Passive vs. Oppressive Appropriation in Equiano and Get Out
Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography “The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano: or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” presents a created identity of the “enlightened slave,” as a means of appealing to the pathos of the British and American people regarding the trans-Atlantic slave trade. By establishing that he desires to be perceived positively as a Judeo-Christian, Equiano is essentially saying that blacks can behave similarly to whites and thus deserve equality. Furthermore Equiano’s transformation into a Christian is self-explained as one of the most important aspects of his life, and is thus an appeal to be treated the same as whites. This seems dissimilar to modern African American art as Equiano persuades his audience that assimilation is the condition in which equality will occur, however Equiano’s new identity is not necessarily conformed to whiteness, but rather shaped by his freedom to experience other cultures and not defined in terms of creed. So by reinventing himself Equiano can obtain his freedom.
Conversely, Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out, contains African-American characters that experience assimilation through subjugation and fetishization rather than free will and understanding of self, and ultimately the modern black characters of Get Out seem less capable, but equally determined to fight for their freedom. In the final moments of the film, the protagonist Chris does not fight to experience more and to become an entirely new person with his newfound freedom, but rather he desires to maintain his own identity. Furthermore, the freedom obtained by Chris is only realized after assuming the identity of the hyper-masculine “super-predator” that was assumed of him to begin with. Chris plays the passive role for the entire film because the opposite is assumed of him, and then the antagonists force their predisposition to be true by threatening Chris’s already limited perspective. Peele presents Chris in a nearly identical manner to Equiano’s perception of himself, and this is as a passenger learning to free themselves from the social and emotional prisons wrought upon them by their captors.
Equiano’s narrative as opposed to Peele’s presents the audience with a longer period of subjugation and is essential to the abolitionist movement as it demonstrates the cruel monstrosity of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Equiano despises slavery as any decent person might as he says “I had thought only slavery dreadful; but the state of a free Negro appeared to me now equally so at least, and in some respects even worse, for they live in constant alarm for their liberty, which is but nominal.” (Equiano). The narrative tells us that in slavery one knows the source and blame of the oppression. There is a sense of defeatism from Equiano’s perspective, but in his words there is not absolutely no hope. Abolition removes the necessity of fear, and that is why slavery cannot objectively be solved on a case by case such as his own, but rather in one fell swoop as to remove the disposition of blacks as property rather than people.
Peele’s Get Out, reunifies the modern black with the concept of re-entering the harsh dominion of slavery. When Chris is sent to the “Sunken Place,” he is mortified, and when Jim begins to explain the process to him, Chris sinks his head in understanding and says to him “You’ll be me,” (Peele, 1:24:10). Peele’s film does a lot to emotionally expose its protagonist, and ultimately the film decides to pursue the motif of reclaiming ones identity by denouncing the mannerisms in which those that would choose to assimilate you would choose for you to have. This rebellion, like abolition, is not only for Chris and it ultimately ends the process in which the Armitage’s kidnap and body-snatch these young black men. Chris was characteristically passive and despondent for much of the film, and we see his desire to avoid confrontation with Jeremy and the memory of his mother’s death; in the third act of the film Chris finally expresses his fears by frantically begging Rose for the keys, who abandons her façade and dons a sadistic smile begging the question as to how he was supposed to escape to begin with. While Chris is set up to have his identity stolen by the Armitage’s it is peculiar how Jim attempts to justify to Chris his intentions with Chris’s body. He claims that he doesn’t really care about race, and that is interestingly probable; Jim just wanted those “things you see through,” (Peele). Jim recognizes the incognito racist sayings and micro-aggressions performed towards Chris at the party, and they share a moment where they are both admiring each other’s work objectively rather than in terms of color. Jim says that it is “ironic” that one can spend all the time in the world in a dark room developing these finite images of how they perceive the world and then wake up one day in complete darkness. This foreshadowing tells us that Jim at least relatively understands his actions prior to bidding for Chris’s body during the bingo/slave auction. He understands Chris’s dilemma of constantly being considered only valued in racial terms, and only truly considered as a body and not a mind. The point that the film is trying to make is that despite understanding the power-structure will still do what it wants as long as it is self-serving. Jim wants eyes, and he finds a new set of eyes so he takes them, regardless of skin color.
