Linda breaks away from her own narrative to relate the story of Aunt Nancy’s life. At the age of twenty, she got married to another slave, but her marriage has no legal standing. She normally sleeps outside Mrs. Flint’s bedroom, in case the mistress needs her; she doesn’t even get to leave her post on the night of her own wedding.
Just as the Flints treated Linda’s desire to marry with derision, Mrs. Flint clearly feels that Aunt Nancy isn’t entitled to enjoy milestones like marriage that are considered central to the lives of white women.
Mrs. Flint and Aunt Nancy become pregnant at roughly the same time, but Aunt Nancy still has to sleep on the floor, run errands in the middle of the night, and take care of her mistress’s babies. As a result, all of her children are born prematurely and die. Eventually, fearing that she will die as well, the Flints let her sleep in an outbuilding.
Juxtaposing Mrs. Flint’s life with Aunt Nancy’s, this passage shows how the economic advantage of the slaveholding family is predicated on the destruction of the enslaved family.
Aunt Nancy is in charge of the Flint house. Although she behaves meekly, she always encourages Linda to escape and save her children, frequently visiting the shed to encourage her. Everyone in the family relies on her for good advice and accepts her counsel.
While Grandmother urges passivity on Linda, Aunt Nancy encourages her to behave differently than her elders.
Six years after Linda starts living in the shed, Aunt Nancy becomes deathly ill and Grandmother returns to the Flint house to nurse her last daughter. Even the Flints are touched by the obvious bond between mother and daughter, although Mrs. Flint is overcome with “shock” at losing her best servant. Dr. Flint reminds Grandmother how much Aunt Nancy loved his children and tells her that he wishes Linda would forget about past wrongs, return, and take her place as housekeeper. Grandmother points out that it was he who “drove Linda away.”
The Flints feel that they are mourning Aunt Nancy’s death – but really, they’re just upset at the loss of a good servant. Slaveholders often claim to see slaves as part of their family, but these ostensibly positive relationships are actually predicated on the denial of the slave’s humanity and agency.
Linda is devastated to hear of Aunt Nancy’s death, although Uncle Phillip assures her she died happy. Linda reflects bitterly that Mrs. Flint “rendered her poor foster-sister childless, apparently without any compunction” and forced her to work without ceasing for her entire life. On a sudden whim, she requests to have Nancy buried in the family’s burial ground, at the foot of her own plot. However, the minister reminds her that she has to consult Nancy’s family; when they politely refuse the offer, she sighs that she is “so used to sleep with her lying near me.”
Mrs. Flint’s desire to have Aunt Nancy buried at her feet suggests a delusional conviction that the enslaved woman was happy with her life and considered herself fulfilled by grueling servitude. Beliefs like this serve to characterize slaveholders as beyond moral entreaty – in order to change the system, someone from the outside (in this case, the North) must intervene.
The family buries Aunt Nancy in a plain but dignified funeral, which even the Flints attend. Linda says that the image might seem like “proof of the attachment” between master and slave, but doesn’t do justice to the cruelties Aunt Nancy has endured and which Linda is still enduring. Grandmother especially finds it hard to recover after this blow, and Linda hates to think that she is causing her even more anxiety.
This passage testifies to the tendency of society to sweep the injustices of slavery under the carpet, even as they exist in plain view. The Flints’ show of grief contrasts with Grandmother’s sincere depression and difficulty in overcoming this tragedy.