Race Relations and Freedom in Of Love and Dust By Ernest Gaine
Race relations and the resultant effect that they have had on individuals living in the United States has always been a thorny issue to broach. In a society where a majority of the population descends from Caucasian European pioneers, minorities rarely get an equal share of the national cake and in most cases treated without any parity (Rodriguez, 2011, p. 43). African Americans, in particular, have had a long standing fight against a system that was often viewed as working against their interest. Here they were, in an unknown continent as descendants of slaves who had been brought across the Atlantic to work as manual laborers on plantations owned by wealthy white men with no pay. Ernest Gaines grew up in such an environment, as a descendant of slaves in the state of Louisiana who had been freed after the emancipation of his people and still witnesses the suffering that they have to endure. As a sharecropper family, they lead a wretched existence trying to make ends meet and place food on the table in a society that was built to favor a particular side of the divide and while leaving the other dispossessed. In Of Love and Dust, he seeks to explore the life of a black man living in the United States under a system that was explicitly setting them up for failure. Using Marcus as the protagonist, this masterfully crafted masterpiece is a sneak preview of what life was like for black folk during an epoch when all odds were against them. It is through this story that we get to understand the complexities of race relations and how artificial constructs that created a nascent superiority complex was responsible for the woes that befell many such people. The purpose of this essay is therefore to explore race relations and the façade that was freedom in a land full of contradictions.
It is apparent from Of Love and Dust that the system that was in place had not yet accepted African Americans as citizens of the United States, hence the oppressive nature of the justice system. African Americans are a people with a rich history filled with tales of sadness, trauma, and hope. Having been brought over as slaves to work on plantations, they were inadvertently made beasts of burden that were to be worked to the death. Many of those who had arrived in this New World had their life expectance significantly reduced due to the brutal nature of the work that awaited them. Historians point out that, on average, a slave in the American South could only endure about 8years of manual labor in the fields before they died out of exhaustion or wounds suffered during this particular ordeal (Perkinson, 2010). The experience was notably worse for women and children since they would have to get used to poor treatment by their overlords. Women would be systematically raped by their masters who viewed them as nothing more than property that could be purchased or sold at a whim. It is therefore shocking that the justice system would recommend bonded labor as the best form of punishment for a young black man. To “work off” his sentence, Marcus is forced to work as a laborer in a white man’s farm, a situation that is meant to assure him of his freedom ultimately. It is shocking that this is a most fitting form of punishment, especially considering the trauma that slavery had inflicted on African Americans. In reality, Marcus realizes that no black man is free but at the mercy of the white man who would do anything to ensure that they were put back to their shackles. Before this encounter, he had thought that life for him would be different; having been born during a different era, but still finds him trapped in a vicious cycle that was meant to ensure that people like him remained in the lower strata of society.
Black people are treated as second class citizens who are nothing more than a means to an end. The abolition of slavery and emancipation of all enslaved people has often been hailed as the beginning of freedom for African Americans, but nothing could be further from the truth. Although it is true that legendary leaders such as Abraham Lincoln were committed to ending slavery, others were not adequately prepared to see an end to this abominable institution (Blackmon, 2012, p. 32). The fact of the matter is that the prosperity of the United States was built on the backs of Africa slaves. These individuals worked all their lives on the farms of enterprising white men who did not want to see them acquire their freedom. They were meant to accept the situation as it was and in other cases, even told that the Bible had stated that their duty was to serve their master. It was this type of brain washing that made certain that these persons would not resist and willingly submit to their masters. It is apparent that their primary goal was to make the most out of the labor that could be provided by the black man and aid him in making more money. Marcus finds himself in such a situation when he is transported to Herbert plantation under the guise that he is working to ensure that he corrects his demeanor. In truth, the white establishment that was had settled on such an irrational system had done this to once again provide that they could make the most out of the black man. Their primary interest was not on correct these individual’s demeanor, but in ensuring that they benefit from them in a manner that would not be frowned upon immediately. To many who saw Marcus and his compatriots working, this seemed a reasonable scenario that was perfectly okay since they had committed heinous crimes that they needed to atone to sooner or later. The only person who was benefitting the most from this arrangement was the white land owner who was receiving free labor from the convicts.
