The Benevolent Master
by Jenny Wapner
The black identity during the nineteenth century in America was one based on a position of inferiority. The inferiority of slaves to their masters was expressed in several different ways, but all were designed to secure a dependent relationship of the slave to the master. Masters often viewed their slaves as deserving of a moral or religious upbringing, and saw themselves as responsible for completing this task. Paternalism transformed the relationship of slave and master into one of child and parent. In such cases the slave may have been spared the abuse of a cruel master, but suffered no less subordination. A benevolent master created a comfortable environment for slaves, ultimately producing complacent, submissive slaves. This injustice is articulated in,Black Women in Nineteenth Century American Life, "servitude was likely to foster dependence rather than psychological poise. A spirit of independence on the plantation...was a hazard rather than a virtue." (8) Unable to earn their own wages, slaves were forced to depend on their masters for food and shelter, but a kind master often imposed a greater emotional attachment. This tendency was widespread, and as seen in a variety of texts hindered the pursuit of freedom.
Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin does not openly embrace the belief of black inferiority, but nonetheless, denies many of her black characters with a psychological independence from their masters. In order to make sense of this seemingly contradictory sentiment it is necessary to examine how Stowe subordinates the African-American characters in her novel. By representing the slaves in the novel as childlike and naive, Stowe does not allow for strength or authority through a black voice. A scene describing the interaction between Eva and Tom begins, "And she and her simple friend, the old child and the young one, felt just alike about it." (258). The two words, "simple" and "child," strip Tom of his adulthood. Essentially, Tom is incapable of independent thought, putting him in the dependent position as a victim who needs to be saved. There is no risk of Tom attempting an escape because he is not allowed to imagine a life beyond his present condition.
As the protagonist of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe uses Tom to make a point not just about the inhumanity which Tom is a product of, but of the model Christian who is submissive. Stowe looks to the obedient slave to set an example of a model Christian. The passive, submissive slave has the same faith in his or her master as the good Christian should: thus, Tom proves to be both a good slave and a good Christian. It then becomes the responsibility of the master to raise his or her slaves as they would a child, instilling in them Christian virtues, which consequently stifles the desire to be free. This parallel is seen in a discussion between Eliza and her husband George, "Well,' said Eliza mournfully, 'I always thought that I must obey my master and mistress, or I couldn't be a good Christian." (16) Her husband agrees: in the case of a kind master it makes sense for a slave to obey. It is significant that George agrees with Eliza, it is his tyrannical master which prompts his escape. Recognizing the benefits of masters like the Shelbys makes George's agreement with Eliza disheartening. George is depicted as a strong and independent slave, the only one in the novel, but does not condemn the Shelbys version of slavery.
In this way Stowe distorts the issue of slavery, rather than regarding all slavery as inexcusable she draws clear distinctions between a good and a bad master. The Shelbys are clearly good masters and loved by their slaves. When granted their freedom the Master George's slaves become nervous, "Many, however, pressed around him, earnestly begging him not to send them away; and with anxious faces, tendering back their free papers." (436) Stowe does not address the numerous problems with this response other than stating, "We often hear of the distress of the Negro servants, on the loss of a kind master; and with good reason, for no creature on God's earth is left more utterly unprotected and desolate than the slave in these circumstances." (436) In its simplicity this comment is offensive. Stowe does not tackle the larger issue of how to rectify this situation: rather, she gives undue credit to the benevolent master.
Such a master actually does a greater injustice by giving slaves a false sense of security. Jessie Bernard, as quoted in Black Women in Nineteenth Century America writes, "[Benevolence] deprived Negroes of the opportunity for developing responsibility, competency, and autonomy; it made them unfit for maturity and independence; it rendered them incapable of assuming responsibility, of becoming adults." Within the relationship of slave holder and slave there is no possibility for equality: by treating the slave kindly, even as one's child, the master confuses the boundaries of that relationship. Consequently a emotional grounded relationship develops out of a necessarily dehumanizing system.
Examples of such emotionally grounded slave/master relationships are surprisingly numerous. Harriet Jacobs writes about mourning the death of her mistress, "I loved her; for she had been like a mother to me." (7) As well as the narrative by Annie L. Burton which begins, "The memory of my happy, care-free childhood days on the plantation, with my little white and black companions is often with me."(3) Frederick Douglass writes of an equally mystifying occurrence among slaves, "Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others." This example brings to light several issues. Primarily, this quote shows the slaves identifying themselves through the character of their master. In itself, this quote shows an internalization by the slaves of the principles which govern slavery: that they are the property of another person, and moreover, that through this person they define themselves. It is apparent that in many cases slaves were even dependent on their masters for the formation of their identities. Recognizing slavery as an alienating experience makes a mindset conducive to escape possible. Gloria Yamato discusses "internalized oppression" in her article, "Something About the Subject Makes It Hard to Name." Once internalized, oppression makes sense to the oppressed; they believe that their subordination is deserved, and furthermore fail to see their status as inferior. Yamato makes clear that this complacency is acquired over time and not the initial response to oppression (slavery). Yamato writes:
Before oppression becomes a specific ism like racism, usually all hell breaks loose. War. People fight attempts to enslave them, or to subvert their will, or to take what they consider theirs, whether that is territory or dignity. (22)
Evidence of the latter is found in slave narratives, but is thought of as exceptional. Moreover, active resistance necessarily results from the slave's ability to think of him or herself as independent: an unlikely occurrence in an institution which suppressed all forms of individuality.
