Between Privilege and Poverty

Dido Belle

 

In the movie, Belle, the aspect of power structure and relations is evident throughout, especially in the depictions of rites of passage and cultural art and symbols in art in British life.

Belle is a film set in the years 1769-1781 in Britain when the country was a colonial empire and leader in trade. In this movie, the plot centers on Britain as a slave trade capital.

Belle is based on the true-life story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was the daughter of Sir John Lindsay and an African slave, Maria Belle.  Sir Lindsay placed Dido in his uncle’s care, and left for the West Indies, as he was a captain in the King’s Royal Navy.  Lord Mansfield and his wife raised Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth.  Lord Mansfield was also the Lord Chief Justice of England.  He presided over the court appeal case of the Zong slave ship whose captain and crew threw 132 diseased and dying slaves over the ship’s side to drown in the ocean.  The owners of the ship wanted to collect insurance for the human cargo that perished at sea.

There is cultural change that comes about in England through the Zong case before the highest court in England with Lord Chief Justice Mansfield presiding.  The case consisted of whether the insurance companies should compensate the owners/traders of the Zong ship for the loss of human cargo.  The horrid case drew much attention through strong, vocal protestations of local abolitionists that spread the news of the case to men of high position – anyone of influence.  By 1807, a law abolishing slave trade was enacted (Understanding Slavery, 2011).  It later led to the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 (Gates, Jr., 2014).

Power Structure

The movie depicts power structure in the examples of Lord Mansfield and his family, as well as the Ashfords, who are nobility, or aristocrats.  The aristocrats, or wealthy landowners, had the power at that time, besides the highest power of the monarchy (Smitha, 2015).  These societies were patrilineal.

With this power structure, Dido lived within it, hovering between nobility and servant.  Her white bloodline elevated her above servant and commoner, but her African slave bloodline put her below a commoner.  So, for Dido, she was not permitted to dine with her family when dinner guests were present, and she had no coming out in the rites of passage the young English women of nobility normally did.

An example of this was near the beginning of the film, when Dido became a young lady, she did not understand her position in the family and society.  Because of not being permitted to eat or join at the dinner table when guests were present, and the looks Lady Ashford gave her while visiting, Dido hated her African slave bloodline.  In a poignant scene where she smacks her fists on her chest and neck and rakes her hands over her cheeks, it showed she hated her skin color, hence, hated her African heritage.  Also, because she was a woman, Dido was considered lower than men, and did not have much independence.

Dido had fallen in love with John Davinier, but she could not pursue it because they came from different social classes.  Mr. Davinier, the son of a reverend, was a passionate man with the desire to become a lawyer or judge.  He was an activist and abolitionist.  Dido and John shared the same beliefs about abolishing slavery and agreed that the owners of the Zong should not be compensated for throwing a large portion of the slaves into the ocean to die.  John also treated Dido as an equal, and saw the beauty in her through her mother’s lineage.

Oliver Ashford, who had wanted to marry Dido, did not recognize Dido’s mother’s contribution to Dido’s features.  He found Dido a unique and pretty specimen, in which he could “overlook” her mother’s African bloodline and heritage because her father had given her such “loveliness and privilege” (Jones & Asante, 2013).  Although, he thought he was being complimentary to Dido, it was really an insult to her.

Rites of Passage

In the film, a rite of passage consisted of English women being presented to social groups of their same class once they transitioned from a girl to womanhood.  This was a common ritual in the upper classes of European society.  The transition is common in all cultures in which a rite of passage happens when one is between two positions.  The person is no longer part of the old position and not yet part of the new one (International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2008).

In the noble English culture, endogamy was practiced.  Women were to be matched with a suitable husband from the same social class through the decision of her father or male equivalent.  As was said above, because Dido lived in a patrilineal society and culture, it was the man who made decisions and took care of the woman financially and in all things.  In Belle, it was Dido’s cousin, Elizabeth, who “came out” for this purpose of matching her up with a husband.

Dido’s finances were unique in that, although she was illegitimate, her father left her a great amount of money after his death.  He died when Dido was a young woman.  She was given 2000 pounds a year, which was a lot of money at that time.  So, with this inheritance, Lord Mansfield and Lady Mansfield did not have to worry about Dido marrying into a social class, because they felt a nobleman wouldn’t marry her because she was a mulatto, and she would shame the family marrying a commoner or servant below her noble status.  Because of this, Dido did not go through the rite of passage of being presented to society to be matched with a husband.

