In 1961 Mother's Day in the United States fell on May 14th. Two groups of civil rights campaigners were half way through the second week of their bus journeys south from Washington, designed to test a Supreme Court decision of the previous year that declared the segregation of inter-state transportation unconstitutional.
With the black and white passengers deliberately sitting together, and ignoring the signs that directed them to different facilities at rest stops, they expected to face suspicion and hostility, but apart from an ugly incident in Rock Hill, South Carolina, they had not run into any serious trouble. But in Alabama, things suddenly turned nasty.
As it left Anniston, the Greyhound bus was pursued by a convoy of angry whites who, when it pulled over for a flat tyre, attacked the vehicle, set it ablaze, and assaulted passengers as they emerged from the smoke. The Trailways bus, carrying the second group, arrived later and, after on-board segregation was forcibly established, were allowed to continue to Birmingham, where many of the passengers were brutally set upon by members of a large crowd which was waiting for them.
Shaken and injured the campaigners were nevertheless determined to continue to Montgomery the next day. But when the Alabama authorities refused to guarantee their safety, the riders reluctantly agreed to complete their journey to New Orleans by plane. Thus ended the first Freedom Ride.
When I wrote a piece recently on two writers - John Lewis and Gary Younge - who had revisited the sites of some of the most momentous scenes of that first ride, in what I argued were politicized variants of the popular 'footsteps' genre of travel writing, I looked for an appropriate image to illustrate it, and found this:
Historic marker at 4th Avenue N and 19th St N, Birmingham, Alabama: photo by kschlot1
The marker was erected in 1995, close to the site of the old Trailways bus terminal (now occupied, somewhat inevitably, by a bank). The site of the bus burning in Anniston was memorialized in 2007, although both were privately funded: evidence perhaps of Alabama's official reluctance to come to terms with parts of its past it would prefer to forget.
But what I didn't immediately notice about the plaque is how inaccurate and misleading it is. That it refers to the Greyhound, rather than Trailways, terminal is perhaps of no great consequence, although it must surely puzzle those passers-by who know that the Greyhound terminal is several blocks north and must wonder why the marker is placed here and not there.
The use of the word 'youth', though, demands a little more attention. Not only is it simply misleading to imply that the riders were all young people - five of the fifteen riders who arrived in Birmingham that day were over 40 (indeed three of them were over 50) - it's a very curious choice when applying it to a very specific group of individuals, for it is neither a plural nor a collective noun. It is as if in the struggle to find a wording that everyone would find acceptable, no one knew what to call them.
The 'klansmen' who attacked them have a certain familiarity, as do the 'police' who stood by and watched, and yet - perhaps to compensate for this reckless admission of official collusion - the riders themselves become a strangely disembodied, abstract entity, the personification of one of the stages of life. It makes it easier for us to feel the kind of sympathy that is born of condescension rather than solidarity; it marks them as immature, easily swayed by manipulative others (the acronym CORE - surely opaque to many who read the notice - serving perfectly in this respect).
Above all, it codes them as feminine in contrast to those hyper-masculine thugs who participated in their humiliation. Or it would, if it weren't for that final clause that suddenly and unexpectedly has them 'standing their ground' - a phrase that has circulated with particular speed these last few weeks, but which for a century or more has conjured up the image of an armed white patriarch defending his private property against intruders. Here, in a brilliant twist, it is being used to honour non-violent protesters (black, white, male, female) seeking to assert their right to occupy public spaces together.
Evidently, there is more than one way to stand your ground.
Dany Laferrière has suggested - with a hint of provocation, no doubt - that the greatest novel of the Duvalier dicatatorship was written by an Englishman: Graham Greene's The Comedians.1 In the same spirit, perhaps, we might add that the best film of the Haitian Revolution was made by an Italian: Queimada (1969) by Gillo Pontecorvo.
Pontecorvo, best known for The Battle of Algiers (1966), named Queimada after the fictional Portuguese colony in the Caribbean he chose for its setting. Filmed in Colombia, it is a defiantly unglamorous period drama that tells of the struggle against slavery and colonial rule in the mid-nineteenth century.
