Presentation of Racial Domination: A Comparison between Translations and Song of Soloman
In ‘Song of Soloman’ and ‘Translations’ Morrison and Friel present racial domination through the viewpoint of the oppressed minority group, respectively African-Americans and Irish nationalists. The concept of racial domination can be defined as the political act of dominating people through the belief in the superiority and inferiority of particular races. Both Friel and Morrison communicate that racial domination is all about power, the level of which determines whether a race is the oppressor or the oppressed in a particular society.
In ‘Translations’, the Irish are ruled by the English who assume the right to rule Ireland and dictate what is and is not acceptable behaviour. Through creating a “new map” of the “whole” of Ireland, the English oppressors impose their own domination on Ireland by ‘rewriting’ the country into cultural submission through the imposition of English as the language of ‘high culture’. However, it is only Manus who understands at first the political implications of such a, what he perceives to be, “military operation” would eventually mean for the longevity of the Irish culture and its national identity. Already Friel presents the act of translating as a form of racial domination and a clear division between the two cultures as ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ is established through Owen who outlines his role as the “go-between” translating the “King’s good English” into the Irish “quaint archaic tongue”. By doing so, Friel describes that Owen is rejecting his own identity by rejecting his links to Ireland both in language and culture. This further reinforces the devastation of English Oppression for the culture of Ireland, as it will undoubtedly destroy its identity as it has done with “Owen” who has become “Roland” as a result of mis-translation and “standardised” English. Friel identifies the quick process of cultural imperialism through the geographical metaphor of erosion, which ironically is first identified by the antithetical English Oppressor “Yolland” when he poignantly declares, “something is being eroded”. The idea of erosion as a geographical metaphor suggests layers’ being relentless worn away until nothing remains. This underlines the significance of language in holding culture and memories that would otherwise be completely lost “beyond recognition” if the language were to be “anglicised” as demonstrated through the example of “Tobair Vree”. The concept of not being able to translate a memory or a culture into a different language is fundamental in ‘Translations’ and it is the Irish culture that gets lost in translation; Friel seems to communicate that the only way the Irish can exist in a modern World is through translation, Friel argues that the concept of translation is a metaphor for the Irish. Indeed, Friel’s act of writing ‘Translations’ is in itself an act of translation, since he writes an Irish play in English, so as to demonstrate the only possibility for the Irish language and culture to exist is through the language of the oppressor.
To a varying degree, Morrison also presents racial domination through the use of language but not as a method of oppression used by the dominating race in the sense of translation, but to give the black community a powerful tool to subvert white authority. In ‘Song of Soloman’ the African American community in Michigan rename places names to reflect reality such as in the case of “No Mercy Hospital” where black expectant mothers were denied entry and had to “give birth” “on its steps” and thus given “no mercy”. It is this act of renaming place names that is almost doing the opposite of what Friel describes as cultural imperialism in ‘Translations’; the black community are giving meaning to place names rather than “eroding” it. This ownership of language is the only power the black community have in their oppressed condition and the renaming of place names becomes a political act as the community are attempting to take some control over their language. Furthermore, Morrison highlights the power of language in carrying meaning and having the ability to shape identity through the eponymous “Song of Soloman”. The significance of language in defining identity is shown through the original mistranslation of “Soloman” as “sugarman”. Morrison shows how one mis-translation can completely wipe out a whole family’s identity and remove a part of history. The discovery of Milkman’s heritage through the connection with the name “Soloman” gives him an identity and means that at death he is never more alive as his journey of self-discovery is complete. It is impossible not to link the importance of naming with the example of “Tobair Vree”, the meaning of the name would be lost in translation and would no longer exist if the language were to change. Through the name “Dead” Morrison shows how language can act as a tool to “wipe out the past” through Sing’s insistence on keeping the incorrect name instead of inheriting the name of the slave owner and thus hoping to disconnect future generations from the crippling legacy of slavery that is at the root of African American oppression in an American society. The name “Dead” holds the signification of being also metaphorically dead and unable to progress; the “Dead” family are a metaphor for the entire African American race that suffer under the racial domination of the racist white community.
