Reconstructing Family in the African American Nadir: The Trope of Sibling Affiliation in Works by Harper, Chesnutt, and Hopkins

  • Emily E. VanDette


In antebellum fiction, the social salience of the sibling couple lies in its capacity for imagining familial affiliation as a resolution to the conflict between constructed social hierarchies and the vision of an egalitarian society. The sibling trope had special exigency in moments of national crisis, as the brother-sister affiliation and its dynamics provided a familiar model for novelists to imagine and respond to national fissure and recuperation. Peers, compatriots, partners, enjoying a shared history and lineage, and mirroring or practicing for the assigned gender roles of actual marriages, the opposite-sex sibling representation tended to reinforce the insularity and solidarity of carefully constructed and protected familial (and national) unions, which made it especially valuable to the antebellum agenda of building and protecting a national consanguinity. While their representations at times challenged or revised socially constructed categories of difference based on race, gender, and region, the hegemony of those categories was more typically critical to the rhetorical success of the device. Antebellum fiction that deployed the sibling romance to engage and resolve national conflict depended upon their readers’ investment in the presumed differences and expected dynamics between a good brother and sister. For Sedgwick, Simms, and Kennedy, the codes of opposite-sex sibling love provided an apt mode for their visions of lateral union amid the crisis of Nullification; Hentz engaged the ever-pressing antebellum crisis of lateral obligation in her experiment with the psychological implications and possibilities of sibling love; and Stowe portrayed a model white sibling pair in Dred in order to legitimize a Black brother in the context of sibling ideology, while also demonstrating his lack of brotherly power, as well as to contrast the stagnant and dysfunctional siblings of an extended plantation family, thereby refuting the narrative of paternalistic affiliation that preponderated in proslavery discourse.


Racial Identity Sibling Pair Family Reunion National Union White Supremacy 
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    Harper’s portrayal of Robert and Marie’s tenacious memories of each other resonates with the real history of sibling attachments in slavery and the trauma of separated siblings. See Hemphill, C. Dallett, Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011): 186–196.Google Scholar
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    Pauline Hopkins, Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988,), 41. Further references to Contending Forces will be cited parenthetically in the text.Google Scholar
  25. 24.
    The sisterly bond between Dora and Sappho, enduring the threats of male violence, emergent within and linked to the surrounding community of women, and consummated by Dora’s naming of her first-born after her close friend, remarkably fulfills the African American “womanist aesthetic,” which Lovalerie King locates in Alice Walker and dates back to Zora Neale Hurston. Lovalerie King, “Womanism from Zora Neale Hurston to Alice Walker,” in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel, edited by Maryemma Graham (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 233–252. Hopkins’s participation in the womanist aesthetic suggests an even earlier history for this tradition.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Carol Allen, Black Women Intellectuals: Strategies of Nation, Family, and Neighborhood in the Works of Pauline Hopkins, Jessie Fauset, and Marita Bonner (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998). Allen explains Hopkins’s burgeoning Black nationalism at the turn of the century, tracing polemical and fictional texts by Hopkins that contribute to various nationalist camps, including both extra-continental expatriation and a separate Black state within the United States (30–33).Google Scholar
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  28. A more contemporary account that examines the history of public discourse shaping Black nationalism is Melanye Price, Dreaming Blackness: Black Nationalism and African American Public Opinion (New York: New York University Press, 2009).Google Scholar
  29. 27.
    Peter Coviello, Intimacy in America: Dreams of Affiliation in Antebellum Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 27.Google Scholar

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© Emily E. VanDette 2013

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