232 The Dance of American Literature

Monique Legassie

I’m excited to be bringing this analysis way back to the days of Studies in English when we watched and “close read” Jordan Peele’s film Get Out, using The Theory Toolbox and other texts to deconstruct things like gender and race in this thriller. After reading and discussing Benito Cereno in class I began to draw connections between the film Get Out and the novella Benito Cereno. The two themes that correlated the most were the way race, control, and power dynamics were used adversely in both the film and story.

The body and mind and the way that these things we believe to have control over can be manipulated so quickly is a very interesting concept especially when looking at the manipulation being used in representations of slavery. In Benito Cereno, they were actually slaves working on a ship for their master because they were thought to be property rather than a human, while in Peele’s film the black characters are slaves of their mind and body taken over by the white characters. In the film, black bodies are objectified as being stronger than the decaying white body. This also brings up the way that the body and control play off each other because in Peele’s film; the white characters are very aware of their deteriorating bodies and take advantage of black people knowing they will go missing and no one will care. They take over their bodies and suppress their minds, again, objectifying them as just bodies to take over and treat as puppets. Melville takes this concept of racial control and flips it on its head by having Babo be the one in control of his master. He controls Benito with hidden threats like when holds a razor to his throat and cut him purposely to force control onto him. Babo knows his power and in his game, he tricks the white man. “As for the black – whose brain, not body, had schemed and led the revolt…” (217). In this passage, we see the realization that Babo, still not being referred to as a human but rather “the black,” had control all along. The different types of control exercised like Babo’s control over the mind and the Armitages’ control over the body, show the themes of manipulation and race are used together.

Get Out  scene of emotional takeover.

I have come to understand that early American Literature and the racial experience go hand-in-hand, considering that the U.S. was built on the backs of enslaved peoples, and that indigenous peoplse were murdered to make way for this place we now call “America.” The thing that made me want to talk about Get Out in relation to Benito Cereno was the way in which the texts represent race conversely. In Benito Cereno, because slavery was still in effect at the time of publication, the slaves overthrow the white people and take on the role of puppeteers. In contrast, in Get Out, set in a time when slavery has been abolished, the white family and white relatives take over the mind and body of the black people. In this case, they literally take on the role of puppeteer. The way that black people are represented in each piece of work is very different as well. Babo and the other slaves are thought of as just that: slaves. Meanwhile, the Armitages idealize black people’s bodies as a physically superior type of race. They appear stronger, more youthful and robust than the aging whites, and for this reason, they are treated them as an object for white consumption.

The delicate dance that both Babo and the Armitages pull off shows that to intimidate a person you need not only physical domination but also emotional foreplay. Babo plays this emotional mind game very well and still exercises his power over the captain. “Here an involuntary expression came over the Spaniard, similar to that just before on the deck, and whether it was the start he gave, or a sudden gawky roll of the hull in the calm, or a momentary unsteadiness of the servant’s hand; however it was, just then the razor drew blood spots of which stained the creamy lather under the throat; immediately the balck barber drew back his steel, and remaining in his professional attitude… held up the trickling razor, saying, with a sort of half humorous sorrow, “See, master – you shook so – here’s Babo’s first blood.” (195). In this part of the story, Babo has exclaimed over and over again that he has never drawn blood because he is so steady and has never had the need to draw blood. Now with an audience and reason he slices part of Don Benito’s throat and blames it on him, again exercising his power over him physically and mentally. The same charade is pulled off in Get Out when Rose lures back men to her house to be turned into mindless robots of her family. It is discovered that she does this to many men by making them fall in love with her and then taking them on a trip to meet her family. She doesn’t hold any physical power over them besides the sexual power she has as a female. The charade that impressed me the most with these two stories is the one pulled on the reader/watcher of these two pieces. The entire time we are also being lied to and not knowing what is going on until Melville or Peele wants us to know.

So where is American literature now? Well now all books are getting their own movie adaptations which give them a different meaning in some cases. In film, things may be easier to flesh out and themes of control or race, like in Benito Cereno and Get Out, are more easily articulated. American literature is slowly moving into the digital age.

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The Dance of American Literature by Monique Legassie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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