Defying Racial Prejudice: Douglass & Melville

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In her lyric, ​Citizen​, Claudia Rankine writes, “because white men can’t, police their mimagination, black men are dying”. These words illustrate the predisposed attitudes ‘white men’ identify with ‘black men’. In this context, it is in reference to police brutality toward African Americans during the 1990s. It suggests that rather than understanding a person as an individual, they are distinguished by their ethnicity defined by society’s perception of that race. In regards to literature, this quote can be interpreted through the stereotyped characters that are in a narrative. In their work, both Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass navigate the complex relationship between black slaves and their owners as well as defying the stereotypes associated with them. In Herman Melville’s ​Benito Cereno​, Captain Amasa Delano’s preconceived ideas of slave and slave owner identities blinded him to the reality of what was before him. While in Fredrick Douglass’s ​Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave​, the slave owners throughout Douglas’s life have an unwavering notion of how a slave should behave. Both Melville and Douglass illustrate in their narratives the shifting racial dynamics that challenge the conventional identities of what a slave and slaveholder should be.

When reading ‘Benito Cereno’ it is crucial for the reader to understand the historical account that it was based upon. Melville developed his narrative based upon, ​A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, ​a ​memoir of Captain Amasa Delano written in 1819. This memoir accounts for Delano’s ship ‘Perseverance’ encountering a Spanish ship called the ‘Tyral’ that had been overtaken by slaves. Although both stories closely parallel, there are some key differences that hint at Melville’s intentions with his narrative. An instance of this is that he replaced the names of the vessels to Bachelor’s Delight and San Dominick. It can be argued that renaming the Tyrant to San Dominick is in reference to the San Domingo revolution in Haiti.

This would, therefore, foreshadow the slave revolt that was to take place. Melville also chose to leave out, as well as include, incidents in the account that help to affirm the nature of the characters. In the original source, Cereno plays a far more violent role in the revolt, whereas in Melville’s version it is Babo who bears the label of a savage. Rosalie Feltenstein in ​Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’ ​explains, “In the source, it is the bloodthirsty Cereno himself who, with a hidden dirk, tries to stab one of the slaves and is restrained by Delano. Transferred entirely to Babo, this action provides the crisis of the story and adds a final touch to the portrait of the slave’s malign.” (Feltensein 1947, 247). Due to Melville’s alterations to the original story, the shocking twist of the faithful servant Babo emerging as a brutal savage is escalated.

Like Melville, Frederick Douglass also foreshadows early in his narrative, that it was to challenge the conventional slave identity. Even as a young boy born in to slavery, Douglass was able to realize the injustice he was to face as a slave. He reflects, “A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood.” (Douglass 1845, 1). As a child born a slave, the slave identity was imprinted as soon as they became self-aware. A way in which this was done was to ensure they would remain illiterate. Wilma King in her book Stolen Childhood, Second Edition: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America​ writes, “Southern owners were conscious of the possibility that religion and education could undermine slavery if they changed the bondservants’ worldviews and made them restive.” (King 2011, 169).

Slaveowners knew that education and literacy went hand in hand with enlightenment and potentially rebellion. Even to know one’s age was forbidden for the slaves. Douglass recognized the oppression of being deprived of this basic knowledge, “The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.” (Douglass 1945, 1). The opening chapters of Douglass’s ​Narrative of a Life​ is quick to challenge the slave stereotype through portraying a young slave who already senses the oppression he is under.

As both the narrative’s progress, the stereotypes of the slave and the slaveholder evolve. In ​Benito Cereno​, captain Delano makes several remarks that indicate the behavior he expects of the slaves aboard the ship. As an American sealer in 1799, he undoubtedly would be familiar with the slave/slaveowner relationship as well as the slave trade. Although slave trade was soon to be outlawed in 1808 it would have been a dynamic he would be able to comprehend. When Babo is first introduced to the narrative he is compared to an obedient dog, “By his side stood a black of small stature, in whose rude face, as occasionally, like a shepherd’s dog, he mutely turned it up into the Spaniard’s, sorrow and affection were equally blended.” (Melville 1856, 7). This attention and respect for the higher authority would naturally be expected from Delano’s preconceived image of a slave. However, Babo’s obedient behavior only enforces the illusion. Despite Cereno suffering from what Delano claims to be a mental illness, Babo’s faithful role as a servant to him sustains the slave-master dynamic. Darryl Hattenhauer in his journal article ‘Follow Your Leader’: Knowing One’s Place in ‘Benito Cereno’ points out that Cereno and Babo are never individually addressed as slave and master rather as a unit ‘master and man’.

