"Not My Mother, Not My Sister, but It's Me, O Lord, Standing ...": Alice Walker's "The Child Who Favored Daughter" as Neo-Slave Narrative

Article excerpt

When you can control a [person's] thinking you don't have to worry about [that person's] actions.

--Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933)

... never would I be able to write a book about my life, or even a pamphlet, but ... write something I could and would.

--Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992)

Frederick Douglass details the horrors of American slavery quite eloquently in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself(1845). In fact, for many scholars, teachers, and students, Douglass's narrative is, as James Olney posits in his essay, "`I Was Born': Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature," "the greatest of them all" in presenting "what slavery is really like" (Davis and Gates 154). Olney goes on to use Douglass's narrative as the model upon which to compare and contrast all other slave narratives, establishing what he identifies as a "Master Plan for Slave Narratives," a plan that is recognizably male-centered and focused on discovery of masculine selfhood, chronological and linear journeying spatially and temporally, emotional separations of family relations, Divine deliverance, attacks on Christian hypocrisy, existential pondering, veiled accounts of escape, physical beatings and other mutilations, a burning desire for and the attaining of literacy, and accounts of masculine physical prowess in "mastering the master." Douglass's narrative--with its clever turns of phrase, rich figurative language, and deep symbolisms--is also a testimony of how literacy transforms a slave into a man, or in Douglass's words: "how a man was made a slave; [and] how a slave was made a man" (Douglass 685). While Douglass here speaks of his physical stamina demonstrated in the seemingly impossible two-hour scrape with Mr. Covey, one might easily see how literacy itself transforms an alleged barbarian and an uncivilized animal into a human capable of creative expression and intellectual pursuits.

Yet Douglass's narrative does not address the peculiar and particular positioning of slave women except as objects of masters' sexual desires and for masters' economic gains. While Douglass offers emotionally provocative details of his Aunt Hester's naked assault by a lecherous master, and of his old grandmother's abandonment and exile after years of productivity--literally and figuratively--his narrative remains nevertheless a masculine-centered account of slavery. Harriet Jacobs moves beyond Douglass's account of slavery to particularize the conditions of female slaves in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself(1861). Through Linda Brent's experiences with an aggressively lecherous master, Dr. Flint, Jacobs shows the double noose of race and gender for female slaves. She includes no great awakenings to selfhood as does Douglass, but rather details experiences to stir Northern white abolitionist women to action on behalf of their enslaved' sisters. Jacobs highlights the gender-specific complexities of a slave woman compelled to compromise her virtue in order to author her life.(1)

In her short story, "The Child Who Favors Daughter," from the collection In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973), Alice Walker revisits and revises the slave narrative genre. An account of black female enslavement by black men who position themselves as "masters," Walker's story is a kind of inverted slave narrative with familial, racial, and gender reversals, with redefinitions of authority and power. While the story bears a striking resemblance to Harriet Jacobs's Incidents and Mary Prince's The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831), it complicates notions of enslavement and liberation. In the tradition of Harriet Jacobs's account of her personal experiences as a slave, "The Child Who Favored Daughter"(2) is generally about female subjugation in a patriarchal society, a society of men who objectify women sexually. …