Discrimination's Double-edged Sword
Exclusion and cultural demise in Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence
by Christopher Dow
The Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 illegalized slavery in the United States. Even so, many members of the white population retained a perception that slavery was a necessary institution. Legalized discrimination, with its policy of social, political, and economic repression, extended the form of slavery without its formalism. In Day of Absence, Douglas Turner Ward’s examination of the ramifications of slavery and racial discrimination is less a personal record of repression than it is a look at how racial discrimination has affected American culture. First, he observes that separatism has created ostensibly different functional and ethical roles for blacks and whites. He then deconstructs these mythologized differences. At last, he emerges with the idea that slavery and discrimination create a fatal weakness within the culture. This weakness is as ruinous to the perpetrators as it is to the more obvious victims, for by denying wholeness to blacks, white supremacists deny wholeness to themselves.
Cultural importance of individuals or groups derives from their functional contributions that sustain the physical organization and constitution of the culture and from their ethical contributions that encompass the psychological and emotional constructs and qualities that give to culture its unique character. Most obviously in Day of Absence, Ward looks at how blacks function in American culture. As John MacNicholas notes, “Ward depicts the enormity of the contribution of blacks to American life and in the same stroke the enormity of the exploitation that blacks have historically suffered.”1 This dichotomy arises because the attitude espoused by perpetrators of white supremacy is that blacks have no functional purpose in and make no contributions to American culture.
The first indication in the play that the dominant society does not accord functional importance to blacks is that it takes Clem and Luke all morning to realize that the black inhabitants are absent from the town. If blacks were considered truly functional, their absence would have been noticed immediately. The appropriately named Mr. Clan gives voice to this attitude when he says that blacks “ain’t supposed to do nothing ’til we tell ’em,”2 implying that blacks cannot think constructively and, thus, are incapable of self-determination. For Clan, denying that blacks have the awareness of what to do and when to do it justifies denying that blacks have the aptitude of leadership—that they can be operators of the machinery that supports culture instead of being relegated to the position of machinery itself. Even the Announcer echoes this idea when he refers to the vanished blacks as “nonessential workers” and “uncrucial personnel,”3 further negating their functional roles.
Mrs. Aide carries prejudice from the functional to the ethical when she says that the main purpose of the Nigra Git-A-Job Program is “to improve their ethical behavior.”4 She implies that blacks are not human enough to be innately ethical, but must have their lives set within rigid patterns to compel ethical behavior. Further, she says that blacks are “notorious shirkers,”5 as if to say that the supposed lack of ethics in blacks is as much intentional as it is a fact of nature. Intentionality implies innate corruption, a belief echoed by the Reverend Pious, who calls the disappearance of the blacks “a reversion of the Nigra to his deep-rooted primitivism” assisted by Satanic voodoo.6 Blacks are, to the white supremacist, degraded examples of humanity all too ready to indulge in base instincts and corrupt practices. According to Aide and Pious, not only are blacks functionally unable to construct culture, they are unable, because of a lack of ethical commitment, to affect culture in a positive way at the levels that transcend the functional.
But Ward shows from the outset that blacks fill significant, if unrecognized, functional and ethical roles within the culture. “Negroes constitute a numerical minority, but Negro experience, from slavery to civil rights, has always been of crucial importance to America’s existence,” Ward writes in another context.7 The most overt contributions are visible at the functional level. When all the blacks vanish, the results belie the idea that blacks have no function in American culture, for the economic structure of the entire town is thrown into dysfunctional turmoil. After all, as the Mayor remarks, “Half this town is colored.”8
One immediately felt result is that retail sales are radically down. The Businessman tells the Mayor, “The volume of goods moving ’cross counters has slowed down to a trickle.”9 Worse, despite the implication that blacks fulfill only nonessential, uncrucial functions, production of goods is at a standstill. “Seventy-five percent of all production is paralyzed,” says the Industrialist.10 On the home front, the absence of black domestics has created voids that completely disrupt home life. Infants remain unchanged, meals remain uncooked, floors remain unswept, and bathrooms remain uncleaned. By removing blacks, Ward shows that they do perform vital functions, that they are not nonessential and uncrucial to society at all levels at which they are permitted to act. And the fact that among the absent are the vice mayor, two city council members, the chairman of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the chair-lady of the Daughters of the Confederate Rebellion, and other highly ranked cultural, political, and economic icons indicates that the functionalism of blacks, even if not recognized, extends far beyond domestic duties and manual labor, even if those who perform these higher duties must perform them in “white face.”
