William Turner’s A Slave Ship and The Importance of Complete Artistic Analysis

As a former scholar of art history in high school, I was relieved to see something recognizable among the sea of text in Gilroy’s article “The Black & Green Atlantic.” While much of that text was very difficult for me to decipher, much less understand, the portion discussing J. M. William Turner’s infamous painting of a slave ship was like a sigh of relief. 

One of the most note-worthy parts of Gilroy’s references to this painting was how he mentioned the fact that the owner of the painting could not speak to its actual meaning and rather was only able to speak of the “aesthetics of painting water” (Gilroy, 14) in the way that Turner was able to paint waves and utilize different colors. I think this is not only an interesting fact, but a very interesting commentary on art as well as artistic interpretation and analysis. 

In the words spoken from the movie clip that we watched last class, “artists use lies to tell the truth.” I believe that this quote is directly related to William Turner’s slave ship in that it utilizes bright colors and delicate brush stroke techniques that distract from the painting’s true and grim subject matter. 

When we are faced with an artistic interpretation of a grim and difficult subject, we oftentimes choose to focus on another element of the piece which makes us feel more comfortable in our discussion rather than to sit in our own discomfort. While this route usually tends to be more common and helps us to feel more comfortable in our artistic interpretations, it is very important to remember that art must be interpreted to its fullest and most complete extent rather than focusing on the elements which aid in our avoidance of discussing the more “touchy” subjects. 

So much of our world’s history can be seen through artistic interpretations throughout history, including our more horrific actions and mistakes. In order to fully prevent these mistakes from happening again, it is important to educate and acknowledge their existence, especially in art.

Being Bi-Racial in “Moon and the Mars” and Today

“Moon and the Mars” is a testament to what many bi-racial people have experienced at least once in their life: balancing the identity of two different races while only being one person. Oftentimes, people believe that bi-racial people take on the racial identities of their mothers. “Moon and the Mars” offers us a different perspective in which Theo takes on the racial identities of her mother and father and therefore, expands the idea of what it means to be Black in America. She has run into this issue several times with her mother’s side of the family, especially with Ciaran. For example, when she and Ciaran visit the minstrel show at the circus, Theo finds the show offensive and Ciaran says “it’s just a show” (Corthron, 271). This statement essentially minimized Theo’s legitimate concerns about the show and how it portrays Black people. Moreover, it speaks to how bi-racial people explain one-half of their identities to the other side, and the frustrations that come with it. Ciaran’s indifference towards the show makes Theo feel like her feelings do not matter to that side of her family. Especially when her Aunt Maryam was a former slave, Ciaran’s words show the indifference he has towards her bi-racial identity. Having to constantly explain half of your identity to another person can be frustrating, which is seen several times in “Moon and the Mars”. It demonstrates that balancing these identities is not easy, especially during a time when Black people when enslaved.

Furthermore, “Moon and the Mars” speaks to Gilroy’s idea of expanding the idea of what it means to be Black. Although his main argument was to expand the idea past “African American exceptionalism”, I would like to argue that this book demonstrates that an individual can be Black and bi-racial simultaneously. I take this idea very personally considering I am bi-racial and I too can speak Irish. We see that Theo can speak Irish, which is very uncommon in modern society. Yet, this book does not use that against her to make her seem less “Black”. Instead, “Moon and the Mars” shows how both identities can coexist at the same time. We see that Theo takes Black culture and Black politics just as seriously as the rest of her family members even though she is bi-racial. For example, she is concerned about her Aunt Maryam’s freedom status and is seriously upset at Ciaran working with people involved with slavery. This book spends considerable amounts of time recounting Theo’s time with her paternal family and showing the deep relationships she has with each of these relatives. She never denies the Black side of her family but instead, she embraces it. She proves that being bi-racial is an expansion of what it means to be Black instead of being separate from it just because her mother is Irish. 

