Dunbar’s usage of the plantation myth is subversive and used to point out the complicated interplay between enslaved and master, or ex-slave and ex-master. This relationship defies clear parent-child roles, showing instead a relationship of interdependence that binds both and blurs the lines of authority. We can see this most clearly by examining “Nelse Hampton’s Revenge”, “The Ingrate”, and “Aunt Tempe’s Triumph”, stories that ostensibly seem to be plantation literature. The first story points out the complicated nature of the relationship between ex-slave and ex-master, which one would think would be full of mutual hate but turns out to be something else. The second story furthers this complicated relationship, this time showing the “good” a master has done for his slave, albeit a good turn motivated by a desire for revenge. The third story turns the power structure on its head, upending notions of a master-slave hierarchy in which the latter is utterly subservient to the former. I would argue that those who accuse Dunbar of playing to the Plantation Myth are ignoring his background, and I intend to show that these three texts do not fit into the paradigm posited by these individuals, but in fact fly in the face of it.
The son of two ex-slaves, Dunbar was called “the most promising young colored man in America” by the celebrated abolitionist Fredrick Douglas.(Wiggins 40) He went to school in Dayton, Ohio with the Wright brothers who are notable for being the first Americans to fly. After graduation he worked as an elevator operator, a job in which he was able to peddle some of his early works. Later, he went on to work in Washington where he “made good use of the opportunities afforded the Library for broadening the horizon of his mind”(Wiggins 82). This book knowledge added to the lore passed to him by his parents who “enjoyed telling their young son stories of their experiences on the plantations of the South” and, indeed, many of his works “reflected the Southern slaves’ speech patterns [which he] learned at his parents’ knees”(Hatch and Strickland 95-96).
The Plantation Myth, sometimes also referred to as “’plantation tradition’” is a display of longing for an idealized notion of the antebellum South ”when an idealized, well-ordered agrarian world and its people held certain values in common”(Campbell). This literary movement may have its roots in a paternalistic movement that history professor Lacy Ford contends “began in the early 1800s as a small but vocal group eager to ‘reform’ slavery”(7). This reform was not aimed at abolishing the institution of slavery but, rather, attempted to make it more palatable. In a similar vein the literary tradition being discussed watered down the inherent oppression in chattel slavery by utilizing “the metaphor of a plantation ‘family’ … with the white master as the head of this patriarchal system”(Campbell). Under the guise of this mythical framework, antebellum plantations were depicted as utopias that no longer existed in postbellum America, a land that was host to the unjust travesty of directionless, dewy-eyed free blacks, stripped of the comforting guidance and support of their warm-hearted masters. Writing so close to such a racist tradition would have influenced the way Dunbar crafted his stories, especially those drawing on the lore of his parents and their experiences as slaves.
The idealized relationship between master and slave is attacked by Dunbar when he describes the reunion between a former slave and his ex-master, the latter of whom has fond recollections of a “a little black boy…near to [him] as a brother”(Dunbar, “Nelse Hatton’s Revenge” 61). Tom’s memories of this boy include “[cuffing him] around a great deal”, but he wistfully adds that the boy would respond in kind “[giving him] the trouncing that [he] deserved“(61). This sentimental moment occurs near the beginning of “Nelse Hatton’s Revenge”, a story that sees an ex-slave, Nelse Hatton, taking in a vagrant out of the kindness of his heart only to discover that the stranger is his ex-master, Tom Hatton. The manner in which this knowledge is acquired by Nelse is significant. Friendly chatter leads the two to discover that they are both from Kentucky, at which point Tom Hatton ominously declares that his family once owned slaves and that: “…Everybody was good to them except me, and I was young and liked to show my authority”(61).
p style=”text-align:justify;”>These lines cast a dark shadow over the halcyon days being recollected by Tom Hatton. The fraternal bond between slave and master complete with good natured rough housing which he has described appears to fit in with the Plantation Myth’s conception of the institution of slavery, but Dunbar draws our attention to a sobering point. Whatever ‘trouncing’ Tom was repaid, must not have been bad enough that his father would have discovered it by looking at him, as Tom, tellingly, points out, “He [i.e. the slave] would have been skinned for it if my father had found it out; but I was always too ashamed of being thrashed to tell”(61). Tom’s description causes Nelse to divulge that he had a master who treated him in a similar manner, and, after some dithering, the two realize they know one another.
