African American “Slaves” in African American Autobiography and Fiction
The propitious publication of Claudia Rankine’s book of poetry, Citizen, threw into relief again the problem of the black body in public.[i] By problem I mean not only the anxiety, anger, fear, and trepidation but also the admiration (however begrudging) and exoticism a black body—be it that of an athlete, criminal suspect, or an “ordinary” man or woman walking down a street—elicits. And by again, I mean the feelings and emotions sometimes provoked by seeing a black body in public are nothing new. What also isn’t new is how the appearance of Rankine’s book of poems, prose and photographs in the public sphere redound upon the perceptions Americans of all races and ethnicities have of one another in public. For the purposes of this essay, I am specifically interested in the depictions of what sometimes happens when blacks and whites encounter one another in public and in the public sphere.[ii]
In other words, both white suspicion of, and black anxiety about, black participation in the public sphere presuppose several difficult questions about what it means to “see” or “be” a black person in public: Is the person one sees or the person one “is” in public the “real” person? And what is a “real” person? By what criteria—biological, sociological, cultural—might one measure or assess the “real” person as an index of authenticity?? Although these and more questions could be asked of any individual or group of people defined by race, ethnicity, class, gender, or sexual orientation, I am interested in the ways that the “problem” of authenticity—how to identify it in oneself and in other human beings, those who superficially resemble oneself and those who do not—problematizes the borders between the public and the public sphere.[iii]
In this essay, I examine the issue of “realness” as a problem of individual, familial and communal authenticity, a problem that manifests itself variously as a positive value attributed to literacy, the literary, memory and history within the context of 19th c. depictions of Africans and African Americans in one African and several 19th c. and early to mid-20th c. African American authors. But I need to first provide a broad overview of the public and the public sphere as conceptualized by 20th c. historians and social critics.
Why did these questions—What am I actually seeing? Who am I being? —elicit trepidation for both whites and blacks caught up in the birth-throes of the United States of America throughout the 19th and 20th centuries? In many ways, issues of social status, ethnic heritage, nationality, and race were equally vexing for the 17th and 18th English settlers among themselves as, for example, the Astor Place riot and the subsequent attack on blacks by white mobs suggest.[iv] The problem of authenticity, however broadly or narrowly defined, appears inseparable from the problem of the public and, more narrowly, the public sphere:[v] who gets to participate and how to “test” for eligibility that is not visually marked (which means not only the vagaries of skin color, behavior, or manners but also the social, economic and political differences between, for example, a free black, an indentured black and a runaway slave).[vi]
The problems attendant to the public and the public sphere did not disappear after slavery, Reconstruction, and the emergence of Jim Crow law. Critical analyses of the public and the public sphere in Western societies punctuate the social and political science history of the 20th century. A brief roll call would include seminal texts such as Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, John Dewey’s The Public and its Problems, Jurgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man. These works traverse the entire political spectrum, but many of the analyses written within the first seventy or so years of the 20th century, especially those by American authors, sound an alarmist, if not always pessimistic,[vii] note. In Lippmann and Dewey, for example, the public sphere and public are analyzed according to the former’s potential as a site for encoding the civic values that facilitate entry into the latter. Citizens inculcated with these values participate in formal democratic institutions and congregate informally under the presumption of “neutral”[viii] sociality. These analyses may be understood as responses to an age when all the former values that served to impose or reinforce conformity—religion orthodoxy, economic and class immobility, traditional morality and ethics, etc.—had been called into question by, on the one hand, the scientific rationalism underlying humanism and industrialism and, on the other hand, by the physical presence and cultural practices of diverse and heterogeneous populations in the context of colonialism and so-called “reverse” colonialism, the emigration of former colonial subjects from their home countries to the countries of their former occupiers.. Thus, the term “public,” as opposed to the apparently more sanguine (because more general and nebulous) “society,” arouses a wary skepticism that sometimes borders on outright hostility (Sennett) or condescension (Lippmann).[ix] If these 20th century views constitute a backlash to the effects of freedoms exercised by citizens living in democratic societies in general, and American citizens in particular, the English “public” reaction to 19th c. immigrants (primarily the Irish and Italians) and Africans, free or enslaved, suggests that Sennett and Lippman expressed attitudes fairly widespread among the populace. However, unlike their European counterparts, the Africans could not hide their cultural and social values behind their skin in order to participate in a predetermined public sphere.