… It isn’t even past.

JoAnn Wypijewski offers a thought-provoking history lesson, reminding us that whatever we might think about A Handmaid’s Tale as a speculative, dystopian vision of the future, it’s also an accurate reflection of America’s dystopian past:

The mass-culture story of slavery is usually told in terms of economics, labor, color, men. Women outnumbered men in the enslaved population two to one by slavery’s end, but they enter the conventional story mainly under the rubric “family,” or in the cartoon triptych Mammy-Jezebel-Sapphire, or in the figure of Sally Hemmings. Yes, we have come to acknowledge, women were sexually exploited. Yes, many of the founders of this great nation prowled the slave quarters and fathered a nation in the literal as well as figurative sense. Yes, maybe rape was even rampant. That the slave system in the US depended on human beings not just as labor but as reproducible raw material is not part of the story America typically tells itself. That women had a particular currency in this system, prized for their sex or their wombs and often both, and that this uniquely female experience of slavery resonates through history to the present is not generally acknowledged. …

We don’t commonly recognize that American slaveholders supported closing the trans-Atlantic slave trade; that they did so to protect the domestic market, boosting their own nascent breeding operation. Women were the primary focus: their bodies, their “stock,” their reproductive capacity, their issue. Planters advertised for them in the same way as they did for breeding cows or mares, in farm magazines and catalogs. They shared tips with one another on how to get maximum value out of their breeders. They sold or lent enslaved men as studs and were known to lock teenage boys and girls together to mate in a kind of bullpen. They propagated new slaves themselves, and allowed their sons to, and had their physicians exploit female anatomy while working to suppress African midwives’ practice in areas of fertility, contraception and abortion. Reproduction and its control became the planters’ prerogative and profit source.

“People hate those whom they fear,” Susan of Texas wrote recently, “and they fear those whom they have wronged.”

And that, in turn, leads them again to wrong those whom they have wronged. That seems to be the dynamic at work in the current trend of mass incarceration. Melanie Wilmoth Navarro looked at a recent study exploring “The source of American punitiveness“:

Since the 1970s, the prison population in the U.S. has increased by 700%. Consequently, there are now over 2.3 million people behind bars. Friends of Justice believes that this shift toward mass incarceration was driven by a punitive public consensus. This punitiveness resulted in tough-on-crime policies that promote harsh punishment over rehabilitation and leave prisoners locked up and left out.

There are many theories that attempt to explain why the U.S. shifted toward punitive criminal justice policies over the last 40 years. A recent study by Unnever and Cullen (2010) explores the social sources of punitiveness among Americans by examining the efficacy of three prominent theories: the escalating crime-distrust model, the moral decline model, and the racial animus model.

… The results of their research indicate that each theory has some merit. Unnever and Cullen found, as the escalating crime-distrust model suggests, that people who perceive that crime is on the rise are more likely to adopt punitive attitudes. In addition, their results indicate that people who believe that society is in a state of moral decay are more likely to support the death penalty which confirms some of the assumptions of the moral decline model. However, the results of Unnever and Cullen’s research most consistently support the racial-animus model:

A prominent reason for the American public’s punitiveness — including the embrace of mass imprisonment and the death penalty — is the belief that those disproportionately subject to these harsh sanctions are people they do not like: African American offenders.

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

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  • Danielle Custer
  • And it all dovetails so conveniently with the fact that our prison system has become pretty much entirely privatized. The prison corps want harsher punishments, too, and they’re quite happy about all the non-violent drug offenders going to prison these days, because the more prisoners they have to hold, the more money they get from the government.

    I’m not saying that’s the “real” reason for our incredibly punitive society. The racial animus is very much real. The prison corps exploit it, but they’re not exempt from it, either. Odds are good that the CEO of Jailz Inc. (not a real company to my knowledge) is him/herself afraid of the black-on-white crime wave that’s totally sweeping our nation (in the lurid fantasies of wingnuts).

  • This explains a lot about certain attitudes that many in former slave states have toward women.  Of course, the women in their family are important and virtuous, but those other women are not deserving of the same dignity, according to such a mentality. 

