It has been said that “Discrimination and brutality against the black race was not only implemented by the white race but at times by the black race too”Compare and contrast the ways in which the themes of discrimination and brutality are explored in Solomon Northup’s novel Twelve Years a Slave and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in light of this view.The themes of discrimination and brutality are exceedingly clear in these two novella in the shape of racial abuse from the white race towards the black.
Presented are both the lives of slaves and free black Americans who face physical and emotional attacks in the form of verbal slander and violent punishments, including whipping and rape. However, these horrific acts towards people of black ethnicity are also perpetrated by other black characters which cause immense psychological damage especially if these offenders are members of their friends and family.Solomon Northup’s autobiographical novel Twelve Years a Slave (1853) tells the story of a man who once lived a pleasant and family driven life before being manipulated and captured into slavery despite his legal freedom in Saratoga, New York. But during this time of slave trading, actions like these against African Americans were not abnormal in the slightest. With the introduction of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, slave owners were given the responsibility to return their runaway slaves and bring them back into captivity however, this also meant emancipated slaves were a target because “many of whom had been abducted by bounty hunters and sold into slavery” like Northup himself. Comparatively, Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novel I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969) illustrates her life in racially segregated America from childhood to adulthood encompassing her feelings of self hatred at a young age and a constant exertion of racial prejudice and the physical abuse from her own ethnicity. Both texts display similarities and differences concerning racial injustice and abuse, therefore I will look at how various readers and audiences may interpret them and whether more than a century between the texts affect each author’s portrayal of racial discrimination and violence.
The initial example of racial discrimination in Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave is the verbal abuse by slave trader James H. Burch who refers to Northup as a “black liar”. The use of the word “black” is a racial slur in this context because Burch is implying that Northup is dishonest due to the colour of his skin. At the time of Northup’s capture in 1841, slavery in America had been legal for nearly 200 years and slaves were seen as “personal property that could be owned for life” therefore Northup was only an object in the eyes of Burch, and biased remarks towards his race would have been typical and highly expected for he was seen by the majority as worthless in society. Similarly, in Angelo’s novel I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, racial prejudice is apparent when she explains that as a child “I was described by our playmates as shit color”. The offensive language “shit color” is also a racial slur because Angelo is described to be the same colour as something grotesque and filthy due to the shade of her skin.
Even though in “1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States” Angelo is still submitted to racial bigotry because of society’s laws of segregation and the majority of the white population in America supporting racist views towards black people during the 1930’s. Both texts display the racist and unjust verbal abuse that African Americans experienced throughout various periods of time in America however, as a modern day reader most would expect this discrimination at the time of Northup’s capture for he was living in a nation that allowed the ownership of a human being based upon their ethnicity. Whereas, the racist remarks towards Angelo are displayed more than 60 years post slavery abolition and therefore seem more striking and insulting to a reader from today’s society, especially considering that Angelo is only a child.Furthermore, the theme of brutality is portrayed in Twelve Years a Slave when fellow slave, ‘Patsey’, is repeatedly whipped by Northup. This violent act occurs when slave owner ‘Edwin Epps’ threatens Northup by saying “strike harder, or your turn will come”. Northup’s use of the verb “strike” implies vicious and aggressive actions as well as connoting with words such as ‘whack’ and ‘lash’ which are examples of onomatopoeia. Northup’s deliberate use of onomatopoeia is to allow his readers to distinguish the violent and painful sound of Patsey’s whipping because it affects multiple senses to provide the readers with a more ferocious and realistic image of her abuse. However, to a reader at the time this act would not seem as shocking as it does today because “The law provided slaves with virtually no protection from their masters.
” therefore many people expected slaves to be treated brutally and gain no respect in the eyes of the law whereas, the modern day reader would be made to feel uncomfortable by Northup’s harsh word choice because we live in a society that has laws in place to protect against racial and physical abuse. Additionally, Northup identifies both the physical and mental brutality in his novel. Although, Northup is the person who physically whips Patsey, Epps is the origin to her savage abuse because he threatens Northup by telling him “your turn will come” if he does not carry out his request. This mentally abuses and manipulates Northup’s mind because Epps inevitably forces Northup to sacrifice his moral integrity and become the brutal torturer of his friend Patsey, making him complicit to his slave master’s evil. This violent imagery is also displayed in the 2014 screenplay of “Twelve Years A Slave” directed by Steve McQueen. This film adaptation truly portrays the extreme and gory side to Patsey’s torture as the audience watch a scene of intense pain on Patsey’s face when she is whipped repeatedly by Northup. This scene becomes extremely difficult to watch especially when the unflinching camera focuses on Patsey’s back of mutilated and disfigured flesh, giving the audience a more authentic display of the vicious reality in Northup’s life of slavery.
