The Literary Life

A tender spot in master-slave relations

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 10:59 AM

Dolen Perkins-Valdez was reading a biography of W.E.B. DuBois when she came across the small aside. It was piece of history she hadn't known, and couldn't stop thinking about.

The land for Ohio's Wilberforce University, the nation's oldest private historically black college, where DuBois had once taught, at one time had been part of a resort - a place called Tawawa House, where wealthy Southern slaveholders would take their slave mistresses for open-air "vacations."

"I had never heard of anything like that," says Perkins-Valdez, then a writing professor at the University of Mary Washington. She knew of masters taking slaves north to attend to them, "but the thought of them taking women to a vacation resort was just stunning to me. I didn't know what to do with that."

What she did first was wonder: How would they have gotten there? And what did the resort look like? Then she asked: Why would a slave taken to a Northern free state not run?

Her attempts to answer those questions turned into the novel "Wench," out in paperback Tuesday, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

It's the story of four slave mistresses - "wenches "- who become furtive friends at Tawawa House. They contemplate freedom, learn each other's stories and deepest fears. Some stories are brutal, but the main character, Lizzie, sleeps in the same bed with her owner, the father of her two children, and thinks herself in love with him. And he with her.

"Wench," which went through seven printings after its hardcover release last January and has a first paperback printing of 135,000, raises questions about complex parts of slavery that are less explored for lack of written accounts: What kinds of accommodations and negotiations took place between slaves and masters? What passed for love? The novel looks at what history gets privileged and what gets forgotten.

Sitting in the library of the Northwest Washington home she shares with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, Perkins-Valdez, a Harvard grad with a PhD in American literature from George Washington University, talks about her main character and reaction to the book.

Lizzie, who sometimes intimately calls her master by his first name, lives in the master's house and eats better food than the other slaves. Her children are being educated and wear better clothes. And Lizzie constantly presses her owner to free their children - children his wife couldn't give him and whom she refuses to leave motherless at the Tennessee plantation so she can escape.

"In an early draft of the book, I had Lizzie completely in love with Drayle," Perkins-Valdez says. "I talked to another writer who said, 'I don't think love could exist in this situation that wasn't a negotiation.' Slaves didn't have the agency that would really allow them to barter, but there are a million and one everyday ways slaves manipulated and maneuvered" to try to better their way.

Both black and white readers have struggled with the plausibility of the relationships in the novel, the author says. White women have expressed doubt that Southern wives would have stayed married to men who fathered children with slaves. Black readers can't stomach a slave woman loving a master. Perkins-Valdez points out that slavery involved human beings who had dominion over other human beings, and the whole range of human emotion and action were possible.

Perkins-Valdez read original manuscripts and searched for documentation beyond the mention in the Lewis biography but found little. Wilberforce University has a plaque commemorating Tawawa House, but even the Ohio Historical Society didn't know that history.

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