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Race in Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko” Essay

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Updated: Jun 9th, 2021

The literature of the 17th century is characterized by the emergence of various works describing the life of African slaves in the New World. The books by European writers were largely influenced by the stereotypes and theories that existed at that period in Western society (Ferguson 166). At present, many scholars claim that the works by White authors were racist while some researchers argue that the preconceptions of European novelists (and Europeans in general) cannot be regarded as racist as modern people see it.

For instance, Hughes emphasizes that the perspectives of the people of the Old World were shaped by the existing focus on systematization (204). However, such books as Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko can serve as an illustration of the racist perspective of the author whose concepts of race are similar to the ones existing in modern society.

The author tells a story of the African “royal slave” named Oroonoko and his hardships in Surinam (Behn 123). It is noteworthy that the writer has a very positive view of the main character of the book and often stresses that he is much nobler than many Europeans. It seems that Aphra Behn simply tries to refute the notion that reigned at that period. It was believed that Africans were inferior in the mental and spiritual, and sometimes in the physical, aspects.

For this purpose, the author contrasts the African prince to the rest of “that Nation” and White people (Behn 130). She seems to idealize him and make him stand out against the rest of African slaves who were referred to as a “gloomy Race” (Behn 128). Although the woman admires the slave, she does not place him in one line with herself as she is White. Certain signs of White superiority or even supremacy can be traced in the book, and these instances are often camouflaged with admiration.

The concept of race is central to the book unveiling the peculiarities of life in the New World where Whites enjoyed many rights while other races (Africans or Local People) were seen as inferior. This inferiority was one of the founding blocks of the institution of slavery as Africans were thought to be suitable for physical work as they were void of White People’s spirituality and mentality. Ferguson emphasizes that the author tends to employ racial categorization as a means of “securing group identity by a (frequently mythical) set of genealogical rules” (162).

The researcher claims that the White author evaluates the nobility and virtuousness of Oroonoko and his wife, Imoinda, by applying the norms and values of the western world. For instance, the writer admires Imoinda for her being “the perfect embodiment… of an image of the ideal English wife as the property, body and soul, of her husband” (Ferguson 169). Other qualities that cannot be placed within the boundaries of the European paradigm are seen as innocence or a manifestation of the barbarism of the race.

However, this kind of categorization is what some researchers see as a product of the scientific culture of that period rather than racism as modern people understand it. Hughes argues that Behn does not provide a “racial classification” but rather utilizes “religious classification” (216).

This view is partially valid as religion serves as one of the most significant differences between races, but these beliefs were still racist. The entire book is permeated with a sense of condescension of the White author. Notably, the White woman expresses her sorrows as to the challenges and even tortures African slaves have to face each day. However, Behn does not try to condemn slavery or the stereotypes that existed at that time.

Moreover, Behn’s racism and contemporary race-related opinions have much in common. Modern White racists believe that African Americans are completely responsible for their hardships that are regarded as a result of certain traits of their characters. Behn also seemed to believe that Black People could be more suitable for heavy physical labor. One of the most striking features of racism of the 17th, as well as 21st, the century is White People’s unwillingness to see Black People’s cultures as equally important and sophisticated. Behn believed that Christianity and other attributes of the civilized world could make Africans closer to Europeans, but not their equals. Contemporary racists also think that Western values are more refined and appropriate for being successful in this world.

On balance, it is necessary to note that Aphra Behn provided a White view on the experiences of a Black man. The author is racist in the modern sense of this word as she tries to contrast Whites and Blacks with the focus on Western values and standards. According to such worldviews, the White race has the right to dominate and take away all possible resources from inferior races. Behn repeatedly tries to make Oroonoko stand out against the rest of the Africans. This glorifying is still an illustration of the stereotypes and prejudice that formed the foundations of modern racism.

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” Versions of Blackness, edited by Derek Hughes, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 117-191.

Ferguson, Margaret W. “Juggling the Categories of Race, Class and Gender: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Women’s Studies: An inter-disciplinary journal, vol. 19, no. 2, 1991, pp. 159-181.

Hughes, Derek. “Blackness in Gobineau and Behn: Oroonoko and Racial Pseudo-Science.” Women’s Writing, vol 19, no. 2, 2012, pp. 204-221.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Race in Aphra Behn’s "Oroonoko"'. 9 June.

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