Similarly in 1796, one Thomas Atwood Digges seemingly forged a letter from Gustavus Vassa to signify their correspondence and presumably to contextualize himself in Equiano’s narrative as Digges had placed the letter in his limited edition version of the book. Equiano scholar Vincent Carretta Ph.D says that the handwriting when compared to both Equiano and Digges were “Inconclusive,” suggesting that either of them let another scribe pen their work, assuming either because of Equiano’s deterioration of health, or Digges’ desire to not have his handwriting give him away. Furthermore, this letter mentions Equiano’s wife Susanna as if she were still alive, and it is dated after her death. It is unlikely misdated and suggests that Digges assumed Equiano’s identity to increase either the monetary or social wealth of his possession. In many ways this forgery simply defines Digges as characteristically uncaring about others despite the apparent desire to associate himself with Equiano. This letter along with Peele’s film demonstrate the desire of the seemingly progressive to be a part of something inherently apart from them as a brag about humility. Digges forged Equiano’s letter out of the desire to salvage depictions of his character.
Lisa Guerrero’s article “Can I Live: Contemporary Black Satire and the State of Postmodern Double-Consciousness,” explains relevant details about black identity and suffering points for those that identify as such. She studies postmodern sketch comedy such as the director of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s and associate Keegan Michael Key’s “Key and Peele.” as well as “Chappelle’s Show,” and Richard Pryor. Guerrero focuses in specifically on the idea of double identity within the context of Keegan Michael Key’s portrayal of Luther, former president Barack Obama’s anger translator. In this sketch Barack is portrayed as a soft spoken and tactful leader who tiptoes around situations in a calm, and passive voice, and then after every line enters Luther with the “street” vernacular equivalent of Barack’s previous statement. Barack (Peele), says that he has “received a fair share of criticism” from fellow Democrats, and Luther would follow up on queue with a line akin to “these motherfuckers right here.” (Key/Peele.). This dual identity is representative of the pressures on even the most seemingly powerful person in the world Barack Obama being subject to the standards of assimilating to “white” mannerisms to be perceived by the public as articulate. Furthermore it demonstrates the need to keep composure in a situation that stresses the individual on an emotional level because they feel attacked based on external power structures.
Peele continues this analogy in Get Out by maintaining this sort of back and forward vernacular change based on who Chris is talking to, and there is even some strange interplay when Rose directly addresses the police officer who is asking for Chris’s identification after they hit a deer in the beginning of the film. Chris passively attempts to listen to what the officer is asking, but Rose gets aggressive for him as to assume the identity that she believes he has, and this identity may not be entirely accurate as to how Chris would handle the situation of confrontation with a police officer, but it voices some of the feelings that Rose assumes of Chris because of his racial identity, much like Luther can go overboard at times and miss the point of what Barack is trying to say. Additionally When Chris is talking to his best friend Rod over the phone we see a complete change in vernacular as opposed to the respectful language that Chris uses at the dinner table with the Armitages. Chris changes his word choice and tone based on his familiarity, even with Rose alone he seems to use significantly lower densities of vernacular than when conversing with Rod. Lisa Guerrero says “The consequences of post-raciality on communities of color, especially African Americans, has been the contradictory yet simultaneous processes of being cut off from claiming the significance of their racial identities while being singularly defined by society through their race, which, supposedly, society has ceased to see anymore.” (Guerrero). In Get Out this is made evident for the fact that the Armitage’s clearly only desire the African-American body with complete disregard for the culture and social minutia of those that they kidnap. In “The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano: or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” it is made evident that Equiano’s education was simply a by-product of his indoctrination into Christianity. Equiano’s double identity comes in the form of his writing, Equiano plays the part of a faithful slave, but is essentially in Peele’s idea of the “Sunken Place,” whereas internally like Chris he can see the external world and the horrors of slavery and he described them as “Tortures, murder, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity,” (Equiano). His dual identity is a survival mechanism, just as the black men whose bodies are stolen from them exist exclusively in the deepest orifices of their former selves, the slave must play the role of a “passenger,” while their experiences exert their power into the world.
