Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez – a Book Review

I was all set to give Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez a half nod when I remembered a survey type of conversation I participated in a few years back. The questions we [a bunch of writers loosely connected through an online writing board] were asked was this: if we lived as slaves in America, what type of slave would we be: the house negro or the Harriet Tubman/Nat Turner type. Most of the responses centered on being Black Moses and Turner.  The pollster said that she herself wasn’t sure. Her response made me think especially because I was one of those cleaving to the Tubman dynamic. All enslaved Africans didn’t adhere to flight/fight mode. What of those who bore the genocidal nature of chattel slavery silently? What of those whose names we don’t know because the only worthy thing they did was to survive? With this book, Wench, we find the story of four such characters – Lizzie, Rennie, Sweet and Mawu – some of whom possess the inclination to flee. The four women are brought together over a series of summers in the decade or so before the Civil War when their “owners” vacation at Tawawa House in Tawawa Springs, Ohio – a free state. [A brief history note – due to the continual presence of slaveholders and their slaves, the hotel started losing money. The hotel, the land and surrounding acreage was sold and very shortly thereafter became Wilberforce University, now the oldest African-American private university in the US]

The series of events that the four slave mistresses (and their male companions – both enslaved and free) experience during the course of a series of summers testifies to the will to survive – a will with a contrary existence in a society which thrived off negation of that selfsame will. My change of heart (from that initial half nod to one more affirming) came as I delved deeper into the book. Of particular interest was the main character, Lizzie [named Eliza but renamed Lizzie by her owner’s wife after he moved her into the big house].  She commits actions that a surface reading of would have one labeling her as a collaborator in her own oppression – not to say anything of the harm her actions inflict on other characters. However, as I read further, I realized that life under slavery wasn’t so black and white (no pun intended). It is quite effective the way in which Perkins-Valdez leads the reader into a deeper understanding of the nature of slavery to the point of saying maybe – maybe I would have been like Eliza – concerned most of all about my children – wondering what the “Master” would do to them if I broke and run. Maybe, falling into human puppy love with the person convinced he owns you and having sex with him was considered a workable exchange for learning to read – and subsequently reading stolen newspapers to those who share your bondage. Maybe. Just maybe. That maybe moves slightly in direction of potentiality when I read in the author’s note following the end of the novel that “it is believed that the children of the unions between the slave women and the slaveholders were among the early students at [Wilberforce]”.

~ by Tichaona Chinyelu on November 30, 2010.

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