The civil death of Mrs. Hedges and the dilemma of double consciousness.
Morrison (1993) calls on students of literature to get beyond "the perspective of (racism's) impact on the object of racist policy and attitudes" and instead begin inquiry into the effects on racism on "those who perpetuate it" (p. 11). Yet the concept of American Africanism, which Morrison first attributes to Edgar Allan Poe, obviously holds implications for African American authors. For more than a century, African Americans have struggled to construct an identity faithful to their own spirit and uninhibited by the structures of American Africanism, with varying degrees of success. One particular effort, Ann Petry's construction of Mrs. Hedges in The street, is a notable example.
Mrs. Hedges is the fire-scarred madam and sentinel of 116th Street, the setting for Petry's novel of World War II Harlem. Mrs. Hedges is exceptional in a number of ways, not the least her ability to withstand great physical and emotional pain. This attribute is matched not only by her attainment of economic success, but also her attempts to overcome the restrictions of American Africanism. For all her triumphs, however, she is not able to overcome one such limitation, which can be called civil death. This essay first purports to explain the curious legal and metaphysical status of civil death and how it applies to Mrs. Hedges; and how civil death has informed the African American pursuit of the American dream. For civil death might be understood as a form of the DuBoisian ideal of double consciousness, particularly in the negative effects when that "psychic duality" (Stewart, 1983, p. 93) is warped by racism and in particular the urban experience.
To label Mrs. Hedges as civilly dead may seem regressive, if not politically incorrect, to the scholars who have been rehabilitating her image in American letters. In The street, Mrs. Hedges is unsettlingly serpentine as she suffers through poverty and personal humiliation, cheats death, and amasses a stable of pretty young girls for her own profit. Yet she has been applauded for making her own way in the world as the novel's protagonist, Lutie Johnson, finds herself "consumed" (Thomson, 1995) by the malevolent forces of the time. But it is precisely Mrs. Hedges' ingenuity, as highlighted by the condition of civil death, which reminds us of her position in the African American tradition. Ignoring Mrs. Hedges' civil death also robs her character of its deepest dimensions. For civil death, while by no means a light sentence, need not be completely fatal. It is, however, cruel in its ability to extract compromises and defer dreams.
When thinking about civil death, it is helpful to remember that God may have created men, but only governments--and the people who empower them--can make citizens. This maxim, paraphrased from the eighteenth century British historian William Blackstone, goes a long way to explain the paradoxes and nuances of civil death. Joan Dayan (2001) quotes Blackstone: "Natural persons are such as the God of nature formed us," while "artificial are such as created and devised by human laws for the purposes of society and government" (p. 115). In the case of antebellum America, there is not so much an artificial person as an artificial designation of "citizen," which African Americans are prevented from obtaining. So civil death is, inherently, an artificial state, one engineered by the powerful through any number of means--denial of rights and privileges, restriction to certain places, or imprisonment, for example--to disenfranchise and create a powerless class.
Today civil death is most popularly associated with prison inmates, who lose a measure of their civil rights while incarcerated; and former convicts who have lost the right to vote or run for political office. Increasingly, it has found other applications in the new global economy; illegal immigrants and sweatshop employees may be said to lack the right to fully participate in civil life by voting, or organizing trade unions, protesting their work conditions or filing lawsuits. The concept is not a purely American one: a recent study of the Australian court system concluded that in some cases Australian women could be said to be suffering from civil death. (See Graycar, Regina and Jenny Morgan. (1995). Disabling Citizenship: Civil Death of Women in the 1990's. Adelaide Law Review 17(1) 49.) Indeed, literary depictions of civil death extend back to the fourteenth century. And Elizabeth Fowler's (2005) analysis of civil death, as portrayed in Piers Plowman, demonstrates the ironies and contradictions of the condition, as well as its effects on those said to be free of its restrictions.
In the allegorical world of Piers Plowman, civil death describes the circumstances of both wives and monks during the Middle Ages. Wives cede control of their person, property, and most importantly, agency--the ability to turn their intentions into acts--to the husbands they marry. Monks cede what can best be understood as these civil rights, or rites of civil life, and citizenship--to their abbots. Limiting our view to the condition of marriage (for this is particularly apt for a study of Mrs. Hedges), Fowler remarks that marriage and civil death comes with its advantages. "Marriage may well be experienced by women as an enhancement of their capacities rather than as a partial death because it is a movement from parental control into a voluntary contract" (Fowler, 2005, p. 773). Marriage "does not mean loss of all power to intend or act" (Fowler, 2005, p. 768). A wife may act as an agent for her husband, even as an attorney, in a sense; the woman "is representative (of her husband) rather than he of her.... her actions always make reference (to him). In cases where she acts on her own behalf, she is construed as acting on behalf of him, his person, his will" (Fowler, 2005, p. 773). In other words, the wife may act, but not on her own intentions; she is an agent of her husband, and "thus it is the agent that signifies the agency" (Fowler, 2005, p. 774).
