LI’s YA Paper

Reading Slavery from A Post-Colonialism Criticism Perspective

Day of Tears, a truth-telling fiction of the biggest slave auction in American history on March the second and the third, 1859, in Savannah, Georgia, has brought the slavery alive through personal accounts. We, as readers, not only hear the voice choked with tears, see the separation embedded with terror, but also feel the brutal oppression that shows the injustice by the societal ideology at the time. Using post-colonialism criticism that deals with oppression, inequality, and Others as sub-human will be an effective method in helping adolescents to not only acquire accurately historical information but also learn a moral and political lesson. With this purpose in mind, I choose to study this historical event with post-colonialism theory in a subjective reading method to demonstrate how we can read a work, as Lois Tyson states in Critical Theory Today, “doesn’t have to be categorized as postcolonial for us to be able to use postcolonial criticism to analyze it” (418). Thus, in analyzing how the master, the slave buyer and the slaves conceive slavery in this novel provides us the evidences of slavery ideology which is the direct production of colonialism in the form of white suppression. We are going to examine how both the white dominant class and the oppressed slaves look at slavery, how this novel exhibits the oppression and to what degree it shows the reader, and how slaves eventually show signs of resistance to their master in seeking for freedom through their voice and action. I hope this analysis will help us further understand the roots of racial bias existing in today’s American society, and how it harms the harmony of a multi-cultural country. 

As a theoretical framework, according to Tyson, colonialism seeks to understand the operations—politically, socially, culturally, and psychologically-of colonial and anticolonialist ideologies. Thus, Day of Tears would be an ideal novel for us to give the slavery topic a theoretical reading in understanding such operations of ideology. How we are going to do this? Through the main characters’ voice, we can identify the suppression and oppression factors that reflect how deep the slavery ideology has engraved in both the white and the black people’s minds through their languages. For example, the slave owner Pierce Butler’s slave auction is just as what Tyson explains, “othering( colonizers’ treatment of members of the indigenous culture as less than fully human) and colonial oppression in all its forms” ( 427).  The fact of selling 430 slaves in two days itself is an evidence of Butler’s treating the slaves as inferior, animals, or sub-human that can be traded simply because he owns debts due to gambling. His further comments prove the ideology of the white supremacy over the black slaves and also a justification of committing such a horrific crime. He says, “They [slaves] probably aren’t feeling anything. That’s one of the ways niggers are different from white people” (19). In saying so, he has despised them as emotionally unable to feel and intellectually incapable of thinking. And the slave buyer agrees with him, “A mule can’t think. Niggers ain’t no different…I’ve seen some mule that had more sense” (28). This inhuman attitude towards his fellowmen is a typical form of oppression in a colonialism system in which slaves as a race are devalued and dehumanized. This comparison is spoken among the white as if it was a social norm while slave families are experiencing tragic emotional loss in this auction. After examining what the white people’s comments, we naturally shift our attention to the slaves’ ideology of slavery. To our surprise, Simpson, an older slave declares that “slavery’s the best thing ever happened to us niggers” (97). It’s hard for young readers to understand how can slave favors slavery under such humiliation. Tyson explains the oppressed  people’s psychology as, “It’s difficult to rebel against a system or a people one has been programmed, over several generations, to consider superior”( 421), and it is  colonist ideology– the British culture and value engraved in Simpson’s mind that makes him think the black as a race is inferior than the white. He is programmed to be a slave lover as he regards such unequal system not only as an acceptable norm but also as a blessing. In addition, we are told that he also tries to influence his son Charles to accept the same ideology. Ironically, we find a duplicate of Sampson’s remark from his white master Butler, “Slavery has been the best thing that’s happened to niggers because it has helped civilized them, as much as that is possible given their limited intelligence. Slavery has also built America” (47) Butler is obviously representing the white people in voicing his ideology by justifying his enslavement as a noble cause for the goodness of America. Let’s hear what Denman, one slave buyer has to say, “A society based on slavery is the highest form of civilization” (50). Such ideology is a direct reflection of the dominant class’ political discourse.  Under this ideology, the slaves were naturally imprisoned and dispowered not only physically but also mentally. They were chained to the master’s plantation and willingly subjected to the will of their master. Thus, they didn’t seem to want a freedom in that circumstance.