McQueen’s film adaptation was even said by critics to be “exercising on screen brutality to bludgeon slavery’s grim, cruel and conscience-less degradation.” which strongly indicates how the theme of brutality was a key element in his direction for the film because he did not shy away from the harsh and gruesome truth that lies within Northup’s time in slavery whereas, Northup’s own description of events are somewhat direct. However it provides the reader with a less graphic description, therefore they have a chance to imagine and speculate the whipping for themselves. Furthermore, the fact that Northup’s novel is an autobiography narrated solely by himself and the screenplay of Twelve Years A Slave is based upon his life events, we are made to feel more disturbed by them because the words we read are from true experiences of Northup’s dreadful life in slavery which emphasises our sympathy for him as a character in his novella but also for the person who truly lived the harrowing events inside it.This violent theme of brutality is comparatively explored in Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Sings when she elaborates on the experience of being raped aged eight years old by her mother’s boyfriend Mr Freeman.
Angelou writes how “there was a pain. A breaking and entering.” which subtly identifies the discomfort she experienced whilst being abused. The verbs “breaking” and “entering” indicate how Angelou’s discomfort is like a theft that was unwanted and forced upon her. Mr Freeman’s illegal act is described like a robbery which assemble a sensation of loss to the reader because they know Angelou had a part of her innocence stolen after being raped. Although Angelou’s description does not signify the same measure of violence as Northup’s, the uncomfortable image of an eight year old in this situation is brutal enough in itself without the explicit details, and makes Angelou’s portrayal highly emotive and powerful because the reader is left to decide for themselves what happened to her during this horrifying act.
As well as this, Angelou’s use of short sentences slows down the reader’s normal pattern of reading because we have to pause for full stops. This creates an atmosphere that is more intense and dramatic because we are clearly engrossed into Angelou’s touching words. Additionally, these short sentences indicate how Angelou likely found it difficult to write about her assault therefore she used more full stops to bring a halt to her writing which made sentences brief and concise to avoid much elaboration on the awful event that occurred in her life.
Similarly, to the violent whipping of Patsey that was legal under her slave master’s authority, Angelou lived in a time period that “believed black women could not be raped” placing her in a jeopardised position to report or share the dreadful act that happened to her. The theme of discrimination is intertwined with brutality here because Angelou is unable to speak out against the vicious acts of her mother’s boyfriend due to the prejudicial attitudes of the government and white society in America during the 1930’s. Moreover, the fact that Angelou is only eight years old, her sense of what is physically inappropriate has not fully developed and this causes her innocence to mask any chance of Angelou speaking out. Because she is so young and unguarded, this senseless act is presented as even crueler and twisted because Mr Freeman knows his chances of being unscathed from this offence are high. This sadistic behaviour would leave a modern day reader feeling immense commiseration for Angelou as she is subjected to a brutal and painful act with no way of escape whereas, certain readers from the time may feel emotionless towards her because during the 1960’s there were still strong racist held views that still believed African Americans were worthless in society. The fact that Angelou was raped by a man of her ethnicity may also emphasise racist opinions about black people being violent and a danger to society. Ultimately, both texts display a black female who experiences physical abuse directly caused by a male of their same race. Angelou is subjected to a painful and wicked rape by Mr Freeman and Patsey is subjected to a brutal whipping carried out by Solomon Northup however their circumstances differ.
Although, Northup controls the act of whipping Patsey he only does so out of fear and threat of a white man. While on the other hand, Angelou’s abuse is by a man who lives under the same roof as her and appears to care for her mother but then forcibly commits a heartless act on her. Another clear difference between their violent abuse is that Northup explains that “When I had struck her as many as thirty times I stopped” which indicates Northup’s hatred of inflicting pain on to Patsey because he had the strength to ‘stop’ even though his life was at risk in doing so whereas, Mr Freeman was content to execute agony and trauma into Angelou’s psychological state.Further themes of discrimination are deployed in Angelou’s novel when she uses emotive language to describe her true self as being “really white” rather than of black ethnicity. The word “really” signifies a genuine and honest belief from Angelou, indicating she has strong thoughts about being a person of a white race who is disguised as a black girl. This moment in the novel displays emotional feelings from Angelou and makes the reader feel sympathetic for her because she does not feel comfortable in her own skin as a black girl . This is a crucial part in presenting self-discrimination because it heavily emphasises her personal deteste of her own race therefore making herself a victim and culprit of racial prejudice. Due to the commonly racist and segregated society during 1930’s America, Angelou’s fantasy of being a perfect pretty “white” girl are not unexpected or delusional because her race is standardly treated as inferior.
The fact that Maya is only a child with these thoughts implicates how the bigotry in her society has impacted her vulnerable, receptive youth and leaked racism into Maya’s world. The “Recognition of the injustices faced by black Americans during this period was almost as hard to come by as changes to the legislation.” so the chance of Angelou learning to love herself was far from likely because she lacked morals and beliefs of equality within her race.