Deadly Devotion of a Negress

By Jordan Brandon

In her most famous work Biographical Sketches and Interesting Anecdotes of Persons of Colour, Abigail Mott recounts the stories of various Black people during the period of slavery both in the United States and internationally. The text, originally published in 1826, was one of the earliest anthologies of Black biographies. Mot compiled a wide range of narratives, from those of famous Black women, such as Phyllis Wheatley, to obscure Black women, such as the anonymous “Faithful Negress,” in one unified work.[1] According to Mott, the anthology was an effort to contest the morality of slavery by revealing how the institution “hardens the heart and petrifies the feelings.”[2] With particular focus on a short anecdote within the anthology, “The Faithful Negress,” this paper will argue the emphasis on the trauma of Black girlhood has prevented Black girls from being in control of their own narratives, thus promoting a silencing of Black girls in the construction of their history.

Abigail Mott was an abolitionist, who dedicated much of her work to furthering the anti-slavery movement in the United States – primarily in New York – during the nineteenth century.[3] In her publications, Mott often attempted to expose the humanity of Black people as a means of contesting the moral foundation of slavery. As a result of this, few people would question Abigail Mott’s dedication to the eradication slavery. Moreover, her commitment to this objective is both explicitly and implicitly outlined in Biographical Sketches, with Mott compiling various stories of Black people to emphasize the idea of evil being exacerbated within a society that justifies the exploitation of Black people under the guise of “inferiority.”[4]

Although Abigail Mott’s work reveals her commitment to the abolitionist movement – with perhaps seemingly good intentions – her work also indicates a dedication not resulting from a belief in the innate humanity of Black people, but rather for the purpose of promoting an explicit political agenda. To this end, Biographical Sketches exposes the dangers and limitations of communicating second and third-hand accounts of the history of Black girlhood, with Mott manipulating the narratives of real Black girls as a means of achieving a personal goal. In spite of this, however, none of the narratives concerning Black girls are first-person accounts. Interestingly, although the events of these anecdotes represent some of the most salient moments in the lives of Black girls, Abigail Mott – as an outsider – maintains control over the dissemination of these girls’ legacies.                                                                                                      This absence of black girls’ voices in the preservation of black girls’ history is highlighted in “The Faithful Negress.” In this particular selection, Mott introduces the reader to an unnamed “negress of Port-au-Prince” who returns to the home of her master and mistress in the wake of the 1770 Port-au-Prince earthquake that decimated much of the capital city.[5] According to the anecdote, “the negress” returns to discover her master and mistress had abandoned their home along with their youngest child, whom “the negress” nursed since birth.[6] The inclusion of the fact that “the negress” had cared for and nurtured the infant as she would her own child emphasizes intimate relationship that she had established – intentionally or otherwise – with the child. As the narrative continues, “the negress” not only realizes that the child has been abandoned, but also that she will be unable to flee the danger of the earthquake without leaving the infant to perish in its wake.[7] Thus, “the negress” instinctively shields the child with her body, doing so just in time to protect the baby from the destruction of the earthquake, while simultaneously sacrificing her own life. As a result of this, “the negress” dies a “victim of her fidelity.” Although the text attempts to highlight the humanity of “the negress” – stressing the fact that she sacrificed to protect the child in ways that even the parents would not, this emphasis on the idea of Black girls and women being both victims of an inevitable fate and active participants in their demise disregards any experience of Black girlhood that does not focus on trauma.

Interestingly, the text presents “the negress” as both unnamed and ageless. The fact that the narrator identifies “the negress” as such rather than a name reinforces the idea of Black women and girls being sub-human. As a result of this, the enslaved girl or woman’s history is preserved at the discretion of this White observer. Additionally, the agelessness of “the negress” is interesting in the context of slavery, particularly when considering the paradox of slavery having “stolen” Black girlhood while also infantilizing Black girls. Specifically, Black girls were expected to procreate and care for their master’s families at young ages, but they were still treated as property and did not possess freedom over their own lives and decisions. Therefore, this anonymity allows the narrator and the audience to objectify “the negress,” and perpetuate a fallacious universality of girlhood.

Furthermore, the anthology presumably sheds light on slavery and its residual effects in the lives of Black girls; however, this occurs only in such a way that reaffirms misconceptions of Black girlhood constructed by White people. Without exception, the texts within the anthology are presented in the voice of an omniscient White observer, reinforcing a critical aspect of the preservation of Black girls’ history: Black girls require a supposedly more legitimate, i.e. White, voice in order for their lives to matter. The silencing of Black girls, therefore, ironically invalidates Blacks voices in their own history. Considering how few autobiographical texts are written by women – and even fewer by Black women – this silencing of Black girls has allowed their presence to be ignored, except in the context of trauma. Thus, emphasizing the misconception that trauma serves as the most important aspect of Black girlhood. Additionally, this silencing of Black girls has allowed others to represent Black girls as merely victims of unfortunate circumstances. Such an assumption incites questions regarding whose stories are worthy of being told and remembered, and under what circumstances this occurs.[8]                              In conclusion, this paper has explored how the silencing of Black girls has relied on the preservation of a narrow focus on trauma that is fallaciously situated as being inherent to Black girlhood. Moreover, this obsession with trauma has misrepresented Black girlhood in such a way as to hinder the expression of genuine and diverse experiences. This, therefore, evokes questions concerning how different the history of Black girls, presented in the voices of Black girls, would be from depictions presented by outsiders, such as Abigail Mott. To this end, this paper has explored how this co-option of Black girls’ stories, although detrimental, has ironically proven to legitimize Black girls’ history to White audiences.

[1] Abigail Mott, “Preface,” Biographical Sketches and Interesting Anecdotes of Persons of  Colour: to Which Is Added a Selection of Pieces In Poetry. 2nd ed., much enlarged (New York: Mahlon Day, 1837), 3.

[2] Mott, “Preface.”

[3] James Egbert, Memoir of Purchase Monthly Meeting Concerning Abigail Mott (New York: Mahlon Day, 1852), 5.

[4] Mott, “Preface.”

[5] Mott, “The Faithful Negress,” Biographical Sketches and Interesting Anecdotes of                      Persons of Colour: to Which Is Added a Selection of Pieces In Poetry. 2nd ed., much                      enlarged (New York: Mahlon Day, 1837), 131.

[6] Mott, “The Faithful Negress.”

[7] Mott, “The Faithful Negress.”

[8] Black girls were not only forced to procreate at increasingly younger ages, but they were also expected to care for the children of their masters and mistresses. This aspect of Black girlhood is in “The Faithful Negress.” Because of this, White people were able to deny Black girls agency over their bodies. For example, Colleen Vasconcellos asserts in “From Chattel to ‘Breeding Wenches,’” childhood became a protected stage in life so as to encourage enslaved girls to breed at younger ages and in greater numbers, but “girlhood was turning into a myth.” Thus, in the context of slavery, the dissemination of Black girls’ history is particularly frustrating because.