Monday, March 16, 2009

The Soul of the Oppressed


    Oppression slowly chokes the life of the soul. Whether this oppression comes in the form of discrimination, racism, or sexism, the damage is great and in some cases irreparable. There are a few individuals, however, that can take the experience of abuse and create art. Their pain serves as a catalyst to their art and through their experience they have the power to spread a message of love and hope.

    In the play "Trifles" by Susan Glaspell, we read of a murder that is under investigation by the County Attorney and Sheriff. Slowly the reader and audience come to learn of the mistreatment of Mrs. Wright at the hands of her husband. The abuse represents itself again in the form of a song bird and its cage. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters look around the house to find items to take to Mrs. Wright and come across an empty bird cage. The bird is missing and the cage is in a poor shape, says Mrs. Hale, "Looks as if someone must have been rough with it (Glaspell, 1047)." The rough treatment from Mr. Wright led to his own death. Years of isolation and being pushed into a small cage were too much for the tormented song bird, Mrs. Wright.

Not all oppression comes in the form of physical abuse. Even those who have a façade of concern can smother those they wish to help. In contrast to Mr. Wright, Charlotte Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper" tells the story of a concerned husband who wants his ailing wife to improve her health. The husband is a doctor who, despite protests from his wife, isolates her from her family, friends, and journal. The writings of Gilman parallel her own life closely and serve as a warning to men who discard the opinions of their wives. John's oppression does not take the form of Mr. Wright's cruelty, but instead arrogance and patronization. Gilman wrote, "It is so hard for me to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so (Gilman, 584)." His "love" and sense of authority were the downfall of his treatment. The more he put his "knowledge" above her intuition; his wife continued the downward spiral to insanity. "I've got out at last…in spite of you Jan. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back! (Gilman, 590)." These ramblings stand as testimony of mistreatment and even neglect. Even Mrs. Wright showed signs of her abuse through her quilting. Mrs. Hale noticed the craftsmanship and its degrading quality "It's all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn't know what she was about! (Glaspell, 1046)." Mrs. Hale's observation reflects Mrs. Wright's distressed state at the hands of her tormentor.

Charles Alexander Eastman was born as Hakadah in the Sioux culture. There is no other race that has suffered the full anger and wrath of this nation more than the Native Americans. His people were killed off, pushed into worthless parcels of land, and seen as nothing more than uncivilized savages. As Eastman was converted to Christianity and given educational opportunities, he excelled. He did not achieve his brilliance through white people. Rather, he was born with it and only learned how to communicate in a new language. His learning did not create a hate in him for those who had harmed his people. Instead, he was able to draw closer to his abusers and see the close connection that everyone shares. He eloquently wrote of the personal faith held by the Sioux. "To him it was the supreme conception, bringing with it the fullest measure of joy and satisfaction possible in this life (Eastman, 543)." It is natural for a person of faith to feel that way about their relationship with their god. Eastman's writing elevated not only his soul, but every mind who reads his words today.

Like Eastman, Simon Ortiz took his pain and suffering and created a work of art that expressed both his torment and hopes for the future. In his poem entitled "from Sand Creek," Ortiz mingles his prose with historical accounts of the cruelty his people suffered at the hands of the United States government. Ortiz himself was in a VA hospital to recover from injuries sustained as a soldier. Despite being in a hospital for different reasons, the common thread of illness is in his writing, as with that of Glaspell and Gilman. Ortiz notes in the poem, "The mind is stunned stark (Ortiz, 2278)." in reference to the nights he spent in the hospital hearing the cries of the soldiers who were sent to war to fight for a man they would never meet. Ortiz saw the pain caused by subjugation of poor men and women who enlisted to serve in an army as the only way out of their circumstances. "From Sand Creek" starts with hope - "but, look now, there are flowers and new grass… (Ortiz, 2726)" - and ends with hope, "That dream shall have a name… our America (Ortiz, 2730)."

The contrast of light and dark in art is defined as chiaroscuro. As a person suffers, they have two choices. By surrendering to the dark, life is lost, hope is lost and the individual is driven to unspeakable places. In choosing light, one can create a template of knowledge that can be shared and spread throughout time in an effort to enlighten those who destroy, intentionally or otherwise.