Information wanted: The Curse of Caste, Minnie's Sacrifice, and the Christian Recorder.
Whate'er thine eyes behold, note down-- The beautiful in nature, or the grand, The curious or sublime.... Whate'er is useful to the world portray, And show its application just to all The ends of mortal life--the ends of God. (Payne 298, 11. 31-38)
The newspaper, functioning nominally as the house organ for the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, fulfilled, in many respects, Payne's grander "ends": it became an African American institution. Established and produced by members of the northern black elite, it was an important component in what Carla Peterson has described as a "program of 'racial uplift' that sought to raise the masses to its own social and cultural level as well as to theorize issues of black nationality" (11). Like its contemporary and erstwhile competitor, the Anglo-African, the Recorder was a vehicle for nationwide debate regarding issues such as emigration, suffrage, and social equality in addition to addressing concerns specific to the AME Church.
During the turbulent 1860s, the Recorder was also a crucial source of news. As one frequent correspondent put it, "We are amid stirring times--events thicken around us" (Lynch 41). In 1865 alone, the Recorder recorded the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery, the surrender of Lee, and the assassination of Lincoln--as well as the repeal of the "black laws" in Illinois and Missouri and the fiery destruction of Wilberforce University, recently bought by the AME Church as their flagship educational institution. (1) The Recorder was structured in such a way that portrayed this "thickening" of events particularly effectively. Its board of corresponding editors, made up of regional church conference leaders, described the doings of the local church, as well as notable speakers and other events; readers submitted accounts of their own; soldiers and chaplains from the US Colored Troops wrote dispatches from the front lines of the war. (2) Perhaps most poignantly, escaped slaves placed ads--with the customary headline, "Information Wanted"--describing long-lost relatives in the hopes of finding them. While the editor, on occasion, pleaded with his less communicative correspondents to send items, the Recorder, on the whole, suffered no shortage of copy. Indeed, in one instance the editor, Elisha Weaver, admonished his correspondents to "write their articles shorter, or we shall be under the necessity of abridging them ourselves," while elsewhere, he was apologetic for excluding submissions due to lack of space ("To Our Readers" 62). (3)
As one might expect, publishing fiction was not high on the list of the newspaper's priorities during the Civil War. Yet it was exactly from the mid-to-late 1860s that the Recorder saw fit to serialize two lengthy novels. Beginning in February 1865, Julia C. Collins's novel The Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride, would appear in 31 installments and run for a period of seven months. Published over a similar period in 1869, the Recorder also serialized Frances E. W. Harper's Minnie's Sacrifice. It would not serialize another novel until they published a later novel by Harper: Sowing and Reaping, in 1876-77. In contrast to these novels, whose installments appeared on the front page of each issue, the short fiction that the Recorder customarily published was nearly always relegated to the back section, along with miscellaneous pieces of poetry, children's tales, and advertisements. Perhaps most curious, the appeal of both novels was dubious. Both were essentially recastings of the "tragic mulatta" plot, and The Curse of Caste is particularly troubling because it aligns Collins's mixed-race heroine with her white father and the white race by marrying her off to a member of the French nobility. What in these implausible stories would appeal to an audience contemplating the heady but suddenly very real possibilities of emancipation and enfranchisement, or alternatively, actually dodging "bombs and balls" on the field of battle (Turner, "A Very Important Letter" 109)? In what follows, I hope to show that these novels did in fact address concerns of deep import--specifically, concerns about the nature of news, information, and knowledge--raised in the midst of a rapidly changing national landscape. Collins's novel, published during the last months of the Civil War, and Harper's, which appeared in the middle of Reconstruction, provide two different views of this issue, views that reflect how blacks attempted to make sense of themselves as citizens and as a community.
Initially, one might suspect that these novels ran in the Recorder to provide an escape from the serious issues confronting blacks. However, the lofty goals described by Payne in his dedicatory lines, as well as the generally serious tenor of the paper, would appear to preclude such a concession to amusement. (4) Moreover, fiction, as Elizabeth McHenry and others have argued, was held in far lower esteem than poetry among the northern black elite, who took seriously the charge that novels were morally and intellectually suspect. McHenry writes that "to derive full benefit from one's reading required discipline, diligence, and direction; imaginative texts suggested a certain casual freedom, a release from the very moral and civic responsibility and sense of engagement with others that was at the heart of literary study" (104). Collins herself was a proponent of these views. In one column she wrote for the Recorder in the months preceding the appearance of The Curse of Caste, she encouraged readers to fill "the mind with useful facts and brilliant gems of thought taken, as it were, from the mental ore" of the world's best writers; in another, she chastised young women who "never spend one hour in trying to improve or cultivate their mind," exhorting them instead to "improve every opportunity that is offered for our moral and intellectual culture ... it is incumbent upon us, as a duty" ("Letter" 198; "Intelligent Women" 127, 125).
