Academic journal article African American Review

Hysteria and Trauma in Pauline Hopkins' 'Of One Blood, or, the Hidden Self.'

Academic journal article African American Review

Hysteria and Trauma in Pauline Hopkins' 'Of One Blood, or, the Hidden Self.'

Article excerpt

Though the medical and psychological literature contemporaneous with Pauline Hopkins might lead one to suspect that only white, middle-class women were vulnerable to the medical diagnosis of hysteria, Hopkins, in her novel Of One Blood; Or, the Hidden Self (serialized in the Colored American Magazine between 1902 and 1903), deliberately represents Dianthe as suffering from hysteria to emphasize that this is not the case.(1) She attributes to Dianthe several of hysteria's classic "conversion" or somatic symptoms, including trances, amnesia, fainting spells, lethargy, passivity, and dissociative states of consciousness, in order to investigate the politics of this illness. Although I will briefly discuss Of One Blood as an "hysterical" text, my primary foci are the ways in which Hopkins racializes the turn-of-the-century discourse on hysteria by considering its relevance to African American women and girls victimized by sexual trauma during and after slavery. She interprets the behaviors and symptomatology of hysteria as expressions of the very specific trauma inherent in the political and familial histories of black women: rape and incest perpetrated by white men.

As an "hysteric," Dianthe represents - or, more precisely, her body represents - the site of the convergence of violence, racism, and misogyny. Most obviously, she is sexually coerced by Aubrey, but also her "light" skin color testifies to miscegenation resulting from two additional rapes - those of her mother and grandmother by their white "master," Aubrey Livingston's father. Hopkins imbues the intriguing ideas of the "new psychology" at the turn of the century with significance for black women by making use of these nascent theories in her exploration of racially motivated sexual sadism, by which I mean slavery's eroticization of cruelty. Incorporating Freud's controversial psychoanalytic views on hysteria which, simply put, consider repressed sexual trauma its source, Hopkins calls attention to the confluence of intrapsychic and political forces that results in sexual and political domination, specifically Aubrey's oppression of Dianthe. And, from what I can determine, Of One Blood is the first, possibly the only, text by a black woman at the beginning of the twentieth century to do so.

In her chapter in The Bonds of Love entitled "Master and Slave," contemporary psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin argues that within the "master's" fantasy of erotic domination lies his wish for independence and his wish for recognition. For complex reasons based on early disturbances in the infant-mother relationship, the child cannot satisfy his ordinary and expected desire for differentiation - an identity separate from that of the mother - inter-subjectively through "mutual recognition." Hence, his wish to be independent is perverted into his need to be dominant. Influenced by Hegel, Benjamin defines a dialectic of control like this: "If I completely control the other, then the other ceases to exist, and if the other completely controls me, then I cease to exist" (53). In this paradigm, in which dependence becomes synonymous with submission and annihilation, and existence itself is at stake, domination is eroticized when the "master" forcibly takes control of the slave's body. Benjamin asserts that the master's "sadistic pleasure consists not in direct enjoyment of [the slave's] pain, but in the knowledge of [his] power over her - the fact that [his] power is visible, that it is manifested by outward signs, that it leaves marks" (57).(2) If, from a psychoanalytic perspective, we view Aubrey - representative of white, Western patriarchy - as an "oppressor" who quite literally appropriates the identity/body of Dianthe in order to assert his own "self," then we must simultaneously understand that, without culturally sanctioned, institutionalized racism, this psychodynamic, compelling as it is, could not have been so blatantly and publicly promulgated.

Benjamin's ideas regarding the literal or figurative "master/slave" relationship and Dianthe's hysterical symptoms - particularly her somatic disorders, dissociative trances, and passivity - an be linked with the literary concept of the "hysterical" text as described by Claire Kahane. …

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