In Willa Cather’s “The Bohemian Girl” (1912), the title character, Clara Vavrika—a Bohemian immigrant in Nebraska—is warned that she is in danger of losing her “race, everything that makes you yourself. . . . your love of life, your capacity for delight” (126). In this story, “race” seems to imply ethnicity and the culture of origin in which selfhood is grounded; in order to preserve her Bohemian “race” and identity, Clara must return to Europe. Cather’s earlier fiction often celebrates on thimmigrant characters who, like Clara’s father, are able to retain both self and “race” in a new world, resisting what Cather deplored as the “deadly,” obliterating pressures to “Americanize” (qtd. in Feld 72). “The Bohemian Girl” suggests Cather’s first mature treatment of this subject, which engaged her throughout her writing life.
Twenty-eight years later, in her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), Cather used the vocabulary of “race” and selfhood very differently, drawing from her own earliest experiences in a Virginia household where she had close relationships with African American servants, some of whom had recently been her great-grandparents’ slaves. There, race, grounded in prerogatives from the still-recent era of slavery, determined taboos, hierarchies, and privileges: who was whose servant, who was served at the first table and who at the second. Race prohibited intimacies, while at the same time the child Willa could see evidence of such intimacies in the world around her—as in the golden skin of the “yaller gal” Nancy, indicating her mixedrace ancestry. Even in her later years, Cather admitted that she still felt “southern” anxiety about attending a rare (for her) dinner party that included both white and African American guests (Cather to Helen Cather Southwick). That anxiety was surely rooted in her early experience as a privileged white child in Reconstruction Virginia, some of which she recalls in the autobiographical epilogue to her Virginia novel.
Young Nancy, the Virginia-born “slave girl” of that novel’s title, has a history of racial awareness very different from young Willa’s. This difference is illuminated by scholarship that has come out of African diaspora studies in recent years. One such text, which I have used as a major source for this essay, is historian Michael Gomez’s important and innovative 1998 study, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. According to Gomez, newly captured African slaves, such as Nancy’s ancestors, had little sense of “race” in terms of similarity of skin color. The qualities that “made them themselves” came from tribal ethnicities. Beginning in the barracoons and Middle Passage, newly enslaved Africans began a profound process of “redefinition” as they created an African American culture. This new culture was grounded in “race” as a unifying force that facilitated both survival and resistance to the slaveholding economy in which they were considered property (150, 165–66).
In book III of Sapphira, “Old Jezebel,” Willa Cather shows how African-born Jezebel was transformed in Virginia slave culture and yet retained some traces of her African self on her deathbed, at ninety-five. Jezebel’s narrative both resists and confirms the African American story of “race” as Gomez tells it, and—like “The Bohemian Girl” but in very different ways—it probes the links between “race” and self.
An examination of census and other records, as well as Cather’s letters, shows that there were real-life prototypes for major slave characters in Sapphira: Till, Nancy, and possibly Sampson were born in Virginia and owned by Cather’s great-grandparents Jacob and Ruhamah Seibert, the models for Sapphira and her husband. Records of slaves’ places and dates of birth are scanty, and I have found no evidence that the Seiberts owned an African-born slave during their years in Frederick County, beginning in the 1830s. So it seems unlikely that Cather personally knew a prototype for Jezebel, although it is possible that she heard stories of such a person. Nevertheless, she chose to devote an entire section of her last novel to this character, beginning with her capture in Africa, detailing her experience of the Middle Passage, and ending with her death. In the jacket copy for the book, which David Porter has shown that Cather wrote herself, she stated that “Sapphira’s African slaves” are “the most interesting figures in the book” (Porter 57–58). Cather’s commitment to narrating a slave woman’s African origins and experiences in the Middle Passage was one that very few American novelists—or historians—had yet taken on in the late 1930s, and it required significant research on her part, most of which was conducted at the New York Society Library.
Succinctly, Cather shows that Jezebel grew up on the Gold Coast of Africa in an established culture of some complexity—a village, a family, a tradition of recording time (for Jezebel knows that she is eighteen at the time of her capture). Then, in the 1780s, came a “night of fire and slaughter, when she saw her father brained and her four brothers cut down as they fought. . . . It was all over in a few hours; of the village nothing was left but smoking ashes and mutilated bodies. By morning she and her fellow captives were in leg chains and on their march to the sea” (Sapphira 92). All physical signs of Jezebel’s African culture— house, village, family members—are obliterated on the night of her capture, but she obviously retains that culture’s influence in the pride and self-possession of her bearing on board the slave ship—and in her American life. Thus Cather subtly counters the myth of “uncivilized” Africa so endemic in the nineteenthcentury United States.