Neither Fowler nor the author of Piers Plowman_could have been thinking of Mrs. Hedges as they described and deciphered the civil death of a married woman, but their depictions are eerily reminiscent of Mrs. Hedges' arrangement with the white man Junto in The Street. It is similarly instructive (as will be later demonstrated) to consider other aspects of civil death as explained by Fowler. For instance, civil death in medieval times offered women a strange, if not patronizing kind of protection against rumor, or attacks on their integrity. "... The writings of theologians and jurists invested a particular sexuality--available, promiscuous, violent, corrupting--and assigned women to be its possessors in order to help rationalize the need for the sovereignty of husbands" (Fowler, 2005, p.774). By marrying, however, and "consenting" to civil death, a woman would no longer be considered available, and therefore promiscuous, violent, or corrupting. Once in a marriage, men and women enter into an economic relationship, one of sexual commerce, "a perpetual and equitable 'marriage debt' initiated by consummation" (Fowler, 2005, p. 771). Thus the need to regulate, curtail, or fulfill sexual desire and human carnality is an essential task of marriage, one that neither husband nor wife can do without. The civil death of the wife is perhaps the necessary evil, or soul-crushing compromise, women must offer for the equation to work.
Fowler's essay also notes that "according to theology, the creation of a category of person called 'woman' and the creation of marriage are simultaneous, containing both hierarchy and equality" (p. 771). If such is the case, then, by extension, the creation of womanhood (as opposed to single-hood) and marriage is simultaneous with the creation of civil death. Just as these concepts are inexorably linked, so is the concept of civil death simultaneous with the concept of American Africanism, or the white man's creation of the African American, at least according to Dayan's recent scholarship (2001). In her essay, "Poe, persons, and property," Dayan answers Morrison's challenge to re-think and re-discover Poe as the initiator of American Africanism, and unearths how Poe's observation of the civilly dead class of African Americans informed the whole of his creation.
It is not in Poe's outright depiction of slaves that Dayan finds evidence of civil death (although this will be discussed later) but in his gothic landscapes and troubled protagonists. Conscience-stricken killers, buried-alive victims, and castles with human characteristics represent "legal personalities" (p. 109) according to Dayan, in a world where the law "operates both forward and backward along a temporal continuum to exclude, subordinate, and annihilate" (p. 108). According to Morrison's prescription, this continuum must exist so that those who are not excluded, subordinated, or annihilated have a means of identifying themselves on the higher end of this scale. Perhaps this was how Poe, lacking not in civil liberties but obviously in wealth and security, was able to remind himself of his own status, and assign rank to characters with varying degrees of sanity, poverty, power, and, finally, agency.
Poe also must have been acutely aware of the official and conventional hierarchies of his antebellum society in which some were citizens, whose status was enforced by men and their government; and others were somehow something less. Dayan notes that Poe's Philadelphia, where he concocted "The murders in the Rue Morgue," was a city "infatuated with prisons and the numerous theories concerning them ... For Poe, prison, madhouse and plantation were synonymous in 'treating' those who, once branded as nonpersons, have forfeited all claims to individual rights" (p. 107-108). Indeed, these people, who included slaves, existed in a netherworld not created by God, but by mere men. Just as prisons and madhouses kept these less-than-citizens out of sight (although never out of mind), the plantation did the same for slaves, who had already been designated as only three-fifths of a person by American law.
Dayan also takes pains to note the contradictions implicit in civil death, much as Fowler exposes inconsistencies in the medieval formulation. For instance, Dayan notes that the civilly dead slaves were considered property, yet for the purposes of criminal law, this property had the very human ability to err, and therefore be prosecuted for criminal acts. Civil death was also a sentence that might be handed down for the singular crime of treason; yet it was also a condition of blood, transmissible to offspring, just as is the color of skin. This particular attribute is especially telling for civilly dead African Americans, naturally; this feature of civil death becomes the means for perpetuating disenfranchisement and hierarchy. Yet beyond Dayan's dissection of the conditions of Poe's time are the conditions of Poe's imagination, and how civil death framed both the of civil lives of slaves and their masters. Some of these circumstances may recall the intricacies of civil death in the Middle Ages. Most will echo in the life of Mrs. Hedges.
In "The gold bug," for instance, the fallen aristocrat Legrand is poised to ascend the pillars of society again with the help of his former slave turned willing servant, Jupiter; and an unnamed "most aged" plantation Negro woman (Poe, 2002, p. 96). Without her knowledge and direction, Legrand would not have found his treasure. In "The man that was used up," it is the slave Pompey who re-assembles the parts of Brevet Brigadier=General John A.B.C. Smith each morning into the "truly fine-looking fellow" (Poe, 2002, p. 365) who so excites the narrator's imagination. Each of these slaves play pivotal, if not integral roles, in the lives of their "masters," but these roles are, in fact, segregated away from public view; the slaves act as agents, without their own sense of agency.
Confirmation of Poe's depiction of actors without agency can be found in slave narratives, which demonstrate how specific slaves are agonizingly aware of the paradoxes in their positions and the complications that result. Research has not yet investigated the role these texts take in documenting the specifics of civil death, but what is notable about these narratives in relation to this issue is how they demonstrate how space and place enforce the civil death sentence--an issue that frames the movements, if not the actions, of Mrs. Hedges.
For example, Frederick Douglass (1993) recounts the role a slave's place could have on his fate: "A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation. There is a vestige of a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted upon the plantation...Few are willing to incur the odium attaching to the reputation of being a cruel slave master ..." (p. 58). Douglass' account also raises questions about how a society of surveillance, in the Foucaultian sense, can moderate a civil death sentence; or, as Foucault might have wondered, whether surveillance functions as one of the juridical powers in and of itself. Nevertheless, Douglass' observation is indicative of a trend also spotted in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the life of a slave girl: the consequences of civil death could depend on place. Jacobs, for instance, tells of resisting her master's attempt to move her into the equivalent of a secluded love nest, for she knows she will be safe from his advances if she remains in town, where she is visible to the population, including the white father of her children and her well-respected grandmother (Jacobs, 2000, pp. 57, 59, 92-93).
