Monthly Archives: October 2017

Neoliberal Demands on the Body in Natsuo Kirino’s Out

In Out, Yayoi Yamamoto strangles her husband in a fit of rage. Her friends agree to help her dismember and dispose of the body – “it was a human being, but now it’s an object” (95). Is this so shocking when we consider the toll that the global city exacts upon them?

In the factory in which they work, these four women are reduced to objects but more specifically to components. If they are injured, even a scratch, they cannot work. If they refuse to perform the backbreaking labour there are plenty more to take their place, in what Sassen refers to as “the informalization and casualization of work” (288). If they wish to go to the bathroom they have to make it known to management hours in advance, neoliberalism prying into the most personal aspects of their lives if it increases profits. Management’s chief concern is productivity, not the wellbeing of the workers. “What the hell are you doing?!’ … How could you have spilt all this?!” (12).

Factory workers at a conveyor belt
Factory workers at a conveyor belt

None of this is reasonable, but we do not live in a reasonable world. Society has them over a barrel; the four need the extra income that the night shift provides, and, by god, Tokyo needs those boxed lunches. Because of this they are all profoundly isolated. Masako and Yayoi pass their husbands in the doorway every morning, both marriages crumbling. Yoshie’s daughters siphon what income she brings in and refuse to help care for a mother-in-law she despises, a task that demands nearly all of her free time. When Tetsuya leaves, Kuniko has nothing left but debt, “the neoliberal self… defined by its capacity to consume” (Davies 1-14). The four grab what sleep they can and each night the cycle begins anew.

Breu notes that “in killing and disposing of Kenji, the woman turn the thanatopolitical violence that the larger society directs towards them momentarily outward” (49). They disassemble him as methodically as they assemble meals on the conveyor belt, Kirino juxtaposing images of food with the process of dismemberment – “watching the blade slip through the layers of yellow fat, she heard Yoshie mutter that it looked ‘exactly like a broiler” (100).  Operating outside the law, operating outside what many criminals (Yayoi included) would regard as sacrilege – how could they be expected to give that power up, when we consider the alternative? Their freedom “[can’t] be assured by institutions and laws but must be exercised” (Brown 8).

Kenji looking understandably upset
Kenji looking understandably upset

Reluctance to give up this power might be one reason why Masako and Yoshie are able to treat Kuniko’s corpse as just another job. “Skipper, set the line to eighteen” (441). Her presence and loyalty while alive helped mitigate the factory’s neoliberal demands on the four, but, once dead, she has no value. She, like Kenji, is categorised as waste, a category that Giroux explains “includes no longer simply material goods but also human beings, particularly those rendered redundant in the global economy” (Giroux 308). This is not an anomaly, Jumonji stating that “there’s a fairly steady supply of people who nobody wants found” (256). Slowly, begrudgingly, but ultimately, Yoshie comes to see her mother-in-law in this light. “Once her daughter was gone, she must have lost all hope, and with it her last reason for hesitating” (491). In a novel brimming with terrible people and terrible acts, Yoshie deserves sympathy. Her belief in family and compassion only brings her pain, and it is only when she abandons these concepts for those of thanatopolitics does she finally get out.

Gender is incontrovertibly tied to the question of the body and its worth in Out. Satake made a business of bodies long before Masako, Yoshie and Jumonji, the girls in his club the product in the neoliberal marketplace that is Kabuki-cho. His empire is predicated on the belief that these women are objects – they are to be enjoyed, consumed, by lonely men. They, like the flagging newcomer on the line, are reduced to components. “They began to hear sounds of distress from the new woman… efficiency began dropping on the line and they had to cut the pace” (11). Satake too abhors inefficiency on his line – “I don’t mind if you fool around, but you can’t let it get in the way of work” (232).

Kabuki-cho, a red light district in Shinjuku, Toyko
Kabuki-cho, a red light district in Shinjuku, Toyko

When he is released from jail and finds that he has lost everything, Satake snaps. His objectification of women rockets past anything that Kinugasa or even Kenji would condone. He deems Kenji a loser for chasing Anna, but hunting Masako becomes his only purpose. She, in his mind, only exists to fulfil his impossible sexual fantasy. “It wasn’t so much that she’d tried to stab him but that she’d spoilt the sensation he had worked so hard to bring back” (506). Masako despises him in this moment, but what should indicate self and personhood only arouses him further. Satake reduces her and her affect to an object to be consumed. When Masako slices him with a scalpel, killing him, she reduces him in turn. Both Yoshie and Masako get out, but Masako gets out with the money. I believe that is because, unlike Yoshie, she experiences every aspect of what it means to live in a world of objects. ‘If this fellow here’s an object, then so is my mother-in-law. And then we’re all objects – the living and the dead’ (95).

If those you work with are objects, and people see you as an object, and your family view you as an object, then it becomes fair to view others as objects. If we take that to its depressing conclusion, there is nothing remarkable about an individual human life in this unreasonable world. Cheers.

Bibliography

Breu, Christopher. “Work and Death in the Global City: Natsuo Kirino’s Out as Neoliberal Noir” Globalisation and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction. Ed. Pepper, Andrew, and David Schmid. Palgrave, 2016.

Brown, Wendy. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton, 1995.

Davies, Bronwyn. “The (Im)Possibility of Intellectual Work in Neoliberal Regimes. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 26. 1-14.

Giroux, Henry A. “Violence, Katrina, and the Biopolitics of Disposability” Theory, Culture and Society 24. 305-309.

Kirino, Natsuo. Out. London: Vintage, 1997.

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2001.

Images Cited

Factory Workers:

Midaka, Masahiro. “Workers process scallops at the plant”. Bloomburg. 25 August 2017. Accessed 24 October 2017. <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-25/japan-s-richest-village-can-t-find-workers-for-its-factory>

Human Anatomy:

“Anatomy of man muscular system – anterior view – didactic”. Shuttershock. Accessed 24 October 2017. <https://www.shutterstock.com/image-vector/anatomy-man-muscular-system-anterior-view-109588475?src=sIgqUjBDxwGPHQBlaivqlQ-1-77>

Kabuki-Cho:

Brenn, Moyan. TokyoCheapo.com. Accessed 24 October 2017. <https://tokyocheapo.com/entertainment/things-to-do-in-kabukicho/>

“The freedom she was seeking was her own … and she was sure it must be out there somewhere.” Space and gender in Natsuo Kirino’s Out

Kirino confronts deeply held notions of female subservience and the spaces they are unable to access in her 1997 novel, Out. Stephen Poole writing for The Guardian states, “The story, meanwhile, is really a framework on which she hangs a political commentary about the problems of ordinary women in contemporary Japanese society.” In Out, the reader is forced “out” into the back alleys of contemporary Tokyo, where the treatment of women is exposed.

