Professor Parham Commodity Fetishism and Race

Download 27.5 Kb.
Size27.5 Kb.

Eve Turow


English 69

Professor Parham

Commodity Fetishism and Race

The term commodity fetishism relates to values placed on specific commodities within a social relationship. In House Behind the Cedars, Charles W. Chesnutt portrays one of the most significant commodities as one’s race or whiteness. John Warwick, once known as John Walden, and his sister Rena, previously known as Rowena, both use the paleness of their complexion to obtain specific social gains. The value of their whiteness eventually becomes a commodity fetish because it holds substantial importance in their lives and necessitates a great deal of care and attention. The value of this commodity can change according to the opinion and knowledge of those surrounding John and Rena, making it very unstable.

Social structure and behavior are based on the value of various commodities, in this circumstance, the value of skin tone. In Patesville, North Carolina, there are clear class distinctions, which are categorized by complexion. Not only are whites divided from blacks, but mulattos are also separated from lower-class blacks. Each social division is marked by ancestral lineage, determining the respect and benefits each is to receive in his or her lifetime. Because racial lines are so distinctly drawn within this culture, and because the social benefits of the white race are exceedingly present, the whiteness of one’s skin becomes a commodity to those who may use it to gain the benefits associated with white society. The example of whiteness as a commodity is most clearly demonstrated with the characters John and Rena.

“You cannot be a lawyer until you are white,” explains Judge Straight to a young John Walden (119). While the Judge is trying to explain a simple to fact to the boy, what he is truly saying is that John cannot be a lawyer until those around him believe he is white. With this belief, John may participate in white culture and gain the benefits necessary for him to live the life he desires, in this case the chance to practice law. In this moment, the paleness of John’s complexion becomes a commodity fetish. It is here that he learns the value of his own skin and other’s perception of his race. John takes hold of this opportunity and participates in white culture, utilizing the benefits to become a lawyer.

But all of this was accomplished with full dependence on the value created by other’s perceptions. The instability of this dependency causes whiteness to become not only a commodity, but a commodity fetish. John must give extreme attention to his race and whiteness. This attachment is clearly portrayed when Rena comes to John, contemplating her honesty with Tryon. When Rena suggests telling Tryon of her black heritage, John immediately tries to talk her out of it. He even goes so far as to say that Rena would be sacrificing the life of her nephew if she were to expose the family secret. This event clearly displays John’s insecurity of his own societal standings, and the extreme importance and attention it requires in his life.

Rena also sees her light skin as a commodity, and one that demands a certain amount of attention. In order for Rena’s skin to become a true commodity, she is first sent to school to learn the proper manners required for white society. Like John, Rena’s light skin would lose all value if those around her did not believe that she was in fact Caucasian. “She will have no chance here, where our story is known,” explains John to his mother at the beginning of the novel, “Here she must forever be- nobody! With me she might have got out into the world” (19-20). As long as people know the true race of Rena, she has no chance of marrying a wealthy man and living a privileged life. But, as we see, once she assimilates into white society, Rena’s skin becomes the ultimate commodity for her happiness and success. She begins to live the privileged life she desired and accomplishes it with complete dependence on others’ perceptions of herself. Once again, this insecurity leads to a great deal of attention being placed on her race, eventually making her whiteness a commodity fetish.

Sadly, in Rena’s case, it eventually becomes a commodity that fails her. After the falsity of her white identity becomes known to Tryon, Rena loses all she had previously gained in white society. There, she had been promised a wealthy husband, servants, and a fine house, but with the discovery of her black ancestry, all this is immediately taken away. While one may argue that Rena’s skin remains a commodity, citing the teaching position given to her by Wain, it is easy to see that the occupation does not become a desirable situation. Additionally, one may argue that Rena did not receive the teaching position because of her light complexion, but because Wain wanted her to be his wife. In the end Rena goes mad with her disappointment, sadness, and fear. The reader only comes to truly understand Rena’s pain at the very end of the novel when Frank finds her and she mistakes him for Wain, crying, “ ‘You’re a wicked man…Don’t touch me! I hate you and despise you!’ ” (200). In the end, what was once a commodity fetish takes away the prosperity she had gained, and leads her to unfavorable situations at the end of the novel.

It is clear from the experiences of John and Rena that race can be considered a commodity fetish in House Behind the Cedars. Each character learns the benefits associated with white society and their ability to assimilate into white culture, eventually making their paleness a social commodity. This concept leads both characters to become extremely attached to their light complexion and focus on their abilities to maintain themselves in white society, ultimately making their whiteness a fetish. Throughout the novel this commodity fetish helps and hinders the lives of each character. In the end, John maintains his white identity, while the devalued commodity of Rena’s skin leads to her end.

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page