Appropriating (F)acts in Feminist Fiction: Excavating the Life Mary Bowser
3rd Feb 2015
The most important advice I ever received about fiction writing came long before I could have imagined I’d be a novelist. It took the form of the critique made by women of colour to white feminists: you can’t fight gender oppression without addressing racial oppression.
I took up the challenge, focusing my undergraduate and graduate studies on race, particularly African American literature and culture. I planned to become a professor and spend my life churning out feminist academic tomes—until the day I learned about Mary Bowser.
Bowser was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia. Freed by Bet Van Lew, daughter of the family that owned Mary, she was sent to the North to be educated. But Mary later returned to Virginia where, during the Civil War, she became a spy for the North by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House.
Why hadn’t I been taught about her? How might exploring her story – including her relationships with Bet (who was part of the same spy ring) and with African Americans in the South and the North – offer a hook to interest readers in an examination of race and history?
Because very little documentation of Bowser’s life survives, I needed to delve into fiction writing to tell her story. I knew the book should be told from Mary’s point of view. Drawing on my research in African American studies, I imagined the thoughts, speech, and actions of this astoundingly courageous woman, and of other free and enslaved black people.
These choices were incredibly weighty. For example, although there is no definitive historical evidence about the real Mary Bowser’s family, in The Secrets of Mary Bowser, I gave her a mother who is from New York, in part because I know Bet’s father grew up there and thus it’s plausible that he would have brought slaves with him when he moved to Virginia, and because I wanted readers to realise that slavery was legal in Northern states for most of the period preceding the Civil War. More than that, I wanted to create a contrast between Minerva (Mary’s mother) and Lewis (Mary’s father), who in my novel is from Virginia.
We tend to think of “slave” as a monolithic category, but enslaved people were individuals, with different personalities, regional cultures, religions, even accents (whoa, just like white people!). I was determined to make every enslaved person in the novel as distinct and deep a character as possible.
But voice is not enough. I think Kathryn Stockett does a pretty solid job of crafting the voices of Southern black women in The Help, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find that novel offensive. The arc of The Help centers on “liberating” Skeeter, a wealthy white woman, from her “oppression” (which consists mostly of not finding a guy to marry), ultimately leaving the black women behind in the segregated South to clean up figuratively as well as literally after Skeeter moves to New York.
Despite this rather disturbing trajectory, it’s no surprise that The Help was a hit, because it gives white readers an easy point of identification. Indeed, one editor at a major publishing house suggested I rewrite my novel to have chapters alternate between Mary and Bet. I refused. Although Bet and her slave-owning mother each have their own emotional arcs in The Secrets of Mary Bowser, there’s no question whose story is being told.
These choices have a huge impact on readers. First-person fiction forces a level of identification with the protagonist. It doesn’t matter what your race, age, gender, political affiliation, or knowledge of U.S. history is, when you read The Secrets of Mary Bowser, you experience slavery, freedom, and the Civil War from the perspective of a young black woman.
Black readers – including prominent African American feminist historians – have complimented the novel for capturing the complexity of life in free and enslaved black communities. I don’t doubt that they would be highly critical if I’d failed to treat Mary and the rest of my characters with dignity and respect, which included touching on the way class and colorism create fissures among African Americans.White readers often express amazement that I dared to write in the voice of a black narrator. But the reason the novel succeeds is precisely because I didn't hesitate to believe Mary's story was worth telling, and to push myself to tell it well.
White readers often express amazement that I dared to write in the voice of a black narrator. But the reason the novel succeeds is precisely because I didn’t hesitate to believe Mary’s story was worth telling, and to push myself to tell it well.
One of the questions readers most often ask is the very one I started with: Why have they never heard of Mary Bowser before discovering my novel?
I typically respond by asking whether they can name five African Americans who helped end slavery, or five black women who helped change the course of U.S. history. Almost nobody can. Many of the black women Mary interacts with in the novel were real people. By incorporating the facts of their lives into the novel, I’ve given readers a more detailed and nuanced sense of how different black women have challenged oppression.
My novel is indebted to the many black women whose own writings I’ve learned from, and where possible I’ve named them in the novel, so readers can seek out the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, the slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs, and the essays and poems of Frances Watkins Harper.
The collection We Are Your Sisters provided primary sources, such as the letters written by Harriet Newby to her husband, which were found on his body when he was killed while attempting to rescue her from slavery and which are quoted in the novel.
Just as important were novels, from Our Nig by Harriet Wilson, a fictionalised exploration of the northern racism against mixed-race Americans that was originally published in 1859, to Dessa Rose, Sherley Anne Williams‘ 1986 examination of the imagined relationship between a black fugitive slave and the white woman with whom she comes to live.
My own studies of abolitionism focused on the troubling dynamic by which African Americans were expected to prove their worthiness for emancipation by exhibiting the extent to which they’d experienced intense physical suffering. I chose to use Mary’s narration to critique those images as she encounters them at anti-slavery fairs and also included details to demonstrate that the experiences of other slaves were quite different than what Mary’s would have been.
Good fiction always depends on a balance between unbounded creativity and carefully honed verisimilitude. I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve gotten to introduce readers around the world to Mary Bowser, and forever beholden to the women of colour who’ve challenged white feminists like me to move beyond our own experiences.
– Lois Leveen
Lois Leveen is the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser and Juliet’s Nurse. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the LA Review of Books, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic. You can find out more about her work on her website, Twitter and Facebook.