Rejoined after thirty years, the two hug joyfully and continue their idle chatter; “And yet there was a great struggle going on in the mind of this black man”(Dunbar, “Nelse Hatton’s Revenge” 62). In spite of himself, and though his current condition “made his whole soul revolt at the word ‘master’”, Nelse find his “warm sympathies conquered”(62). That is, out of concern for the man’s feelings, he slips back into old modes of talking, and despite three decades of liberty, addresses this man as master.
It is quiet possible that the reunion has triggered a form of Stockholm syndrome: “the psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands”(“Stockholm Syndrome”). Detailing the underlying motives behind this psychological phenomenon we are told that:
…the bond is initially created when a captor threatens a captive’s life, deliberates, and then chooses not to kill the captive. The captive’s relief at the removal of the death threat is transposed into feelings of gratitude toward the captor for giving him or her life. As the Stockholm bank robbery incident proves, it takes only a few days for this bond to cement, proving that, early on, the victim’s desire to survive trumps the urge to hate the person who created the situation…They often become hypervigilant to the needs and demands of their captors, making psychological links between the captors’ happiness and their own.(“Stockholm Syndrome”)
If only a few days can cement the above-mentioned bond, what would years of living as a slave under the constant threat of death and bodily harm forge, especially when there was no relief in sight? Suffused with “feelings of gratitude”, Nelse decides his former captor, Tom, needs to see his wife and children. This thought is scorned by his wife, Eliza Hatton, who indignantly huffs, “Humph! that’s the slave in you yet… I thought thirty years had made you free!”(Dunbar, “Nelse Hatton’s Revenge” 63) Whatever damage had been done to Nelse had lingered dormant, but the interaction with his former master has brought it back to the fore. He is once again “making psychological links between [his former] captors’ happiness and [his] own”(“Stockholm Syndrome”).
Freeborn, without any of the hangups of slavery, Eliza lays into Nelse mercilessly, reminding him of “the long cruel scar that the lash of a whip had left”(Dunbar, “Nelse Hatton’s Revenge” 63). She angrily snarls, “Me an’ my children are freeborn and ef I kin help it, they sha’n’t never look at the man that laid the lash to their father’s back!”(63) Nelse has no response to this and seems stuck in a state of indecision until Eliza begins reminding him of a promise he had made. She doesn’t even get the sentence out before he finishes it for himself: “‘Kill him!’ burst forth the man: and all the old, gentle look had gone out of his face, and there was nothing but fierceness and bitterness there, as his mind went back to his many wrongs”(63). Bolstered by his wife’s words and her concerned reminders of the true state of the relationship he had with his former captor, Nelse is able to extricate himself from old patterns.
His mind now clouded with anger and thoughts of revenge, Nelse returns to his former master, one hand tightly clenched while “the other … unconsciously fingered the lash’s scar”(Dunbar, “Nelse Hatton’s Revenge” 64). When Nelse “hurriedly” enquires if Tom remembers the scar, the man responds, “Well enough … and it must have hurt you, Nelse”(64). Tom, may appear to be sad at his former actions, but he has not grasped the magnitude of the damage he has inflicted on Nelse, for he begins to compare his own misfortunes with his past crimes. “…time and again I have suffered pains that were as cruel as this must have been to you…” Tom informs Nelse, and then has the audacity to go into details, listing the following as one of his tribulations: “…I, a Hatton, have asked bread of the very people whom a few years ago I scorned”(64). Quiet sardonically, Dunbar has Tom equate begging bread with being subjected to chattel slavery and beaten unjustly. Strangely, this disparity does not cause Nelse to lash out in a blind rage, and though Dunbar may not have meant this when he wrote the line, the connection to the clinical definition of Stockholm syndrome is undeniable. Hearing the plight of his ex-master, Nelse’s anger dissipates and his “destructive instinct [turns] to one of preservation”(64). Ignoring his former master’s protests, and with veiled threats, Nelse Hatton foists his best suit of clothing and the money he saved for his wife’s cloak on Tom and sends him back South in a better condition.