In another example, Jacobs tells of the seven years spent in her grandmother's tomb-like attic to escape to freedom as if they were a kind of living death; her space, or lack of it, is a most salient feature of her civil death sentence. She can see her children, hear news of them, but they cannot see or hear her (p. 127-176). Her account of enduring rats, mice, biting red insects and the ravages of summer and winter in a nine-foot-long, seven-foot-wide, and three-foot-tall attic coincidentally recalls Mrs. Hedges' escape from the burning apartment building, discussed later in this essay. Not so much segregation, but debilitating confinement, could very well be a condition of civil death; Mrs. Hedges' later, self-imposed confinement will also be discussed further.
But when a slave obtains, or better yet, wrests agency for himself, he breaks the bonds of place. More important, however, especially in the case of "Hop Frog," are the consequences of severing those bonds; they are horrifying, at least to the non-slave population. In that tale, said to be Poe's last, a disabled slave takes his revenge upon an imperious king. His solution is not so much a legal or physical punishment as it is social commentary; by getting the king and his councilors to consent to a tarring and feathering, he is able to make the most distinguishable and visible of all men in the kingdom into a "fetid, blackened, hideous and indistinguishable mass" (Poe, 2002, p. 447). The unsightly slave, seemingly deprived of both power and the intelligence to use it, transforms his master into a pitiful, appalling sight that others wish they could hide away.
In the miniaturized, broken body of Hop Frog, one might see the first strains of double consciousness, the alleged "absence of power, like weakness" that is "not weakness,--it is the contradiction of double aims" (DuBois, 1965, p. 214). This is significant in that civil death, much like the appearance of frailty, infantile behavior, stupidity, laziness or any other negatively stereotyped behavior associated with the African American slave, is a designation assigned to the slave. It is not necessarily true, but something society comes to believe. As Dayan (2001) notes, "The fiction (emphasis added) of civil death depends on the belief that so powerful are the rules of civilization and the prescripts of law that one can be dead when alive" (p. 116). Slaves, like Hop Frog, may not necessarily believe they are incapable of acting on their intentions. The supposedly civilly dead person may do everything in his power not to think of himself in this manner. Indeed, within his double consciousness might be a whole other understanding, a "contradiction" of his outward appearance. But in the case of the slaves Pompey or Jupiter, the sentence of civil death sticks because society, or in the case of these slaves' masters, needs it to stick, and works to make it stick. The slave can never shake society's perception of himself from the other half of his double consciousness.
In the case of Mrs. Hedges, the Black subject is frustrated in her attempts to forge an identity beyond her outward appearance on two fronts. First, there is the issue of her size, which has apparently dogged her throughout her life; second, there are the scars that overtake her body after her escape from the fire. The scars are particularly relevant when discussing civil death, especially when considering the scholarship of Carol Henderson (2002). Henderson, who traces the meaning of scarring in both Africa and antebellum America, ultimately considers scarring the starting point of a healing process. The process of becoming scarred, or watching another slave becoming scarred "establish(es) a cultural and literary genealogy that counteracts the common place callousness to Black suffering, as the recognition of personal pain becomes an acknowledgement of communal pain" (Henderson, 2002, p. 38). Both the positive attributes of a double consciousness, as well as African American knack of making something out of nothing--a new, uniting identity out of an act originally intended to nullify--are at work here. Yet Henderson also demonstrates how scars such as Mrs. Hedges' work to remind African Americans of their denigrated, civilly dead status, and the implications of that position.
According to Henderson, scarring had long been interpreted as a way of distinguishing degrees of enfranchisement, exile, and privilege. Scarring was often part of coming-of-age ceremonies in Africa, and Henderson quotes an African's description of his own tribal scars as "a mark of grandeur" (p. 30). Just as they would come to in America, scars did connote status in Africa, separating royalty from commoners, but they were "conferred not as a form of punishment but of national pride" (p. 30). A tribe's history might also be told through its members' scars, and therein rests a catch that most likely enabled American slaveholders to manipulate the meaning of these scars. In any history, there are moments of great pride, and great shame; Henderson cites ethnological evidence of one tribe adopting the scars of another after conquest. Soldiers also marked their prisoners of war with the scars of their own tribe.
In the New World, obviously, ritual scarification of the body became a mark of shame. "... These signs became the signatures of slavery and crystallized, in vivid fashion, those assumptions maintained in the social systems of that age that held Black life in such low regard" (Henderson 2002, p. 23). Scars denoted Africans' "hypercriminality" (p. 23-28) and delineated their otherness, which for exploitative purposes deemed its bearers inferior. Scars were also used to identify runaway Africans, as demonstrated through Henderson's accounts of fugitive slaves and the searches for them. More importantly for our purposes, scars became a sign not only of ownership, but also of the heinous crimes allegedly committed against that ownership. Criminal activity, it should be noted, is still considered the precursor to civil death in the United States. What was considered then is different from what is now classified as such, but the scars of slavery related the specific spiritual process the slave supposedly underwent during scarification.
