How deep are the roots of slavery in Kindred and Sing, Unburied, Sing? Part 2

The hand me down life

It is written in Michael Hanchard’s essay on Afro-modernity that ‘Legalized segregation, the maintenance of separate and largely unequal institutions, meant that blacks, as a consequence of prejudicial treatment, received health care, education, police protection, transportation, and a host of other services only after those same services were provided for whites’. This was a prominent issue that followed the emancipation of slavery as, the prejudices against African Americans were still extremely prevalent. In turn, the delayed access to education, health care etc, created a cultural lag which largely affected the black community and their progress in society.

Frederick Douglas wrote in his work on ‘The Color Line’ that, ‘He has ceased to be the slave of an individual, but has in some sense become the slave of society’. Despite this being written in 1881, this idea of being enslaved to society has persisted well into the words of Hanchard over a century later. The African American community was forced into the cultural lag through societal structure, with no choice to remain there, resulting in their lives continuing on an eerily similar path to their ancestors who were explicitly enslaved.

I can easily transfer this idea of the cultural lag to Sing, Unburied, Sing due to the lack of justice that Ward has depicted throughout her use of young, black male characters. The ghostly figure of Given is narrated to life to by his sister Leonie and the reader learns about his tragic fate. As a young aspiring athlete, he was deemed to have a bright future due to his talented football playing. Yet, due to the cultural lag and unequal opportunities of society, he was unable to excel and reach his full potential. His father said to him, ‘they look at you and see difference son. Don’t matter what you see. It’s about what they do’. There is a clear outline of a black and white dichotomy with an explicit reference to the imbalance of power and the effect that Given’s white counterparts could have on his livelihood. Given ends up being murdered by a white boy when they are out hunting together simply because of Given’s superior hunting technique. The murderer exclaims to his family that, ‘He was supposed to lose, Pa’. His uncle scolds him and says, ‘This aint the old days’ yet, his white skin and links to the Sheriff’s office results in a quick three-year sentence, barely enough time to affect his future. Despite his uncle’s claim that, ‘This aint the old days’, there is a clear cultural lag in the treatment that African American’s receive in the criminal justice system. Maybe society hasn’t moved on since the old days after all.

In 1881, Douglas wrote that ‘They are negroes – and that is enough, in the eye of this unreasoning prejudice, to justify indignity and violence. In nearly every department of American life they are confronted by this insidious influence’. This is clearly a tradition established early on when writing the African American experience and Ward has made no effort to work against this or argue that there has been any significant change. Ward’s character Given excelled, yet the cultural lag in society didn’t allow him to move forward with his talents and overtake his white counterparts. In the eyes of the law and his white friends, he was just a ‘[negro]’ which was enough to ‘justify indignity and violence’.

It can be argued that the events I have just outlined were based on the second-generation characters and therefore less relevant to the modern day yet, Jojo’s experiences with the police highlight the relentless significance of the cultural lag. When stopped by the police on their Middle Passage, the ghostly figure of Richie warns Jojo that ‘They going to chain you’. This character is two generations older and due to the perceived societal progression in the black/white dichotomy, it wouldn’t be far fetched to assume he is out of touch with the police force. However, Jojo goes on to being treated by the police in the way that was predicted. Nicole Dib wrote that ‘Richie’s disquieting statement and the distressing action his body takes in the car signals the carceral anxiety that haunts him, even as a ghost’. Yet, I believe that the distress is less about his past experiences, and more about the fact that this is still a concern for African Americans. Richie is the voice of the past that is shocked and uncomfortable that modern day children are forced to endure his previous experiences, which ultimately exacerbates Ward’s intentions.

The cultural lag is highlighted not only by these similarities, but by Jojo being singled out by the police officer. The young boy is surrounded by adults, including a much older white man, yet the black child is the person whom the police officer sees as a threat worthy of arming himself. This pays homage to the endless number of black drivers who have been shot and killed on the road such as Sandra Bland. It’s important to note that Octavia Butler expressed a similar cultural lag in her comparisons of 19th century and 20th century North America. Whilst the Antebellum South depicts unimaginable extremities, Butler makes sure she presents her modern-day world as unjust. A co-worker refers to the couple as ‘chocolate and vanilla porn’, whilst Kevin’s sister said she ‘wouldn’t have [Dana] in her house – or [Kevin] either if [he] married [her]’. These examples span across different levels of extreme whilst one expresses a lower-level prejudice, one depicts a more violent level of racism and cultural lag. The colour of Dana’s skin prevents her from marrying freely and being accepted by her partner’s family. This is not dissimilar to the way the couple are treated in the 1800s as she is assumed his slave. As stated by Douglas, ‘They are negroes – and that is enough’.

