The Reversal of Power Relations in "Dessa Rose"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2012 20 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 Defying the Power of Literacy
2.1 Adam Nehemiah's Master Text in Dessa Rose
2.2 Dessa's Seizing of the Power of the Word
2.3 Resisting the Prescriptive Pen

3 Exercising the Power of Orality
3.1 The Power of Listening and Speaking
3.2 The Power of Humming and Singing
3.3 Dessa's Final Victory by the Use of Orality and Literacy

4 Reversing Power Relations through Narrative Form
4.1 The Deconstruction of Nehemiah's Master Text through Narrative Transmission
4.2 The Reversal of Slave Narrative Conventions

5 Conclusion

1 Introduction

In literary criticism Sherley Anne Williams' novel Dessa Rose is often argued to be "a story of a woman's triumph in a (white) man's world” (Beaulieu 40) and the "story of a woman's passage from slavery to freedom (McDowell 147). The novel, as a postmodern neo-slave narrative, stands as a counter-text to master texts and the slave narratives of the 18th and 19th century and presents "a series of reversals, contradicting conventional expectations with regard to both race and gender” (Beaulieu 31). As McDowell notes, the novel stages the oppositions of "slavery and freedom, orality and literacy, fact and fiction [...] in an untidy network of social and material specifities” (147).

This paper is concerned with the power relations expressed through the "relationship between orality and textuality, between the spoken word that enlivens and the written one that captivates” and their reversal (Rushdy 2004, 99). As a novel, dealing with "oppressive literacy” and "emancipatory orality” Dessa Rose is a novel that directs our attention to the disparity in access to power between those who write master texts and those who produce slave narratives [...]” (Rushdy 1993, 366; 1999,136).

In this paper this interesting discrepant relationship is going to be analysed on three different levels. On the level of the story of Dessa Rose it is going to be analysed how the southern white author Adam Nehemiah attempts to assume mastery over the slave woman Dessa and how Dessa refuses to be subject to his efforts of subjugation. It will be shown how Nehemiah "reads” Dessa according to his own terms and appropriates her (hi)story in his writing. Furthermore, it will be revealed how Dessa seizes the power of her own voice, how she resists being captivated in Nehemiah's book and how she eventually makes use of the written word herself. On the level of narrative transmission, it will be described how this struggle between literacy and orality is mirrored and at the same time deconstructed by the way the narrative is mediated. Finally, it will be discussed how Williams' novel reverses the conventions of the traditional slave narrative and thereby hints at the power disparity that the authors of traditional slave narratives faced in their effort to tell their own stories. As such, this paper is concerned with "the power relations in literary institutions” and "the significance of individual writers' acts of appropriation” (Rushdy 1999,135).

2 Defying the Power of Literacy

2.1 Adam Nehemiah’s Master Text in Dessa Rose

In the first part of Williams' novel, "The Darky”, the character Adam Nehemiah is presented as a member of the "cultural apparatus that creates both masters and master texts” (Rushdy 1999, 143) who sets out to write a book about the prevention of slave revolts. He therefore gathers information for his book The Roots of Rebellion in the Slave Population and Some Means of Eradicating Them and wants to use Dessa as a source of information for his purpose (cf. DR1 21, 23).

Nehemiah understands himself as a man of "science”, "research” and rationalism and he believes himself to be an expert on "[t]he mind of the darky” (ibid. 232). He has already written another book on slaves, namely The Masters' Complete Guide to Dealing with Slaves and Other Dependents, a "handbook” about "sound management” for plantation owners (ibid. 24-25). Nehemiah functions as an "operative agent” in the mainstream publishing industry in which he, a man of lower class background, strives to achieve the status of an important southern author and gain himself reputation among the powerful class of plantation owners (cf. DR 25; Rushdy 1999, 143; cf. Goldman 326). As the "scribe of antebellum culture”, he functions, as his name indicates, very much like the biblical Adam, as a "namer and controller of language”, and similar to the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah, he stands for "the guardianship of traditional culture and values” (McKible 224; cf. Kemp Davis 547-548). Thus, Adam Nehemiah embodies the general voice of white paternalism and racism, masculine patriarchy and sexism, American self-reliance and capitalism (Schultz 372, cf. Sievers 75).