William Walker (Marlon Brando) arrives on the island and helps to rekindle a slave rebellion, which he then recommends the white mulatto elite support in order to win independence from the Portuguese. Walker is an British agent whose objective is to get the Portuguese out of the way so that the Antilles Royal Sugar Company can profit from its plantations. Once independence is won (and slavery abolished), Walker persuades his protege, the black leader Jose Delores (Evaristo Márquez) to convince his men to return to the cane fields. The reluctant mulatto figurehead Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori) becomes president and Walker leaves.
Ten years pass. The sugar company effectively rules Queimada instead of the Portuguese, but precariously. For the last six years, Delores has been leading a guerrilla campaign and has proved unwilling to negotiate. At the government's request, Walker returns. He advises the army to ruthlessly destroy key villages, but the campaign continues. The army stage a coup against Sanchez (who is prepared to capitulate) and General Alfonso Prada calls in the British Army. With their superior fire-power, the scale of devastation multiplies, and the sugar company is concerned that its plantations are being destroyed in the process. With Dolores still at large, it wonders whether the price is worth paying. But Walker reminds the company's representative Mr Shelton (Norman Hill) that even if Queimada is burnt to the ground, it would be worth it, because it would at least stop the revolution spreading to other islands where the company also has sugar interests.
Finally, Dolores is captured, but he maintains an enigmatic silence, and refuses to talk to Walker. The government discusses the preferred form of execution. Walker reminds them that Dolores would be much more dangerous dead than alive. They try to offer him freedom if he leaves the Caribbean but Dolores laughs. He knows the value of martyrdom. And, as he explains to a black soldier guarding him: 'If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something you, you alone, must take. Do you understand?' On the day of his execution, Walker offers to allow him to escape, asking for nothing in return, but Dolores again refuses. He is led to the gallows.
Walker leaves before the execution takes place. On the quayside he is approached by a young man offering to carry his bags (as Dolores did in the two scenes that bookend the first half of the film depicting Walker's arrival and departure). Momentarily caught unawares, Walker turns round and the stranger stabs him fatally in the chest.
Two versions of Queimada were released. The original version (132 minutes) is dubbed in Italian. To hear Brando's own voice (and his plum accent), you will have to make do the English-language version that is 20 minutes shorter. Lawrence Russell claims that it was Brando's favourite film, despite the tribulations of the shoot itself, in which the star and the director disagreed over just about everything. It is certainly possible that he was attracted to a script that 'fitted well with his social activism on behalf of the American Indian and the black civil rights movement'. Or admired it as a 'furious Vietnam allegory', as Stephen Hunter has described it.
But its allegorical possibilities do not stop there. The Somali teenager Sagal in Nuruddin Farah's novel Sardines (1981) has production stills of Brando from Queimada on her bedroom wall, along with posters of Che, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but she cannot explain to her mother the story of the film or which revolt was being depicted. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as its parallels are legion. One reason, no doubt, that, as her mother goes on to inform her, it was only shown once in Mogadishu and then only in a highly censored version.2
And indeed, the parallels may continue to proliferate. For instance, during the second half of the film, it is not hard to think of the current war in Afghanistan and the ten-year search for Osama bin Laden. The title is even a close anagram of Al-Qaida.
But the historical events they most closely resemble are those of the Caribbean itself, notably the struggles that led to the abolition of slavery in the French islands in the 1790s and the brutal attempt to restore it - successfully in the case of Guadeloupe, but not Saint-Domingue, which became the independent republic of Haiti in 1804.
What is striking is the way Pontecorvo captures the complex, shifting political allegiances of metropolitan governments, private companies, white settlers, prosperous free people of colour, and the black slaves. We might have got a sense of this in the film Sergei Eisenstein planned in 1934 to make about Toussaint Louverture, starring Paul Robeson.3 And may still yet in Danny Glover's rumoured-to-be-forthcoming biopic, based - it is alleged - on a screenplay by Med Hondo.
