Academic journal article African American Review

A Tale of Disunion: The Racial Politics of Unclaimed Kindred in Julia C. Collins's the Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride

Academic journal article African American Review

A Tale of Disunion: The Racial Politics of Unclaimed Kindred in Julia C. Collins's the Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride

Article excerpt

A reader familiar with 19th-century African American fiction might turn the last page of Julia C. Collins's The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride in disappointment because the novel does not satisfy expectations that initiated readers bring to antebellum fiction written by African Americans. The Curse of Caste does not directly indict the southern aristocracy for its slaveholding appetite. The novel does not expose northern whites' callous contempt for blacks during the antebellum era. It offers no critique of corrupt slave owners' predatory pursuit of slave women, and it does not make a direct appeal for the abolition of slavery. These are mystifying omissions, given the timing of the novel's publication and its publication venue. The Curse of Caste was published during the Civil War from February to September 1865 in the AME Christian Recorder, a 19th-century black-owned newspaper that championed African American political aspirations, chronicled the Civil War for African Americans, and spearheaded the massive effort by African Americans to locate relatives separated during the War. (1) Two disappointed readers, in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries respectively, roundly criticized The Curse of Caste publicly. In 1870, AME congregant James Embry penned a letter to the Christian Recorder in which he charged that the work of African American writers promoted self-deprecating attitudes toward blackness. "Among our own people," Embry wrote,

   ... it is a matter of shame, that almost all our writers who
   have attempted to produce a book, or write a serial in the
   papers, delineating the Negro's wrongs including the late
   'curse of caste' have chosen their heroes from the class of
   persons of barely 'visible admixture' to represent the race.
   Away down in the future centuries, the readers of the history
   of our times will find in this fact alone a stronger proof of the
   malevolent character of slavery which existed in this age.... (n.p.)

The 21st-century critic Sven Birkerts also locates the novel's offense in its dubious historical worth. Birkerts considers The Curse of Caste "... a sketchily developed romance ... [that] will not add another cubit to the vital African American literary canon.... The work ... robs rather than adds luster to the whole" (New York Times Book Review 29 Oct. 2006). The novel's sins of omission and commission, which raised the ire of these critics, might be explained as consequences of the novel's conservative political agenda. However, I read these ideological aporia as a consequence of Collins's attempt to stitch a number of competing plot structures into a seamless narrative--an attempt that unfortunately obscures the text's most radical arguments.

The novel's opening scene initially evokes domestic space often found in 19th-century woman's fiction (Baym 10). The action begins in the dormitory room of a boarding school where Claire is packing away "books, papers, pens and drawing materials" (3). Eighteen-year-old Claire has just completed school and is preparing to leave the protective space of the female seminary where she has lived for the past six years. Her school days now over, Claire contemplates leaving the "happy ... love of her schoolmates and kind preceptress" to find her place in the "cold uncharitable world" (9, 3). When Claire's closest friend, Ella, enters the room unnoticed, she discovers Claire in tears. Unlike Ella, Claire has no happy home to return to and no wealthy parents to rely on for support. To support herself, Claire has accepted a position as governess for a southern plantation family.

A number of elements in this opening scene correspond to what Nina Baym theorized as the "overplot of nineteenth century woman's fiction" (23). Specifically, Claire is an orphan, who is losing the financial support of a benefactor and the emotional support of a surrogate family. The absence of Claire's biological parents propels her out into the world where her success must be the result of her own character and efforts. …

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