But being functional goes much deeper than the fact that black Americans simply comprise a significant part of the government, the work force, and the consumer base. In speaking of the evolution of black drama, Genevieve E. Fabre says that “the dramatist induces [the audience] to develop new forms of action and thinking; he confronts them with new images that often invert the old stereotypes.”11 Blacks are not simply machines that labor and consume. Their functional roles open culture to their ethical effect upon that culture. Ward demonstrates this through the characters of John and Mary and their missing maid, Lula.
Early in the play, John and Mary are awakened by their infant, who is crying because Lula, their maid, is not there to care for it. Because Lula is absent, Mary must care for the child, but since Lula has always performed the tasks associated with motherhood, Mary finds herself unprepared to perform even the simplest duties of child care. Her unpreparedness extends to the kitchen, where Lula has done everything to such an extent that Mary cannot prepare coffee or fry eggs. Mary is, in fact, so dependent on Lula’s functional abilities that she tells John, “I couldn’t accept your wedding proposal until I was sure you’d welcome me and her together as a package.”12 The functional importance of blacks within the culture is well portrayed in this microcosm, but John and Mary’s dilemma goes on to demonstrate the truth of the assertion that functional ability and ethics are inseparable.
The bond between mother and child is one of the most ethical of all human relationships. “Among the Ashanti, the union of mother and child establishes the very foundation upon which societal relations are erected,” says Paul Carter Harrison,13 and this is true for most cultures. Even more pointed is Mary’s name, which links her to Christ’s mother—that ultimate mother of ethical behavior. But in this household microcosm of society, something is wrong. When John, whose name recalls that of John the Baptist, another nurturing figure associated with Christ, tells Mary to get up and take care of the baby, she replies, “What baby . . . whose baby. . . ?”14 This mother is so disconnected from her motherhood that she doesn’t recognize the cry of her own child. The situation is pronounced enough that her initial response is “Smother it!”15
The repugnance is mutual, for the baby “yells louder every time [Mary tries] to lay hands on her.”16 The child is the crux here, for, as a basic human being, it espouses basic values. Love is food, comfort, and a change out of a dirty diaper. At its most basic level, ethics equals functionalism. Mary’s ethical difficulty with the child is a direct outgrowth of her lack of functional ability with the child. She has not done the dirty work associated with child care, and her functional incapabilities have rendered her ethically defunct. On the other hand, Lula has consistently fulfilled the functional role, and the infant recognizes this manifestation of love as truly ethical behavior. Lula, despite her absence, is the dominant individual of this household, for she has single-handedly held it together on both levels: the functional and the ethical.
With these details, Ward delves to the foundations of separatist culture. There he discovers that they are cracked by the perceived differences in function and ethics between the races and that this flaw is only shoddily mended by a patchwork acceptance of the ideas that blacks are inextricably interwoven in the cultural matrix. C. W. E. Bigsby claims that Ward’s “humor is largely at the expense of a white community which is seen as insipid and stupid, unconsciously manipulated by a Negro world which it holds in contempt.”17
This may be true, but Ward indicates something that should be far more disturbing to whites than being the butt of a joke. Paul Carter Harrison comes closer when he speaks of “the daily struggle for survival which rewards individual initiatives toward the easy life, that life so highly esteemed in the oppressor.”18 White supremacist society has achieved the “easy life” through oppression, but Ward indicates that in doing so, whites have damaged not only their ethical well-being, but their own cultural wholeness as well as that of blacks. Mary says it most succinctly when she confesses, “I’m lost wit’out Lula, I need her, John, I need her.”19 This is not simply a confession of physical need, but a plea for deeper wholeness. Lula is, after all, her other half.
Adam David Miller decries Ward for not speaking to black consciousness:
“We see a black audience laughing at whites in their helplessness at the loss of the Negroes for a day. . . . The image of the black woman who raises [white] children at the sacrifice of her own is one all too familiar to blacks. What Negroes need to know is not that they are needed by whites, but that they are needed by one another.”20
But Miller misses the mark. Ward is not just portraying the humor of incompetence or expounding upon who needs whom or what side is better. Ward’s point is that functional competence is what both advances culture and ensures its vitality. Those who relegate to others tasks they consider demeaning forget how to perform the most basic functions of life and economic, cultural, and physical perpetuation. John shows a vague awareness of this when he says, “I might’ve [married Lula] if it wasn’t ’gainst the segregation law!”21 He intuits that Lula, despite her nominally low cultural station, is a more complete human being than is Mary.
