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Free Study Guide-My Antonia by Willa Cather-Free Online Book Notes
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

BOOK 2 - THE HIRED GIRLS

CHAPTER 7

Summary

Winter takes a very long time to leave a small Nebraska town. Jim notices the difference between his experience of the winters on the farm and his winter in town. On the farm, people continued in their work, but life in Black Hawk seems to shrink in the winter. One night, the monotony is broken when Blind d’Arnault, an African-American pianist comes to town. Mrs. Harling tells Antonia she should go to the hotel so she can hear the music. Jim goes too.

The atmosphere in the hotel is more relaxed than usual because Mrs. Gardener is out of town and her husband is running the hotel. Mrs. Gardener was greatly respected in by her customers at the hotel. She is a strong and aloof woman. Her husband greets the customers but does not do anything substantial in running the hotel. He is not a good manager in her absence.

Jim goes into the parlor and sees Johnny Gardener directing Blind d’Arnault to the piano. He sits down and addresses the men in the room. There are no women present. Jim remembers the story of Blind d’Arnault’s childhood. He was born blind with a habit of swaying back and forth. His mother, Yellow Martha, was ashamed of him and kept him hidden away from everyone. She doted on him, bringing him delicacies from the white people’s kitchen. He began to escape the house when he got old enough. He always went to the "Big House" to listen outside the window to Nellie d’Arnault play the piano. She saw him, but felt too sorry for him to make him go away. One day she left the room and he climbed in the window and explored the piano. Then he started playing it. Suddenly he heard her voice and jumped down from the piano bench in terror. His mother had told him the white master would feed him to the guard dogs if he caught him near his house. Instead, Nellie d’Arnault helped him learn how to play the piano. He never learned to play with polish, but had his own style at the piano.


In the hotel parlor, he is playing to an appreciative audience of salesmen. Suddenly he stops and says he hears girls dancing in the other room. Anson Kirkpatrick pushes aside the partition to find Tiny, Lena, Antonia, and Mary Dusak dancing. He pulls them into the parlor and convinces them to stay. Tiny warns everyone that Mrs. Gardener will be angry and Antonia looks very worried about what they are doing. They stay in the room and Blind d’Arnault plays until his manager comes to take him away.

Notes

Chapter 7 is a product of Cather’s time in its racist depiction of African Americans. The character of Blind d’Arnault is constructed straight out of the stereotype of the amiable Sambo. The Sambo figure was created in racist propaganda before the Civil War and disseminated throughout the North and South via the minstrel shows and plantation songs. Sambo was an amiable young man who was, like Blind d’Arnault, "docile and happy." He was happiest when he was serving white people, telling stories to white children, singing and dancing for white adults, grinning hugely and showing by his naiveté not only his inability to survive outside of slavery, but his desire to remain within it. This stereotype was useful in pre-Civil War propaganda for making people think slavery was a kindly institution and that slaves were happy in it. In Cather’s story, the slave mistress is a kindly white woman who indulgently teaches the boy how to play the piano even going so far as to provide him with numerous tutors. He repays her kindness by spending the rest of his life entertaining white people.

Other features of the racist propaganda are also here. His mother, called "Yellow Martha" is representative of the Mammy stereotype. The Mammy stereotype is usually focused on her treatment of white children and her indulgent treatment of white adults as if they were children to be perpetually nurtured. Her treatment of her own family is the opposite. The Mammy figure in racist depictions is brutal with her own family. She is almost always a single mother who shows that she prefers to stay in the white folks’ kitchen than in her own home. Cather only accesses a part of this Mammy stereotype. She doesn’t show Yellow Martha in the white folks’ home, though that is Martha’s workplace. She only shows her in her relation to her son and her other children. She raises her children in ignorant, foolish, and even brutal ways. She favors Samson, her blind child, over her others, being brutal with them, but indulgent with him. However, she is ashamed of his ugliness and so hides him away, telling him horrible stories of what the white master will do to him if he goes near the Big House. When Samson is treated so kindly by the white mistress, the reader is led to believe that there is no basis in Martha’s stories of what white masters will do to black children who trespass on their property.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of Cather’s depiction of Blind d’Arnault is less the stereotyped plot of his life than the blatant racism of her physical description of him: "He had the Negro head, too; almost no head at all; nothing behind the ears but folds of neck under close-clipped wool. He would have been repulsive if his face had not been so kindly and happy. It was the happiest face I had seen since I left Virginia." His abilities are also racialized. Though he is a naturally gifted piano player, he never achieves any polish with it.

By the time Cather wrote this novel, the Samson stereotype had been replaced by other, more violent depictions of Black men. These later stereotypes functioned to justify the continued prevalence of white violence against the black southern population. Cather’s use of an older stereotype here was probably regarded by her audience as an enlightened view of African Americans. Instead of demonizing them, showing them to be dangerous criminal types, she shows them to be docile, wishing only to please, living with only wonderful images of southern whites. Jim’s own nostalgia about the kindly Black Uncle figures of his days in Virginia is clearly connected to the old view of slavery as a kindly institution.

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