But it is a book - C L R James' The Black Jacobins (1938), his classic study of the Haitian revolution - that Queimada most resembles. In particular, the emphasis on the importance of the decisions that Toussaint made to accept or reject offers of help from those whose commitment to black freedom were suspect. The British and the Spanish for instance. Or even the representatives of the French Revolution, which had promised to abolish slavery, like commissioner Sonthonax. In each case, James spells out the political and military calculations Toussaint had to make when choosing his allies.
In Queimada, these dilemmas are dramatised clearly in a series of three scenes early in the film which show Walker and Dolores preparing to join forces.
The story of Queimada is told from Walker’s point of view, an outsider - like the audience - unfamiliar with the island which he first sees through an eye-glass from the deck of his approaching ship. And yet Walker is ultimately out-manouevred by Dolores. They both die at the end but it is clear that it is Dolores who will be remembered, not Walker.
In this clip, the two characters are at first glance, presented as equals who can help each other, who share a common goal. But in fact the formal equality suggested by the presentation (the scrupulous attention to both partners in the dialogue, filmed chiastically in shot reverse shot), in the end draws attention to their differences.
In the church, Walker proposes they join forces to rob the bank and split the proceeds. But of the 100 million gold reales, fifty go to Walker while the the other half is shared between Dolores and his men.
On the hillside where he outlines his plan, it becomes clear that they won't be escaping together. While Walker intends to flee to England, Dolores and his men dream of Africa.
Once the preparations are complete, Dolores and Walker drink to the success of their mission. They drink each other's habitual tipple (Walker tries rum and Dolores whisky) and toast (separately) 'England' and 'Africa' before finding something they can both pronounce: 'the world'. But it is the thinnest cosmopolitan veneer. Pulling faces, neither manages to down his cup, and, relieved, they switch back. Each to their own. May the best man win.
1. Dany Laferrière, Tout bouge autour de moi (Montréal: Mémoire d'encrier, 2010), p127.
We demand the right to ... to what, exactly? Opacité is no more a household word in French than opacity is in English. It doesn't seem appropriate for the kind of motto you would expect to see sprayed on public buildings or hear chanted in the streets, though that jarring of registers is, I imagine, quite deliberate. And so if we propose an alternative, we should not banish this, the most literal equivalent, from our minds.
The phrase appears in the first section of the opening essay to his Le Discours antillais (1981), a book only partially translated into English: J Michael Dash's Caribbean Discourse (1989).1
Glissant begins with three anecdotes (two fragments of dark humour and one somewhat dismissive response to a query from a French psychiatrist) that seem to indicate a certain all-pervasive Martinican cynicism or nihilism. This is the dead-end (situation "blôquée") that serves as his starting point.
He does not characterise this mind-set directly, but does indicate that this is the object of his study (l'objet de mon travail): his purpose is to trace (pister) the various aspects of what he calls the web of nothingness (toile de néant) in which such an apparently educated people are trapped (s'englue) today. Note the use of the passive voice. The web has been woven for a people (tissé pour un peuple): Glissant does not suggest who or what has woven this web.
His next paragraph refers to the '"intellectual" effort' that this - his - project requires. In what seems to be a succinct description of his own method and writing style, he refers to repetitions, contradictions, imperfections, and a certain obscurity, as a way of insisting that 'the attempt to approach a reality so often concealed does not proceed simply by means of a series of clarifications.'
And then the celebrated phrase: Nous réclamons le droit a l'opacité. What is most immediately striking is that this is the first use of the first person plural in an opening that is relatively free of personal pronouns. Glissant has talked of 'my work' (mon travail) and we might reasonably assume that this 'we' is the royal 'we' of academic discourse, but is perhaps deliberately ambiguous, aligning the work of the single intellectual with broader social forces. After all the form of his slogan is surely meant to remind us of more conventional political slogans (say, a nation insisting on the right to self-determination), which suggests that this '"intellectual" effort' is not exclusively his, but of all those people in the Caribbean who are determined to escape this nihilism.
