In an effort to eradicate the myth of the “seductive/sexually-empowered slave mistress” (most recently perpetuated by Touré on Twitter, apparently), new novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez has penned a work of historical fiction set in a real location: Tawawa House, a summer resort that catered to white slaveholders and their enslaved “lovers,” in the free state of Ohio.
Wench chronicles the lives of four slave women: Mawu, Sweet, Reenie, and Lizzie (the central protagonist) whose masters annually “whisk them away” from the hardship of their plantation lives and put them up in cottages for a few weeks in summer.
For the women, few things have changed, other than their location: they’re still monitored, chained on a whim, and systematically raped. Only now, they’re also given once-lovely ball gowns—years-old cast-offs left behind by the resort’s previous white patrons—and encouraged to doll themselves up for a semi-public dinner and dance.
They’re also allowed the occasional “free day,” an irony, of course, on two fronts: they still must cook and clean, while their masters are away from the resort fishing, and also, as they spend hours of spare time trekking through the woods, where they meet abolitionists and happen upon an adjacent resort for free Blacks, they are constantly reminded of the vicious slave-catchers who lie in wait, at the first sign of any escape attempts.
The four women featured are from plantations in different states, and the circumstances of their relationships with their masters drastically vary. Three of the four hold their masters in varying degrees of contempt, with Mawu being the most hateful and determined. Lizzie’s the holdout: she earnestly believes that she and her master are in love.
Lizzie’s is the central story; she’s the only one of the characters whose post-summer life we’re shown. She and her master have two children. Over the course of their decade-long “relationship” (which began when she was just thirteen), she experiences highs (she’s given the guest room across the hall from the master’s barren wife) and lows (toward the end of the novel, she’s tied to the cottage porch at Tawawa House, while recovering from a very significant illness). We watch her illusions about the ability for “love” to exist between master and slave dissolve, with each passing summer at the resort. And, despite the tragic losses all four women experience, Lizzie’s mental/emotional negotiations and denials are perhaps the saddest of all.
The novel is a fast-paced read, with each of the four main women fully rendered as sympathetic and alive. Most interesting of all: by the end, you begin to realize that the book isn’t as much an examination of the relationship of master to slavewoman as it is a loving meditation on the bonds between women forced into the “slave mistress role.” The central four are steadfast friends, willing to forgive even the most egregious betrayals, because the understand the complexity of this life: hated by house and field slaves alike, yet relied upon to post-coitally plead those slaves’ causes.
There’s an unspoken devotion between them that drives the plot and informs a seldom-examined facet of history. There’s no way you could walk away from it, believing an enslaved woman has any real agency in a “relationship” with her enslaver. Maybe Touré should give it a gander.