[x] Consequently, from the late 18th through most of the 20th century in the United States, the descendants of African slaves remained a particularly difficult, if not suspicious, “part” of the public, if not the public sphere,[xi] from the perspectives of some writers.[xii] More recently, some critics, implicitly rejecting the cultural assimilation of African descendants into the wider society as undesirable, difficult or impossible, and all too aware of the limits of legal integration, have regarded blacks as constituting a separate or sub-public sphere that rivals, perhaps threatens, the very existence of the public.[xiii] As one index of this uncomfortable “fit,” this ethnic group’s array of names (Negro, colored, black, Afro-American, African-American) emphasizes, to varying degrees, this group’s apparently irreconcilable difference from itself as well as from other racial and ethnic groups.[xiv] Nonetheless, the tag “American,” whether explicit or implicit, suggests qualified, hyphenated, identification with the nation regardless of intent.[xv]
Evidence of this paradoxical, complicated, relationship may be found in some of the slave narratives and Negro fiction about the 19th century life of Africans and Negro Americans. Aside from the content of these works, which delineate institutionalized racism and discrimination at every level of American society, the fact of writing per se, the literary itself, often functions, paradoxically, to formally reinforce the outsider status of the Africans even as such writing thematizes a desire, and is read as an index of merit for, inclusion in the American polity. At the same time, the problem of inclusion and participation in a public sphere raises another problem for those members of the African Diaspora: what it means to have an authentic identity as part African. As I noted above, this issue is never far from the concerns of what it means to be a member of, or non-member excluded from, a public sphere however visible one may be in public. Insofar as one precondition for the “modern” Western public sphere is literacy and its relationship to the literary (belles lettres prior to the late 19th c.), I want to analyze the contested functions of literacy and the literary in the slave narrative. The autobiography of the Afro-British writer, Olaudah Equiano, will serve as a limit-case, a border, between an African slave on his way to Europeanization, however partial or incomplete, and autobiographies from two of his Americanized counterparts—Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacob—as well as works of fiction by 19th and 20th century black American authors. Part of my argument is that Equiano’s adaptation of English citizenship and civilization is predicated less on literacy than it is on the literary and Christianity, both complicated by his tortuous relationships to a variety of Western “publics” in the 18th century.[xvi] As we will see, the problem of the public is, for Equiano, a problem of the public sphere, a difficulty he shares, to a certain extent, with Negro-American writers.[xvii] Perhaps most important, the problem of racial and cultural authenticity that haunts so much of 19th c. and early 20th c. African American literature is muted in Equiano’s autobiography.
As critics have shown, literacy, along with an appreciation of the arts in general, were among the prerequisites for “admission” to the public sphere in Western Europe, a sphere arising from, and reinforced in, families, schools, churches, public houses, coffeehouses, and salons.[xviii] This sphere’s ideological foundations were reflected in a number of institutions defined by general literacy—newspapers, letters, journals—and, more narrowly, the literary—novels, drama and poetry. Habermas defines the bourgeois public sphere as the site of genial interactions between individuals from different, competing classes; thus, for Habermas, the bourgeois public sphere is shaped by its exclusion of market relations and values.[xix] In the broadest sense of the term, cultural literacy—not economic status—becomes the standard for admission to this public sphere insofar as culture was generally defined in opposition to barbarism. Such a distinction allowed aristocratic Europeans to view, for example, “trade” as much a feature of barbarism (however necessary) as non-white skin or non-phallic genitals represented other modes of the barbaric.[xx] The Industrial Revolution partially uprooted the old aristocracies organized according to intra-familial genetics and interfamilial networks, supplanting them, to a certain extent, with a meritocracy based on economic standing. Kidnapped and sold out of Africa, Equiano is brought to a Europe in the throes of this transition from feudal privilege to capitalist acquisition.
Like St. Augustine’s Confessions, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is, in part, a spiritual journey from benighted sin to enlightened repentance. It shares with the Confessions a trenchant rationalism that delineates the seemingly logical, step-by-step, movement from damnation to salvation.[xxi] At the same time Equiano’s autobiography, driven by a missionary zeal to influence public policy regarding slavery, is qualified by the narrative’s worldly arc. The “interesting” adjective in the title indicates that Equiano’s work draws on techniques and devices from the picaresque novel (Tristam Shandy, Don Quixote, etc.)—that is, the episodic adventure story. The compatible but awkward desire to both tell a story about the Good and to tell a good story is replicated in the narrative itself by Equiano’s quite distinct experiences on land (primarily Europe and the Americas) and at sea. A third iteration of this dilemma is reflected in Equiano’s experiences as a slave and as a freedman. Most significant for my purposes, however, is Equiano’s deconstruction of literacy—but validation of the literary—as an attribute of civilization and personal identity.
