“‘Don’t argue with white folks,’ [Luke] had said. ‘Don’t tell them ‘no.’ Don’t let them see you mad. Just say ‘yes, sir.’ Then go ’head and do what you want to do. Might have to take a whippin’ for it later on, but if you want it bad enough, the whippin’ won’t matter much.”
In this quotation, which comes from part 7 of “The Fall,” Luke, a slave, advises his son, Nigel, about how to interact with white people. From Weylin’s perspective, Luke gives satisfaction. He does his work, and he keeps others in line so effectively that he is made overseer. Initially, Dana finds Luke inspiring. He shows her a way to hide one’s internal rebelliousness with an external appearance of servility. Yet later in the novel, she finds that Luke’s carefully calibrated behavior is not enough to save him from disaster: Weylin sells Luke for so-called insubordination. As Rufus puts it, Luke is sold for carrying himself like a white man. Yet the point is not that Luke has let his mask of servility slip, incurring Weylin’s wrath, or that open rebellion is less dangerous than quiet rebellion. Rather, the point is that slaves’ behavior is mostly irrelevant. They may be sold for profit; they may be sold on a whim; they may be sold as punishment for a mostly imaginary crime, as Sam is; they may be kept around for no reason, or in spite of rebellious behavior. They are not in charge of their lives, and their attitudes and actions, even when carefully managed, like Luke’s, are far less important than the caprices of white people.