This story seems to be the portrayal of a victim’s conflicted mind when confronted with their victimizer in typical Realist fashion where ordinary people are faced with the challenge of making moral decisions. Nelse vacillates between subservience and vengeance, with the former appearing to dominate him. Of his own volition, and with some gentle prodding from his wife, Nelse is able to conquer his base desires and shows himself a better man than his former master. Dunbar makes a point of informing us that Nelse’s eventual magnanimity is motivated not by feelings of filial piety towards his former master but rather due to his own good nature. After Nelse has sent his ex-master off in style, his wife returns questioning him about what happened. When he tells her what he did, she exclaims that he is “jes’ a good-natured, big-hearted, weak-headed ‘ol fool!”(Dunbar, “Nelse Hatton’s Revenge” 65)
The next story we will consider is the inverse of the last story in one particular point. Where the last story showed an ex-slave doing a good turn to his former master, this one shows a master doing his slave a good turn. In “The Ingrate” a slave master, Mr. Lecker, teaches his slave, Josh, the three R’s in order to get revenge on another Southerner. This plot backfires. Having had his mind opened, Josh escapes to Canada with the help of his new skills and joins the Union Army when the Civil War breaks out. Mr. Lecker attempts to portray himself as a loving master, paternalistically looking out for his charge, something that was not as benign as it seems. An investigation into a slave insurrection in 1822 had some denouncing “paternalism’s permissiveness and [indicting] its encouragement of slave literacy” which they considered to be one of the causes “for facilitating slave unrest”(Ford 8). That is, the plantation myth was not seen by some as a proper means of controlling slaves, but rather an “ideological [reconfiguration]” that lead slaves to rebel against their beloved surrogate fathers.
It is thus interesting to note that Josh repays his master’s “kindness” by running away with a forged pass, causing Mr. Lecker to rail, “The very weapon which I give him to defend himself against others he turns upon me”(Dunbar, “The Ingrate” 119). There is no love lost between the two. Mr. Lecker, like Nelse, shows a conflicted mind for while he wails, “Here’s the most valuable nigger on my plantation gone,” he also claims that he “could stand his loss, if it wasn’t for the principle of the thing, the base ingratitude he has shown me”(Dunbar, “The Ingrate” 119). He seems as hurt by the loss of a lucrative source of income as he is by the betrayal. Indeed, his refrain of “that ingrate” appears to be the manifestation of the plantation myth as it appeared to slave owners: a cozy arrangement in which coddled slaves and benevolent masters lived as one family. To his mind, he has done Josh a good turn by teaching him to read, write, and do math despite any underlying, and sinister, motives he may have had. Josh, on the other hand, symbolizes the ugly reality.
No matter how soft and easy life may have been for a slave there was still a stark social demarcation between enslaved and master that made one inferior to the other. Ignoring issues of racism and discrimination, the mere fact that one was a chattel slave precluded one from being able to have a stable life, build a family, etc. That events of insurrection are not as frequent amongst slaves in North America owed itself not to congenial feelings towards plantation owners and slave masters, but to the impracticality of such an endeavor: “In the South, the preconditions for successful rebellion did not exist, and tended to bring increased suffering and repression to the slave community”(“Digital History” ). This does not, however, preclude other modes of rebellion, like running away as Josh does.
In fact to show his utter hatred of this institution, Dunbar informs us that when “the first call for colored soldiers came, Joshua Lecker hastened down to Boston, and put his name down “among those who were willing to fight to maintain their freedom”(Dunbar, “The Ingrate” 120). Joshua is willing to lay down his life to preserve his own freedom, as well as to liberate his brothers and sisters still in bondage, and he is no fictional oddity in this regard.
Though blacks were not initially allowed into the Union army, their eventual enlistment “proved to be a notable success” and “[by] the end of the war, more than 186,000 had enrolled”(Franklin and Higgintbotham 220). Despite being treated unfairly, units like the 54th Massachusetts Colored regiment which had a casualty rate exceeding 50 percent ”fought in several major battles during the last two years of the war”(Divine, et al. 490). Dunbar’s own father, also named Joshua, who escaped to Canada before the war would later enlist in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry.(Wiggins 25) It would seem odd and disrespectful on Dunbar’s part, given the parallels between the fictional Joshua and Dunbar’s own father, that he would be building up the Plantation Myth with this work. It is difficult to look at this story in light of the above and contend that the Plantation Myth is alive and well in Dunbar’s work.