The Interesting Narrative begins with Equiano’s emphasis on his birth and development in a civilized society in an unnamed African village. Its attributes include customs, traditions, values, laws, governments, etc. Literacy, however, is not emphasized as a defining feature of his homeland, though it is a literate society. That Equiano comes from a civilization was doubtless itself a controversial assertion, an opening counterpunch to the prevailing view of Africa as a cultural wasteland, but what I want to emphasize is Equiano’s studied avoidance of any references to languages or “aesthetic” traditions in general. He emphasizes what he regards as the most significant attributes of civilization—or the ones significant because Africans were presumed to lack them. Thus, from start to finish, the entirety of Chapter One—which concerns the political, economic, cultural, and social spheres of his homeland—is an implicit appeal to the similarities between the life of a citizen in a European country and the life of a citizen in his kingdom.[xxii] He discusses various kingdoms and empires, then the divisions of political power within each entity, and finally the cultural and social values and structures of the village where his father is an esteemed elder. As for what the West calls the “arts,” Equiano makes this seemingly oblique remark: “We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets.” (48) Inasmuch as Africans were thought to be largely imitative as far as the “arts” are concerned while their “tribal dances” to monotonous “music” proved their primitive stage of development, this description of his country’s “arts” might, at first glance, appear reassuringly familiar to his readers. However, Equiano qualifies these stereotypes with that “almost” which modifies the entire phrase, not just “dancers, musicians, and poets,” that follows it. It isn’t quite a nation of dancers, musicians and poets, and Equiano, who is none of these, is perhaps Exhibit A of this point. Moreover, the next sentence immediately underscores the utility of dance, music, and poetry in his culture. Dance, music, and poetry are functional, used to celebrate military victories, mourn defeats, and accompany other important events and occasions. One implication might be that non-utilitarian “arts,” “purposeless” but “purposive” as Kant would put it in his Critique of Judgment (1790), are frivolous. Another implication of this sentence is that almost everyone in Equiano’s culture participates in dance, music, and poetry; they are not the specialized reserve of a select or professionalized minority as in the West. However read, this sentence, like the entire section on dance, music and poetry, represents not similarity to Europe—the emphasis throughout the bulk of the chapter—but difference from that continent. This exception may explain Equiano’s modesty about the goals of his narrative. As noted above, the standard Christian-inflected Preface that Equiano appends to his narrative is undercut by the literary adjective “interesting” as well as the narrative itself. Equiano is interested in providing an “authentic” picture of his salvation but he is also interested in telling a good story.[xxiii]
Although the rest of the autobiography follows the somewhat standard trajectory of the slave narrative—the acquisition of European literacy, the conversion to Christianity and the ascendancy to the “role” of a “productive citizen”—the narration sounds some dissonant notes. For one thing, Equiano emphasizes that his personal safety is assured only while he is a slave; once he acquires his freedom he is subject to the capriciousness of near lawless social orders, especially those in the American South and West Indies. He is robbed, swindled, beaten and jailed while putatively a “free” man. Moreover, Equiano remains a restless adventurer, never quite finding his place in England or America. Indeed, Equiano is most at home, most at peace, when he is at sea as a crewman, and this is true when he is a slave and when he is free.[xxiv] The implicit motif throughout the narrative is that literacy in the English language gains him very little aside from the ability to read the Bible on his own and to write the self-consciously literary narrative we are reading.[xxv]
Hence Equiano’s narrative stands on the other side of Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published fifty-six years after Equiano’s book. For the Negro American Douglass, literacy is the key to freedom and personal safety, to entrance into the public sphere, a view reinforced within and outside the narrative.[xxvi] For Equiano, literacy is not only irrelevant to his “freedom,” it is also an apparently irrelevant attribute of those free white men who enslave, swindle, and cheat him. Literacy may be necessary for admission to the English public sphere but it is, especially for the newly Christianized Equiano, insufficient to qualify one for participation in the public sphere.[xxvii] The aporia Equiano experiences between literacy and the literary, bridged only by “Providence,” is thus equivalent to the divide between the public (where is hounded and threatened) and the public sphere (here he gets to tell his story).
Are the different values attributed to literacy by Equiano and Douglass indices of the 19th century Afro-British’s and Negro-American’s different experiences and perceptions of American and English societies? Even if so, we must not overstate the differences. Douglass too points out the hypocrisies of those who insist he measure up to standards they themselves ignore. Though he never insists that literacy is the panacea for the enslaved African, Douglass’ narrative does come close to apotheosizing literacy. For Equiano, on the other hand, the keys to the public sphere are, as they were for St. Augustine, Christianity and the literary, values in conflict in the only public “place” in which he feels most “at home”—at sea. Equiano’s conversion to Christianity allows him to seek justice in the next world after his own experiences have proven that he cannot find it in this world. However, it is on ships that his Christianity seems most in conflict with the salty language and behavior of the crews that he nonetheless admires. Yet it is at sea that he is most comfortable, most at home. Ditto for the adventure story he tells with no small degree of relish. At sea, in the autobiography, Equiano finds justice to the extent he is generally treated fairly as a man, is judged by, and celebrated for, his skills as a seaman and as a writer. Moreover, we can imagine that while his shipmates may have appreciated a good story as much as the next man, Equiano’s investment in a finely written, if picaresque, narrative might have made him as much an outsider as his Christianity. Thus the very site where Equiano finds justice, the matrix for the autobiography he would later compose—the sea—is also the very site where his Christianity, so instrumental in the structure of the autobiography, seems least appropriate, least