Academic journal article African American Review

Biracial Promise and the New South in Minnie's Sacrifice: A Protocol for Reading the Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride

Academic journal article African American Review

Biracial Promise and the New South in Minnie's Sacrifice: A Protocol for Reading the Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride

Article excerpt

Frances E. W. Harper, like Julia C. Collins, serialized a novel in the late 1860s in the Christian Recorder, the newspaper published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Besides its publishing history, Harper's Minnie's Sacrifice has a number of other elements in common with Collins's The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride, including: a story line focused on a child or children whose father is a slave master and whose mother, at least initially, is enslaved; protagonists whose physical appearance includes skin color so light that they can pass for white; protagonists who are educated and whose vocation is teaching; and a focus on New Orleans, or some rural setting in close proximity to New Orleans, as the familial place of origin. While there are other details that serve to distinguish Minnie's Sacrifice from The Curse of Caste, the significant elements these novels share, together with their publication in an African American newspaper, allow us to reconsider the appeal of stories about biracial characters for a post-bellum African American reading public. Further, both Harper's and Collins's novels demonstrate that 19th-century women writers present "mulatto" possibility rather than tragedy, and focus on the progeny resulting from master/female slave relations as a powerful and reconciliatory force in the context of an American family dynamic and/or American society at large. Considering Minnie's Sacrifice in some detail allows us to explore Harper's critique of white supremacist society as a patriarchal institution that might yet be transformed. Considering how Harper envisions such transformation also helps us to contextualize the (unwritten) ending of The Curse of Caste, since we might also speculate that Claire Neville's very existence will transform members of her family of origin, including the white supremacist patriarch, Colonel Tracy.

Because Minnie's Sacrifice, like The Curse of Caste, was published serially in the Christian Recorder, we know that Harper wrote the novel for a predominantly African American audience. Frances Smith Foster cautions that misreadings of Minnie's Sacrifice and Harper's later novel Iola Leroy (1892) spring from our misunderstandings of African American literacy and audience in the nineteenth century, and that scholarly disregard for the Afro-Protestant press has distorted even our sense of African American literary history. (1) Thus, it is important to understand the Christian Recorder's history, its relationship to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the AME Church's role in African American education, including the education of formerly enslaved persons, as we reconsider earlier readings of Harper's novels. In this regard, Gilbert Anthony Williams's history of the Christian Recorder that characterizes the paper as distinct from other 19th-century Black newspapers because it was not "a one-man enterprise, printed in plants owned and operated by whites," seems significant (15). As Williams establishes, the Christian Recorder "received financial and other support from the AME Church, a church that was never controlled by whites. Ministers helped sell subscriptions and raised money for the Recorder, and church officials worked as writers and assisted in the paper's publication" (15). Sponsorship by the AME Church, then, means that the early Christian Recorder reflected the concerns and interests of African American communities. As Williams contends, after 1865 "the front page featured secular issues more prominently," and through its coverage of events "the Recorder naturally encouraged and nurtured the notion of a national--and later international--black consciousness" (16). Given this case, we must ask how both The Curse of Caste (1865) and Minnie's Sacrifice (1869) participated in nurturing this national consciousness.

The Christian Recorder's masthead declared its purpose as the "dissemination of religion, morality, literature and science," and as Frances Smith Foster and Chanta Haywood demonstrate, the newspaper's concerns were never strictly religious (24). …

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