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Subversions of the Semantics of the Slave Narrative Genre

By Michaela Keil

To define a genre as old and enigmatic as the slave narrative is a near impossibility. In “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” Rick Altman outlines ways to help classify genre through semantics and syntactics, without engaging in any formal definitions of genre. Semantics are widely accepted understandings of certain settings, actions, and characterizations, while syntactics are the themes and motifs that come from a combination of semantic elements. Over time, semantic elements of the slave narrative genre have slowly evolved, predominantly with the portrayal of the “good” white character: a slave master who choses to teach their slaves how to read, the abolitionist who argues against slavery, or the citizen who claims to be an ally to causes of equality. They only earn the title of good when positioned against the abhorrent acts of other racist, sexist, white supremacist, and actively prejudiced characters in these narratives. The semantic trope of the “good” white character is cemented in the genre with the antebellum slave narratives, where it was used to advance the abolitionist cause. As the genre ages, however, this figure is marred. Toni Morrison’s prize-winning novel Beloved subtly subverts the “good” white character. Decades later, Colson Whitehead pushes Morrison’s critique by satirizing this “goodness” in The Underground Railroad, revealing the white saviorism that is behind it. This led to a complete subversion of the “good” white character trope in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The change in this semantic element incites a change in the syntactics: by dismantling the trope of the “good” white character, the slave narrative genre supplants this syntactic element from one used to draw sympathizers to the abolitionist movement, to one that vividly illustrates the systematic racism that is still rampant in our contemporary society. 

The lack of education afforded to slaves required many antebellum slave narratives to be recounted by the slave and transcribed by an abolitionist “ghost writer,” resulting in the rewriting of these narratives to promote the abolitionist agenda. These transcriptions frequently included exaggerations and changes to the original story to create a homogeneous narrative of the slave experience. In her thesis, “Seeing the Unspeakable,” Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw explains that “These ghost writers were usually abolitionists who were more committed to their cause than to the accuracy with which the personal details of the former slave’s life was recorded” (50). Shaw further details that many elements of slave narratives that deviated from the abolitionist agenda were “simply dropped from the account” (50). In this description, Shaw illuminates the way in which antebellum slave narratives were mediated through the white editor to fit the dominant ideology of what the aesthetics of slave narratives should be, rather than what they are. The homogenization of slave narratives was, as stated by James Olney in “I Was Born,” implemented to create a repetitive sameness. Olney argues that in their sameness, these narratives all catered to the same audience, one that is guided by “an organized group of ‘sponsors,’” and is “possessed of very specific motives, intentions and uses understood by narrators, sponsors and audiences alike: to reveal the truth of slavery and to bring about its abolition” (52). These “sponsors,” Olney goes on to explain, are the abolitionist groups that encourage the production and distribution of such narratives, yet they also constrain them to repeat tropes, so as to confine said tropes into a collective understanding of what a slave’s experience is. The creation of a uniform ideology of slavery through white literary mediation, allowed the original tropes and first hand narratives of former slaves to be re-interpreted by white audiences, who encouraged the inclusion of the “good” white character. 

In creating a broad cultural understanding of the experience of running away from slavery, it follows that abolitionists would want to include their “goodness” in the narrative. This goodness is perpetuated through the repetition of the escaped slave’s “reception in a free state by Quakers who offer a lavish breakfast and much genial thee/thou conversation” in antebellum slave narratives (Olney 51). “Goodness,” in this context, includes the enslaver who teaches the slave enough for them to write their own story, the abolitionist who is sympathetic enough to publish the story, or more tangentially, the Quaker who dares to give autonomy to slaves by helping them along the Underground Railroad. Satire aside, these acts are ones of common humanity, simple decency, and are not revolutionary: it is not difficult to be a good person when the bar is set so low. The inclusion of such a “good” white character provides the presumably white and abolitionist audience with a simple model for being an abolitionist: host a runaway, teach them to read, hide them from hunters, and help them integrate into northern society. 

The proof of “goodness” doesn’t just come from the platitudious actions of these characters, but rather through the foil of another white character, one who is irrefutably loathsome in their treatment of slaves and champions the institution of slavery. Olney explains that this character type appears as “description[s] of a cruel master, mistress or overseer, details of first observed whipping and numerous subsequent whippings with women very frequently the victim” (50). Olney included the “cruel master” and their actions as part of his slave narrative tropes, allowing the inclusion of both the “good” white person and the “cruel” one to act as character foils of each other: binaries in juxtaposition which highlight certain parts of each other. The atrocious slave master’s actions were written as so abhorrent that common decencies, comparatively, could be seen as spectacularly kind. Thus, the “good” white person is not “good,” but rather just “not bad.” The pedestal upon which the “good” white character is placed in these antebellum slave narratives is therefore unsubstantiated when recognized without their foil. Isolated, the “goodness” of this character remains banal. 

