Exploring False Consciousness and Intersectionality: A Review of Willow

In Willow (Candlewick, 2014), Tonya Cherie Hegamin’s historical novel set in 1848, Knotwild Plantation borders the Mason-Dixon Line between slave state Maryland and free state Pennsylvania. There are no fences or guards—only a stone marker that separates the enslaved black plantation workers from freedom. In her fifteen years of life on the plantation—the only home she has known—Willow has never seen anyone escape. Nor has she considered it for herself.

new-hegamin-willowAlthough of frail constitution, Willow believes she has a good life as the favored house servant of plantation owner Rev Jeff. Willow has learned to read and write despite it being illegal for enslaved blacks to do so, and she openly corresponds with her master. She lives with her single father, Ryder, who manages the plantation during the frequent absences of Rev Jeff. She doesn’t remember her mother, who was born in Africa, but has pieced together the story from accounts of her father, Rev Jeff, and the ill-tempered black overseer, Cholly Dee. Rev Jeff, who is Ryder’s half-brother (plantation owners like their father frequently raped enslaved black women), basks in the acclaim he receives in the North and Europe for his kind treatment of his slaves, but nearby plantation owners criticize him for being too lenient. Above all, Rev Jeff wants a new wife and Mistress Evelyn from Baltimore threatens to usher in a new regime, one in which Willow will have to be a traditional wife, enslaved both to her master and to the new husband her father has picked out for her.

In the meantime, Cato, a young black man from Pennsylvania has joined the Underground Railroad, and when an accident waylays him near Knotwild, he and Willow cross paths. She begins to questions everything about her life, and whether it’s better to be part of a family and community or to be free and in charge of her own life.

Publishers have come under criticism recently for only focusing on slavery and the civil rights movement when it comes to publishing historical fiction featuring African-American characters. Although Hegamin’s novel fits that pattern, it explores why many enslaved blacks did not flee, even when they had the chance to do so. The social science concept of “false consciousness” addresses why people who are subjugated, mistreated, and vulnerable to even worse treatment do not challenge the status quo. Among the reasons explored in this novel are the family ties that keep Willow tied to the plantation, the fear that things could be worse if she leaves, and the belief that those with wealth and power deserve their privileges and that slavery is divinely ordered. Yet as Willow’s world starts to crumble, she also realizes the double oppression she faces as a black person and as a woman (a concept known as “intersectionality”). Rev Jeff has given her father the right to arrange her marriage to a young man at a neighboring plantation, her future husband will tell her what to do and how to behave, and any children they have will become the property of his cruel master.

Willow is not a perfect book—there are long sections of information dumping, particularly in the parts focusing on Cato’s story, and Cato’s story is in many ways tangential—but it is an intelligent one, with convincing and revealing characters and situations. Hegamin shows that oppression is both physical and psychological. People who experience oppression not only come to accept their unfair status but also perpetuate the injustice by oppressing others who they consider weaker and more vulnerable.

5 comments for “Exploring False Consciousness and Intersectionality: A Review of Willow

  1. Edi
    August 22, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Thanks for your insights on this book. I began reading it and when I found that I’d spent 2 weeks on the first chapter, I thought there was a problem. While I am so done reading about slavery, I don’t think that’s the problem because this books is so different from other novels set in that era. It’s not the writing; the writing is gorgeous. It may simply not be the time for me to read Willow.

    • lynmillerlachmann
      August 22, 2014 at 5:44 pm

      I know what you mean. Willow and her father’s false consciousness motivated them to say a lot of harsh things, as they internalized the way the dominant society looked at them. It reminded me of Maria Andreu’s The Secret Side of Empty, where the autobiographical protagonist calls herself an “illegal.” I asked Maria about that in an interview for the online edition of the Albany Times-Union, and she said, “I cringed using it…But the truth about M.T. is that she is deeply ashamed of herself. Like a lot of young people, she can’t see the external forces at work in her life. She feels responsible, different, stained somehow. Also, she’s pretty uninformed about the whole political side of her situation. Instead of reaching out and organizing like so many brave undocumented people do today, she isolates herself. So “illegal” is the word she’d use. It’s the word I believed about myself until I learned better.”

      I can certainly understand why you may not want to read the book, though. The level of false consciousness that Willow and her father have is disturbing–but unfortunately a reality that crosses historical periods and cultures and explains in large part why brutal systems of domination last as long as they do.

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