Consider Henderson's reporting of Douglass' list of rationales for whipping slaves. Douglass himself remembers Mr. Gore, an overseer who whipped slaves for the "slightest look, word, gesture (Douglass 1993, p. 51) he interpreted as impudent. Why? "It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out" (as cited in Henderson, 2002, p. 44). Punishment, then, was meant to be rehabilitative; scars were a sign that a damaged, or damned, soul had been exorcised; therefore, little to nothing of that three-fifths of a person was left to make use of his or her civil rights. At the very least, scarring was a way of silencing the inherent message in these strange, exotic bodies from another land; civil death is also another way of silencing individuals. Henderson writes, "The whip ... becomes a way to respond to these utterances and ... the language of the body ... it is the device used to strip the slave of his or her humanity" (p. 44) Civil death permanently nullifies the rights long held necessary for humans to do what is most natural: pursue happiness. Self-expression; financial, emotional, or artistic fulfillment; indeed, self-actualization is not possible without the ability to exercise the fight of free speech; the right to vote and petition the government or other institutions; and even to pray, which is why we call these rights "human rights" in international diplomacy.
In the case of Mrs. Hedges, scarring is quite momentous, since scars are one of her defining characteristics, and they mark a crucial moment in her life. Mrs. Hedges comes to New York City, and World War II-era Harlem, hoping for a better life through a kind of assimilation. Her physical appearance--"enormous" (Petry, 1974, p. 241)--has already marked her as an outcast, but "she thought in a big city she would be inconspicuous" (Petry, 1974, p. 242). Yet in the North, she finds herself too big, and too black, and eventually virtually homeless. To obtain the inconspicuousness she so desires, she takes to only going outside at night, to forage for junk. During one of these after-hours runs she meets the white man, Junto, whom she eventually guides to entrepreneurial success: "It was she who suggested that he branch out, get other pushcarts and other men to work for him" (Petry, 1974, p. 243). Similarly, it is Mrs. Hedges who counsels Junto to open bars, ballrooms, and whorehouses because they are "the best possible investments ... Slowly and cautiously Mr. Junto had become the owner of all three ..." (Petry, 1974, p. 251).
Like the disenfranchised, civilly dead Negroes in Poe secretly responsible for their masters' success, Mrs. Hedges remains the invisible brains in Junto's operation. She refuses an invitation to move into a new building Junto buys, instead suggesting that "he divide the rooms in this building in half and thus he could get a larger income from it. And of course she made more money too, because she got a commission on the rent she collected" (Petry, 1974, p. 243). She is living in the first five-story frame building Junto ever bought when fire strikes. Like Jacobs' confinement and eventual run to freedom, Mrs. Hedges' escape is nothing short of miraculous:
It was a narrow aperture not really big enough for the bulk of her body ... She felt her flesh tear and actually give way as she struggled to get out, forcing and squeezing her body through the small space ... she wondered why she kept on fighting to escape. She could smell her hair burning, smell her flesh burning, and still she struggled, determined that she would force her body through the narrow window, that she would make the very stones of the foundation give until the window opening would in turn give way ... She was a bundle of flame when she finally rolled free on the ground. The firemen who found her stared at her in awe ... she was the only survivor left from that house full of people. (Petry, 1974, p. 244)
Junto is so impressed that he not only offers to buy Mrs. Hedges a wig and pay for her plastic surgery; he repeatedly makes a play for her affections. But she rejects him. "Even he would never want her as a woman. He had the kind of forthright admiration for her that he would have for another man--a man he regarded as his equal" (Petry, 1974, p. 246).
Mrs. Hedges' position in relation to Junto, her own community and the larger white world at this point reflects the paradoxes of civil death and double consciousness. Junto may look to her as an equal in strength and business acumen, but her scars reveal a different story to others. The tearing of her flesh, and the smell of her burning hair and skin, recall a lynching --if not by a hanging mob, then by a tarring and feathering squad (as it is also played out in Richard Wright's "Big Boy leaves home"). Henderson's research and ideas on scarring are again germane. Lynching also produces scars, and Henderson reminds us that lynching was often used against African Americans accused of crossing some sexual, social, or economic boundary. For lynching is "the ultimate vision of bodily scarring as ideological presumptions of race and gender become permanently transfixed upon the flesh of the black man" (p. 52-53).
Henderson describes lynching in The street in terms of how material possessions and landscapes are scarred; the actual lynching or torturing of bodies in the novel itself is not discussed. But considering the economic and social-sexual boundaries Mrs. Hedges crosses is still relevant, for Mrs. Hedges' tragedy and her life afterwards demonstrates the different meanings scarring, as a result of lynching or other vigilante punishments, have for the different races. Whites may look to the act of scarring as restorative justice; whoever dared to affront white superiority through a sexual advance, snide look, or particular talent is destroyed; in carrying out the act, whites are reminded of their superior numbers and, by extension, greater physical strength; a way of life that had been threatened is now safe to endure. Certainly, lynching was most certainly a way of depriving a human being of his civil rights--of putting him to a civil, as well as literal, death. Surviving that lynching naturally left the victim with scars that illustrated for the community the consequences of his attempt to fully assert his rights as a human being; these scars therefore serve as a reminder of the community's status as well as the punishment for subverting that status.
To Blacks, this restorative justice and in particular its scars serve to reinforce their condition of civil death. The penalty for grabbing a piece of white citizenship--and therefore challenging the notion of white superiority--seems a fate worse than physical death. This is not to say The street explicitly states the fire in Junto's building was arson intended to kill or maim Mrs. Hedges. But if an act of scarring is meant to re-affirm the social, sexual, and in Mrs. Hedges' case, the economic boundaries that separate the civilly dead Blacks from the white citizens, then Mrs. Hedges, because of her supposed transgressions, would be a likely target. At the very least, a dose of rough justice would return Mrs. Hedges to the ranks of the "fetid, blackened, hideous and indistinguishable mass" of Blacks after she had tried to distinguish herself from them.
