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

  • Emily E. VanDette
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Abstract

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.

Keywords

Racial Identity Sibling Pair Family Reunion National Union White Supremacy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    See Rayford W. Logan, The Negro in American Life and Thought: the Nadir, 1877–1901 (New York: Dial Press, 1954)Google Scholar
  2. and Carla L. Peterson, “Commemorative Ceremonies and Invented Traditions: History, Memory, and Modernity in the ‘New Negro’ Novel of the Nadir,” in Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem: African American Literature and Culture, 1877–1919, edited by Barbara McCaskill and Caroline Gebhard (New York: New York University Press, 2006).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    For an extensive discussion of literary representations of lynching by African American authors of the period, see M. Giulia Fabi, “Reconstructing the Race: The Novel After Slavery,” in Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel, edited by Maryemma Graham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 34–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 3.
    Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865–1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  5. Also, see Karen A. Keely, “Marriage Plots and National Reunion: The Trope of Romantic Reconciliation in Postbellum Literature.” Mississippi Quarterly 51 (Fall 1998): 621–648, 621).Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    In suggesting the intertextual comparison between Harper’s use of the sibling trope and Stowe’s Dred, I am acknowledging Harper’s complicated revisionist responses to the abolitionist writer, and not suggesting that Harper’s works, in Frances Foster’s famous words of indictment of this critical history, “should be read as attempts—weak and inadequate, but, given their situation, rather heroic—to imitate the literary productions of Euro-Americans” [Frances Smith Foster, introduction to Minnie’s Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper, edited by Frances Smith Foster (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), xxiii].Google Scholar
  7. For more on Harper’s relationship to white female abolitionists, see Alice Rutkowski, “Leaving the Good Mother: Frances E. W. Harper, Lydia Maria Child, and the Literary Politics of Reconstruction,” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 25 (January 2008): 83–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 5.
    Teresa Zackodnik argues that both Harper’s Iola Leroy and Hopkins’s Contending Forces were “signifying, rather than reifying,” the tragic mulatta trope. Teresa Zackodnik, “Little Romances and Mulatta Heroines: Passing for a ‘True Woman’ in Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy and Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces,” Nineteenth-Century Feminisms 2 (Spring/Summer 2000): 103–124. Also, see M. Giulia Fabi, Patricia Bizzell, Hazel Carby, Barbara Christian, and Ann duCille.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Foreman credits the novel with rewriting history via “histotextuality,” which she describes as “a strategy marginalized writers use to incorporate historical allusions that both contextualize and radicalize their work by countering the putatively innocuous generic codes they seem to have endorsed”. Foreman P. Gabrielle, “‘Reading Aright’: White Slavery, Black Referents, and the Strategy of Histotextuality in Iola Leroy,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 10.2 (1997): 327–354, 328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 7.
    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
  11. 8.
    Robert H. Abzug, “The Black Family during Reconstruction,” in Key Issues in the Afro-American Experience, edited by Nathan I. Huggins et al. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971): 26–41. Abzug restores the history of the freedmen’s effort to establish normal family life in freedom, and exposes how their attempts for stability were undermined by white violence and economic subjugation. Also, correspondence documentary projects that have contributed significantly to the recovery of African Americans’ roles inGoogle Scholar
  12. Reconstruction are featured in Berlin and Rowland, eds. Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era. More recently, Eric Foner, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), revises the story of Reconstruction to feature the real participation of African Americans, andGoogle Scholar
  13. Heather Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), documents the history of African American educational leaders before and after the Civil War.Google Scholar
  14. 9.
    Karsten H. Piep, “Liberal Visions of Reconstruction: Lydia Maria Child’s A Romance of the Republic and George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes,” Studies in American Fiction 31.2 (Autumn 2003): 165–190. Piep points out that even in the “Liberal visions of reconstruction” of George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes, “Blacks…neither affect nor contribute to historical progress” (183). Caroline L. Karcher also explains that even Albion Tourgee’s most progressive of white-authored efforts to imagine a Black-centered Reconstruction plot eventually “reorients…toward addressing the issue of national reunification in lieu of Black self-determination” (“Bricks without Straw: Albion W. Tourgee’s ‘Black Reconstruction.’” REAL: The Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 22 (2006): 241–258, 241, 255).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 10.
    See Paul A. Cimbala, Under the Guardianship of the Nation: The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Reconstruction of Georgia, 1865–1870 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003);Google Scholar
  16. Eric Foner, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction (New York: Random House, 2005); and Williams, Self-Taught.Google Scholar
  17. 11.
    For a reading that examines how Harper deployed the gothic tradition to rewrite Reconstruction, see Justin D. Edwards, Gothic Passages: Racial Ambiguity and the American Gothic (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), 53–71.Google Scholar
  18. 12.
    W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Norton, 1999), 30.Google Scholar
  19. 13.
    W. E. B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Free Press, 1998), 711–712.Google Scholar
  20. 15.
    Frances E. W. Harper, Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 201. Further references to Iola Leroy are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.Google Scholar
  21. 16.
    Charles Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1988), 7. Further references to The House Behind the Cedars will be cited parenthetically in the text.Google Scholar
  22. 17.
    Matthew Wilson, Whiteness in the Novels of Charles Chesnutt (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004), 60–61.Google Scholar
  23. 21.
    See Julie Cary Nerad, “Slippery Language and False Dilemmas: The Passing Novels of Child, Howells, and Harper,” American Literature 75.4 (December 2003): 813–841.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 22.
    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
  26. 25.
    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
  27. A classic source for that history is Essien Udosen Essien-Udom, America Black Nationalism: A Search for Identity in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995; first edition, 1962).Google Scholar
  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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