- The Motherless Child in the Novels of Pauline Hopkins by Jill Bergman
The lucid introduction to Jill Bergman’s Motherless Child in the Novels of Pauline Hopkins defines a fairly straightforward project: by undertaking “the identification and analysis of motherlessness as a significant trope in stories of the African diaspora’s experience in the United States,” Bergman explores a “literary pattern that has psychoanalytic and postcolonial, personal, and political relevance” (2). She treats “the African American community as a collective subject in Freud’s oedipal model” (17), identifying the National Mother with Africa, a source of plenitude whom African Americans are forced to reject in favor of the National Father, white America. In the racial economy of post-Reconstruction America, Bergman argues, the collective African American subject was compelled to become “motherless” in order to enter into the social order, or what Freud would call civilization. Bergman turns to postcolonial and feminist psychoanalytic theory to emphasize how African descent, the symbolic African mother, occupies an abject position, one that the imperial character of United States nationalism devalues. In a collective sense, the forced repression of the African mother results in a sense of longing or melancholia based on the permanent sense of loss resulting from the Middle Passage and the history of slavery (22). In terms of Hopkins’s four novels and in other examples from the African American literary tradition [End Page 192] (from Countee Cullen’s “Heritage” to Nella Larsen’s Quicksand to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, all discussed in the coda), literal motherlessness signifies a traumatic detachment from the figurative Mother Africa.
Yet this study is also in essence a redemptive narrative because Bergman maps the way Hopkins’s four novels rehearse a pattern in which “reclaiming the mother—or the Mother, as this figure takes on collective and national resonance—becomes a means for the African American community to construct a cultural identity by celebrating its heritage and forging a unified frame of reference for national belonging and recognition” (4). Referring to Hopkins as an ideal case study in what she sees as a central feature of the African American literary tradition, Bergman identifies the “mother, the Mother writ large, the collective ideal representing the potential unity and community of the African diaspora, the National Mother” (28). By claiming the National Mother, one claims “African heritage—’black blood’—attributed to that mother and denigrated by dominant American society” (28), but the payoff is more than cultural: “full citizenship would accompany the claiming of that maternal heritage, bringing an end to the civic alienation suffered under the influence of the National Father” (28).
Precisely how claiming Mother Africa enacts civic transformation has never been entirely clear, nor is it clear how white male characters like the historical figure John Brown connect to that heritage. The dichotomies between black and white, male and female that this Oedipal drama invokes make it difficult to explain cross-racial collaboration or processes of identity formation that transcend what has been called the specter of nationalism. For example, Bergman discusses, but does not interrogate, the frequency with which Hopkins’s Anglo American male characters defy the law of the father and demonstrate what might be called more feminine characteristics, sometimes for reasons that have more to do with their transnational or cosmopolitan affiliations.
In her chapter on Contending Forces, Bergman reiterates her thesis: “in the context of motherlessness . . . the prevailing ethos of the African American population in the Post-Reconstruction United States,” the possibility for subject formation (and by extension citizenship) can be actualized by “recovering the pre-Oedipal mother, as feminist psychoanalytic scholars have called for” (63). But she does not account for why Hopkins’s white male characters play such an integral part in the challenge to the white male law of the father. Remaining so faithful to an Oedipal model of reading runs the risk of romanticizing “Mother Africa” but becomes perhaps even more odd when a character like Winona’s White Eagle, a man of aristocratic British lineage, “functions as a...