relevant, though he attempts to live out his faith among the various crews he joins, even deigning to attribute his brushes with, and deliverance from, disaster to the guiding hand of Providence. Nonetheless, worldly satisfaction and religious morality, like the adventure story and spiritual confession, remain in tension not only with one another but also, separately, and together, with Equiano’s life at sea. These triangulated impasses, which are never resolved in Equiano’s autobiography, find their American counterpart in the slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave-Girl recounts the forced entry of a teenaged slave-girl into sexual relations with her slave-owner. Unlike Equiano, Jacobs is already a Christian when her story begins; she’d been converted as a young girl. Moreover, it is not insignificant that Jacobs’ narrative is often cited as an important contribution to the development of the American novel, especially those by women, suggesting that despite her protestations to the contrary, Incidents was both a catalyst for, and example of, the development of the American novel of morals and manners, drawing, as it did, on the English sentimental novel.[xxviii] Her rhetorical sleights-of-hand appeal to both Christian morality and maternal pragmatism (I am a Christian but if you, dear reader, were a slave-mother you too would have had to do what I did…). Jacobs’ autobiography recalls Equiano’s to some degree, but the differences are crucial. Unlike Equiano who becomes a Christian after securing his freedom (however precarious), Jacobs asks her readers to simply take for granted her Christianity; there is no conversion scene in her narrative. Thus, her choices and behavior at crucial moments in the narrative, however much they undermine Christian values, can be explained as necessary concessions to the evils of slavery. Had things been reversed—had she converted to Christianity after her various misadventures, sexual and otherwise—the rhetorical emphasis would have fallen, as it does in Equiano’s narrative, on the power of Christianity to save even a wretch like her. Instead, as she makes clear throughout, it is slavery that overpowers those who try to live Christian lives, a theme that reinforces the abolitionist cause. This cause is reinforced, at the level of plot, not only by the trials and tribulations she suffers (the letter writer at the end insists that all these events are true) but also, and perhaps more important, by the parallel “publics” she encounters in the South and North. Jacobs’ flight to “freedom” is not only or primarily regional (South to North) but also social—from one network of supporters to another. These networks, only some of which appear to belong to any “formal” underground railroad, cross racial and gender lines, important elements of the abolitionist cause. Thus, like Equiano, Jacobs never really finds a “place” where she feels entirely safe (hence her use of the pseudonym Linda Brent). In the South and in the North, the relation of blacks to whites, whether slave-owners or abolitionists, is largely the “same”—the Africans are subjects to both nemeses and saviors—and it is Jacobs’ rejection of this power dynamic that animates the last part of her narrative. She does not want to purchase--much less have anyone else purchase—her freedom. This is her resolve not only toward her slave-owners but also toward her benefactors. Hence a third front is opened at the end of Incidents. Jacobs finds that she must negotiate Christian morality, human desire, and public spheres, all of which pull her in different directions. Rejecting the subjugation of individual liberty and Christian morality to economic considerations while emphasizing her capitulation to these same considerations as she makes her way through abolitionist networks, Jacobs dramatizes the struggle between civic and pecuniary interests in the public sphere. And it goes without saying that the motif of economic interests (that is, slavery) overwhelming morality makes Jacobs’ narrative resonate with the anti-industrialism critiques of European Romanticism and American Transcendentalism as well as with 19th century feminist critiques of the narrow roles of women within the larger European and American societies. Indeed, Jacobs insists throughout Incidents that she never wanted to write her story, never considered herself a writer, almost as if after being forced into sexual relations to protect her daughter, she has been forced into the public sphere to endorse the abolitionist cause. The implication is clear: ethical (that is, public) and moral (that is, private) considerations supersede whatever “literary” merits her writing may or may not have. Jacobs’ insistence that the ethical supervenes the aesthetic may be understood variously: a typical rhetorical ploy of false modesty, a “subversion” of the “traditional” novel or, more provocatively, a “return” to the traditional novel, which was, after all, first formalized by women writers to address ethical and moral—rather than aesthetic—issues. However we read Incidents (as irony, subversion, or re-appropriation),[xxix] the book establishes itself as an origin for a line of black women novelists that leads from Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun, Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. These are only a few of the novels by African American women that concern the struggle between responsibility to others and self-fulfillment. In these novels, personal authenticity is often at odds with racial and cultural authenticity, the latter represented by black communities. Morrison’s 1987 novel is a perfect demonstration of the tensions between individual black women and the black and white communities in which they live.
At first glance, Beloved appears to share the rhetorical complexities of Augustine’s and Equiano’s works, supplanting their deployment of a contest between the moral and aesthetic with a struggle between the first and third person singular and the first-person plural. Pronouns and proper nouns function here to dramatize a triad, and by implication, quadrant, of conflicts between self, other and others, between “I” and the origin of that “I” (here, a “she,” a mother), and at least two “theys”—the black and white communities. The “distance” implied by the third person singular or plural is typical, of course, of the conventional work of fiction but here, it also serves as a “limit” or “border” that seals off the private from the public (the novel begins when Seth’s and Denver’s house is invaded on two fronts: from the world of the dead (Beloved) and the world of the living-dead (Paul D.). However, the ambiguity near the end of the novel when the first person singular and first-person plural appear to merge suggests that the private individual and the domestic household are, per Habermas, the condition for the possibility of a public sphere. This possibility is explicitly thematized in the novel when Denver reconciles herself to school. Before this resolution of