Celia, A Slave Symbols and Motifs

Melton A. McLaurin

Celia, A Slave

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Celia, A Slave Symbols and Motifs

“Celia, a slave” 

Celia is often referred to as “Celia, a slave,” which comes from the title used to describe her in the legal documents of her court case.  This title highlights the aspect of her identity that most matters in terms of determining the course of her short life, and the repetition of the phrasing emphasizes her isolation and smallness in the face of the forces against her.  What is necessarily missing from the book is any sense of who Celia was as a person—there are no records that tell us about Celia aside from her bill of sale and the documents and press associated with the legal proceedings against her.  Instead, she is defined, as McLaurin notes, by the reactions of others to her, and these reactions are reactions to her status as “a slave” and to her murder of Newsom, rather than to her as a person.  Even her efforts to speak for herself are hampered by her inability to testify publicly to the abuse she endured and the feelings it engendered.  She is not allowed to account for her actions—even though she describes the situation to her interrogators and lawyers, those accounts are discounted in the courtroom, where they matter the most.  This negation of Celia’s selfhood comes down to her status as “a slave,” and nothing more.

Newsom’s Ashes

McLaurin devotes a significant amount of space to describing how Celia convinced Coffee Waynescot, Newsom’s grandson, to shovel his ashes out of her fireplace the morning after his death (but before he is missed by the family).  McLaurin characterizes this act as showing “the depth of her hatred for Newsom and his kin” (31), since the boy no doubt inhaled his own grandfather’s body without knowing it.  He also describes Celia’s burning of Newsom’s body in her fireplace—“over which she cooked the food she fed her own children” (31-32) as “ironic” (30), no doubt because their father’s remains would permeate their food, even with Coffee’s efforts to carry out the ashes.

John Brown and His Sons 

References are made to John Brown and his sons’ presence in Kansas during the…

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