EN2356, Dr. Pressman
Subjugation Tames Two: Zitkala-Sa and Tom Burwell
In “The School Days of an Indian Girl” (1900), Gertrude Bonnin, or Zitkala-Sa, describes herself as “neither a wild Indian nor a tame one” (863), referring to her forced assimilation into American culture. Tom Burwell, a poor Black man in Jean Toomer’s “Blood-Burning Moon” (1923), who, like Zitkala-Sa, lives in a culture-within-a-culture, is never given an opportunity to assimilate into the dominant culture. Zitkala-Sa, descendant of indigenous people, and Tom Burwell, descendant of people brought to America in bondage, both suffer from subjugation by the “White man”—one losing her culture, and the other his life.
The Indian, the indigenous character, begins the process of losing her culture when “At the age of eight, Zitkala-Sa leaves the [Pine Ridge] reservation to attend a Quaker missionary school in Wabash, Indiana” (Herzog 857). It doesn’t take long after leaving the reservation for Zitkala-Sa to identify with the issue “of cultural dislocation and injustice that brought suffering to her people” (858). The suffering begins as her anticipated pleasure of riding on the train to Red Apple Country is supplanted by resentment from being watched by “the throngs of staring palefaces” (Bonnin 859).
Never in her young life was Zitkala-Sa exposed to such humiliation as that experienced on her first day at the missionary school. Crying from fright and insult while being tossed into the air like a plaything, she was further offended by having to accede to “eating by formula” (861). All that previous pain paled in comparison to having her hair cut off by a “paleface” while she sat tied to a chair. She valiantly fought against having her hair cut. Zitkala-Sa remembered her mother’s words, “Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards!” Having lost her hair, Zitkala-Sa “lost [her] spirit.” Thus, Zitkala-Sa’s forced assimilation began.
In The Language of Oppression (1983), Haig A. Bosmajian presents a theory of the use of names, words, and language to “dehumanize human beings and to ‘justify’ their suppression and even their extermination” (6). If lying is considered a form of oppressive language, then Bosmajian’s dehumanization theory could be applied to people forced into cultural dislocation for the sake of assimilation like Zitkala-Sa. Bosmajian believes that “One of the first acts of an oppressor is to redefine the ‘enemy’ so they will be looked upon as creatures warranting separation, suppression, and even eradication.” Zitkala-Sa claimed that suffering “extreme indignation” and ultimately losing her “spirit” was the result of a redefining process that occurs when one is subjugated (861).
Tom Burwell suffers extreme indignation, too. He was descendant of people who were brought to America for the purpose of providing enslaved labor to the farmer, not for them to assimilate into the culture. Toomer hints at Burwell’s thought of assimilation, however, as he describes Tom when he courts Louisa, a Black woman from his own community. “Yassur! An next year if ole Stone’ll trust me, I’ll have a farm. My own. My bales will buy yo what y gets from white folks now” (1585). He yearns to marry Louisa and raise a family on his own farm— the American way. But because Tom Burwell is a poor, Black man his prospects of achieving assimilation are limited.
Tom Burwell has a more imminent obstacle in Bob Stone, who also loves Louisa. Although slavery has already been abolished, Stone believes that “his family still own[s] the niggers, practically” (1586). This may explain why Stone imposes himself sexually upon Louisa without impunity. Toomer alludes as much describing Stone’s liberty-taking, when on one occasion, Louisa is bent over a hearth, cooking, “He went in as a master should and took her. Direct, honest, bold” (1586). Stone not only believes he is the master but also that he is the only man who has been with Louisa. Even the thought of Louisa’s ever being with a “nigger” makes him jealous enough to risk going out to meet with her in Lemon’s canefield.
As Stone walks through the woods on his way to meet Louisa, he comes upon a group of “niggers” working at a still. He hides behind a tree and listens to one of the workers ask the others in the group, “What y think he’s agwine t do t Bob Stone ?” (1586) The thought of his being harmed by Tom sends him running toward Lemon’s place. Toomer infers that Stone’s anxiety is “Sizzling heat welled up within him” (1587). Not finding Louisa in the canefield, Bob Stone runs toward factory town but encounters Tom and Louisa on the way. Overcome with jealousy, Stone instigates a fight with Tom Burwell, who fights back in self-defense. Burwell slashes Bob Stone’s throat.
Bob Stone is mortally wounded. But before dying, Stone stumbles back to town, where he falls into the arms of several White men. With his last breath, he utters, “Tom Burwell....” Upon hearing the name, the White men “like ants” tear after Tom Burwell. They overtake him as one of the White men says, “Hands behind y nigger” (1588). They tie up Burwell, pour kerosene over his body, and fling a lighted torch on him, then, while watching him burn to death, they yell: Tom Burwell’s guilt was in being a Black man.
The White men dehumanized Tom Burwell each time they called him “nigger.” And according to Bosmajian’s theory, justified his extermination..
In his essay, “The Fire This Time” (1996), Ira Glasser, Executive Director of the ACLU, recounts “memories of a time when terror against people of color was a routine feature of Southern life and an essential ingredient of a system of racial subjugation” (Glasser). He made this statement while looking at photos of black churches burned down in 1996. In assigning blame for the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church where four black girls were killed in 1963, Glasser includes, along with the bombers, Birmingham’s “good people.” Holding them equally responsible, he says, “Their silence and their acceptance of the subjugation of [B]lacks had created a climate in which the bomb throwers felt justified. The good people violated no law but they did commit a crime of another kind: it was called complicity”.
Zitkala-Sa and Tom Burwell were both redefined by their oppressor—the White man. The missionaries who attempted to suppress Zitkala-Sa’s “wild” spirit and the men who murdered Tom Burwell through the power of subjugation must have felt a justification for their actions similar to that of Birmingham’s “good people.”
Bosmajian, Haig A. The Language of Oppression. Lanham, MD: UP of America, 1983.
Bonnin, Gertrude. “The School Days of an Indian Girl.” The Heath Anthology of
American Literature. Eds. Paul Lauter, et al. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
Vol. 2: 859–67.
Glasser, Ira. “The Fire This Time.” ACLU—Visions of Liberty. June 16, 1996. Online.
Herzog, Kristin. “Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa; Sioux) 1876–1938.” The Heath
Anthology of Literature. Eds. Paul Lauter, et al. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
2002. Vol. 2. 857–8.
Toomer, Jean. “Blood-Burning Moon.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature.
Eds. Paul Lauter, et al. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Vol 2.1583–8.