Dehumanization in Slavery based on Accounts from Clotel
William Wells Brown warns us that slavery does not only victimize the weak and blacks. In his novel, he points out that “no one is safe” from slavery, whether “white or black” (Schweninger 23). In the face of this fact, it seem ironic that the country that is now called the “land of the free” and “home of the brave” was once a country where slaves were sold and treated almost with cold blood (Schweninger 23).
Indeed, no one is safe, for even a president’s daughter has been sold to be a slave.
What could be more painful than to be parted from your beloved and your daughter and be sold as a slave, knowing that your daughter would be treated as ill as a servant? This is the Calvary that Clotel had to bear as a slave, though she was, by popular lore, a daughter of the president. And if it were true that she was indeed a daughter of the president (Schweninger 28), would it not be more painful on her part, knowing that she was the daughter of the most powerful man in country, yet she had to be a slave and a concubine? The very thought of this situation dehumanizes Gods masterpiece.
There is a rich literature about Brown’s novel, both digital and printed. Most of them bank on the cruelty of slavery. Articlemyriad. com reminds the readers that the novel is fiction, but description of slavery with all its vividness in the accounts of the characters’ lives is true. It can be well understood how something fictitious can capture the truth behind every word and expression. The writer himself was once a slave, and in fact, the first part of the novel is a biographical account of how he escaped slavery (Analysis and Themes 1).
Hence, we see slavery, not in the eyes of someone who has just seen it, but someone who had been a slave, someone who had as firsthand experience of the dehumanizing treatment to slaves. It is not, however, the hard work that Brown resents, but the fact that humans, free or slave are not to be sold (Schweninger 22). At this juncture, it is important to focus more on the historicity of the accounts in the novel. As Articlemyriad. com points out, the novel is fiction, but the accounts are real.
No president of the United States would have had a slave daughter, but the experiences of the characters in the novel, from the most “optimistic” to the most “pessimistic” were not products of imagination (Analysis and Themes 3). As Clotel became a mistress, and was sold, later tried to escape and then commit suicide in despair, Brown was showing a concrete example of what happened to slaves. It was not their fault to be born as mulatto or black or yellow skin, but they faced the discrimination and social prejudice and stereotyping. One example of this stereotyping is stated in the website mentioned. Society does not frown upon the man who sits with his mulatto child upon his knee whilst its mother stands a slave behind his chair” (Brown 55).
We can see from this statement that there is something bout being a mulatto child and a slave mother. A slave, though mother of the master’s child, remains to be a slave and does not seem to have the right to be wife, and only has the right to be a mistress, a whore. If a white were mother to child of a master, then the master would have to marry her in most cases, of the master would have to face suit, but slaves had no liberty to fight for their rights no matter how disgraced they have been.
Though the article points out that the novel is fiction, it gives way to Brown’s claims that the novel is “no fiction” (Analysis and Themes 2), for it is “founded in truth” (Analysis and Themes 2). The truthfulness of accounts in the novel is what the other two articles by Schweninger and Giulla, although Giulla’s accounts are rather more focused on the language of the blacks. Schweninger puts forth that in as much as the events in the novel could have taken place to slaves; the accounts in the novel were not historically accurate as far as chronology of events is concerned.
She mentions several inconsistencies in the chronology of events, one of which is the impossibility of Clotel’s birth in 1798 and “have her mother witness the 1842 burning when her daughter was only 16” (Schweninger 27). Therefore, according to Schweninger, the point of Brown is not to make a accurate historical account (although he told the readers that the novel is not fiction), but to stress the inhumane treatment to slaves, especially to African Americans and the mulatto. In fact, in the preface of the novel, Brown states “Were it not for persons in high places owning slaves… Slavery would have long been abolished. (Schweninger iv). And who were these persons in high places? Brown identifies them as “professed Christians” who give the system (slavery) “a reputation” (Schweninger iv). Schweninger suggests that the “undercutting of the chronology of events stresses that it is not the chronology that is important in the novel but the universality of the topic and slavery in any year or era would have been the same” (Schweninger iv). The people would have suffered just as much and the abusers would have abused the slaves just as much.
And as Brown has said, slavery remained not condemned, because the people who had the power to stop it knew its evil but did not want to lose their slaves. They would be hurt in material loses. The battle cry of Brown is not for people to be freed from work. Everyone has to work, but no one deserves to be sold as a slave. Schweninger traces the story of Clotel to another popular lore called Child, where Clotel was originally named Rosalie. She attests that the story of Child was copied word for word except for some insertions by the Brown to express his political views (Schweninger 28).
For instance, Scweninger narrates, when Clotel urged the master to move from one place to another, Brown inserted some statements that would highlight the anti-slavery theme of the novel. So, in the original text from Child, the line says “the slave mistress urged her master ‘to remove to France or England (Scweninger 64)”, but in the text of Brown, there is the insertion “where both her child would be free and where colour was not a crime (Brown 85). Horatio, the master responded to this suggesting her why not reamin her mistress even after he got married.
To this, Brown added a text saying, “True, she was his slave; bones, and sinews had been purchased by his gold, yet she had the heart of a true woman” (Brown 112). Schweninger also points out that Brown inserted Clotel’s consideration of remaining as a mistress a criminal act (Schweninger 28). Another important matter about the novel is the choice of places to mention. Schweninger confirms the accuracy of the accounts in the place where Currer (Clote’s mother) was – Natchez (Schweninger 29).
It was a place, according to Buckingham (from Schweninger 29) where gambling and all sorts of vices were rampant, but most especially, it was a place where people were cruel to slaves. Hence, it was also the site where a runaway slave was burned. Another place mentioned that can be noted for accuracy is Richmond, where Clotel’s daughter was sold. Richmond was, according to Marie Tyler-McGraw (in Schweninger 29) the center of slave trade. It was a powerful place, then, primarily because it was the center of slave brokerage.