Ultimately, Collins believed that self-improvement was a precondition of racial uplift. In "Life is Earnest," a column published in the Recorder in January 1865, she wrote:
The old year has been fraught with real and important changes and events--events that have far towered--changing the seemingly invincible destiny of our people, and building us up a nation that shall shine forth as a star.... There is a vast work for us to do! We have not a moment to lose! We have gone through life dreaming too long!... We have been spared another year, perhaps, to improve the time and talent God has given us, working out his divine will; for it is the will of God that we become a nation and a people. ... (129-30)
Given Collins's own statements, we must see The Curse of Caste as part of the "vast work" of creating a nation and a people. Certainly, Elisha Weaver, for one, found value in Collins's story; in his "Notice" to the novel, which was printed on page three of the issue in which the first installment appeared, he solicited readers' "careful attention" when reading Collins's novel for "The story is one of great depth and thrilling interest--bespeaking a rare genius and powerful intellect in the happy writer" (31). Given the plot and resolution of her novel Collins clearly suggests that the ideal nation would be one where whites and blacks, northerners and southerners, perhaps even Americans and Europeans, live on terms of complete equality, absent considerations of either race or "caste"--that is, of class distinctions. The ill-fated marriage between Richard, the son of a slave-owner, and Lina, a slave, is redeemed through the reconciliation between Richard and his mixed race daughter Claire, as well as the implied marriage between Claire and the landed French aristocrat, Count Sayvord.
On a deeper level Collins's novel, like the Recorder itself, encourages readers to take an active role in creating and spreading news and knowledge. For the events that had "far towered" over blacks in the past year required a radical shift in thinking. As historians have noted, the war changed the way that blacks saw themselves and the world around them in unanticipated, even if in hoped-for, ways. Perhaps most significant, 1864, the year Collins began writing for the Recorder, saw a surge in black enlistment for the Union and the crumbling of the Confederacy. According to Eric Foner, 180,000, or over 20 percent, of all black males would fight in the war--and their presence there had "radical ... implications" (6, 5). Their bravery forced many white skeptics to recognize that blacks were indeed worthy of, as one writer for the Recorder put it, "the title of manhood" ("Rebel Adulation" 42). (5) But this conferral of manhood was no less powerful a revelation to whites than it was to blacks. Of newly liberated slaves he encountered near Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864, one black soldier wrote, "It surprised them to see their brethren in arms.... They cause what few inhabitants yet remain, to look and wonder" (Brown 109). The notion of wonder permeated the columns of the Recorder, especially as 1865 began. On the front page of the January 7, 1865, issue, in which Collins's "Life is Earnest" appeared, the Reverend Henry McNeal Turner, the first black chaplain in the US Army, wrote from North Carolina that he was "amused" by the reaction of a "colored boy, who came to wait on the table. He was so much surprised at seeing me, a colored man, eating with white officers, that he did nothing but look at me. I suppose that he never saw such a sight before" (Turner, "Notes" 1). In the next column, the Reverend R. H. Cain declared, "The great changes which have come to us have measurably found us unprepared to grapple with the urgent demands of the times.... We know how to serve others, but, have not learned how to serve ourselves" (1). And in a column appearing alongside Collins's, a correspondent identified only as "Lizzie" wrote, "We all are marching steadily into the misty future, not knowing what tomorrow will bring forth, or where the next step we take will lead us. It is a dream which we cannot fathom" (1).
The hope and confusion simultaneously expressed in these columns reflect the sheer magnitude of the changes wrought by the war and the speed with which they had occurred; writers for the Recorder frequently compared the 250 years during which the slave system had been entrenched in American society to the four short years of its dismantling. However, the range of responses in the paper also had much to do with the simple fact that people did not actually know what was going on. Separated physically from the sites of conflict, northern blacks relied on newspapers and letters for information. Black soldiers, in turn, relied on the same sources for information from home, as well as about the progress of the war. And everyone to a greater or lesser extent relied on word-of-mouth networks--a la the "grapevine telegraph" that connected slave communities in the South--which were obviously disrupted and unreliable during wartime.
One could say that Collins's novel portrays the anxiety caused by the knowledge that one lacks knowledge--either of one's being, in an ontological sense, or of the more mundane but no less crucial knowledge of events taking place in the surrounding world. Both are central from the story's beginning. The beautiful and apparently white Claire Neville has just graduated from school and must decide what to do with herself; but the mystery of her birth leaves her in a state of incertitude. "I am homeless and almost friendless," she says, "... and I don't know that I even have a right to the name I bear" (5). She has never known her mother or father, nor even who has paid for her education; in fact, she says, "the only link between my past and present life is an old beloved nurse, named Juno, who, I am confident, knows all, but I can prevail upon her to impart nothing" (5).
