The “Sunken Place”: Reflections on Crowded Consciousness

Sunken Place

But as humanity is prone to be inspired by the imitative rather than the initiative qualities of life, there was a tendency in many who had been freed from the slavery toil and soil to efface the traces of their origin and past servitude from a sense of shame and approximate, not to the rugged principles of the pioneers of the struggle, but rather to the antedated patterns of the vanquished class.


Claude McKay, Banana Bottom, p. 42

SPOILER ALERT: This is a response to (not a review of) Get Out. Do NOT READ if you plan on seeing the movie, and haven’t yet.

The quote above came from a great book I read by Claude McKay some time ago, called Banana Bottom. The book follows the journey of Bita Plant, a young girl “adopted and sent to England from Jamaica by white missionary benefactors” who “returns to her home village” a “cultured young lady.” But “[d]espite the evangelical guidance of her foster parents and friendship with a white squire, Bita is increasingly drawn to the vitality of her more natural culture with its festivals, superstitions, revival meetings, and passionate courtships.” (Google Books, “Banana Bottom”)

McKay’s quote is meant to convey the fact that even those who should have no desire to walk in the ways of oppressors can find themselves seduced into doing so. Such a decision is partly imitative, but it is also rooted in a certain degree of shame. Picture the “quadroon” or “mulatto” who moves away from her family, friends, and everyone who knows her to a place where she can “pass” for white. Or the person with “new money” who, when invited to a parlay with the rich, downplays the poverty of his humble beginnings. Dionne Brand echoes McKay’s point in her poignant question, posed to blacks, below:

Did we want only to be equal to white people or did we want to end exploitation and oppression? Because to be equal to the white power structure twenty-five years ago and still today is to have the right to impose inequality.


Bread out of Stone, p. 82

How do the musings above relate to Get Out? The scene that impacted me most was when Chris discovered that although most of his brain was going to be replaced, for the transplant to work a part of his nervous system would have to stay in tact. Because of this, even though his body would be occupied by a foreign host, a sliver of his consciousness would remain. He would thus live out the rest of his “life” in the “sunken place,” a dark abyss with but a small window to the outside world. The only way “out” would be in “a flash;” the literal flash of a camera. But even if such momentary freedom was secured, he risked being discovered and reprogrammed. Not to mention the fact that most of his “brain” would be that of another’s… how long would he be able to stay “out” before the foreign invader regained control?

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There is a clear parallel between the kidnapped blacks in Get Out, their hosts, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the slave-master relationship. The master uses black bodies as an extension of his own, to perform everything from back-breaking work to menial tasks. The punishment for non-compliance is physical torture with threat of death – such bodies are, after all, the master’s property and he can do with them what he wills. In Get Out, the coercive element of the slave-master relationship is noticeably – and eerily – missing. The portal into the blacks’ servitude came not through brute force but trickery, deception, and manipulation; a simple seat in the psychiatrist’s chair. Furthermore, the “master” aimed not to have power over the “slave,” but to occupy his very body and crowd out his very mind; the sacred spaces of human agency and freedom. The slaves plotted escapes, organized insurrections, and created the possibility of better futures for their progeny using their bodies and minds. The potential progression of oppression was not lost on me, as I watched the film.

To apply the “message” of the “sunken place” to a non-racialized context would be to ask how much space we allow external forces to occupy in our minds. How much of our “moving” in this world can be attributed to the “motion” of things outside of ourselves? Are we simply walking advertisements for the sale of material goods? Societal ideals unexposed to critique? Notions we were taught as children that we should have discarded long ago? More importantly: How much of the space we take up in this world is authentically our own, critical, and self- (as opposed to other-) informed?

It is unrealistic to argue that we can move through this world without being molded and shaped by it. But we can aim to expand our consciousness beyond the sliver allowed to the blacks in Get Out, and aspire to form life projects that reflect the freedom we have (as agents) to shape and mold it.

T. M. G.

Works Cited, Books:

Brand, Dionne. Bread out of Stone. Canada: Penguin Randomhouse Canada, 1994.

McKay, Claude. Banana Bottom. na: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1974.

Book Review: https://books.google.ca/books/about/Banana_Bottom.html?id=5tAaq0DRciMC&redir_esc=y

Image Credits: https://boxden.com/showthread.php?t=2460791;  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-most-overlooked-underrated-characters-in-get_us_58c3049de4b0a797c1d39c5b