Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The title Free Enterprise has a multiplicity of meanings and adds subtle overtones of irony to the novel. The term refers to commerce, including the slave trade. Free enterprise also makes it possible for M.E.P. to function economically within the white society and business community of San Francisco. Through this system of commerce, she gains the profits with which she funds resistance to the slave trade, a lucrative part of that very system. The restaurant Free Enterprise, owned by the African American fisherman and his wife, is a “free enterprise” as long as they keep their place. The title also refers to the initiative taken by M.E.P., Annie, and the other resisters to slavery.

Attributes and entities that divide, differentiate, and classify play an important role in the novel. Language, skin tone, and sex are all means of determining who is free, who is privileged, and who is not. Disguise, therefore, becomes extremely significant. Hiding identity—passing sexually, racially, or both—are integral parts of the intrigue of the novel. M.E.P. disguises herself as “Mammy,” a person whom white San Franciscans can accept. She hides her real self, the shrewd calculating entrepreneur and abolitionist. She often wears men’s clothing and passes for male when she is traveling. Annie Christmas also disguises herself by wearing male clothing. In addition, rejecting her privileged position as a light-skinned individual, she has darkened her skin.