Awakening the Zombies “Everybody was finally equal. They were not only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.” This is a short, but powerful excerpt from the short story Harrison Bergeron. Not only does it make you wonder why everyone is equal, but as well makes you wonder how did everyone become equal? In the short story and the movie, Kurt Vonnegut presents a scary view of human society in the United States in the future, in which United States citizens are all uniform. This then leads to their loss of individuality, and therefore to the absolute deformity of humanness. Both the movie and the short story share these themes, they also have a multitude of other similarities, but also have just as many differences. These differences, irony and the symbolism between the two, are what I will be attempting to explore. The first apparent difference between the movie and the short story is that the short story takes place in 2081. In the story the government regulates everything, not just intelligence, but strength and beauty as well, and handicap people appropriately. The strong are forced to wear bags filled with lead balls; beautiful people are forced to wear masks so others would not feel unequal to them in looks. The overly intelligent are forced to wear radio transmitters in their ears, that are tuned to a government station that constantly bombards them with horrible sounds to scramble their thoughts. In the movie, the year is 2053 and everyone is forced to wear mind-altering headbands that rest on their temples. These headbands electronically modify intelligence, effectively decreasing everyone’s IQ to the desired “average” point. Unlike the story, in the movie, no one wears masks to conceal their looks and some are better looking than other making them unequal in appearance to everyone else. Also the only “weight bags” that are worn, is by one dancer on the television that wore a small ankle weight with no resemblance to the enormous weight bags that are described in the story. Another difference is that in the story Harrison Bergeron had the apparent status of a god among these average people. He was fourteen years old, seven feet tall, athletic, good looking, and a genius.
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich
Webster has defined nostalgia as a “wistful or excessively sentimental, sometimes abnormal yearning for a return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” Nostalgia is a psychological time machine that transplants adults to the good old days of another era. Once there, they will find that it is a state of mind, oblivious to actual or imagined barriers. For some it is a pleasant stroll through yesterday, a simple, less turbulent past.
Benjie Johnson is thirteen, Black, and well on his way to being hooked on heroine for good. Benjie’s wry humor and courage, his hard surface and vulnerability beneath make it impossible not to care about him. This book confronts a difficult subject and offers no easy solutions. The inner city students I presently teach can relate to much of what Benjie talks about. The Black English used is a variation but a continuation of school boy vernacular which we saw in the previously mentioned novels.
“Now I am thirteen, but when I was a chile, it was hard to be a chile because my block is a tough block and my school is a tough school. I’m not trying to cop out on what I do or don’t do cause man is man and chile is chile, but I ain’t a chile no more. Don’t nobody want to be no chile cause, for some reason, it just hold you back in a lotta ways; unless you be a rich chile like in some movie picture or like on T.V.—where everybody is livin it up and their room is perfect-lookin and their swimmin pool and their block and their house and they also ridin round in one rollin Cads with a tape-deck playin cool music and with air condition goin.”21
The block where Benjie lives is no peaceful place. People are getting mugged and robbed regularly. After age three when the relatives hold your hand you are on your own in the poorly lighted hallways of the tenement. “Walkin through dark, stinky hallways can be hard on anybody, man or chile, but a chile can get snatch in the dark and get his behind parts messed up by some weirdo I’m talkie bout them sexuals. Soon’s you get up to leven, twelve and so—they might cool it cause they scared you know where to land a good up punch, dig?