Modern perception of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) raises the issue of the racial fault lines in times of human rights protection, diversity, multiculturalism, and multi-ethnicity. The overwhelming majority of Americans recognize the issue of race as a catchall while establishing relationships between African Americans the descendants from the European origins.
The complex character of Oroonoko as the ‘noble slave’ induces modern readers to meet with a curious character in both physiological and psychological terms. A rather tall man speaks both French and English; his shape is turned from head to toe in admirable fashion. His facial expression genuinely depicts his origin and nationality. Awe and piercing eyes can tell much without a single word said. His flat rising nose is more Roman than African. His finely shaped mouth and naturally turned lips are unlike those particular to most Negroes. The proportion of his face is noble and there is nothing alike in the nature that can be so agreeable and handsome.
Besides Oroonoko’s astonishing appearance, Behn comes to us with a powerful image of Oroonoko to provoke a wide discussion about the race relations. The image perceptions in the modern society provide different outcomes from the African and American accounts. The readers of European descent traditionally relate such early modern allusions of race and racism to the past, and therefore easily distinguish between ‘then’ and ‘now’. The texts like Oroonoko enable us to view and interpret often unresolved cultural conflicts of the past from the modern perspective.
Teaching Oroonoko in today’s society seems relevant as this experience provides background for rational comparison and critical analysis of the most essential issues such as racism on the basis of people’s histories. This powerful image of a ‘noble slave’ induces us to reconsider our race-related positions, prejudices and biases given our own (subjective) positions and life experiences.
The reading of Oroonoko, as an early modern literary contribution, naturally implies us to launch thought-provoking debates about racism and racial divisions and the existing social hierarchies. The convergence and interrelationship between the historical discourse and modern racialist ideas and practices should be made through a deep historical and literary analysis to approach all the related issues objectively and from a multiple (all-inclusive) perspective. Such an approach will enable us to sufficiently explore each discourse and relevant practices separately, unpack the existing layers, decode relevant meanings, and trace the modern discussion into the right direction (Poster 88). This is a methodologically correct approach to productively translate the modern discussion of Oroonoko. At that, we should not emphasize into a one-to-one relationship between the 17th century slave plantation and the existing forms of modern slavery various inner-city areas and depressed regions across the world. On the contrary, we should concentrate our attention on the specific features and differences of both discourses and practices even though they have much in common and are often mutually dependent. At that, people with different backgrounds, histories, and racial experiences will naturally perceive the main ideas expressed in Oroonoko in their own ways. However, namely such powerfully depicted historical figures teach us a great lesson while we learn to explore objectively the existing collisions and continuities between the past and the existing institutions and practices of racism and slavery. Oroonoko encourages people of different racial groups to learn how to challenge the irrationality, and at the same time inevitability, of the explored phenomena of racism and slavery.
Despite there are various theoretical approaches to eliminate racial tensions through such images as Oroonoko and Othello in the modern literature discourse, the practice of demographic context indicates that Renaissance studies alone have so far failed to bridge the gap between the two races. In the empirical stance, the picture is evident in such modern melting pots as the United States. The existing demands for identity politics aligned with multicultural capitalist have forced many African American scholars to recover the archives of their black ancestors. They currently experience considerable pressures every time they try to legitimate their intellectual and cultural identities. The failure of black scholars to intellectually intervene with modern discourses and applicable practices of European racism has led to the emergence of the new (post-modern) forms of ‘ghettoization’.
In reality, over the last half a century, vast numbers of African American males have become victims of under-education, unemployment, and the criminal world. The existing crisis in the modern America calls for revival of such prominent literary figures as Oroonoko as they make us adequately recognize the main historical causes and modern effects of the existing urban meltdown.
Through the comprehensive journeys to European past, it is rather important to develop antiracist messages that can ensure the political importing of historical knowledge. The recovery of Oroonoko’s key messages is vital to recover racial-oriented discourses and back them up with the previously existing texts, including plays, lyrics, religious treatises, travel accounts etc. In such a way, we can establish influential discursive mechanisms to challenge the present-day black-and-white binaries. Today Oroonoko should be perceived as a proper exercise to recognize the causes of the racial faults in the past and reconsider them from the standpoint of the core demands of the modern society. In the past, wide cultural references to such characters as Oroonoko and other cultural studies and field practices enabled to sink the European, even though the racial inequities exist until now (Parker and Hendricks 3).
- Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko and Other Writings. Edited by Paul Salzman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
- Parker, Patricia, and Margo Hendricks. eds. Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period. London: Routledge, 1994.
- Poster, Mark. Foucault, Marxism, and History: Mode of Production versus Mode of Information. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984.