Elizabeth Murray, Dido’s cousin, did not receive an inheritance from her father, even though she was legitimate.  Her father gave his money to his other children and new wife.  So, Elizabeth was at the mercy of the man Lord Mansfield and Lady Mansfield chose for her.  Her father was also a naval officer, and deposited his daughter with Lord Mansfield before Dido arrived.

Cultural Art and Symbolism

The portraits of aristocrats were quite prevalent at the time in England.  The many portraits shown in the Kenwood home of Dido were of her relatives, and many of them showed a nobleman standing and a black servant kneeling below him.  This symbolized both the status and inequality of the two men.  The nobleman was seen as higher in importance and social status.  The black servant had little social status.

The film’s producer/director, and its writer, were inspired in creating their movie by the portrait of Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth.  The painting portrays Elizabeth seated on a bench reaching out her right hand and touching Dido’s left arm, who stood near by, smiling with a finger to her cheek, and a basket of fruit in her left arm.  This was a powerful picture that symbolized equality.  Dido was not kneeling before her cousin, but standing next to her.  The portrait hung in the house until 1922.  It is now in the Scone Palace in Scotland where Lord Mansfield was born (Jones & Asante, 2013).

In conclusion, this analysis of the power structure, rites of passage, and cultural and art symbolism in England enlightened me to the enculturation of England’s aristocratic societies and how power and money influenced trade and treatment of African Americans and those in lower classes.  It taught me what life had been like for a mulatto woman in eighteenth century England and the environment in which she lived — a patrilineal culture and society and its racial boundaries.  Many societies are still patrilineal, and the effects of racism and sexism are still around today, regardless of the eradication of slavery and the progression of the women’s movement.   With this knowledge, I am able to better understand cultures around the world – how they came about and evolved over time — and hope to contribute in a positive way to the progression of equality for all people.

 

PS: If you haven’t seen this movie, go watch it as soon as you can. One of the best of the 21st century in script, acting, classiness, and storyline.

 

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Works Cited
Understanding Slavery.  (2011). The Zong case study.  Understanding Slavery. Retrieved fromhttp://www.understandingslavery.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=373&Itemid=236
Gates, Jr., H.  (2014).  Who Was the Real Dido Elizabeth Belle?  The Root.  Retrieved from http://www.theroot.com/articles/history/2014/05/did_belle_really_help_end_slavery_in_england.1.html
Smitha, F.  (2015).  Britain in the mid 1700s.  Macrohistory and World Timeline.  Retrieved from http://www.fsmitha.com/h3/h29-fr.htm
Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.  (2008).  Rites of Passage.  Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.  Retrieved from http://find.galegroup.com/gic/infomark.do?&idigest=fb720fd31d9036c1ed2d1f3a0500fcc2&type=retrieve&tabID=T001&prodId=GIC&docId=CX3045302291&source=gale&userGroupName=itsbtrial&version=1.0
Jones, D. (Producer), & Asante, A. (Director).  (2013).  Belle [DVD].  United States.  Bankside Films.

 

 

 

Finding Meaning in Silenced Voices

colonialism cartoon

Postcolonial theory emerged after WWII, in which it studied the colonizer and the colonized, meaning those people from imperialistic nations, such as England, France, Denmark, and America, and the people from the countries the former ones colonized.

The postcolonial theorist, Edward Said, used poststructuralist tools by deconstructing the West and East through binary opposition.  The West was given the center or privilege, while the East was given the marginalized or “other.”

The postcolonial critic, Homi Bhabha, focused on the interactions of the colonizer with the colonized and how each group was affected by the others’ cultures.

Lastly, Gayarti Chakravorty Spivak, an Indian-born Western academic studied the difference in the cultures of the colonizer and the colonized and paid close attention to both class and the effects of colonialism on the colonized women.

The critics analyzed literature for these aspects and also had to figure out how to categorize postcolonial literature from writers who were geographically not part of Europe or other colonial powers (Bertens).  This was done through using the term, “literatures in English” (Bertens).

The writers’ works under the oppression of the colonizers were still viewed and critiqued through the center, which were the English academics and critics.  Later, in the 1970s through today, this has changed and opened up to more autonomy for those postcolonial writers that were victims of colonization (Bertens).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” shows the Western postcolonial view through an American wealthy, caucasian family.

yellow wallpaper book cover 2

Gilman, an American writer and feminist, wrote this in the late nineteenth century when colonialism was quite active.