Ward’s message is that people who relegate the operation of their daily lives to others also sign away their personal independence and humanity. Such apportionment, when carried to a cultural level, violates natural law by making the assignor unfit to survive. The privileged class, like John and Mary, will eventually find that it is unable to perform, without artificial aid, even the most basic functions that continue life. Mary might desperately need Lula, but it’s obvious that the reverse is not true. The institution of slavery, while ostensibly boosting the economic and social status of whites, is unnatural and severs them from their basic vitality. The Mayor says, “It is my solemn task and frightening duty to inform you that we have no other recourse but to seek outside help for deliverance,”22 tacitly admitting that his oppressive culture is unfit to survive on its own.
Hidden in the bark of Day of Absence’s humor is the bite of a grim realization. If survival is for the fittest, then white supremacy, or any culture that thrives by separatist oppression, debases itself through enslavement to the fatal flaw of separation from its own basic morality and self-preservation.
1 John MacNicholas, ed., The Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists: Part 2: K-Z (Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1981) 302.
2 Douglas Turner Ward, Day of Absence, Contemporary Black Drama: From A Raisin in the Sun to No Place to Be Somebody, ed. Clinton F. Oliver and Stephanie Sills (New York: Scribners, 1971) 356.
3 Ward 354.
4 Ward 356
5 Ward 356
6 Ward 357
7 Douglas Turner Ward, “American Theater: For Whites Only?” Modern Drama and Social Change, ed. Robert A. Raines (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice–Hall, 1972) 334.
8 Ward 349.
9 Ward 351.
10 Ward 350.
11 Genevieve E. Fabre, “Drama: Introduction,” Afro-American Poetry and Drama, 1760-1975, William P. French, Michel J. Fabre, Amritjit Singh, and Genevieve E. Fabre (Detroit: Gale Research, 1979) 260.
12 Ward 350.
13 Paul Carter Harrison, The Drama of Nommo (New York: Grove Press, 1972) 7.
14 Ward 344.
15 Ward 347.
16 Ward 347.
17 C. W. E. Bigsby, “Three Black Playwrights: Loften Mitchell, Ossie Davis, and Douglas Turner Ward,” The Black American Writer, ed. C. W. E. Bigsby (Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1969) 150.
18 Harrison 3-4.
19 Ward 350.
20 Adam David Miller, “It’s a Long Way to St. Louis: Notes on the Audience for Black Drama,” Drama Review (Summer 1968) 150.
21 Ward 348
22 Ward 354.
Ward, Douglas Turner. Day of Absence. Contemporary Black Drama: From A Raisin in the Sun to No Place to Be Somebody. Ed. Clinton F. Oliver and Stephanie Sills. New York: Scribners, 1971.
Abramson, Doris E. Negro Playwrights in the American Theater, 1925-1959. New York and London: Columbia U. P., 1967.
Michener, Charles. “Setting the Stage Everywhere.” Newsweek, December 24, 1973: 80-82.
Patterson, James E., interviewer. “The Negro Ensemble Company.” Players, June-July 1972: 224-229 and 256-257.
Taubman, Howard. “Douglas Turner Ward’s Plays at the St. Marks.” The New York Times, November 15, 1965: 56:1.
(Ward), Douglas Turner. “Needed: A Theater for Black Themes.” Negro Digest, December 1967: 34-39.
Bigsby, C. W. E. “Three Black Playwrights: Loften Mitchell, Ossie Davis, and Douglas Turner Ward.” The Black American Writer. Ed. C. W. E. Bigsby. Deland, Fla.” Everett/Edwards, 1969.
Fabre, Genevieve E. “Drama: Introduction.” Afro-American Poetry and Drama, 1760-1975. Eds. William P. French, Michel J. Fabre, Amritjit Singh, and Genevieve E. Fabre. Detroit: Gale Research, 1979.
Harrison, Paul Carter. The Drama of Nommo. New York: Grove Press, 1972.
MacNicholas, John, ed. The Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists: Part 2: K-Z. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1981.
Miller, Adam David. “It’s a Long Way to St. Louis: Notes on the Audience for Black Drama.” Drama Review, Summer 1968.
Ward, Douglas Turner. “American Theater: For Whites Only?” Modern Drama and Social Change. Ed. Robert A. Raines. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice–Hall, 1972.