Slavery Broke the World

In N.K. Jemisin’s work we see an earth twice (if not more times — remember, much of history is unwritten) shattered; once torn apart by the mysterious loss of the moon, once fragmented by Alabaster’s explosive and revolutionary orogeny.  In both cases, the shattering acts as a catalyst, as an end of on era: in the first case as an end to that stability which allows humanity to flourish (perhaps too much?) and a beginning of that chaotic existence which destroys society after society; in the second, the shattering is an end to the oppressive Sanzed regime and the beginning of some (thus far unknown) new world.  We can make geological and environmental connections galore in this world of unreliable, yet controllable, earth, but after stumbling upon a specific quote from Toni Morrison I have been mainly entranced by the myriad of metaphorical connotations this shattering embodies.

“Slavery broke the world in half,” Morrison comments, “it broke it in every way.  It broke Europe. It made them into something else, it made them slave masters, it made them crazy.”  Morrison cites slavery, and the dehumanization of both victim and oppressor it relied upon, as the source — the necessary basis —  for both of the World Wars. In fact, Morrison makes the point that modern society, as we know it, was built upon a foundation of slavery and constructed around justifications of slavery (She continues, “They [Europeans, oppressors] have had to reconstruct everything in order to make that system appear true.”).  The racism permeating our society as a built-up justification for this societal foundation has thus become a “pathology,” a pattern of cognition and behavior that allows dehumanizing beliefs and policies to flourish. In having built and bought into a system so dependent upon eliminating empathy, we create our own downfall, we create an environment in which atrocities such as the World Wars, genocides, mass shootings and police brutality  become not only possible, but almost expected.  Thus, through slavery, we are broken.

Upon reading this commentary I was struck by the obvious connection between Morrison’s chosen phrasing, meant to address the subtextual and subconscious effects of slavery, and Jemisin’s built-up and broken world.  It’s almost as though Jemisin literalized Morrison’s words — as though with them in mind, she took those unknown orogenes who lost the damn moon, took Alabaster in her pen (her keyboard?) and through their actions shattered the world.  In representing a world, not only broken, but broken by human — orogenic, but still human — actions, Jemisin makes clear the idea that we have the capacity to break ourselves, to bring about our society’s end with our own hands.  

The actions of the orogenes who lost the moon were seemingly built upon the various follies of a fractured society, a society bearing possible similarities to our own, and thus seem to reflect an effect similar to that in Morrison’s quote (an atrocity breaks society, we build upon this atrocity and continue to crumble).  However, Alabaster’s earth shattering choice (haha) seems to me to have a more interesting interaction with Morrison’s claim.  This is mainly in the sense that Alabaster’s actions embody both the connotations of Morrison’s statement and the inverse of it.  Sanzed society was a society built not only upon an earth quite literally broken, but built upon (dependent upon) the enslavement of orogenes.  It is In bringing about an end to this society through use of his own power, a power inherent to him but also refined and “bred into him through generations of rape and coercion and highly unnatural selection,” Alabaster turns that power which is so valuable to the Sanzed empire back upon the empire (The Fifth Season 6).  Thus, Alabaster shattered the earth.   Despite being motivated by those same undertones identified by Morrison, his actions do not further a literal and societal broken earth (as opposed to those of the orogenes who lost the moon), but instead are meant to end it.  Of course, his orogeny doesn’t immediately end the prejudices and the issues bred into Sanze, especially given that stonelore, that lovely little portion of propaganda, has trained them to maintain this society and thus maintain their prejudices, throughout seasons; however, because Alabaster’s actions play into a larger master plan meant to fix the true root cause of humanity’s issues — a lost moon — because he is attuned to the roots of these issues, Alabaster is cognizant of the ways in which his actions will (hopefully) not only end the oppression of orogenes, but stabilize the earth.  On Jemisin’s literally broken earth, as on Morrison’s (and our) metaphorically broken earth, the root cause of the fracture must be identified and addressed in order to begin the true work of bringing about a new world (but, like, not a colonial “New World,” a hopefully better, more equitable, empathetic, unbroken new world). 

Yet, in the midst of all of these literary wanderings it’s relevant to note a point made by Jemisin:

“I didn’t set out to write big heavy themes.  I did not set out to write an allegory for slavery and caste oppression… I set out to write a world in which people who are powerful, who are valuable, are channeled into systems of self-supported and externally imposed oppression, and how you keep people who can actually throw mountains from throwing mountains.”

Jemisin thus has seemingly built her world without the intention of making literal Morrison’s statement.  Instead, in aiming to build a world wherein powerful people are oppressed through built-up societal pressure, Jemisin has created a world and created characters that, through their actions and through their motivations connote the same ideas as those expressed in Morrison’s statement.  The dehumanizing aspects of oppression, of slavery, have, will and can, in more ways than one, break the earth.  Jemisin’s narrative goes beyond Morrison, however, in that Alabaster’s shattering of the earth, while arising from the effects of a repressive society, represent not so much a negative breaking of society, but an attempt fix what has broken humanity by beginning anew.  This is not to fully support a Thanos-esque “for the greater good” type of action in every situation (not to draw similarities because the characters have very different motivations, but Alabaster does kill a rust-ton of people, which is something of a moral quandary), but Alabaster’s efforts arise out of an extreme and violent society; in seizing the (actual, magical) power available to him and ending this society, Alabaster lays down the first step in not only creating a new society, but fixing the literally broken earth.


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