This would suggest that although Delano sees Babo as a slave, the narrator identifies Babo as a man rather a slave. The diction itself challenges the slave/master relationship, yet it is the white man, Delano, who fails to recognize this. He is limited by his own imagination. This most likely was in order for Delano to comprehend the situation. In ‘Black Masks: Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’, Yellin explains, “The Yankee acts quickly to restore order; that is, to re-establish white mastery and black slavery.” (Yellin 1970, 686). Given the obscure imagery, Melville uses to describe Delano’s approach to the vessel it is understandable that he grasps to the stability that comes with this familiar dynamic.

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As with Melville, Douglass also highlights what society would expect of the stereotypical slave character and their relationship with their master. In his narrative, he emphasized the pressure placed on the master to discipline their slaves, as failing to do so could disrupt this fragile dynamic. Douglass writes, “He argued that if one slave refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the other slaves would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of slaves, and the enslavement of the whites.” (Douglass 1816, 23). This excerpt demonstrates the importance of ensuring that slaves stay in line with what society expects at the time.

In Benito Cereno, the reader will find Babo is a multifaceted character. On one hand, through the eyes of Captain Delano at least, he is a loyal servant to his master. However, as the story progresses we find that he is an incredible intellectual and scheming individual. Babo exclaims, ““Ah, master,” sighed the black, bowing his face, “don’t speak of me; Babo is nothing; what Babo has done was but duty.” (Melville 1856, 30). However, eventually, the reality of what was actually happening is exposed. The narrator explains “As for the black — whose brain, not body, had schemed and led the revolt, with the plot — his slight frame, inadequate to that which it held, had at once yielded to the superior muscular strength of his captor, in the boat.” (Melville, 1856, pg.180). It is only when given the freedom to think for himself is Babo able to find a degree of liberation by way of his intellect. His ability to use his emotional intelligence to command orders to the other slaves and Spaniards allows him to deploy his scheme.

The connect between intellect and liberation can also be seen in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of a Life​. In Douglass’s case, intellect is predominantly defined by literacy, and literacy is a means of enlightenment. Even at a young age, Douglass understood this and had a drive to learn to read. However, teaching a slave how to read was immensely looked down upon in society, “I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids;–not that it would injure me, but it might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country.” (Douglass, 1845, pg.40). This practice being unacceptable in society indicates that the deprivation of education is a tactic used in keeping slaves confined in their social class. Halfway through the narrative, Douglass begins to speak for himself and in an empowering manner. This shift occurs after he becomes literate and can think for himself. This shift in consciousness then challenges the ignorant slave identity.

Towards the end of ​Benito Cereno​, we see a similar shift that defies the conventional slave identity. Captain Delano finally is able to see through Babo’s scheme. Despite encountering strange behavior between the Spaniards and the slaves, he repeatedly ignores his suspicions, comprehending the situation based upon his prior expectations. For so long he only accepts to see the ‘happy slave’ figure rather than the intellectual individual. In Don Benito’s deposition, Babo is presented in a new light as an evil mastermind. Babo emerges as a leader of the revolt, commanding the other slaves to commit murder. The severity of his savage nature is realized when the command for Don Alexandro to be murdered in front of him and hung as a figurehead on the prow of the ship is exposed. This savagery contradicts what Delano initially interpreted as a good-willed servant serving to his master. Delano fails to see this due to the inability to see what is, rather than what should be. As stated by Yellin, “The scenes he is shown appear to conform to a sequence of familiar versions of reality, none of which involves a basic challenge to his preconceptions about slavery and race.” (Yellin, 682). This suggests the disorienting state Delano found himself in when social norms were no longer relevant or applicable. In his mind, it would have been outrageous to think that it was the slaves who were in fact control of the whole operation.

