Wednesday, April 13, 2011
THE CHARACTER MATTIE IN CHARLES JOHNSON'S OXHERDING TALE
A close, careful, textual reading of Oxherding Tale should reveal a very great deal about Mattie Hawkins. First, we know from her husband George Hawkins on pages 4-5 that Mattie is a devoutly Christian woman, one who at night he would find "turning the tissue-thin pages of her Bible, holding her finger on some flight of poetry in Psalms, which she planned to read to George for his 'general improvement'. She made him bend his knees beside her each night, their heads tipped and thighs brushing, praying that neither jealously nor evil temper, boredom or temptation, poverty nor padderolls would destroy their devotion to each other. 'You have me, I have you, and we both have Jesus." Put simply, her husband George lives in fear of disappointing this good, long-suffering woman, "by stumbling into their cabin reeking of liquor---it would destroy her faith that he was not, after all, a common nigger with no appreciation for the finer things." As the above quotes show, she is loving, not prone to personal displays of negativity, committed to self-improvement, and without complaint she accepts her husband's out-of-wedlock mulatto child Andrew as her own son.
We know, too, that Mattie comes to embrace vegetarianism (See my post dated April 8) like her step-son Andrew Hawkins, and his Transcendentalist tutor Ezekiel William Sykes-Withers, i.e., she is a woman concerned with not harming other sentient beings. A Prayer Circle meets regularly at Mattie's place in the slave quarters, "fifteen women seated in a circle of chairs." They come together to pray for a wayward, selfish, womanizing slave named Nate McKay, a blacksmith who is the only black person on the plantation of Jonathan Polkinghorne to befriend her confused husband George Hawkins after he is exiled from the Big House when he impregnates his master's wife---but Nate only does this so he can get closer to Mattie and attempt to seduce her. The story clearly indicates that Mattie rejects his advances, because she tells George, "If you weren't so stuck on Nate McKay maybe you'd see why he really comes around here...He isn't safe..."
By observing Mattie as he grows up, by relating these very specific details about her, and by his fierce determination to buy her freedom along with his own, Andrew Hawkins unequivocally indicates his admiration for Mattie's high moral standards, her faith, quiet piety, and strength. The novel doesn't require a specific scene between them, because we see that sprinkled throughout the text Mattie teaches Andrew through her outstanding personal example.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 6:46 AM