Books

From a foot­note in a his­tory book comes the odd tale of masters tak­ing slaves to Ohio for a sum­mer “vacation.”

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY LONNAE O'NEAL PARKER oneall@wash­post.com

Dolen Perkins-Valdez was read­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of W.E.B. DuBois when she came across the small aside. It was piece of his­tory she hadn’t known, and couldn’t stop think­ing about.

The land for Ohio’s Wil­ber­force Uni­ver­sity, the nation’s old­est pri­vate his­tor­i­cally black col­lege, where DuBois had once taught, at one time had been part of a re­sort — a place called Tawawa House, where wealthy South­ern slave­hold­ers would take their slave mis­tresses for open-air “va­ca­tions.”

“I had never heard of any­thing like that,” says Perkins-Valdez, then a writ­ing pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary Washington. She knew of masters tak­ing slaves north to at­tend to them, “ but the thought of them tak­ing women to a vacation re­sort was just stun­ning to me. I didn’t know what to do with that.”

What she did first was won­der: How would they have got­ten there? And what did the re­sort look like? Then she asked: Why would a slave taken to a North­ern free state not run?

Her at­tempts to an­swer those ques­tions turned into the novel “Wench,” out in pa­per­back Tues­day, just in time for the 150th an­niver­sary of the Civil War.

It’s the story of four slave mis­tresses — “wenches ”— who be­come furtive friends at Tawawa House. They con­tem­plate free­dom, learn each other’s sto­ries and deep­est fears. Some sto­ries are bru­tal, but the main char­ac­ter, Lizzie, sleeps in the same bed with her owner, the fa­ther of her two chil­dren, and thinks her­self in love with him. And he with her.

“Wench,” which went through seven print­ings af­ter its hard­cover re­lease last Jan­uary and has a first pa­per­back print­ing of 135,000, raises ques­tions about com­plex parts of slav­ery that are less ex­plored for lack of writ­ten ac­counts: What kinds of ac­com­mo­da­tions and ne­go­ti­a­tions took place be­tween slaves and masters? What passed for love? The novel looks at what his­tory gets priv­i­leged and what gets for­got­ten.

Sit­ting in the li­brary of the North­west­Wash­ing­ton home she shares with her hus­band and 3-year-old daugh­ter, Perkins-Valdez, aHar­vard grad with a PhD in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture from Ge­orge Washington Uni­ver­sity, talks about her main char­ac­ter and re­ac­tion to the book.

Lizzie, who some­times in­ti­mately calls her mas­ter by his first name, lives in the mas­ter’s house and eats bet­ter food than the other slaves. Her chil­dren are be­ing ed­u­cated and wear bet­ter clothes. And Lizzie con­stantly presses her owner to free their chil­dren — chil­dren his wife couldn’t give him and whom she re­fuses to leave moth­er­less at the Ten­nessee plan­ta­tion so she can es­cape.

“In an early draft of the book, I had Lizzie com­pletely in love with Drayle,” Perkins-Valdez says. “I talked to an­other writer who said, ‘I don’t think love could ex­ist in this sit­u­a­tion that wasn’t a ne­go­ti­a­tion.’ Slaves didn’t have the agency that would re­ally al­low them to barter, but there are a mil­lion and one ev­ery­day ways slaves manipulated and ma­neu­vered” to try to bet­ter their way.

Both black and white read­ers have strug­gled with the plau­si­bil­ity of the re­la­tion­ships in the novel, the author says. White women have expressed doubt that South­ern wives would have stayed mar­ried to men who fa­thered chil­dren with slaves. Black read­ers can’t stom­ach a slave woman lov­ing a mas­ter. Perkins-Valdez points out that slav­ery in­volved hu­man be­ings who had do­min­ion over other hu­man be­ings, and the whole range of hu­man emo­tion and ac­tion were pos­si­ble.

Perkins-Valdez read orig­i­nal manuscripts and searched for doc­u­men­ta­tion be­yond the men­tion in the Lewis bi­og­ra­phy but found lit­tle. Wil­ber­force Uni­ver­sity has a plaque com­mem­o­rat­ing Tawawa House, but even the Ohio His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety didn’t know that his­tory.

