It can be very frustrating to be a literary student black woman. I read countless books from French literature and as my love for this domain grew through years, the time came when I got tired of not seeing women like me. As a matter of fact, I found my path in Afro-american, Carribean and African literatures.
At the age of 8, my mother showed me Roots, the big saga of Alex Haley. Despite all the polemic about it, Roots remains one of the masterpiece of afro literature and I remember how I felt the first time I watched it. I felt angry, at first. I kept the ritual to watch it every year, with or without my family. It was a matter of time before I buy the DVD of Queen, with Halle Berry, which relates the other side of Alex Haley’s family.
This is the reason why I felt so excited when I found out about the movie Belle. It appears to me as the Jane Austen’s book I wanted to read for a long time, and I have not been disappointed. I was deeply impressed by how far the director went: the black skin, the afro hair, the “white passing”, the hypersexualization of black women; all political, historical and social clues were there.
Therefore, I wondered about these mixed women, Queen and Belle, their struggle of being in this endless in-between.
[SPOILERS : DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIES]
Queen was born from her slave mother and her master. She has been raised as the companion of her white half-sister, the legitimate child; who is similar to Belle’s education, raised on her white cousin’s side. According to these movies, Belle’s cousin and Queen’s half-sister are both the stereotypes of white women, with blond hair and blue eyes. The physical contrast influences Queen and Belle in their relationship to their body (skin, hair, etc.) and their femininity (how they should not be desirable compared to white women, how their potential beauty is perversion of white men).
But let’s talk about this education, will you ? As a perpetual reminder, this social rank given by white and noble blood is presented as a gift and… a kind of debt. When Queen confesses to her father how his lack of recognition pushes her to leave their home – where she, by and by, became a servant – he answers to her “I think I have been good to you”. It is the same with the uncle of Belle which reminds her that she has to behave following his will, because somehow she owes him.
These rules and their education usually include them ignorant: in Queen, her slave grand-father teaches Queen to read. Her slave mother suddenly arrives and urges them to stop because, even if she’s a mixed woman, she remains socially black and slave’s daughter. She would be punished if her capacity to read was discovered.
The same happens to Belle, when her grand-uncle tries to keep her “safe from the world”. Thus, he prevents her to know about controversial slavery’s matters he’s involved in, and from black race. The only face-to-face she has, is with her black servant when she arrives in London, and even knowledge about slavery will be given to her by a white man, a middle-class lawyer concerned by slavery and human rights.
Consequently, this social in-between is more comfortable for their family than for them, because it keeps them away from recognition and legitimacy, but mostly from shame. Their material comfort is supposed to be enough: they have dresses, jewelries, courses of piano and trips to London, and that should be enough to endure scorn and insults from the white bourgeoisie around. In both cases, the white family is noble and the social rank of Belle and Queen depends on it.
However, when it comes to relationships and representation, it gets more complicated. For example, after the death of Queen’s mother, the story will follow as a desperate effort to be accepted either by black people, either by white people. Queen has to build herself in rejection, because she’s not black enough to suffer their condition and not white enough to benefit the white privilege. She’s considered as an outsider, due to her white passing, and as the product of betrayal. She has no model, and even when she’s inspired by revolutionary black men or by the kindness of black women, she undergoes their violent disappearance.
There would be much to say about class perspective when we know that she has been a prostitute, a servant and finally owner of a farm with a black man. Her struggle went through rejection and love from both races, and seeing the conclusion of her survival as a married woman in a poor black village tells a lot about independency for black women at that time.
The narrowness of Belle’s entourage doesn’t give such panorama of relationships. Nevertheless, it shows with subtlety how Belle is objectified. She is the source of lust for white men, of love and deny for her family, and shame for the others. And through all of this, Belle just tries to be. The notion of representation is really interesting because they appear in a personal intimacy : when Belle cries in front of her mirror and try to tear her skin up and to beat herself is one of the most powerful scene I ever saw. Also, she notices that all the black characters represented in her uncle’s gallery of painting are in the background or in a lower position of servitude. She tries to see herself somewhere and she can’t: either she accepts to be an exception to this world, either she must find out what make her this exception. Why is she not a slave if it’s not because of her white blood? Would it have been different otherwise? Would she have been even in this home with her family?
The reason I felt close from Belle and Queen is that they wanted to be told, to be considered as part of this world. Society keeps maintaining us ignorant about what black women are made of and are meant to be. Like for Belle and Queen, they want to define our black body through history: how many times did we hear that “it’s historically inaccurate” when it came to erase women of color ?