NatsuoKirino 

Yayoi, Masako, Yoshie and Kuniko are caught up in the aftermath of Kenji’s murder, (Yayoi’s adulterous, gambling and abusive husband) after agreeing to dismember and dispose of his body. The women have no choice but to support each other, as Joan Smith writes for the Independent, “… they do not know what else to do, and are getting back at an unfair world. There is even a suggestion that the stultifying dullness of their lives has somehow anaesthetised them.” While the dismembering scene in the cramped space of Masako’s bathroom is particularly shocking; there is a somewhat clinical feel in the prose that allows the reader to bare witness to events unfolding in an authentic manner, “his head fell away with a dull thud, Kenji’s body was suddenly transformed into nothing more than a strangely shaped object.” (99) Barely teetering within the realms of reality, the novel presents a dramatic plot that allows for a glimpse into the very real issues that surround women in Japan. These women are “trapped” within the confines of the private sphere, bound to their families, managing the household while also working the night shift in order to provide extra income. Kuniko is ensnared in debt after taking out loans to fund her wild spending. By purchasing designer clothing and a top of the range car, she hopes to “buy” herself out of the confines of her gender and class.

The character of Anna represents a woman who has managed to enhance her status in society – but only due to her youth and beauty. Working as a hostess in a club, Anna is treated as a piece of meat, prepped by Satake (hair appointments and beauty treatments) to be devoured by male clients. She comments on this after finding out about his murderous past and realizing he doesn’t love her, “I was just a pet to you, something to spoil. You had me dolled up, like a fancy poodle, so that you could sell me to your customers. That’s how you got your kicks, turning me into your best product.” (305)

Out-UK-Cover

An interesting parallel occurs here between how women are treated and the treatment of Kenji’s body post-murder. By dehumanizing the physical body of Kenji (“we should probably start with the big joints and chop it small later.” (99) ), Yoshie and Masako are able to stomach the dismembering process. This process of dehumanization is clearly used by men in the novel (and likely in reality) to enable them to feel no guilt whilst they treat women as mere objects. The interviewing police officer that comes to question Yayoi says, “Especially since their daughter is such a good-looking woman, if you don’t mind me saying so.” (216), sexually objectifying her even though he is there in a professional capacity. The theme of dehumanizing women is also blatant in the behaviour of Satake, who describes women as, “living merchandise.” (41) and feels no guilt when he brutally murders Kuniko.

Cast aside by males, even the physical spaces the women occupy in the novel seem to reject them and leave them in a place that seems “inbetween”; they are unable to access power, financially or politically. Kuniko decides to find a new job, answering an advertisement for bar work. When she arrives, she is automatically dismissed, “… we had six girls, all about nineteen, show up. We like them fresh like that; seems to be what the customers want.” (24) She explains her situation as, “…a vicious circle.” (22) therefore further communicating Kirino’s point that women who are not youthful (in age and beauty) are seen as surplus – unwanted in the public eye.

“Kirino deliberately places her main characters, all of who lack the attributes that would allow them access to the centers of political and economic power, in a world away from those centers.” (Seaman, 201)

The work place and the home are juxtaposed and rendered as female and male spaces and Seaman suggests that Kirino is using her novel to comment on the fact that these women are trapped between their home and a part-time job. An article in TheJapanTimes claims, “The corporate glass ceiling remains an obstacle to working women …” This is shown in the life of Masako, arguably the most strong-willed and able female character, forced into resigning from her day job after suffering years of abuse – verbal, physical and financial, “one day she happened to see the salary figures for a man who had been with the company exactly as long as she had … he was making two million yen more than her” (202) These women are therefore held in a situation that leaves them powerless.

TokyoMumbaiCollageForefront_600_528_80

Masako seems to achieve actual “freedom” in the literal sense, escaping the clutches of Satake and planning to leave the country with a large sum of money to set up her new life. Kirino appears to have used Masako to show the internal power that inhabits some women, and equally what they are capable of. Speaking to her son, and perhaps even even more generally, Masako states, “You may think you can escape everything unpleasant in life just by keeping your mouth shut … but it doesn’t work that way.” (382)

 

Works Cited:

Kirino, Natsuo. Out. London: Vintage, 2006.

Poole, Stephen. “Murder Sushi Wrote”. 27 Novemeber 2004. Accessed 22 October 2017.

<https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/nov/27/featuresreviews.guardianreview18  >

Smith, Joan. “Out by Natsuo Kirino, trans. Stephen Snyder”. 21 October 2004. Accessed 22 October 2017.< http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/out-by-natsuo-kirino-trans-stephen-snyder-754957.html  >

Seaman, Amanda C. “Inside OUT: Space, Gender, and Power in Kirino Natsuo.” Japanese Language and Literature, vol. 40, no. 2, 2006, pp. 197–217. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30198010.<http://www.jstor.org/stable/30198010?seq=10#page_scan_tab_contents>

“Still a struggle for working women”. 8 April 2016. Accessed 22 October 2017.<https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2016/04/08/editorials/still-a-struggle-for-working-women/#.WeyNa0zMzGI >

Images Cited:

Natsuo Kirino image:

“The Floating Forest” – A Short Story by Natsuo Kirino – the Author of Out, Grotesque and Real World.”. rereadinglives.blogspot. 7 August 2017. Accessed 22 October 2017.

<http://rereadinglives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/the-floating-forest-short-story-by.html>

Novel cover image:

Cross, Katherine. “Feministing Readz: Getting inside patriarchy’s head with Natsuo Kirino’s Out”. Accessed 22 October 2017. <http://feministing.com/2014/08/26/feministing-readz-getting-inside-patriarchys-head-with-natsuo-kirinos-out/>

Tokyo slum street image:

“When Tokyo was a slum”. 1 August 2013. Accessed 22 October 2017.

