When Christmas sees Joanna in daylight, he thinks she might actually be 35, although she later tells him she is 40. He becomes her lover, but they do not talk much, and sometimes Christmas feels that he doesn’t “know her at all.” He moves into the cabin on her property. He is surprised by the amount of correspondence she sends and receives, and soon learns that the letters are addressed to more than a dozen schools and colleges for black students across the South. She sometimes travels for a few days at a time to visit the schools. She has a black lawyer in Memphis who oversees her will and other affairs.
Joanna is a different genre of outcast, someone who—despite being of relatively high class status and wealth—chooses to live in opposition to the norms of her community. Thus far this decision has left her isolated within Jefferson. However, the arrival of another outcast—Christmas—allows her to establish an intimate connection with someone else for the first time.
Christmas only ever enters the house during the day to eat food Joanna prepares for him in the kitchen. At night, he comes in “like a thief.” She was a virgin when they first had sex, and Christmas felt that her “surrender” to him was akin to the way a man would surrender. She spent so many years alone that it gave her the “strength and fortitude of a man.” Stunned, he thinks: “My God… it was like I was the woman and she was the man.”
Joanna and Christmas’s bizarre dynamic suggests that the disruption of racial and gender categories inherent in their relationship has made them relate to each other in strange ways. Christmas’s perception that their genders are reversed shows how race and gender are often intertwined categories; transgression of one may necessarily mean an inversion of the other.
That night, Christmas attempts to rape Joanna, which he thinks will “turn” her into a woman. Angrily, he thinks: “I’ll show the bitch!” He expects her to run away from him, but in the end, she puts up no fight. Christmas nonetheless tries to satisfy himself by saying that he’s “made a woman of her at last” and telling himself that she will hate him now. The next day he expects that she will kick him out, and intends to leave before she gets the chance to do so. He goes to leave, carrying his only possession—a razor—but finds himself walking toward Joanna’s house instead.
Here Christmas tries to violently restore what he perceives to be an unnatural disturbance of the correct social order. His belief that raping Joanna will make a woman out of her shows that he associates femaleness with vulnerability, violation, and victimhood (and with a lack of desire for sex).
Christmas finds the main door of the house locked. The kitchen door remains unlocked, which he feels is an “insult.” He looks at the food left out for him and thinks, furiously, “Set out for the n_____.” He hurls the dishes at the wall, delighting in saying the name of each dish as he throws it, “as if he was playing a game.” The next day he takes the job at the planing mill. He waits for Joanna to “make the first sign” of reconciliation. One day, he sees her sitting outside in her backyard. Not for the first time, he feels convinced that she has no body under her clothes, and that they therefore cannot have had sex.
Christmas is resentful of the way in which the setup of his and Joanna’s relationship seems to put him in the position of black servant or slave. At the same time, just as Joanna chose to read Christmas’s attempted rape as something she actually wanted, Christmas feels furious about the way he is being treated and yet still waits eagerly for a sign of reconciliation from Joanna.
Spring and summer pass. Then, one evening in September, Christmas finds Joanna sitting on his cot in the cabin. He has never seen her hair before, because when he sees her outside in the daylight she is wearing a hat, and when they have sex it is too dark to see. He is surprised to see that there is no gray in it. Shocked, he thinks: “She’s trying to be a woman and she don’t know how.” She talks to him properly for the first time, explaining that she is 41 and was born in the house where she still lives. She has never left Jefferson for more than six months, and when she does go away, she suffers from intense homesickness.
Christmas’s observation that Joanna is “trying to be a woman” intriguingly suggests that gender is not something innate, but rather something that one has to learn to perform.
The next section of the novel recounts the story Joanna tells Christmas about her family. Her grandfather, Calvin Burden, was born in New Hampshire, the son of a minister named Nathaniel Burrington. He ran away from home at 12, before he could even write his name, moving to California and converting to Catholicism. After ten years he moves to Missouri and gets married. At this point he denies being Catholic and begins speaking out against slavery. He changes his name to Burden, because he finds it too difficult to write Burrington. He cannot read English, but can read Spanish due to having lived with Spanish-speaking priests in a monastery in California.
The story of Joanna’s family brings together most of the novel’s main themes: racial transgression, freedom and self-reinvention, the significance of names, strangers and outcasts, and—most of all—the inescapable grip of the past. Indeed, there is an extent to which the actions of Joanna’s family in the past determine not only the course of her life, but many of the broader actions of the novel.
Calvin kills a man during an argument about slavery, and the Burden family leave Saint Louis, going west in order to “get away from Democrats.” The family live in a small settlement, and Calvin spends most of his time ranting about politics and slavery. People usually do not respond, as it is rumored that he carries a gun. His wife dies, leaving him the sole parent of their three daughters and one son, Nathaniel. He urges that his children should hate two things, “hell and slaveholders.” He saves most of his evangelizing about the evils of slavery for his own children, and beats them regularly.
This passage shows that being an abolitionist doesn’t necessarily mean being opposed to violence and aggression. Indeed, violence was a vital tool of abolitionism, and—in the view of some historians—vital to bringing about the end of slavery. However, in Calvin’s case, his violent disposition seems to be more of a character flaw than a calculated strategy for defeating slavery.
