Friday, November 16, 2007

Victorian Domesticity and the Queen of America

In Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), there's a remarkable passage in which an enslaved woman, seemingly out of ignorance, articulates a political vision in which a "Queen of America" subjugates the President of the United States and emancipates the slaves:
Even the most ignorant have some confused notions about it. They knew that I could read; and I was often asked if I had seen any thing in the newspapers about white folks over in the big north, who were trying to get their freedom for them. Some believe that the abolitionists have already made them free, and that it is established by law. One woman begged me to get a newspaper and read it over. She said her husband told her that the black people had sent word to the queen of 'Merica that they were all slaves; that she didn't believe it, and went to Washington city to see the president about it. They quarrelled; she drew her sword upon him, and swore that he should help her to make them all free.
That poor, ignorant woman thought that America was governed by a Queen, to whom the President was subordinate. I wish the President was subordinate to Queen Justice.(44-5)

What does it all mean?

Incidents famously marshals the discourse of domestic fiction (my class played "name that text" this week with quotations from Incidents and Pamela, and it was not easy). But it's also explicitly political, engaging both what Nancy Armstrong calls the "sexual contract" and the social contract. The Queen of America passage is a moment where the two models collide.

Domesticity -- the model of the home as unit, wherein man and woman play complementary roles -- is purportedly the great good in Jacobs's narrative. Jacobs repeatedly denounces slavery for the way in which it destroys both black and white domesticity, writing that
...the husband of a slave has no power to protect her. Moreover, my mistress, like many others, seemed to think that slaves had no right to any family ties of their own; they were created merely to wait upon the family of the mistress. (38)
Slavery disallows black domesticity by tearing apart black families. The black woman is not allowed to be a domestic woman: she can't take care of her own children, keep her own house, or maintain her chastity, while the black man is similarly denied access to domestic masculinity, since he cannot provide for his wife and children, act as their agent in the political and economic world, or protect them from harm. But similarly, slavery destroys the white family, since the master is free to rape his slaves, have children by them, and sell his children, destroying the nuclear husband-wife dyad. Slavery, according to Jacobs, is the enemy of domesticity, and for this reason must be opposed.

But where slavery destroys one kind of family, it constructs itself as another kind of family, a perverted domestic family, what Jacobs sarcastically calls "a beautiful 'patriarchal institution'" (74). Slaveholders repeatedly present the kinship model of slavery as a justification for its continuation, most disturbingly when Dr. Flint, who has spent several chapters seeking to rape Linda (Jacobs's narrator), seeks her acquiescence on the basis that he, filling a paternal role, knows better than she, a mere child. "You know I exact obedience from my own children, and I consider you as yet a child," he tells her (83).

But Jacobs does not introduce the perverse family of slavery merely to contrast it with the virtuous domestic family. For whereas one family, the domestic family, is constructed as "good" and the other, the "patriarchal institution" of slavery, as "bad," both models reproduce the social contract, in which the subjugated members gain protection from the governor to whom they have ceded power.

And in both models, the contract is revealed as a sham, imposed by tradition and force and beneficial to one party at the expense of the other. Just as the well-being of the women and children of the domestic household is guaranteed only by the good will of the father who is their economic and political agent, the well-being of the slave is only guaranteed by the good will of the slave-holder. Should that good will fail, woman, child, and slave are left without recourse; as Jacobs puts it, when her children's biological father repeatedly fails to emancipate them, "I was powerless. There was no protecting arm of the law for me to invoke."

Thus, time and again, attempts to work within the domestic model fail, not only because of slavery (as Jacobs herself sometimes suggests), but also because of the inherent flaw in the social contract.

Linda's grandmother, the ideal domestic woman, finally gains her own home and freedom after being repeatedly cheated by white people. But she never gains the freedom of her children, and, in spite of her moral authority in her community, she never has any legal redress. Even the ideal domestic woman has no ultimate standing.

Similarly, slaves are constantly cheated by their owners, who are supposedly filling a "parental" role, because promises to them never have the force of law behind them.

Even white women are powerless if attached to a father or a husband. Among southern white women, only an orphaned woman (50), a widow (99), and an elderly spinster (11) succeed in giving real aid to slaves by acting as their own economic agents.

In the end, the moral authority and power of the domestic woman has its limits, and at that limit, force and legal redress must replace the dubious promises of a paternalistic system.

But how can an American woman acquire political power? It is sixty years before women can even vote, much less run for political office. In America, there is no figure of female political power; the President of the United States is by definition male.

In the same period, however, there was an important figure of female power: Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.

The parable of the Queen of America, spoken by the most oppressed subaltern, an illiterate female slave, envisions female power legitimized by a crown and enforced by a sword. Running counter to the discourse that glorifies domesticity and its sexual contract, Jacobs suggests that the emancipation of slaves is possible only by a rupture in the sexual contract, in the form of a female seizure of political power.

In that sense, British monarchy ironically becomes a figure of liberation.* Of course, Jacobs was naive to hope that white women would always look out for black women's interests, just as white feminists of the period were naive to hope that their alliance with male abolitionists would be repaid in support for women's suffrage. But as the narrative closes, Jacobs remarks, "my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage" (201) Despite her frequent invocation of the domestic home, the ultimate aim of the marriage plot, Jacobs finally posits freedom as domesticity's alternative.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Enlarged Edition, Ed. and Introd. Jean Fagan Yellin. 1861; Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000.

*Elisa Tamarkin's article on "black Anglophilia" has more and better things to say to this figure, which is not unique to Jacobs.

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