However, there was some mistake in Brown’s choice for the time when Clotel was caught in Richmond. According to Schweninger, Clotel could not have been caught during the time of the Turner uprising in 1831, because she was mentioning names of presidential candidates of 1839 (Schweninger 30). Yet, Schweninger argues that this “misplacement” is of no importance because what was being pointed out here was the she was accused of being a part of the uprising and that was why she was hiding in disguise (Schweninger 30. ).
It clear here that Brown’s intention is to show that slaves, too, are humans, capable of upholding morality, and want to uphold morality. They want to do what is right and to be in a place where they can be free, but the people who hold them captives refuse to let them do what they believe is right. Slaves are capable of love and reason, but all that the people who own them see in them is flesh and blood, not human beings with a soul, heart and mind. They were treated as properties and not as members of the society.
I believe it pays to go back to Brown’s own words that the institutionalization and rationalization of slavery stated with the people on top, so to stop slavery, then the “guilt” should be “fastened” to the people in the “higher circle” (Brown iv). When Horatio got married, his wife saw Clotel as a threat so she had her sold. She tried to escape by disguising herself many times. She so got caught by the slave hunters and later committed suicide. This is seen by Articlemyriad. om as the evidence of the idea that the novel does not present optimism or pessimism in whole (Analysis and Themes 1). There were optimistic moments such as those when she was able to escape, yet she still wound up dead by her own will. However, another critique sees the disguises done by Clotel in a different way. Berthold sees every change in costume as a representation of the adversities that Clotel had to face as a female slave (Berthold 19). Guilla argues that males were connotative for slaves then, so any woman portrayed as a slave would be something new in literature.
So, in Berthold’s explanations, he points out that each time Clotel changes costume, there was something to show about the society and something about her personality and slavery (Berthold 19), even making reference to Brown in the 1880 My Southern Home, “Extravagance in dress, is a great and growing evil with our people” (Brown 232). For instance, most of Clotel’s disguises were as a white male, just to get out of the situation she was in. It is shown here how people are also judged by their clothing, and so goes with the stereotyping, the gender roles and the power in the gender role.
So, if we look into the disguises that Clotel had, she first disguised herself as Mr. Johnson, then as an Italian or Spanish. She actually faced more danger when she disguised herself because she was wearing the shoes of someone whose roles she was not familiar with. When she disguised as a Spanish or Italian, the tension must have been great for she had to speak Italian or Spanish if ever any Spanish or Italian spoke to her. It also, then put her life in danger. Yet, the dangerous attempt got her what she wanted.
However, in the end, when she committed suicide, Berthold saw this as “undisguising” herself, one that ascertained freedom for her, for she died as herself, not as anyone else (Berthold 30). Giulla sees the arrangement of the plot as a product of the author’s effort to expose the life of a community of slaves and need “to structure the fictional text around the evolution of the individual fate (Guilla 639)” and in so doing, explain the shifts from romance to realism in a exhaustively detailed depiction of slavery and the made-up “re-unions of long lost relatives and lovers (Guilla 639). If we examine the novel, the members of the family were separated because they were sold to different masters and had different fates. They must have yearned to be with each other as a mother wants to be with her daughter and a daughter with her mother, but the cruelty of slavery kept them from being together, even to the point of their death. This brings us back to the pessimistic ending that Articlemyriad is talking about. In fact, when one is a slave, what optimism can pone really expect, but a life of hard work and subhuman treatment unless, of course one meets an extraordinary master.
But even in the case Clotel, she had romance with Horatio, but the man did not consider his affair with her as something valuable, for if he did, he would have agreed to take her to France or England. We now go back to what I said earlier that slaves were seen as flesh and blood but not as humans with soul and mind. Brown’s style in writing the novel presents and extraordinary mixture of fact and fiction. The story is based on a popular lore that the people then knew, yet he gave it a different touch that made the people understand what was going on.
Instead of using male slaves as heroes in the story to enable them to engage in physical confrontations and rebellions, Brown used the female slave to show the beauty and morality behind the mulatto and blacks, that though they were slaves, they had good hearts, and they were good people capable of love and ion need of love, especially in need of love. A show of rebellion could have shown what the society would be if slavery continued, but that was something that was expected to happen (although he made a novel end with a civil war).
Brown deemed it more important to show, not the violence that will rise if slavery does not stop, but the impact of slavery to the lives of the people who had been being treated as animals for decades and even centuries by people who profess that they are Christians. To this, it makes a reference to the situation when Clotel disguised herself as Spanish or Italian. These people are known for their devotion in Catholicism. Here, I want to point out that the people who profess that they love God are also the ones who have been showing cruelty to the weak. They were actually hypocrites in a time when religion was strictly followed.
We can see from the accounts mentioned by Schweninger that Brown had good accounts in geographical locations, but seems to have had some problems with historical accuracy. However, whether he had problems with chronology of events or he intended them to be such to stress certain points (like in the case of Clotel’s capture during the Turner uprising), his work remains to be a living testament of what happened to the blacks and mulattos in the United States. His work remains to be a loud cry during his time, transcending the boundaries of time to portray the evils of slavery.
After all that the blacks and mulattos have experienced, they only deserve to have a part in the land once said to be flowing with milk and honey. The land of opportunity belongs, not only to the whites but also the clacks, and their children. Clotel is a literary treasure, not only to the blacks, but also to the world. It is a legacy, which through it history-based narrative has shown the plight of people in a certain place at a certain point of time. It can be considered a dark age of history, but it is also proof that whenever there is something wrong, the right will also shine.