Without the connections or support of family or friends, or any wealth of her own, she is compelled to take a position as a governess for the children of Colonel John Tracy, a Louisiana slaveholder. As she is about to depart for the South, she bids farewell to Juno, who quails at the name of "Tracy" and implores Claire not to take the position, but refuses to explain why. Nor will Juno explain the inscription on a ring she gives Claire as a memento of her mother: "From R. T. to L." We, however, discover soon enough that "R. T." is Richard Tracy, son of the Colonel Tracy in Louisiana; that said Richard, 20 years earlier, had fallen in love with and married "L.," a beautiful quadroon named Lina; that Colonel Tracy, in his fury, not only disinherits, but nearly kills his son; and that Lina, without Richard's knowledge, has given birth to Claire before dying herself.
The knowledge of her parentage and her race is denied Claire until the end of the novel. (In an unintended irony, Claire, in fact, never attains this knowledge, as Collins died of tuberculosis before she finished the novel. However, the direction of the narrative clearly indicates that the truth is, finally, revealed to her.) Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Claire, perhaps unconsciously on Collins's part, denies herself this knowledge. With excruciating consistency, in chapter after chapter, this supposedly educated, sensitive young woman obtusely fails to recognize the signs that would lead her to the knowledge that she so desperately seeks; these signs, moreover, are only too easily interpreted by both the reader and the other characters in the novel. For instance, the slaves who hover in the background of the novel know instantly who Claire is. When she arrives at the Tracy plantation, Collins writes, "At almost every step" Claire "encountered the curious gaze of the negroes, who looked wonderingly at her" (11). Though she "wondered at the likeness she bore to the Tracy's" [sic], she cannot divine the reason for it, merely concluding, "It was singular, to say the least, and she felt herself an object of curiosity even to the negroes, who ... talked mysteriously of somebody and something, Claire knew not what" (15).
Whether or not Claire's failure to recognize the obvious is a reflection of Collins's shortcomings as a fictionist, it is singular that she continues to contrast the knowledge of the slaves--and the servant Juno, by association--with Claire's ignorance. Throughout the novel slaves are described at various points, looking, observing, and reacting to what they see and hear. Thus Collins posits that even though slaves and servants are cursed by their caste, they still know: the sources of their knowledge being direct observation and lived experience rather than books and formal education. However, for the most part, they remain silent. Though they see and know, they don't tell. Claire and the white characters, in contrast, are educated but nevertheless ignorant of basic truths. Unlike the observant but silent slaves, they look, but don't see; they ask, but aren't told. The two groups, Collins implies, are divided by differences in what they know and how they know it.
Claire and the white characters rely almost solely on letters and other "official" sources for information. Much of the narrative tension centers on letters that either fail to be delivered or are subject to delays in reaching their destinations. For example, several letters written by Richard early on--one to his father breaking to him the news of his marriage, another to Lina informing her of his whereabouts and affirming his love for her--are maliciously waylaid with tragic results: in the first case, Colonel Tracy, surprised into rage, emphatically disowns Richard and nearly kills him in his fury; in the second, Lina, believing Richard has abandoned her, pines to her death. Letters that would confirm the relationship between Claire and Richard must travel overseas between the US and France. Even letters that do succeed in reaching their intended recipients require responses, resulting in further delays, both for the characters and for the reader, in determining the outcome of events.
The novel's emphasis on letters would have struck loudly a chord with readers of the Recorder. Calls from Weaver for news from his regional editors, requests from soldiers for news from home, and perhaps most poignantly, the "Information Wanted" notices all depict a sometimes desperate need for written communication. One "anxious mother" desired information of her son, of whom she wrote:
When last seen by his mother he was about 12 years of age, and resided in Alexandria, Va ... from which place his mother was sold to New Orleans. ... Nine long and dreary years have passed away since his mother has seen him. Through the reverses of this war she has made her way to New Bedford.... Any information concerning him or his grandmother, Sophia Pierson, will be thankfully received.... (Cole 5.5: 18)
Five months later, she placed another ad, which provided further details before stating succinctly, "This is the only child I have and I much desire to find him" (Cole 5.26: 102).