“I had a hard time find­ing any­thing that gave me what I wanted, which was some­one say­ing, ‘I brought my slave here. She was my mistress,’ ” she says.

Pulitzer-win­ning DuBois bi­og­ra­pher David Lev­er­ing Lewis and Ohio his­to­rian Don­ald Hut­slar both cited a few pri­mary doc­u­ments, but­tressed by anec­do­tal ev­i­dence and oral his­to­ries.

But “I think there’s sort of a ten­dency to­ward dis­be­lief ” with oral his­to­ries, of­ten a slave’s only record, Perkins-Valdez says. “Most slaves were il­lit­er­ate and even when they were lit­er­ate, their writ­ings didn’t sur­vive.”

Non-es­tab­lish­ment sources are of­ten dis­re­garded, says Ge­orge Washington Uni­ver­sity his­to­rian Adele Lo­gan Alexan­der. “Oral his­tory, or when you have a song or some­thing like that, that is not as ac­cepted in the canon, and it’s harder to push the le­git­i­macy of that source.”

Alexan­der, author of the book “Am­bigu­ous Lives: Free Women of Color in Ru­ral Ge­or­gia, 17891879,” says nu­ance in slav­ery gets painted over all the time. “Peo­ple had to make their ac­com­mo­da­tions, and I think that Perkin­sValdez deals with those am­bi­gu­i­ties of his­tory quite well.”

Perkins-Valdez says the book has prompted oth­ers to share their fam­ily oral his­to­ries with her. When she ex­plained that the book was about black slave mis­tresses and their own­ers, a Smith­so­nian mu­seum guard said: “Oh, like my great-grand­mother.”

A reader e-mailed to say she’d heard civil rights leader Ju­lian Bond re­fer to the book in speech, call­ing it his fam­ily’s oral his­tory as well. Reached by phone, Bond said: “I of­ten talk about that his­tory. My grand­mother was a slave. She had been given to a woman as a wed­ding present, and when the bride be­came preg­nant, the bride’s hus­band, my great-grand­mother’s owner and mas­ter, ex­er­cised his right to take his wife’s slave as his mistress. He was a Pres­by­te­rian min­is­ter. Two chil­dren came from that union, James Bond and Henry Bond, and James Bond was my grand­fa­ther.”

But the most in­trigu­ing story came from Mar­gretta Browne of Sil­ver Spring, a high school English teacher and friend of Perkins

Browne says she is one of five Mar­gret­tas with the first, ac­cord­ing to fam­ily his­tory, be­ing the daugh­ter of Pres­i­dent An­drew John­son and a slave named Tabitha Short. This claim has not been ad­dressed by his­to­ri­ans, though there is record of a mu­latto house slave named Mar­gret. But the fam­ily’s oral his­tory points out, as ev­i­dence, thatMar­gretta was ed­u­cated and given a set of dishes and sil­ver­ware by the pres­i­dent (the fam­ily still has them); she be­came a teacher af­ter Eman­ci­pa­tion. The name skips two gen­er­a­tions, then picks back up with Browne’s grand­mother, her mother, then Browne (one of six gen­er­a­tions of teach­ers) and now her 5-year-old daugh­ter.

Browne called “Wench” hard to read. “I didn’t know whether to em­brace all of this, or get an­gry and put it down. There was just so much in it that you don’t al­ways hear,” she says. “ That’s what made me think about my fam­ily and the Mar­gret­tas.” It’s a his­tory they’ve never shared out­side the fam­ily.

“I think there’s a blank spot, there’s a void for a lot of African Amer­i­cans in terms of his­tory that is writ­ten down and isn’t em­braced by the nation as a whole and seen as some­thing we can talk about openly. The blank spot is what Dolen wrote about and it’s a lot more com­plex than here’s the mas­ter, here’s the ser­vant.”

PHO­TOS BY MARK GAIL/THE WASHINGTON POST

Nov­el­ist Dolen Perkins-Valdez, at home in­Wash­ing­ton, tells of a re­sort where slave­hold­ers took their slave mis­tresses on va­ca­tions.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.