[Type text] [Type text] [Type text] In the Deep South, during the late 1800’s and many decades of the 1900’s, blacks and whites were forced in separate directions and blacks were seen as the inferior race. At this time, a small, almost unnoticeable, portion of African blood made a person an African American and therefore less than the white man. Some mixed race individuals were able to pass as white and hide their African American heritage while others did not have this option and were forced to let their true colors show. These visibly mixed race individuals were forced to feel the wrath of the white superiors and suffer along with the lower class blacks and slaves. Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby” discusses the issue of racism and the vital importance of being a part of the dominant race of society and this need propels individuals to go to great lengths to protect their families and their family name. Desiree is a girl of “obscure origin” (Chopin 205); she does not know who she is or where she is from and therefore does not have a powerful family name to protect. But this lack of origin and information about Desiree does not stop a young suitor from asking for her hand in marriage. Armand Aubigny wants to marry Desiree and does not care that she is of unknown origin; he does not care that she does not have a family name because he will give her one, and not just any name, but one of the oldest and proudest in the state of Louisiana (Chopin 205). Desiree and Armand wed and move to an Aubigny family house where the first signs of Armand’s poor treatment of others and racist behaviors can be seen: “Young Aubigny’s rule was a strict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master’s easy-going and indulgent lifetime” (Chopin 205). Armand takes so much pride in his family name and the history associated with it that he thinks behaving in such a way is necessary to carry out tradition.
Set in Louisiana in the mid-nineteenth century on two white-owned plantations some time before the Civil War, the story explores the psychological impacts of slavery and racial inequality. The violence and physical abuse that was so much a part of slavery exist only on the fringes of the story, implied in Armand’s “strict” treatment of his slaves and his ambiguous but likely sexual relationship with La Blanche, which makes sense given that all of the major characters of the story are the owners of the plantations. Put another way, the story explores the way that racism shapes and distorts the psychology and lives of the white slave owners who control and benefit from it.
The story shows several examples of how white perceptions of black inferiority, and in fact even how internalized black perceptions of black inferiority, lead to race being a taboo subject that causes characters to act in morally corrupt ways and to feel guilt, shame, and fear about their actions and identities. Without racial prejudice and the shame it generates, the story’s tragedy would never have unfolded. Madame Aubigny would not have felt the need to hide the truth of her own background. Armand would not have turned against Désirée and their baby when their son’s appearance identified him as a mixed-race child. Madame Valmondé would not have kept the reality of the child’s background from Désirée despite recognizing the truth herself. And Désirée, once she realized the significance of her child’s features and was accused by Armand of being part-black herself, would not have responded with such overwhelming shame that she walked into the bayou with her baby, killing herself and the child.
But the story pushes further in its condemnation of racism, by showing how the racism of its white characters causes them to see a person’s race as more important than that person’s self. Because, fundamentally, other than the fact that the child of Désirée and Armand reveals that it has a racial heritage that is both black and white, nothing else has changed. Désirée is still the same woman with whom Armand fell in love and who brightened his life, her baby is the same baby she adored, and she is still the daughter of her loving parents. And yet the mere fact of her racial history causes Armand to reject her and the baby, to cease to see her as the woman he loves and instead to see her as simply black and therefore beneath him. And for Désirée, essentially, to reject herself and her baby out of shame. The twist ending of the story makes obvious the idiocy and tragedy of this way of seeing the world, with racial background as its most important feature, since it becomes evident that one’s racial background isn’t obvious at all, and thus nothing to base assessments of oneself or of others.