On Octavia Butler’s “Unexpected Stories” and Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind “


Noah Berlatsky in The LA Review of Books:

The utopia in Gone With the Wind is predicated on the insistence that black people in the South found slavery to be a pretty good life. In the voice of its heroine, the novel asserts that “slaves were neither miserable nor unfortunate. The negroes were far better off under slavery than they were now under freedom, and if she didn’t believe it, just look about […]!” — as if looking around would offer reassurance.

Mitchell takes care to make her black characters — or at least her “good” black characters — constantly express their enthusiasm for the antebellum hierarchy. Mammy, Scarlett’s longtime nurse and companion, may be “black, but her code of conduct and her sense of pride were as high as or higher than those of her owners.” Mitchell means that Mammy looks down on poor whites and field slaves alike; she is fiercely protective of the social standing of the O’Haras’. In the world of this novel, Mammy sees herself as a member of the family, and her service is based on love and affection, rather than on fear that she might be whipped, raped, or shot at will. Blacks in Gone With the Wind identify so closely with their white families that when Atlanta is invaded, the slaves are panic-stricken, actually afraid of freedom, as if they’re children about to be robbed of their parents. In Mitchell’s portrayal of Reconstruction, “good” black people, like Scarlett’s former foreman, Big Sam, express as much horror at the new, fallen world as the whites do. A group of Yankees “ast me ter set down wid dem, lak Ah wuz jes’ as good as dey wuz,” Sam says, with mixed indignation and confusion. Visions of utopia in Gone With the Wind become forces for imperialism in themselves. In this case, the prey is actively enthusiastic about being fed on by the mosquitoes. For Mitchell, happiness legitimizes, and enables, slavery.

Octavia Butler’s final book, the vampire novel Fledgling,explicitly draws the links between blood, slavery, and happiness. The narrator is an “Ina” — a young, black female vampire — named Shori. Shori uses her bite, which is physically and emotionally addictive, to surround herself with a number of dependent “symbionts” who love and serve her, sexually and otherwise. The novel, which is told from Shori’s point of view, encourages the reader to sympathize with her as she builds a small, utopian community ruled by herself as benevolent mistress. However, as Isaac Butler points out on my website, the Hooded Utilitarian, if you read against the novel just a little bit, the subtext is disturbing.

More here.