Sunday, December 7, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 255: Annie Parker, Passages in the Life of a Slave Woman (#255)

Annie Parker, "Passages in the Life of a Slave Woman" (1853) from American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation:

Really, I should tag every blog post with "race" and "class" and "gender" and probably a few other tags as well. For instance: "ability/disability" is an axis of normativity--the often invisible struggle to define what counts as normal, as Other--that I'm really only beginning to become aware of. I mean, we tend to label a story about black people as having to do with race in a way that we wouldn't label a story about white people. And yet, even if it's a story just about white people, there's lots of race involved.

(A: Remember, "white" is a relatively new construct for race, and in the old days, people used to talk about everything from "the Irish race" to "the Alpine race." B: New favorite exemplary quote, from Billy the Kid: talking about a boss named Tunstall, "who was the only man that treated me like I was decent and white." For more fun, Tunstall was Irish and the Lincoln Country War might have had to do with Irish/English immigrant hostility. Totally unrelated but still fun trivia: Billy the Kid was born in NYC.)

Anyway, enough about my general failings to correct my privileged position, let's move on to the story, which is all about privileges:

  • the privilege of the white male slave owner to make a mistress of a slave;
  • the relative privilege of the slave mistress compared to the other slaves;
    • a pretty common trope in slave literature, that of the slave who doesn't fit with the other slaves;
  • the privilege of the slave owner to sell away any inconvenient slave, as Mr. Lee does here with his slave son, Jerry, who looks so much like him;
  • the privileges of knowledge and ignorance: the narrator who knows all, Mr. Lee who knows--and hushes--all, the kind Northern mistress of the house who knows nothing because it would hurt her too much and no one wants to give the nice lady any pain.

It's also a super Southern Gothic story, about two slave siblings, separated by slavery, who decide to get married; and the narrator's attempts to prevent that incest without letting anyone know. And you know what the solution is to the hurt caused by slavery? Mr. Lee simply sells away the daughter that he kept. Remember: this is also his daughter that he's selling away.

What's really killer to me is the title, as an added layer of misery: this isn't an exceptional story about people selling away their family or what's stolen from people by slavery. This is simply some passages in the life of a slave woman. Check out that indefinite article: "a Slave Woman" could be any slave woman. It could be many slave women. This could be going on all the time, says this story, written in 1853.

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