Silence and agency in André P. Brink’s slave novel Philida

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History as a reflection of male contributions and male dominance generally ignores the contributions and voices of women. The image of the female slave as quiet, compliant and submissive is explored in this article and emphasis is placed on identifying agency despite the silence of the female slave in the slave novel Philida by André Brink.

The undertaking to delve into the silences of the female slaves has a very personal motivation. As is the case with many slave descendants, my origin is enveloped in mystery. While my ancestors were probably slaves, I do not know their names, I do not know when they set foot on shore, and an indication of their pain and suffering is something which I could access only recently in the archives. However, beyond the hideous reality of slavery lies a silent yearning and a determined search for a scattered identity.

This article aims to give recognition to the sacrifices made by female slaves and the suffering they endured. By addressing the gaps, the reader is forced to reconsider the often negative portrayal of the female slave and is consequently able to give recognition to her voice.

Critical investigation into the silences of the female slave in the selected text generated surprising results. It was found that the female slave, although in bondage, not only developed mechanisms which made her life more bearable, but also used subtle mechanisms to enforce her resistance. It was also found that some female slaves voiced their discontent, but were often ignored by their masters.

Suppressed and trapped in a society that regarded white women as the fairer sex, the female slave as black woman was portrayed as a sexual object. The patriarchal society that depicted white women as defenceless, weak and sophisticated portrayed the slave woman as cruel and hardened. Contrary to the physical beauty and desirability of white women, the black woman is portrayed as the epitome of unattractiveness. She thus found herself in a position of "asexuality" where her being as a human and a woman was not recognised, but her gender as a sexual object was. As a black woman she therefore had a dual task: as an invisible worker, but also as a silent sex slave. Her status as a slave woman reduced her to a lesser being, and her primary role was the care of her master and his family. Often the master's demands withheld the female slave from spending time with her own "family". The inability to protect her own children contributed to the emotional and physical pain that she was already enduring in silence. The female slave also did not have the luxury of a grieving period in which she could mourn her losses and heal. She had to keep moving and fulfilling the responsibilities imposed on her in this white misogynist environment dominated by a white patriarchy.

Abused by her master and society, the female slave developed coping mechanisms with which to survive a double patriarchy and triple oppression. Her own value was often linked to the illusion that she was needed and appreciated by her owner/master. This service-delivery mentality of the female slave enabled her to learn to solve problems.

Even the triple oppression of the slave woman did not prevent her from trying to seize her freedom. Despite impossible circumstances, the female slave still found ways to show her resistance to a system of oppression, although on a small scale.

The colonial image of the black woman as an available sexual object, ready to provide sexual favours, was repeatedly abused by those with power. By presupposing this image, many masters excused themselves from any moral values while committing these malicious acts, as slaves were regarded as legal property and thus not considered human. In addition, such legal sanctions could offer the opportunity for "Christian" men to ignore religious taboos against sex between master and slave. The forced sexual encounters often left feelings of worthlessness in the victims, as the texts indicate.

Theorists such as Clair (1998), Glenn (2004) and Jaworski (1993) state that silence is a complicated communication system, which is indeed supported in this article. However, the concept that silence equates to nothingness is where I differ with the above-mentioned theorists. It can be deduced from the study that silence performed different functions – sometimes to the benefit of the slave and at other times to their disadvantage, as is demonstrated by both theory and the texts. For some, their silence served as a protective mechanism because they believed that they were protecting their own well-being and those of their children and relatives. Others regarded their silence as a forced burden that muted both their peace and their hopes while condemning their children to a similar fate or one even worse.

Violence and abuse were used as mechanisms to create a power imbalance. In this way, power and control were exercised over the oppressed and they were forced into obedience. They realised that the roots of all abuse are embedded in inequality and oppression. Their silence, on the other hand, did not mean they accepted the system, but merely that they were left powerless. As mentioned above, the female slave developed ways of resistance through silence. Unlike the idea that silence is a deplorable trait of femininity, as Glenn (2004: 2) claims, this study found that silence is a concept that reflects power, but is often understood by males as a weakness.

The often-assumed male history reduces, devalues and fails to give recognition to the role of the female slave. In the portrayal of slavery, the image of the male slave is emphasised and his struggle elucidated. In comparison with her male counterpart, the female slave’s suffering due to her triple oppression intensified her daily struggle. If the most violent punishments for male slaves were floggings and mutilations, the female slaves were flogged, mutilated and raped in addition to that. Thus it becomes apparent that the experience of the female slave differed from the experience of a male slave in a society where slave women were described as "genderless", but had to fight the objectification of their bodies on a daily basis. The silence of the female slave was misread as both a weakness and an acceptance of her subordination; hence no attempt was made to investigate her silences. The position and representation of the female slave as "weak", "subordinate", and "emotionless" should be reconsidered and a sincere attempt should be made to restore her position and honour.

In essence, this article not only contributes towards the breaking of silence by the female slave herself, but also contributes towards breaking down the perception of absence and silence in history. This article shows that the silence of the slave woman was not meaningless but could be read as resistance. The general perception of the female slave's absence in history has been elucidated in this article.

Keywords: agency; female slave; silence; slavery; subaltern; voice

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Stilte en agentskap in die slaweroman Philida van André P. Brink

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