Slavery and Racism

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Jack O’Donnell
Development of Western Civilization
Dr. Carlson
November 17, 2011

Slavery and Racism: Are They One in the Same?

Aphra Behn was an extremely significant and influential English writer in the 1600s. One of her more famous works, Oroonoko, discusses the issues of slavery and racism in the Americas. Many people believe that slavery and racism go hand in hand. In fact, these two ideologies are awfully different. Slavery is the act of forcing humans to be treated property whereas racism is the belief that discrimination based on inherently different traits is justifiable. Behn, in Oroonoko, makes the fundamental differences between slavery and racism apparent. With the philosophical views of Rousseau and Trouillot’s analysis on the Haitian revolution, slavery and racism in Oroonoko can easily be separated and distinguished to show their dissimilarities.

In the novel, Oroonoko is an African prince and war hero who enslaves many men from the various tribes he conquers in battle. Oroonoko believes this form of slavery is just and should be acceptable. Later in the story, Oroonoko is tricked and sold into slavery. He eventually works with many of the slaves he had sold to the Europeans back in Africa. Oroonoko considers this form of slavery to be incredibly unjust. The plantation owners did not “win” their slaves over in battle like Oroonoko, rather they barter or trade for them (Boeninger 9/26). The white males also treat Oroonoko as a lesser human being even though he is royalty. They constantly deceive Oroonoko into believing that his freedom is coming when in reality it is nowhere in sight. Because there was such an economic gap between the black slaves and the white slave owners, racism naturally became common custom (Behn). Racism in this case was derived from slavery; they were not the same idea.

Behn depicts slavery and racism in this manner to show how different the two ideas are. In Africa, the slaves and the slave owners were of the same race. The color of their skin was not a factor in how they were treated. The fact that they lost in battle was the only reason they were slaves (Behn). In the Americas however, race had a much bigger role in the treatment of slaves. The large plantation owners were white and the slaves were black. Because of the racial divide in the owners and slaves, many forms of racism were justified (Boeninger 9/27). This also led to the discrimination of the free black men in the society. Behn purposely shows slavery in Africa and slavery in Surinam to point out the extreme differences between racism and slavery.

Behn’s description of Oroonoko and Imoinda also show the inherent difference between racism and slavery. Behn describes Oroonoko as a beautiful person by stating, “His nose was rising and Roman instead of African and flat; his mouth the finest shape that could be seen, […]. The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly formed that, bating his color there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome (Behn 13).” The fantastic image Behn provides shows the reader that slavery and racism have different foundations. If they were the same idea, Behn would have never given such praise to a slave. She compares Oroonoko’s looks to those of a white man which would not have happened if racism and slavery were the same. The description of his beauty relays to the reader that slavery and racism can be two very separate entities.

Even though Behn makes a clear distinction between slavery and racism in the novel, many people would disagree in how she got that message across. In Oroonoko, Behn’s message seems anti-racist but it appears that she does not have a problem with slavery. Her problem arises from how the slaves are treated, but slavery in general is acceptable for Behn. One philosopher in particular would have a problem with Behn’s message. Jean- Jacques Rousseau, if he were to read Oroonoko, would have some concerns. In...
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