Denver’s various conflicts, the realm of the “we’ is the family in opposition to two communities—one, black, one, white (and two individuals, Beloved and Paul D.). Thus the “public” dimension of this work, initially both “inside” the narrative and “outside” it, narrows to an outside—the controversy surrounding the publication of the novel[xxx]—as the private realm folds in on itself. That isolated “outside” is also the “distance” of the modernist aesthetic—which is why the literary as such has a role to play, as a limit or border, in Habermas’ history of the bourgeois public sphere: it creates the illusion of a realm “outside” history, time, etc. and thus is at pains to “serve” or “function” within the bourgeois public sphere. Beloved, however, links this “outside” realm to both social dysfunctionality and literary aestheticism; indeed, it is one of the most “literary” novels written about late 19th century / early 20th century Negro American life. Given Morrison’s debt to Faulkner, one which may, finally, be more significant than her debt to other women writers (black or white), it is not surprising that the early American modernist haunts this novel. Morrison’s formal procedures, especially the stream-of-consciousness monologue, and her themes—madness, family upheaval, disintegrating community traditions—may be found in almost all of Faulkner’s major works. Unlike Faulkner, however, Morrison does not succumb to logorrhea as a kind of last-ditch thwarting of oblivion. Instead, logorrhea in Beloved serves to enforce the private, an enforcement Morrison apotheosizes and undermines. Nonetheless, in this rigorous distinction between the public sphere and private realm, a distinction blurred, perhaps necessarily, in the autobiographies of St. Augustine and Equiano, Morrison resembles her literary female ancestors. As one example among many of this private/public distinction, nothing that happens to Baby Suggs drives her over the edge as much as Schoolmaster’s violation of her private property: “I’m saying they came into my yard.”(211) This violation of the private realm is so powerful it obliterates all the other times that privacy is respected within the context of slavery: Sethe’s rememory of the sheriff who averts his gaze when she breastfeeds Denver, the sheriff who takes her by her arm with gentleness, if not kindness, after she has killed Beloved and wounded her two sons; Baby Suggs’ rememory of those who did not knock her down; and Beloved, Denver and Sethe ice-skating and tumbling down, though “Nobody saw them falling.” (164) All these scenes, these memories, invoke the realm of the body as inviolate, the private realm, respect for which is a prerequisite for the family, the community, etc. The place where the body remains inviolate is also where time appears to be suspended—what Sethe calls “no time.” And it is not coincidental that the “no time” of a place, where one might stumble upon a “rememory,” is almost always linked to a celebration of the body, of pleasure—which is to say, paradoxically, an aesthetic “outside” or “distant” from the body in public (e.g., at the carnival) or in private (in the Clearing, ice-skating on a frozen lake or simply enjoying the company of another [Beloved and Sethe in Part II], etc. But while place may appear to suspend the passage of time, time’s movement is relentless—every rememory gives way to remembering and remembering is always fallible, imperfect—we forget. And yet this forgetting, this movement through time, is precisely the definition of life, the undoing of the modernist aesthetic. As we read at the end of the novel, life depends on a story that is not passed on; otherwise, one winds up in a bed: Baby Suggs pondering color, Sethe, staring out a window. And yet, this forgetting is mournful, is regretful, for it also involves the forgetting of an origin, a heritage. And the extent to which one refuses to forget is the extent to which one’s movement into the future, out of the family, out of one’s community, into a public imagining itself as “respectable,” is hampered, hindered.[xxxi]
The ethical and moral dilemmas of personal or familial memory which, in many respects, is at odds with history, may be mapped onto the overlapping but non-isomorphic spheres of personal or familial authenticity and a more generalized communal (racial or cultural) sense of authenticity. In Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, for example, the strength and weakness of the African Allmuseri is their collective memory of, and connection to, everything. Unable to forget, unable to disconnect, they cannot resist the colonial forces who are, after all, “part” of them. Only when they force themselves to forget that the crewmen are humans, forget that they are connected to the crew, to Falcon, are they able to throw off the yoke of tyranny by force—that is, by killing. In order to obtain their freedom they surrender what Johnson calls “unity” for “multiplicity”; they forswear sameness (we are all humans deserving of life) for difference (some humans do not deserve to live).[xxxii] Riley and Rutherford Calhoun also invoke difference as the moral and ethical ground for adultery and theft (in short, for dispossession in general)—as does Falcon—since what they possess (for Riley and Rutherford, their humanity; for Falcon, his intelligence) cannot prevail against the forces of violence and economic might—in short, against the twin forces of imperialism and capitalism. Thus, as Johnson makes clear, it is property itself that defines—and limits—almost everyone in the novel since the concept of property, what is proper to, what belongs to, depends on differentiation.[xxxiii] In Johnson’s novel, Rutherford’s brother, Jackson Calhoun, refuses all property relations; he is thus emblematic of a movement toward the very position abandoned by the Allmuseri—unity and non-differentiation above all other considerations. Jackson’s refusal to forget also makes him incapable of writing the history that Rutherford writes as a logbook.[xxxiv] And once again narrative is the prerequisite for entrance into a public sphere. Rutherford’s logbook as “history” signals his reconciliation with a community he had only victimized as thief or found himself subjugated to as an object of reprobation. In short, Rutherford’s logbook, the novel we have at hand, his pass for re-entry into the public sphere, is also his reconciliation with the public. In giving up his prior life as a thief and marrying his fiancée, Isadora, ,Rutherford signals his acceptance of the terms of civil society[xxxv]
