Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Ugly Truth

“The Chronicles of Chicaba: Trials of an African Nun”, “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, and “Formula” by Langston Hughes offer insight into how the truth is presented.  The various works and presentation reveal a universal penchant for euphemisms and a preference of a ‘positive spin’ rather than a gritty reality. Society functions as a direct result of communication and whether it be an individual or society as a whole, people’s dislike of “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” tends to blanket society, allowing us only a tainted view of a certain topic and preventing us from becoming fully informed. 
“The Chronicles of Chicaba: Trials of an African Nun” was a presentation done by Sue Houchins and Baltasar Molinero, professors at Bates College. They detailed the slave narrative of Teresa Chicaba, talking not only about how she immersed herself in the religious world but also examined her story in a socio-historical context. In the seventeenth century, being that she was African American, enslaved at age nine, there was much controversy of her joining a monastery in Spain after being freed from slavery. It had been said that her joining a monastery provided ‘sexual safety’ especially in relation to a secular world. However, she needn’t have worried as blackness was synonymous with ugliness, and the color of her skin would preserve her from violence and would “cool the licentious ardor of European men.” Likewise, the practice of torturing blacks was seen as “justification for removing the stain that was [the] color [of their skin].” Such outrageous comments seem to be preferable, unfortunately, to the euphemisms that were also used. For example, at the time, when Africans were kidnapped, the occurrences were called “gentle kidnappings” and they were ‘performed’ by a holy spirit dressed as what appeared to be a Spaniard. However, even after being freed from slavery, Chicaba, upon joining the monastery, was told that she had freedom to leave (the monastery), and that she also didn’t have to attend choir. In modern culture, that sentence doesn’t appear to be anything unusual, but taken in a socio-historical context, it meant that she was excluded from full spiritual involvement and after being charged an incredibly large sum of money which she had no other option but to pay in cash, she still wasn’t held in the ranks of the other white nuns. It was also said that when she was read her vows, she knew (having been given education by her former mistress) that she wasn’t read the standard vows but rather an abridged version which excluded her even more so from full religious rights. 
The egregious comments made unfortunately didn’t appear nearly as appalling should they not have been explained. Saying she had the freedom to leave the monastery was far preferable and showed the monastery in a more favorable light than saying that Chicaba wasn’t as much of a nun because she was black. Likewise, the entire concept of a gentle kidnapping is outrageous when compared to what would actually happen. Rather than be straightforward with the truth, people preferred to find a nice way of looking at the ugly reality hoping that their polite vocabulary would muddle just how horrific the situation really was. 
While in the times of Chicaba, there was some form of the truth offered up, Victor, in “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, choses to remain placid despite his inner turmoil, opting to not startle his friend and cause more stress and frustration. Rather than detail the previous two years spent in a laboratory, manically working on his terrific creation, Victor says, “You have guessed right; I have lately been so deeply engaged in one occupation, that I have not allowed myself sufficient rest, as you see” (37). What Victor fails to say is that he has spent his time hunting for dismembered body parts. All we see is that he has been focused on his work, which could have meant any number of things. He probably did save himself a lot of hassle, but he still largely withheld the truth from one of his closest friends, breaking one of the fundamental characteristics valued in a friend: honesty. 
Rather than use euphemisms in his poem, “Formula,” Langston Hughes comments about how poets largely focus on the ‘lofty’ aspects of life, like beauty, charm, and grace. Hughes chooses to ‘pull back the curtain’ on such topics like beauty, saying, “The Muse of Poetry/ Should not know/ That roses/ In manure grow.” In his poem, he is, in essence, calling out other poets who choose the focus on the very neat, very refined aspects of life, saying that you cannot have flowers without the dirt--a fact that many poets choose to ignore. While such poems like love poems have their merits, people cannot be blind to the fact that there are, say, two sides to every coin. The good and the bad need each other to thrive, but many poets opt to ignore the ‘bad’ part of the equation which, in reality, is rather important to the whole. 
While the ugly truth, so to speak, doesn’t seem very appealing, it is a necessary evil that society must deal with. Focusing on only the positive can be attractive, but it does not tell the whole story. To be an informed public, we need to know not only the good but also the bad in life, and when people choose to present the truth in a way that masks us from the bad, we are being blinded to reality and are, basically, not being told the truth.

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