It is also through Ernest Gaines and his tale that the average reader gets to acknowledge the conditions that slaves had to endure. Many often hear the tales of the sheer horror that slavery had brought upon those transported across the Atlantic. It was no wonder that some even chose to drown in the seas as opposed to spending the rest of their lives under the control of another individual. Slaves were the first to wake up, and the last to resign to their quarters. They labored day and night so that their masters could enjoy an earthly kingdom while they waited for a heavenly one (Gleissner, 2010). Those who had a difficult time working under such brutal conditions were severely punished and others sold at a lower price to other plantations where conditions were even much worse. Floggings were a common sight, with slaves routinely experiencing it under their overseers. The situation that Marcus finds himself in is genuinely reminiscent of the dark days of slavery when the overseers were ready to kill a black man out of contempt. They could do this by publicly flogging them in front of other slaves or by dramatically increasing their work load to a point where death was the only thing coming their way. The Cajun overseer put in charge of Marcus, and the other convicts represent modern day slavery and a representation of what slaves went through while in servitude. A personal difference between him and Marcus sees him hell-bent on revenge to ensure that he teaches the young convict a lesson. As a white man, he feels superior and with the power to do as he pleased even if it meant mistreating another human being. He works Marcus under grueling conditions to break his will and to ensure that he kills him out of spite and also due to his position in society.
Race relations are also brought into perspective in Of Love and Dust when observing the relationship that exists between the landowner and his black lover. From time immemorial, the race has always been a thorny subject in the United States. So much so that many would avoid broaching this subject due to the can of worms that it might open. Those who now identify as “black” walk around with faces that are a clear reminder of their origin. Their shade of black and fair complexion is evidence of race mixing which probably took place many generations back when their ancestors were still slaves. Women often became the victims of sexual violence in an environment where rape had been normalized. Many of these women ended up pregnant and what is surprising is that their masters viewed this from an economic perspective (Smithers, 2012, p. 57). Their children were still considered slaves and therefore enjoyed no privileges. They would be sold as high value slaves or put to work inside the house as butlers who were more presentable in the eyes of white visitors. In other occasions, black women could not turn down the advances of these white men since they viewed it as a way in which they could gain sure favors from their overlords. The main reason why this was the case stems from the fact that these plantation owners could decide the fate of slave women and their children. They could choose to sell them and separate them from their families or send them to work in the fields like any other ordinary slave. In Of Love and Dust, the landowner is no different as he develops one such relationship with a woman living on his farm. Even though the woman loves her, he does not reciprocate this affection and puts her at arm’s length. He extends this cold treatment further by denying the two children that result from the relationship any privilege that would assure them of social advancement.
From Of Love and Dust, it is evident that Marcus is the face of perseverance even during the hardest of times. Marcus has suffered a great deal. He has been imprisoned by a racist society that seeks to see him relegated to the periphery. Like any black man during this period, the threat of violent death is never far way. In the South, white supremacists are looking for every bit of excuse to lynch any black man they can get their hands on while those who are lucky enough to escape them find themselves in the hands of the justice system. Simply put, life is not pleasant for a black man living in te United States. But Marcus is no ordinary black man. He shocks the narrator by exhibiting blatant defiance of authority and makes rebellion his life’s work. He is aware of his present situation but refuses to capitulate or let it define him. Moreover, he is determined to make the most of his time at the farm and even manages to seduce the landowner’s wife (Gaines, 2012). Marcus does this even with the risk of death hanging over his head but is fearless in his approach. He, therefore, represents hope for all black people who still experience oppression in the United States. Being aware of his situation makes him cherish every moment and avoid letting anything hold him back. In a country still plagued by the ghosts of racism, Marcus represents optimism in the face of persecution.
In finality, Ernest Gaine’s Of Love and Dust delves into institutionalized racism and the effects that this system had on those caught up in this maze. Through Marcus’s story, it is possible to deduce the oppressive nature of this system, how it affected those caught up in it and how others managed to cope. It also represents hope for those still experiencing racism in this new age and serves as an inspirational piece of literature.
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