This essay discusses slavery. The slaves are motherless, fatherless, deprived of their mates, their children, their kin. It is a world in which people abruptly vanish and are never seen again, not through accident or covert operation or terrorism, but as a matter of everyday legal policy.
Through the different voices and recollections of the book, including that of Sethe’s mother, a survivor of the infamous slave-ship crossing, the reader experiences American slavery as it was lived by those who were its matter of exchange, both at its best – which wasn’t very good – and at its worst, which was as bad as can be anticipated. Above all, it is seen as one of the most viciously antifamily institutions human beings have ever devised. The slaves are motherless, fatherless, deprived of their mates, their children, their kin. It is a world in which people abruptly vanish and are never seen again, not through accident or covert operation or terrorism, but as a matter of everyday legal policy.
Slavery is also presented to us as a standard of how most people behave when they are given complete power over other people. The first effect, of course, is that they start believing in their own superiority and justifying their actions by it. The second effect is that they make a cult of the inferiority of those they vanquish. It’s no coincidence that the first of the fatal sins, from which all the others were supposed to stem is Pride, a sin of which Sethe is, incidentally, also blame.
In a novel that abounds in black bodies – headless, hanging from trees, frying to a crisp, locked in woodsheds for intention of rape, or floating downstream drowned – it isn’t surprising that the ”white people,” particularly the men, are projected in a negative light. Horrified black children see whites as men ”without skin.” Sethe thinks of them as having ”mossy teeth” and is ready, if needed, to bite off their faces, and worse, to avoid further mossy-toothed outrages. There are a few whites who act with something approaching decency.
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