Three Women and Three Narratives of Slavery

Antislavery token, 1838 Edmonia Lewis: The Morning of Liberty: Forever Free, 1867 John Quincy Adams Ward: The Freedman, 1863

Ward made his sculpture before the constitutional amendment had been passed; Edmonia Lewis made hers after.  In comparison with Ward’s, her male figure stands upright and the shackles are broken; the figure is, like the Freedman, a partial nude; the female figure, however, is more fully dressed, and kneels in the pose of the anti-slavery emblem.  Although the hands appear to be in the same position in both the emblem and the sculpture, the slave in the token seems to be asking for help while Lewis' female figure seems grateful, to be giving thanks.  Also unlike the figure in the token, the woman's body in Lewis's work is fully covered with her clothing.  We can account for the presence of shackles in a few ways: if the work represents the morning of the emancipation proclamation (1863), then the figures have only just awakened to their freedom but haven't yet lived as free people.  A second approach identifies the bondage of the slave with that of women, suggesting that she will never be as free as her male companion.  The antislavery emblem, which originally used a male figure, had already been equated with gender "slavery" by abolitionist women, and Lewis may have been listening to their voices. The third interpretation refers to the fact that despite the passage of the Constitutional Amendment which abolished slavery in 1865, by 1867 social realities were such that  African-Americans were not living the life of freedom that had been granted by the Constitution.  Lewis, as one writer has suggested, may have been depicting the symbolic "reenslavement" of the African-American.

The racial characteristics of this pair reflect the transition of the moment–although the male appears to have African features, the female does not, and it is not really known why–what is known is that Lewis made the group for white abolitionist patrons and that she intended it as a tribute to a Boston abolitionist.  It strikes me, as well, that because the female figure in Lewis’s statue of Hagar looks so similar, that both women may be intended as representations of the “tragic mulatta,” and that Lewis’s statue, along with the abolitionist literature of the 1850s, is also about sexual exploitation.  Her female, rising from her chains, will no longer be exploited by the plantation owner, either as a slave or as a woman.

Lewis: Hagar, 1875 (view from the side)

Lewis, who experienced discrimination as a woman, an African-American, and a Chippewa, might have naturally been drawn to an image which could unite several forms of oppression in one figure.   Hagar, the Egyptian woman who was sexually exploited by Abraham and then cast out by Sarah, the wife of Abraham, does not look defeated by her treatment or experience.  Unlike the woman in Forever Free, Hagar stands boldly and confidently without any chains.  Because her face is so similar to the face of the woman in Forever Free, it seems fair to wonder if she is another version of the same woman, no longer kneeling but standing to direct her own path out of the wilderness.  Since both figures do suggest a family resemblance to the artist, one also has to wonder if the figure of Hagar may be intended as a surrogate for a female artist who generally made her way alone, and lived as an emigre in a foreign country.

The Tragic Mulatta

Lydia Maria Child, like Catharine Beecher, wrote domestic guides for women.  But she also wrote novels and fictions and published a magazine for children.  In 1833 she wrote a book-length manifesto which she called "An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans.”  After its publication, she was ostracized–parents ended their subscriptions to her magazine, her library privileges were revoked, and people stopped buying her books.  Her book was the first to call for abolition of slavery and an end to all forms of discrimination, including laws against miscegenation.  Child did not stop writing anti-slavery tracts and she wasn’t the only one to write them.  The Grimke sisters, Fanny Kemble, and other women, both black and white, wrote anti-slavery tracts and gave public talks calling for abolition.  These books were non-fiction, and failed to reach large numbers of people, leading Child to believe that fiction might have a larger audience.  Yet Child herself admitted that the contradictions of writing fictions for a large audience diluted the political message she wanted to send.  One of her first stories in this genre was a story called “The Quadroons,” a story which made use of another archetype of women, one with as much potency for this period as the captive had been for an earlier period: the tragic mulatta.  This was a character who shared the sensibilities of the white women who would be reading the story but was the victim of the sexual exploitation that female black slaves experienced.  To read more about the narrative of the tragic mulatta, or to read the stories themselves, you can go to a website devoted to the writing of Lydia Child.  The stories are quite short and easier to follow by reading the whole thing as opposed to a summary.

