by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Author Dolen Perkins-Valdez peels away another layer of the slave narrative we all know existed–that of the black women, treated “well”, who were mistresses of their white owners. Even school children know of Thomas Jefferson’s Sally Hemings, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs rose in popularity twenty years ago. In Wench, we meet four women–Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu–who accompany their masters each summer to vacation in Ohio at Tawawa House, a vacation spot and hunting resort. There, they live in cottages as “couples”, leaving behind the glares of white wives and the murmurs of field slaves.
A white reader might be torn, conflicted, by the life presented, much as I was on my first reading of Jacobs Slave Girl. Relief–some masters cared for their slave lovers and biracial children. See? The women–in free Ohio–could not bring themselves to run, summer after summe after summer. Some “loved” their masters. And yet the white men kept their children enslaved, refusing to emancipate them; they tied those mistresses to the porch rails when fearful they would flee. No love here. I found the women’s reluctance to admit their “status” afforded them no protection difficult to accept–I wanted them to rail against the injustice and rise up against their enslavers. But I am not scheming to have my children freed, or even calculating how to keep them close; I am not trying to avoid the lash, or keep my belly full. And so the women bide their time, bending under the yoke of slavery–cracking, maybe, but never breaking, waiting, waiting, for just the right time …