Get Out as a horror genre film seemingly avoids instantaneous scares, and instead uses a deep cutting anxiety to lull the watcher into a fearful stasis. Peele on multiple occasions demonstrates jump scares as essentially harmless, instantly gratifying moments of anxiety of which are immediately recovered from. The pacing of this film matches itself thematically in that the anxiety of returning to captivity is constantly looming, whether through prisons or paranormal hypnosis. It is a horror more-so for the black audience than the white because of the history associated with the captivity and reduced identity of black people, and by using a police-officer to demonstrate this low-key anxiety and performative weakness, Peele demonstrates the clear separation of white people from an understanding of the situation. By demonstrating this anxiety Peele suggests that this misunderstanding of black anxiety is the reason that African-Americans are skeptical about neo-liberalism and white guilt, because they are without inherent benefit to the people who hold those ideals. It is not risky to say that you believe in those things because social liberalism doesn’t directly make white people’s lives better. The anxiety is that this social justice crusade is a trend, that when threatened those socio-liberal ideas would cease to be more important than the individual necessities of the person. This form of political malleability makes a culture around defending ones image as a white savior to a downtrodden and incapable people, and the ideology can retreat into indifference when it is convenient.
Cultural appropriation in both Get Out and Olaudah’s faux letter demonstrably move beyond what Professor James O. Young would call “profoundly offensive,” but stoop into a fearful and reprehensible thievery of identity. It is perceivable that Jim from Get Out is not harming out of the desire to harm, but rather to salvage his life, and likewise to Thomas Digges, but it is still harmful in that it indirectly oppresses minorities through cultural appropriation. Cultural Appropriation in these two literary works is demonstrated not through admiration of culture, but rather the body is taken instead of the spirit. Get Out explains subtly that the culture that these outsiders have fallen in love with so deeply and desire to imitate is simply one that their own ancestors have tagged onto the black image. The film makes this explicit by having Dean Armitage (Rose’s father) use outdated and appropriated language to push his faux interpretation of black culture back onto Chris. For example Dean is taking Chris for a tour through the Armitage’s household and shows him many cultural souvenirs and says “it is such a privilege to be able to experience another person’s culture. Know what I’m saying?” (Peele, 0:17:00). He then proceeds to show Chris pictures of his father Roman running against Jesse Owens prior to the 1936 Olympics. This demonstrates a desire to appropriate things, and a jealousy within the patriarchal structure of the Armitage family. Furthermore it is later revealed that Walter the groundskeeper is actually Roman Armitage in a young black man’s body, and Walter is infatuated with performing physical activities such as chopping wood and running. He too appropriates what he perceives as the language that Chris would use whilst directly addressing Chris referring to Rose as a “Doggone keeper,” (Peele, 0:39:20). What the film says through these two generations and their actions towards those of another race, is that these slang terms are essentially empty if said wrong, and/or said just to appeal to the type of person that is being impersonated. After speaking with Walter, Chris says to Rose he was acting weird and that it wasn’t what he said, but rather “how he said it.” The uncomfortably formalized vocal patterns of those whom had already undergone the procedure to take a body are evidence that the culture and mannerisms in which they remove during the surgery are not preserved and are thus unimportant. The desire for blackness is simply a desire for youth rather than an attempt to become more culturally attuned to modernity. The procedure ensures that those who are on their penultimate years can continue living through their lives as they would have in youth, by abusing those who are downtrodden and already perceived negatively.
Ultimately Get Out and “The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano: Or Gustavus Vassa the African,” work together to demonstrate public anxieties about loss of identity in the communities that are appropriated from or simply have a long history of oppression. They demonstrate that although the situations have drastically improved there are lingering trust issues based on the divisive nature of the issue and a long withstanding history of white American terrorism on people of color, examples being the “War on Drugs,” “Black Wall Street,” and “Slavery.” it is ingrained in the culture to be afraid, or to “Stay Woke,” in the words of Donald Glover who sings the opening title for Get Out. It also doesn’t help to cure these anxieties that men like Thomas Digges essentially assume the identity of an Abolitionist hero like Equiano and bolster his reputation with association. Modernly Rachel Dolezal had pretended to be an African-American to have a voice in the community, but the harm of appropriation isn’t entirely that what you are doing is wrong, it is that who you are has not changed and that you do not have to undergo the same anxieties outside of your playing pretend.
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