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The Motherless Child in the Novels of Pauline Hopkins by Jill Bergman (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 2014
pp. 143-145 | 10.1353/lit.2014.0028

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Jill Bergman illuminates the trope of motherlessness in African-American literature using Pauline Hopkins’s novels as an exemplary case. While this pattern has received a dearth of scholarly attention, she considers it to be substantial enough to constitute a literary tradition. Bergman argues that the absence of and longing for the mother—both the individual mother and the African motherland—figures so prominently in what she calls “motherless child literature” because it reflects the lived experience of motherlessness that has historically characterized the African-American community. This condition reaches back to the rise of the slave trade in the early seventeenth century and extends into the post-Reconstruction era, the period in which Hopkins wrote her novels and the focus of Bergman’s study. She argues that representations of motherlessness in African-American literary texts can address the individual and the community, the personal and the political, because “mother” figures as both the personal mother and the National Mother, a term she develops to “capture the idealized notion of African heritage as a source of national belonging” (28).

Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, Bergman constructs a useful framework not only for examining literary representations of motherlessness, but also for conceptualizing the trauma experienced by the African-American community and its lingering consequences. She reworks Freud’s Oedipal model, in which rejection of the mother and identification with the father is a crucial phase in the development of the ego. In Bergman’s rewriting of the Freudian narrative, the African-American community is the subject, African heritage and the idealized nation of Africa are the Mother, and dominant white US culture is the Father. Recognizing that its Mother “stands in a marginalized position in relation to the Father,” Bergman writes, the subject “comes to understand that it must reject this powerless Mother in order to be successfully articulated as a rights-bearing citizen” (18). However, this process is fraught with contradictions because both separation from the Mother and identification with the Father are simultaneously prohibited and required. The Father mandates separation from the Mother, but African Americans under the institution of slavery inherit their position of marginalization from their biological mothers. By the same token, while identification with the Father is necessitated, it is also precluded because of institutionalized racism that “calls for the exclusion of African Americans from citizenship based on their identification with the African National Mother” (97). According to Bergman, these contradictions leave African Americans in a state of “limbo marked by melancholia” (22), a sense of loss without being able to identify the lost object, a condition of which she finds ample evidence in Hopkins’s novels.

In order to address the national register of the African-American subject’s experience, Bergman employs postcolonial studies, namely through the work of Stuart Hall and Frantz Fanon. She associates the experience of the African-American subject with that of the colonized subject in that its history has been subjected to extensive distortion and destruction. Reclaiming that history, Bergman reasons, can have the effect of restoring African-American cultural identity, a process that she finds to be particularly apparent in Hopkins’s novels. Indeed, if the loss of the Mother and the Father’s intrusion upon the pre-Oedipal Mother-child bond induces racial melancholia, Bergman shows how this melancholia becomes productive in Hopkins’s work because it can lead to individual and communal healing. For instance, she cogently reveals how music functions in the novels to provide characters access to cultural roots and to resuscitate memories of suffering inflicted by slavery.

The book is organized into an introduction, four chapters, and a coda. Each chapter focuses on one of Hopkins’s novels as Bergman charts shifting representations of motherlessness throughout her oeuvre. In chapter 1, “‘The Blessed Relief of Tears’: Maternal Redemption in Contending Forces,” Bergman examines how Hopkins’s first novel underscores the power and merit of the Mother of African heritage, offering maternal redemption as a way of repairing motherlessness and a strategy for racial uplift. In the next two chapters Bergman looks at critiques of the National Father of the United States that emerge in Hopkins’s work. In chapter 2, “Motherlessness in the Nation’s...


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