Politics of Motherhood: African-American Literature
It is fairly apparent from an examination of the following texts that depict slave narratives and those of indentured servitude -- Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Wilson's Our Nig and Frances Harper's Iola Leroy that both in literature, as well as in life itself, the conception of a mother both denotes and connotes images of home. What sort of images, of course, are largely determined by the nature of the relationship that one has with his or her mother. In some narratives, that relationship is unabashedly positive and is one in which the mother represents the stability, peace and domesticity (as much as is possible for slaves and those who have been newly freed from slavery to have). In other narratives, based on the marked dearth of a relationship with the principle characters mothers, matriarchs are representative of a distinct homelessness and a sense of abandonment that is hard to ever recover from. The political desires which these relationships imply, therefore, is tenuous at best, and is also largely based upon the nature of the relationship between the mother figures and their children.
In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the plot of this tale is largely based upon the maternal feelings expressed by the central character, Linda. Linda's entire life changes after she gives birth to a pair of children, Benny and Ellen. Whereas before the existence of her son and daughter Linda desired to escape to the North and distance herself from the repressive, reprehensible chattel slavery of the South, her priorities are irrevocably altered after she engenders life, which the following quotation suitably demonstrates.
My friends feared I should become a cripple for life; and I was so weary of my long imprisonment that, had it not been for the hope of serving my children I should have been thankful to die; but for their sakes, I was willing to bear on (Jacobs 140).
This quotation underscores the powerful sentiments that gripped Linda and caused her to endure fairly unendurable circumstances -- all for the love her children. She is imprisoned in an attic, hiding from the slave owner she escaped from, crouched in a position that is physically debilitating and in which she can neither sit nor stand, all so that she can watch her children grow and live in the presence of their father. At this point in this tale, this is the only home Jacobs can provide her children. It certainly is not much of a home, but is one that she clings to nevertheless because it is her only link to her children. Politically, then, it may be inferred that Jacobs, who is virtually torturing herself physically in order to be close to her children, whose father is white, may represent a movement that bridges the gap and the mistreatment between the races, as evinced by the product of those races -- her children.
The relationship between the mother figure and her daughter in Our Nig, however, are decidedly different than the martyr-like ends that Linda will go to for her children. In fact, the regard that Mag (a Caucasian mother) has for her daughter Frado is in many respects diametrically opposed than that which Linda has for her brood. To her credit, however, it is largely due to the vicissitudes of life in a racially splintered society that Mag esteems Frado with such a low value. Still, the sense of home that Mag provides for her daughter is definitely more akin to a homelessness, as her actions, and the following quotation, readily evince.
"Who'll take the black devils" snarled Mag.
"They're none of mine," said Seth; what you growling about?"
Nobody will want any thing of mine, or yours either she replied (Wilson).
This quotation evinces a really poor relationship between Mag and her children. Not only does Mag refer to them as "devils," but she also believes that they have little worth in this world. She implies this fact by stating to Seth that nobody will desire a single thing of "mine" -- which of course includes her children. To underscore this fact, Mag actually rids herself of Frado by giving her to Mrs. Bellomont, and leaving her daughter to grow up in a condition of indentured servitude that is most decidedly similar to that of a slave. In this sort of relationship, then, it is highly suggested that the concept of the mother (or lack of one, since Mag rids herself of one), is largely akin to the concept of homelessness, particularly since Frado is treated horrendously by Mrs. Bellomont in a home where she receives very little love. A home without love is no home at all. Politically, then, Our Nig seems to imply that the homelessness connotations that the role of a mother provides for Frado seems to reinforce the current (at the time this manuscript was written, anyway) political practice of racial separation, since the product of miscegenation, Frado, is readily discarded by her Caucasian mother due to Frado's mixed heritage.
Within the pages of Iola Leroy, however, Frances Harper portrays a different aspect of motherhood than the cold and cruel nature of it found within Our Nig. The title character, Iola, has been spawned by a mixed couple which includes a Caucasian father and mulatto mother, Marie. Marie, however, has a fierce union with all of her children and loves them unconditionally. With the support of her husband Eugene, she sends them to schools in the North and even raises them to believe that they are Caucasian, simply so that they will not have to live a life of oppression. By all accounts, Iola's mother was the stabilizing force in a positive, conducive home environment. Furthermore, Marie felt it her place to not only provide for her children, but also to do so in an environment in which they were born free as the following quotation alludes to.
Neither wealth nor education can repair the wrong of a dishonored birth.
There are a number of slaves in this section who are servants to their own brothers and sisters; whose fathers have robbed them not simply of liberty but of the right of being well born. Do you think these things will last forever? (Harper).
This appeal, made to Marie's husband Eugene, is a fairly political statement about the future of the world. The fact that this quotation pertains to the future of slavery and of the political conditions in which it is practiced in the United States may be evinced from the fact that Marie asks her husband if the practice of enslaving one's children "will last forever." Although Marie is talking to her husband about other children who have been engendered by Caucasians and then subsequently been enslaved by them, the very fact that she is staying around for the birth and rearing of her own children shows that as a mother, she is bound and determined to do all that she can do to make sure that her children do not end up in a similar fate to those who she is talking to Eugene about. Although Iola and her siblings are eventually enslaved (once Eugene dies), it is through no fault of Marie's that this happens. Therefore, it can be seen in this quotation that Marie's positive relationship to her children as a mother, combined with her ardent political viewpoint about the ills of slavery, are definitely crying to shape a different world, in which chattel slavery is not practiced, particularly not for those who are mulatto.
Therefore, when analyzing Our Nig, Iola Leroy, as well as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, there appears to be a consensus regarding the relationship of the maternal instinct and the…