<https://nextcity.org/informalcity/entry/when-tokyo-was-a-slum >

The Never Ending Story: The Power of Format in Black Literature in 2017

In Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine approaches the difficulties facing black Americans. However, this is no ordinary literary racial commentary.  When writing about a sensitive subject like race, often writers must be creative in their approach, in order to allow for discussion and interpretation. For example, Beatty approaches race issues through absurdist humour in The Sellout, and Whitehead creates distance by using an historical setting in The Underground Railroad. In contrast, Rankine uses the lyrical format to foster discussion and interpretation of racial attitudes. The text combines personal anecdotes, discussions of race in the media, scripts and poems, all of which contextualise photographs, film frames and art to deliver an effective, emotional discussion about race in America. Due to its troubling perpetuity, racism has existed in many forms, from early colonial settlement slavery, to its twenty-first state as a, generally, more covert form of prejudice, exemplified by Rankine’s white mother who purposely separates her daughter from the black community by “sit(ting) in the middle” (Rankine: 12) of her child and the black speaker on a ‘United’ Airlines plane. These unsettling outward manifestations of racism are presented alongside internal musings over the ‘otherness’ of the black race as termed by white speakers, for example Rankine ponders on how police officers are bias towards black men who will always “fit the description” (Rankine: 105) of the criminal.  As racism changes form, so does Rankine’s approach to its discussion, symbolised by the changes in literary formatting throughout Citizen.

Where Beatty has used absurdist humour to draw attention away from the man behind the curtain, the author, Rankine draws on her own deeply personal life experience, amalgamating the author and her life with her subject matter. Through dozens of personal stories, Rankine shows that it is not one great moment, but a great many moments that have developed her sense of identity as a black person in America. These moments, mostly held in the first five sections of the text, are constructed in the prose poetry form. Many read like stage directions, telling the reader that “You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street swallowed by speed” (Rankine: 10). The poems are written to control the reader, seating them in a situation of Rankine’s choosing. By asking us to observe the situation from this point of view, Rankine forces the reader to feel these many uncomfortable instances first hand.

This use of prose poetry reads in antithesis to Rankine’s more abstract pieces. A large part of their effectiveness in conveying Rankine’s feelings is their unique and interesting formatting. For example, on pages 134 and 135, Rankine creates a striking visual by coupling anaphora of the phrase “In memory of” (134) with the typographical feature of the print fading down the page. The repetition displays how these victims are remembered, as simply a list of names. As it grows longer, the public will become increasingly desensitised to this type of crime. Alternatively, by leaving room for more names below, Rankine is criticising the action being taken (or lack thereof) as insufficient in stopping this type of crime from happening again. On the right hand page, there are only three short lines referencing the inability of white men to control their “imagination” (135). Visually, the stark contrast between a page filled with mourning text and a page of just eleven short words, between black and white, victim and perpetrator, demonstrates how the many deaths within the black community have one root cause: the bias suspicion of white men. This message is effectively conveyed through her careful formatting.

Not only does Rankine deal with American race relations, but certain sections also cover international and European events, like Zidane’s headbutt at the end of the World Cup in 2006. Rankine has chosen quotations from many different places and people, though their very relevant and similar ideas makes for a difficult read on the “insidious” (122) nature of racist language. Rankine shows the true power of words by amalgamating the quotations of many authors and unifying the rage felt by those on the receiving end of them. Printed in large letters across the fold of the two pages is the phrase “Black-Blanc-Beur” (122). This racially inclusive french phrase being stamped on the pages perhaps shows the hypocrisy of the french’s own ideas of inclusivity. Rankine does not write any of her own words in this section, simply making a collage of the words of others. Perhaps in giving the piece many voices, Rankine shows that many share this same feeling of restrained yet volatile outrage against racial injustice.

The format changes again in the section concerning athlete Serena Williams. Rankine’s language becomes more prosaic, the layout more traditionally reminiscent of a novel as opposed to a poem. The usage of “you,” as opposed to “I” as seen in the prose poetry previously continues throughout this section. The speaker and, through this use of “you”, also the reader, are watching Serena Williams’s career unfold through televised events, and watching the prejudices against a black player unfold in a sport with a “white background” (32). This viewpoint emphasis the scrutiny Williams is under, portraying her as an other, as someone who does not belong, facing criticism for more than just her on-court fowls. Rankine successfully harnesses Williams’s experience, and how that effected her, feeling these slights come “out of history, through (Williams), onto (Rankine)” (32). As a fan, the speaker watches Williams swallow her anger and wonder why. Rankine uses Williams’s strife as an example of of the troubles all of the “black bodies thrown against” her “American background” (32).

In her review of Citizen for The Guardian, Kate Kellaway states that it “may or may not be poetry” and that “the question becomes insignificant as one reads on.” It is clear that for Rankine that subject matter is more important than poetic structure. It may be that Rankine’s unique “unsettled hybrid” is a much more relevant and thought provoking way to talk about race, and perhaps this is the first wave of popular and uncomfortable literature of this kind.

References

Rankine, C. Citizen: An American Lyric. Penguin Poetry. 2015

Kellaway, Kate. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine review – the ugly truth of racism. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/30/claudia-rankine-citizen-american-lyric-review Accessed on 15/10/2017

Images

http://www.msnbc.com/sites/msnbc/files/styles/ratio–83-34–830×340/public/articles/rtr318h0.jpg?itok=CfaWj-J8

https://cdn.newsday.com/polopoly_fs/1.12244995.1472615368!/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/display_960/image.jpg

Deconstructing the Body: Identity and Power in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me

Coates’s letter to his son provides an urgently chastising, thoughtful look at a relationship with the black body alongside power and inequality and how this reports on the way race operates in America. African American identity and the concept of the black body are tragically intertwined through what the residue of slavery has left behind in the form of “body economics” – a fixation on power over the black body is woven into identity, agency and power over your own body, as well as social and political powers over the body. Coates probes at the collective identity associated with the black body in America and how this informs personal identity.

Coates & his son
Coates & his son

Frantz Fanon’s sociogenic principle in Black Skin, White Masks provides a useful lens through which to unpick and sort some these ideas as it theorises physical proof of history and heritage as being manifest in the body. A Western perception of Africa as having no recognisable history/civilisation therefore negates the black body to the Western gaze as being culturally insignificant. So, regardless of origin, the black body becomes sociologically entwined with a metanarrative that simultaneously individualises and multiplies the non-historicity of Africa. Coates’ understanding that ‘serious history was the West, and the West was white’ (43) aligns with this in attributing history to a bodily representation.

