“‘Yes, I know.’ Mr. Fairhead sighed. ‘It’s the one thing they’ve got to feel important about – that they’re white. It’s pitiful.'” -Willa Cather, Sapphira and the Slave Girl
My first edition of Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl is an ex-library book that’s probably worth every cent it cost me to liberate it from the Salvation Army clearance bin. Like most ex-library books, it’s in rough shape, with stamps and stickers all over the place and a binding that’s just barely holding in the quires in some places.
My copy, however, came with a bonus dose of BITTER IRONY. According to the bookplate pasted to its front flyleaf, this copy of Sapphira and the Slave Girl was originally donated to the local library as part of the “Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Collection, emphasizing that culture, heritage and contributions of black peoples of the world.”
…Only a white person would think that was an appropriate sentiment to paste inside Sapphira and the Slave Girl.
This book is not “about” any of its black characters, much less their “culture, heritage and contributions.” On the contrary, this book is about its black characters’ lack of agency. It’s about a world where all the major events are undertaken by white people. The black people are simply pushed around by white whims – and Nancy, the “slave girl” who gets near-top billing in the title, is pushed around most of all.
From the dust jacket forward, Sapphira and the Slave Girl isn’t Nancy’s story. The first-edition dust jacket doesn’t even capitalize “slave girl,” as if Nancy’s existence is so very unimportant that it shan’t even be acknowledged by using standard rules of English-language capitalization. (The author’s name, meanwhile, is printed in all caps – but then, Willa Cather was white.)
The book opens with Sapphira and Henry seated at the breakfast table, gossiping about the neighbors. One of them has expressed admiration for how Sapphira “trains” her slaves (the slaves’ own “contributions” to their work and behavior are, apparently, not worth mentioning) and Sapphira is therefore considering selling Nancy to the admiring neighbor. Henry puts his foot down: “We don’t sell our people,” he tells her.
Sweet of him, but – what “people”? Nancy’s name isn’t even mentioned until page 7, a full three pages after the mention of Sapphira’s expensive coffeepot – to which an entire half-page is dedicated, whereas the mention of Nancy only gets the five letters it takes to spell her name. The only other person who appears in the entire first chapter is the Colbert’s black butler, whose “contribution” is reduced to bringing more bacon to the breakfasting white folks. Obviously, this isn’t his story, either.
When Sapphira’s plan to sell Nancy falls through, she invites her nephew, Martin, for an extended visit. Pretty much everyone on the farm knows that Martin is a rapist (though the word Cather uses is “rake”); indeed, the fact that Martin is a rapist is the entire point of Sapphira’s inviting him in the first place. If she can’t dispose of Nancy, Sapphira can at least humiliate, degrade, and injure her.
Not long after Martin arrives, Henry decides he needs to kick Martin out. Thing is, Henry doesn’t want to get rid of Martin because Martin is putting Nancy in danger. The danger to Nancy never crosses Henry’s mind. Rather, Henry wants to get rid of Martin because Martin makes Henry uncomfortable. Martin’s cavorting around penis-first forces Henry to face the fact that Nancy is a grown woman, a sexualized being. Henry doesn’t want to face this fact, partly because he likes thinking of Nancy as a childlike “angel in the house,” and partly because it means Henry could be having sex (or rape) with Nancy, instead of stoically bearing through his intimacy-less marriage. Henry’s mental gymnastics may include Nancy, but they do not include Nancy as a person, and they are not about Nancy. They’re about (white) Henry and his (white) nephew.
Nancy, meanwhile, is scared of Martin and his I’m-a-creepy-rapist behavior, so she turns to Sapphira’s adult daughter Rachel for help. Rachel and a few other white folks engineer a solution: to ship Nancy north on the Underground Railroad.
Running away from the Colbert farm is never Nancy’s idea. She voices her opposition to it at least twice. When the hour comes for her escape, she complies, but brings along some stockings Sapphira gave her to mend. Rachel takes these off her hands, saying, “things often get lost on the stage[coach].” …Things like Nancy’s autonomy, perhaps?
Twenty-five years later, Nancy returns to the Colbert farm for a visit. Sapphira and her husband are long dead, and only a handful of the farm’s slaves remain. This epilogue ought to be an ideal place for Nancy to finally tell her story – only she doesn’t. Instead, the story is told through the eyes of an anonymous five-year-old white child now living at the farm, and it focuses almost entirely on what happened to Sapphira and Henry after Nancy’s escape. Nancy is never given the chance to talk about herself; she remains the “slave girl,” an utterly dispensable cipher, with no “culture, heritage or contributions” deemed worthy to be included in the narrative – even though the title ostensibly refers to her.
Sapphira and the Slave Girl is hardly a triumph, for Willa Cather or for American fiction in general. It’s a book that fails on a lot of levels. But this failure – marking it as a book that “emphasiz[es] the culture, heritage and contributions of black peoples of the world” – is not only a blunder, but a racist blunder. One wonders if the Whiteness responsible for pasting this bookplate into Sapphira and the Slave Girl was thinking along the same lines as Henry, justifying how he treats his slaves: “Sometimes keeping people in their place is being good to them.” Not so much, actually.