And this sense of collective endeavour indeed becomes more prominent in the next sentence, when he writes of (to quote Dash's translation) 'the creativity (élan) of marginalized peoples who today confront the ideal of transparent universality (l'universel de la transparence), imposed by the West, with secretive and multiple manifestations of Diversity.'
Here Glissant seems to align himself more clearly with the energy or momentum of peoples who are marginalized (a rather weak translation of néantisés, recalling the toile de néant in which they are trapped: the idea is that their very existence is disavowed), and suggests that the opacité he is referring to is characteristic of - and appropriate to - not only his own project but that of oppressed peoples more generally. The sentence also invokes transparence, the opposite of opacité, placing the terms in a dramatic relationship that suggests an ongoing struggle between these marginalized peoples on the one hand and the West on the other. The contrast is also a more philosophical one: on the one hand, genuine diversity; on the other a general principle of transparency that insists all difference can be comprehended within a single interpretive scheme.
In her fine essay on Phillis Wheatley, June Jordan notes how the opening lines of her poem 'On Being Brought from Africa to America' partakes of the kind of 'iniquitous nonsense' she had imbibed from her reading of white literature that coded this transition as a passage from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge:
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand That there's a God, that there's a Savior too.
But then follows this with 'something wholly her own, something entirely new':
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew
by which, Jordan writes, she asserts: 'once I existed beyond and without these terms under consideration. Once I existed on other than your terms.'2
In translating Glissant's slogan, Dash avoids 'opacity' and prefers 'obscurity'. In some ways this is unfortunate because it could be interpreted as a demand to be forgotten or ignored, which is rather too close to the marginalization or annhiliation that opacité is supposed to resist. The demand for opacity is not a demand for invisibility but an insistence that I exist on other than your terms. It is an assertion of the right not to be understood.
When President Mubarak recently berated Barack Obama: 'You don't understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now ... If I resign today, there will be chaos.' As zunguzungu and others so eloquently pointed out, this is to 'understand' Egyptian culture entirely within the familiar terms of western orientalism. And terms which one will find it hard to dissociate from the other word Dash uses for opacité: 'inscrutability' (a characteristic normally reserved for the Chinese).
All too often, we seem obliged to think of people as either just like us (or what we think is 'us') or the exact opposite. Or indeed as somewhere in between. Nowhere on this continuum will we find anything really different that might trouble our imagination or test our intelligence. If that is what being 'understood' entails, then the logic of Glissant's position surely begins to make sense.
And this includes the famously 'difficult' nature of his writing, full of poetic allusion and conceptual invention rather than empirically testable propositions. Glissant's work often seems to aspire to the condition of music and other non-representational forms. Invoking the art of the drummer, he speaks of the value of repetition, its capacity not to clarify ideas but to render them more opaque.
Much later in the book Glissant appears to celebrate a raw energy that is (stereotypically) a hallmark of African-derived cultures - 'the rhythm of the drum, the provocative intensity of the scream'. But then he goes on to target the 'pathetic lucidity' of folk-tales in a demonstration of just how conservative 'transparency' actually is. In the breathless thrust of their narratives, the landscape is never described or worked-on. The trickster does not pause to consider his or her surroundings, and as a result the tales suggest not merely a resignation to colonial rule but a justification of it.
For Glissant the reactive development of Martinican Creole in the shadow of French meant that it gradually lost its distinctiveness. Nowadays it offers a poor basis for a radical poetics. The best we can do, he says, is to render the two languages opaque to each other (les rendre opaques l'une à l'autre). Which is one reason he chooses to write in French.
