Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Refusal and Acceptance of Socialized Racism and Relational Norms

         As this was my second reading of the novel (having read it once for a previous course), I wasn't going in relatively blind like others may have been. Therefore, there wasn't much that really came forward as shocking or otherwise out of place in the novel that I didn't already know. One aspect I realized I was paying more attention to was the refusing and accepting of what could be deemed "socialized" racism or "learned" racism. This element goes hand and hand with the age-old argument of "nature vs. nurture," and it's all but certain that Butler knew what she was doing when she brought this concept alive in her novel. Just as importantly, however, is the fact that she brings both sides of the race spectrum into the argument with her characters of Dana and Kevin. Dana is a young black woman with Kevin being an older white man. Although they are a relatively acceptable couple in their "real" time (at least in comparison to the "past" time), they are exceedingly out of place when they are transported back in time. There are many examples of the idea of accepted socialized racisms throughout the novel. In many cases, the socialized racism isn't even blatant but rather is commented at or about by different characters throughout the novel either in their words or actions. These characters include both white and black characters, both free and enslaved.

         Early on the in novel, Kevin and Dana begin the debate of nature vs. nurture in their views of Rufus and the Weylin family in general. Dana wants to make an attempt to help Rufus, her soon-to-be ancestor, mentioning to Kevin, "Let me help you with Rufus as much as I can. Let's see what we can do to keep him from growing up into a red-haired version of his father" (81). Kevin sticks very close to the concept of "nurture," that Rufus will turn out to be like his racist, slave-owning parents, stating "After all, his environment will be influencing him every day you're gone... You're gambling. Hell you're gambling against history" (83). Although Kevin would like to give Rufus the benefit of the doubt, he is familiar with history and culture, enough to the point that he knows that regardless of Rufus's own ideals, his parents' will begin to seep in rapidly and wholly. Kevin's stance also becomes iconic throughout the novel for various reasons, specifically in reference to his initial treatment of Dana around the Weylins, his long time in the past after Dana transports away, as well as his treatment of her after that same event. Dana, on the other hand, tries to hold her ground, believing that Rufus can keep his own head about him rather than have it filled with the ideologies of his parents and the world around him, stating, "Even here, not all children let themselves be molded into what their parents want them to be" (83). But Dana, in her naive ideas of redemption and social progression, forgets that it is not just the Weylins' mold she is trying to break but rather the mold of the entire culture of the early 19th century. This mold doesn't just take place in "white culture" but also in black culture of the time as well.

         Even Kevin and Dana's relationship is considered inappropriate and otherwise suspicious, even with their acting out the only "acceptable" role at the time--master and slave. Dana is oftentimes referred to as dressing like a man, something not generally considered acceptable even for a free black woman let alone a slave (as their ruse is attempting to exhibit). Their age difference, actions, and attitude toward one another lead others to suspicion, including both the Weylins and their slaves. One example of characters making note of this is when Dana and Sarah, a slave, are conversing. Sarah begins talking about Dana's relationship with Kevin, stating "I see you and him together sometimes when you think nobody's looking. You can make him do just about anything you want him to do... Fact, if you got any sense, you'll ry to get him to free you now while you still young and pretty enough for him to listen." In this comment, Sarah is talking about Dana and Kevin as master and slave in the traditional, 1815 sense that she is used to. On the other hand, however, this can easily be seen as a commentary on the social norm of marriage, especially between that of a younger woman and older man. In this reading, the idea of modern marriage can be seen as a master-slave relationship between two individuals, especially with a variance in age and race. 

         This goes hand in hand with what is commonly referred to as "battered person syndrome" and domestic violence commentaries in the novel, despite their not being a primary focus throughout the novel. When talking once again with Dana, Sarah asks Dana about possible abuse, noting "My man used to. He'd tell me I was the only one he cared about. Then, next thing I knew, he'd say I was looking at some other man, and he'd go to hittin' " (151). During one of her previous beatings during a trip to the past, Dana is viciously hurt. When she ends up back home and calls a cousin for help, the cousin believes her to be the victim of domestic violence. She speaks up to Dana, stating "I never thought you'd be fool enough to let a man beat you," to which Dana responds (albeit to herself), "I never thought I would either" (116). This speaks very clearly to an idea of domestic abuse but also against the racial and social progression that Dana seeks to embody in her dress and mannerisms, even in the early 19th century. Although she believes herself to be strong enough to withstand the torture and hardship that she knows will be the result of her actions, it becomes apparent to the reader and even Dana herself that she may not be as strong as she thought she once was, as noted in her commenting that she "never thought [she] would either." This enlightening moment also calls back to earlier in the novel in which Dana realizes the harsh truth of the world she is now a part of: "The ease seemed so frightening. Now I see why... The ease. Us, the children... I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery" (101). This "training" comes up at least twice later in the novel as well. During a conversation with Alice, Dana is told that she is requested by Rufus. Alice states, "Well, it looks as though you have three choices. You can go to him as he orders; you can refuse, be whipped, and then have him take you by force; or you can run away again" (167). While Alice notes that Dana "has three choices," it is clear from her choices that Dana only has one: go to Rufus. She can either go willingly and risk little punishment, risk a harsh punishment by refusing, or risk an even worse punishment by trying to run away again. In the end, she will almost certainly be forced to visit Rufus regardless, so in reality her choice is not whether or not she will visit with him but instead how much pain she will suffer before she has to visit him anyway. This lack of choice and emphasis on training and acceptance of her "place" in the culture is then echoed later when she chooses to run away in an attempt to find Kevin. After a beating by Weylin and the overseer, Edwards, Dana notes that she overhears them saying "See how easily slaves are made?" (177). This is extremely important in that Dana is being forced into submission and slavery with pain and violence. They are "making" her a slave by giving her no other option than the pain and violence. This commentary is extremely important even after over three decades in our own society. Many of those who are poor and less fortunate are oftentimes bound by their situation and culture from ever lifting themselves up or giving themselves a foothold to better their lives. These less fortunate people are often living day to day in an attempt just to survive on what they can, living life as they can, and many of them come to a point that they just accept the fact that this is likely all the life they will have for the rest of their lives, which brings a whole other set of social issues and debates such as state-sponsored aid, gambling addictions, drug and alcohol addictions, and more.

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