restricted access A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Lived It
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A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Lived It

How many of you think this text is racist?

I think to myself, Who doesn’t think this text is racist? I know, of course, a white instructor teaching a class on the Harlem Renaissance. She doesn’t think it’s racist. And what does this short story have to do with the Harlem Renaissance anyway? Thank God, she didn’t ask me for the “black perspective.” The professor asks the question again, and I wait, hoping someone will just answer this woman’s question.

Against my will, my hand touches the air.


You in the front.


I under . . .


Say your name first.


Alyssa . . . I understand she was a former slave, but no one really talked like that. We learn language from the people around us. She was a cook. Therefore, she was in the house around people who spoke proper English. I feel as though . . .

My rant continues. When I look back on this early exchange, it’s obvious I didn’t know much about Twain and his love for language. I knew neither Aunt Rachel nor her history. In many ways, I was like Misto C—, Aunt Rachel was simply a woman who sat respectfully below me. I did not see her. Learning that history later changed my response, and my own career as a teacher. My professor spent the remainder of class guiding us through the text in the hopes of introducing us to the “true” story of Aunt Rachel.

As the hundred-year commemoration of the life of Mr. Mark Twain approached, my professor, also the chair of the English department, asked Theater and English majors to perform selections of Mark Twain’s work for the campus and the community. One of the pieces was, of course, “A True Story.” My professor mentioned to the class, in what I thought at the time was a very PC gesture, “We’re looking for actors, and would love to have an African American play the part of Aunt Rachel.” I was one of six or seven students of color in the classroom, and I wasn’t planning on taking the bait.

I thought, Too bad, I’m black and not African American . . . (All my life I’ve resented the assumptions beneath the term “African” American.) [End Page 113]

Fig. 1. Mary Ann Cord. Courtesy Mark Twain Archive, Elmira College.
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Fig. 1.

Mary Ann Cord. Courtesy Mark Twain Archive, Elmira College.

“There will be extra credit,” she said. OK. I guess I will be African American today . . .

After class, I went up to my professor and told her I would be willing to play the part. It surprised her a good deal. “Wait, what happened to ‘Twain’s a racist and Mary Ann Cord was his victim’?” she asked, with not a bit of irony.

“Well, if we’re going to do this. I want to make sure Aunt Rachel is black,” I said, thinking of my extra credit.

As I prepared to bring this story to life, I concentrated on memorizing the words first. At this stage, Aunt Rachel was still a caricature to me. I imagined her exactly as True Williams illustrated her. Once I knew the words by heart, I had to learn Aunt Rachel by heart. I went back to each line and considered how Aunt Rachel might have felt. I tried to gain an understanding of how and why each word was spoken. I needed to know what it looked like to be stunned by the dullness of a man whom, I assumed, might have known better. [End Page 114] “She turned her face over her shoulder toward me, and said, without even a smile in her voice . . . is you in ’arnest?”

I was required to imagine the life, which had grown inside of me, being pulled from my bosom by hateful men. “I grab’ him clost up to my breas’ so, an’ I ris up an’ says. ‘You shan’t take him away,’ I says; ‘I’ll kill de man dat fetches him!’”

I worked on the smile that would appear on my face as quickly as it...