By the time the young, attractive, and idealistic Lutie Johnson arrives on 116th Street--after the fire--Junto and Mrs. Hedges seem to have struck a bargain. She lives in a ground floor apartment in one of his buildings, from which she runs a whorehouse and keeps the neighborhood under surveillance. By acting as Junto's eyes and ears on the street, she is shielded from the authorities (Petry, 1974, pp.90-93, 238, 428). From her guard post, she becomes essential to the functioning of the neighborhood; tenants and neighbors look the other way when it comes to her profession because she performs indispensable services, such as keeping an eye on children after school (Petry, 1974, p. 92). The building superintendent, Jones, threatens to report Mrs. Hedges after she thwarts his attempted rape of Lutie. But a white rent collector chides him: "'You want her locked up for just sitting in the window? You're crazy'" (Petry, 1974, p. 93).
This life mirrors in many ways the qualities of civil death stated earlier. Aside from the readily observable characteristics of her race and bodily scars, Mrs. Hedges' measure of success, how she obtains it, its consequences, and how her true ambitions remain unfulfilled, recalls the conditions of civil death. Had Fowler written about Mrs. Hedges rather than a fourteenth century bride, she might have well remarked how Mrs. Hedges acts as a representative of Junto, and in particular how and what she consents to in their relationship. She will only consent to so much--the apartment, the money, the participation in criminality--but Mrs. Hedges (whose honorific is never quite explained in the novel) will not marry him, or directly indulge his sexual desires.
Yet Mrs. Hedges and Junto's relationship still involves sexual commerce, certainly a facet of medieval marriage and therefore, by association, civil death. Like a medieval wife, she will always remain in debt to Junto, her male sovereign. Despite his ownership of another whorehouse in Sugar Hill and access to women in Mrs. Hedges' employ, Junto can only be satisfied with the acquisition of Lutie (who also refuses him). Yet living under Junto's roof is perhaps the only way Mrs. Hedges can meet her own sexual desires, just as marriage is the only option for medieval women who want to quench theirs. Mrs. Hedges' own sexual desires are vividly portrayed:
He was so young that he swaggered when he walked past her window in his tight-fitting, dark blue sailor pants. So young that his eyes were alive with laughter ... His hands were thrust deep into the pockets of his short jacket and the bulky wool of the jacket couldn't conceal how fiat and lean his waist was and how it tapered up to his wide shoulders in a taut, slanting line ... And then he bowed to her, taking his flat sailor's hat off in a gesture that made her think again, He's so young--so crazy young. (Petry, 1974, p. 254-255)
Mrs. Hedges possibly sates her own desire, as well as the young sailor's in this episode, by extending him credit so he can spend the night with one of her girls. "Although Mrs. Hedges appears to be motivated by economic goals ... another desire also fuels her drive: other women's bodies ... she foolishly believes that her association with the unscarred bodies of other young women will lessen the pain of her own scarfing" (Henderson, 2002, p. 134). Here is in instance in which Mrs. Hedges again acts as an agent but is unable to make use of her own powers of agency. If loss of agency is the ultimate measure of civil death, then Mrs. Hedges, at least in sexual matters, still falls under its rubric.
In 1984, Gloria Wade-Gayles called Mrs. Hedges "a lost woman" (p. 128), but more recent scholarship has revised our view of Mrs. Hedges. Certainly, Keith Clark, Rosemarie Garland Thomson, and Henderson would not agree that Mrs. Hedges lacks agency, and is therefore civilly dead, because of her race or physical disability. Henderson argues that Mrs. Hedges uses her scars and disfigurement to forge a new, powerful identity for herself (p. 131-136). Clark (1992) recalls the failure of the novel's protagonist, Lutie, to secure herself a better life through the rather pedestrian values of hard work or talent. On the other hand, it is through a kind of ethnically informed genius that Mrs. Hedges is able to succeed. Instead of playing according to the white man's rules, she plays the American game according to the Black book of life (Clark, 1992, p. 502), and in doing so joins a cadre of Black women who "(re)configure the mythic American quest for economic and emotional security" (Clark, 1992, p. 497). Thomson (1995), recalling Clark, argues that while the "guileless Lutie" is destroyed by life on the street, "Mrs. Hedges triumphs over it ... By juxtaposing in such a manner the alluring, yet oblivious Lutie with the unsightly, yet omniscient Mrs. Hedges, The Street effectively dislodges cultural myths ... Mrs. Hedges repudiates the dominant script of femininity without falling into masculine roles."
Thomson says she is able to appropriate Mrs. Hedges for her own purposes because she is an "ambiguous" character. Yet like Clark and Henderson, Thomson fails to recognize Mrs. Hedges' quite unambiguous thoughts and intentions, including Mrs. Hedges' acknowledgement that she might very well fall into a "masculine role." Mrs. Hedges refuses Junto's offers precisely because he would never think of her as a real woman, but, as stated earlier, with "the kind of forthright admiration for her that he would have for another man ..." (Petry, 1974, p. 246). Indeed, Mrs. Hedges' oft-stated ambition is to find love, which she eventually expects to achieve through her pocketbook (Petry, 1974, pp. 242,243,244, 246). After the fire, however, she acknowledges that that this goal will always elude her: "Scarred like this, hair burned off her head like this, she would never have any man's love. She never would have had it, anyway, she thought realistically. But she could have bought it. This way she couldn't even buy it" (Petry, 1974, p. 246).