But it is not that he avoids Creole completely. It's just that when he does - in his play Monsieur Toussaint, for example - the chants and incantations he incorporates are syntactically incoherent and indiscriminately mix sounds from Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique. They are not meant to be decoded. Above all they signify 'the unbridled pleasure of finally writing down a language as it is heard.'3
1. Eduouard Glissant, Le Discours antillais (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981); Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, translated with an introduction by J Michael Dash (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989). The passages I discuss here are pp11-13 and pp238-45 (translation: pp1-4 and 120-34). Translations from the French my own unless otherwise indicated.
2. June Jordan, 'The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America or Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley', On Call: Political Essays (London: Pluto Press, 1986), p91.
When Robert Burns published his first book of poems, he intended it as a parting shot before leaving Scotland for good. A position had been arranged for him on a plantation in the West Indies, and he was due to set sail from Greenock in September, 1786. ''Twas a delicious idea that I would be called a clever fellow,' he wrote in a letter of August 1787, 'even though it should never reach my ears a poor Negro-driver.'
But he never did cross the Atlantic. Instead he set out for what he called the ‘new world’ of literary Edinburgh to follow up his recent success there and exploit the tempting prospect of a second edition. Today Burns is more likely to be remembered as the friend of liberty, man of the people, and composer of the sentimental abolitionist song 'The Slave’s Lament': ‘It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral / For the lands of Virginia-ginia O.’
In 1846, fifty years after his death, he was paid homage by someone who had travelled in the opposite direction to escape the long arm of American slavery. In a letter from Ayr printed in the New York Tribune, the fugitive wrote animatedly of the romantic setting of his Monument. He took delight in being able to see with his own eyes the places named in 'Tam o’ Shanter' and 'Ye Banks and Braes.' And he was honoured to meet Burns’ 80-year-old sister, 'a spirited looking woman who bids fair to live yet many days.'1
The author was Frederick Douglass, already well-known in the United States following the appearance of his autobiography the previous year. Its graphic descriptions of life on a Maryland plantation, and of the cruelties he witnessed as a child and later endured himself, made the book an instant classic. It told how, against all odds, he taught himself to read and write, and - barely out of his teens - engineered his escape, equipped with forged papers, to the free North. In New England he hooked up with radical anti-slavery campaigners and became one their leading spokesmen.
But in publishing his story, he increased the chance of being identified and recaptured. So in 1845 the fiery abolitionist sailed for Britain, where he stayed nearly two years. Douglass captivated audiences at hundreds of speaking engagements across the country. He made several extended tours of Scotland, where the anti-slavery societies were especially active. His slogans were carved on the turf of Arthur’s Seat and his visit celebrated in popular ballads of the time.
In his letter from Ayr, the former slave made common cause with the former ploughman who saw through the empty rhetoric of the 'bigoted and besotted clergy' and the 'shallow-brained aristocracy', and 'broke loose', as he put it, 'from the moorings society had thrown around him.' But he acknowledged his faults too. 'Like all bold pioneers, he made crooked paths', he observed - perhaps alluding to some of his own.
Both men rose from lowly origins to become figures of major historical importance. Douglass himself went on to hold government posts during the Civil War and afterwards, including that of Minister to Haiti. His books are nowadays required reading in schools in the United States. And he has become a cultural and political bone of contention, claimed by black nationalists on the one hand and those who think of him as more a typical American on the other - in much the same way that Burns can appear in turn the quintessential Scot and the hybrid cosmopolitan.
Douglass was not the only African American writer to have found much to admire in Burns. In James Weldon Johnson's introduction to the Book of American Negro Poetry (1931), his work was held up as an example of how sophisticated a vernacular literature could be, comparable to that of Paul Lawrence Dunbar:
The similarity between many phases of their lives is remarkable, and their works are not incommensurable. Burns took the strong dialect of his people and made it classic; Dunbar took the humble speech of his people and in it wrought music.
The Caribbean-born poet and novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, was dubbed the 'Jamaican Burns' for his early dialect verse, though it is possible that Louise Bennett might be more deserving of the title (so long as we also allow that Burns might be the 'Scottish Bennett'). More recently, Maya Angelou celebrated the Burns bicentenary in 1996 with a visit to his homeland, the subject of a fascinating documentary made for television.
