By Dr Hannah Murray
In April, Ancestry.ca broadcast an advert encouraging Canadians to research their family history. The advert, ‘Inseparable’, set in the antebellum South, features a young Black woman and white man in a clandestine meeting; hoping to escape to the free North, the man implores “there’s a place where we can be together across the border. Will you leave with me?” This brief portrait rightly drew ire for romanticising cross-racial Southern relations historically borne out of force. In addition, by portraying the North (whether Canada or Northern US) as a space of legalised love, the advert ignores the legal and extra-legal racism that awaited free and fugitive Black Americans, and white Americans in interracial relationships. Ultimately, in its intention to show love triumphing over legal barriers and societal expectations, the advert reduces systematic racial oppression to a set of personal choices and relationships.
Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and their Friends (1857) illuminates all three of the above shortcomings in the Ancestry.ca advert, but most potently critiques white privileging of personal relationships and sympathies over structural reform. The second novel published by an African American, The Garies follows an interracial couple who leave Georgia for Philadelphia, where they can freely marry. In chapter 1 we meet Clarence Garie, living in a de facto marriage with Emily: “Captivated by her beauty […] he found the connection that might have been productive of many evils, had proved a boon to both” (44). In the Georgia scenes, the reader is confronted by the conflict between legal frameworks and personal relationships. Emily is an enslaved woman, and Clarence her enslaver, yet repeatedly feelings trump structural realities. Slavery, which has the potential “for many evils” is instead a familial institution, one in which the owner can show devotion and kindness to those enslaved; the narrator describes Clarence as “the most kind and affectionate fellow in the world”, “a very kind master”, “the kindest of owners” (78, 91, 130). Slavery is not a structural problem in this novel, only a personal cruelty if practiced without paternalism.
Webb opens in this plantation romance mode, in which a “kind” slavery unites everyone into a working family, not to defend slavery, but to highlight a white attachment to feelings over larger moral questions. For when Emily begs Clarence to take the family to the North to secure freedom, he is not swayed by morality, but paternalism. He is offended when she reminds him of their master/slave relationship – “What have I done to revive the recollection that any such relation existed between us?” – and only agrees to move North after Emily recounts an emotional story of family separation (87). Horrified, he realises that his own children “might be seized and sold by his heirs” if he suddenly died (89).
When the family do move to Philadelphia, rather than support for their relationship, just like the Ancestry.ca advert suggests, the Garies find hostility from their white neighbours. The couple face a febrile atmosphere of virulent antiblackness that includes segregation, job discrimination, lack of police protection, and extra-legal violence. In marrying a Black woman, Clarence has transgressed the colour line and tainted his own whiteness, resulting in both his and Emily’s deaths at the hands of an incensed mob. This violence sits in a wider context of respectable white Northerners who, while against violence and sympathetic to the city’s Black population, hesitate in taking anti-racist action. Repeatedly in the novel, “abolitionist” appears as a slur, reflecting the widespread segregationist sentiment in the North. As Robert Nowatzki explains, “Even accusing a white person of abolitionism was to question his or her whiteness” (43). Abolitionism meant amalgamation, the dilution of white populations, and black advancement at the expense of white workers. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison were seen as disreputable, disruptive, and dangerous fanatics promoting immediate emancipation; abolitionism was anti-white work.
Rather than commit to structural anti-racist action, a group of minor white characters in the novel shy away from “abolitionism”, and like Clarence, advocate against discrimination only when provoked by personal sympathies. For example, Black teenager Charlie Ellis is refused work due to fears of angering white workers. On seeing the dejected boy, friend of the employer George Burrell relays to his wife the incident. She responds:
“I was trying to imagine, Burrell, how I should feel if you, I, and baby were coloured; I was trying to place myself in such a situation. Now we know that our boy, if he is honest and upright—is blest with great talent or genius—may aspire to any station in society that he wishes to obtain. How different it would be if he were coloured!—there would be nothing bright in the prospective for him.” (294)
In imagining their own child suffering the indignities of racism, the Burrells rely on sympathy and identification, a common tactic of abolitionist writers. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is a more familiar example, when she directly asks the white reader to identify with the fleeing Eliza: “If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, tomorrow morning […] how fast could you walk?” (55). George teases his wife, “you let your hearts run away with your heads”, but it is this emotive imaginative leap that engenders the Burrells’ charity and encourages George to employ Charlie himself (293).
The Burrells engage in a form of interracial sympathetic imagination, which, as Christopher Castiglia has argued, was invoked by abolitionists to suggest “an affective ‘sameness’ once the burden of marked bodies is removed” (124). However, in order to come to the realisation that everyone is the same, Black or white, the Burrells imagine their own suffering, how wrong it would be for them–or their “honest and upright” and talented son—to be treated in this way. Like Clarence, the Burrells do the right thing, but rely on sympathy and the emotive power of the family to do so. Furthermore, doing a good deed boosts their own conception of themselves as charitable, upstanding white citizens. After informing the Ellises, Mrs Burrell remarks, “how easy it is […] to make the hearts of others as light as our own” and feels “heartfelt gratification” at becoming a benefactor (298). The livelihoods and wellbeing of their Black fellow Philadelphians become material for them to feel better about themselves, while they continue to refuse the anti-white label of abolitionist. Serving no further purpose, we don’t hear from the Burrells again, albeit for a brief mention at Charlie’s wedding in the final chapters.
In The Garies and their Friends Webb piercingly reveals the white moderate’s attachment to the familial, and their dependence on sympathy to support Black friends and strangers but not challenge antiblackness around them. An obscure 1850s novel, The Garies portrays views of racism as inter-personal cruelty that can be fixed through white kindness and charity, rather than structures to be dismantled, a prescient reading experience for today.
Hannah Lauren Murray is Teaching Fellow in Early American Studies at King’s College London. Her monograph in progress examines liminal whiteness in the work of Charles Brockden Brown, Robert Montgomery Bird, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville and Frank Webb. She has been published in the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies and The Oxford Handbook of Charles Brockden Brown, and she sits on the steering committee for the British Association of Nineteenth-Century Americanists (BrANCA).
Christopher Castiglia, Interior States: Institutional Consciousness and the Inner Life of Democracy in the Antebellum United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
Robert Nowatzki, “Blurring the Color Line: Black Freedom, Passing, Abolitionism, and Irish Ethnicity in Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends”, Studies in American Fiction 33.1 (2005): 29-58.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998).
Frank J. Webb, The Garies and their Friends, ed. William Huntting Howell and Megan Walsh (London, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2016).