Henderson would seem to agree. Although she all too briefly refers to scarring, as well as the "invisible marking of the "slave" body," as the "desexualization of woman," (p. 45), she raises the possibility that civil death is simultaneous with the loss of feminity, feminine appeal, or a definitive gender role. This prospect both contradicts and recalls Fowler's contentions. Fowler implies that civil death is simultaneous with the creation of the "woman" as a category of human being, but she also notes how civil death was a way of regulating, preserving, and possibly protecting women from the consequences of making use of their sexuality. In this light, it is important to note what it is that Mrs. Hedges, in her scarred state, can neither find nor buy: love.
Love provides more than psychological comfort or physical satisfaction. Love provides proof of identity. The lover falls in love with the portrait his or her beloved presents; the lover accepts this portrait as true, as real; that portrait confirms the best, whether in physical beauty or compassionate personality, in that person. For Mrs. Hedges, love and a lover might very well be proof that she has obtained the identity she initially sought. She would no longer be a pariah to even her own people. Instead she would be loveable; indeed, she would be as human as her thinner, lighter-skinned peers. Love has other uses, particularly in relation to mollifying the pangs of double consciousness; this will be demonstrated later.
Lutie, meanwhile, suspects that Mrs. Hedges will always remain discontent--and loveless--just as she registers the envy Mrs. Hedges feels while looking at her. After Mrs. Hedges rescues Lutie from rape, Lutie becomes "aware of how intently Mrs. Hedges was studying her, staring at the long evening skirt, the short coat. Again and again Mrs. Hedges' eyes would stray to the curls on top of Lutie's head" (Petry, 1974, p. 239). Perhaps Lutie senses that Mrs. Hedges mourns the loss of whatever beauty, or portion of a normalized appearance, she possessed before the fire. It is even while Mrs. Hedges "see(s) the way (Lutie's) hair went softly up from her forehead, looking at her smooth, unscarred skin" (Petry, 1974, p. 241) that Mrs. Hedges is prompted to recall her torturous life story. This is not to say that Mrs. Hedges' achievements, in context, should be belittled. However, the fire--if not her fate as an African American--has robbed her of the key ingredient of agency; and, as will be demonstrated later, the ability to reconcile two sides of a warring consciousness.
Considering Mrs. Hedges through the lens of civil death not only reminds us of her disappointments and limitations; it places her within the tradition of African American letters and African folklore. For in The street, Mrs. Hedges very much occupies the role of a Signifying Monkey, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1988) explains it. The Signifying Monkey in the New World is the descendant of an African deity, and it is in her window that Mrs. Hedges "becomes deified ... she appears to possess godlike qualities ..." (Henderson 2002, p. 135). As in the discussion we might imagine between Henderson and Fowler on scarring and sexualization, scholars are not necessarily in agreement on the reach of Mrs. Hedges' powers. Marjorie Pryse (1985) argues, "Yet for all of Mrs. Hedges' power, she is not omniscient ... she is no deity" (p. 120). Pryse notes that Mrs. Hedges is not able to save Lutie's son, Bub, from the schemes of the building superintendent; "she limits her interest to what she can see from her window ..." (p. 120). Indeed, Wade-Gayles (1984) reminds us that Mrs. Hedges exercises her influence only "as if bolted to her place" (p. 124); in other words, her fate is tied to place as it was for a slave during Douglass' time. Yet Mrs. Hedges has also been known to leave her place; she ventures into the hall outside her door when she hears Lutie scream during the attempted rape (Petry, 1974, p. 237); she exercises agency by leaving that post, but it is agency that works for the benefit of someone else.
At the very least, though, Mrs. Hedges performs the same responsibility as the Signifying Monkey's ancestors fulfilled, that of messenger, interpreter and intermediary (Gates, 1988, pp. 8, 21, 24, 27, 29). Mrs. Hedges is the novel's most vivid link between the Black world of her race and the white world, as represented by Junto; as a madam, she intercedes on behalf of men who might otherwise be hapless in finding women and the pleasure that they might offer.
Mrs. Hedges' actions must also be considered within a particular framework. The figure of the Signifying Monkey has been popularly reduced to the African American game of "the dozens," in which the participants play a kind of poker, but with insults, not cards of money. Yet this simplification is instructive; each insult is dependent upon the previous one uttered; the game players are signifying, or revising, the previous insult to sharpen it, make its humor more exact. The Signifying Monkey, standing in for the rhetorical strategy employed by African Americans, is one that signifies upon another tradition. Clark (1992) argues, in essence, that Mrs. Hedges is signifying upon an American myth of how to really succeed in business.
More curious, however, is the more specific genealogy of the Signifying Monkey and how it elucidates Mrs. Hedges' existence. Gates traces the Signifying Monkey's origins to the Yoruba deity of Esu-Elegbara. Like Mrs. Hedges, Esu-Elegbara is described as disabled: he "is said to limp as he walks ... his legs are of different lengths" (Gates 1988, p. 6). But this disability is an occupational hazard, for as a mediator between deities and humans, Esu must keep one leg in the world of gods, and the other on earth. Mrs. Hedges and Esu could be said to share other characteristics, but it is this physical attribute that is most striking when considering the impact of civil death. Mrs. Hedges struggles with the same dilemma as Esu, striding two worlds. Her role as entrepreneurial and sexual intermediary has already been noted. In more dramatic terms, her close encounter with the realm of the dead, by being the only survivor of the fire, has left her with a physical impairment. Finally, as a living, breathing, human being profoundly aware of her circumstances and their causes, she still experiences dehumanization and disenfranchisement daily as if she is also dead--civilly dead.