The self-awareness of the oppressed which Yamato discusses is equivalent to a slave mentality; an identity based on being undeserving of equality. Slaves who were described as principled, strong-willed, or ambitious were often described as having a "spirit too bold and daring for a slave," as in the case of Harriet Jacob's brother. From this comes the practice of "breaking slaves in," a severe beating as a way to crush any signs of independence in a rebellious slave. Because of this position of complete inferiority, the most striking examples of slave rebellion are those in which slaves assume a position equal to that of their masters'. Frederick Douglass does this by a combination of verbal and physical resistance. His written narrative is an act of resistance, which elevates him both intellectually and spiritually. However, it is in his physical act of rebellion that he initially asserts himself as principled and strong-willed. He begins his account with the statement, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (Douglass 77). For Douglass, it is through physical force that his manhood is realized, for Mr. Covey's power lies in his physical domination over Douglass. The basis of Douglass' slavery was an existence entirely divorced from selfhood, by resisting both verbally and physically Douglass recovers a whole self. Furthermore, rebellion restores in Douglass the need for escape. Douglass writes:
This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self- confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. (82)
Despite the fact that Douglass is still a slave, he has achieved psychological autonomy through his resistance to Mr. Covey. This is the crucial distinction between the slave who acquiesces and one who rebels.
Examples of such autonomy are also found in the biographies of the two slave women Cornelia and Sylvia Dubois. Their stories are remarkable in the sense that neither women show any fear of the consequences, and such principled action necessitates a break from their inferior status. It is significant that both women responded to physical brutality with decisive physical retaliation. When asked about her mistress Sylvia Dubois responds, "I paid her up for all her spunk; I made up my mind that when I grew up I would do it; and when I had a good chance, when some of her grand company was around, I fixed her." (Loewenberg and Bogin, 45) Dubois assumes a position equal to her mistress when speaks of "fixing" her. Dubois possesses an integrity which forces her out of a suppressive institution, she does this by actualizing her feelings of independence through an act of rebellion. This same fierce independence is seen in Cornelia's description of her mother which begins, "My mother was the smartest black woman inn Eden. She was as quick as a flash of lightning, and whatever she did could not be done better." (49) Paired with an acute sense of self preservation, Cornelia's mother has an identity not as a good slave, but as a strong woman. Cornelia goes on to write that her mother, "certainly had her faults as a slave...With all her ability for work, she did not make a good salve. She was too high-spirited and independent." (49) The ability to define oneself outside of the confines of slavery is what makes this passage so powerful. Cornelia does not speak of her mother as virtuous in the common sense, but as an individual and as a fighter.
Strong, fearless slaves challenge the very basis of slavery by taking on a role reserved for their masters. .Perhaps it is this type of behavior which Eliza warns her husband about when she pleads with him not to do anything "wicked." Eliza represents an example of Yamato's internalized oppression, by not immediately seeing escape necessary, by any means possible. Eliza is fearful and timid, and therefore easily persuaded: first by the Shelbys, and then by her husband George. Eliza, before her escape is the product of a benevolent master, who has not challenged her to experience freedom. The enslavement of blacks in the nineteenth century resulted in an emotional and spiritual bondage apart from the physical subjugation. Creating dependence in the African-American race meant reducing an adult into a position of a child, therefore quelling all tendencies towards individualism. Before emotional freedom was possible, slaves needed to learn to value a free existence. Harriet Jacobs writes the following:
Many of the slaves believe such stories, and think it is not worth while to exchange slavery for such a hard kind of freedom. It is difficult to persuade such that freedom could make them useful men, and enable them to protect their wives and children. If those heathens in our Christian land had as much teaching as some Hindoos, they would think otherwise. They would know that liberty is more valuable than life. They would begin to understand their own capabilities, and exert themselves to become men and women. (43)
This concept of "usefulness" is crucial in the development of an identity as a worthwhile member of society. The benevolent master causes ambiguity in the slave master relationship and furthermore, suppresses individuality in the slave by making him or her dependent upon the former. The tyrannical slave holder incites the desire for escape, allowing for decisive action.