Whether it is on a sugar plantation or in the Sunken Place, the sovereignty of people of color has been subjugated by white people throughout history. The inherently dark images and themes of Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel, Oroonoko; Or, the Royal Slave, were groundbreaking at the time of its publication. If Oroonoko were to be written today, it would undoubtedly be received as a Stephen King-esque horror story for its brutal depictions of colonialism and slavery. The foundations laid in this 17th century novel function as those of nightmares in the 21st century. Jordan Peele’s 2017 film, Get Out, picks up on the dark images and themes of Oroonoko and presents them through the modern lens of cultural paranoia. Behn’s conflicting representations of white plight and black bodies are prevalent themes in Peele’s disturbing portrayal of the white influence on the black experience in America.
Behn’s anti-slavery ambivalence in Oroonoko bred the “I-would-have-voted-for-Obama-a-third-term-if-I-could” white people that Get Out satirizes. Oroonoko is widely regarded as a provocative anti-colonialist, even abolitionist text. The narrator in Oroonoko, an unnamed white woman (presumably the direct voice of author, Aphra Behn), seems surprisingly progressive for the 17th century. She is a close friend of Oroonoko and paints herself as sympathetic to the plight of the slaves. The story sheds light on the unjust horrors perpetrated by white colonists and slave owners, but while the narrator believes herself to be an ally, she does not once repudiate the institution of slavery. The narrator acknowledges the horrors of slavery, but she is also aware of her white cultural supremacy and contributes to its institution. She keeps her liberal sympathies separated from her privilege, and she continues to economically benefit from the “tormenting pain” she witnesses despite her “abhorrence of such cruelties” (Behn 133). The narrator assumes the role of a “good” white character; the standards of which, as a reader in the 21st century can tell, are pretty low. These characters in Oroonoko, the ones who are cognizant of the struggle but whose privilege lets them ignore it, can be likened to both Dean Armitage and Jim Hudson in Get Out. Before the Coagula revelation, Dean can be seen as a dad who is trying his best to make his daughter’s boyfriend feel comfortable in the typical embarrassing-dad fashion. However, upon closer examination of pre-Coagula-reveal Dean, he seems hyperaware of the imposed cultural differences between white people and black people, and he overcompensates for this difference by presenting himself as hyper-liberal. His first conversation with Chris is loaded with microaggressions that act as holes in his vainly constructed liberal façade, and it is remembered that he is only entertaining Chris for the benefit of the Order of the Coagula. Jim Hudson is a blind art dealer and the highest bidder on Chris’s body. When he meets Chris before the auction they bond over their mutual hardships and adversity of being “real people.” Jim’s first words to Chris are, “Ignorance… all of them. They mean well but they have no idea what real people go through” (Get Out). Where the Armitages are eventually revealed to better represent those characters who blatantly manipulate and exploit the trust of Oroonoko, like Byam or the captain, Jim Hudson stands to represent the character who is more reasonable (albeit in a strictly sociopathic way) but will still use and abuse the black character to his benefit. There are no “good” white characters in Oroonoko or Get Out, but perhaps the narrator can be referred to as a “not the worst” white character.
The commodification and fetishization of black bodies in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko are the central fears in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. While the narrator of Oroonoko may be noticeably more open-minded and accepting toward non-whites than other people of her time, she still “painstakingly explains that the word “black” distinguishes the bodies of people who can be bought and sold from those of people who cannot” (Gallagher 67). Here, the narrator delineates the Surinam natives as allies to the Europeans, while the black people transported from Coramantien can be bought and sold:
So that they being, on all occasions, very useful to us, we find it absolutely necessary to caress them as friends, and not to treat them as slaves… Those then whom we make use of to work in our plantations of sugar are negroes, black slaves altogether, which are transported thither in this manner (Behn 78).
Blackness is used as a mark of commodification (Gallagher 67). We like to think we have overcome such overt racism in our culture, but rich white people literally bid on black bodies in Get Out. Get Out takes place in the American post-racial lie with the purpose of calling out and satirizing the prevalent racism still festering under the surface. Where “Behn’s textual treatment of the African voice becomes, like the African body, property to be owned and traded” (Williams 5), Peele uses the black perspective to expand on the themes Behn set forth in Oroonoko. This thrusts the commodification of black people into the 21st century by peeling back the layers of white superiority to unveil its intrinsic horror. This is evident when Rose is shopping for “top NCAA prospects” online. A major part of the commodification of black people comes from the fetishization of their bodies. Take the narrator’s description of Oroonoko for example:
He was pretty tall, but of a shape the most exact that can be fancy’d: The most famous statuary cou’d not form the figure of a man more admirably turn’d from head to foot. His face was not of that brown rusty black which most of that nation are, but of perfect ebony, or polished jett. His eyes were the most awful that cou’d be seen, and very piercing; the white of ’em being like snow, as were his teeth (Behn 80-81).
Flattery would be an understatement. The narrator is enamored by Oroonoko’s physique and his features, and how magnificently they contrast from and compare to European standards of beauty. The white characters in Get Out admire the “natural gifts” of blackness in comparison to the idea of a superior white determination and intellect. The entire Coagula procedure is constructed around the fetishization of black bodies: the transplantation of old, white brains into the bodies of healthy, young black people through distortion and force. This is even humorously reflected in Rod’s sex-slave conspiracy theories (technically, he was not wrong). When Chris is strapped to the chair in the games room, Jim pops up on the television and explains to him the process and outcome of the Coagula procedure. Chris has one question: “Why black people?” Jim replies, “People want a change. Some people want to be stronger, faster, cooler.” We are reminded of the garden party guests prodding and sampling Chris, feeling his biceps and saying, “black is in fashion” (Get Out). This tool of white, Eurocentric fetishization has been used to rationalize the commodification of black bodies throughout history.
The ironic and selective condemnation of slavery as told from the subconsciously accepted idea of white superiority plays a major role in Oroonoko and it is a major reason that the novel is still important today. Jordan Peele’s Get Out subverts many of the “progressive” notions about race that Behn produced in Oroonoko and calls out the economically driven role of white people in the black experience. I strongly believe that if Aphra Behn were alive in the same time and universe that Get Out is set in, she would be the highest bidder at the Order of the Coagula’s annual garden party.