Tracing Mrs. Hedges' roots back to African folklore, however, is not an exercise in blaming the victim, so to speak. Africans did not devise their gods in order to explain their status in a larger, white world; nor do they worship or revere these gods in an attempt to understand how the economic and political power of First World nations continues to dominate Third World countries. The Signifying Monkey, who is both a mythic figure in the New World and a method of understanding the Black rhetoric of difference, was born out of an oral tradition informed by the conditions of civil death--specifically slavery. Just as the meaning of scarring changed for African Americans after the Middle Passage, the meaning of the Signifying Monkey changed as well. That Mrs. Hedges shares any of an African deity's attributes is not necessarily a happy coincidence as much as it is a reflection of one author's use of her own vernacular, and how that vernacular was perverted by American Africanism--the white man's conception of what an African American is and should be.
It is also important to note how Esu was transformed not only by the Middle Passage and the New World, but also by the Yoruba's wars with the Dahomans, who called themselves the Fon. For the Fon's conception of Esu also took the Middle Passage and was altered by the experience of bondage. The Fon knew Esu as Legba, the spirit of accident and unaccountability; a divine trickster and linguist. He not only carried messages between the gods and their offspring, but between the gods and humans. In Dahoman folklore as collected by Harold Courlander (1996), Legba is the "chief of the gods" (p. 170), just as Mrs. Hedges is the "overlord" (Henderson, 2002, p. 132) or "queen of the street" (Thomson, 1995). Legba's superior knowledge leads Mawu, the female portion of the androgynous creator Mawu-Lisa, to elevate him above other deities. But Legba also uses this knowledge to make magic charms that he gives to one man; magic charms subsequently spread everywhere. As punishment, Mawu leaves Legba with this admonition: " 'Now if someone does not see you, you will not do this again.' (That is, Legba was made invisible.)" (Courlander, 1996, p. 170-171).
The tale of Legba also recalls another significant aspect of the metaphor of civil death: invisibility. For Poe's template for American Africanism depends on invisibility, considering his madmen who had to be shuffled out of the public's view; his victims of live burials, lost to the waking world; or even his slaves, prohibited from making their rightful claims to their white masters' success. This is not to say that Mrs. Hedges is literally invisible. Yet her business operates below the all-important radar of civil law, thanks to the protection she receives from Junto. And her true character, which might be said to arise from her ambition of having her womanly attributes confirmed through the eyes of a lover, is virtually invisible to those who knew her. Even her appeal as a female friend is obscured: "It would never be possible to develop any real liking her" (Petry, 1974, p. 239), Lutie thinks of Mrs. Hedges. Lutie also is "repelled" (Petry, 1974, p. 240) by the very feel of Mrs. Hedges' hard, scarred flesh through her flannel gown. It is as if Mrs. Hedges' very humanity has been rendered invisible; indeed, her ironic dream of invisibility via assimilation has become a grotesque, punishing nightmare. Mrs. Hedges' failure to connect with others--one approach to forging peace between two sides of a warring consciousness (Stewart, 1983, p. 97)--is indicative of more than her own particular human limitations. It is nothing less than a piece of the American dream denied to her, the result of her civil death and double consciousness.
"Away back in the days of bondage they thought to see in one divine event the end of all doubt and disappointment; few men ever worshipped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries," DuBois (1965, p. 216) writes in The souls of black folk. Richard Yarborough (198 l) echoes DuBois when he states that African Americans "have generally been among the most fervent believers" (p. 33) in America and her ideals. But what is popularly associated with the American dream--merit, mobility and equality--may not necessarily comprise the American dream to others (Bell, 1985, p. 106). The odyssey of the novel's protagonist in particular depicts the American dream as a device for entrapping African Americans: "All those years, going to grammar school, going to high school ... all those years she'd been heading straight as an arrow for that street or some other street just like it. Step by step she'd come, growing up, working, saving...." (Petry, 1974, p. 426). The street in particular "debunks the myths of urban success and progress" as they might pertain to African Americans (Bell, 1985, p. 106), and also demonstrates the American dream's dependency on the "economic exploitation" of African Americans (Bell, 1985, p. 110). Yet even for whites, the American dream is one that can only become real at the cost of "spiritual and personal alienation" (Bell, 1985, p. 108). The super-rich Chandlers may not lack anything materially, but they must endure an unhappy marriage and their son must suffer through a loveless childhood (Petry, 1974, p. 39-40); on Christmas day the family is treated to the suicide of one of its members (Petry, 1974, p. 47). Perhaps only the Pizzinis, the Italian family who sells groceries in Lutie's Jamaica, Queens neighborhood, emerge from the gauntlet of hard work and personal sacrifice unscathed to claim happiness. After all, they have their business, their family, a "fine house in a fine neighborhood" and witness their daughter's upward mobility, from offspring of poor immigrants to college-educated, American professional (Petry, 1974, p. 32-33).