‘The god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be’ – Coates (70)

Coates uses “bodies” and “the body” as an ideology, exploring multiplicity of definition as a broader term for representing organisations and systems of power whose influence permeates society. This presents power struggles latent in government, schools, class systems that are all organised into collective bodies. The book itself is organised into three bodies of text, aligning form with content and Coates’s extension of the metaphor of the body builds an inescapable dichotomy of the streets and the schools as ‘arms of the same beast’ (32) – begging the question: what other beasts are there?

920x920

Coates asks the reader to imagine these beasts, to reconsider the power that one body has over another due to the culmination of their individual experiences, class, race, and repeatedly reinforces this inequality through the globally recognised example of police brutality and the murders of unarmed African Americans. Coates’s reader is directed to face the gaze of the uncomfortable truth. Indeed, from a globalised perspective in American news/media, repeated police shootings on unarmed black bodies is so common that it mostly remains un-broadcasted in its ordinariness. Coates equates the ‘plunder of black life’ as ‘an intelligence’ (111) as if its regularity asserts it as a known fact, logical and long-established. This idea of understanding and knowledge as being inextricably linked to power (intellectually and bodily) is reflected in the conception of schools and streets as powerful bodies in their own right – ‘Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later’ (25).
Coates’s defining observation that ‘race is the child of racism, not the father’ (7) shows racism ostensibly as the construction of a Said-like “Other” – a reaction against the black body. This is a principle echoed by other contemporary writers as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in Americanah ‘I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.’ (Adichie, 291). For Coates, this “Othering” acts to distil our own sense of belonging as ‘Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border … We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe’ (60).

‘Is class secondary to race?’ – David Smith, Guardian

The tortured fixation on the murder of Prince Jones shows the inescapability of the black body and the powerlessness of not having control over your own body as two sides of the same coin (or arms of the same beast). The act of murder dehumanised Prince Jones, flouting his untouchable status and rendering him powerless. In Coates’ interview with Jones’ mother, there is a distinct comparison, almost a slippage between Prince Jones and abolitionist Solomon Northup – ‘He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back’ (145). The dislocation of power over your own body and control in your own life negates a basic human right and threatens any notion of safety. As in the case of Michael Brown – Angela Hume theorises ‘the proper name that came to epitomise the problem of police violence against young black men is that of the place, whose history of racial discrimination facilitated the shooting’ (Hume, 93) as even in death these victims are not in control of their own body. George Yancy notes ‘the historical plasticity of the body, the fact that it is a site of contested meanings, speaks to the historicity of its “being” as lived and meant within the interstices of social semiotics’ (Yancy, 216). Jones’ murder shows control over the body in safety and protection as directly correlative with control over social status and the potential for change, providing proof that race trumps class in a bleak outlook of upward social mobility for African Americans.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda. Americanah. London: Harper Collins. 2013.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and me. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company. 2015.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Mask. London: Pluto Press. 2017.

Hume, Angela. “Towards an Anti-Racist Eco-poetics: Waste and Wasting in the Poetry of Claudia Rankine”. Contemporary Literature. Vol 57(1). University of Wisconsin Press. 2016. Pp 79-110.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin Modern Classics. 2003.

Smith, David. “Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Laureate of Black Lives”. 8 October 2017. Accessed 16 October 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/08/ta-nehisi-coates-our-story-is-a-tragedy-but-doesnt-depress-me-we-were-eight-years-in-power-interview>

Yancy, George. “Whiteness and the Return of the Black Body”. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Vol 19(4). Penn State University Press. 2005. Pp 215-241.

Images Cited

Coates & his son: Lawrence Public Library  [accessed online 16/10/17] <http://www.lawrence.lib.ks.us/2015/08/between-the-world-and-me/>

Black Lives Matter Protest: San Francisco Chronicle [accessed online 16/10/17] <http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Camp-kids-lead-Oakland-Black-Lives-Matter-8402179.php#photo-10627050>

“HE JUST SHOOK HIS HEAD AT ME. SAID SOMETHING TO THE EFFECT THAT MY FATHER WOULD BE ASHAMED OF ME AND THAT I’D NEVER UNDERSTAND. AND HE’S RIGHT. I NEVER WILL” GENERATIONAL DIVIDES AND RACISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY IN PAUL BEATTY’S ‘THE SELLOUT’

Amongst the many boundaries that emerge amongst the characters in Paul Beatty’s 2015 novel The Sellout, a consistent theme of generational division provides the backdrop to a lot of the narrative. It is through this means, Beatty seeks to create a tension between the African-American in modern American society and that of the older generations, with memories of the civil rights movement and segregation along colour lines still fresh in the collective imagination.

From the beginning of the novel, Beatty makes it apparent that he considers racism to be very much existent in modern society, as something that bubbles beneath the radar. Racism has taken on new insidious forms in the 21st century, with a character at the zoo’s “Freudian slip of the tongue” leading to a tragi-comic apology to the narrator that “some of my best friend’s are monkeys” (pg. 5, Beatty). Beatty touches upon these slippages and forms of racism in a November 2016 interview with the New Statesmen, noting how these types of ideas can escalate into something far greater. Beatty uses an earthquake analogy, saying “a little tremor can upset you more than a big earthquake, in a weird way. Little tremors add up. They also signal a big tremor’s coming”(pg. 45, The New Statesman), a fitting comparison of how the rise of white supremacist movements and neo-Nazism has reared its ugly head in modern day America.

paul beatty

A crucial relationship emerges between the narrator and his father. Although occasionally illuminated with anecdotes that suggest of a begrudging respect, there appears to be little familial warmth between the pair. Beatty riffs on racial stereotyping (‘Daddy, like many black men, had lots of kids’ (pg. 36, Beatty)), in the creation of this father figure and depicts him as an authoritarian, repeatedly quizzing his son on examples of racial injustice throughout American history. Yet the narrator appears keen to emerge from the shadow cast by his father, and to be indicative of a new identity emerging in African-American society, typified in the novel by his reluctance to follow in his father’s footsteps (pg. 61, Beatty).

The narrator however holds Hominy Jenkins in a much more respectful esteem. Hominy, ‘a sort of Little Rascals stunt coon’ (pg. 71, Beatty), appears intent on restoring Dickens to a society where he felt like he knew his place and, ultimately, meant something to the locals, yet finds his significance on the wane in contemporary society. Jenkins seeks a return to when racism and segregation are played out to their obvious extremes, to remove the veil that disguises pre-existing prejudices.