In the story, we can see that John, the main character’s husband, represents the colonizer, or from Said’s point of view, the West, whereas the main character represents the East.  John is a doctor and wealthy.  His character aligns with the traits of the Western colonizer or “masculine pole” (Bertens) Said describes as “enlightened, rational, entrepreneurial, and disciplined” (Bertens).  The main character shows John to exhibit the traits of rational and enlightened when she says, “John is practical to the extreme.  He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (Gilman).  This also reflects the West’s or colonizer’s view of the East’s or colonized’s practices, beliefs, and cultures.

The main character reflects the postcolonial view of the colonized that helps or aids in the colonizer’s power when she says in regard to John, “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.”  This also shows the trait of passiveness that Said mentions in his list of the “feminine pole” (Bertens).  These traits Said mentions that are displayed by the main character in this short story are “irrational, passive, undisciplined, and sensual” (Bertens).  The main character displays irrationality when she says, “I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time” (Gilman).  Her passivity is apparent when she says, “I tried to have a real earnest talk with him the other day and tell him I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia.  But he said I wasn’t able to go, nor to stand it after I got there; I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished” (Gilman).

Using the methods of Bhabha, the interaction between the main character and her husband reveal that the main character’s perceived madness from being cooped up in the room affect John at the end of the story.  After the main character has torn up nearly all the rest of the yellow wallpaper in the room to try and release her alter ego from the prison she imagines in the paper, John comes to the room and finds it locked, for which she tells him where the key is.  In obtaining the key, John opens the door and asks in astonishment, “For God’s sake, what are you doing?” (Gilman), and the main character says, “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane.  And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman).  John proceeds to faint in reaction to this.  But this also depicts resistance by the main character/colonized against the colonizer.

The symbols of West and East and the colonizer and the colonized through the main character and her husband in the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” provide a good example of a postcolonial theory’s analysis through its lens.

 

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Works Cited
Bertens, Hans.  Literary Theory:  The Basics.  3rd ed.  London and New York:  Routledge, 2014.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.  “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  Gutenberg.org.  5 November 2012.
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1952/1952-h/1952-h.htm.  Accessed 10 August 2017.

 

Has the Battle Over Confederate Monuments Caused More Division or Just Exposed What Already Exists?

removal of Lee statue

 

In continuing the matter of the removal of Confederate monuments, there were more comments from my friends who participated in my interviewing process that couldn’t be squeezed into my previous blog that should and needs to be shared. Following this, I’d like to ponder the effects of the removal of these monuments on us Americans.

To start out, Tony, who does not favor the removal of all the Confederate monuments, states, “I think if we try and erase the story of a people, we discredit both the good and the bad that came from the culture.” He then added, “I think this is largely a battle between extremists on both ends of the political spectrum and that if this objective is achieved, it will not be the end of anything. It will likely serve to further polarize our political discourse and fail to bring about healing and growth.”

Candice echoed Tony’s response, saying, “Extremists on both sides are pushing triggers all over the place. The media is feeding the extremism, and people are pushed more and more to take a stance.”

Concerned over more divisions, Kelly says, “I hate what is going on. It really saddens me. This is a problem that we all are experiencing and not because I am white or I am black. It’s we as a people, and only we can stop it.”

Tim’s comments on the issue of removing the monuments were similar to Tony’s, saying, “It is all part of our story as Americans, good, bad, and ugly. We should own all of it.”

Concetta sees the removal of monuments as opening a pandora’s box in causing further strife, remarking, “Unfortunately, you can’t erase history. If you begin, where do you stop?” and proceeded to mention Washington and other Founding Fathers who owned slaves.

washington owned slaves

In contrast, Tina illustrated her position by saying, “I think our country’s ‘life’ is much like our own. We all have a past that we hopefully grow and learn from – evolve. And with each passing day, we kind of connect the dots. On our own journey, we fall and get back up over and over again, but sometimes, years later, we’ll be stumbling with something…something emotional, etc., and we realize it’s this floating piece from the past that we thought we sorted out, but here it is. So we sit with it, face it, fix it, and move forward. To me, that’s what these statues are. We’ve had a long journey with bigotry in the country, and we’ve come a long way, but we still have things to unpack to get to the place of resolve.”

Lee also sees the removal of the monuments as a progressive step in the direction of eliminating bigotry and racism, saying, “Here in Phoenix, our mayor, Greg Stanton, has been working to change the names of several streets, such as Squaw Valley Road, Robert E. Lee Street, etc. It’s all part of the same drive to be sensitive to other cultures and stop the racial slurs and bigotry of the past. Monuments are in the same category.”