Yet, as both Paul Laurence Dunbar’s scathing novella, Sport of the Gods and Charles Chesnutt’s Conjure Stories demonstrate, the civic cannot exist as a “stand-alone” sphere, completely removed from the political and economic spheres, a point made relentlessly by Habermas’ many detractors and critics.[xxxvi] In Chesnutt’s “conjure” and “passing” stories, black characters, whether freedmen or slaves, think and behave in communal terms that undermine the individual capitalist interests of many of the white slave- and landowners. For example, Uncle Julius’ economic interests that animate his stories are not entirely self-directed; he also wants to contribute to the civic and social welfare of his community.[xxxvii] The same could be said for Grandison’s understanding of “freedom”; it is not “individual liberty.” Rather, for him, freedom is indistinguishable from familial welfare. Ditto for the hero of “The Wife of His Youth” who forswears the near-white fiancée he could have had by simply pretending to not remember his dark-skinned slave-wife.[xxxviii]
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s novella, Sport of the Gods, underwrites these relationships with a bitterness not usually evident in Chesnutt (“Baxter’s Procrustes” being perhaps the exception that proves the rule). In Dunbar’s novel of family disintegration, the Hamiltons, to their dismay, discover that the feudal value of loyalty, which they allow to override the capitalist value of self-sufficiency, cannot save them when their benefactors turn against them. On the contrary, both values—loyalty and self-sufficiency—serve as the horns on which the Hamiltons find themselves impaled. Their loyalty to their former slaveowner-now-landlord is reread as crass opportunism and their capitalist thrift is reread as ill-gotten gains. Having no power in the social, political, or cultural spheres of either race,[xxxix] relying solely on the economic power given to them by a white ex-slave-owner (in exchange for their “loyalty”), the Hamiltons demonstrate, for Dunbar, the folly of African-Americans who turn away from the possibility of capitalist self-interest as warranted by the nation they and other slaves helped build in order to “integrate” into a culture only begrudgingly “open” to the wares of their labor. Yet, the narrow opportunities of the South are, in Dunbar’s view, preferable to the false idols of the urban landscapes of the North. There, everything is on display, in public, subject to publicity (the newspaper is the graphic equivalent of gossip and rumor). Worse, the public penetrates the private, commercialism degrades art, and thus all that which is not public, where moral, if not ethical, values are formed and nurtured, is debased.[xl] The contradictions and ambivalences in Dunbar’s 1902 novella herald the 1903 publication of W.E.B. Du Bois’s landmark collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, which also ruminates over a vanishing African culture based in the South (one of Chesnutt’s points in the conjure tales) even as a nascent Negro American culture finds itself buffeted about by the economic, cultural, and social conflicts associated with “freedom” and urbanization in the North.
For Du Bois, the post-Reconstruction life of Africans gradually and unevenly becoming Negro Americans (in general, free Africans in the North “ahead” of those in the South, though Jean Toomer’s montage of poems and stories, Cane, presents a more nuanced and sober view on this “development”)[xli] offers a rare glimpse at the intersection of public policies and private lives and the way they do—and more often, do not—mesh. After posing the “problem” of the “Negro” as one that can only be addressed by triangulated strategies (self-criticism as self-evaluation, community praise and reprimand, and massive aid from the predominant culture, largely by means of the federal government), Du Bois outlines the successes and failures of Reconstruction. He then turns to more personal narratives to illustrate the ways that the federal policies affect the lives of those far removed from the centers of powers. Even the problem of volition, of “choice” and “will” is linked, in part, to the failures of education (both formal and informal) which, in total, lead to the by-now commonplace notion of “generations of poverty.” Although Du Bois generally deploys his favorite metaphor, the Veil, as, in part, a one-way mirror that allowed the free Africans, ex-slaves and slaves to “perceive” whites while blinding white perceptions of blacks (Chesnutt’s conjure and “passing” stories exemplify this belief still pertinent and in force today), Du Bois also argues, as does Dunbar, that misperception cuts both ways, that the Veil finally blinds those on either side of it. Thus, The Souls of Black Folks is a series of social, political, and cultural critiques that are simultaneously self-critiques: DuBois seems to understand, or at least imply, that he, for all his privileges, is still, perhaps partially, blind. That realization, which may even be subconscious, explains the shifting focus of the essays: sometimes a white audience, sometimes a black audience, sometimes both. It might also account for the multi-genre nature of the collection: we might understand the variety of literary forms and rhetorical strategies as less a tribute to virtuosity than a symptom of uncertainty and doubt. Thus, even as Du Bois calls for a more interracial public that lifts up the souls of all black people (including those who are putatively “white”), some of his essays seem to serve as a prelude to the creation and empowerment of a relatively self-contained black public. That vision would first occupy some members of the Harlem Renaissance, especially the novelists Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmon Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston,[xlii] and then, some thirty years later, some members of the Black Arts Movement. For both movements the black public sphere—or black public spheres—as a relatively autonomous, viable, site of cultural development would remain hostage to their concepts of culture, whether nationalist, integrationist or universalist, concepts at odds with a black popular culture fragmenting into intergenerational cogs—ghosts, indeed, in the machinery of capitalism going gold—and then, platinum—and then, global.[xliii]
[i] A recent event that captures the relationship between this book and the public is the well—some might say over—analyzed 2016 news story about 20-year-old Johari Osayi Idusuyi who was captured on video reading Citizen at a Donald Trump campaign rally. At one point an unidentified white woman attempts to prevent Idusuyi from reading the book, an act overread as an attack on Rankine’s book. But in all likelihood the woman was probably trying to prevent Idusuyi from reading so that she could hear.
[ii] As we will see, the public—the appearance of putative citizens on streets, in vehicles of transportation, in public arenas, etc.—is not a condition for appearances in the public sphere (the arenas of sociality and discourse). In fact, the anxieties about the appearance of the “other” in public is often conditioned by what one has “learned” about others in the public sphere. I will have more to say about the public and public sphere, but for an overview of the decline of a potentially democratic public, see Kevin Mattison’s Creating a Democratic Public, especially Chapter Six, “The Waning of the Democratic Public.”