The white world of the British slave ship the Albert Horn acknowledges Jezebel’s “race” only in terms of the dark skin color that makes her a candidate for slavery; in her case, unlike that of Clara in “The Bohemian Girl,” there is no connection between “race” and “self.” No white person inquires about this girl’s African name. Instead, she is christened “Jezebel” by the sailors: On the first night . . . [the sailors] had seen that all the females were lying in the spaces assigned to them. . . . A little later the second mate, hearing shrieks and screams from the women’s quarters, ran down from his cabin to find the guards flogging a girl they had dragged out from a heap of rolling, howling blacks. “It’s this here Jezebel made all the row, sir,” one of the men panted. (94) What is going on in this charged scene? The slave men are chained in another area of the ship, and there is no indication that any of them escaped. So the “heap of rolling, howling blacks” must all be women. And the one woman the sailors identify as being the source of the “row” is given a name that brands her for life as “Jezebel”—connoting a scheming, evil woman who may display abandoned sexual behavior. Was the fight caused by rivalries, perhaps sexual, among the African women, or was it a response to attempted rape by white sailors of one or more of these women? As Gomez writes, “the rape of African women by European men began its long and sordid history aboard the slaver itself,” and efforts to resist those rapes and to protect their victims were a first instance of racial bonding among newly enslaved Africans (166).
The young African girl on Cather’s slave ship has suffered a loss of culture and of selfhood. “Just as the loss of a name was part of the cultural stripping of dispossession, the assignment of a new name could be an act of aggression and domination” (Rediker 129), as it clearly is for the girl the sailors dub “Jezebel.” Nevertheless, she emerges from the group of undifferentiated, screaming women with her wits and self-possession intact. The second mate leaps to “throttle her, but she was too quick for him. She snapped like a mastiff and bit through the ball of his thumb.” The next day, when the thumb becomes infected, the mate recommends to his captain that the “female gorilla” be thrown overboard. But the shrewd captain, with an eye to preserving his valuable cargo for sale, orders Jezebel bridled and “brought up in heavy irons for his inspection. Her naked back was seamed with welts and bloody cuts, but she carried herself with proud indifference, and there was no plea for mercy in her eyes. . . . He judged this girl was worth any three of the women,—as much as the best of the men.” The captain also judges her anatomically “remarkable, for an African negress: tall, straight, muscular, long in the legs” (95), and he respects her ability to withstand a flogging with the “cat,” which had “nine knotted tails . . . designed to lacerate the flesh and maximize the pain of the person being flogged” (Rediker, illustration insert 11). So he decides to keep her on the upper deck throughout the voyage, chained and separate from the other enslaved Africans. “After she was thus isolated, the girl gave no more trouble” (96).
The description of these incidents contrasts typical language used by slaveholders to describe slave property as subhuman and bestial—a “female gorilla” who snaps like a dog and must be bridled—and language of near-heroic humanity: defiant physical and psychic resistance. Jezebel’s bite functions as a symbolic castration of the mate’s white male authority, and to the end of the voyage the officer cringes at the sight of her open jaws. She has the abilities to fight back and to keep herself nourished, aided by her quick wits, self-esteem, strong body, strong teeth, and healthy appetites—all of which seem to give her pleasure. She retains her “lively curiosity” (96) and her physical appetite: when prospective buyers offer her a taste of maple sugar, “She crunched it, grinned, and stuck out her tongue for more” (97). Jezebel does not succumb to the deep depression (often called the “fixed melancholy” [Blassingame 7]) that afflicted many of her fellow captives and reputedly killed many Africans on slave ships. Unlike the Bohemian girl, this young woman is in no danger of losing her self. She is the very model of a survivor. On the deck of the slave ship, “she always laughed aloud when the second mate passed with his arm in a sling” (96), suffering from the effects of his bitten thumb. Jezebel is exactly the kind of slave who brought the highest prices on the American market: a young and sexually attractive woman of childbearing age. As the captain had predicted, she sold well.