 

‘Feigned or not, sometimes I’m jealous of Hominy’s obliviousness, because he, unlike America has turned the page. That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book-that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.’ (pg. 115, Beatty)

 

By creating a universe where racial segregation has been re-introduced, Beatty ironizes the inherent ridiculousness of the entire situation in some sort of reverse Rosa Parks fashion. When Hominy presents his seat to a white passenger on the bus (‘less an offer of his place than a bequeathal’), the writing is framed with the language of a peasant meeting royalty, highlighting the absurdity of the whole practice in the first place. For a humourist writer such as Beatty, the opportunity to mock and play with the image is too hard to resist.

Rosa Parks: an introvert who changed the world.

What appears to be less played for laughs is the treatment of Hominy and other black actors during the 1940s and 50s. The characterisation of Buckwheat in the Little Rascals almost defies comprehension, an image made even more harrowing by the realisation that it is not some distorted form of re-imagined history, but is firmly entrenched in reality. Footage can be easily watched or obtained online, and although not limited to the Little Rascals, depictions can be categorised as, at best, stereotypical, to the unflinching reality of being an indefensibly offensive display of overt racism. Maybe this is where The Sellout sets out its challenge to the reader; was it a more comfortable version of society that knew and flaunted its racism, or one that lives in a ‘post-racial’ myth? The comparison is laid out bare when Stevie and Panache reflect on what Hominy had to go through, with Stevie thinking that Hominy and every other black actor is deserving of a Lifetime Achievement Award ‘because you guys had it hard’, to which Panache adds ‘Still do…I know what Hominy’s gone through. I’ve had directors tell me, ‘We need more black in this scene. Can you black it up? Then you say, ‘Fuck you, you racist motherfucker!’ And they go, ‘Exactly, don’t lose that intensity!’’ (pg. 282, Beatty)

The Sellout may be driven throughout by frequent and generous dashes of humour, yet a lot of the ideas and images that are presented to the readers also come back to a very serious argument. The racism of the past will always be present in contemporary society and no sort of discussions about a ‘post-racial’ society can shift that. Yet in trying to carve out a new identity separate from the mould of the generation of his father and The Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, the narrator is able to question and challenge the position of the contemporary African-American in a post-segregation, post-slavery society: ‘So what exactly is our thing?’. Maybe the answer is just as frightening.

References

Beatty, Paul. The Sellout. Oneworld: London, 2015.

Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, ed. Beatty (Bloomsbury, 2006).

William E. Cross, ‘The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience’, Black World 20.9 (1971), pp.13–27.

Gatti, Tom. “‘I Invented a Richter Scale of Racism’: The Booker Prizewinner Paul Beatty on Taking Offence, Decoding Trump and Why He Isn’t a Satirist.” New Statesman, no. 5339, 2016, p. 44. EBSCOhost, queens.ezp1.qub.ac.uk/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsggo&AN=edsgcl.472988130&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Videos Cited:

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nf9SkLYrWU]

Images Cited:

Paul Beatty image: Alastair Grant/AP http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2016/10/25/ap_16299789746078_wide-50a021e1f2708e4353f740eed9124fb9f88e2aa6-s800-c85.jpg

Rosa Parks image: United Press photohttp://50thanniversarymarchonwashington.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Rosa-Parks-an-introvert-w-007.jpg

STUCK IN ‘THE STANK’; The Dystopian Carousel of the Contemporary and it’s Comedic Crutch in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout By Rebecca Mc Alister

 Beatty’s The Sellout immediately catapults us onto a frenzied carousel with no working stop pedal as he unhinges and distorts a multitude of preconceived social, cultural and racial identities and stereotypes associated with a sense of ‘being’ in the now. Our nameless ‘Me’s’ outrageous comedic stand-up routine infiltrates the narrative as a ‘plethora’ of potential offenses roll raucously off his tongue, softened at every corner by the transparent spit of his sarcasm:

‘No doubt, nigger’ ‘wereniggers’…’Negress. Jewess. Poetess.’ …’…why    can’t black people have their own Chinese restaurants?‘” (97 – 103)

As the carousel reaches optimum speed, we spin faster and faster out of control, laughing maniacally, round and round but never forward as a cacophony of blurred, faceless faces ‘snap, crackle and pop’ (32) momentarily in front of our eyes.  The distorted faces dissolve without enabling us to fully grasp at any clarity of what is truly meant by individuality, identity and ‘being’ in the contemporary.  In an interview promoting his award winning novel, Beatty reaffirms that ‘Inside out things can be funny‘ and that ‘It’s always ok to laugh.’  Does Beatty’s humour however begin to resemble what Berlant coins as ‘Cruel Optimism’, as it becomes a reciprocal vehicle promising relief from the ‘lack of focus’ in the present by distracting us from it’s horror through laughing at it’s absurdity?

space_time_distortion_1_by_13tangerines-d3b2jq9

Beatty appears self-conscious about how his comedy symbolizes the Contemporary World itself; like Hominey’s whippings, we can endure the painful lashes of racist and sexist slurs so long as they remain entrapped in the comedic language of the novel.  What happens however when the LOL’s fade and we have no more pages to read? Do we become like Marpessa, demanding comedy from all our contemporary literature just as she demands that Bon-bon make her laugh (prioritizing humour even over sexual fulfillment) to make life more bearable?

If comedy is our drug, then Beatty is our dealer, extending a magical ‘satsuma’ towards us in the midst of the horrific ‘Stank’; simultaneously providing an escape route and a reminder of the intangible understanding of what constitutes ‘being’ in the present. This becomes vivid as our narrator describes the first comic to make him laugh at the open-mic night at the Dum-Dum Donuts club:

“His eyes protruded wildly from his head like they were trying to escape the mental madness therein…’Your mama been on welfare so long, her face is on the food stamp'”(286)

This pivotal joke, which induces our narrator’s early appetite for comedy, merges the attempt to define social identity in the present with the materials we are dependent on for economical human survival, just as we as readers become dependent on the stand up performance of our narrator in order to breathe a little more easily as he rhymes off constant slurs, which we might otherwise take offence at.