Nathaniel runs away from home at 14, spending time in Colorado, Mexico, and other places. Calvin doesn’t see his son for sixteen years, though at one point word gets back to him that Nathaniel killed a Mexican during an argument about a stolen horse. Calvin also learns that Nathaniel now has a wife and daughter. Calvin and his three daughters move to the border between Kansas and Missouri, and it is at this point, in 1866, that Nathaniel returns home.
This passage reinforces the point that the actions of a person’s ancestors determine how they behave, sometimes through exact imitation across the generations. Like his father, Nathaniel Burden runs away from home as a youth, gets married, and ends up killing someone in an argument.
When Nathaniel arrives back at his father’s house, Calvin beats him with a strap, though he does so somewhat playfully. Nathaniel introduces Calvin to his wife, Juana, and their son, also called Calvin. That night, Calvin (Sr.) mutters about his grandson being black, although Juana is actually Spanish. He gives a speech about how black people were cursed because of the “sin of human bondage,” but that through freedom they will become white again. He predicts that in a hundred years all black people will be white, and that at this point discrimination against them will end.
This passage reveals that even abolitionists tended to hold strange, racist ideas. Calvin despises slavery, yet believes that blackness is a curse that should be eradicated. This highlights how deeply ingrained anti-black racism is within the collective American psyche. While Calvin’s ideas may seem crazy, they are in fact not too dissimilar from contemporary arguments that interracial couples will help solve racism.
Joanna now explains that Calvin (Jr.) was her half-brother. Nathaniel was her father, but Juana was not her mother. Both Calvins were killed by an ex-slaveholder turned Confederate soldier during an argument about black enfranchisement. Calvin Jr. was only 20. She explains that her grandfather and brother’s graves were hidden, because otherwise local people would have dug up the bodies. She explains that people in Jefferson hate her family because they are “foreigners… threatening white supremacy.”
The deaths of Calvin Jr. and Sr. in an argument seems almost predestined, considering the pattern of people being killed in arguments within the family. The strange result of this double murder was that it tied the Burden family to Jefferson, somewhere that they have never belonged and which has actually been highly hostile to them.
Joanna herself was born 14 years after her brother’s death. Her mother was a woman from New Hampshire. After Juana died, Nathaniel wrote to his relatives in the North and asked for them to send a woman for him to marry. They did, and Nathaniel and Joanna’s mother were married the same they day they met. Joanna thinks her father would have left Jefferson had it not been for the family members buried there. Now Nathaniel is buried there too.
This passage continues to explain how a group of “foreigners” and “enemies” came to call Jefferson their home. Nathaniel never develops a particular attachment to or affection for Jefferson, but ends up settling there due to the tragic circumstances of his father and son’s deaths.
Calvin (Jr.) was born out of wedlock; Nathaniel and Juana didn’t marry until he was 12. At the wedding, Calvin Sr. gave a long speech about slavery. Some years later, Nathaniel and Calvin Sr. got a commission from Washington to come to Jefferson and support the newly freed black population. The whole family moved there except Nathaniel’s sisters. Joanna was the daughter of Nathaniel and his second wife, who had been sent to him from New Hampshire and whom he married the day they met. She was named after Calvin Jr.’s mother. When Joanna is young, Nathaniel gives her a speech about the “doom and curse” that all white people inherit as a result of the sins of their race.
Once again, this flashback is told in a non-chronological order: it’s revealed that Nathaniel ended up stuck in Jefferson due to the Calvins’ deaths before it’s explained how and why he moved to Jefferson in the first place. Once again, this indicates that the past is never gone, but part of the present. This effect is heightened by the repetition of names in the Burden family. Across multiple generations, three names surface over and over, highlighting repetition and imitation across generations.
Joanna explains that she grew up around black people and never saw them as any different to her. However, after Nathaniel gave this speech, she began to see them as “a thing, a shadow in which I lived, we lived, all white people.” She would cry and tell Nathaniel of her desperate desire to escape this “shadow,” but he replied that it would be impossible. He told her that God cursed black people, but that white people cursed themselves through their treatment of black people. Christmas asks why Nathaniel never killed the slaveholder who murdered the Calvins, saying that that’s what he would have done.
This passage demonstrates how the guilt felt by some abolitionists produced twisted ideas about race that perhaps did more harm than good. While Joanna grew up with a fairly normal relationship to the black community among whom she lived, her father’s bizarre ideas about race ruined this relationship.
Christmas says that the only thing he knows about his parents is that one of them was part black. Joanna asks how Christmas knows that, and he admits that he isn’t certain, adding that if it isn’t true, he’s “wasted a lot of time.” Joanna says she thinks Nathaniel didn’t kill the slaveholder because he was half French. Christmas is confused by this answer, and Joanna clarifies that she thinks Nathaniel understood what it meant to love the land where you come from, and to act according to its norms, as the slaveholder did.
Here for the first time the reader receives a proper explanation of Christmas’s understanding of his own race. Christmas does not know that he has black heritage—he only believes that he does. However, in the extremely racist society in which he lives, even the hint that someone might be black can be enough to shun and indict them.