In ‘Translations’ Friel tries to find hope in a racially divided society in the unity of the two cultures through the relationship of Marie and Yolland using the act of “leaping” across a “ditch” to metaphorically suggest the possibility of daring to leap and crossing between the two camps. Friel seems to say that although Yolland may have been killed, the love between the two characters is not defeated and shows a sort of hope that the two different cultures do not have to be defined as racially separate. Friel’s play is radically against the laying of these colonial borders and the grouping of individuals into categories called ‘British’ and ‘Irish which admits no traffic or crossing between them. ‘Translation’ as an act of crossing between borders may offer a way out of colonial conflict of hatred and division via love Friel seems to suggest, but it remains a dangerous act and likely to be resisted by those who would divide us into groups and put borders between us hence the “ditch”. Through the construction of “Yolland” as an antithetical “soldier by accident”, although ironically a Hibernophile and the first one to identify that “something is being lost” in the process of cultural imperialism, Friel challenges the pre-determined racial stereotypes that he describes are an inevitable side effect of any racially divided community as Yolland can only ever be identified by his English racial identity in the eyes of the oppressed Irish nationalists. The hatred between the two races is to such an extent that individualism is neglected and only Yolland’s identity as a British Army Officer is considered. This concept is particularly apt for Friel’s play which, although set in the 19th century, was written in the ethno-nationalist conflict ‘The Troubles’ in 1960s Northern Ireland where racial hatred and IRA violence divided and made a battle ground of Ireland. However, the inextricable link between culture and identity and how the former defines the latter is the essential principle behind racial stereotypes and understanding why Yolland will always be “an outsider” in the Irish community and why Owen can never separate himself from his Irish heritage. Ultimately the Irish culture is “all [they] have” and by denying the community of its mother language and thus culture is to remove their identity which is shown at the end of the play when Sarah, who symbolises Irish oppression (metaphorically and literally without a voice) is silenced in the concluding scenes showing the death of Irish language and culture and thus the end of the Irish identity.
However in ‘Song of Soloman’ Morrison presents racial domination as an unfixable part of American society, which can never be truly racially equal until the legacy of slavery is completely removed from memory. White Americans are able to racially dominate the black community by controlling the law. Morrison communicates the corruption of the American justice system through the example of the police force who will “stop anyone” if they are black, suggesting the widely held belief that all of the black community were inherently suspicious. Moreover, the lack of criminal justice that is brought to the “Butlers” after they “shot” Jake “five feet in the air” further reinstates how the white race dominated the law in American society. Ultimately, Morrison evaluates that the black community are trapped in a white racially dominated society and a black American dream is unattainable shown in the example of Ruth who is literally pressed “small” by the oppression imposed on her by the white community to such an extent that her name defines her as she is metaphorically “dead”. The inherently unjust social power of the black community is represented in the case of Corinthians Dead whom after a college degree and studying in France could only find a job as a “maid” and even then the job was only rewarded to her because her employee “liked” her “name”, again showing the importance of naming. Morrison presents racial domination as a limitation and barrier for the oppressed community, preventing them from entering into any position that allows them to gain social power in a white dominated society and be at almost equal status to the ‘superior’ race. Morrison considers that although the black community can distance themselves from their slave past, it is impossible to truly eliminate the past from history and start anew, as Sing hoped by keeping the incorrect surname “Dead” in place of the slave owner’s surname. This is perhaps the reason for Solomon’s and Milkman’s eventual flight at the end of his journey of self-discovery as Morrison suggests that the only way to progress and truly be “free” from an oppressed society is to “surrender to the air” and “ride it”.
Morrison and Friel both present how the condition of oppression creates radicalised recipients of oppression that would otherwise not exist in a racially equal society. However, Morrison and Friel present the radicalised groups “The Days” and “the Donnelley Twins” through different perspectives. Through Morrison’s presentation of “The Days” she shows and the reader understands Guitar’s journey from an oppressed individual whose life is destroyed by the harsh realities of racism in the Deep South to a radical black extremist. Guitar is unable to fly because he has not given up his psychological hatred of whites and his racist belief that “there are no innocent white people” which weighs him down by allowing his hatred and grief to control and define his identity as a psychopath that “could kill would kill” and “has killed’. On the other hand, the “Donnelley Twins” are a non-communicative force and not named as separate individuals with no physical presence, only existing in threats to the English oppressors. Much like today’s extremists in Ireland, the Donnelly twins are not outspoken but rather they let their actions speak for them and Friel uses this fierce Irish nationalism to serve as avatars of the modern IRA connecting a larger political tragedy of colonial oppression and Irish resistance with the personal tragedy of individual lives. Their actions (the theft of the horses, the burning of the army’s headquarters and, supposedly, the murder of Lieutenant Yolland) only engender a powerful colonial reaction. The play ends with the further threat of racial violence as Lancey “promises” to kill all the livestock in the area, which Friel suggests will only lead to counter terror by the forces that the Donnelly twins represent. Although presented differently, Friel and Morrison both argue in their texts that individualism is impossible under nationalism and oppression can divide any community on the basis of race. In conclusion, Morrison and Friel present racial domination through the viewpoint of the oppressed minorities and their lack of power in defining their identity as their culture is rewritten for them through mistranslation and racial oppression.
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