‘The Stank’ is much less potent on Hominey’s ‘Party Bus’ of re-segregation and racial oppression.  Much like Beatty’s humour throughout the novel, the bus provides a temporary safe place from the indeterminate plurality of identities in the contemporary.  The faux-regulation signs attempting to reinstate the antiquated legislation of segregation (which our narrator offers to Hominey as a Birthday present), become temporarily omnipotent in allowing characters to clutch hold of a sense of past identity, which, whilst saturated in racism and oppression still appears more concrete and affirmative than surrendering to the anonymity of the now:

“Hominey Jenkins couldn’t wait to give up his seat to a white person.  Grandfather of the post-racial civil rights movement known as ‘The Standstill’ he sat in the front of the bus, on the edge of his aisle seat, giving each new rider the once-over…’PRIORTY SEATING FOR SENIORS, DISABLED AND WHITES’ “(127-128)

In his article, ‘Neoliberalism, the ideology at the root of all our problems’, George Monbiot describes the destructive domino effect which feelings of ‘anonymity’ has had on economy, politics and indeed humanity in the present:

‘The ‘anonymity’ (of neo-liberalism) ‘is both a symptom and cause of its power …the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump’.

 Donald Trum Caricature

In our comatose state, we as readers digress from the unsettling questions around the paradoxes of the present through laughing at characters who are desperately trying to align their individual sense of human identity with something definitive in a world where humanity has become precarious. Both readers and characters are in avoidance of this truth whilst ironically pursuing it through laughing at it’s comic value.  In his Introduction to Twenty-First Century Fiction, Boxall emphasizes this argument claiming that ‘Laughter is the World’s Best Medicine Next to Morphine’; after all, if the world wasn’t so out of focus, we wouldn’t need such strong comic opiates to further blur how unfocused a position we are in.  We, as readers, have become the little girl vomiting on Bonbon’s’ farm – delirious and sick from the cocktail of delicious, seemingly nourishing satsumas (symbolic of Beatty’s comedy) and the rotten stagnation of the ‘Stank’ (the contemporary).  Overwhelmed and giddy with the sensation, yet none the wiser, our vomit annihilates a colony of ants minding their own business, whom after all, I assume, are more certain of their place in the world than we are.

Orange Stand up Comedy

Beatty further exploits notions of the precariousness of the contemporary through comically fusing the historical language of sacrifice and suffering incongruously with that of ‘the celebrity’ and ‘selfie’-culture:

‘Because how dare I remove the martyr before they had an opportunity for a photo op.’(50)

These two dialects constitute a perfect Tinder-Match in a contemporary post-truth society, where ‘the Celebrity’ is hailed as the ‘newest race’ (273) and fame is coveted as crucial in winning the battle of survival of the fittest in the now.  Two characters who desperately seek to reinstate their sense of identity through their fading celebrity status are Hominey Jenkins and Foy Cheshire.

In the battle arena for best ‘performance’ within the novel, our narrator pitches Hominey Jenkins against Foy Cheshire every step of the way. Despite these seemingly polarized characterizations of the contemporary; Hominey as racial regression (clutching onto the segregated glory of his celebrity past) versus the forging of a progressive ‘black’ identity  in Foy (desperately pushing forever forwards, ignoring the paradoxical multiplicities that stand in his way), Hominey and Foy form an extension of one another; the symbol of a dysfunctional present, in which attempts to learn from the wrongs of the past does not mean we possess any authority to actually move on from it.

Whilst we may favour Hominey over Foy, the self-elected slave is not ignorant of the comic irony implicit in his own enslavement, which actually serves to provide him with temporary liberation from the dystopia of identities in the present:

“Hominey simply pulled down his pants, shit on my geraniums, and wiped his ass with his freedom, then handed it back to me…’Medium intelligence?’ he asked, raising a gray eyebrow. ‘ One, I know what year it is. Two, true freedom is having the right to be a slave.” (82-83)

Watermelon, The Sellout

Contrastingly, Foy Cheshire’s ultimate rage and rejection of any humour associated with racial stereotypes inspires us to abandon him as a character; an irritating antagonist.  In my merely ‘processed’ mind (195) however, Foy is the greatest tragedy of the novel, unable to laugh at himself, he fails to make us laugh; humour pains him as he suffers a drive by orange-ing whilst the majority of the inhabitants of Dickens (or non-Dickens) depend upon gorging on the sickly sweet satsuma juice in order to withstand surviving in the uprooted world of the present:

“I definitely recognized the scent of the orange that one of the assailants had thrown upside Foy’s head – that was one of my satsumas.-‘Foy, you okay?’…’Don’t touch me! This is war, and I know whose side you’re on!'” (196)

Beatty ensures that in the end Foy Cheshire loses in this battle – he cannot embrace humour and so is defeated by it, holding on for dear life to the Little Rascals footage which ironically exposes him as ‘Black Folk’ (281). Perhaps however, we as readers are the losers here too; dependent on the LOL’s, we refuse, like Hominey, to look to the apocalyptic abyss of what ‘being’ might amount to in the future, rejecting the breakdown embodied by Foy, of a progression from the past we once believed to be possible.

Through inducing a self-awareness of our dependency on humour and performance in the present to cope with being in the present, Beatty’s novel enslaves us to comedy as a mechanism through which to both distance and illuminate our understanding of the now; much like we are enslaved to the paradoxical prison of pluralisms in the contemporary. Perhaps humour is becoming so vital in the now that future time periods will one day be labelled ‘The Ironic’, ‘The Comic Impasse’ or simply ‘The LOL’, so absurd will our existence have become. Until then, we remain strapped (yet squirming) into the ‘thickly padded chair’ of today (3), and what else can we do here but try to laugh?

 

Works Cited

Beatty, Paul. The Sellout. Oneworld: London, 2015.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press: 2011, Print.

Boxall, Peter. Twenty-First-Century-Fiction: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press: New York, 2013.

D’Ancona, Matthew. Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back.Ebury Press: London, 2017.

Monbiot, George. Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems. The Guardian, 2016:https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot

 

Images Cited

https://13tangerines.deviantart.com/art/space-time-distortion-1-199993185

https://sterfest.deviantart.com/art/Orange-Doing-Stand-Up-Comedy-360609001

Selwyn, Matthew. The Sellout by Paul Beatty. Bibliofreak.net: December 2016:https://www.bibliofreak.net/2016/12/review-sellout-by-paul-beatty.html

Countering Neat Optimism: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

Despite the author’s name being uncannily attuned to the topic of race, when I began to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad  the language of the novel did not seem to be racially inflected. The voice of the novel is neither ‘black’ nor ‘white’; neither  naively critical nor coolly detached from the history of oppression which it takes as its subject. While the narrative is flush with the situation of black oppression, the narrative voice suggests to me a disavowal of any particular racial identity. This apparent neutrality enables Whitehead to fulfil Nietzsche’s criterion of grasping his own time through “disconnection and anachronism”.(40), a strategy the author utilises to question the narrative of progress that typically underlies reflections on race.