In The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007), Marcus Rediker observes that “even the best” previous “histories of the slave trade and slavery have tended to minimize, one might even say sanitize, the violence and terror that lay at the heart of their subjects” (354). On the slave ship, Rediker says, “Violence cascaded downward, from captain and officers to sailors to the enslaved. Sailors, often beaten and abused themselves, took out their plight on the even more abject and powerless captives under their supervision and control” (239). Thus the ship was a cauldron always ready to boil over in explosive conflict. Cather, writing in the late 1930s, was influenced by the restrained earlier accounts of slave ships that Rediker describes, such as John R. Spears’s The American Slave Trade (1900), which provided her with many details of ship construction and shipboard discipline and routine. Her captain is “not a brutal man, and his vessel was a model slaver” (92). Yet Sapphira also depicts the pervasive underlying violence Rediker describes—as in the furious outbreak in the women’s quarters of the Albert Horn.
When the ship arrives in Baltimore, Jezebel is bought by a Dutch dairy farmer and described as his “new wench” (98), a term commonly applied to slave women that also often implied sexual abandon (White 29–30). Because of her “strong” “personal manners,” she is lodged with the animals, in the barn, apparently apart from both the farmer’s family and other slaves (if there are any). She milks cows and does stable work, “but she was kept in the barn and was never allowed to touch the butter” (96), a salable, profitable commodity highly valued for the meticulous cleanliness of its production, usually accomplished by women, often the wife of the household. The farmer’s wife seems to dislike Jezebel, and as soon as her husband dies she sells her off. (Slave women who were thought to be having sexual relations with their masters were often the targets of the jealous enmity of their mistresses, as with Sapphira and her slave Nancy.) This account of Jezebel’s first position in America again emphasizes her isolation.
Subsequently, she is “owned by several masters and . . . learned some English” before being bought by the Dodderidges, in “the year that Sapphira was born, and [she] had been in the family ever since” (98). When we see her again sixty-some years later, at the end of her life, she is very much a part of the community of Dodderidge slaves. Given Sapphira’s age, Jezebel must have been at least thirty when the Dodderidges bought her, and well into her childbearing years. We know she has numerous grandchildren and at least one great-grandchild—Nancy—but there is never any mention of those children’s fathers or of Jezebel’s relationships with them, or with her children.
The African story Cather tells about Jezebel is one of a young woman of unusual strength who is exceptional in almost every way, and who, from her first night on a slave ship, is isolated from the other slaves and their common experience in the holding space between decks. Then, between the ages of eighteen and at least thirty, her isolation seems to continue as she is shuttled from owner to owner and picks up some English, but apparently preserves or forms no significant ties with other enslaved Africans. Through this period of disorienting limbo, as she is “broken in” as a slave worker, she loses track of time and perhaps also of some of the grounding her African culture gave her.
Following Toni Morrison’s lead in Playing in the Dark (1992), critics have often deplored Cather’s handling of her African American characters in Sapphira. A major difficulty for contemporary readers, in my view, is that Cather gives us little sense of the complexity of the slave community in the book. The existence of such community, and how it functioned to facilitate survival and some agency for slaves, has been a major concern of historical scholarship on slavery since the early 1970s. It is instructive to compare Cather’s narrative of Jezebel’s exceptional, isolated African story with the story told by historian Michael Gomez in 1998. Gomez emphasizes collectivity, as Africans from different ethnic backgrounds forged new commonalities as a means of survival, grounded in their mutual plight as slaves and their skin color. Their strategies included retaining African-based cultural practices, such as the ring shout, and “Africanizing” the English language, so that they had a common means of communicating with each other as well as with white owners, without totally capitulating to “the master’s language.” For these slaves, “continuity of culture was a principal weapon. . . . [T]he African antecedent formed the wellspring of cultural resistance” (Gomez 154–55). In this new, race-based African American culture, firstgeneration Africans like Jezebel were highly respected by younger, American-born slaves as a vital repository of continuity and of African memory.
When Cather removed Jezebel from the cramped, fetid space where other Africans were confined and made her a solitary figure on the slave ship’s deck, she cut off her novel’s access to the story of developing racial identity that Gomez tells. That story would not have been made accessible to Cather by the early-twentieth-century scholarship she consulted in her research or by her maternal grandmother and the former family slave, “Aunt Till,” whom she cited as her major sources for the novel. (African Americans’ secretiveness about the survival of African cultural practices, for example, has often been noted by white researchers [Gomez 266].) We cannot expect a white, southernborn novelist writing in the 1930s and drawing from memories of her own childhood experiences in Virginia in the 1870s and early 1880s to reflect the full implications of twentieth-century thinking and research on the subject of slavery.
