignified womanhood” replace “narrow and selfish isolation” (91-92), which is, after all, yet another succinct way to characterize white supremacist society.
The character transformations that Harper presents in Minnie’s Sacrifice give her readers a clear alternative to living by the values of dominant white society. As such, Minnie’s Sacrifice contributes to the mission of the Christian Recorder and, as Gilbert Williams suggests, nurtures the idea of a national Black consciousness, and one that specifically opposes white supremacist society. Thus, we might imagine Harper as a reader of the Christian Recorder in 1865, a reader perhaps formulating ideas that she would contribute to the newspaper in 1869 in the form of Minnie’s Sacrifice. If Harper read The Curse of Caste, then she must have imagined for the novel some conclusion by way of completing Julia Collins’s speculative work. Given Harper’s message in Minnie’s Sacrifice, I surmise that Harper would have read The Curse of Caste as also presenting transformative possibility, in this case the transformation of Claire Neville’s grandfather, Colonel Tracy, as he accepts and begins to love his biracial granddaughter. Even while suggesting such an imagined ending, however, I also anticipate Harper’s immediate disappointment. Acceptance from powerful white patriarchs does not resolve the societal problems inherent in white patriarchal power. Perhaps, then, Harper’s realization regarding the limitations implicit in the (grand)father-child reunion became the genesis of her own insistence on the transformative power of matrilineal identity formation and matrifocal knowledge.
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Brown, William Wells. Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. 1853. New York: Carol, 1969.
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–. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. 1845. New York: Penguin, 1982.
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–, ed. Minnie’s Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper. Boston: Beacon P, 1994.
–, and Chanta Haywood. “Christian Recordings: Afro-Protestantism, Its Press, and the Production of Africa n-America n Letters.” Religion and Literature 27.1 (1995): 15-33.
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Portions of this article will appear in Telling Narratives: Secrets in African American Literature, forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press, 2007.
(1.) See Foster’s introduction to Minnie’s Sacrifice (xi-xxxvii) and also Foster and Haywood.
(2.) See Christian 26 and McDowell 284-85.
(3.) In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, for example, Jacobs writes: “The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition. My master was, to my knowledge, the father of 11 slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children? Did the other slaves dare to allude to it, except in whispers among themselves? No indeed! They knew too well the terrible consequences” (35).
(4.) For a more detailed treatment of the master/female slave trope and its significance to African American literature, see Lewis, Telling Narratives.
(5.) Chapter IV of Phenomenology of Spirit (trans. Miller) focuses on “Self-Consciousness.” Paragraphs 166-77 introduce “The Truth of Self-Certainty”; within that heading is subheading A, “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage” (Para. 178-96), which is the primary focus here. Barnett’s Introduction to Hegel After Derrida reviews the French reception of Hegel (13-26). See also Kelly.
(6.) See Patterson 10-13 and Sundquist 122-24.
(7.) Douglass writes this incident involving Hester in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (51-52). A more complete version of this incident appears in My Bondage and My Freedom, where he names his aunt Esther (87). See also Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl 42.
(8.) Romantic relationships between slaveholding masters or former masters and enslaved or formerly enslaved women are also depicted by Charles Chesnutt in The Marrow of Tradition, James Weldon Johnson in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, and Jessie Fauset in The Chinaberry Tree.
(9.) I borrow this term from Anzaldua to refer to a metaphysics of mixed heritage peoples.
(10.) While Clotel does not pass through New Orleans, her sister Althea and mother Currer do. Both die of “yellow fever.” Althea’s daughters, Ellen and Jane, are remanded into slavery and sold in New Orleans and both die immediately rather than submit to their new masters’ sexual desires (Brown 167, 206, 208-10).
(11.) For one feminist reading of The Souls of Black Folksee Carby, Race Men 9-41.
(12.) I argue elsewhere that the author of “Furnace Blasts I” and “Furnace Blasts II”, cited as J. Shirley Shadrach, is a pseudonym for Hopkins herself. See Lewis, “Towards a New ‘Colored’ Consciousness.”
(13.) While installments of the magazine are missing, and consequently the details of Minnie’s death unclear, Harper’s Conclusion references the Ku Klux Klan (90).
(14.) In Moses: A Story of the Nile, Moses speaks of his mother: “… from her lips I / Learned the grand traditions of our race that float / With all their weird and solemn beauty, around / Our wrecked and blighted fortunes….” (A Brighter Coming Day 143).
(15.) Miriam is, of course, the name of Moses’s sister in Exodus, another indication that Harper is revising the old legend.
(16.) The passage from Moses: A Story of the Nile reads:
If slavery only laid its weight of chains
Upon the weary aching limbs, e’en then
It were a curse; but when it frets through nerve
And flesh and eats in to the weary soul,
Oh then it is a thing for every human
Heart to loathe, and this was Israel’s fate,
For when the chains were shaken from their limbs,
They failed to strike the impress from their souls. (Ch. VIII, II.
(17.) See Harding, particularly Chapters 5-6.
(18.) See Collins, Chapter 11.
(19.) Harper uses this same language of the hearthstone in a letter from Greenville, Georgia, dated by Foster as March 29, 1870 (A Brighter Coming Day 127).
(20.) For more information about the missing installments of the novel, see Foster, Minnie’s Sacrifice xil-xliii.
(21.) Pieta is, of course, most famously represented by Michelangelo’s depiction of Mary and Jesus, but 1920’s African American sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller was also drawn to this image and, in contemporary literature, so is Toni Morrison in her ending of Paradise.
Leslie W. Lewis is Associate Professor of English at The College of Saint Rose. Her book titled Telling Narratives: Secrets in African American Literature is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press.
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