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Written by Timothy Sexton
The Ramifications of Slavery
The central metaphor for slavery that Harper uses in the novel is that of a cancerous tumor which the Civil War surgically removed, but which continues to impact the body. Harper rightly saw that the festering anger and resentment among Southerners at what they viewed as the unfair and even illegal enforced ending to the institution which defined their entire way of life would naturally lead to racial violence and systemic modes of prejudice and bigotry. Those were the unavoidable negative ramifications of abolition. On the other hand, the ramification for those former slaves and their offspring could become a positive counterpoint in which they could finally take advantage of the opportunity and potential to advance their own race on their own terms rather than at the hands of white society or through a prism of that society in which the intent was merely to reflect or mirror it with regarding to their unique cultural differences.
The dominant theme driving the narrative is the concept of “racial uplift” which essential states that is preferable over any other choice for black people to identify as black even if they their genetic makeup should provide for taking advantage of opportunities for assimilation into white society by “passing” for white or even “marrying into” white society. The novel comes down quite deliberately on the side of a debate then splitting black society into two camps which rejected the notion of fitting in by adopting the trappings of white culture and choosing instead to lift black culture to the same equal status. The novel is people with character given a concrete choice between “passing” as a member of white culture or steadfastly adopting their black identity whose decision mean a more difficult but ultimately more satisfying existence.
The Power of Literacy
Harper utilizes a variety of means of communication to forward her ideas including allowing the characters to take part in a “conversazione” which something of an academic meeting intellectual minds. The power of literacy is not limited to the spoken, however, as there is an illumination into the power of manipulating the spoken word involving how slaves communicated when their masters were around. Realizing that the slaveowners overhearing private conversations (as private as it got on a slave labor plantation) could get information that they would rather the maters didn’t know, the slaves who had wised up would create a certain type of conversational patois that other slaves would understand has having a second level of meaning but that the masters would never know was communicating any more information than what they were hearing. Both the conversazione and the conversational patois are revealed as two sides of the same coin: a means of empowerment for an oppressed minority through manipulation of language precisely for the purpose of specific communicational intent.
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