Whitehead selects the abolitionist historiographic fact of the underground rail network to frame the narrative of self-congratulatory liberalism which underlies it. In doing so, Whitehead pungently  draws parallels between recent tensions in America regarding policebrutality and the “Black Lives Matter” movement,and race relations in antebellum America.

April 15th 2017, several thousand people joined in a march to the Seattle courthouse to demand attention for black rights and the police brutality.
April 15th 2017, several thousand people joined in a march to the Seattle courthouse to demand attention for black rights and the police brutality.

The novel is a story of failed liberation. Cora’s escape recalls obvious precursors such as Frederick Douglass, but retropes them. Whitehead implicitly criticises Douglass’ tone of contented liberalism when recounting his escape: “I could, as a free man, look across the bay toward the Eastern Shore where I was born a slave”. Countering Douglas’ neat optimism, Cora’s liberation introduces her to future forms of oppression as she effectively only moves from one “hob” to another in South Carolina. Exploiting generic ambiguities, Whitehead  marks Cora’s escape as only a beginning. Diverging from the traditional realism of the genre, Whitehead draws on a type of science-fiction in order to show that Cora’s journey is not necessarily towards liberation but into an ambiguous future.

While Whitehead acknowledges that the novel feeds parasitically off slave narratives, he produces a freedom narrative in which there is no freedom. The train of the underground railway may lead to freedom or it may not. What it conveys,  if only minimally, is a sense of possibility. The unknowing of what will happen next is shared by Cora and the reader. Both are drawn into the possibly overwhelming task of making sense of postbellum experience

Is our pleasure in the novel implicated in the moral ambiguity at its heart? The epistemic deprivation in the novel is in part exhilarating, matching the prose. This introduces a productive tension between form and content. The vicious reality of the story, against the exhilaration of the prose. The readership is cleverly implicated in the novel’s brutality through the pleasure we take from it, an approach which closes the temporal gap between then and now, and the moral rift between oppressor and the liberated.

With that in mind, the relationship between Cora and her pursuer, Ridgeway, is perhaps the most interesting in the story; and an important structuring device in the novel as a whole. As Mabel effectively abandons Cora while Caesar is killed off conveniently, Ridgeway and Cora are novel’s most enduring relationship. Ridgeway endures, even suggestively beyond Cora’s final bid for freedom, and his near death. Ridgeway will of necessity enjoy a rich afterlife, just as the spirit personified in him stalks the neoliberal 21 st century. Ridgeway, like the master in Hegel’s dialectic is also dependent on his slave for his identity which he gains through Cora’s recognition of him. Cora and Ridgeway is an example of an affective relationship produced out of the heart of capital. This would mean then that the relationship between the oppressor and oppressed is the hinge of the book. An analysis of the relationship between Cora and Ridgeway actually enables larger questions, such as those to do with identity. Are identities given or are they produced? Ambiguously enough, identities are often produced through bodily suffering, just as they are fixed for history in violent death.

When Cora moves on from her position as the Anderson’s maid, she becomes a living reenactment of the process of slavery in the South Carolina Museum. The three displays of Darkest Africa, Life on the Slave Ship and Typical Day on the Plantation are a suggestive a microcosm of the novel. Just as Cora is confined to these displays, so is the discourse of white atrocities confined to the novel. The readership is challenged with an accusation of mirroring “the dumb, opened jawed stares of the patrons, stealing her back to a state of display” (125).

The configuration of the display also introduces the novel’s preoccupation with linearity. Cora initially reflects on her preferred sense of historical order: “The progression from Plantation to Slave ship, to Darkest Africa generated a soothing logic. It was like going back in time, an unwinding of America” (125). She agrees to Isis’ request to switch rooms. This sacrifice alters her schedule meaning “she would end the day a slave” (125). By extension, Whitehead asks us to question our own sense that history has been consummated in our own cultural and political dispensation.

 

Although this rumour of reparations is untrue, there is contemporary desire to dismiss and retain restrain the concept of  slavery as nothing more than an historical event.  Even the mention of slavery as a affective to the modern day sparks controversy and uproar.
Although this rumour of reparations is untrue, there is contemporary desire to dismiss and retain restrain the concept of slavery as nothing more than an historical event .Even the mention of slavery as a affective to the modern day sparks controversy and uproar.

In order to draw parallels between past and present Whitehead spatializes history;  juxtaposing historical slavery and the 2012 Presidential election of Barack Obama. With a disruptive narrative, characterised by uncertainty,  we are denied the comfort of reading slavery as a legacy. Instead, we are confronted with an awareness of slavery as a constant contemporary presence.

The novel ends on the question of liberation, but not the promise of it. As Cora emerges from the underground railroad and clambers into a wagon heading West, there is perhaps a crude suggestion of the American myth. It is tempting to think that the trajectory of the novel figures the inevitable cinematic adaptation, in the culture industry with which the west, and its myths, are enduringly associated.

There is a certain sublimity about this novel. It exceeds our categories, and our feelings. It writes about a history which is incommensurate to our understanding, let alone to our feelings. It makes us intimate with the specificity of historical atrocity, at the same times as it disarms us of the tools with which we would understand it. It is also sublimely ambitious, taking as its subject matter, the realities of contemporary neo-liberalism; the penetration of capital into private intimacies as much as public spaces.

In  reference to Michelle Obama’s 2016 speech: “Every morning I wake up in a house built by slaves”, Kelly Clarkson refutes any disassociation of slavery from the present day.
In reference to Michelle Obama’s 2016 speech: “Every morning I wake up in a house built by slaves”, Kelly Clarkson refutes any disassociation of slavery from the present day.

 

References 

Agamben, Giorgio. (2009) ‘What is the Contemporary?’, in (ed.) What is an Apparatus?. Stanford: Stanford Univeristy Press, pp. 41-56.

Colson, Whitehead (2017) The Underground Railroad, London: Fleet .

Clarkson, Kelly (@kelly-clarkson). “Pretty sure the slaves that built it didn’t like it either.” 26 July 2016. 11:00pm. Tweet.

Mikkelson, David. Obama Pushes Reparations for Slavery. 2015. Slave State, New York. Snopes. Image.1st October 2017.

