Oxherding Tale Summary
by Charles Johnson

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Oxherding Tale Summary

Charles Johnson's The Oxherding Tale is a novel about navigating a life between two different worlds. Johnson is known for writing stories about issues in Black America. According to information on goodreads.com, this particular novel received mixed reviews because some of the humor was missed by readers. The main character of this novel, Andrew Hawkins, must learn to find his place between the white world and the black world, between slavery and freedom.

This novel takes place in the south. Andrew Hawkins is born as a slave living on a cotton plantation. His birth is interesting because he is the offspring of the the wife of the plantation owner, Jonathan Polkinghorne, and Polkinghorne's butler. Andrew is a very intelligent young man. The first portion of this novel is about Andrew's life on the plantation and is told mostly through flashbacks. In part one, readers learn of Andrew's love interest, a seamstress named Minty. Andrew is also sent to work on a different farm, Hatfield Farm. While spending time at this farm, Andrew is unable to pursue Minty because he is spending time with an older woman who happens to be the owner of the farm, Flo Hatfield. After an incident with Flo, Andrew poses as a white man and escapes from Hatfield Farm.

The second part of this novel is about Andrew's life living in the white world. Andrew suffers from an opium addiction, unwanted marriages, and the discovery of friends being sold as slaves. When Andrew finds Minty being sold at an auction, he purchases her and realizes that she is very sick. Minty soon dies, and Andrew is devastated.

Throughout the novel, Andrew must learn from a variety of people in order to become complete as a person. Andrew, through author Johnson, offers a new type of "slave narrative" that is engaging to readers. This story is Andrew's journey from birth to adulthood and his search for his own identity in a world that is often complicated.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Oxherding Tale depicts the startling and varied adventures of Andrew Hawkins as he attempts to negotiate the perilous passage from slavery to freedom, crossing racial barriers and throwing his identity into crisis along the way. Born into slavery on a cotton plantation, Andrew from an early age at the same time becomes an exceptionally sophisticated thinker after being tutored by an intellectual. His status at Cripplegate, a plantation owned by Jonathan Polkinghorne, is deeply ambiguous; conceived by an enslaved butler, given birth by Polkinghorne’s wife, well regarded by Polkinghorne, he attempts to exploit his unusual position to negotiate a path to freedom.

At twenty, having fallen in love with Minty, a seamstress of blossoming beauty, Andrew is emboldened to confront Polkinghorne, requesting a deed of manumission in order to earn money so that he might marry Minty. Polkinghorne sends Andrew to a widow’s distant farm to work for wages and promises to sign the freedom papers only when Andrew returns with the money. Aflame with the possibilities, Andrew sets out to take responsibility for his future, to shape a destiny for himself and his loved ones.

The novel consists of two major parts. Part 1, entitled “House and Field,” is devoted largely to Andrew’s life at the Polkinghorne plantation and to his service at Flo Hatfield’s farm. Most of Andrew’s childhood and adolescence is presented in flashbacks; at the end of chapter 1, Andrew has received his assignment to the Hatfield farm, and his memories of Minty, George, Mattie, and Ezekiel are woven into the current action.

At the Hatfield farm, Andrew becomes a sexual servant to the beautiful Flo Hatfield, a sensuous woman in her forties who has made a habit of grooming at least one young servant for a pampered life in the house. Although Andrew enjoys with Flo the indulgences of opium and an erotic education, she evades the subject of his wages. Losing his temper, Andrew one day strikes Flo while they are making love and is immediately banished to the slave quarters; he is then...

(The entire section is 2,284 words.)