Harriet Jacobs and the Narrative of Slavery

Although Margaret Garner seems to have been a real person, the situation in the illustration was not unique to her: because slave owners considered slave children to be their property, some mothers may have killed their own children as an act of taking possession of them and preventing the slave owner from owning them.  In other cases, they may have killed them to protect them.  This act of infanticide was a complicated act because the mother, if caught, would have faced her own death, and it also meant defying norms of family values and life.
Thomas S. Noble: Margaret Garner (pencil drawing, 1867)

In comparison with the reluctance of artists to portray slavery in pictures, as well as with the invention of new narratives to tell the story of female bondage, the outspoken boldness of Harriet Jacobs' autobiography appears to be all the more remarkable.  Jacobs completed her written narrative in 1857.  In 1861 it was published with the name of the editor on the cover and the name of the narrator of the autobiography, but not the name of the real author.  In the voice of Linda Brent, Jacobs told three stories: the story of her awareness that she was a slave, the story of her eventual freedom, and the story of her refusal or failure to live by sexual standards which she believed but questioned.  After successfully avoiding rape by her master, she later voluntarily enters a sexual union with someone she isn’t married to, and bears two children.  The story of her sexual liaison is told in a more melodramatic style than the story of her escape to freedom, which is told without emotion.  At the end of the book, though, she says she never achieved her dream--to live in a home with her children by her side.  So despite being a story of the escape to freedom, it is a story of loss.  But the union of these stories in the same book is unusual–although the melodramatic voice existed in fiction, it did not exist in autobiography.  Perhaps without realizing what she was doing, Jacobs joined the abolitionist story of the “tragic mulatta” to the slave autobiography, creating a new genre, as it were, and a new heroine.

Although her narrative is not the only extant slave narrative, it is rather unique in the emphasis it gives to her sexual experiences, her feelings of shame, and her attempt to explain them.  In many respects, the experiences of sexual harassment, sexual engagement and childbearing form a direct parallel to the experience of enslavement and the search for freedom.   If these experiences had not been true, we might see them as  metaphorical inverses of one another.  But they are not metaphors; they were lived experiences, a factor which makes it all the more remarkable that Jacobs wrote it down.  The natural instinct after trauma and degradation is silence; speaking is a way of asserting power over the degrading acts, giving them a name and demythologizing them.  Jacobs’ autobiography, in that sense, serves two purposes just as it told two stories: it became a voice for abolition and it liberated her to embrace her identity as both a mother and a free woman, making her, oddly enough, a precursor of the radically disconcerting art of Kara Walker, whose work we briefly looked at in the beginning of the semester.

Kara Walker: Darkytown Rebellion, 2001 (projection, cut paper, adhesive, 
14' x 37½')

Harriet Hosmer and the Triumph over Captivity

Although some writers have suggested that it may be possible to interpret images and narratives of captivity in a counter-intuitive fashion–to see them as female examples of the heroic male myth, women who survive in adversity–it is not clear that women living in the 18th and 19th centuries did see them that way.  Certainly, the dominant message of a captive would seem to be powerlessness, and it is not until the middle of the 19th century that a female artist offers a specific image to counter the powerless female.  This reversal is done with a female subject who serves a dual role–she was both a queen and a captive, so it may be the case that we will find power and captivity explicitly linked in this work.  It may have been a very canny decision on Hosmer’s part to choose a subject which conformed to traditional images and expectations of women even as she offered something a little different.

three views of the female captive:

Hiram Powers: The Greek Slave, 1843-6 Erastus Palmer: The White Captive, 1859 Harriet Hosmer: Zenobia in Chains, 1859

In order to understand the impact of these sculptures, we need to understand the viewing context of the 19th century.  An important part of this context was the fact that artists and/or critics generally provided viewers with written instructions or guides telling them what the story behind the work was and suggesting the appropriate response to make to the art work.  When Hiram Powers made his Greek Slave, and suggested that the story was based on the capture of a Christian Greek woman by barbarous Turks, he gave his audience a nude woman, modestly covering her sex, helpless because of the chains, her face turned to the side to enhance her sense of modesty and vulnerability, with a cross hanging from her clothing to suggest her faith in God.  Powers managed to bring together a subversive interest in pornography, the morally righteous indignation of a country which identified with other countries fighting for independence, and the vulnerable eroticism of the classical Greek nude.
Powers’ Greek Slave was not the only statue to exploit this ability of sculpture to suggest more than the viewer could actually see and to arouse feelings which might normally be repressed in the guise of a narrative which ultimately bestows honor on them.  Palmer's White Captive is clearly based on Powers' statue, despite the greater sense of naturalism and the implication that she has been captured by Indians.  Even Hosmer seems to have had Powers in mind when she made her own statue.
  Harriet Hosmer