Looking at this issue and our history, Gabriel says, “We were a nation built upon theft, white supremacy, and idolatry, so our unwillingness to wrestle with our history keeps us repeating the same mistakes since we do not address our foundations never being made about seeing all ethnic groups as equal.  It is connected to the history of things like ‘The Doctrine of Discovery,’ which other religious groups brought over to the Americas long before the Puritans, and it has also manifested itself in regards to other parts of history.  We have multiple groups still feeling the impact of colonialism and eradication of their culture, like the American Indians, and to address what we have done would go against the myth of our culture being about U.S. exceptionalism and being a nation never for harm in the ways that we say other nations are.”

These responses show two sides on how to resolve this issue:

  1. In order for us to heal, we must press forward, not backwards, and not cause more divisions that are drummed up by the fringes of our society.
  2. In order to heal, we must face our past, expose the wrongs done by the people before us, and make tangible steps to right those wrongs.

How do we reconcile our different visions on this to reach a middle ground that unites us all?

As Confederate monuments throughout the country have and are beginning to come down and are moved to a museum or in a holding place until the cities’ authorities decide what to do with them, new Confederate monuments are rising up in Georgia and Alabama.

In Georgia, resident John Culpepper, founder of the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, unveiled a statue back in 2007 of a Confederate soldier that sits in the Chickamauga battlefield. He plans to continue preserving these and other such memorabilia that he believes are part of his heritage. He is upset with both the KKK and those people calling for the ejection of monuments across America that have vandalized them. He believes both groups have and are doing damage to his Southern heritage (Grinberg).

new conf monument at chikamauga park

In Crenshaw County, Alabama, a new monument has been erected and placed in the Confederate Veterans Memorial Park that owner David Coggins says is for remembering those who fought and lost their lives in the Civil War. He believes all of our forefathers should be remembered, including the Southern ones (WVTM 13).

In my previous blog, I wrote my opinions rather generally on the removal of these monuments. To clarify what I said in support of the removal of the monuments, I meant ones proven to be produced by white supremacists, and I don’t think Confederate monuments belong at state government buildings. It is my belief that Confederate monuments in military parks/battlefields, cemeteries, and, of course, museums belong there.

Incidentally, I do wonder why statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are/were in New York’s Bronx Community College’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Why would a Northern state have statues of Generals Lee and Jackson, and especially in one of their community college’s “Hall of Fame for Great Americans” (Suerth)? I did extensive studying of the Civil War in my late teens and early to mid twenties, and from what I read at that time, Lee in particular garnered the respect of both Northern and Southern officers during the war. However, I don’t think this acknowledgement spread to the Northern civilians. In any case, the men that established the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at Bronx Community College included Lee (and later Jackson) in their choices of great Americans, along with Franklin and Lincoln. Maybe it was out of an effort for reconciliation in the beginning, as there was pressure years later from groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy to add Jackson.  Nevertheless, The busts of both Lee and Jackson are being removed from the community college’s Hall of Fame.  Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that statues of General Lee and seven other well-known men from the Confederacy are present in the U.S. Capitol. What will be done with those statues?

Perhaps the collaborative efforts of local cities’ citizenry and museums will bring about a fair outcome to this contentious issue. There’s always hope for a better and brighter tomorrow.

peace dove gold

 

Works Cited

Ginberg, Emanuella. “New Confederate monuments are going up and these are the people behind them.” CNN.com, 23 August 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/18/us/new-confederate-monuments/index.html

Bowery Boys. “Robert E. Lee in the Hall of Fame? There were concerns even back in 1900.” Boweryboyshistory.com, 17 August 2017. http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2017/08/robert-e-lee-hall-fame-concerns-even-back-1900.html

Ford, Matt. “The Statues of Unliberty.” The Atlantic.  https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/confederate-statues-congress/536760/

**The original article from NBC News on the statues in the U.S. Capitol has been taken down.

Suerth, Jessica. “Here are the Confederate memorials that will be removed after Charlottesville.” CNN.com, 23 August 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/15/us/confederate-memorial-removal-us-trnd/index.html

WVTM 13. “New Confederate monuments going up in Crenshaw County, Alabama.” WVTM13.com, 23 August 2017. http://www.wvtm13.com/article/new-confederate-monument-going-up-in-crenshaw-county-alabama/12065990

All interviews were conducted via PM and/or email August 19-23, 2017.