Racial Detriments

In Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia, Ophelia explains how she has “run” away from being raped. I think she not only struggled to run away from being raped she also struggled to run away from her ethnic identity. “[…] I’m not quite what I pretend to be. I walk these streets a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes of some upon me, and I must lower mine, a negress again” (Trethewey, 7). Deep inside, Ophelia identifies herself to be a black woman but she was raised in a way to pretend to be white.

She was born to a white father and a black mother. Ophelia compares prostitution and her childhood education, and does not find the both to be dissimilar. “It troubles me to think that I am suited for this work-spectacle and fetish- a pale odalisque. But then I recall my earliest training-childhood-how my mother taught me to curtsy and be still so that I might please a white man, my father” (Trethewey, 20). She has spent her childhood trying to please her father, a white man and now she works in a brother trying to please other white men.

Race is a social construct based merely on the segregation of various ethnicities and not on skin. Due to the rarity of miscegenation in the early 20th century, Ophelia is somewhat unique. Even though, Ophelia has a white skin and has the manner of a white woman, she is socially identified as a black woman. She consumes arsenic tablets to appear as white as possible. “Later, I took arsenic-tablets I swallowed to keep me fair, bleached white as stone” (Trethewey, 20). Due to her past, she strives to become someone else and free herself from her memory. “I want freedom from memory. I could then be somebody else, born again, free in the white space of forgetting” (Trethewey, 24). Ophelia wants to be born as someone else. I think she is referring to being born as a white person. Being a white person, she wouldn’t have to suffer from the racial distinction she has to suffer from.

  1. Taimour, it’s interesting to think that Ophelia might have run away from her racial identity but then ended up choosing to work in a colored brothel. Why do you think she does this?

  2. Taimour, I blogged about a similar idea. I do agree with you that certain texts may allude to the idea that Ophelia is trying to become someone new and escape her past. But is this because she doesn’t want to be her ‘true’ self or because she has to as a means for survival? In my blog, I wrote that it is a possibility that Ophelia attempts to appear white because more white men will be interested in her as a prostitute, ultimately making more of an income. I’m not exactly sure what the correct answer is. I also agree with the question Dr. Croxall asked in the above comment. Why would Ophelia work in a colored brothel if she is trying to escape her true racial identity? Maybe the reason why Ophelia works in a colored brothel yet makes herself appear white is to be a successful prostitute since she’ll be more desired by white men than the others working in the brothel.

  3. i like how you added the quote “but then I recall my earliest training-childhood-how my mother taught me to curtsy and be still so that I might please a white man, my father.” I think thats a really significant quote because it shows the racism of the time period and her inferiority due to her skin color.

  4. I agree with your assertion that Ophelia is trying to escape her racial identity apart from her past. Immediately, in the poem “Letter Home” she makes references to African culture in a negative manner “ Women, clicking/ their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads/ on their heads” (Ophelia, 7), showing regret rather than pride in these reminders of her ancestry. Although she does try to escape her racial profile, ultimately, it is impossible because “one can tell” (Ophelia, 26) that she is half black. Ultimately, I think that she accepts the fact that she cannot escape her race, and rather than being ashamed, she uses it to her advantage in her struggle to survive.

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