Being that this class is entitled American Women Writers, we have been spending a considerable amount of class time discussing the roles of women in writing, literature, history, society, etc. We have also started to answer some of the questions I had posed in my first post entitled Welcome.
Although this class does focus primarily on the role of women, another subject matter that I find to be equally important when analyzing the role of the female sex is that of the role of males. We cannot determine what it means to be a woman, what society thinks or has thought womanhood is about, without also understanding men and how they are viewed in our society as well.
I feel personally that the way we have come to identify the sexes does not give merit to the qualities that they possess. We identify men by what they can do, or what they are physically able to do. We label a woman a woman based on what she cannot and should not do. As a people, we automatically create a deep divide amongst men and women. If you are a man, you lift, you build, you rear your children with an iron fist and an iron will. You are the bread-winner, the law-maker, the leader. If you are a woman, you shelter your children with love and compassion, you do domestic tasks fit for a small figure and fragile hands, you make your house a home, you do all the crying and go through all the emotions. God forbid you are a man or a woman with defined arm muscles. Do you want to be a pansy? Do you want to be a butch? No. If you’re of one gender and have the stereotypical attributes of another, you are looked down upon, you are an outsider- what kind of man are you? Is that how a lady should behave?
Sidenote: Of course, by discussing gender stereotypes in this blog post, I am encroaching upon the more recent ideas of gender equality, fluidity and the like- I acknowledge that they exist, and are developing ideologies founded on the hopes of eradicating sexism and gender role related prejudices. I think that’s great, and a topic worth discussing in length. However, for the purposes of this class blog post, I’m going to stick to the roles that our global society has traditionally grown to assign the genders of male and female. Now back to the matter at hand…
Fo a man, it is a good thing to be all of these rough and tumble, no- nonsense things. If it’s good for a man, then why isn’t it good for a woman? If women are encouraged to be kind and compassionate and are expected to display a wide range of emotions, why is it not encouraged for men?
In Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet F. Wilson, some conventions are not broken, but reversed in regards to both genders. When we think about slavery and what the typical slave- master relationship looks like, oftentimes we picture a male or slave, and a white male slave owner. The slave owner we envision is most likely heartless and cruel, severe in his opinions and in his punishments. As the man and owner of all family property, it is his job to control his slaves.
The mistress of the house which we envision most likely takes very little part in the rearing up of slaves, but instead dedicates herself to seeing that her slaves take care of household responsibilities. This woman is God- loving and “pious”, proper and lady- like. She wishes not to witness or speak of the harsh ways of her husband in regards to their possessions, she prefers to turn the other cheek to it and instead concerns herself with having good housekeeping slaves.
Our Nig does not follow these expectations. Mrs. Bellmont, known for habitually “propping her mouth open with a piece of wood”, is actually Frado’s greatest tormentor(Wilson, 35). She is a merciless woman, who out of everyone in this slave narrative calls Frado a “nigger” the most. She seeks to isolate Frado and abuse her, break down her spirit and her will, but because she does concern herself with having good housekeeping slaves. She just happens to enjoy giving a good, man- style whipping too.
By assigning this more masculine role to Mrs. Bellmont, we are left with what are, in comparison, very “feminine” males. Mr. Bellmont, Jack and James are the most compassionate people Frado has in her life.
“Father is a sensible man, he would wrong a dog” is how Mr. Bellmont is describes by his son Jack(Wilson, 36). Which is an interesting thought, because many slave owners treated their dogs better than they did their slaves. Yet here, not only is he a non- violent, gentle man, but even allows Frado a dog. Through this, he acknowledges the value and importance of both her and her life. The boys grow to love and admire the “little creature that mother treats so”(Wilson, 49). Jack, whenever home, takes special care of Frado and tries his best to shield her from the unloving tendencies of both his mother and his sister Mary. He constantly offers words of encouragement to her. James, who comes along later in the story, already is impressed with Frado based solely on how highly Jack had spoken of her in letters. He also tries his best to make sure Frado is not dehumanized by his mother, such as insisting that she sit at table with them to eat good food instead of standing alone with meager rations. He feels like “grasping time till opinions change, and thousands like her rise into a noble freedom” because he recognizes her value and the value of other human beings(Wilson, 74). Although ill to the point of death, he still totally concerns himself with her well- being, and in turn she, though also ill, does the same.
Frado’s relationship with these men in one of love, kindness, compassion, friendship much more emotional than that of a slave- owning male and their property should be. And as we read, we grow to hate Mrs. Bellmont for being so heartless and ruthless, but we grow to love these boys who symbolize to us hope and humane ways. This I find interesting, because when a man shows emotion or compassion we say he is “going soft on us”. When a woman has an attitude and is what we would consider to be mean in the ways of a man, we say she is a “bitch”. But here, we are rooting for these males who, in comparison to the likes of Mrs. Bellmont, appear soft and cuddly a safe haven for Frado. It doesn’t matter to us how nicely Mrs. Bellmont dresses, or how impeccable her table manners are, or how sociable she is in her town, we still view her as a horrible person- not because she is tough in a male way, but because she is tough to an extreme that is dangerous to Frado, and even to her family who seems unable to control her. Being too harsh, or being too kind can potentially be dangerous for members of either sex- not just one, and Our Nig reminds us of that through Mrs. Bellmont.
This narrative not only examines slave culture and the societal representation of women in and through literature, but by default also causes us to question men and masculinity what it means to be a man if this is what it means to be a woman. And what we see when some of these gender expectations are broken or transversely applied might surprise us in ways that are not- so good, but also in ways that make us thankful that some people decide to be a little more “lady- like” for the sake of others.
Wilson, Harriet E.. Our Nig. Cambridge [England: ProQuest LLC, 2008. Print.