In ​Narrative of a Life​, there is also a climactic event that clearly defies society’s slave and master dynamic. After finding enlightenment within himself, he reaches the conclusion that he must take action to resist his slave owner. He exclaims, “My resistance was so entirely unexpected that Covey seemed taken all aback. He trembled like a leaf. This gave me assurance, and I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him with the ends of my fingers.” (Douglass, 1845, pg.62 ). This event is fueled by Douglass’s attainment of knowledge and education. Although this itself is a form of resistance, it is one that, for the most part, stays in the shadows through the eyes of his masters. Douglass’s enlightenment to the injustice and oppressive nature of slavery is only really comprehended by Mr. Covey following this event. Mr. Covey is so astonished by the event that he surrenders his disciplinary authority. As a result, the slave master identity is compromised.

Narrative aside it is crucial to look at both Melville and Douglass as authors, as well as the time they made their publications. Melville’s Benito Cereno was published in “The Piazza Tales” over the period of three installments in 1855. This was written a decade before the Civil War, therefore slave and slave master identities were still very applicable in society. Melville intentionally plays into the slave and master stereotypes initially, only to then fool both Delano as well as the reader. It is only later in the plot when these stereotypes are challenged. In “The Literary Significance of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno: An Analytical Reflection on Benito Cerenoas a Fictional Narrative” Dani Kaiser writes, “This is to say that Melville uses the reader’s racial blindness and expectations to hide the real plot of the novel as Babo uses Delano’s racial blindness in the story itself” (Kaiser, 2015, pg 7). Melville was aware of the racial prejudices his readers had and so when the roles were reversed it would have been radical to the audience.

Like Melville, the publication of Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative of a Life in 1845 occurred at a time when the United States was still very much divided regarding slavery. His story was unique in comparison to other slave narratives in that it was written by himself. At this time it was remarkable for a slave to write so eloquently as well as appeal to a white audience. “In Reconciling Public and Private in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative”, Donald B. Gibson”, “His narrative, however, is- not superior simply for aesthetic reasons, because it is more polished than the others; it is better in large measure because Douglass, more than any other author of a slave narrative, is able and committed at once to articulate and mediate between the fact of the existence of slavery in a Christian, democratic society and state and the facts of his life as felt and understood by the person Frederick Douglass”(Gibson, 1985, pg.1). By appealing to a white audience, Douglass is able to present his story in a rational manner that still highlights the brutal nature of slavery. In addition, to his written works, he was also a remarkable speaker who had the ability to evoke an emotional response amongst his listeners. Hence, he proceeded to become a prominent figure in the abolishment movement and defy the slave stereotype.

Melville and Douglass alike were well aware of what society interpreted the slave and slave master figures to be. For much of society, the slave was often seen as the “happy” slave. One who was obedient and faithful to their master, but ignorant to their oppression. While theslave master was one who held absolute authority and control over their slaves. However, these publications were released at a time where this dynamic was being challenged. During a time of increased slave revolts and debates over morality, Melville and Douglass redefined the slave and slaveholder identities. As a result, they challenged certain racial perceptions and offered a more evolved mindset.

Works Cited

  1. Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895. ​Narrative Of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave​. Boston :Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.
  2. Feltenstein, Rosalie. ‘Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’.’ ​American Literature ​19, no. 3 (1947): 245-55.doi:10.2307/2921779.
  3. Gibson, Donald B. ‘Reconciling Public and Private in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative.’ ​American Literature​ 57, no. 4 (1985): 549-69. doi:10.2307/2926352.
  4. Hattenhauer, Darryl. ”Follow Your Leader’: Knowing One’s Place in ‘Benito Cereno’.’ ​Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature​ 45, no. 1/2 (1991): 7-17. doi:10.2307/1346920.
  5. Kaiser, Dani, ‘The Literary Significance of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno: An Analytical Reflection on ​Benito Cereno​ as a Fictional Narrative’ (2015). ​4997 English: Capstone​. 2.
  6. King, Wilma. ​Stolen Childhood, Second Edition: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America​. Indiana University Press, 2011. ​​.
  7. Melville, Herman. Accessed October 7, 2019.
  8. Yellin, Jean Fagan. ‘Black Masks: Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’.’ ​American Quarterly​ 22, no. 3 (1970): 678-89. doi:10.2307/2711619.

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