Friday, March 27, 2015

Three Hundred Dollars

One would think I had learned enough, in a decade and a half of teaching, not to assign survey-level students a reading assignment over spring break, but this year hope triumphed over experience, and I found myself on the Monday after break facing fifty undergraduates who had not (with a few exceptions) bothered with the reading for our class discussion. Most of them didn't even bring their books to class. Facing the need to conduct a reading discussion under these unfavorable circumstances, I took the expedient of carefully reading aloud several passages from our assignment, the opening chapters of Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and inviting the class to consider several narrow but interrelated questions.

The reading concerned Harriet Jacobs's grandmother, Molly Horniblow, the slave of a hotel owner in early nineteenth-century North Carolina. Like many other urban masters, Horniblow's owner allowed her to earn money in her spare time, in her case by baking and selling crackers to townspeople. Provided she bought her children's clothing from the proceeds, Jacobs's grandmother was permitted to keep the rest of her baking profits, which she saved to buy her children's freedom. Having put aside three hundred dollars, probably the result of several years of “midnight bakings,” Horniblow was prevailed upon to loan her savings to her mistress, who promised to repay the loan but died before making good. Jacobs's grandmother applied to her mistress's son-in-law, Dr. Norcom (whom Jacobs called “Doctor Flint”), for payment. He, having spent the money on “silver candelabra” for his home, told Horniblow the estate was insolvent. Then Dr. Flint, as executor and Horniblow's new owner, sold his creditor at auction.

I asked my students to reflect on where that three hundred dollars came from, and what it turned into, and what it represented. Three hundred dollars probably represented more than six hundred nightly bakings: tens of thousands of crackers, thousands of hours of labor. It constituted a down payment on the freedom of Horniblow's children. And later, in the hands of an unscrupulous executor, it turned into an expensive adornment of a genteel house, a badge of irresponsible aristocracy. People in the antebellum South could turn their labor into food or money or other people's bodies; they could also, if they were white and had preferential access to the courts, turn that labor into luxuries for themselves and continued enslavement for those who trusted them. Capitalism can sustain remarkable acts of alchemy, but in the end those with the right connections or the socially correct skin color choose the final form that raw materials, capital, and lives will take.

The story ended, incidentally, not entirely unhappily. Horniblow's white customers flocked to the auction block on the day of her sale, and arranged for her purchase and subsequent freeing in a no-bid auction. Horniblow had earned more than cash with her midnight bakings – she had also earned the goodwill of the white community, who called her “Aunt Marthy.” As a free woman she became one of Dr. Flint's nemeses, feared by him for her physical courage and sharp tongue, and a source of protection for her teenage granddaughter Harriet when Flint decided to start playing Dangerous Liaisons. Money is but one form of credit in a capitalist society, and not always the most creditable one.


(The photo above is of Harriet Jacobs, not her grandmother, though the two probably resembled one another.)

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