[iii] One might understand Jim Crow as a reaction to the visibility of blacks in public and their increasing presence in some modes of the public sphere (books, newspapers, religious institutions, etc.). Insofar as racial passing becomes one strategy to circumvent Jim Crow restrictions, both the law and its violation presuppose visibility as a reliable index of race. On the relationship between visibility, memory and slavery, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America remains a relevant text. For a more recent treatment of these issues, see W. James Booth’s reading of Ellison’s Invisible Man in “The Color Memory: Reading Race with Ralph Ellison.”
[iv] See John Fairfield’s discussion of the class, ethnic and racial complexities of the riot in his The Public and Its Possibilities. And for a fictional treatment of these issues, see Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel, Song of the Shank.
[v] As Jurgen Habermas argues, the modern Western public sphere—his models are Germany and, to a lesser degree, England and France—arises as an extension of the domestic sphere. Though the public logically precedes the public sphere (sociality presupposes an arena for the social), the public sphere ideally conditions interactions and encounters in public by neutralizing social and economic differences to facilitate political debates. Modern etiquette and manners arise as formal pedagogies to bridge the gap between this idealized public and an actual public sphere. For an extended discussion of the public, see Jon Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems. On the development of the modern public sphere, see Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere.
[vi] These differences in status, while sanctioned by the legal apparatus, were not fixed since a specific social sphere could trump the judicial sphere. After the legal end of importing slaves the legal status of Africans became even more fluid; for example, free blacks were sometimes “mistaken” for runaway slaves. For a fuller discussion of this phenomenon, see Carol Wilson’s Freedom At Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865.
[vii] Lippmann’s and Sennett’s thoroughgoing pessimism regarding the capacity of ordinary citizens to make rational decisions as participants in democratic institutions is well documented. As Kevin Mattson notes, Dewey was almost alone among intellectuals who still believed in the possibility of a democratic after the deracination of social centers after the First World War.
[viii] As will be true for Jurgen Habermas, his bracketing of political and economic status—but not political and economic concerns—is an essential tenet of Lippman’s and Dewey’s conceptions of the public sphere.
[ix] While Sennett, writing sees citizens “falling” from sociable civil discourse into private psychological states as early as the late 18th c., Lippmann does not believe citizens in democratic societies have ever had the rational capabilities to contribute to democratic institutions. For him the public has never existed except as an ideal state or “phantom.”
[x] George Schuyler’s scathing 1936 satire, Black No More, ponders this last hurdle for those of African descent willing to sacrifice their social and cultural values for the perceived advantages of being white to participate in the public sphere. A black scientist creates a formula for turning Negroes white and when the first conversion labs open for business, all hell breaks loose. One of the crucial, if hilarious, plot developments has the NAACP and Ku Klux Klan working in tandem to shut down the labs.
[xi] Tentative acceptance of blacks into the public sphere was based on their acculturation of literacy and, perhaps more important, literary values. This tentativeness sometimes manifested itself as ambivalence on the part of “liberal” white men of letters generally supportive of black writers. As one example among several, this attitude can be observed in Allen Tate’s introduction to Melvin B. Tolson’s book of poems, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. See also the fallout between Waldo Frank and Jean Toomer as depicted in Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank, Edited by Kathleen Pfeiffer, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
[xii] As mere examples pre-20th c., we might note how William Delaney and Thomas Jefferson, for entirely different reasons, supported the emigration of Africans from the United States while Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass did not. Institutionally, these ideas underwrote The Fugitive Slave Act, the American Colonization Society, the Dred Scott decision, and so forth. In the 20th c., historians such as John Hope Franklin, Christopher Lasch, Harold Cruse and C. Vann Woodward took up the problem of segregation and separatism, the “response,” if you will, to the general collapse of expatriation as a national or, more narrowly, cultural solution to the public presence of African descendants. The ambivalences of these men, organizations and legal rulings, the ambiguities and even paradoxes that suffused their arguments for and against expatriation, are indices of this apparently intractable “problem.”
[xiii] The canonical critique of Habermas is Nancy Fraser’s “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” For a general overview of the black public sphere, see The Black Public Sphere, edited by the Black Public Sphere Collective.
[xiv] The distinction here is not in the fluidity of self-identity—the same generational and political changes can be observed among, for example, “red” Native Americans and “brown” Hispanics—but rather in the sheer number of names deployed by those descendants of the African Diaspora residing in the United States, names that reflect, in part, responses to political, economic, social, and cultural changes across the American landscape.
[xv] Langston Hughes’s memorable story about traveling to Africa to meet his “brothers” only to be called an “American” is only one of many anecdotes that reinforce the fact that, for better or worse, Negro, colored, black and African Americans have been shaped by this country. Because I will be discussing 19th century characters in Negro, black and African American fiction written by both 19th and 20th c. authors, I will refer to the characters as Negroes. Of course, this strategy obviates the thorny question of whether or not a Negro character in a novel written by a 19th c. author is, can be, the same “kind’ of Negro character created by a 20th c. author. My strategy is a matter of convenience, not an answer to that issue which is, in the final analysis, a matter of how one conceives of history per se. For a general discussion of the problem of reconstructing historical events, see Charles Andrews’ “Colonial Commerce.”