Yet, as we look at the end of Jezebel’s story, we can also see how Cather seems to intuit and acknowledge certain features of Gomez’s story at the same time that she represses it. For one thing, she knew that the distinctive “Africanized” version of English, devised in slavery, was crucial to her novel; she told her brother Roscoe that she could hear it in her mind as she wrote, like a recording, and that the purpose of her 1938 trip to Virginia, midway in the writing of the novel, was to “verify” the authenticity of that language (26 August 1940). Gomez notes that African English signified differently for whites and blacks, quoting the African American song, “Got one mind for white folks to see, / ’Nother for what I know is me, / He [the master] . . . don’t know my mind” (204; song quoted from Levine xiii). Cather wrote to Dorothy Canfield Fisher that she had observed this as a child, noting that house servants spoke differently to white employers and to each other (14 October 1940), and such linguistic distinctions are subtly delineated in the novel.
“Old Jezebel” begins with what is apparently Sapphira’s last visit to her eldest slave, who is approaching death. The two aging women, both “masterful” and proud of their skill at “men’s” work, have powerful wills and a compulsion to control everything they can, including their own death. Throughout their encounter, slave and mistress vie for control. Sapphira queries, “You know who it is, don’t you, Aunt Jezebel?” And Jezebel counters, “Ain’t I knowed you since de day you was bawn?”— asserting the authority of her seniority. Sapphira recalls the “good times” when both women were physically vigorous and worked together, and Jezebel recalls her own part in establishing the plantation gardens. Sapphira reminds her that they are both “housebound” now and must “be resigned.” Jezebel whispers, “Yes’m, I’se resigned.” Then Sapphira asserts her conventional control over the situation by reciting Psalm 23. Jezebel’s response is silent and shrewdly noncommittal; she watches Sapphira “intently, her eyes shining bright under eyelids thin as paper” (88–89). Although Jezebel attends the local Baptist church with Sapphira’s other slaves, Gomez tells us that “the vast majority” of African-born slaves “continued to practice, or to at least believe in, the religions of Africa,” whether or not they also made a commitment to Christianity (254). As she ends her brief visit, Sapphira again asserts her control as plantation mistress, inquiring about the quality of Jezebel’s care: “Have you quilts enough, Jezebel? Do they keep you warm?” Jezebel’s reply is affirmative—not of her mistress’s solicitude but of the care and communion of the slave community in which she has become a central figure: “the niggahs is mighty good to me,” she says, adding that slave women visit her, bringing conversation and singing, as well as their solicitous physical care (90).
Jezebel is hastening her death by refusing food (an act of resistance and self-possession “routinely” employed by slaves on slave ships [Rediker 285]). When Sapphira urges her—“You must eat to keep up your strength”—and asks what might tempt her appetite, Jezebel replies with “a sly chuckle; one paper eyelid winked, and her eyes gave out a flash of grim humour. ‘No’m, I cain’t think of nothin’ I could relish, lessen maybe it was a li’l pickaninny’s hand’” (90). In one sense, Cather portrays the aged Jezebel as a model slave, “resigned” to her position, who takes pride in her own labors as a gardener and enforces the slave work ethic by telling a “lazy boy” that she wishes she could put dock burs in his pants to keep him working. But in another sense, we see in this old woman the remnants of the proud, self-possessed African girl of the slave ship—with the same “grim humour” and ferocious appetite, she bites the second mate’s hand and suggests that she could “relish” eating a black child’s hand. She may be referring to her own unforgotten African past—Cather tells us that she came from “a fierce cannibal people” (93)—or she may be mocking nineteenth-century white Americans’ stereotypical fears about Africans and cannibalism. Certainly, at the age of ninety-five, she is asserting that she has a past, memories, and a singular African story that are entirely her own.
Gomez notes that “the birth of American-born children . . . created a crisis for African parents” (14), whose offspring developed ties to their new homeland and to non-African cultures they encountered there, including those of their owners. One of Jezebel’s children was destroyed by fire as she dressed for a slave party in Virginia. That daughter’s mulatto daughter, Till, was adopted and inducted into the culture of housekeeping by a white, English professional housekeeper, and Till’s daughter, Nancy, is a timid, light-skinned girl of delicate sensibilities who loves the “nice ways” of her plantation home despite Sapphira’s escalating abuse. During Sapphira’s visit to Jezebel, Nancy dutifully stands by, and when she hears her great-grandmother’s pronouncement about the “pickaninny’s hand,” the girl recoils. Faced with a glimpse of her obdurate African ancestor as other than the “resigned” and obedient old woman that Sapphira has instructed her slave to be, Nancy is horrified and describes Jezebel in words that connote insanity—“She’s out of her haid”— or are used to describe a morally (and often sexually) aberrant woman—“She’s wandering agin” (90). The incident suggests the troubling gulf that could open up between Africans and their very differently acculturated slave descendants, a gulf that deepened with every generation.