The anxiety experienced by readers could only have been intensified by the fact that so many letters were waylaid or lost due to the chaos caused by the war and its aftermath. (6) And for those actually fighting in the war, the sporadic and unstable nature of communication heightened the feelings of dislocation many of them experienced when encountering the slave South for the first time. A soldier stationed in Fort Barranca, Florida, wrote to the Recorder: "We are almost persuaded here that we are detached from the rest of creatures, for the simple reason that our communication with the outer world is severed... There is a screw loose somewhere, and, in our opinion, there ought to be a reformation" (Miller 34). Chaplain Turner commented at several points on the soldiers' need for letters, and scolded the northern readers of the Recorder for failing to write. In a July 1864, column, he wrote:
In many instances our soldiers will beg paper and ink enough to write to some dearly beloved wife, brother, sister or friend ..., and after receiving their letter, (they are too contemptibly lazy to answer it.... They don't know that some of the letters sent to them cost a very big price, for many of the soldiers who can't write themselves, have to pay others to do it for them.... I can not now enumerate half the obstacles laboured under by a soldier. But this I do say--all persons receiving letters from soldiers, should answer them immediately, and if they care anything about the brave defenders of justice, right and equity, they should write to their husbands, brothers, and sons without being written to first. I have seen soldiers go from day to day, asking for letters, and on a continual answer in the negative, they would look so down-hearted, that I would feel sorry for them in my heart. I have seen others, after a long suspense, get a letter, and it seemed to have illuminated their very souls with joy. Let the friends of the soldier write to him ... cheer him up, while lying from day to day under the ball and shell of your and his enemy, and do away with that lazy timber-headed sluggishness. (115)
The written word, in all of these instances, confirms relationships--familial, regional, and national--and in turn, confirms the identity of black individuals and black society alike. Even the most mundane news was cause for celebration. As a member of the 25th USCT wrote from Florida: "Mr. Editor, I am glad and happy to see so many of our race enjoying themselves at home. When I hear of their Leagues and Conventions, the Ladies' Union Association, the Social Civil, and Statistical Associations, and the Ladies' Fair for the sick and wounded soldiers, I can't help feeling overjoyed, although I am not there to participate ... Mr. Editor, we read your paper here, with great interest" ("A Close Observer," "Letter from Florida" 46). Throughout the issues in which The Curse of Caste appeared we see, on the one hand, the yearning of those who lack news, and on the other, the satisfaction, even joy, of those who attain it. The resolution of the novel echoes these sentiments. The disastrous consequences of the waylaid letters early in the novel are balanced by the reunion of Richard and Claire, which is effected through correspondence undertaken by Richard's doctor and the Frenchman, Count Sayvord (Claire's would-be suitor). In the end, Richard and Claire, white father and mixed-race daughter, are reunited, and both are reintegrated into the Tracy family; Colonel Tracy rescinds racial and regional prejudice; and Claire, it is implied, will marry Sayvord. Once Claire has been informed of all that has transpired, the last words she speaks are, "And I am happy" (111; emphasis mine).
The novel's joining together of white and black, north and south, even America and Europe, reflects Collins's hope that the dissemination of knowledge and truth would heal over the divisions spawned by the war, resulting in unity and peace: the basis of what she earlier described as "a nation and a people" ("Life is Earnest" 130). In this, she echoes the sentiments of many writers to the Recorder. As a sergeant for the USCT wrote in 1865, "what a great change this war is working! Where once the dark mantle of ignorance hung heavily over the land, we now behold ... the bright light of knowledge surely dispelling the gloom of ignorance and bigotry" (Brock 42).
It should be noted, however, that the knowing slaves depicted throughout The Curse of Caste are not included as equal members of Collins's unified society. Though they often appear at key moments in the novel, they function merely as attendants or messengers--passively observing or parroting others. Even Juno, the critical link in the chain of knowledge, is relegated to a passive role. Mulling over her decision to withhold Claire's history from her, she decides, "I didn't tell her before, and somehow I feel that Master Richard will come, and tell it all himself" (89; original emphasis). Which is, in fact, what happens: Richard seeks out Juno, hears her story, gets from her the documents she has kept that prove his paternity, and then leaves her. She is simply a receptacle for knowledge, and once that knowledge is poured forth, she is, for the purposes of the story, discarded--left with her husband on their isolated farm to live out their lives happily, we assume, but far removed from Claire and her new family.
