Academic journal article African American Review

Remaking Black Motherhood in Frank J. Webb's the Gaffes and Their Friends

Academic journal article African American Review

Remaking Black Motherhood in Frank J. Webb's the Gaffes and Their Friends

Article excerpt

The book which now appears before the public may be of interest in relation to a question which the late agitation of the subject of slavery has raised in many thoughtful minds; viz.--Are the race at present held as slaves capable of freedom, self-government and progress? (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Preface to The Garies and their Friends [1857])

According to many critics, the novel Stowe prefaces, Frank J. Webb's The Garies and their Friends, seems to share her doubts concerning the capability of "the race at present held as slaves" to govern themselves. At least that's one way to read an African American author's frustrating decision to write a novel in 1857 that spends little time detailing the horrors of slavery--a subject that contemporary black writers took pains to elaborate. The year the novel was published, a London Sunday Times reviewer chided Webb for leaving "untouched" the problem of how emancipation "is to be effected, without as much injury to slave as to slaveowner" (116). For the most part, time did not change critical attitudes toward the text. In 1987, Bernard Bell would find fault with the novel because "we do not find a direct attack on slavery anywhere." Webb's references to abolition are, for Bell, "timid and ambivalent" (42). The Garies' espousal of capitalist values also invited derision from a number of critics, including Blyden Jackson, who blasts the novel for ignoring racial injustice in favor of the notion that "Negroes need, above all, in America to get rich" (348). More recently, critics like Eric Gardner, Rosemary F. Crockett, and Robert S. Levine have argued persuasively that the text deserves analysis, not only as the second novel written by an African American, but also as one of the first to deal with volatile questions of identity and loyalty within the black community. (1) Yet Webb's text still continues to languish from a general lack of scholarly attention.

This essay suggests that The Garies' cold reception can be traced, at least in part, to the discomfiting answers the novel provides to Stowe's questions about black self-government, answers that defy a venerated plotline where racial oppression is imposed from outside the black community and courageous protest emanates from within. Instead, a good deal of the suffering black characters endure in The Garies emerges from their own desire to participate in the standing power structure by adopting white delimitations of both race and gender. As Claudia Tate has argued, literature relating "other stories about the desire of black subjects that do not fit the Western hierarchical paradigm of race as exclusion, vulnerability, and deficiency" have repelled both white and black critics who are unsure how to place such stories in the African American canon (7). Yet as Tare suggests, the insistence that a black novelist should only tell stories about impoverished and downtrodden people merely "perpetuates fantasies of white power and black victimization that take on lives independent of the material circumstances of real black and white experiences and further reifies a cultural code where things 'white' signify entitlement, liberty, and power, things 'black' signify penalty, lack, and defect" (18).

Antislavery rhetoric depended on precisely such an opposition between oppressor and victim to garner reader sympathy, and authors found that black women--whose combination of race and gender supposedly rendered them doubly powerless--were particularly effective figures. Activists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Maria Child, and the Grimke sisters all emphasized scenes of female degradation in their writings as they sought to forge sentimental bonds between victim and reader. (2) Certainly, these narratives of physical violation did much to expose the horrors of slavery to a wide readership. But as Karen Sanchez-Eppler has argued, in spite of writers' ostensibly good intentions, their repeated allusions to the figure of the endangered black woman effectively cast the black female body as a devalued, victimized object (29). …

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