Understanding Divisive Ideologies and Oppressive Institutions in Literature and Life

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Divisive ideologies and oppressive institutions are the basis of all works of literature that center around slavery and segregation. Divisive essentially means causing disagreements or some sort of hostility between people. During slavery and segregation both divisive ideologies are most present; focusing on notions of race, gender, class, nationality, or ethnicity. At the same time, oppressive institutions, such as political, economic, social, or educational spheres, are often correlated with divisive ideologies in the same genres. Politically, the white race dominated society and created the laws that benefitted them. In doing so, this created hostility between the African American community and the white society. Looking specifically at literature, Toni Morrison explains perfectly in her article “Black Matters” that

As a disabling virus within literary discourse, Africanism has become, in the Eurocentric tradition that American education tradition favors, both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual license, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and meditations on ethics and accountability.

Morrison’s novel Beloved is a prime example to decipher both divisive ideologies and oppressive institutions.

Assuming that there is an understanding about the novel, one can quickly denote the haunting of the house and the mysterious spirit of Beloved as the infant that Sethe felt inclined to kill. This murderous act is a divisive ideology.

And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe (Morrison 163).

The quote signifies the importance and simplicity of having to kill her children, but also shows her difficulty in having to lose them. She would rather her children die than force her children to endure the pain and suffering of slavery. This divisive ideology is through race and ethnicity. Because she is of African descent, she is seen as inferior: not just Sethe, but all persons of African descent. As a result, the white man colonized both Africa and the Americas and enslaved people of color. This created both disagreements and hostility between blacks and whites, and forced many African Americans to rebel against white society in ways that often inflicted pain upon themselves. In this case, Sethe lost a child, in order to set her child free. However, viewing slavery in a way of colonizing lands, one can also view post-slavery as a form of internal colonization.

After slavery it was the white business owners whom profited. They employed their white counter parts and continued to underpay the desperate black men and women. Although this was internal colonization because the white man was controlling the wealth produced by the black workers, it can still be compared to the other forms of colonialism.

Colonization involves direct territorial appropriation of another geopolitical entity, combined with forthright exploitation of its resources and labor, and systematic interference in the capacity of the appropriated culture (itself not necessarily a homogenous entity) to organize its dispensations of power. Internal colonization occurs where the dominant part of a country treats a group or region as it might a foreign colony (McClintock 295).

Looking at the universal aspect of slavery, white Europeans conquered the African continent for personal gain. They took resources and people to make a profit. This notion exemplifies oppressive institutions, more so in a political sense. Socially, during the era that Sethe lives in Beloved, the oppressive institution is both educational and social. African Americans are still outcasts and segregated from society. Even more so, Sethe’s act to kill her child and the haunting of her home creates a social barrier that enforces her to be distant from her own peers.

Literature about slavery was often “white-washed”; in other words, it was influenced by Eurocentric ideologies. Morrison’s novel incorporates the oppressive institution of slavery, but formats Beloved in a manner that speaks from the black perspective. While some of her characters disagree with the actions of Sethe, almost glorifying slavery and acknowledging Mr. Garner as a man who was somewhat kind, the majority of the novel speaks to the despicable pain and torture slaves faced and the desperation one woman had to free her children. Willa Cather’s novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl ends up contradicting the entire premise of the novel by promoting Eurocentric views and ideologies of slavery according to Toni Morrison:

Yet even, or especially, here where the novel ends Cather feels obliged to gesture compassionately toward slavery. Through Till’s agency the elevating benevolence of the institution is invoked. Serviceable to the last, this Africanist presence is permitted speech only to reinforce the slaveholder’s ideology, in spite of the fact that it subverts the entire premise of the novel (Morrison 17).

This view point almost hints to a colonization of Eurocentric beliefs on black literature. Why do some writers feel “obliged” to glorify the institution of slavery? It’s a rhetorical question that does require some thought. In this day and age, one would think that black writers can be free to write about the truths of slavery and other colonized nations that suffered from the “victims’” perspective, but somehow, there is still one character that hints to a positive aspect of slavery.

The barrier Sethe has formed by her peers, results from the divisive ideology created by race. Due to the thought process whites had towards blacks and their political oppressive institution of slavery, Sethe was submissive. Sethe was not the only one outcasted by both races. White society had a way of pinning the black community against one another, especially in a gender specific manner. “Halle was more like a brother than a husband. His care suggested a family relationship rather than a man’s laying claim” (Morrison 25). There seems to be some sort disconnect between man and woman here. Sethe is talking about her husband, Halle, and how their encounter with one another is not entirely romantic to the extent that she would like. At the same time, this could be due to the fact that during slavery, families were often ripped apart from one another due to being sold off. Detaching from the one you love, perhaps was a coping mechanism for some. Yet, in this seen, it appears to paint Halle, or black men, as unable to fully love a woman. Even the white man seemed to struggle with gender identity in terms of power. Being a man meant having power during that time. Having power meant owning slaves, whether one condoned slavery or not.

“Y’all got boys,” he told them. “Young boys, old boys, picky boys, stroppin boys. Now at Sweet Home, my niggers is men every one of em. Bought em thataway, raised em thataway. Men every one.”

“Beg to differ, Garner. Ain’t no nigger men.”

“Not if you scared, they ain’t.” Garner’s smile was wide. “But if you a man yourself, you’ll want your niggers to be men too.”

“I wouldn’t have no nigger men round my wife.”

It was the reaction Garner loved and waited for. “Neither would I,” he said. “Neither would I,” and there was always a pause before the neighbor, or stranger, or peddler, or brother-in-law or whoever it was got the meaning. Then a fierce argument, sometimes a fight, and Garner came home bruised and please, having demonstrated one more time what a real Kentuckian was: one tough enough and smart enough to make and call his own niggers men (Morrison 10-11).

This conversation offers a slight insight into the type of man Mr. Garner is. In society, blacks – niggers – were property. Garner’s reference to his “niggers” as “men” is unheard of during this time, and gives them a more humanistic nature. No longer is the black man seen as barbaric, but instead as human. However, Garner still owns these “men”, so in some ways it is contradicting. Perhaps Garner is a man confused by the logistics of slavery, but is still entrapped by the idea of power. One must remember that “the very representation of ‘national’ power rests on prior constructions of gender power” (McClintock 298). White males have forever created the idea of power and will continue to be fascinated by the essence of power no matter how right or how wrong, and putting a disadvantage against women and black men and women.

After analyzing Beloved and the articles written by Toni Morrison and Anne McClintock, one can testify that divisive ideologies and oppressive institutions are portrayed throughout the novel and can be put into context with other post-colonized settings. Understanding that race is major divisive ideology in Beloved helps to identify other divisive ideologies portrayed, such as male masculinity and how gender creates that hostile environment between both man and man, and then that between man and woman. Oppressive institutions are the most common to pin point. Identifying the areas in society where one is oppressed is still current even in today’s society and is even more so present in the post-colonial countries. Essentially, Beloved acts as an outstanding model for the representation and further understanding of divisive ideologies and oppressive institutions.

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