The seventh chapter tells the story of Ethel’s life before Cora comes to her attic. As a devout Christian growing up in Virginia, the eight-year-old Ethel decided she wanted to be a missionary in Africa. She role-played this fantasy with her family’s house slave, Jasmine. Jasmine and Ethel were close friends, almost sisters, when they were young. Sometimes they even played husband and wife, exchanging kisses.
Ethel’s father, Edgar, put a stop to their intimacy, forbidding Ethel from playing with Jasmine again. He told her that black people were cursed descendants of the biblical figure of Ham, and thus the races are meant to be separated. Ethel was greatly upset by this separation from her playmate, but it soon became normal.
Jasmine’s mother, Felice, cleaned the house efficiently and smartly. One day, however, Felice had a stroke and became paralyzed. After a few months, Edgar removed her from the house. Jasmine began cleaning the house. A few years later, when Jasmine was fourteen, Edgar began going upstairs at night to visit her bedroom. When Ethel asked her father where he was going, he responded with the simple euphemism, “Going upstairs” (193). Ethel interpreted this, too, as part of the natural order of the relationship between blacks and whites that her father taught her.
Eventually, Ethel’s mother sent Jasmine away in jealousy. When Jasmine gave birth to a child after leaving her house, the town gossiped about the appearance of the baby, who looked like Edgar. Edgar never bothered the new slave, Nancy, who was an elderly grandmother. One day, Ethel announced to the family her plans to be a missionary in Africa. Her parents would not permit it, and suggested she become a teacher as another way of “helping savages” (193).
When Ethel met Martin, she wasn’t very interested in him, or in any man, for that matter. But she agreed to his proposal for the sake of respectability and comfort. She put up with the duties of a wife, disinterested, but appreciated her daughter, Jane, when she was born. The small family settled into a quiet routine.
The death of Martin’s father, Donald, summoned them to North Carolina. Martin had to look after his father’s shop until they could sell it; after which, he reassured Ethel, the family would move back to Virginia. Before they had a chance to do so, however, Martin discovered his father’s abolitionist papers and the map that directed him to the North Carolina station of the Underground Railroad.
The first runaway Martin helped was George, a week before the new race laws in North Carolina went into effect. George was in their attic for only a week before the Railroad agent took him on the next train. Ethel was in no way anti-slavery: she believed God wouldn’t put black people in slavery if they weren’t meant to be there. But she was concerned with her husband’s late father and his revenge. Ethel believed Donald always hated her, and had brought this abolitionism into their lives as a curse from the grave.
Ethel’s life was a bitter one. When Cora fell sick in her attic, it was her chance to redeem herself. She went upstairs and retrieved Cora, bathed her, and laid her on a clean bed. She kissed her forehead and neck: sacred kisses. Finally, she had a savage to take care of.
This chapter depicts a different kind of racist person. Stevens’ chapter describes a character who supposedly is free from prejudice, and yet is deeply involved with a racist state. Ethel, on the other hand, exhibits an inverse trajectory. She holds a deeply paternalistic attitude towards black people, viewing them as “savages” and wanting to save them—and yet she is thrust into the role of aiding a runaway.
This is a perplexing paradox. Taken in context, however, it reinforces Whitehead’s point about white complicity. Ridgeway’s father thinks he satisfies a personal calling with his ironwork, but in reality is serving cotton production. Stevens believes he holds no racial prejudice compared to those around him, but he winds up an instrument of institutionalized racism. And, in a twist, Ethel is personally racist, and is more or less forced to play a role in the Underground Railroad. Thus it is not the individual character that matters so much in the novel, but rather the entire system. The internal contradictions of the character underscore the paradox at the heart of America: promising liberty while enslaving millions.
Ethel’s father provides a haunting example of one aspect of the racial logic that underscores slavery. As a child, Ethel’s father, Edgar, teaches her that black people are cursed descendants of Ham, a biblical character. The “natural state of relations” between whites and blacks, therefore, is the hierarchy maintained by white supremacist logic (192). Edgar uses this justification to force Ethel to stop playing with the family’s slave girl of her own age, Jasmine. Yet although he believes in this enforced separation, he begins raping Jasmine when she is only fourteen years old.
Ethel understands her father’s sexual abuse of Jasmine through a biblical lens. Bridging the separation between races, even in this violent way, is “to heal a biblical wound” for Ethel and her father both (192). This is a perverse logic that, on one hand, forbids friendship or any kind of equitable relation between whites and blacks on the basis of a “natural order.” On the other hand, this ideology allows, even justifies, exploitation and sexual violence against black people and especially women. This paradox in Edgar’s worldview is a reminder of the perversity of the larger system of slavery.
The rape of Jasmine echoes the rapes of Ajarry, Mabel, and Cora. Even though readers never hear Jasmine’s story told in her own words, our affiliation with Cora and her lineage places our empathy with Jasmine. We feel for her, when her mother is first disposed of without concern when she has a stroke, when she is subjected to assault by her master, and, after Ethel’s mother is overcome with jealousy, when Jasmine is sold. In contrast to our own identification with Jasmine, however, Ethel is distinctly unfeeling when it comes to empathy for her former playmate. Indeed, Ethel is portrayed as a deeply bitter character, who is selfishly motivated even in helping Cora.