- Something Akin to Freedom: The Choice of Bondage in Narratives by African American Women
Something Akin to Freedom troubles one’s notion of freedom. Li explores what many would consider an unthinkable act—choosing to remain in bondage, or entering bondage in order to attain other goals. She begins with a passage from Toni Morrison’s Sula in which Sula elects to slash off the tip of her finger as a threat [End Page 734] to the boys who have been bullying her and Nel. Li argues that Sula has exchanged her fingertip for freedom of movement in her neighborhood. She uses this scene as a metaphor for the various exchanges that African American women engage in as they barter one freedom for another, thus suggesting that their actions raise questions about both the nature of freedom and the nature of resistance. Li’s analysis hinges on the argument that “forms of self-determination can exist even while women remain enslaved” and that “the decision to remain in bondage can be construed as an oppositional act” (6). Li takes these positions because she conceives of freedom as both the “freedom of choice” and “the goal of freedom.” In her discussion of Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 slave narrative, Li thus elaborates on both her freedom of choice to hide in the garret and her goal of freedom as a home of her own with her children. Throughout her book, Li identifies a tradition of women who defined freedom as preserving familial and social bonds, a definition which calls for a reassessment of conceptions of freedom that have often been linked to individual autonomy.
In her first chapter, Li takes up the slave narrative tradition and the juxtaposition of bondage and flight established in male slave narratives. However, Li complicates this association of flight and freedom by noting that Frederick Douglass’s journey did not afford him freedom of movement—he could not return home and he could not reunite with friends and family. Conversely, Jacobs does not equate the North with freedom because physical bondage is not her only concern. By troubling the association of freedom with flight, Li shows that other types of resistance may protect other forms of freedom. While the focus of the chapter is Douglass’s 1845 Narrative and Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Li also draws on the narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, William and Ellen Craft, and Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) in order to present a cogent analysis of the dominance of Douglass’s 1845 Narrative. One of the strengths of the chapter is in fact Li’s comparison of the Douglass texts, which allows her to show that men are not excluded from thinking about freedom in terms of intra-dependence and social attachments. Yet she focuses on women in her study because of the way in which issues of reproduction, sexuality, motherhood, and children have their impact upon notions of freedom and resistance.
In the second chapter, Li explores The Bondwoman’s Narrative, and Hannah’s choice to remain in slavery in order to enjoy domestic bliss within the Henry household. When presented with the opportunity to escape with Charlotte and William, Hannah is held back by her sense of the North as “unimaginable, perilous, and isolating.” However, according to Li, it is Hannah’s desire to enjoy a domestic home space that yokes her to the Henry household. Because Hannah does not consider marriage and slavery as compatible, she casts her loyalty to her mistress as a means of accessing “the harmony of the home.” In her reading of Hannah’s character, Li notes her general submissiveness with the exception of matters that impede the values of domesticity. Thus Hannah’s resistance must be seen as selective, but not absent. Consequently, Hannah does flee slavery after being sold to the Wheelers and discovers that, unlike in the Henry household, she could not fully occupy a domestic space.
Chapter three moves from a...