Jemison’s Trilogy Fights the Problematic Canon of “American Optimism”

America is known for its optimism. American entertainment and stories are generally much more optimistic than European ones. This stereotype is seen in most superhero movies where it is assumed that good will prevail. Even during the 2016 election, there was an unspoken expectation that evil would lose in the presence of good. However, a much darker, more complicated truth was revealed when the results came in, and many of us still can’t manage to wrap our heads around it.

What exactly am I talking about? Jemison knows.

In all three of her novels, Jemison confronts the complexities of race in a way that sets the example for our current society. Simultaneously, she includes orogenes into the mix, who are treated very similarly to the way black and brown people are treated today. She unravels the intricacies of race but eliminates phenotypical oppression, transferring that weight onto orogenical oppression.

Jemison maintains the complexities of life that many major motion pictures seek to erase. By placing people in a setting where everything ends perfectly and everyone is happy, these films are creating the illusion that problems can be solved unanimously. In The Obelisk Gate, Jemison debunks this tendency when Essun uses the obelisk gate to save Castrima. Here, Essun uses divine power to crush her enemies, but destroys Castrima and alienates herself in the process. It is also mentioned by other characters in the novel how it is a shame that she used such power for a purpose as frivolous as winning a comm war. This is a power that has the potential to bring back the moon, ending seasons for good, why would Essun use it instead for such a trivial, human matter? Her solution worked for some, but not for all.

These complexities that erase the happy ending narrative intensify in The Stone Sky, as we learn more about Nassun. She is feared in Found Moon for turning Eitz into stone. She is also feared by her own father who can’t find it in himself to love her after learning she is an orogene. Nassun hates being feared and having to fight to be accepted. As the narrator explains, “despite all her power, she’s still a little girl. she has to eat and sleep like every other little girl” (178).  This is a reminder that Nassun is only ten, and will be scarred by the trauma of being an orogene in a society that rejects them for the rest of her life. The narrator then reminds the reader of how the society rejects orogenes on all levels of society, “people need other people to live. And if she has to fight to live, against every other person in the comm? Against every song and every story and history that the guardians and the militia and imperial law and stonelore itself?” (178) This is an institutionalized hatred of orogenes. No happy ending will cure Nassun of her feelings of confusion, regret, and self-hatred.

America has similar institutional policies set to oppress people of color. America has enslaved people from Africa, forced Native Americans onto reservations, designed a system of Jim Crow to alienate African Americans from society, forced Japanese Americans into internment camps, created a mass incarceration system to replace jim crow, and persecuted people for fleeing to America in search of a better life. This unequal treatment is unrelenting for those who have to face it, much like it is for orogenes in Jemison’s series.

American optimism is really American oblivion, American bargaining, American denial, and/or American deflection. The phrase “American optimism” hides the evils that exist within this tendency, much like the tendency attempts to hide the evils that live within society.

An extreme of American optimism would be the concept of either “sambo” and the “mammy” archetype. These stereotypes of black people in America fall under the category of American optimism because they represent a delusion that allowed whites to feel more comfortable thinking of black Americans in essentialist terms. Sambo is a “characterization” of black Americans that surfaced in the 20th century. It depicts black males specifically as happy, laughing, lazy, and carefree. The “mammy” archetype was found in memoirs and diaries that emerged after the civil war that described African American slaves as the “African American mother” who was completely dedicated to the white family. She was not only a house servant “but a friend and advisor as well”.

There are many things wrong with these characterizations of Black Americans, all stemming from the fact that they breeze over the atrocities committed against them.  Characterizing people of color as happy, carefree, and dedicated to the white family in a society that oppresses them is problematic. It is not optimism, rather it is a much more sinister and intentional form of oblivion. This oblivion erases white guilt and validates their oppressive policies against people of color.

I’m not sure Jemison’s trilogy will have a happy ending. The ending may just be an end to humanity, guardians and orogenes alike. Jemison has already made the point with her descriptions of both Nassun and Essun that not everything can be rectified to have a happy ending. Instead of leaving the reader with something to feel comfortable with, she leaves the reader with something to think about.

 

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