Wednesday, October 12, 2011

From the First Draft of My Paper about Harriet Bailey, Douglass's Mother

This is from my first draft of my paper about Harriet Bailey, and an example of some of both my own limitations in sources at this particular time as well as an example of the way I'm trying to use questions to suggest a range of behavior without making up a conclusion in the absence of evidence:

Because Anthony seems a likely candidate for Douglass's father, and because so many both in Douglass’s time and since have accepted him as such, it is worth pondering what his fathering seven of his own slaves meant to the women in his household, especially Harriet Bailey.

How, for instance, did the white women in his own family react? These women included his sister, Elinor Malony, who hired Harriet during three of these pregnancies, and his daughter, Lucretia Auld, who was charmed by the child Frederick and made him her particular pet. Did Anthony impregnate his slave three times under the roof of his sister’s house? Did she approve, or turn a blind eye, or proselytize, or attack Harriet? Was this the reason that Harriet went to Holme Hill Farm rather than stay on with Malony? Similarly, did Lucretia Auld know that the little boy singing outside of her window in hopes of a little bread and butter was her half-brother? Did this explain her favor to the child, as some historians argue? Did she favor the other siblings, too? Was she wholly ignorant and Frederick’s natural charm alone captivated her? Did she not let herself know? Did she deny the veracity of rumors about her father, the ones that Frederick himself heard? Did she know but choose to respond kindly to the child who courted her favor? As Douglass himself pointed out, and hosts of historians who study slaveowning women have shown, the white mistresses very often hated and abused the children of their husbands. Ann Anthony, Aaron’s wife, did not figure into this story, living as she did, far from Harriet and her children and dying in 1818. The wives, however, had a different relationship to the master-father than his sister or daughter, so their reactions might vary. At the same time, their reactions also profoundly shapes the world of their enslaved nieces, nephews, half-brothers, half-sisters, and the woman who, in addition to being the victim of rape received the brunt of the white women’s wrath, the mother of these children.

With Anthony’s wife either on the far side of the county or gone, Lucretia Auld also on the far side, and Malony removed as her supervisor once she moved to Holme Hill farm, the question of ill-treatment by the white women of the Anthony family was rendered moot for Bailey. Still, she could not escape Anthony himself. What, then, was her range of choices in regard to his advances and her experience in bearing his children? His behavior toward another slave whom he also may have raped provides a clue. In his autobiographies, Douglass related a terrifying story of his aunt, Hester, Harriet’s younger sister, who was born in 1810, making just over two years older than Harriet’s oldest child. Douglass could not fix a date for this event; but, it took place during his two years at Wye House when Hester was between 14 and 16 years old. Hester and Edward “Ned” Roberts, one of the slaves belonging to Edward Lloyd, had taken an interest in one another and begun courting. Anthony forbid Hester to see Roberts and, when Hester defied Anthony, he beat her to a bloody pulp. In relating the story, Douglass intimated, “Why master was so careful of her, may be safely left to conjecture.”
Contemporaries, historians, and literary scholars alike have used this incident as evidence of Anthony’s brutality. Dickson Preston, who studied this period of Douglass’s life in greatest detail, believed that the beating demonstrate mental illness or dementia. None, however, questioned the sexual dimension of the story, including Douglass himself. “When the motives of this brutal castigation are considered,” he wrote in 1855, “language has no power to convey a just sense of its awful criminality.” In 1882, he added that Anthony’s motives were “as abhorrent as they were contemptible,” and robbed his victim of any means “of the honourable perpetuation of the race.” In other words, Anthony had claimed Hester as his concubine and would not allow her a choice of husband for herself.

This incident suggests two points. First, if Anthony was the father of Harriet’s children, then these children were probably the product of serial rape, with beating as the penalty for resistance and, unlike the case of Sally Hemings, no discernable reward for submission. There is also no evidence to suggest that she could turn to another white man, as did Harriet Jacobs. While Douglass tactfully does not speculate specifically on his mother’s sexual treatment at the hands of their master, his inclusion of this event serves not only as a graphic example of both physical and sexual violence under slavery, but also as a way of shifting what he would not imagine about his mother’s experience onto her sister. That is not to say that the event did not take place and for the reasons stated. To also accept this story as fact leads to the second suggested point. This incident took place within the same period of time that Harriet gave birth to her last child and died. With his wife dead and his concubine dying, Anthony may have settled on Hester as her sister’s replacement. Jenny, Harriet’s next younger sister, was married and escaped north in 1825. Betty already had three children. Maryann was sold south in 1825, leaving Hester as the remaining sexually mature woman who was not already married or producing children. Anthony did not necessarily have to respect the bonds of marriage, such as they stood with slaves, but if one of his enslaved women were already producing children, thereby increasing his property, he had no reason to alter the arrangement if another woman were available. In Hester’s case, that other woman had no desire to take on the role.

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