Toni Morrison’s Beloved captures this tarnishing of goodness by unraveling parts of the “good” white character, and shifting the narrative away from antebellum homogenization. In undoing this “good” white character trope, Beloved begins to shine a light on the thinness of such goodness, and the layers of prejudice that lie beneath it, through the white abolitionist characters of Mr. and Miss Bodwin. While the cause of abolition was successful, Mr. Bodwin eagerly reminisces about the “heady days” of fighting for slave freedom, vaguely hinting at his longing for the excitement that the abolitionist movement brought, and raising questions about his motivation for joining it (312). Aside from longing for the abolitionist movement because of its excitement, the Bodwins also have a figurine in their front hallway of a kneeling slave with its mouth open, holding coins and other pocket items, with the message “At Yo Service” inscribed on it (308). This figurine is an idol of racist ideas: servitude, African American vernacular, and the literal subjugation of this statuette slave to a white owner. Despite the racist ideas this figurine perpetuates, the Bodwins are motivated by their belief that “human life is holy, all of it” (313). In the struggle for racial equality, however, white involvement exists insofar as it is beneficial to them. The irony of their actions begins to break down the pedestal that such characters held in antebellum slave narratives. 

Beloved’s narrative does not afford the Bodwins reverence for their acts of kindness, and instead reveals the prejudices rooted in them. After Miss. Bodwin reveals her desire to send Denver to a university as an “experiment,” the omniscient narrator warns “Watch out. Watch out. Nothing in the world more dangerous than a white schoolteacher” (314). Through Miss. Bodwin’s “experimentation,” and the narrative commentary on the potential duplicity of this goodness, Beloved argues that her offers are far from saintly. The inclusion of Mr. and Miss. Bodwin, and other “good” white characters in Beloved, effectuates a wider audience scope because they appeal to white audiences who look up to, and see themselves in, the seemingly sympathetic of the Bodwins. The narrative of Beloved editorializes on the Bodwin’s presence and inclusion in the fight for racial equality, noting their duplicitous actions, and thinly veiled racism. While Beloved was written well after the end of slavery, these “good” white characters are still included to appease a white audience, while also beginning to subvert the “good” white character trope to criticize the underlying and hidden microaggressions of racism in many allies.

The “good” white character, and all of its implications, is complicated by more recent narratives that further subvert this character trope and display the “good” white character in an unsympathetic way. Colson Whitehead’s character, Ethel, in The Underground Railroad, reluctantly became a part of the Underground Railroad when she married her abolitionist husband. Her involvement in the cause is presented satirically as a religious version of white saviorism. Ethel’s childhood dream was to take a mission trip to Africa for the sake of Christian proselytism, presuming that the people she influences would adore her for the faith that she brings. This dream is a blatant satirization of the mentality of missions, and the motivation behind them: to become a divinely worshiped being by spreading the word and preaching to communities. Ethel is eventually placed in a position to live out her dream when she cares for a sick runaway slave. She is thrilled to finally have a dependent to preach her religion to, and while the runaway is bedridden, Ethel reads the Bible out loud day and night, with the rationalization that the word of God would bring a cure and never-ending gratefulness from the runaway she hopes to save. These dreams and actions reflect the discourse of white saviours, not allyship. Thus, Ethel’s “goodness” becomes muddled by her sense of superiority. Such a sense of superiority allows Ethel, the “good” abolitionist, to feign sympathy to the cause, when selfish and racist ideas, such as religious conversion, are her true motivating forces for helping slaves. Consequently, the ambivalence of Ethel’s racial thinking allows the “good” white character to be further besmirched, and therefore makes more obvious their motives, thoughts, and underlying racism. The character is subverted even further from its roots: the “good” white character no longer addresses abolitionists, but rather satirizes and criticizes underlying ideologies of racism. Nevertheless, Ethel still helps the runaway and nurses her back to health, eventually being hanged because of it. Therefore, the “good” white character is not fully subverted, allowing space for an appeal to white audiences through the martyrdom of Ethel’s death in the end, making her a small hero of that chapter. 

Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) fully subverts the “good” white character, effectively rebranding the genre of slave narratives entirely. Get Out follows the mental imprisonment and bodily enslavement of Chris, a Black man, by the “good” white Armitage family, and his dangerous and uncomfortable escape to an unknown type of freedom. Referencing Olney’s list of the semantics of slave narratives, he includes a description of the slave’s journey to freedom as a “successful attempt to escape, lying by during the day, travelling by night” (51). Chris’ escape takes place exclusively at night which, along with narrative elements including enslavement, qualifies Peele’s Get Out as a slave narrative. This story does not, however, include any heroic, good, or otherwise positive portrayals of a white person. Here, the “goodness” is a facade used to further enslavement, a masquerade hinted at in Beloved and The Underground Railroad as well. The contrast of the “good” white person and the openly cruel enslaver is not a foil between two separate characters, but rather contrasts the Armitages at the beginning and the end of the movie. Initially welcoming Chris into their home, the Armitages then brutally attempt to enslave him by transplanting a white brain into his Black body. The procedure allows the white consciousness to control the Black body it inhabits, and forces the Black consciousness into the “sunken place,” unable to control anything. This transplantation reflects the systematically enforced assimilation of non-white bodies into a white culture. In Get Out, acceptance of these bodies is unimaginable and, much like in the time of the antebellum, non-white bodies and their narratives need to be remediated through the white consciousness (or forcibly given a white consciousness to control them), much like the “ghost writers” of antebellum slave narratives. Get Out no longer pretends that the “good” white character is integral to narratives of escape from slavery. Rather, Peele’s film villanizes the entire system of racism through the proliferation of this subverted character trope. By not providing space to heroize a “good” white character, Peele indicts every white character as complicit in the institution of racism. 

It is worth noting, however, as Michael Reiff posits in his essay “Peril, Imprisonment and the Power of Place in Jordan Peele’s Get Out,” that many scenes in Get Out “are designed to appeal to both a specifically Black audience, but also a wider, more universal audience” (260). He continues to explain that, “Peele designed his script this way in order to build empathy — to engage a wider audience’s experiences first, before focusing in exclusively on Chris’s perspective as a Black individual toward the end of the film” (260). Peele’s appeal to Black audiences is a stark contrast to antebellum narratives, which end with the “good” white character exhibiting some form of heroism: either freeing the slave, teaching them how to read, or generally treating slaves with humanity. Kelli Weston in “That Sinking Feeling,” further elucidates this specificity of audience appeal: “At the very least, Black audiences recognise all too well the unfortunate position Chris finds himself in, forced to navigate a predominantly white space where his Blackness quickly becomes a spectacle” (39). The broad and untailored audience that Peele addresses at the end of Get Out signifies an end to the “good” white character in slave narratives as part of audience appeal. 

Some may refute the claim that Peele subverts the “good” white character, and instead populates Get Out entirely with this character trope. The “good” white character appears as the father who “would have voted for Obama for a third term,” the mother who is aware of the need for equanimity in conversation, the girlfriend who loves a Black man, and all the party guests who tell Chris that “Black is in fashion” and “Black is better.” Peele could have included multiple iterations of this character as an extension of previous texts to make a point about the falseness of these illusions of “goodness.” This is possible, and would offer a further explanation of the inclusion of this character. A complete population of the “good” white character in the diegetic world of Get Out holds true in the first half of the film. Nevertheless, the removal of the mask by the end of the film attests to the subversion of this character and the full undoing of the entire trope, while the deaths of the “good” Armitages represents the death of the social acceptance of this mask. Thus, The change in this semantic element affects the syntactics of the genre as a whole: the slave narrative genre subverts its historical roots from a genre used to gain abolitionist sympathizers, to one that blatantly proves the systematic racism that is rampant in society. 

The elements of the slave narrative genre — those semantic and syntactic pieces of narrative — have shifted as the genre has matured; in particular, the semantic trope of the “good” white person has evolved considerably. In abolitionist slave narratives, the “good” white character intended to show that not all white people are outwardly problematic. Nonetheless, the actions of this “good” white person are so banal that they can only be defined as “good” when juxtaposed with the horrors of violent and racist slave masters. This calls into question the inclusion of the “good” white character whose role, as shown in Get Out, is no longer necessary. There is no need to appeal to the liberal-leaning “abolitionist” audience. Recently, writers have begun to address these concerns; Whitehead satirizes the mask of goodness that the “good” white character wears, and Peele undoes the illusion of goodness entirely. It is sufficient to say that the sympathy of a white audience is not the sole purpose of writing slave narratives in the modern context, as sympathy is no longer a means of gaining support for racial equality. Rather, slave narratives are turning their focus towards perpetuating an understanding of the institution of racism, how it is ingrained in our cultural subconscious, and how that reflects within the context of our society as a whole. 

Works Cited 

Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” Cinema Journal, vol. 23, no. 3, 1984, pp. 6–18. 

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Books, 2010.

Olney, James. “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” Callaloo, no. 20, 1984, pp. 46–73.  

Peele, Jordan, director. Get Out. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, 2017.

Reiff, Michael C. “Peril, Imprisonment and the Power of Place in Jordan Peele’s Get Out.” Dark Forces at Work: Essays on Social Dynamics and Cinematic Horrors, edited by Cynthia J Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper, Lexington Books, 2019, pp. 247–266.

“The ‘Rememory’ of Slavery.” Seeing the Unspeakable: the Art of Kara Walker, by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Duke University Press, 2004, pp. 37–65.

Weston, Kelli. “That Sinking Feeling.” Sight & Sound, Jan. 2018, pp. 37–39.Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Random House Inc, 2018.