Collins's narrative technique demonstrates her reluctance, or perhaps inability, to figure Juno as an effective actor in the drama. When Richard calls on her to hear her story, Collins writes that "Juno could only sob aloud and fervently ejaculate: 'Thank the Lord! Thank the Lord!'" Then the novelist suddenly shifts from the direct discourse of dialogue to the indirect discourse of paraphrase:
It was some time before she [Juno] was composed enough to relate to Richard the closing scenes in his young wife's life. The entire party was more or less affected, as Juno, in simple but eloquent words, repeated Lina's trials--how the young wife's cheek grew pale and her step feeble, as she waited with breaking heart for the letter that would never come; how she turned away with a look of hopeless despair in her beautiful eyes; and how, at last, a letter came, and proved fatal in its cruel mission; a night of sorrow, and the cloudless morning dawned upon a beautiful new-born babe, and the lifeless form of the young mother; how she and the old nurse ... had watched with pride and wonder over baby Claire.... Richard grew more astonished and indignant as each successive revelation served to disclose more fully the duplicity of Manville. (101)
Given the length to which Collins goes to summarize the events described by Juno, and the astonishment, indignation, and affect she elicits, why not inscribe the "simple but eloquent words" that she speaks rather than paraphrase them? Collins clearly demonstrates her discomfort with representing another black woman's voice, in speech patterns or accents that were apparently not her own. (7) Although Collins decries "caste" prejudices in her novel, she reinforces them by maintaining her narratorial distance from the enslaved and servant characters. Her best efforts to include them in her vision of postbellum US society falls short, reflecting a general reluctance on the part of the northern black elite to embrace the newly freed population--due, in part, to a willfully maintained ignorance of them.
This reluctance was noticeable to both whites and blacks. One USCT chaplain wrote in March 1865, "We are often asked, and been asked the same question by our white friends, "Why don't some of your people come down here, and take part in looking after the welfare of their own people?' To this question, we soldiers could not give the requisite answer, only in saying that we suffered for their attention, & c." (Brock 42). A week earlier, Reverend Turner had written, "I would respectfully hint to our worthy bishops, that it would be more conducive to the interests of our Church to transfer some of its most talented ministers to these great southern fields, as the work to be done here is very extensive and requires able men to accomplish it" (45). Thus, Turner implies that the bishops at least entertained no thought of going south themselves and believed it beneath their "most talented ministers" to do so. Collins, in essence, exemplifies an elitist attitude toward the freedmen and women that would prove to be one of the great stumbling blocks in developing a truly national African American community.
By 1869, when Minnie's Sacrifice appeared, the conflicts between the educated northern blacks who had founded the AME Church, and the largely uneducated southern blacks (including former slaves) who made up a growing proportion of church membership had erupted into pitched internecine battles that were documented in all their pettiness and vitriol in the pages of the Recorder. In the years during and immediately following the Civil War, the AME Church, along with their "parent" denomination, the Methodist Episcopal (ME) Church, North; the ME Church, South; and the AME Zion and Colored Methodist Episcopal Churches--not to mention the Baptists, Roman Catholics, and American Missionary Association--recruited heavily in the South, seeing the region, as historian Clarence E. Walker put it, a "missionary field" (82, 75). Though successful in the main, AME ministers encountered unexpected pockets of resistance to their demands for a literate, learned clergy and the removal of some of the more exuberant traditions, such as corn songs and ring shouts from church practices. As one ME Church, South, minister put it, if he and his followers joined the AME Church, he suspected that "they would not be able to catch up in fifty years, and consequently they would have to be lackey boys" for the church's better-educated northern members (Walker 77).
Minnie's Sacrifice, with its marriage between two mixed race characters, one raised in the North, the other in the South, is a call for unity amid Reconstruction-era competition and dissension. It also attempts to exorcise the "curse of caste" that Collins herself was unable to overcome, by depicting educated and uneducated blacks together in a single community. In so doing, Harper's novel functions as a reminder to educated northern blacks of what they had already forgotten--had they ever truly known it--in the four short years following the end of the Civil War: the searing knowledge of slavery that no amount of formal education could instill.
The two main characters of Minnie's Sacrifice--Minnie, who like Claire Neville is raised and educated in the North, and Louis, who is brought up as a southern sympathizer--are informed of their racial background much earlier in the narrative than Claire learns hers in The Curse of Caste. Harper's novel thus deals less with what one seeks to know than with what one does with that knowledge. The misuse of knowledge--or more specifically, education--is placed in the foreground from the very first chapters, where we are introduced to Bernard LeCroix and his young daughter, Camilla, the white parents, literally and figuratively, of Louis. Bernard, from a Haitian Creole family, is a bookish, retiring sort, "aesthetic in his tastes," who despises society and politics and has "secluded himself in his library till he had almost passed from the recollection of his nearest neighbors." He has likewise sequestered his daughter in this isolated environment, where he has "superintended" her education. Exposing her to "very little of society" but acquainting her with "the best authors, both ancient and modern," LeCroix assures her "growing up with very little knowledge of the world, except what she learned in books" (10). (8)
The rarefied environment that LeCroix creates is debased, however, because he owns slaves. Harper implies that because he is a slaveowner, he is inherently corrupt, and this corruption is manifested through his rape of the enslaved Agnes, and amplified by his apparent lack of concern when she dies giving birth to Louis. His young daughter, in contrast, demonstrates the natural goodness of childhood. Perceiving only that Louis "was a beautiful babe, whose golden hair, bright blue eyes and fair complexion showed no trace of the outcast blood in his veins," she asks her father if he can't "keep him from growing up a slave" by adopting him. For, she argues, "he is just as white as anybody ... and he looks like us anyhow" (4, 6, 8). LeCroix, in a rare moment of shame, "flushed deep at these words," and eventually acquiesces, resolving to send him north for his education, "and then adopt him as his son." Harper writes, "And in fact the plan rather suited him; for then he could care for him as a son, without acknowledging the relationship" (11).
