The Color Yellow in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony

The color yellow comes up quite a bit in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, a novel about a Laguna Pueblo World War II veteran, Tayo, who suffers PTSD not only from fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific but also from his squalid upbringing as an indigenous person growing up in early-1900s America.

The color’s meaning and symbolism evolve as the plot unfolds. When Tayo’s uncle-in-law, Robert, leaves him alone in Gallup, New Mexico, with Betonie the medicine man, “he stared at the dry yellow grass by the old man’s feet. The sun’s heat was draining his strength away…” (Silko 109).

The diction in this passage evokes, at once, a sense of dying, caution, and sickness.

Take the “dry yellow grass” (109), for example. My mind immediately goes to unwatered and withered dying front lawns that are a common sight around here in Western Washington during the summertime. And that’s here in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Imagine if we were in the middle of a six-year drought.

Furthermore, the “sun’s heat… draining [Tayo’s] strength” (109), though not a visual image like the yellow grass, indirectly hints at extreme brightness, which can cause some people to feel sick and nauseous (think heat exhaustion).

I also think it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that the heat and brightness gave Tayo flashbacks to his childhood, when police raided their shelters in “The summer heat” (103) and forced him to hide “in the tamarics, breathing hard… smelling shit on his bare feet” (103).

The stench in the “grove of tamaric and willow” (103), where the natives relieved themselves, also evokes the yellow color of urine and shit without directly painting the picture (think a nasty gas station restroom, only outdoors).

Finally, just as a yellow traffic light serves to warn drivers of an impending red light, Tayo’s noticing of the yellow grass “by the old man’s feet” (109), combined with the blinding hot sun, seems to do the same in the passage. Tayo feels an urge to run away, but at the same time feels betrayed and hopeless that his own family would leave him with this weird old man.

Later on in the novel, the color yellow begins to take on a more neutral (possibly even positive) connotation, when Tayo begins to warm up to Betonie.

Things which don’t shift and grow are dead things

Leslie Marmon Silko

The medicine man reassures Tayo of the ever-changing nature of the ceremonies, telling him “when the people were given these ceremonies, the changing began, if only in the aging of the yellow gourd rattle or the shrinking of the skin around the eagle claw, if only the different voices from generation to generation, singing the chants. You see, in many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing” (116).

In this passage Betonie not only attempts to alleviate Tayo’s doubts about his unorthodox method of performing ceremonies—which scares the natives—but also serves to help Tayo accept his otherness, being a “half-breed” in the eyes of his people.

The ceremonies, as well as the people themselves, must change and evolve in order to survive in this new world. As Betonie explains to Tayo: “things which don’t shift and grow are dead things” (116).

Later, as they sit by a fire, Tayo finishes his mutton ribs and throws “the bones to a skinny yellow dog that came out from behind the hogan” (118).

Silko uses the yellow dog to symbolize what Tayo used to be—an abandoned, homeless boy wandering down alleys, looking for scraps of food and finding and chewing on the “soft bone cartilage of pork ribs” (104), after the police raids.

The passage also calls back to and pays off the foreshadowing of the abandoned “bundle of bloody rags” (102) brought by the mother into the “pale yellow hills” (102) and buried “in the yellow sand” (102).

The “bundle of bloody rags” (102) most likely contained an aborted “half-breed,” and Tayo, being a “half-breed” himself, recognized it could have easily been him buried in the yellow sand, thus his negative psychological association with the color yellow.

If this were truly the case, I can’t help but feel some admiration towards his mother, despite her horrible life choices and negligence as a mother. Which mother would you side with in this particular case—the mother who chooses abortion, or Tayo’s, who gives him life, albeit a terrible one?

If you haven’t read the novel and enjoy Native American literature (or are just looking for a good read), I highly recommend this book.

Featured Image by Mike Goad from Pixabay

Nancy Mairs “On Being a Cripple” Analysis

Last month my English Professor assigned this heartwarming and inspirational narrative essay for our class to read and write up a short analysis on. I found Mairs’s writing to be honest, accessible, and moving. I look forward to reading more of her work. I’ll leave a link to the essay at the bottom of the page for your reading pleasure.

Here’s the assigned writing prompt:

What are the reasons that Nancy Mairs gives for preferring the word “cripple” to define her condition ? Why, after choosing to define herself as a cripple, does she say on page 88 that she hates being a cripple and that if fills her with “self-loathing”? Explain this in light of her assertion on page 89 that, “like many women, I have always had an uneasy relationship with my body.”

Mairs prefers the word “cripple” because it’s the “straightforward and precise” word that describes her condition, as opposed to “disabled,” which she states “suggests any incapacity, mental or physical,” or “handicapped” which she defines as “… [being] deliberately disadvantage[d].” She also implies, however subtly—and skillfully I might add—that the politically correct terms are more for the comfort of society rather than the crippled themselves.

As a cripple, I swagger. —Nancy Mairs

Instead of using language as an abstract crutch, she fully accepts her condition by stating: “Some realities do not obey the dictates of language.” She uses irony to emphasize this point by writing, “As a cripple, I swagger.” 

The self-loathing she feels stem from her condition limiting her ability to complete everyday tasks that she was once able to do easily. She also writes that she feels shame because the symptoms of her condition, particularly fatigue, cause her to be excluded from many of her community’s social functions, referred to as “puritanical tradition[s] of exceptional venerability.” The passage is a subtle dig at society’s close-mindedness toward “disabled” or “handicapped” people. Society wants to hide “cripples” behind these so-called less derogatory terms instead of acknowledging the reality of their situations. This reinforces Mair’s decision to refer to herself as a cripple. She flaunts it openly, thus bringing more attention to it.

On top of all of that, because she isn’t only a woman, but a crippled woman, she has no way of living up to society’s ideals of what a woman should be, leaving her “feel[ing] ludicrous, even loathsome” when she thinks about how “others, especially men” view her body. She also describes a childhood “sense of self-alienation” that is exacerbated by her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis as an adult.

Click Here to read the narrative essay. Feel free to share your thoughts on the essay in the comments.

Feature Image by Candid_Shots from Pixabay