Pryse (1985) posits the idea that the American dream is accessible only to those with specific knowledge, or, in more pedestrian terms, the right connections. Lutie compares herself to the founding father Benjamin Franklin at the beginning of the novel. Surely Franklin must be the embodiment of the American dream, a self-made man who not only generated his own fortune, but his own legal and moral philosophies on his way to creating his own version of a newly-entrenched establishment. Pryse reminds us that Franklin referred to his secret group of friends who first solicited business for him as the "Junto," the first significant men's club in colonial America (p. 118); this Junto represented "a central sphere of social and political influence" (p. 118) that African Americans in The street so badly lack. Neither Lutie nor Mrs. Hedges, it seems, can find at least financial security without Junto's intercession, but by consenting to it (Mrs. Hedges consents a little, and Lutie, not at all) and entering a relationship based on sexual commerce, they surrender their agency, and work and live under the sentence of civil death. Junto's involvement in the life of Mrs. Hedges may even make her appear all powerful, "resembling in particular the deist's god" (Pryse, 1985, p. 118) many of the founding fathers believed in. But this appearance is ultimately hollow, for the larger forces of the novel and indeed, in both Lutie's and Mrs. Hedges' lives, are white people, like Junto, the Chandlers, and others who wield legal, economic, and social power (Pryse, 1985, p. 120).
Through his reading of Petry, Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison, Yarborough suggests an African American alternative to the materialism of the standard American dream; the dream for a kind of self-determination, the dream of securing one's identity. Success stories are of "the individual who, with courage and imagination, uses the freedom of American society to define oneself in terms other than those which have been used to justify past oppression or hardship" (Yarborough, 1981, p. 53). Yarborough again appears to be taking a page from DuBois; self-determination of one's identity is nothing less than making peace between the conflicting aspects of one's consciousness. Consider DuBois' own famous description of double consciousness: "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" (DuBois, 1965, p. 215). Mrs. Hedges, for example, may know herself as African American, and therefore resourceful, savvy, and courageous, by Clark's reading. By virtue of her moneymaking talents, she may find herself desirable and attractive in a theoretical sense. But life on 116th Street forces her to recognize the world's view of her--physically unattractive as a result of her size, race, and the scars of the fire; frightening, and unfeminine. Torn between these two views, her personal struggle for happiness is at an impasse of "socialized ambivalence, the pride and shame of one's identity, and double-consciousness, the struggle to reconcile one's dual heritage, of black American character" (Bell, 1985, p. 106).
The true test of Mrs. Hedges' success, then, is how well she can amalgamate these "psychic dualities" into a peaceful whole. The idea of psychic duality comes from James Stewart's review of DuBois' fiction, published and unpublished. In the case of Mrs. Hedges, it is important to consider DuBois' fiction, for it is in fictional characters that DuBois tested his assumptions about African American character. It is also more fitting to apply DuBois' fiction to Mrs. Hedges, another fictional creation based on the realities Petry observed while working as a journalist for two newspapers (Bell, 1985, p. 107). DuBois' formula for double consciousness is one in which "economic exploitation and social degradation" (Stewart, 1983, p. 94) renders the minds of African Americans into two warring halves. The consequences of this double consciousness can be as severe as insanity, according to DuBois' first novel, the unpublished "A Fellow of Harvard" (Stewart, 1983, p. 97). The cure, or the "liberation" of these minds, depends on the "achievement of an equilibrium between the 'black' and 'nonblack' dimensions in consciousness" (Stewart, 1983, p. 94). In his novels, this liberation is afforded to characters that manage to build an existence in which they can operate unhampered by the negative consciousness that the white world assigns to Blacks. One might find this world through a church, an uplift group, a male-female relationship, or an Afro-centrist worldview. DuBois' heroines, with their ties to family, the power to conjure a connection to Africa, and independent from the decadent values of urban life, tend to be more successful in this endeavor than men (Stewart, 1983, pp. 95, 103).
Mrs. Hedges, bereft of human contact and love, and beholden to Junto and the almighty dollars he is so adept at accumulating with her help, could be said to fail the DuBoisian test of "deflect(ing) persisting colonial assaults on (her) consciousness" (Stewart, 1983, p. 97). She could even be said to fall into the same category as DuBois' male characters. It is of particular interest what happens to DuBois' heroes, or at least of Stewart's interpretation of what happens to these heroes, for it is somewhat like what happens to Mrs. Hedges: they opt to pursue the traditional American dream of urban progress, as if they expect to fit into the white, male myth of rugged individualism. Yet we have seen this is not an option available to Mrs. Hedges, who left her home in Georgia for absorption into the mass of humanity devoted to Western, non-religious, non-ethnic, urban values. That she would seek her salvation through love is telling, but it is even more telling that she fails in this particular ambition. For how can anyone change her identity from outcast to citizen, from civilly dead and ostracized, to civilly alive and included, if her "right to self-definition can never be completed exercised when the society in which (she) lives refuses to respect that right?" (Yarborough, 1981, p. 57)
"The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self," DuBois says (p. 215). The story of African American in American literature has been a chronicle of this battle, how the dream of transcending racial identity and securing a positive self-concept has been deferred and diminished, and even discredited. If Petry dismantled the American dream of material wealth for her protagonist, she most certainly deflated another version of that dream for Mrs. Hedges. For in the end, Mrs. Hedges is left to operate under the same impetus as those who continue to suffer from civil death and double consciousness:
This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds often thousand thousand people--has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves. (DuBois, 1965, p. 216)
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Jane Rosenberg LaForge is an adjunct assistant professor in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University. She is the author of "Colson Whitehead: The Final Frontier," which appeared in Paradoxa: Studies in Worm Literary Genres, No. 20. Her short stories and poetry have also appeared in various literary journals both on line and in print.
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|Author:||LaForge, Jane Rosenberg|
|Publication:||The Western Journal of Black Studies|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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