How deep are the roots of slavery in Kindred and Sing, Unburied, Sing? Part 1

The African American inheritance

Kindred, a novel ‘which strikingly reimagined the neo-slave narrative genre’ managed to accurately depict the modern-day entanglement with slavery that African American’s are forced to endure daily. Gabrielle Bellot wrote that, ‘Time heals, but also hurts; the past is indeed a different country, but less so than we may think’ and I believe that this not only accurately summarises Butler’s intentions throughout her 1979 novel Kindred, but Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 novel Sing, Unburied, Sing. The roots of slavery are deeply anchored within these modern-day depictions of Northern America providing apt argument for the past as less of a different country than we may think.

The narrative of Kindred follows the modern African American character, Dana, on her journey as she is forced back in time to the Antebellum South to protect her bloodline. In the initial stages of the novel, we witness her experiencing the enslaved and oppressed life of a black woman during the 1800s. When attacked, Butler channels the thought process of Dana writing that, ‘Now I would be sold into slavery because I didn’t have the stomach to defend myself in the most effective way. Slavery! And there was a more immediate threat’. Despite being a free, working, married woman from the 1970s, she is suddenly facing the serious reality of enslavement. Dana puts the threat of slavery to the background, naming it as the least immediate threat. I believe this nonchalance is extremely telling of the established aesthetic of slavery in the modern-day society. James Baldwin wrote that, ‘the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon’ and Butler has materialised this through her novel, as she makes it clear that not only is slavery a reality that Dana must accept, it’s also a reality that she is less fazed by. Butler’s impression of insouciance from Dana illustrates the strong hold that slavery has on her character and its ability to casually resurface.

The prologue and epilogue depict the incident in which Dana, returning from her last trip, finds her arm caught in the wall. Despite assuming she would be safe from the tribulations of 19th century Maryland, she finds herself ‘caught somehow’ as she is stuck, between 19th century and 20th century. For many African Americans, it is confusing how, over a century later, they are still affected and ‘caught’ in the time of slavery despite the progress that has been preached in society. The loss of Dana’s arm depicts the physical and mental scarring that is left and has remained. Butler chooses to insert a scene where Kevin and Dana are at home and the radio station begins to report on rioting and battles between white supremacist police and black residents in South Africa. Both these examples emphasis the lack of progress and illustrate the scarring left behind. We are starkly exposed to the explicit realisation of the parallels of 19th century and the 1970s as we understand Butler’s intentions to depict the modern day’s entanglement with the past.

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing depicts the substantial roots of slavery in a less explicit and more metaphorical way. The narrative is littered with inequality and injustice, yet the entire middle section of the novel, narrated by the characters as the journey to and from Parchman Farm, is representative of the infamous Middle Passage. Nicole Dib writes that, ‘Ward’s road trip is decidedly haunted, hunted, and policed for black subjects who inhabit the road’. The policed aspect of the road is signified on their way back from Parchman when they encounter a ‘young […] skinny’ police officer who smells of ‘sweat and spice’. Despite their freedom to travel, they are not only stopped but forced to exit the vehicle and explain themselves to a stoned white man at gunpoint. The hypocrisy and policed aspect that is experienced by both the black narrators of Sing, Unburied, Sing begins to paint comparisons to the black travellers along the policed Middle Passage.

In Black Imagination and the Middle Passage, the introductory remarks state that, ‘The injustice and brutality of tight – packing is unquestionable, the suffering and horror experienced by the slaves unimaginable. Add to that image the lack of proper diet, the unhygienic conditions […]’. Whilst reading this depiction of life travelling along the Middle Passage in a slave ship, I can’t help but think of Ward’s portrayal of Jojo’s journey. Like North America, they are on their way to the land of imprisonment. Already extremely squashed into the car, Ward’s introduction of Richie and his choice to ‘fold [himself] and sit on the floor of the car.’ is reminiscent of the ‘tight – packing’ experienced by the slaves. Jojo also experiences the ‘lack of proper diet’ as he quenches his thirst with rainwater when denied a drink from the unforgiving and forceful figures around him. He experiences the life of a convict as he ‘[slides] a pack of saltiness and two bottles of juice [he] stole out of that house into [his] own plastic bag’.

The entire central passage as written by Jesmyn Ward, resonates the time of slavery and implicitly gives the same message as Octavia Butler. They work together to explore the modern-day ties to slavery in African American culture, depicting the similarities and its deep roots. Neither Dana or Jojo has been able to escape the clutches of the past and it has left permanent marks on their lives, either physical or mental. Guy Mark Foster writes that ‘slavery itself is overdetermined within the tradition, since Kindred is not so much about slavery as it is about how black Americans learn to renegotiate the history of slavery within their present-day circumstances’. Although I agree that both novels centre on learning to renegotiate, I believe the most important aspect is the idea of black Americans are being forced to renegotiate due to the prevalence of oppression in modern day society. Dana was literally pulled back in time to the Antebellum South without her being able to express any opposition. Comparatively, Jojo is forced along the journey of the Middle Passage whilst being made to endure hardship despite his young, schoolboy innocence. The lesson of renegotiation is not of choice, it is a lesson that should not have been necessary in the first place.