Believing he is LeCroix's legitimate son and heir, Louis grows into manhood living both a lie and a truth: while he is not, in fact, white, he is the son of LeCroix, a Louisiana slaveowner. As such, Louis defends slavery to his northern friends, and even to Minnie, causing her to break off relations with him in spite of her belief that at the core, he is "generous, kind-hearted, and full of good impulses" (44). (9) In essence, his incorrect belief that he has only white ancestry has skewed his moral outlook. When Minnie rejects him, his actions continue on their twisted path: "wounded by Minnie's refusal," he resolves to "join the Confederacy ... he would unite his fortunes to her destiny." Returning to Louisiana, he enlists, and immediately turns "his trained intellect to the study of military tactics" and is elected captain of his company (56-57). Camilla, who knows the truth but has withheld it from him, "regretted to see Louis ready to raise his hand against the freedom of his mother's race, although he was perfectly unconscious of his connection with it," but keeps silent (34).
Minnie, meanwhile, also has had her African ancestry hidden from her, but with more fortunate results. Her father, Louis LeGrange, like Bernard LeCroix, has sent his daughter (also produced through the rape of a servant) north to be educated. (10) However, rather than adopt Minnie, he gives her up, and she is effectively adopted by two Quakers, Thomas and Anna Carpenter. Minnie is thus living two lies, the one regarding her racial identity and the other regarding her parentage. However, in her case, the lies result ironically in a truth: she becomes an adamant abolitionist. Unlike Bernard LeCroix, who has attempted to restrict Camilla's education to that provided by the "best authors," the Carpenters were "careful to instil into [Minnie's] young mind a reverence for humanity, and to recognize beneath all externals, whether of condition or color, the human soul all written over with the handmarks of divinity and the common claims of humanity." And as conductors on the Underground Railroad, they have exposed her to the brute realities of slavery and its effects. Still, they hesitate to tell her of her race, "shrink[ing] from the effect the knowledge would have on her mind" (31). Of course, she finds out--and is initially shocked by the knowledge into a delirious fever. But she soon recovers, and immediately commits herself to the cause. "Oh, how the enthusiasm of her young soul gathered around that work!" Harper writes. "She felt it was no mean nor common privilege to be the pioneer of a new civilization" (67). She travels south and there teaches freedwomen, and ultimately lynched for it. Yet she has not died in vain. One of her former students says, in "words of love and hope": "She done gone and folded her wing in de hebenly mansion. I wish I was 'long side of her, but I'se bound to meet her, 'cause I'm gwine to set out afresh for heben and 'ternal glory." Thus, Harper writes, "Minnie's exit from earth must have been over a bridge of light, above whose radiant arches hovering angels would delight to bend" (88-89). In her conclusion to the novel Harper writes, "May I not modestly ask that the lesson of Minnie shall have its place among the educational ideas for the advancement of our race?" Addressing the recent graduates among her readers, she continues, "Look upon the knowledge you have gained only as a stepping stone to a future, which you are determined shall grandly contrast with the past" (90, 91).