Blog #1: Realization of Class Conflict in Moon and the Mars

In the 1861 section of Moon and the Mars, readers witness Theo come into a new kind of consciousness. We as readers have essentially grown up with her as she moves through life in Five Points, seeing the historically-significant world through her eyes, and consequently losing innocence as the novel progresses and Theo gains life experience. Until now, we understand Theo’s financial situation to a certain extent; we know that her family is usually short on money, but we can also recognize that Theo considers herself a “lucky orphan” because she has family, rarely lacks for food (with the exception of the depression), and always has a roof over her head. It is during the chapter titled “War” that Theo realizes exactly where her and her family fall in terms of economic status. 

Near the beginning of the chapter, Ciaran approaches Theo and tells her that Grammy Cahill and the rest of their Irish family are rich, but Theo retorts that they are poor. Ciaran then says, “Well, here’s what’s what, Madam Scholar. There’s poor and there’s poor” (Corthron 306). He proceeds to show Theo his cousin’s boardinghouse, which is flooded often and smells bad, and Theo realizes the extent of her privilege (Corthron 307). Shortly afterwards, Theo and Ciaran take a carriage ride through Central Park, and Jamey, the driver, tells them that the experience is extremely expensive, proclaiming, “You know when the real customers have a carriage ride, one carriage ride, the fare could support a poor man and his family a year?” (Corthron 308). Theo and Ciaran are in disbelief, and Theo once again realizes the extent of her privilege, but in a completely different light. 

Between these two scenes, Corthron effectively educates both Theo and the reader about class divisions and conflict in roughly four short pages. Theo experiences the living conditions of the poorest of the poor, but she also has the brief opportunity to live the high life. I felt that this was a significant moment as Theo comes of age and starts to realize her financial place in society. She experiences disgust for the boardinghouse, and a different kind of disgust for those with the money to ride in Central Park carriages. Although her situation has not changed, readers are faced with a new duality, in which Theo can both be grateful for what she has and long for what she does not. This is very important in any coming-of-age novel because it presents a new complexity that accompanies maturity, but it also might come with confusion for such a young narrator. In this way, Corthron might be attempting to speak at a universal truth about guilt and privilege.

One response to “Blog #1: Realization of Class Conflict in Moon and the Mars”

  1. motoole

    I really enjoyed reading your analysis of class conflict in the novel, and think you’re spot on about Theo’s burgeoning understanding of her own economic level. From the beginning of the book, we see differences between Theo’s life and the other children in the neighborhood who live on the street and face the threat of freezing or starving to death. Although Theo’s families face a period of struggle during the depression, she most often always has enough to eat, and multiple different roofs to sleep under at any time. But despite these facts, she still does live in poverty. I think your comment about the ‘complexity that accompanies maturity’ is a really great interpretation of Corthron’s choice in including this nuance about class.

Moon and the Mars

The North’s utilization of former slaves as a means of gaining an advantage over the South during the Civil War was a reluctant but necessary decision. The North initially hesitated to arm former slaves, but it ultimately recognized the potential of their participation and thus saw it as a crucial factor in winning the war. One substantial factor that contributed to the North’s determination to enlist black people in the Civil War was their incentive to fight. As the quote states, “Black people have the strongest incentive towards action”, indicating that they were more likely to fight for the Union if they believed it would benefit them in the long run (305). The promise of liberation and the potential for reparations were powerful motivators for former slaves to join the Union forces. Reasonably so, most slaves were incredibly optimistic about their future. However, Theodora brought up a very interesting idea that most Black people did not think about with the question “How can liberated people survive and thrive if there’s no provision for reparation of the damage inflicted? (305)” This provides a more complex, critical view of the long-term implications of abolishing slavery rather than only a short-term one. I would argue that this is significant because it still applies to Black people today, granted it is within a different context. For example, the government commonly offers money to combat problems such as racial disparities in wealth accumulation by offering grants to small businesses or colleges. While this is certainly helpful, I believe teaching students about the importance of personal finance is vital since money can only be used for so long before it is gone. Money is the short-term solution, and changing behavior is the long-term solution.