Lastly, we will look at “Aunt Tempe’s Triumph”, a plantation story that defies traditional depictions of a plantation run by benevolent masters whose docile wards accepted their commands with loving admiration. This story, set in the antebellum south, portrays a strong-willed slave’s attempt to ensure her ‘baby’ is given away in marriage by the right person (i.e. herself). Contradicting typical notions of docile slaves kowtowing before their masters, Aunt Tempe approaches the owner of the plantation on which she resides in order to investigate a rumor about his daughter’s wedding, boldly proclaiming to her master, “Look hyeah, Mas’ Stu’at … I done come out hyeah to ‘spute wid you”(Dunbar, “Aunt Tempe’s Triumph” 202). This irreverent tone is met with equanimity by the master who replies, “…it won’t be the first time; you’ve been doing that for many years.” This suggests that whatever is to come has happened on numerous previous occasions and is nothing new. Mordaunt continues speaking, stating, “The fact is, half the time I don’t know who’s running this plantation, you or I”(202-203).
Mordaunt, Aunte Tempe’s master, is master only in name. By his own admission, power lies in the hands of Aunt Tempe, a woman who has not only raised Mordaunt’s daughter, Mizz Eliza, but also Mordaunt himself, and who has no fear of his anger.
When she broaches the subject of marriage, she skirts about her true objective, asking about rings and how big the wedding will be until she finally enquires, “Now, whut I wanter know, who gwineter gin huh erway?”(203) The father answers, “Why, I’m going to give my daughter away, of course”(Dunbar, “Aunt Tempe’s Triumph” 204). This reply of his is met with a “tone so full of contempt that [Aunt Tempe’s] master [turns] a surprised look upon her face.” The two then begin going back and forth, like equals, over who actually has more right to give away Miss Eliza, the woman who raised her or her biological father. This argument continues until Mordaunt gets so flustered that he “[forgets] … he [is] talking to a servant and [springs] to his feet” crying out, “…You must think you own this whole plantation and all the white folks and niggers on it”(204). It is at this point that Aunt Tempe tactfully backs down, perhaps out of deference for Mordaunt’s ego. Aunt Tempe’s retreat, however, is not to be taken as a sign of her submission or acquiescence. Dunbar takes care to reinforce her power by having the rector appear immediately after she has departed. This man innocently enquires if Mordaunt is the owner of the plantation to which the latter responds, “I don’t know; I used to think so”(204).
Dunbar uses dialect for Aunt Tempe, and Nelse, but this is not, historically speaking, a sign of inferiority. The variety of English utilized by the slaves was not confined to the slave quarters, it permeated the South, influencing the speech patterns of the whites who lived alongside them.(McCrum, Cran, and MacNeil 215) The reasons for this linguistic influence lie in the fact that “many African American women (less often men) played important roles in raising millions of white children, especially in southern middle and upper classes”(Feagin). Commonly seen as mere nannies, the “mammy” had more authority and power than they are normally deemed to have. Children are influenced by the adults whom they spend the most amount of time around, picking up manners, learning right and wrong, and even mimicking speech patterns. That impression remains on them long after they have become adults. This influence is clearly seen as Aunte Tempe bosses around her master, colludes with his daughter who is aware of her insubordinate nature, and blatantly contravenes Mordaunt’s wishes without repercussions.
The aforementioned stories (i.e. “Nelse Hampton’s Revenge”, “The Ingrate”, and “Aunt Tempe’s Triumph”) do not conform to ideas of that paternalism which sought “to render slaveholding consistent with existing republican and emerging humanitarian ideals” and “likened the plantation ( and even the large farm) to an extended family in which masters governed their slaves with firmness and benevolence, much as they claimed to manage their own wives and children”(Ford 8). In the above, we do not see that loving parent-child relationship that is claimed by proponents of the paternalist model enshrined in the Plantation Myth. What we do see are strained ties that break at the slightest provocation in the case of Josh, produce serious internal conflict in the case of Nelse, or are inverted so that power lies in the hands of the enslaved and not the master.
Dunbar was the son of ex-slaves and it is difficult to accept that someone informed by such a background would treat the topic of chattel slavery with the blatant naiveté presented by the Plantation Myth that dealt not in human beings but caricatures deliberately crafted to sooth the wounded conscious and console the agitation of minds afflicted with cognitive dissonance. Much like Chesnutt’s Uncle McAdoo who “described a much less idyllic picture of the antebellum South and offered a much more realistic picture of African-American folk culture,” Dunbar’s treatment of the subject is more nuanced than some claim.(Hatch and Strickland 51) Dunbar’s stories mimic the lives of real humans: defiant, conflicted, resourceful, and dignified. They do not depict one-dimensional characters prancing about in a fabricated fairyland informed by nostalgia.
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