If Minnie's story is meant to inspire readers, more inspirational yet may be what happens to Louis. When told he is black, he demands "proof, clear as daylight," and reads the papers that are produced "like one who might read a sentence of death to see if there was one word or sentence on which he might hang a hope of reprieve" (60). Failing that, he realizes that he can no longer bring himself to fight for the Confederacy. "It is true, too true," he says, "I see it all. I can never raise my hand against my mother's race." But what can he do? He finds himself caught in "a most unpleasant dilemma." Harper writes that
if he belonged to the race he would not join its oppressors. And yet his whole sympathy had been so completely with them, that he felt that he had no feeling in common with the North. And as to the colored people, of course it never entered his mind to join their ranks ... he had always regarded them as inferior; and this sudden and unwelcome revelation had not changed the whole tenor of his thoughts and opinions. (60-61)
In the end, he does only what he has to: he deserts from the Confederate army and escapes to the North. On his journey north, however, Louis experiences a revelation. Before he leaves, the enslaved woman he now knows is his grandmother tells him: "Don't trust your secret to any white person ... if you meet any of the colored people, just tell them that you is for the Linkum soldiers, and it will be all right; we don't know all about this war, but we feels somehow we's all mixed up in it" (62). Driven by hunger, Louis is finally forced to request aid. Though initially "repelled" by the "morose expression" on the face of a "very black and homely-looking woman" he encounters, he nevertheless follows his grandmother's advice and tells her he is "for Lincoln," at which point "a change passed over her whole countenance." He is given food, guidance, and protection; later, one man even cuts his feet so that the bloodhounds following Louis will be thrown off the trail. Harper writes,
Louis began to feel that he had never known them.... What was it impelled these people? What was the Union to them, and who were Lincoln's soldiers? ... They as a race had lived in a measure upon an idea; it was the hope of a deliverance yet to come ... was it strange if when even some of our politicians did not or could not read the signs of the times aright these people with deeper intuitions understood the war better than they did. (64-65)
Louis's newly found understanding of southern blacks' "deeper intuitions" and their ability to "read the signs of the times aright" reflects the epiphany Harper herself experienced when she toured the South during 1867-1868. In a letter she wrote from Eufala, Alabama, she exclaimed, "what a chance one has for observation among these people, if one takes with her a manner that unlocks other hearts" (qtd. in Foster 128). Her letters from the time are filled with stories she has heard, stories that sadden, horrify, and inspire her; ultimately, she decides, "though some be far past me in the learning of the schools, yet to-day, with my limited and fragmentary knowledge, I may help the race forward a little" (qtd. in Foster 127). In contrast to Collins, who distances herself from slaves whom she has presumably never known, Harper goes to them and then emphasizes to her readers that in spite of their lack of education or other trappings of "culture," they have much to tell and much to contribute. She suggests that rather than divide themselves on the basis of their differences, they should pool their knowledge and share their resources, writing, in the final sentence of the novel "we can best serve the interests of our race by a generous and loving diffusion, than by a narrow and selfish isolation" (91-92).
The different attitudes toward knowledge expressed in Collins's and Harper's novels reflect the rapid transformation of African American society during four short years. Collins expresses the "shock and awe" that came on the heels of Emancipation, a change that transformed the very identity of blacks, north and south. Writing in the midst of Reconstruction, Harper reminds her readers of the heady idealism of that earlier moment, and calls on blacks to leave behind their petty differences for the greater good of "the race." In both cases, we see how fiction functioned within the pages of the Recorder: it did not simply provide entertainment or an escape from the pressing concerns of the day. Nestled within the news itself, these stories emphasized African Americans" collective need for news, suggested the different forms that news could take, and most importantly, showed how the dissemination of information could bridge divisions between regional and racial groups in a country so recently at war with itself.
Andrews, William L., and Mitch Kachun. The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride: A Rediscovered African-American Novel by Julia C. Collins. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.
Ayres, Malcolm. "Obituary [for Amanzer Burns]." Christian Recorder 4 June 1864: 89.
Bird, J. J. "Cairo Correspondence." Christian Recorder 22 Apr. 1865:61.
Brock, John C. "From the 43rd USCT (from a "Camp near Richmond, Va")." Christian Recorder 18 Mar. 1865: 42.
Brown, Charles T. Company B, 1st US Colored Troops, n.t. Christian Recorder 9 July 1864: 109.
Cain, R. H. "The Rights of Colored Men and Women." Christian Recorder 7 Jan. 1865: 1.
"A Close Observer of the 25th USCT." "Letter from Florida." Christian Recorder 25 Mar. 1865: 46.
Cole, Hannah Pierson (Person?). "Information Wanted." Christian Recorder 4 Feb. 1865: 18.
--. "Information Wanted." Christian Recorder 1 July 1865: 102.
Collins, Julia C. The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride. 1865. Andrews and Kachun 3-111.
--. "Intelligent Women." 4 June 1864. Andrews and Kachun 124-26.
--. "A Letter from Oswego: Originality of Ideas." 10 Dec. 1864. Andrews and Kachun 127-28.
--. "Life is Earnest." 7 Jan. 1865. Andrews and Kachun 129-30.
Davis, W. J. "St. Louis Correspondence." Christian Recorder 4 June 1864: 89.
Dingledine, Don. "'The Whole Drama of the War': The African American Soldier in Civil War Literature." PMLA 115.5 (October 2000): 1113-17.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper Perennial, 1988.
Foster, Frances Smith, ed. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Watkins Harper Reader. New York: Feminist P, 1990.
Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, and Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels. 1868, 1876, 1888. Ed. Frances Smith Foster. Boston: Beacon P, 1995.