portrait of Harriet Hosmer (painting by unknown artist) Medusa, 1854

Hosmer was financially secure, had patrons who were also friends, and could choose subjects of interest to herself.  The subjects she chose were usually mythological or romantic heroines, although these heroines were victims.  When the subject is someone who also has a demonic side, such as Medusa, Hosmer generally chose the moment of defeat, the moment when Medusa was being transformed from a beautiful woman into a woman with snakes writhing around her head and breasts, still touched with the aura of desirability but knowing that it is rapidly leaving her.  The story continues with Medusa becoming capable of destroying men; we don’t see that here but if we know the story, we can imagine the eventually complete transformation.  To the extent that viewers were captivated by the head, then Medusa had already begun to be a woman of dreaded power.  We might wonder if Hosmer was making an ironic pun--Medusa, here depicted in marble by a female sculptor, was capable of turning men to stone.

Beatrice Cenci, 1854 Oenone, 1855

Oenone, the daughter of the river god, was married to Paris.  When Paris deserted her for Helen of Troy, Oenone dreamt of her revenge against him and Troy.  She did achieve her goal, but threw herself onto Paris's funeral pyre, ultimately dying with him.  In Hosmer's sculpture, which moment is it that we see?  The desolate woman who has been abandoned?  Or the woman who contemplates both her revenge and her eventual suicide?  Hosmer doesn't tell us and she doesn't show us Oenone's face, so we can only guess.  But by leaving it to us, Hosmer gives Oenone greater power than that of a victim.
Beatrice Cenci is a subject which seems to move Hosmer closer to the subject of the captive.  Sexually abused and imprisoned by her father, Beatrice eventually murdered him, an act for which she paid with her life.  When Hosmer chose to make Beatrice her subject, she decided to show her sleeping, surely at her most vulnerable.  Her flowing robe certainly reveals the body underneath but her body is modestly arranged and to the extent that her flesh is visible, it can be excused by the fact that she was asleep.  The position, in fact, with the somewhat awry dress, serves to enhance her vulnerability, fragility and innocence.  Although she is sleeping on stone, a sign of her imprisonment, it is not difficult to imagine that she has swooned, is unconscious and will never awaken.  

two views of Zenobia in Chains (1859):

Hosmer’s largest statue, her most complete confrontation with the issue of captivity and power, was Zenobia.  Zenobia was Queen of Palmyra for six years after her husband died.  She led her country in war against imperial Rome but was defeated.  Rather than surrendering, she eluded capture for a while.  Eventually the Romans caught her and forced her to march through the city in chains.  Although the Romans executed her counselors, her life was spared.  Well before Hosmer tackled her subject, Zenobia had been a woman of mystery–her true ancestry was debated (was she an Egyptian, related to Cleopatra), the extent to which she might have bargained for her own life by giving up her counselors was not known, or did she, like Cleopatra, use sex to save herself.
Although Powers’ Greek Slave is the statue to which Hosmer seems to be responding, the first decision she makes immediately sets Zenobia apart.  The Greek slave is nude and the chains reinforce her vulnerability.  Zenobia is also chained but in contrast to the stories which described her chains as so heavy that servants had to carry them, she lifts them with one hand.  Wearing a long dress and cloak, she conveys an image of strength and solidity.  She is regal in her bearing, not vulnerable as the chains might lead us to suspect.  She redefines the nature of imprisonment as a test which she must overcome in order to remain in control of her destiny.
In some respects, it wasn’t only Zenobia who redefined the meaning of imprisonment.  Harriet Hosmer did also and she did in a way which suggests the union of the familiar and popular captivity narrative with a new one: triumph over adversity.  Generally a melodramatic and sentimental story, which will be very popular with women, it might also be understood in a less literal way: the conditions of womanhood (the female sphere of life) were inherently adversarial for the strong woman.  Living her life as a successful artist was a triumph over adversity; if we see the narrative of Zenobia in that light, then we can only see Hosmer's choice of subject as a radical decision.