Strength and the Battle Ground of Slavery I.

  • Trudier Harris


From the middle 1970s to the 1990s, the antebellum South became one of the literary sites for portrayal of black female character, the strong as well as the not-so-strong. Ishmael Reed, Sherley Anne Williams, J. California Cooper, Charles Johnson, and Toni Morrison, among others, selected the arena of slavery as the territory on which to present their depictions of black female character.1 While Williams, Johnson, and Morrison created works primarily in the realistic mode, and Cooper in the fantastic, Reed chose the satiric form that is his trademark. Even in his satire, however, black females are physically strong above all else. This is especially true of Mammy Barracuda, the character who, with Uncle Robin, literally runs the Swille plantation in Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976).


White Woman Black Woman Black People White Supremacy Race Politics 
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  1. 1.
    See, for example, Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada (New York: Random House, 1976);Google Scholar
  2. Sherley Anne Williams, Dessa Rose (New York: W. Morrow, 1986);Google Scholar
  3. J. California Cooper, Family (New York: Doubleday, 1991);Google Scholar
  4. Charles Johnson, Oxherding Tale (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982) and Middle Passage (New York: Atheneum, 1990);Google Scholar
  5. Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987).Google Scholar
  6. 2.
    Addison Gayle specifically labels Mammy Barracuda a “man eater” in relation to black males in developing his argument that Reed is too intent on trying to prove collusion between black women and white men. See Gayle, “Black Women and Black Men: The Literature of Catharsis,” Black Books Bulletin 4 (1976): 49.Google Scholar
  7. 3.
    Gayle discusses Mammy Barracuda in his review of the novel, but it is surprising in critical treatments of Flight to Canada and of Reed’s work in general that so few critics offer commentary on Mammy Barracuda. Reginald Martin does not mention her in his book-length study, Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), and Joyce A. Joyce only alludes to criticism of Reed’s portrayal of black women in “Falling Through the Minefield of Black Feminist Criticism: Ishmael Reed, A Case in Point,” in her Warriors, Conjurers and Priests: Defining African-centered Literary Criticism (Chicago: Third World Press, 1994). While Mammy Barracuda loomed large for Reed, she is mostly invisible in criticism about his work. The absence is especially noteworthy in articles devoted exclusively to Flight to Canada, such as Ashraf H. A. Rushdy’s “Ishmael Reed’s Neo-HooDoo Slave Narrative,” Narrative 2:2 (May 1994): 112–39, andGoogle Scholar
  8. Joseph C. Schopp’s “‘Riding Bareback, Backwards Through a Wood of Words’: Ishmael Reed’s Revision of the Slave Narrative,” in Historiographic Metafiction in Modern American and Canadian Literature, ed. Bernd Engler and Kurt Muller (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schoningh, 1994), pp. 267–278.Google Scholar
  9. 5.
    Implied or actual catechisms in which white masters try to instill a master text into enslaved blacks appear in various African American literary works. William Wells Brown’s Clotel; Or, the Presidents Daughter (1853; New York: Collier, 1972) is perhaps the earliest one, but the pattern also appears inGoogle Scholar
  10. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987) in exchanges between Baby Suggs and Mr. Garner as well as between Sixo and schoolteacher. Again using reversal as a primary textual strategy, Reed incorporates the form of the genre into a modified call and response formula in which Mammy Barracuda reifies black power—sanctioned by whites—over other blacks.Google Scholar
  11. 6.
    By contrast, that mask-wearing trait is a staple of Uncle Robin’s character. When Massa Swille calls upon him to testify to his satisfaction as an enslaved person, he says, “Canada. I do admit I have heard about the place from time to time, Mr. Swille, but I loves it here so much that . . . that I would never think of leaving here. These rolling hills. Mammy singing spirituals in the morning before them good old biscuits” (19—ellipses in original)—even as he is slowly poisoning Swille and altering Swille’s will to his own gain. Given her tendency to sing “Dixie,” it seems an egregiously incongruous mix to have Mammy Barracuda sing spirituals as well. Some spirituals imply support for the status quo, but others advocate battle in this world rather than longing for heaven. For development of this latter argument, see John W. Roberts, From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 11.
    In commenting briefly on Mammy Barracudas diamond crucifix, Hortense J. Spillers remarks that Mammy Barracuda, “in her brilliant captivity, embodies an entirely oxymoronic notion—at the crossroads of wealth and exchange, she is a major player, though not a beneficiary. Wearing wealth’s symptoms on her magnanimous bosom and around her neck, she is made to throw a reflection that shatters the sight, instead of healing it.” Spillers, “Changing the Letter: The Yokes, the Jokes of Discourse, or, Mrs. Stowe, Mr. Reed,” in Slavery and the Literary Imagination, ed. Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), p. 31.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    See, for example, Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (New York: Pantheon, 1982).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    To illustrate the extent to which Mammy Barracuda far exceeds permissible limits, consider, by comparison, William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” in which the townspeople ponder tragically long on what to do about Miss Emily because they cannot “accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad.” See Studies in Fiction, ed. Blaze O. Bonazza and Emil Roy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 65.Google Scholar

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© Trudier Harris 2001

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  • Trudier Harris

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