Kachun, Mitch. "Interrogating the Silences: Julia C. Collins, 19th-century Black Readers and Writers, and the Christian Recorder. "African American Review 40 (2006): 649-59.
"Lizzie." "Letter from Morrowtown." Christian Recorder 7 Jan. 1865: 1.
Lynch, James. "Charleston Correspondence." Christian Recorder 18 Mar. 1865: 41.
McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.
Miller, Enoch K. "Letter from Florida." Christian Recorder 4 Mar. 1865: 34.
Payne, Daniel A. History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. 1891. New York: Arno P, 1971.
Peterson, Carla. "Doers of the Word;" African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880). New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
"Rebel Adulation for the Black Man." Christian Recorder 18 Mar. 1865: 42.
Turner, Henry M. "Army Correspondence" Christian Recorder 25 Mar. 1865: 45.
--. "Everybody Read This." Christian Recorder 16 July 1864:115.
--. "Notes by the Way to Wilmington, N.C." Christian Recorder 7 Jan. 1865: 1.
--. "A Very Important Letter from Chaplain Turner." Christian Recorder 9 July 1864: 109.
Walker, Clarence E. A Rock in a Weary Land: The African Methodist Episcopal Church During the Civil War and Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982.
Weaver, Elisha. "Notice." Christian Recorder 25 Feb. 1865: 31.
--. "To Our Correspondents." Christian Recorder 20 May 1865: 74.
--. "To Our Readers." Christian Recorder 22 Apr. 1865: 62.
(1.) See issues from February 4, April 15, April 22, February 25, August 5, and April 29.
(2.) The regional conferences represented by these editors included Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, New England, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and California.
(3.) In the April 22 issue, news of Lincoln's assassination caused part of one column to be "crowded out" (Bird), and other items to be excluded altogether. Weaver wrote, "We are under the necessity of announcing to our readers that some extremely interesting articles and items are laid over until next week in consequence of the crowded state of our columns. We hope our friends and correspondents will bear with us" ("To Our Readers"). Interestingly, however, the installment of The Curse of Caste ran full length on the front page, while the actual news items treating Lincoln's death ran on pages 2 and 3.
(4.) In his prospectus for the Recorder, Payne specified the "objects" of the paper to be religion foremost, morality second, and "science and literature" third-and here one would expect he was excluding sensational/sentimental novels from the realm of "literature"-all to "give respectability and credit to us and to the Church and community" (279).
(5.) In his study of Civil War narratives by whites and blacks, Dingledine comments that fiction as well as art and photographs from the post-war period consistently portrayed "the dramatic transformations of slaves into contrabands and soldiers" and thus functioned as "challenges to essentialist notions of human identity" put forward by pro-slavery advocates (114). See Walker 40-43, on how the change in black and white perceptions following the advent of black enlistment was covered in the Recorder.
(6.) In the June 3 issue alone, Weaver printed two articles from correspondents--one written April 12 by Davis, and the other from April 29 by Ayres--that were "detained" by virtue of being "mislaid."
(7.) According to Kachun, there is no evidence that Collins ever traveled to the South. Presumably then, she would not have spoken in a southern dialect or with southern vocal inflections.
(8.) All Minnie's Sacrifice quotations are taken from Foster's edition of the novel.
(9.) The installment containing Minnie's rejection of Louis has actually been lost, but it is clear from the surrounding chapters that he has proposed, or at least, has expressed his romantic attraction to her, and that she has rejected him as a suitor due to his views on slavery.
(10.) Though I do not have space to address the issue at any length, one of the intriguing peculiarities of Harper's novel is the paralleling of various characters' names. In addition to the LeCroix-LeGrange parallel, as well as the two Louises (LeCroix, the mixed race son, and LeGrange, the slaveholding father of Minnie), Louis's grandmother is named Miriam, and Minnie's is named Milly. The complex makeup of each family is thus further complicated by the doubling or near-doubling of names. It is nearly impossible to keep the story straight, as it were, especially in the initial chapters. The confusion of the Recorder's compositors--or perhaps (though unlikely), of Harper herself--is reflected in the frequent misattribution of dialogue to different characters. These mistakes would have made it even more difficult for readers to keep track of a complicated plotline that was already meted out piecemeal in weekly installments. When taken together, the effect is one of amalgamation: slave or free, northern or southern, distinctions between characters are lost. Perhaps Harper's point in naming her characters in this fashion was precisely to eradicate seemingly clear divisions between individuals.
Jean Lee Cole is Assistant Professor of English at Loyola College in Maryland. She is the author of The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton: Redefining Ethnicity and Authenticity (Rutgers UP, 2002).
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|Author:||Cole, Jean Lee|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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