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Narrating the Family in Charles W. Chesnutt’s “Her Virginia Mammy”

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 42, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 309-331 | 10.1353/jnt.2013.0005

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“Her Virginia Mammy” is a story of reunion—and of thwarted reunion. In Charles Chesnutt’s tale of a mother and daughter finding each other after twenty three years apart, it is clear that the mother recognizes her daughter, but unclear whether the daughter recognizes her mother. What separates them is the color line, for the daughter thinks of herself as white, while the mother belongs to the class of biracial characters2 that Chesnutt refers to in this story as “a little less than white” (“Her Virginia” 213). Biracial characters, and the complications and perplexities of their lives in the North and South after the Civil War, are the focus of this and most other stories in Chesnutt’s 1899 collection The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line.

In “Her Virginia Mammy” a crucial section—the history of a mother, father, and daughter—is told in an embedded narrative by a formerly enslaved mother using evasions and double meanings, and with the collaboration of a daughter who seems reluctant, or unable, to detect a barely hidden tale of miscegenation. As the mother relates this embedded narrative, she seems intent on deceiving her daughter, her only textual narratee, by disguising their actual relationship. The daughter never recognizes her mother, and after hearing her mother’s deceptive tale accepts her as a “dear Virginia mammy” instead (223). In wholeheartedly accepting the tale her mother has devised, the daughter aligns herself with the mythology of plantation families and whiteness itself. The mother is relegated to a diminished role that enables her daughter’s absorption into the white race.

Readers encounter a variety of narrative hints prior to and within the embedded narrative suggesting that the daughter is biracial and that her storytelling informant is her mother. With all the narrative priming available to readers, the mother’s embedded story splits into two different narrative acts directed at narratee and implied audience. A surface tale of white slaveholding parents and an orphaned white baby is told to her daughter, who listens attentively. A second masked3 narrative suggests the existence of a white father and black mother with a biracial daughter, but its details are hidden and must be constructed by readers. At several points in her narrative, the mother uses evasive and doubled language that allows readers to pivot between the narrated story her daughter hears and the alternative story her words imply. Imagining this “hidden” story, which is never actually described in the text, is guided by a reader’s familiarity with historical and fictional analogs, as well as by familiarity with the kinship reunion plot type.

Recognizing that this story could represent the realization of a euphoric mother/daughter reunion brings even more attention to the fact that it is not. The bitter-sweet ambivalence of this story does not come into focus without a full consideration of the cultural and historical conspiracy against biracial Americans that the story critiques. “Her Virginia Mammy” provides an ironic commentary on the legal dispossession of biracial Americans by individual parents and the culture at large in the 19th century. As a comment on cultural conditions that split biological families by race, “Her Virginia Mammy” underscores the consequences of a familial color line, such as the public distortion of kinship ties and the emotional and material costs of disinheritance for biracial children. The story is also sensitive in showing that marriage, the legal path to legitimacy for children, involved either risk or disappearance for biracial women. The story’s doubly coded structure, in which the masked tale of a multiracial family remains hidden beneath a surface tale of white privilege, parallels 19th century cultural conditions that kept the existence of multiracial genetic families “officially” hidden from view, despite the obvious existence of biracial Americans.

The Story and its Narrative Acts

Charles Chesnutt’s short stories can seem like puzzles for careful readers to solve—he frequently uses figurative language including metaphors and puns, and depicts narrative performances that often withhold as much as they reveal. As Brian Richardson has described, “African American fiction has been directed to two different audiences” (261), and the fiction of...

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