Thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale”: Part 2

Writing is world-making, and speculative fiction and science fiction are genres of literature that are most telling of the writer’s biases. Too often, the worlds that speculative fiction and science fiction writers create are reflective of their unexamined or unchecked investment in oppressive systems. For this reason, dystopian novels often (but not always) take place in worlds where the social and literal deaths of Black subjects is foundational. This is the case with Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale.”

In yesterday’s blogpost, I wrote:

So I’m (re)reading Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and wondering what the story would be like if Of-fred had been a Black woman. Of course, Black people are only referenced once in the book- in an off-hand manner about “Children of Ham” being relegated to “National Homelands” (reminiscent of Bantustans in Apartheid South Africa).

This could be read as a convenient way of avoiding addressing the afterlife of slavery- because the reader is expected to understand that the valued, fecund bodies are those of cisgender white women (not Jews, termed “Children of Jacob” or Blacks termed “Children of Ham”, etc). Offred is allowed to be the ‘neutral’ narrator with whom the reader identifies because whiteness is presumed to be a universal and ubiquitous solvent- a solvent that dissolves, assimilates and destroys. 

If this text were to center a Black subject, the reader would have to confront the afterlife of slavery- a reality in which Black bodies which were previously valued for their fecundity and (re)productive value are now devalued, deemed ‘queer’ (or ‘deviant’) and ‘excess’ in the face of nationalisms that prize whiteness/heteronormativity/etc above all. Another interesting angle to look at the surreptitious use of contraceptives and methods to induce miscarriage among enslaved Africans, and the ways that the regime’s staunchly anti-abortion stance would doubly criminalize Black subjects on this basis.

I still agree with this assessment, but after finishing the book, I feel that I need to round it out.

For instance, I did not take into account the category of “Unwomen.” As Offred is the (presumed) white narrator of the text situated within the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic regime borne of conservative anxieties about the state (and future- hence the emphasis on the (re)productive capabilities of the Handmaids) of a white nation (or “race”), she takes whiteness to be the assumed norm, even when she talks about Jews (“Sons of Jacob”) and Blacks (“Sons of Ham”) being forcibly moved to the margins or simply killed.  So, when Offred uses the term “Unwoman” she refers to a category reserved for people with uteruses who did not have sufficient socio-economic (or marital) status within the regime to be afforded protection in the event that they are “sterile” or “infertile.” More pertinently, the category of “Unwomen” in Atwood’s text is implicitly white. And this implicit understanding is premised on the erasure of Black women from the story.

Indeed, the “Children of Ham” are said to be relegated to National Homelands, not unlike those of the South African Apartheid regime, but nowhere in the book are Black women named or mentioned. This omission is particularly glaring in light of Atwood’s decision to analogize The Underground Railroad with the “Underground Femaleroad.” In The Handmaid’s Tale, the “Underground Femaleroad” is an illegal (extralegal?) network of resisters who acted as a safe haven for runaway Handmaids. On page 246, Moira (a former inmate who shared quarters with Offred) recalls being brought from Quaker household to Quaker household to a short-lived freedom. Now, as a reader who is also a Black woman and a descendant of enslaved Africans within the instutition of chattel/racial slavery, I am curious whether there could be a Harriet Tubman in the “Underground Femaleroad,” but I know the answer, because Black women are neither named nor seen in the text.

This omission is doubly egregious when one takes the forcible removal and adoption of babies under the Republic of Gilead into consideration. In the contemporary (and historical) United States that presumably precedes the Republic of Gilead, there is a strong pattern of state interventions which led to the forcible sterilization of women of color (notably Black, Native and Latin@ women, as well as poor women and people with disabilities- legal in 27 states), in addition to the forcible removal of children in Black, Native, low-income, etc households. Dorothy Roberts’ “Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare” covers this in a very thorough manner. For Black women in particular, the forcible removal of children from their homes is part of a long history- one rooted in the institution of chattel/racial slavery, where Black children were regularly wrested from the breasts of their mothers and sold for a profit. In short, it is an appropriation (I do not use this word lightly) of the pain of Black women

At this moment, I am reminded of Jared Sexton’s article entitled, “People of Color Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery” and his book,  Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism  in which he notes:

Multiracialism suffers from this conundrum: wanting to condemn identification with racial blackness as the source of social crisis, seeking to locate a politicized blackness as the barrier to a postracial future, while affirming ‘mixed-ness’ in ways that reinforce and expand notions of racial purity and the concomitant hierarchies of value that underwrite white supremacy and antiblackness. This is why the reclamation of whiteness, or more precisely, nonblackness, is elevated to the status of a virtue, a sign not only of mental and emotional well-being (openness to diversity, within and without) but also of moral rectitude (tolerance for difference and commitment to reconciliation). (page 65)

If we are to imagine a dystopian future that illustrates misogyny, sexism and ableism, how can we do so without Black bodies and persons as subjects and agents? Or is the erasure and/or relegation of Black (and female) bodies to the margins a way of side-stepping the fundamental reality that oppressive regimes are predicated upon a world borne of colonialism and chattel/racial slavery, which instrumentalized, in particular, Black bodies?
Recommended Reading:

Works by the following:

  • Hortense Spillers
  • Jared Sexton
  • Saidiya Hartman
  • Frank Wilderson III
  • Stuart Hall
  • Achille Mbembe
  • Dorothy Roberts
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1 Comment

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One response to “Thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale”: Part 2

  1. Thank you so much for this brilliant critique. Do you have any plans to write books? I encourage you to do so.

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