Race in Kate Chopin’s Desiree’s baby

Kate Chopin is one of the most celebrated figures in 19th century American literary fields. Born in 1850, Chopin published novels and short stories that have remained relevant to date. She is a renowned feminist and author whose work reached peak with publication of Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie. One of most important short story is ‘Desiree’s Baby’, which focuses on the theme of race as practised in the 19th century South America .In the narration, Kate writes about the struggles of the minor in a society polarized by race. Desiree is the main character married to a racist husband and slave owner called Armand. She and her mixed race son are forced to run away from civilization and disappear to the deserted bayou where she ends her life and that of the child. Chopin’s upbringing in a society where slavery was a norm played a significant role on developing the theme of race seen in ‘Desiree’s Baby’. The narration shows how race influenced daily lives of the 19th century American’s of the South. This is evidenced by the way racial beliefs played a critical role in defining the identity of main characters, as well as interfering with sound reasoning of the Armand on family matters.

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Chopin’s background and upbringing in the Southern parts America played a significant role in both the themes and settings of her short stories. She spent most of life in Coulterville until 1892 when slavery was a reality. Her work, which condemned some of racial issues of her time, were strongly criticised and brought controversy. Chopin suffered depression following her husband and mother’s death. She later suffered from brain haemorrhage and died in 1904. She however managed to live ahead of time by writing stories that were socially unaccepted due to message that criticised the status quo. This is evidenced by the way she approaches the subject of race in Desiree’s Baby. The narration begins by showing how Desiree was found abandoned as an infant and brought up in a white family of Madam Valmonde and Monsieur. Armand Aubigny, a white of French origin, proposes to marry Desiree. Although Valmonde insists that Desiree’s background be carefully evaluated, Armand cares less about race because he is in love with her. Soon Armand and Desiree bear a mixed race son. Armand, expecting to have a white son, chases Desiree away due to the belief that her heritage contained qualities of African race.

Armond represent the racists of 19th century south of America. Chopin brings attention to the theme of racisms through the action of Armand towards his slaves. He owns several black slaves who work on his plantation. He regularly beats them out the notion that the slaves are inferior people. This idea of white supremacy was supported by the status quo especially the southern parts where the story is based. Chopin writes that Armand no longer loved Desiree because of the trouble she had inflicted on his family and his name (5). This in reference to Armband’s reaction after it is known that the baby is of mixed race. Additionally, to cool off his frustration, he beats his slaves.. These actions reveal that racism affected people’s way of living and determined their attitude towards each other. Racism, as seen in the character of Armand, shows how white characters perceived a person race as more important than the person’s real self

Chopin’s narration criticizes the ironic and the horrifying attitude of the ruling white majority towards people of mixed race. Inter-racial marriages in the 19th century were forbidden and bore disparaging implications. Mixed race children were often regarded as black and therefore subjected to treatments of slaves. Represented by Armand Aubigny, whites married whites and black married blacks. While this was hardly the case with Armand when he said he does not care about Desiree’s origin, racism was applied when Desiree bore a mixed race child. Armand’s changed attitude towards Desiree thinking he married a non-white. Chopin also writes that Armand was of mixed race but happened regarded himself completely white so as to achieve social political and economic gains associated with being white. This shows that biracial people who inherited the pale skin could easily fit into the white society as long as they supported the status quo. He grew up into white society and embraced the southern aristocratic class of the whites who not only possessed fertile plantations but also established institutions of slavery to get cheap labor for their farms.

Race was the key determinant of a person’s identity and social class. In the short story, black people were placed in the lowest ladder of slaves. They performed hard labor in the plantations and could be beaten since they were bought and sold as properties. Being a slave meant that one belonged to the lowest and less superior social class. A little higher up the ladder of social classes was the mixed race people like the ‘yellow’ La Blanche, who performed less-hard labor in the kitchens. Desiree’s presumed white ancestry was enough reason to place her slightly above the slaves of the south but not sufficient enough to place her in the class of Armand. At the top of the ladder were the Whites who owned plantations, made family decisions and owned slaves. It was thus race that determined where one was placed in the society. The whites were confident and, according the story, it was a privileged to be white. This is seen in how Armand reacts to the possibility of having a non-white child. He cursed and thought that God had decided punish him with a mixed race heir for stabbing into the soul of Desiree.

Chopin’s story suggests that the punishment for mixed- interactions were only received by the minority class. This is seen in the way Armand treated her before and after the child is three months. Three months later when the child was borne, Armand realized the baby’s skin resembled that of the black slaves. . When Desiree was accused of being black, she insisted she was white and wrote Valmonde to confirm the rumors. She says that she will become miserable if it is true that she contains African blood. She rejects the accusations and when it was clear Armand could not love her anymore Desiree also knows too well that being of mixed heritage could attract trouble. She says , ‘it is not true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyes are grey, Armand, you know they are grey. And my skin is fair… ‘.Despite Desiree’s origin containing Caucasian heritage, she and her baby received the punishment for the child’s skin colour. He does not face consequences for his racial origins but extends cruelty to Desiree and the child.

The story further shows how race played a significant role in people’s way of judging others and making decisions. Racism contributed to the tragic ending of the story where Desiree commits suicide after being rejected by the same people she identified with. When Desiree’s baby was born, Armand was soft on the way he treated slaves out of the belief that the boy is white. The realization that the child was both black and white eroded Armand’s love for the boy and the mother. Armand refused to take care of the child on the basis of its skin colour. Even when he had been told to carefully evaluate Desiree’s background before marrying her, he said he cared less about her identity because he loved her. However, Armand assumed Desiree’s origin to be the cause of the son’s race. It did not incur to him that the baby’s skin colour could have been due to his mixed race heritage. He stopped loving her and sent her away due to the belief that a mixed race son was inferior and undesirable; she ends her life and that of the baby. This show’s that race was a powerful force that determined a person’s worthiness and self-perception.

Race has been the leading theme in Chopin’s Desiree’s baby. The author has used racism as the main subject to reflect the unfair treatment of the minority under the white she witnessed in her lifetime. Race-based discrimination has been used to conclude the narration of Chopin, where Armand rejects her wife Desiree and his three month son due to the belief that they are a mixed race of white and black. Armand is the epitome of the racial beliefs supported by the 19th century Americans of the south, evidence by his many slaves who receive beatings while working on his plantation. He comes from a rich family of Louisiana and behaves in a manner that proudly identifies with white regime. While at first appearing caring and loving when meeting Desiree, his love turns to hatred when he discovers their child is of black heritage. Racism crowds his judgement to the extent of abandoning his wife due to the belief that Desiree must be the one carrying the black genes. However, Chopin incorporates a dramatic and ironic climax to the story when it is revealed that Armada is the one who possessed the African qualities. Thus, racism interfered with Armand’s reasoning and led to the death of his family as well as his name.

 

References

Chopin, Kate, Desiree’s Baby. Sound Room Publishers, 1893.