I Hadn’t Knowed: Intersectionality and the Synthesis of Dessa Rose and Miss Rufel
Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: Last fall I took a class on neo-slave narratives. Here is an essay I wrote on the novel Dessa Rose.
Intersectionality is the concept that people who collectively experience discrimination face different levels of discrimination depending on race, sexual orientation, class, and ableism. This is seen in Dessa Rose where the title character shares oppression with Ruth Elizabeth (“Miss Rufel”), leading to a transformation in their relationship. This intersectionality helps to show the feminist issues at play in Dessa Rose on a variety of levels, but I will explore how it provides further exploration of critic Phyllis Lynne Burns’ discussion of Hegelian dialectics as it refers to Dessa. I argue it also applies to Miss Rufel as she too experiences a Hegelian thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
In her article, “‘I Kill White Mens … Cause I Can’: The Rewriting of Liberation and Mastery in Dessa Rose.” Burns uses Hegelian dialectics to compare and contrast the historical character Frederick Douglas with the fictional character Dessa Rose, investigating how each is transformed through their experiences from being enslaved to becoming free. This dialectic involves analyzing the character’s qualities (thesis and antithesis) before formulating a synthesis explaining their true nature. For example, Burns notes Douglas’ transformation from an enslaved mindset to someone who becomes aware of their nature as a human being, realizing their identity as a person who will not be enslaved. Burns analyzes Dessa’s character, comparing her development with Douglas. “Dessa has autonomous thoughts. She never accepts the master’s right to determine whether she will be used to satisfy his sexual desire or coupled to increase his capital” (132). Dessa begins with a different mindset than Douglas, but she too undergoes a synthesis as she eventually understands the forces that make her independent and unwilling to be enslaved.
This dialectic can be seen with Miss Rufel as well, showing her synthesis and the forces of intersectionality. While Ruth is a free white woman, she is differently abled than Dessa in that she has let her husband run her life to the point where she is unable to think for herself; her only guidance coming from her enslaved servant Mammy. Miss Rufel also differs from Dessa in that she is white, free, and of a different social class. These differences play a role in Miss Rufel’s character development. Miss Rufel’s interactions with the enslaved persons who seek refuge on her husband’s farm lead to her acknowledging her husband is not the person she believed he was and that she does not support slavery.
As mentioned, Burns’ intriguing exploration of Dessa Rose’s thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is also seen with Miss Rufel, adding another layer of critical examination—intersectionality. The dialectic in Dessa Rose involving Dessa and Mis Rufel heightens its exploration of intersectionality. Lois Tyson explains intersectionality as, “Race intersects with class, sex, sexual orientation, political orientation, and personal history in forming each person’s complex identity” (276). Miss Rufel has certain privileges due to her race and class, but as Williams makes clear in the narrative, that doesn’t shield her from the rape attempt by Oscar. This leads to Dessa realizing:
The white woman was subject to the same ravishment as me; this the thought that kept me awake. I hadn’t knowed white men could use a white women like that, just take her by force same as they could with us. (Williams 201)
This realization challenges Dessa’s thoughts and forces her to reconsider her relationship with Miss Rufel. Eventually, their joint experience of resisting Oscar’s rape attempt on Miss Rufel leads to their slow progression from uneasy allies into true friends.
Dessa reevaluates her opinion of Miss Rufel, going from this assessment, “This was the damnedest white woman. White as a sheet and about that much sense—sleeping with negroes, hiding runaways, wanting to be my friend…Who wanted to be her friend anyway?” (219) to one years later as she recalls her white friends, remarking, “But none the equal of Ruth…” (236).
Burn’s use of Hegelian dialectics to evaluate Frederick Douglas and Dessa Rose can also be used to analyze the character Miss Rufel. This in conjunction with intersectionality provides insight into Dessa Rose’s and Miss Rufel’s similar and different experiences as women along with the novel’s themes of race and gender discrimination.
Burns, Phyllis Lynne. “‘I Kill White Mens … Cause I Can’: The Rewriting of Liberation and
Mastery in Dessa Rose.” Criticism, vol. 55, no. 1, 2013, pp. 119–145. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.13110/criticism.55.1.0119.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006.
Williams, Shirley A. Dessa Rose: A Novel. William Morrow Paperbacks, Reprint Edition, 2018.