When Jezebel dies, a few weeks later, her mistress oversees the management of her funeral and leads the procession to her grave in the family burial ground, where the strict prerogatives of race are observed. The plot is “divided . . . in two halves.” Family graves with marble stones are on one side; on the other side are slave graves “with slate headstones bearing single names: ‘Dolly,’ ‘Thomas,’ . . . and so on” (103). Jezebel’s stone will bear no sign of her African name or African story. The white Baptist minister conducts the graveside service: “He recalled Jezebel’s long wanderings; how she had come from a heathen land where people worshipped idols and lived in bloody warfare, to become a devout Christian and an heir to all the Promises. Perhaps her long old age had been granted her that she might fill out in years the full measure of a Christian life” (104). The Reverend Fairhead (whose very name emphasizes his whiteness) retells the story of Jezebel’s life to discredit and obliterate the African culture that was the obvious source of much of her strength and endurance. Her “long wanderings” suggest an undirected, possibly immoral life before her presumed Christian conversion. One “broadly held West African spiritual belief,” from the early 1700s “to the time of abolition,” was that African slaves would return in death “to their native land,” which allowed them to “meet their fate with a fortitude and indifference truly their own. . . . Among people of African descent in North America . . . funerals often featured rejoicing, even rapture, because the deceased was ‘going home to Guinea’” (Gomez 301)—Jezebel’s “native land.” Reverend Fairhead’s eulogy, with its emphatic repudiation of Jezebel’s African home, leaves no room for such a belief in an African identity and homeland.
As the only surviving African on the plantation, “ole Aunt Jezebel” is highly regarded in the slave community for “all the yeahs she carry” (102), and her funeral is an important occasion. Such rituals were opportunities to solidify the race-based “corporate” identity that Africans and their descendants had created in the South. According to Eugene Genovese, “the significance of proper funerals for the slaves lay . . . in the extent to which they allowed the participants to feel themselves a human community unto themselves” (195). Why the insistent white presence at Jezebel’s funeral? By the mid-nineteenth century, white southerners—and particularly Virginians—had been traumatized by organized African American resistance to slavery in plots such as those associated with Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser (which actually began at a slave funeral). According to Gomez, “the [white] South’s answer was to seize control of black religious life” (257), as we see with the white minister and attendants at Jezebel’s funeral. Although certain priorities of African American funerals are honored—the solemn wake, the celebratory post-burial supper, the respect for age and family (Jezebel’s grandsons carry her coffin)—all is executed under the careful oversight of the white slave owner and her surrogates, and the slaves agree that she was in charge: “Miss Sapphy sho’ly give Jezebel a beautiful laying away” (104). In that “laying away,” the power of her African story is supposedly safely buried in the white family graveyard, where Jezebel is still Sapphira’s property.
“Old Jezebel” ends the night after the funeral. That night, Sapphira suffers a panic attack, consumed with jealous anxiety about the fidelity of her husband and the loyalty of her slaves, while Henry, her husband, pores over his Bible, trying to comprehend the morality of the “peculiar institution” in which he is implicated through his slaveholding wife. Their sleepless agonies imply that the implications of Jezebel’s story are still very much alive.
In 1912, in “The Bohemian Girl,” Cather created a romantic version of an immigrant protagonist trapped in a stultifying Nebraska marriage who escaped the dangers of losing her race, her self, her “love of life” and “capacity for delight” (126). With mobility and nerve, Clara Vavrika claimed a satisfyingly cosmopolitan European life. Through the help of her lover, Clara had access to horses, trains, ships, money, pleasure, and self-determination. In Sapphira, Cather’s African American immigrant has access to none of these resources. She is a slave, and her story, as the mature Cather narrates it, has no vestiges of romance. Nevertheless, although marked by the constraints and abuses of her seventy-five years of enslavement, this fiercely powerful woman retains her selfhood and her self-possession both as a girl on a slave ship and as an aged woman on her deathbed. The “African girl,” Jezebel, manages not only to survive but to retain significant remnants of the African culture that nurtured her youthful strength and to find her own “race” in the African American culture that coalesced in resistance to slavery. Whatever Willa Cather’s limitations as an analyst of slave culture, she narrated the prescient story of an African woman who was able to preserve both her selfhood and her African American racial identity—even as a slave.