Zoe is a fascinating figure to weave into our tapestry of placeless figures, further nuancing the developing concepts of identity and place. Interestingly, Zoe is the first racially liminal body to be a focal point in our texts. Douglass and Gulliver, though inbetweens in their own respect, both fit more or less squarely into established racial categories. Zoe further complicates these identities by socially and and physically conflating black and white. As Brooks points out with more overt forms of minstrelsy, the simultaneous performance of these two, ostensibly very disparate identities, forces the interactions of these identities in a way that minstrelsy’s perpetrators didn’t anticipate. The Octoroon lands squarely on this narrative, forcing audience members to confront what happens when black and white aren’t distinct and yet still tragically irreconcilable. It is this social Catch-22 that pulls Zoe’s character out of the shadow of pure minstrelsy, embodying instead the transatlantic existence.
It is interesting to think about the activation of the word liminal in the context of these bodies. Liminality or the liminal space is used in the context of rites of passage as the time after separation, when the individual goes off on their own to undergo the ritualistic change and before reincorporation or integration into society — it is the time of transition. In a sense Zoe’s change over the course of the play can be read as a failed rite of passage. Her body tells the story of the generational rape of the back female. As she is forced to share her shameful secret at being “the octoroon,” she begins the process of separation from her known white identity and community. The ritual of the slave auction is the culmination of this stripping of her identity, attempting to place her instead back within the narrative of black females. However, rather than completing the change and reincorporating into society as another black woman to become a possession, Zoe remains liminal, rejecting the description of either identity and taking her fate instead into her own hands and allowing her identity to be read fluidly rather than concretely. She won’t be defined or confined, but the cycle of violence will end with her.
2 Replies to “Minstrelsy and Ritual”
I think The Octoroon is a challenging text because of its conflicting modes of racial expression, with the clearly defined white figures, such as McCloskey, and the stereotyped “others,” such as the slaves and the Native American Wahnotee contrasted with the racially ambiguous figure of Zoe, not fitting into either racial absolute. The work constantly ebbs and flows between these two extremes, showcasing the separation of blacks and whites, while still sympathizing with the mixed heritage of Zoe and her struggles to find her place. I found it puzzling trying to decipher Boucicault’s true motive behind the play; on the one hand, he seems to be an early advocate of race as a social construct, with Zoe’s heritage breaking up the purely black or white portrayal of characters, while still writing incredibly problematic figures in the play, with each of the racially “othered” characters featuring broken speech and caricatured representations of their own race. Although I think Boucicault uses Zoe as a step towards racial tolerance and the embracing of the other, there are too many other instances of stereotypes and prejudiced depictions of characters for this goal to be realized.
This play reminded me of the play Rachel by Angelina Weld Grimke, in which Rachel ends the cycle of violence associated with being black by choosing not to have children. I think that liminal characters, such as Rachel and Zoe, send an empowering message to the audience, specifically on the power and agency that a black woman holds in ending the cycle of oppression. I find it very troubling, however, that ending the cycle of oppression always ends in tragedy for the black women. In the case of Rachel, she is forced to be miserable and give up her dreams of being a mother in order to do what she perceives to be right for her theoretical black children. For Zoe, she has to kill herself in order to be free. In class, we discussed how this ultimately comes to be seen as her way of freeing herself and ending the violence associated with her identity as the octoroon. What are we to make of the fact that the only way for a black character to end a cycle of violence is to subject themselves to intense violence themselves? How do we grapple with both the empowerment and oppression that is involved in their choices?
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