    This is a depressing thought.  :(

  • Abolitionists, particularly black female abolitionists, pounded the point home over and over that slavery, for women, meant rape and forced breeding. I remember one article (I can’t remember who by) that pointed out that white male plantation owners were selling their own children into rape and servitude. On purpose. Because it made them money. When right-wingers clutch their pearls about mentioning sex in schools, they are trying to avoid admitting what slavery was.

    The rape of black women and the “preservation of white womanhood” are of a piece. You can’t have one without the other. Both posit women as things owned by and used by men. That’s why the right wing likes the myth of the black male predator. There are only two options for women, they like to claim: be raped by lots of men, or be “protected” by one man who can use your body as he sees fit, even unto your death. But hey, one is better than hordes, right? 

    That entire mythos exists because of slavery. The slavery of women and most men through history. The particular racial slavery of the antebellum South shaped it in the U.S. and still gives it power. Our founders knew they were cursing us by allowing slavery to flourish on this soil — they just hoped slavery would somehow die out and things would be okay. I don’t think most of them realized what a curse it would remain, even one hundred and fifty years after we fought a bloody and necessary war over it.

  • Jeff Weskamp

    Many reports state that if we released all the non-violent drug offenders, not only would our incarceration rate drop dramatically, so would the percentage of minority inmates.

  • banancat

    I don’t see how a slaveowner having sex with a slave could be anything other than rape.  If the woman can’t refuse, it’s rape.  Acknowledging that white owners fathers children with slaves automatically acknowledges that they raped them.

    I would also argue that when slave owners forced a male slave to impregnate a female slave, they were both victims of rape.

  • Rich

    I don’t see how a slaveowner having sex with a slave could be
    anything other than rape.  If the woman can’t refuse, it’s rape. 
    Acknowledging that white owners fathers children with slaves
    automatically acknowledges that they raped them.

    Pretty much. There can be no meaningful consent between two people in a society that legally and culturally treats one of them as literally the property of the other. It’s like sexual harassment in the workplace, except instead of the victim being afraid of termination or at worst being blacklisted in the industry if she complains, the victim instead can be corporally punished or even tortured and killed. Even if the master isn’t consciously thinking about that, that doesn’t change the underlying circumstances.

  • I just watched an interview with Margaret Atwood and she noted that she didn’t put anything in “A Handmaid’s Tale” that hadn’t happened in human history. So yes, such a lens might be used.

  • Yeah, I guess this is pretty true. Up until a couple threads back I was sort of acting as an apologist for Thomas Jefferson. 

    Hemings was related to and the spitting image of his dead wife, which made it in my mind sad and (with no supporting evidence I know of) to be the equivalent of that prior relationship. 
    But really, even if it was as consensual as such a relationship could get, that isn’t very, is it? So here’s my apology for being an apologist.

  • And preferred, actually, given Atwood’s somewhat unfortunate and uncharacteristically stupid opinions regarding science fiction. 

  • Tricksterson

    What opinions are those.  i know that not everything she writes can be characterized as science fiction but i also know that The Handmaids Tale isn’t the only science fiction she’s written.  Oryx and Crake and it’s sequel both come to mind.

  •  Nope. None of those are science fiction. She doesn’t write science fiction. Science fiction involves space ships and monsters. She writes “speculative fiction”. Which is different, because is why.

  • Lori

    Oh man. Are we going to have the Atwood discussion again? That never seems to end well. 

  • I don’t know about Oryx and Crake, but The Handmaid’s Tale is not science fiction. Science is not important to The Handmaid’s Tale. Science fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction, not a synonym for it. 

  • Tricksterson

    Oh dear, does she urinate instead of pissing as well?
    This is a peeve of mine because my father had the same attitude.  Frankenstein, 1984 and Brave New World weren’t science fiction because they were “serious”.  Yet he bridled when people said jazz wasn’t “serious music”.

  • Tricksterson

    Social changes that take place in or cause a future society most certainly is science fiction.  Speculative fiction is just a term used by people incapable of having satisfactory bowel movements or orgasms.

  • Thebewilderness

    The delicious luxury of having so much speculative fiction that it can be sliced and diced.
    Back in the day we took what we could get in the pulps and were grateful for it. Also too and besides get off my lawn.

