While visiting the African Burial Ground National Monument I was able to realize that some of the subtler abuses of the stragglers in Zone One had a deeper historical base stemming from the mistreatment of slaves in NYC’s past. Many of us could pinpoint similarities in the way in which the stragglers were treated in Zone One to some of the other abuses we have read about throughout this semester. However, after visiting the monument I was able to realize that Whitehead incorporated more historic abuses than I had originally noticed when I first read the book. As I came to learn, there were many more similarities between the way in which his characters and real life oppressive whites mistreated the bodies of those they saw as subhuman. I will highlight these findings in two posts with this one addressing how Gary’s method for neutralizing stragglers mimicked a practice of restraining slaves and will then explain how the sweepers mistreatment of neutralized stragglers mirrored the disrespectful manner in which the bodies of deceased slaves were treated. Realizing these subtle inputs of historic abuses and how they were incorporated into Zone One helped me to better understand the deeper symbolism I believe Whitehead intended for his story and how these issues impacted people in my city’s past.
During our tour, my mother and I came across a board showing some of the methods used to restrain slaves and one thing that immediately stuck out was how similar one of the tools used by slave traders was to Gary’s lasso. The board depicted how enslaved people would be forcibly restrained by the application of a heavy wooden yoke around their necks. These yokes, much like Gary’s lasso, would be used to control captives by making it “extremely difficult for the person who wears it to walk, much less to escape or run away.” (Thomas Clarkson) In the words of Gary, both of these tools would allow you to “do what you wanted with them.” (Whitehead p.77) Be it a slave or straggler, both captors were able to use their tools effectively to restrain their captives without worrying about them getting away or trying to kill them. This allowed for both Gary and the slave traders to effortlessly kidnap and transport their captives away from their desired locations. This understanding was something I unfortunately didn’t picked up on initially but after seeing the yoke’s application, I definitely realized how problematic the lasso was as a tool and how much it had to say about Gary as a character.
Gary’s torturous habits never sat well with me but because many of his actions were so overtly sadistic, I think that it was easier to overlook some of his subtler abusive tendencies. In addition to this, some of these actions might not have seemed so wrong if you considered the stragglers solely as monsters. This was definitely the case for me with the lasso as I initially saw it more as a practical method for saving bullets in a situation with limited resources than anything. The lasso seemed therefore to be a justified tool to use given the context of the situation but looking back on it now, I’m ashamed that I didn’t further question it’s use.
Part of the reason I didn’t question this abuse initially was because I hadn’t considered the aspect of the stragglers consent in their situation which, is something Dr. McCoy brought up in class and Spozh touches upon well in one of her posts. This is something that’s really important to consider and something I failed to do at times because I would not always consider the symbolic meaning of them. In this way, if you consider the stragglers as subhuman monsters then there’s a logical justification for the use of the lasso. But in realizing this, you also can realize that this was most likely the same logic used to justify the abuse of slaves with items such as the yoke back when contextually those actions seemed to be “right”.? Thinking about this reinforced for me the importance of constantly questioning harsh and cruel practices no matter the situation, even if those being abused are fictional monsters. As Dr. McCoy always reminds us, “with the name changed, the story remains the same” and this obvious applied to this situation.
It shouldn’t have come down to me seeing the similarities between the yoke and the lasso to realize these issues in the book but I am glad I did come to them eventually. Given all of this, I think that Gary’s character in Whiteheads mind stood symbolically for white oppression on a level that was more intricate than some of us might have realized and I am glad I also realized this too. It helps one to better understand the degree to which Whitehead intended to incorporate systemic racism and I hope I have been able to show this. These issues regarding the lasso however were not the only similarities between the mistreatment of slaves bodies and stragglers that I noticed while on my trip.