Warren, Ted. Black Lives Matter Protest. 2017. Black Lives Matter, Chicago. Chicago Tribune. Image. 1st October 2017.

 

“Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant:” Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Marxist Cultural Theory, and reshaping the twenty-first century slave narrative.

 

The unstoppable, rolling prose of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad holds the attention as gently, yet firmly, as the mother holding the child’s hand. Absorbed in the offering of a runaway slave on her road to freedom, readers could lose themselves in the destined final confrontation between middle-teen Cora, and the prowling figure of Ridgeway, for whom Cora is the embodiment of her own mother, his only failure as a slave-catcher.

However, to read this novel thusly, is to unforgivably miss it’s true value. For Cora’s mother does not lead her gently, yet firmly to freedom. She abandons her in the night. As a child. With no explanation and no resolution.

In reading The Underground Railroad, Julian Lucas has theorised on the lingering nature of slavery in the contemporary, twenty-first century, American hive mind;

Today, slavery remains the American unrepresentable. It is the perennial confession of the national conscience, perpetually on the verge of being made. (Lucas)

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A concealed underground chamber in Niagra County, New York. These tunnels show how Cora made her descent into the railroad.

In accepting such translucent guilt, we can reveal Whitehead’s novel, not in line with Lucas’ vision of other contemporary efforts to narrate the slave era (of “exceptional Negroes and white saviours triumphing over oppression”) (Lucas), but as a less optimistic novel, for a less optimistic time. Whitehead, an African American novelist and lifelong writer, has witnessed first-hand from his New York home, Clinton’s One America Initiative, and the hitherto unthinkable milestone of a black man taking residence in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And he has also witnessed the rise, and stutter of Black Lives Matter; the brutal distress of Ferguson, echoed throughout the US; and the success in the most recent Presidential election of a candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

The Underground Railroad is not a fairy-tale, nor even a story of a hero’s triumph at all. Cora is, at best, a “sceptical heroine” (Lucas), and this is the point; Whitehead’s deft prose alone is evidence of his ability to write a story of triumph and emotion – and sales. What he offers instead falls in line with what Lauren Berlant identifies as the “everyday life theory” within the wider aspects of Marxist Cultural Theory. Of this strand, she writes;

(Everyday life theory) focusses on the historical novel precisely for its address to the normative affective sensorium that registers history in transitional moments that are both in continuous time and stand out from within it. (Berlant, 2)

In examining closer, we can see the agreement between what Berlant says above, and Lucas’ aforementioned views on the ever-present ghost of slavery in twenty-first century America. While Whitehead’s novel can appear grotesque and unduly (corpses hung from trees as rotting ornaments… ‘the bodies go all the way to town’”) (Whitehead, 182-3), to dismiss the novel as such is to discard it’s role in forming a narrative of slavery as similarly grotesque and unduly. Whitehead parallels not only the bondage endured by his fore fellows, but also echoes the futility to escape from slavery, with the ‘continuous,’  cyclical nature of racial tensions in the twenty-first century; “a black boy has no future, free papers or no,” (243).

The Underground Railroad is both reflective of, and response to, America’s uncomfortable inability to confront the atrocities of it’s past. Whitehead comments not only on the history of African Americans, but goes further,  comparing the history between American settler’s and Native Americans. Cora questions “the truth of our historic encounter,” in parallels between the museum performances in South Carolina of a “red Indian” receiving parchment from “noble” white men (137-138). Thus, The Underground Railroad presents these images and events in line with Marxist Theory as both transitional and identifiable in history. The struggles between ‘white men’ and their Native and African counterparts are unresolved issues which hover over every word of Whitehead’s contemporary twenty-first century America.

tur 2

Slaves work a cotton field, under the watchful eye of a white overseer

Whitehead’s novel ends not with an arrival at Eden, nor even with any real promise of salvation. Here, Whitehead breaks from some contemporary representation. To use Lucas’ preferred examples, The Underground Railroad lacks the noble helping hand of a white Brad Pitt in 12 Years A Slave. Neither however, does Cora echo Tarantino’s Django in representing the (black) hero riding off into the sunset. Instead, Cora is accepted by a black man on his journey, but only after being shunned and left by his white travelling companions.

But this is not merely the final hurling of fatality by Whitehead; instead he reflects the continuing process of black and white in America – the slave’s choice lay before them as ever; any place, but where they had escaped,” (82). Whitehead ends his novel with forward motion. As in his unrelenting, driving prose, in which entire life stories can be told in six pages (see Ajarry, the story of Cora’s grandmother), his novel has no real ending, but continues to drive forward into the contemporary narrative of twenty-first century America, echoing Berlant’s model of trauma in “experiencing the present as an ongoing process and project of collective sensory detection,” (Berlant, 2). The Underground Railroad can be read in line with theory, not as a damnation, but as an exercise in therapeutic discussion, and as promising some, eventual end to racial tension;

If the north had eliminated slavery, one day the abominable institution would fall everywhere. The negro’s story may have started in this country with degradation, but triumph and prosperity would be his one day (311).

The Underground Railroad is simultaneously criticism and rousing. Cora’s journey from certain damnation (shown in the physical corpses both of blacks and whites which surround her character) to no real destination, perhaps only a situation no better than that from whence she came, reflects the African American journey American’s journey from slavery to the twenty-first century. Whitehead is adamant that the mere motion is imperative, but holds no promise to deliverance.

Bibliography

Berlant, Lauren. “Institutionists: History and the Affective Event.” Oxford Journals; American Literary History. 14 August 2008. Accessed 29/9/17.
<https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/politicalfeeling/files/2009/01/berlant-intuitionists.pdf>

Lucas, Julian. “New Black World’s to Know.” The New York Review of Books. 29 September 2016. Accessed 29/9/2017
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/09/29/colson-whitehead-new-black-worlds/>

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Fleet, 2016.

 

Image Credits

Rivers, Tom. “Students make a stop on the Underground Railroad.” Orleans Hub. 16 March, 2015. Accessed 29 September 2017.
<https://orleanshub.com/students-make-a-stop-on-underground-railroad/>

“Slavery and the Old South.” The American Journey: A History of the United States (Brief Sixth Edition). Copyright 20011, 2008, Pearson Education. Accessed 29 September 2017.
<https://image.slidesharecdn.com/slaveryslideshow-chapter11-131029094116-phpapp02/95/slavery-slideshow-chapter-11-20-638.jpg?cb=1383039774>