  • MaryKaye

    When my mother was young she was not a feminist:  she saw that women were treated badly but she made a separation between “them”–those women who weren’t succeeding in a male-dominated world–and herself, a very capable person who *was* succeeding pretty well.

    Then real life intervened:  her husband left her, she had a daughter, she needed all the money she could earn and suddenly the lower pay for women wasn’t just an abstract problem for other women anymore, she felt rage when her daughter was treated unfairly.

    I am uncomfortable with statements like Atwood’s about “what I do is not science fiction”; I see them as denial of connectedness, an attempt to make things better just for yourself without addressing why they were bad in the first place.  If science fiction is not respected, it seems better to fight for it to become so–and certainly a lot of SF is well deserving of respect–than to borrow its tropes and techniques and ideas but deny that you are writing SF, thus giving less back to the community.

    (The other thing that happens when literary authors don’t want to deal with the SF tradition when they are writing SF is that they reinvent the wheel, sometimes badly.  I offer the first chapters of Doris Lessing’s _Shikasta_ as an example.  SF writers learned better ways to infodump than that a *long* time ago, and it’s painful to read.)

  • Gabrielle Syme

    Wow. What started as a thoughtful discussion of the intersection of racism and sexism sure turned fast into a discussion about how Margaret Atwood is oppressing science fiction fans. 

  • Ah yes, TvTropes calls that the “Sci-fi Ghetto“.

  • Oh, so I’m incapable of pooping and orgasms? Thank you oh so much for informing me. I’ll have to remember those facts for the future, and conform to your knowledge that the terminology I use for a genre of fiction makes me incapable of orgasm. Next time I am about to have an orgasm, I will remind myself: Tricksterson tells me that I cannot orgasm because I use the term “speculative fiction”. Surely Tricksterson knows my body and sex life better than I possibly could, so I must stop having this orgasm right now.

    Science fiction is a term that has a specific meaning. See the word “science” in there? It’s not just there because it looks pretty. It is a subgenre of speculative fiction. And, by the way, speculative fiction as a whole and in particular one of its subgenres, fantasy, is my favorite genre, and one of my favorite writers is the science fiction writer Lois McMaster Bujold.

    Take your assumptions about my sex life and digestion — and Margaret Atwood’s — and shove them.

  • JonathanPelikan

    I’m looking, but I can’t see terribly much in the way of allegations of oppression. Looks to me like some don’t agree with Margaret Atwood about sci-fi and definitions and stuff like that, and some do.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Oh man. Are we going to have the Atwood discussion again? That never seems to end well.

    It appears the answer is “yes, we are”.

  • Speculative fiction is just a term used by people incapable of having satisfactory bowel movements or orgasms.

    Oh, come on. You did not just say that.

  • banancat

     I was going to describe something similar to this, but of course tvtropes beat me to it.  But yeah, SciFi is still seen as this weird thing for a distinct segment of people (read:geeks) and stuff with a wider audience doesn’t want the taint of Star Trek conventions and people in weird costumes.

  • The other thing that happens when literary authors don’t want to deal with the SF tradition when they are writing SF is that they reinvent the
    wheel, sometimes badly.  I offer the first chapters of Doris Lessing’s _Shikasta_ as an example.  SF writers learned better ways to infodump than that a *long* time ago, and it’s painful to read.

    It seems like this happens every time an author of “literary fiction” (which supposedly is not a genre) does “genre fiction.” They go over ground that was been well-covered by experienced writers for decades, and end up writing crap. But the reviewers take the themes covered very seriously when they have dismissed much better books dealing with the same themes as “not being real literature.”

    (Why yes, I did know too many English majors in school.)

  • Jurgan

    I remember hearing a poet once say that, if you understand the definition of the words “slave” and “love,” then it’s impossible to believe Thomas Jefferson had a love affair with a slave.  I didn’t get it at the time, but I do now.

  • Tricksterson

    Turns out there is no reason to burn Ms Atwood at the stake after all.  In an article in the Guardian she uses science fiction and speculative fiction interchangeably to describe her work.

  • Leonard Andrew Spencer

    Of course. Why worry about horrible things happening to others when an author is being rude to you?