A Stalemate?

Debo’s article, “Ophelia Speaks: Resurrecting Still Lives in Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia” displays the stalemate that race creates for Ophelia. Debo shows that though Ophelia’s  “African heritage” (Debo 210) attracts an audience, it also forces a placement upon her as she receives smarmy glances outside and inside the brothel. All in all, I coincide with Debo’s view of the conflicting attributes of race, which result it in being advantageous and disadvantageous – in Ophelia’s case.

Besides attracting an audience, Ophelia’s race provides other advantageous to her situation. Unlike a white prostitute, Ophelia is allowed to work in a “fancy colored house” (Trethewey 17), which was of higher maintenance and of more secure security. Although a nicer brothel might not seem to one as an advantage, in Ophelia’s case, not having to supplement her worries with sanitary conditions and security are great survival benefits. Another advantage her race provides is that it makes her more exotic “She calls me Violet now/ – a common name… except/ I am the African Violet” (Trethewey 13), which raises her price range for the auction’s customers. Though one may believe the moniker “African Violet” (Trethewey 17) a mere descriptor, the fact that the Countess says this during the auction, shows that it is a more monetary reason.

Although Ophelia’s race provides some benefits, there are also a number of disadvantageous that come with her race. Through all the progress that Ophelia is facing from her newfound money to her job, it seems that Ophelia might progress to a situation of economic security. Unfortunately, her race causes others to prevent her from progressing as they detest to see her be financially well off, or as Debo puts it white society “remind her of her position.” Ophelia receives her degrading position as she is found “guilty of being/ where I was not allowed to be, a woman” (Trethewey 29), showing that society expects Ophelia to be in the brothel and not outside with the success of society. Apart from receiving a degrading position, Ophelia’s race also creates a barrier of acceptance. While she works at the brothel the men “debate” (Trethewey 26) on how to know that she is African American “whether one can tell, just by looking, / our secret” (Trethewey 26). So though being an “exotic curiosity” (Trethewey 26) raises her auctioning price, it also serves as a constant reminder that she will never be accepted like a white worker.

Conclusively, Ophelia’s position of race is not only a deleterious one, but an advantageous one as well. How one considers which is more dominant – in Ophelia’s current situation – is up to one’s opinion. Though I agreed that Ophelia’s race attributes clash, I believe that her negatives outweigh her positives. I stand by this argument on the basis that had she not been half black, she would not be in this situation at all.

2 comments
  1. Ophelia did indeed receive many benefits from being part black and white. I agree that if she was not black she would not have been in that situation in the first place. However, because she was a female, I think she would have still suffered some challenges. It was stated that Ophelia was not able to get the secretary job because she was woman and not because she was black.

  2. It’s also worth noting that she goes to jail not because she is colored but because she is outside of the red light district, where her movements are supposed to be limited to.

    It’s good to tease out the different experiences Ophelia has that are connected in one way or another to race, but it’s also worth noting—as you do at the end, Christian—that she wouldn’t be in any of these circumstances if people didn’t treat her the way they do in connection with her race. So while she gets into a better brothel, she wouldn’t be there in the first place if not for the way people feel like they can treat African Americans at the time.

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