The Twelve Tribes of Hattie uses biblical allusion to anchor its story as part of a larger narrative about the legacy of slavery and dislocation. “The Twelve Tribes” is a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel, who travelled far from Israel after they left Egypt.
In the Bible, Abraham and his wife Sarah had a son, Issac, who in turn had a son named Jacob. Jacob had twelve sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. He also had at least one daughter and two adopted sons. The sons became the heads of twelve tribes of Israelites. When Moses led the Jews out of Israel, the twelve tribes are described as camping at the base of Mount Sinai when Moses climbs the mountain and receives the ten commandments. Eventually, two of the tribes settled in Judah, and ten in Samaria. When Samaria was conquered by Assyria, these tribes were scattered and became known as “The ten lost tribes”.
Abraham had another son, born to Sarah’s servant, Hagar. Sarah suggested the arrangement because of her infertility (she was ninety when Issac, her first child, was born). But she bitterly resented Hagar and the baby, Ishmael. She mistreated Hagar so badly that Hagar and Ishmael fled into the desert and would have died had not God heard their prayers for aid (in some versions they are sent away, so that only Issac will inherit). Ishmael also had twelve sons, who became tribal chiefs over a wide territory.
The story of Hagar has a deep resonance in African-American Christianity and in Liberation Theology. The phrase “The twelve tribes” generally refers to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, but in Hattie’s story her children seem to better fit the narrative of Hagar – born into slavery and eventually freed into hardship. Hagar was a determined mother whose children and grandchildren prospered. Meanwhile, the children of Jacob escaped slavery in Egypt and fled into the desert with Moses seeking a better life. Either way, the reference brings to mind stories of hardship and triumph.