The Imitation of Life, Sarah Jane Analysis

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22nd May 2017 English Literature Reference this

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The Imitation of Life is one of the most powerful cinematic displays of racial passing in movie history. Passing, a commonly used term especially in the African American community, “occurs when a member of one racial category assumes the ethnicity of another (Alkon, 2012)”. The movie was originally made in 1934 with a remake in 1959. The main character, Sarah Jane, wanted not just to “pass” within the dominant social group (white), but to truly belong to that group and forget her African American identity that comes loaded with much prejudice and hardship. Despite having the racial fluidity to pass, her mother and the people who were close to her knew her true ethnicity. Although this is a movie, passing is part of our socio-historical background. In this paper I will examine how Sarah Jane does facework in order to successfully pass as a white woman.

There are various examples of facework that allow her to be in character. In Imitation of Life, Sarah Jane was the daughter of a black housekeeper, who wanted to pass as a white female. When attempting to cross ethnic barriers, there are gains for the person who decides to attempt to pass. The ultimate gain is acceptance into a dominant class in society and the ultimate cost is eventually losing touch with blood relatives. For example, there is a scene in the movie when Sarah Jane begged her mother to leave her and to never tell anyone they were related. In this scene, you could see Sarah Jane softening a little bit as her mother embraced her and promised her daughter that she would leave her alone because she was getting tired of being turned away from her daughter. This exchange was the last time they spoke to each other. In the process of passing as a means of survival, the dilemmas facing those who pass, is the degree to which they internalize the dominant values of the oppressor (Yee, 1998). Both of her parents were African American, yet her outward appearance fit all the physical attributes of a Caucasian person being of lighter skin.

As a young child, Sarah was upset because she was given a “black” doll. She did not like this because she had internalized and embraced that she looked just like the other white children around her. According to Mead, all children in this society learn at an early age that, generally speaking, whiteness is privileged and darkness is not and thus their choices in this regard are usually not surprising (ISL, 2010). During this scene, she was in wrong face; she pouted and voiced her unhappiness about the doll and their living situation, and her mother quickly came in to help Sarah Jane regain face by apologizing, a popular corrective process. In the reading, “My Grandmothers Passing”, XXX we were introduced to the writer’s grandmother, Mary Douglass, who was also upset because her granddaughter saw herself as an Anglo American woman, became upset and distanced herself from her granddaughter after she called her “Mexican” (Lopez McAllister, 2011). In both stories the females involved were of darker skin and experienced self-loathing because of social comparisons and internalized racism.

Sarah Jane’s mother, Annie, was able to find employment as a live-in maid with a struggling actress; the relationship of the two women clearly defined the social structure in their relationship. Annie was a hard working woman but her master status was black. She used emotional labor on a daily basis and rarely had a backstage to run to when her day was over. In her job as a maid, she had to do a lot of surface acting because it was hard for her to find employment and keep her daughter with her. She used corrective processes to avoid aggressive interchanges with her employer and with her daughter. The strain of this emotional labor made her ill and this is what we are led to believe is the reason she dies. Throughout the movie, Karl Marx’s conflict theory of the “haves and the have nots” is clear. The tension between the needing to be a mother and being able to build self-esteem and pride in her daughter was in contrast to her own need of employment as the maid and taking care of their family was quite evident. She did not realize that her compliance in her situation made a social dilemma for her daughter. A social dilemma is an individually reasonable behavior that leads to a situation in which everyone is worse off (Newman, 2011).

Sarah Jane grew up living in the shadow of a rich-white lifestyle longing to be a real white girl, something she was able to accomplish once she had part ways from her mother. According to Romero (1995), “Sarah Jane had to learn when she must act like the employer’s child and when she must assume the appropriate behavior as the maid’s e daughter. She has to recognize all the social cues and interpret social settings correctly–when to expect the same rights and privileged as the employer’s children and when to fulfill the expectations and obligations as the maid’s daughter” (p. 89). The ways in which parents, family, community and society transmit various interpretations of race eventually determine how one identifies oneself. During the film, Sarah Jane was challenged because she lived in fear of being “found out.” Sarah Jane’s emotion work involved a lot of deep acting to maintain the role and achieve the master status of a Caucasian person that she was not ascribed. In society, race is usually visually confirmed.

As Sarah Jane grew older she constantly denied her ethnicity which led to another challenge. For African Americans, understanding the past is essential in analyzing present day issues of the community. The topics of colorism and the relationship between light and dark skinned Blacks are especially important because history indicates that the subject is imbued with cryptic discomfort (Cunningham, 1997). Light skin is valued in some minorities especially African American. When Sarah Jane started to date she thought that if she married a white man, her children would come out white and no one would know the wiser. Contrary to her wishes, her boyfriend, who was white, found out that her mother was black. He asked her on a date and savagely beat her and threw her in the gutter. He felt that she tricked him because he would never date outside of his race. Having one drop of black blood was considered contaminating, and its presence made one totally and absolutely black. The one drop rule became law during re-construction. In addition, many Whites feared an infiltration of black blood, and anti-miscegenation laws were born partly out of the fear that a White person might accidentally marry a black person (Cunningham, 1997). After this beating she felt more resentment towards her mother because she felt all the obstacles she was facing were her mother’s fault.

There are also breaks in facework in which emotions are not managed properly. Sarah Jane’s status is constantly changing in response to the wide range of social settings she encounters (Romero, 1995, p. 89). To avoid embarrassment because of the many awkward situations she faced because of her race she decided to run away in order to maintain face. She joined a chorus line in a low class night club and became comfortable living as a white woman. She successfully passed in her new identity. This allowed her sense of self to grow; she was able to distance herself from the social norms that were in place for African Americans.

Facework allowed Sarah Jane to avoid stigmatized identity: After she ran away, in her new environment, there was no one to stigmatize her as a black woman. She made friends and found a job. Being a light skinned African American was often a barrier to find jobs because in the eyes of some whites, they were a picture of the outcome of a mixed relationship which was taboo at that time. The mere idea of people who were black being able to pass and live among whites caused an ongoing threat of racial obscurity for white so naturally passing as a white woman affected her looking glass self, by seeing herself as she thought others saw her (Alkon, 2012).

Sarah Jane’s mother was getting older and she was getting very sick. She eventually cooperated with Sarah Jane in the process of facework by promising her that she would never acknowledge that she was her mother so that Sarah Jane could maintain her face and keep the persona of being a white woman. While Annie was dying she told her employer to tell her daughter that she was sorry and that she was being selfish as her mother but she loved her because she was the only thing she had. As I mentioned above, Annie used facework and corrective processes until she died. Unfortunately at the end of the movie Annie died. During the funeral, Sarah Jane ran down the crowded street and threw herself on the coffin, this time she was screaming and telling her mother that she was sorry. She was using a corrective process by apologizing and asking her mother for forgiveness. Unfortunately it was too late because her mother died of a broken heart.

In conclusion, Sarah Jane used facework to successfully pass as a white woman, and allowed Sarah Jane to avoid a stigmatized identity. She was able to do this because visually you would not know she was African American. Passing as a white woman affected her identity because she used deep acting to internalize the white race that she infiltrated. Sarah Jane’s passing deeply affected her mother because her mother wanted her to live as a black woman and marry black man. Passing is a small piece of African-American’s socio-historical background and usually remains hidden like a long buried bone, ironically society is more tolerant and would not see it as a stigmatized behavior. Society has come a long way from the 30’s and 50’s and there is more opportunity out there to be successful regardless the color of your skin.

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