Douglass' interest in Scotland did not stop at Burns, though. His surname - adopted after his arrival in Massachusetts - he took from the hero of The Lady of the Lake. A rather cheeky gesture, perhaps, given the popularity of Walter Scott among the Southern planters he left behind. In view of the continued appropriation of Scottish emblems on the part of white supremacists in the United States - from the pseudo-celtic rituals of the Ku Klux Klan to the tartan wallpaper that adorns Confederate websites - his choice invites us to imagine a different Scotland, one less amenable to fantasies of racial purity and ethnic exclusion.
Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
As far as I can tell, he quoted them first in an article entitled, appropriately enough, 'What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves', published in the North Star, the newspaper he founded on his return to the United States in 1847. No doubt a certain impatience with white abolitionists contributes to its subsequent reappearance in his fictionalization of the 1841 mutiny aboard the slave ship Creole in The Heroic Slave (1852) and at the end of the chapter that records his triumph over the notorious slave-breaker Covey in his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).2
But if Byron provided the slogan for an emergent black radicalism breaking free of white patronage, it was the words of 'A man's a man for a' that' by that other Scots poet which were called on time and time again to underscore Douglass' robust egalitarianism.3 Most poignantly perhaps in an address at a Burns Supper in Rochester, New York in 1849.
He began by admitting that 'I am not a Scotchman, and have a colored skin, but if a warm love of Scotch character - a high appreciation of Scotch genius - constitute any of the qualities of a true Scotch heart, then indeed does a Scotch heart throb beneath these ribs.' He described to his listeners his recent travels in the country - where 'every stream, hill, glen, and valley had been rendered classic by heroic deeds on behalf of freedom' - and his memorable visit to the poet’s birth-place.
'And if any think me out of my place on this occasion,' he concluded, pointing to the portrait of Burns on the wall, 'I beg that the blame may be laid at the door of him who taught me that "a man’s a man for a’ that."'4
1. Frederick Douglass, 'A Fugitive Slave Visiting the Birth-place of Robert Burns', extract from a letter dated 23 April 1846, New York Tribune, 9 July 1846, reprinted in Alasdair Pettinger (ed), Always Elsewhere: Travels of the Black Atlantic (London: Cassell, 1998), pp95-7.
2. Frederick Douglass, 'What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves', North Star, 14 July 1848, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume 1: Early Years, 1817-1849 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), p315; The Heroic Slave  in William Andrews (ed), The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p157; My Bondage and My Freedom  (New York: Dover, 1969, p249. The lines also appeared in Henry Highland Garnet, An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America  (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p93; they were used as masthead of Martin Delany’s paper The Mystery, launched New York, 1843) (see Robert S Levine (ed), Martin R Delany: A Documentary Reader (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2003), p27); cited in James McCune Smith, ‘Outside Barbarians’, Frederick Douglass’ Paper (25 Dec 1851), reprinted in John Stauffer (ed), The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p80; and featured as the epigraph to Chapter III of W E B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk  in Writings (New York: Library of America, 1986), p392.
3. Frederick Douglass, Letter to William Lloyd Garrison, London, 23 May 1846, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume 1: Early Years, 1817-1849 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), pp170-1; 'The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered: An Address Delivered in Hudson, Ohio on 12 July 1854', reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. Volume 2: 1847-54 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982), p523; 'Our Recent Western Tour', Douglass' Monthly, April 1859, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume II: Pre-Civil War Decade, 1850-1860 (New York: International Publishers, 1950) p451.
4. Frederick Douglass, 'On Robert Burns and Scotland: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York on 25 January 1849', reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. Volume 2: 1847-54 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982), pp147-48.
(Revised and expanded version of an article first published in the Sunday Herald, 23 January, 2000).
I just came across this paper I gave at the Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass conference, held in New Bedford, Mass. in June 2005. I suppose it has been waiting for me to turn it into something more substantial, but I doubt I ever will. So here it is, in its flawed, elliptical original state.
