Living Within The Color Line But Along the Color Spectrum

In Derek Walcott’s Sea at Dauphin, the characters use a mix of Creole and English when speaking with each other. For instance, early in the play, Afa, speaking with Gacia, says, “Merci…Ay, ay, boug. ‘Ous riche, a whole one? Is only natural for wind to blow so hard, but to turn, and turn (47).” This mix of language is remarkably fluid; the characters speak both languages to everyone and even switch back and forth over the course of a sentence.

Walcott was known as an exceptional presenter of hybridity. This language is one example of that. Hybridity is natural in the Caribbean, rather than terrifying. Take, for comparison, the depiction of hybridity in The Octoroon by Boucicault. The phrase “octoroon” is a desperate attempt to retain the color line. By defining this person in exact proportions (1/8 black, 7/8 white), society attempts to keep that division between black and white. Yet Walcott doesn’t abide by that division; where white, colonial society ends and Black society begins is nearly impossible to tell. Rather than starkly divided, the two sides are fluidly united.

Yet, while Walcott’s work may present a Caribbean that does not stick to the color line, Césaire introduces the reader to a color spectrum. In A Tempest, Prospero treats Ariel, a mulatto slave, and Caliban, an African slave, completely differently. When he first speaks to Ariel in the play, Prospero calls him an “intellectual (16).” In his first interactions with Caliban, he calls the slave “an ugly ape” and “a savage” (17). While these conversations are not the first time Prospero has interacted with the slaves, and thus their previous interactions could have contributed to widening the discrepancy between these two depictions, it is impossible to view Prospero’s words without looking at the race of the two slaves. If anything, these scenes show that whiteness still has some value in the Caribbean even if the color line is not as prominently defined as in the United States. As Ryan helpfully pointed out, Ariel has access to Prospero’s magic and Caliban does not. Additionally, Ariel ends the play deserving of freedom while Caliban does not. Whiteness carries privilege even if it is not full whiteness. Looking at Walcott and Césaire together, we see that hybridity is celebrated as an integral part of the Caribbean experience yet a color spectrum still remains in which one’s closeness to whiteness provides certain privileges and advantages.

A Glimmer of Hope in a Troublesome Text

Throughout this week, I have had some difficulty trying to discover key takeaways from Boucicault’s The Octoroon. From my first reading of the work, I was disgusted by Boucicault’s attempts to mimic African-American language in the text and his portrayal of the savage, barely able to speak Native American (played by himself). By the end, I was ashamed of my interest in the plotline despite the blackface presented throughout the play. Yet Daphne Brooks’ reading of the text changed my views and one specific point opened my eyes to the way this text could be viewed in a somewhat more positive moral light. Brooks describes Zoe, the title character, as a representation of disunion, a “manifestation of the crisis that miscegenation law sought to police,” and “impossible” (Brooks 34). In other words, Zoe was a tragic mulatta whose color-mixed existence disrupted order in the universe of the play. In order to restore order, the tragic mulatta must die (either socially or physically), which Boucicault adheres to in this work. Yet he does this with a sharp provocation of the racist society, as Brooks describes through Zoe’s death scene: “With her eyes changing color as well, Zoe is at once ‘cleansed’ of her blackness and blackened by the act of suffering as a horrified array of onlookers watch her rapidly transmuting body (41).” As this quote asserts, Boucicault grants the audience’s wish to restore order but ensures that Zoe’s whiteness is restored as she dies. George describes her features as white as she passes away. Thus, the audience sees a white woman lying dead on the stage, a victim of the slave society. It is a powerful critique of an oppressive system. While I am not sure this point absolves Boucicault of the other troublesome aspects of this reading, Brooks shows that, within this troubling presentation, there exists at least a hint of resistance to the oppressive slave society and racial hierarchy well-known to his audience.