On Fairness

I’ve got a few things on my mind from this week’s reading.

One is the strife between enslaved women. Liza discloses Dana’s departure to win some sort of favor, but then Dana’s allies give her a beating in retribution. More interesting is the conflict between Alice and Dana once Alice recalls the truth of her enslavement. Alice lashes out at Dana but later catches herself (starting on page 167 in my edition):

“What’s the matter with you” she said wearily. “Why you let me run you down like that? You done everything you could for me, maybe even saved my life. I seen people get lockjaw and die from way less than I had wrong with me. Why you let me talk about you so bad?”

“Why do you do it?” …

“Because I get so mad… I get so mad I can taste it in my mouth. And you’re the only one I can take it out on — the only one I can hurt and not be hurt back.”

“Don’t keep doing it,” I said. “I have feelings just like you do.”

I have nothing profound to say about this strife, but it stood out to me. In a section titled “The Fight,” I wondered whether Butler meant to call attention to the physical fight that summoned Dana to the past or whether she might also mean to call attention to the infighting she portrays among the women (also perhaps to, you know, the fight for civil rights in Butler’s own lifetime).

The second thing on my mind this week was names. “Rufus” as a name for a red-haired person stood out to me as awfully obvious as a clue that names might have some specific meaning for Butler (as indeed they frequently do in fiction). Dana’s name too is interesting, since we learn at some point that it’s actually “Edana,” which isn’t a name I had encountered before. “Edana” is of Irish origin and means “fire” while “Dana” from the Hebrew means “arbiter” or “God is my judge” and from the Sanskrit means “generosity.” Dana is awfully generous, isn’t she? “Kevin” means “handsome” and “Carrie” interestingly means “free man” (though it’s a girl’s name). “Alice” means “noble or exalted” and “Nigel” can mean “champion” or “black.” I have no thesis about the names in the book but was just curious about how much significance the various names might have. I’d say the significance is mixed and that sometimes a name may just be a name without having to mean anything big.

The third main thing I turned my thoughts to this week was the notion of fairness. Etymologically, “fair” comes from a proto-Germanic word meaning “suitable, fitting, appropriate, nice.” That came into English with the sense of “beautiful, good-looking, attractive.” So when we say that someone is fair-skinned (as is Kevin, whose name happens, recall, to mean “handsome”), we’re saying they’re beautiful. The implications of this word association are problematic at best. But of course fairness also has to do with doing what’s fitting or equitable. And it’s a quality that Rufus insists his father has, in spite of his other failings. On page 134, Rufus tells Dana that Tom won’t whip her for following Rufus’s orders, since Tom is a fair man. Later, on page 181, when Dana has confronted Rufus about not sending her letters to Kevin, he reports that his father had written Kevin after all. The idea here is that Tom felt that Rufus should have kept his word and so kept it for him out of a sense of the importance of keeping your word. It’s not fairness precisely, but it’s a strange ethical hangup for a man who enslaves people, abused his child, and in general is just sort of a cantankerous cuss.

So what does it mean? Why is Butler drilling home the idea that Tom Weylin has a sort of decent moral or ethical center in spite of his flaws? Is he fair and honorable? Dana has this to say about him too (page 134):

His father wasn’t the monster he could have been with the power he held over his slaves. He wasn’t a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his soiety said were legal and proper. But I had seen no particular fairness in him. He did as he pleased. If you told him he wasn’t being fair, he would whip you for talking back.

Is he fair or not? Is Rufus simply a bad judge of character? Is Butler on board with the notion that people are a product of their time? How can she say at once that Weylin is not a monster and that he’d likely whip somebody for talking back? Is her purpose with this stuff to portray a complex character in Weylin? If so, does she succeed?

5 thoughts on “On Fairness

  1. Minn March 13, 2021 / 9:02 pm

    She is definitely walking a tight rope of portraying people not escaping their historical situations on the one hand and having ahistorical inherent characters on the other hand. I even see that with Dana who is supposed to transcend the historical situation (her being from future) and yet there are some parts where she could not adapt to the past

  2. Jeff Anderson March 13, 2021 / 10:08 pm

    The notion of how circumstances shape the people in them is pretty central to this book! Butler said one of the big spurs to writing it came from a class when she was in college, where Black classmates were talking about how they wouldn’t have just submitted like enslaved people in the past did—they would have resisted more, they would have fought back more, and so on. Which she found implausibly self-flattering.

    On another end of the same stick, I’m reminded again of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s time at the Atlantic. His blog was an excellent public education, both of himself and of anybody lucky enough to read it—including the stellar commentariat. One point he made over and over was that it’s very easy for White people looking back at that era to say “Oh well of course I would have been one of the good ones,” but that that’s actually literally impossible to say honestly, because you’ve never been in that situation in your real life, where the economy of slavery and the politics of slavery and the society of slavery structured truly every interaction you could imagine, including in your most formative years. Or put another way: I’m no more a human being than were my ancestors who held people in slavery. Or than Tom Weylin. No one person is virtuous enough to counterpoise an entire social/legal/economic order. That doesn’t mean they can’t be judged for their actions, it just means that no action takes place in a vacuum, so its moral ripples are often much wider than we’re comfortable with.

    As for whether Tom is complex… Honestly, I don’t think so in the way we usually mean when we call a character complex. Or maybe I mean he isn’t very rounded. But I do think he’s specifically intended as a riposte to Simon Legree. He’s not a cartoon villain; in the matter of Dana’s letters, he saves her by hewing to his moral code even though applying it to a Black person seems risible to others. I think he’s designed to make us uncomfortable by being recognizable as a person. Like Dana says in your quote, an ordinary man who’s been taught that certain monstrous actions are acceptable.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston March 16, 2021 / 11:02 pm

      The notion of “Oh well of course I would have been one of the good ones” sits really heavily with me and has for a while now. For all that I try to do small good things to be one of the good ones, I’ve not really done any of the big things (especially in the last year when I’ve hardly left my house). So, am I one of the good ones?

      You read quotes now and again about how, you know, if you want to know what it was like in the years leading up to the holocaust (or whatever atrocity you’d like to substitute), you kind of just need to look at what you’re doing — or more probably what you’re not doing — now, and you need to recognize that we got to the worst of things by bits and pieces as ordinary decent enough people sat by while smaller bad things compounded into big ones and then into atrocities. I think it might be hard for me to say, in 30 years, that I was one of the good ones. I might not be one of the bad ones, but I’m not as good a one as, from my little bubble of safety and security, I’d like to imagine I could be.

      I’m not fishing for reassurance here or anything. I’m just sharing because it’s the sort of (potentially) useful thing that can come out of this sort of conversation, provided the shame of owning this publicly prompts me to do some of the (even slightly) bigger things that might make me a little more good after all.

      I didn’t know the context about (part of) what led Butler to write the book. Thanks for sharing that.

  3. Paul Debraski March 18, 2021 / 2:05 pm

    A friend of mine just posted a hypothetical–would you take $10 million (or whatever) if you had to live in the world of the last book you read.

    Having started Parable, I said NO WAY, but then I thought about Kindred and I also said no way. In part because antebellum South sounds like a terrible place to be in general, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to go back in time (like Kevin, being a good guy) and realizing just how impotent you are. Or even worse. How could you stand up to an entire system?

    Honestly, I don’t even understand how anyone had the courage to stand up to the institution at all. When you see how simply accepted it was–even that Black people were not even human–who were the people who saw past that. And risked ostracization, financial ruin, violence, death to stand up to those who had no intention of giving up what they had?

    It seems insurmountable, even with morality and decency on your side.

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