The characters’ narratives seem like a film that vividly shows the reader more specific scenes about the slave’s condition as well as the white’s behaviors that directly tie slaves to animals. For example, we read that “the slaves are packed in the stall…” (52), then we are told that one slave buyer checks a slave as if he was checking a horse or cattle. He puts on a pair of white gloves, rubs his fingers over the slave’s gums and teeth, and squeezes the slave’s arms and then his thigh (52).  This is a common practice of physically dehumanizing Others that clearly defines the slaves as equal to animals. The stall is a material pen to slaves, yet the stronger pen is the mental chain- the white ideology that disarms them in a thorough way. The combination of both pens trap the black slaves and insure them are under the control of this powerful and dominant political institution. The two-day sale netted $303,850, which profits upon numerous families’ heart-wrenching separation:  wife from husband, sister from brother, and parents from children. No wonder God of mercy vs. God of warrior is told here by slaves, Will and his wife Mattie. When Will helplessly watches other fellow slaves being sold, he says, “the rain started up just when the selling began… the rain, hard as sorrow. This ain’t rain. This is God’s tears” (3-4). Mattie expresses the rain as, “comes down like it wants to kill us all” (41), and God in Mattie’s eyes is described as a warrior by the symbol of rain.  Their daughter, Emma, uses the rain as a shield to block the pain, says  that she is glad because the rain is so loud that she “mostly couldn’t hear folks crying over the ones what got sold yesterday and the crying of them what’s going to be sold today (7). The author, by using rain as a symbol of God’s tears showering down mercy upon the slaves, or God’s anger towards the cruel slave owner, or rain as a shield to Emma, shows the reader how deeply the slavery– here reflects as auction, has  drown slaves emotionally.

Thus we start to hear the voice of complaints from the oppressed. This is what Tyson calls resistance in post-colonialism criticism. We read the resistance signs that show opposition to the dominant whites. For example, both Mattie and Will express strong sorrow and anger towards their master Butler when their only daughter is unexpectedly sold by their master. Mattie says, “When I think about Master I get so angry. I think I can hear my blood boiling like hot water in a tea kettle (101), while his husband Will laments, “This grief will never end even if I was to live as long as a star in the sky” (105).The slave auction is a turning point in this novel for slaves begin to re-evaluate the slave system and challenge the white ideology. Lester depicts Joe, a white anti-slavery Underground Railroad pioneer, as a justice figure who gives Emma and others hope in seeking for freedom and racial equality. Emma’s successfully breaking- away from her master is her dream of civil rights, her dream of abolishing slavery and her claim of equality with the whites.  The courage and strength shown from the characters Joe and Emma are the foundation of Emancipation that eventually frees all slaves from their masters which serves as a big blow to the white superior ideology.  Thus, Lester is asking the reader to see how the racial discrimination originates from,  to not forget the history that is absent of justice and equalities, and to cherish the freedom we take for granted today.  

In conclusion, in reading Day of Tears from the post-colonialism perspective, we understand the notion how the blacks are treated as animals under the white superior ideology; how such ideology is being programmed into both races’ minds; how this ideology is finally broken by the opposition through the effort of anti-slavery characters like Joe and Emma; and how we have a democratic society that white and black are considered as equal by law. However, the breaking bondage from the slavery doesn’t root out the ideology that has been programmed in many whites’ minds. The law doesn’t guarantee the practice of equality in today’s society. This explains why in reality, the blacks and minorities are more or less still being discriminated by the white mainstream. We see the same ideology represented by some racists in different walks of fields across the country. The white population still dominates the politics, economics and culture in all forms. The post-colonialism criticism used in analyzing this novel can help people both white and black to understand that equality is something that are ideally easier to say, yet are practically more difficult to realize when it comes to superiority and inferiority identity. In one word, as educators, we have more work to do in trying to create an equality atmosphere in our classroom. Thus, the use of post-colonialism criticism in reading a novel like Day of Tears definitely helps us as well as our students in reaching such a goal.   

Hope Professor Stearns and my peers can kindly give me some feedback since English is my second language.                                   Posted by L. L.


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