“The Octoroon” provides a cruel yet realistic depiction of slavery, describing the sale of Zoe, deemed an octoroon due to the fact that she is one-eighth black. Zoe’s social status robs her of many freedoms: her freedom of self, freedom to love whomever she desires, freedom to move wherever she wants to and many other things. However, these are not the only atrocities Zoe faces. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the play is the way Zoe views herself, which is made clear through the way she describes herself in dialogue. In her conversations with George, Zoe objectifies herself; she identifies herself as “an unclean thing” (154) and refers to herself as a “what” (154) rather than a “who.” Even if not an object, she does not refer to herself as human, as she tells Dora that “You know you can’t be jealous of a creature like me” (161
). She also seems to be ashamed of her race, as she explains that “our race has one virtue—it knows how to suffer” (154). Despite the fact that the man she loves, George, tries to dissuade her of this self-hatred, it is embedded and appears unchangeable.
I found “The Octoroon” especially powerful because it so profoundly highlights the shame Zoe feels based on her primordial identity. In discussions of slavery and race in the classroom, it is easy to focus on the historicism or the physical atrocities that define these spaces. Personally, I had not greatly enough considered how much racism and slavery affect perception of self. Despite the fact that Zoe is only one-eighth black, she is still cast astray to be verbally abused and socially outcast so that she may internalize this treatment. Even if freed from slavery, this struggle with identity would leave Zoe restrained from living the life of a proud black woman. Boucicault’s work left me wondering how we can alter our perceptions of self or if it will always be tethered to the trauma and prejudice we have experienced in our lives.
One Reply to “Origins of Identity”
Despite Zoe’s trauma from internalized racism, she still maintains privilege because of the fact that she is white-passing and is not likely to be discriminated just based of physical appearance, which how the majority of people will see her. I wonder if this is partially why George fell in love with her in the first case. I reckon the story would not be the same if Zoe had darker skin.
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