African-American Racial Passing in the Oxherding Tale Term Paper

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Racial Passing in the Oxherding Tale

This paper discusses references to the topic of racial passing in the novel Oxherding Tale by Charles Johnson. The discussion tries to answer the questions of why, how, and with what effects Charles Johnson mentions this theme in the novel.

The main character in the novel is Andrew. He had his mother's hair. She was the wife of a plantation owner in South Carolina. His father was a slave who served as his master's butler. The conception of Andrew was an "accident." On a night in which the master and the butler, George, had gotten drunk, the master asked George to switch beds with him, supposedly to avoid their wives' recrimination for their drinking. Anna, the master's wife, mistakenly thought that George was her husband in the darkness of the bedroom and pursued intercourse. George was a man who liked to finish his job.

After having sex, Anna discovered that the man in her bed was not her husband. The consequences were long-term (besides the birth of Andrew). Anna never forgave her husband and lived separately from him in the house. George was demoted from being a butler to working in the fields. This fed George's racial hatred, in the end leading him to try to murder his master.

The first reference to racial passing occurs at the beginning of chapter 2 (21). The master had given Andrew permission to seek employment outside the plantation. Andrew had been educated in liberal arts by a tutor since childhood. Andrew had asked his master to allow him to work outside the plantation to make money for a year in order to buy the freedom of his father, his stepmother (his actual family) and that of the slave girl he wanted to marry, Minty.

As George drove Andrew to the place of employment, they engaged in a conversation. George asked Andrew if he would ever pretend to pass for a white man, even though he could succeed by his physical appearance. Andrew, wanting to please his father, said no. George argued that he and his wife were Andrew's real parents and that Andrew belonged to the black race. He wished Andrew to succeed as a black man, to be a pride to his race. Such arguments must have impacted Andrew because, once he passed, the feeling of betrayal of his father and his people hunted him.

Andrew's employer was a divorced woman, Flo Hatfield, who owned a plantation. His duties were household shores, but Flo was really interested in him as a future lover. When Andrew arrived to the plantation for the first time, one of the slaves, the coffinmaker, called him "freshmeat." When Andrew arrived, Flo's lover was the butler, Patrick, another young slave who immediately became jealous of Andrew. Flo's favorite hobby was sex, and she had refined it to an art form, with the aid of opium. Eventually, Patrick committed suicide, apparently out of fear of being replaced by Andrew and losing his privileged position. The same day of the suicide, Flo and Andrew became lovers.

After having worked for almost a year, Andrew had not received payment from Flo. When he confronted her and asked for his back wages, she told him that she didn't pay for sex. She had misled him into believing that he was an employee who would be compensated. Andrew had asked Flo for his wages because that day he got the news that there had been a slave rebellion at the plantation where his family was and that half the slaves had been sold. Andrew did not know if his family and Minty were among those sold. His stress made him feel sick, as if he was going to have a heart attack. In such situation, he started doubting that he could ever find happiness as a black man. Despite the promise he had made to his father, the thought came to his mind that he might be better off passing for a white man (69).

Being very upset by the confluence of events, and under the influence of opium, Andrew punched Flo in the nose as they were making love. Their relationship was over. The next day, Flo ordered to have Andrew taken to work in a mine. Work conditions in the mine were such that death was likely. On his way to the mine, Andrew escaped to freedom with an accomplice, the coffinmaker. A white world awaited.

Running away to freedom, they were being hunted down, and Andrew decided to pass. He invented a new biography for himself as a man from wealthy parents who had made a fortune in shipping, becoming landowners, and then losing their wealth, leaving the children in poverty. Andrew portrayed his accomplice as the only remaining loyal servant he had left (109). Andrew told his story to a toll guard they met along the way, adding that two runaway slaves had robbed them of the money they had left. It worked. The guard gave them information that helped them get to the town they were going, Spartanburg, in northern South Carolina.

In Spartanburg, Andrew's entrance into a white world started yielding benefits. First of all, he was at last a freeman, de jure. Being sick from the withdrawal effects of having regularly consumed opium, Andrew went to see the town's doctor. While at the doctor's house, he engaged in a conversation with the doctor's daughter, an average looking but pleasant young woman. Once she realized that Andrew was a learned man, she decided to introduce him to the schoolmaster in the town. Andrew got a job as a teacher substituting for the school master, an older woman who wrote novels. Initially, the job was going to be temporary while the school master took a leave of absence to finish a novel. However, she went to London to write and publish and never came back. Andrew had a permanent job.

Andrew realized that his physical appearance allowed him to pass and that doing so permitted him to live in a better world, a white one. But Andrew indicates, as the narrator of the story, that passing was not only a matter of physical appearance, but of imitating the mannerisms of whites, which Andrew has meticulously studied (128).

Yet all was not well for Andrew in his new world. As with fugitives and impostors, there was the fear of being caught. Two simultaneous threats developed. The town's doctor, noticing the attraction that his daughter had developed for Andrew, started to investigate his story. The doctor did not discover his racial background but found lies about his supposed ancestry. The doctor threatened Andrew with a more thorough investigation unless he married his daughter and made her happy (134). At the same time, his accomplice in escaping to freedom, who had remained in Spartanburg pretending to be his servant, decided to go to Chicago. After his departure, a bounty hunter, "Soulcatcher," who had accompanied them to Spartanburg disappeared. Andrew and his accomplice always suspected that the bounty hunter knew their true identities, which turned out to be true. Andrew became fearful that if his accomplice were caught he would be made to confess Andrew's true identity and the live he had in Spartanburg would be over (135). Andrew's new found joy in his white world soon became clouded.

Andrew married Peggy, the doctor's daughter, and was content with her. He lived in his own house, had a steady job, and was respected in the community. He had settled into a successful, normal life. One day, while away at work, the bounty hunter showed up at his house and gave his wife a box as a wedding present. It contained a ring that belonged to his accomplice, the coffinmaker. Fearing the worse, Andrew headed for town looking for the bounty hunter. In town, Andrew ran into a slave auction, illegal at the time but a frequent occurrence nonetheless. This event highlighted in the narrative another angle of passing -- the feeling of betrayal to blacks in witnessing the injustices committed towards them and being unable to do anything. The feeling of having betrayed his people, a point made to him long ago by his father, was even more intense in Andrew because one of the slaves being sold was Minty, his old girl friend, whom he had once wanted as his wife (150-151). His emotions guided his decision. He ended up buying Minty on credit. Such an act opened the possibility of losing the live he had built in Spartanburg. He might have to run away with Minty (156, 159). He took Minty to his home. She had rekindled his black identity, and he started to doubt whether he belonged in the white world. He felt a stranger in his house and questioned the reality of his white life (159).

His wife Peggy accepted the presence of Mindy, even after Andrew had told Peggy Minty had been his lover. Besides having a good hart, Peggy…

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