What follows is the summary of an experiment: a report of the results observed when two characters from Melville and Douglass are placed alongside each other. One day, perhaps, Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins will have their own conference. Until then, they can briefly make an appearance in the shadow of their creators.
The ‘incomparable’ Jack Chase, I hardly need explain, is one of the more engaging figures in Melville’s White-Jacket (1850). You may recall him using his impressive powers of eloquence to persuade the captain to grant the crew of the Neversink a day’s liberty ashore in Rio de Janeiro. With a cool blend of flattery, entreaty, and some choice quotations from Shakespeare and Pope’s translation of the Odyssey, he succeeds in winning the concession, and the scene ends with his shipmates crying out, ‘Jack Chase forever!’ ‘Who can talk to commodores like our matchless Jack.’
In My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Douglass tells us how a group of slaves planning to escape north by canoe are arrested and suspicion falls on former co-conspirator Sandy Jenkins as their betrayer. Although he has little evidence, the literate Douglass singles out the dialect-speaking Jenkins who – the previous year – had persuaded Douglass to carry the root of a certain herb in order to protect himself from the cruelties of his master. This, and the fact that Jenkins had withdrawn from the plot following a dream in which he saw Douglass attacked by a swarm of angry birds, seems to confirm that he alone of the group remained in thrall to what he calls ‘slaveholding priestcraft’.
Both books draw on the familiar idiom of ante-bellum reform – condemning institutions (naval flogging, chattel slavery) with the objective of securing their abolition. We might even argue that this idiom helped to secure their popularity: they addressed a readership already receptive to such sentiments. But they also tell us a good deal about the strategies by which sailors and slaves negotiated the power relationships of men-of-war and plantations on a daily basis. After all, desertion and mutiny, flight and revolt were the last resort of a minority. Most of the time, sailors and slaves settled for less dramatic measures, that had the more limited objectives of making their lives more dignified and their hardships easier to bear.
If the institutions appear to be susceptible to a moral critique (giving us a stark choice between good and evil), the strategies seem to belong to the much less clear-cut world of everyday ethics (enjoining us to attend to the grey area between better and worse).
White-Jacket and My Bondage stand out from most contemporary nautical reminiscences and slave narratives, I would argue, because of the extent to which they introduce novelistic techniques to the non-fictional forms that they draw on. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which they create significant, complex secondary characters – apart from the first-person protagonists. How these characters choose to respond to their circumstances is a matter of some importance.
Melville and Douglass pay unusually close attention to the dynamics of what might be called ‘ethical authority’: in particular the rhetorical skills employed by individuals to manage or intimidate subordinates, to win concessions and respect from superiors, to provide comfort and support to their peers. In doing so, White-Jacket and My Bondage might be said to threaten or undermine antebellum programmes of reform by dwelling on the nuances of conduct that the moral condemnation of institutions insists are irrelevant distractions.
Very briefly, I would like to argue that these texts engage with ethical authority on two levels.
Firstly, they depict the rhetorical strategies used by sailors and slaves. Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins serve as models of admirable and misguided conduct respectively. The former is shown using his skill to win concessions not only for himself but for his shipmates. The latter cowardly withdraws from the runaway plot due to his backward belief in the supernatural and is assumed to have betrayed his fellow slaves. While the one sets an example of how to negotiate relations of power to common advantage, the other shows how a refusal to engage with them can leave one’s comrades exposed to danger.
Secondly, White-Jacket and My Bondage depict these strategies in such a way as to validate the strategies used by their own narrators, which are (in the case of Jack Chase) modelled on - or (in the case of Sandy Jenkins) in direct opposition to - those highlighted in the story they tell.
