What was the situation of Sidney and Ondine in Valerian's house, as presented in Morrison's novel?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Sidney and Ondine occupy an important role in Valerian's house.  Their position is reflective of the condition of their position.  On one level, they are subordinate to the Streets.  Even though it is evident that Sidney and Ondine could manage things better and with more precision than the Streets themselves, they recognize the hierarchy and accept the capitulation to their place in it.  Both represent a very traditional notion of what it means to be a person of color.  In this regard, both Sidney and Ondine occupy a central position in Valerian's house.  They seek to maintain the structure and order that has provided definition and clarity for so long.

Part of the reason why Sidney and Ondine accept such a position is that it gives them a sense of power.  Morrison shows Sidney and Ondine accepting the condition of power that comes with their part of the established structure of the Valerian household.  They replicate the structure of power in the Valerian household in how they interact outside of it. For example, Sidney takes pride in being seen as "A genuine Philadelphia Negro mentioned in the book of that name," reflective of his position in the Valerian power structure.  Ondine has served as Margaret's confidant, showing loyalty and the power within it by not revealing her secrets.  Her regret over Jadine not accepting a more "traditional" sense of identity is reflective of her own embrace of it and the power associated with it.  Both Sidney and Ondine also parallel the manner in which the Street household views the people of color that exist on the island. They see themselves as diligent, competent, and occupying a particular status that other Africans lack.  When they refer to indigenous individuals such as Gideon and Teresa as "horsemen" and "swamp women," it reflects how the status afforded to them from their position in service of the Streets benefits them.  Their dislike of Son is rooted in how he is perceived as "wild" and unrestrained.  He embodies the world they have rejected.  It is a world without power and distinction.  It is a world without structure.  For Sidney and Ondine, their position in the Street household has enabled them to replicate a structure to a point where they feel able to exert power over others.

Morrison's genius is how she shows that Sidney and Ondine are able to appropriate a personal strength that exists outside of social distinction.  While their position in the  Street house enables them to exert of power over others in the view of themselves, it has also given them a sturdiness and grounded nature of character that others in the novel lack.  Indeed, they might be able to exact some level of social power in a world bifurcated by race.  However, they are firmly established in who they are and what they can do.  Sidney and Ondine could run the system and the home in a quite capable manner.  For example, Sidney does exert power when he absolutely must. They are shown to be more than what title and social expectation gives them. Morrison shows both characters as example of how power can be evident in different settings.  Both Sidney and Ondine might be servants, but they do not serve.  Their position in the Street house belies their sense of strength and form in identity that is very challenging in a world where race and personal insecurity play such dominant roles.  

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