Furthermore, as a white, male, literate individual, Nehemiah occupies "the highest rung on the ladder of power” and he attempts to master Dessa, the black, female, pregnant slave, who is at the very bottom of America's race, class and gender hierarchy of the time, by getting her into his book (Beaulieu 31; cf. McKible 225). In his strive to exercise power over her, he repeatedly refers to Dessa as "the darky”, compares her to animals likes horses and cows (cf. DR 22, 30, 32, 36) and also calls her "the devil woman”, a "slut” and "sly bitch” (cf. 21, 71). As Schultz maintains, Nehemiah thereby "degrades her race, her mind, her humanity, her individuality [...] [and] her gender as well” (372; cf. Kemp Davis 548). Additionally to misnaming Dessa, he does not ask for her real name and only picks it up when she talks about herself. He then immediately renames her by referring to her as "Odessa” (cf. DR 46, 50). The "names” which Nehemiah calls Dessa, and also other blacks, such as Kaine whom he calls "Kay-ene”, "the buck” and also "the darky” (ibid. 40, 60), demonstrate Nehemiah's "use of words to control” (Schultz 372). He thus puts individual human beings into one fit category which is that of the powerless slave who is denied an individual identity.

Additionally, with the goal in mind to write about the prevention of slave revolts, Nehemiah misinterprets and appropriates Dessa's life story about her love to Kaine, her life on the plantation and the loss of her partner by essentialising only four "facts of the darky's history as I have thus far uncovered them” (DR 39):

The master smashed the young buck's banjo.

The young buck attacked the master.

The master killed the young buck.

The darky attacked the master - and was sold to the Wilson coffle (ibid.).

Without understanding the motives behind the events, Nehemiah "didn't for a minute believe that was all there was to the young buck's attack on his master” and his documented facts "sounded like some fantastical fiction” (ibid. 39).

As it turns out from the very beginning, Nehemiah (mis)uses Dessa's oral accounts about her past by attempting to "decipher” and "reconstruct” her words, even though "he hadn't caught every word”, or "had puzzled overlong at some unfamiliar idiom or phrase, now and then losing the tale in the welter of names the darky called” (ibid. 18). Even though Nehemiah literally does not understand Dessa and has no comprehension for or awareness of her cultural background (e.g. the meaning of call-and-response singing, cf. chapter 3.2), he is convinced that he has everything "vivid in his mind” and feels capable to write down Dessa's story "as though he remembered itword for word” (ibid.; cf. Rushdy 1999,145).

Also, when Dessa relates the incident with her mistress who believes that Dessa is pregnant from the master and not from Kaine, Nehemiah misinterprets her account and reconstructs another version in favour of the mistress's accusation about "slave concubinage” (DR 42). In his journal, he adds the "fact”, which actually only is a misleading speculation, that "[i]t's obvious the buck shared the mistress's suspicion about the master and this wench. Why else would the darky attack a white man, his master?” (ibid.).

By writing about Dessa, Kaine and the other blacks in the mode of "scientific racism”, Nehemiah attempts "to fit Dessa into a proslavery text” and thus perpetuates the subjugation of blacks (McDowell 148; cf. Sievers 97; cf. Moody 642). With the aim "of helping others to be happy in the life that has been sent them to live"' (DR 45), he aims to "recreate the prevailing schemes of domination [...]” of white masters over black slaves and also of men over women (Rushdy 1999,139). He does so by misnaming, misusing and misinterpreting the people and the events that Dessa relates.

2.2 Dessa’s Seizing of the Power of the Word

In the text of "The Darky” it becomes clear that there is more to Dessa than what Nehemiah reconstructs about her in his master text. It is apparent through the depiction of Dessa's own thoughts and ideas that she has her very own motives for speaking to Nehemiah.

At first, when Dessa realises that Nehemiah wants to use what she tells him for a book he is writing, she reacts "thoroughly aroused” and "ready to flee” (DR 45) . Her distrust in his writing and literacy in general represents the fear of "the written word” as it often was used as "a potent weapon against people of African descent” (Rushdy 2004, 99), something which Nehemiah also expresses when he attempts to calm Dessa with the words that his notes about her "cannot hurt you now. You've already been tried and judged” (DR 45). Although she is distrustful of Nehemiah's writing and also does not see how her story can "help peoples be happy in the life they sent” as she herself is not "happy when I live it” (ibid. 50), she starts "to look forward to the talks with the white man” (ibid. 53). For Dessa, "they made a break in the monotony of her days” and "[t]alking with the white kept her, for those brief periods, from counting and recounting the cost” of the dreadful violence she and her friends had to resort to during the uprising of the slave coffle to save their own lives (ibid. 54).

