The Test is a short story by Angelica Gibbs which illustrates the issue of power abuse, where actions all originate from personal prejudices and ignorance. The characters; Marion, the Inspector and Mrs. Ericson represent three different societies which collide and are caught in a situation where there is a victim, a perpetrator, and a denying, yet guilty onlooker.
Representing the first “society” is Marion. Though stereotyped by some (the Inspector) as being an ignorant and uneducated black woman, who is expected to be illiterate, married and to come from the South. In this story, Marion proves these racist assumptions to be wrong, and in turn, shows that she is an individual. Marion understands, and is fully aware of the prejudice that ignorant white Americans have about her, and the unfair way they treat her, due to her sex, race, and the colour of her skin. This knowledge was revealed when she rebuked Mrs. Ericson’s suggestion that she should “slip them a little something” by saying, “No, that would only make it worse, Mrs. Ericson. I know”. Aware that she is a victim of prejudice, Marion strives to build a protective barrier around herself; ignoring the cruel jibes, comments and actions of others, and hiding her anger, frustration and hurt feelings under a mask and outer exterior of calm indifference. During the Driving Test, Marion endured the Inspector’s cruel and provoking comments, and his obvious contempt in her. It was only when he belittled and laughed at her college degree did Marion’s calm exterior of indifference break down; – ” I got my college degree last year”, Marion said, her voice was not quite steady. – and finally collapsed altogether as she could control herself no longer, and burst out – “Damn you!”. As she said this, Marion realised that she had failed The Test; that it was all over, and in the end, the Inspector’s power had won.
Representing a society of white Americans who feel that their ’superiority’ gives them the right to use their power to abuse others because they are prejudiced against them, is the Inspector. The Inspector wields his authority like a whip – striking out whenever he pleases. He is fully aware of his power, and has no hesitation in taking full advantage and control of the situation; testing and baiting Marion; stepping over her boundaries, and daring her to contradict him. In the Inspector’s eyes, Marion represents all ignorant ‘Southern darkies’, and he links and relates all her actions to others of her race; for example – “Turn onto Main Street and let’s see how you-all does in heavier traffic”. He does not see Marion as an individual – and does not bother to call her by her real name, but instead refers to her as Mandy-Lou, a common name give to black native servants/slaves. Upon discovering that the assumptions he had made about Marion were incorrect, and that he had been proven wrong, the Inspector experiences mixed emotions. He is angered to be made a fool, by a ‘black nobody’. He is also jealous of Marion’s college degree, as he might not have one himself. Lastly, the Inspector feels threatened; as to his horror, he comes to realise that he may not be as superior and powerful as he thinks or pretends to be.
If the Inspector represents an ugly and overt form of racism, Mrs. Ericson portrays a not much less racist, but in a more subdued form and latent, third society. Mrs. Ericson is a typical example of the classic white liberal. She is someone who regards herself as being tolerant, reasonable, and most understanding – especially towards Marion; a black woman. Yet, she refuses to believe that Marion is being judged unfairly by the Inspectors because of their racism towards black people, and instead denies and tries to make excuses for their actions. Marion – “They probably do like it better if a white person shows up with you”. Mrs. Ericson – ” Oh, I don’t think its that”. Mrs. Ericson simply feels that Marion is being too sensitive; making too big a deal, and imagining all of this, and that she was treated in the same manner as any white female in the same situation. Marion – “I don’t remember doing all the things the Inspector marked down on my blank”. Mrs. Ericson – “People say that they only want you to slip them a little something”. But what Mrs. Ericson does not realise, or what she won’t allow herself to admit, is the fact that if a white woman and Marion; a black woman, were to both ’slip them (the Inspectors) a little something’, the outcome to both situations would be entirely different.
Mrs. Ericson enjoys having Marion work for her as a housekeeper and child minder, and she does not really want to help or assist Marion, in trying to obtain the higher level of employment that a person with her high level of education should have. Mrs. Ericson likes things being the way they are, and she probably thinks that Marion is presently at her correct status in American society. Mrs. Ericson appears to be kind, and generous towards Marion. Yet she is patronising and complicit. She does not attack the system in which racism and prejudice has a strangling hold over black Americans, and the reason is simply that she benefits from the setup. Therefore, in her own way, Mrs. Ericson is in fact nearly just as racist as the Inspector, though she would never bring herself to admit that it is so. But instead, hides it under the cape of Patriotism, and White Liberality.
In this short story, the author uses three characters as symbols of three separate groups in America. This story illustrates the lack of power that blacks feel, and the racism that they experience; either in an overt form such as that of the Inspector, or in the more subdued and latent form of the patronising Mrs. Ericson. This short, yet powerful and meaningful story, reveals how helpless black people feel; in a prejudiced and ignorant society, where the abuse of power can shape their destiny.