When they came to write their books, of course, Melville and Douglass were no longer sailor or slave (and were free to pass judgement on their former tormentors from the safety of the printed page). But, as authors struggling to make an impact in the literary marketplace, facing a potentially sceptical reading public as a worker might face a demanding, even unreasonable, perhaps tyrannical employer, they had to choose their words carefully. To the extent that White-Jacket was indeed (as Melville himself famously suggested) a ‘job’ written for money, then his preference for the popular form of the anti-flogging nautical reminiscence was a shrewd one. Douglass, too, followed his first, successful slave narrative, with another work in the same vein.
However, they knew their books were much more than the routine record of simple recollections, important as the empirical accuracy of their representations of ships and plantations were. Not only do they complicate the moralistic rhetoric of institutional reform with a more ambivalent - novelistic – ethics of individual character, they do so within complex symbolic and allegorical frames. The prefaces of both works betray a certain anxiety that the cost of such sophistication might be a loss of credibility. They are haunted by the spectre of readers who will refuse to accept that Melville or Douglass were once sailors or slaves at all.
In these circumstances, Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins serve a very useful purpose.
If the conventional anti-flogging tale demanded a rather naïve narrator – not too clever or serious – the very title of White-Jacket already hints at different requirements. The jacket itself promises Carlylean probings of surface and depth, its patchwork character alluding to its unusual method of composition, its colour suggesting the presence of an allegory in which race plays an important role. To develop such propositions within a first-person account by a common sailor would strain credulity if it weren’t for the evidence of just that sort of erudition in one of the men on board the Neversink. Just as Chase uses his rhetorical skills to persuade the captain to give the crew ‘liberty’ ashore at Rio, so the narrator of White-Jacket (who – in the interval since the events he describes – appears to have modelled himself on his former shipmate) deploys a similar ‘off-hand, polished, and poetical style’ in order to win over potentially sceptical readers.
In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass hints at the kind of slave narrative preferred by his former abolitionist mentors when he refers to the advice that his 1841 lectures should restrict themselves to the unvarnished facts and could benefit from ‘a little of the plantation manner of speech’. It was advice he very soon found difficult to follow, as he was by then already, as he says, ‘reading and thinking.’ If Douglass’ refusal to toe the line was already evident in his 1845 Narrative, it was more boldly set out ten years later in My Bondage, which ruffles feathers not only by denouncing slavery as well as describing it, but also denouncing prejudice and discrimination in the North. It seems entirely fitting that Sandy Jenkins – as a representative of the kind of narrator Douglass was expected to be but couldn’t - plays a correspondingly enlarged role in the later work. On almost every appearance – Jenkins is introduced as the ‘root man’ as if to make sure the reader understands that superstition, the vernacular, cowardice and betrayal are virtually synonymous. And by implication aligning the standard-English narrative voice with reason, bravery and integrity.
As an important closing qualification, I’d like to raise the the possibility that their respective narrators are perhaps a little too smitten by Jack Chase or a little too harsh on Sandy Jenkins. After all, Melville and Douglass – wittingly or not – give us enough to question their narrators’ assessment of these important characters.
On the one hand, Jack Chase is not quite as heroic as he seems. For instance, when his friend White-Jacket is ‘arraigned at the mast’, he is only bold enough to step forward and defend him, after Colbrook, the corporal of the marines, has done so first. And the one man to stand up to the captain’s ‘massacre of the beards’ is not Chase (for all his indignation and bravado when he submits to the barber’s shears) but ‘old Ushant’ – who is flogged and imprisoned for his resistance but who is rewarded with the ‘unsuppressible cheers of all hands’ when he disembarks in Richmond.
On the other, perhaps Sandy Jenkins is not quite the fool he is made out to be. If his offer of the ‘root’ is supposed to represent a response to slavery that is as backward and ineffectual as Douglass’ bold fight against Covey is modern and effective it still leaves open the possibility that it is actually the root that gives Douglass the confidence - if not the power - to win the fight, as he reports Jenkins later claiming.
If we take these apparent inconsistencies seriously, we might be forced to reconsider not only what kind of conduct Melville and Douglass are implicitly praising and condemning among sailors and slaves; but also what kind of voice, what form of address, works for them as writers.