Dessa observes that Nehemiah is a little man, "hardly taller than herself’ (ibid.) and always keeping "a careful distance between them”, sitting on his chair "always above her, behind her”, thereby displaying his higher hierarchical status and assuming the role of mastering Dessa and getting her in his book (ibid. 56, cf. 231; cf. Basu 391). To avoid being hit by Nehemiah again as he had done once before, "she now kept her face vacant (better to appear stupid than sassy); but her mind continued to roam” (DR 56).

After Dessa had spoken rarely for weeks, probably because of shock and depression after what she had experienced and because she could only talk by responding "to some white man's questions” (ibid. 57), she begins to utter her thoughts aloud in the presence of Nehemiah. It is because "[s]he had lost Kaine, become a self she scarcely knew, lost to family, to friends [...] [that] she talked” (ibid. 58). Having nothing to lose and being separated from the community she had once known, Dessa chooses herself to speak and after some time gets "[c]aught in her own flow” (ibid. 57; cf. Moody 642). While talking, "she listened and continued, seeing as she spoke the power of Master as absolute and evil” (DR 57). Dessa begins to see her past "as she talked, not as she had lived it, but as she had come to understand it” (ibid. 58), and gradually learns "to see white people not only as biological beings, but also as social forces in her life” (Rushdy 1999, 146). As Rushdy mentions, her conversation provides her with a transformative understanding of her past, a kind of knowledge that not only changes in retrospect but also creates the conditions for her to change herself and her circumstances (1999,146; cf. Schultz 373).

Talking, then, is what Dessa does for herself and not for Nehemiah. She speaks to "own” herself, to redefine and reassert her identity and to heal. Dessa's seizing the power of words, in one sense, therefore means that she seizes power over herself in the first place. She more and more attempts to make use of the power of the word "to recreate [her]self as [a] self-actualizing human being[...]” (Kemp Davis 552). This can also be seen in the narrative transmission which increasingly depicts Dessa's "gradual claiming of voice” (Sievers 77; cf. chapter 4.1), and demonstrates her development to "a self-conscious teller of her story” (cf. Moody 643) which is fully achieved in the last section of the novel.

Moreover, according to Beaulieu, it is "[t]he senseless death of Kaine and the anticipation of his child” which "instill in Dessa a tremendous will to survive” (42). After Dessa realises that the reason the master killed Kaine and she "kill white mens” is "cause she can”, because "a nigger could, too” (DR 20, 58), she gradually develops from a passive victim to a doer because this is "what Kaine's act said to her” (ibid. 58).

2.3 Resisting the Prescriptive Pen

While Dessa seizes the power of the word, she at the same time refuses to be mastered by Nehemiah's writing. Even though Dessa does not know whether she can escape her execution (cf. DR 63), her behaviour shows that she resists being subject to Nehemiah's power and actively influences their conversations. Nehemiah writes in his journal that Dessa "answers questions in a random manner, a loquacious, roundabout fashion - if, indeed, she can be brought to answer them at all” (ibid. 23; cf. Moody 643). The writer considers this "exasperating” but "constantly remind[s] himself that she is but a darky and a female at that”, believing that Dessa is stupid and slow, an impression she consciously supports by keeping her face vacant for her own protection (cf. DR 56). Furthermore, in her story-telling she is "replete with names as Dessa weaves a rich tapestry of her life which conceals, rather than reveals, her essential history” (Mary Kemp Davis 547). She also takes care to "turn [the white man's] questions back upon themselves” (DR 60) and so is able to mislead him and "sabotage[...] his enterprise” (McDowell 150; cf.). For Dessa "[t]alking with the white man was a game” (DR 60) which she does not take serious: [i]t marked time and she dared a little with him, playing on words, lightly capping, as though he were no more than some darky bent on bandying words with a likely-looking gal (ibid.).

Thus, Dessa not only chooses that she speaks, but she also exercises choice in the conversations with Nehemiah in deciding "what she will reveal to him” (Beaulieu 33). As Rushdy mentions Williams "[...] represents the literal process by which Dessa uses her voice to achieve her liberation from the prescriptive pen of Nehemiah's written record” (1993, 366).


1 To differentiate between the text of the novel itself and Williams' remarks as an author, the text of the novel will be referred to as DR. When the „Author's Note" or another piece of writing by Williams' is referred to, her name and the year of publication will be stated.


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Dessa Rose Postmodernism Neo Slave Narrative




Title: The Reversal of Power Relations in "Dessa Rose"