[xvi] Although these publics differ from one another according to their cultural, geographical, and political contexts, Equiano’s experiences with them tend to flatten out these differences.
[xvii] Given the division of labor in the public and private spheres along class and gender lines under capitalism and modernity, the public and public sphere tend to resonate differently for African American men and women and urban and rural writers prior to Emancipation. In the most general and reductive terms, gendered differences tended to fall along conceptions of emasculation of men on the one hand and rape and harassment of women on the other. In practice, of course, the latter was often used to achieve the former. The problem of “voluntary” sexual relations between African men and women under slavery throws into relief the problem of the concept of free will even after slavery. On this last point, see Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
[xviii] See “Social Structures of the Public Sphere” in Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, pp. 27-56.
[xix] Fraser, Nancy, "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy", Social Text, Duke University Press, 25 (26): 56–80
[xx] See, for example, the fascination of European publics and scientists with human” freaks” like the Hottentot Venus. In fiction Austen’s Jane Eyre offers a classic reading of European aristocracy “corrupted” by its mere proximity to barbarism in the figure of a mad West Indian woman.
[xxi] The phrase “step by step” only occurs in Chapter X of The Confessions and it refers to Alypius—not Augustine (“I fled into the garden, with Alypius following step by step; for I had no secret in which he did not share, and how could he leave me in such distress?”) but it is paradigmatic of the struggles delineated in the book. He moves forward, backward, sideways, but he is always moving toward salvation with each step. The same teleology animates Equiano’s movements throughout his narrative.
[xxii] The controversy over whether or not Equiano was actually born in Africa—as opposed to Carolina—aside, Angelo Costanzo, editor of the 2002 Broadview edition of the autobiography, notes that Equiano explicitly draws comparisons between Africa and Europe. For example, Constanzo notes that Equiano refuses to demean African spirituality: “Although he comes to regard Christianity as the true faith, Equiano never condemns the religion of his African homeland.” (16) This leveling of cultural differences is analogous to the possible mixture of fiction and fact in this putative autobiography, as though in order to tell his story, Equiano must resort to fiction to tell a good and utilitarian (per the abolitionist movement) story.
[xxiii] Another way of saying this is that Equiano elevates literary authenticity over the authenticity of slave literacy required by the world in which he lived. Note too that while he is interested in telling the story of his personal “growth”—from African spirituality to Christian salvation—he is not interested in personal authenticity.
[xxiv] The surge in the production of sugar on plantations in Saint-Domingue and other Caribbean islands seems to have accelerated the interest in seafaring as an alternative labor market for runaway slaves and freemen in the 17th and 18th centuries. See Chapter Two, “’Negroes in Foreign Bottoms:’ Sailors, Slaves and Communication,” of the dissertation, The Common Wind: Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Sea of the Haitian Revolution, by Julius Sherrard Scott, III.
[xxv] The literary, however, does admit Equiano to the public sphere. His autobiography was well received.
[xxvi] Thus Douglass’ autobiography includes the subtitle “Written By Himself.” Douglass’ literacy is incredible enough to require two prefaces—written by William Garrison and Wendell Phillips—attesting to the authenticity of the authorship of the autobiography. Equiano’s autobiography includes only a preface written by the author himself. Of course, reviewers challenged the authenticity of both autobiographies.
[xxvii] In his subsequent autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1891), Douglass would become increasingly critical about the limits of “freedom,” and thus about the possibilities for political and social change in the public sphere, after the acquisition of literacy.
[xxviii] See, for example, Jennifer Rae Greeson’s “The ‘Mysteries and Miseries’ of North Carolina: New York City, Urban Gothic Fiction, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” in American Literature.
[xxix] How to read Incidents in the Life of a Slave-Girl has largely defined the scholarship on the work. As examples, see Thomas Doherty’s “Harriet Jacobs' Narrative Strategies: "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" in The Southern Literary Journal and Joanne M. Braxton’s “Harriet Jacobs' ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl": The Re-Definition of the Slave Narrative Genre” in The Massachusetts Review.
[xxx] After the novel failed to win either the Book Critics Circle Award or the National Book Award for fiction, over forty black writers posted a tribute to Morrison’s career in the January 24, 1988 edition of The New York Times Book Review. The novel has also been banned from schools because of its frank depictions of sexuality. The fact that institutions associated with ‘white power” overlooked the novel while many black writers supported it reverses the public scandal, the ‘outside’ in the novel, when the black community turns its back on Sethe after she murders her daughter while the white sheriff appears somewhat sympathetic as he arrests her. See below.
[xxxi] As Barthes notes in S/Z, forgetting is the prerequisite for reading, one of the quintessential bourgeois leisure activities. And Habermas defines the public sphere as the site where economic and class differences are temporarily “forgotten.”
[xxxii] “From the perspective of the Allmuseri the captain had made Ngonyama and his tribesmen as bloodthirsty as himself, thereby placing upon these people a shackle, a breach of virtue, far tighter than any chain of common steel. The problem was how to win without defeating the other person. And they had failed. Such things mattered to Ngonyama. Whether he liked it or not, he had fallen; he was now part of the world of multiplicity, of me versus thee.” (140)
[xxxiii] Private property would thus always threaten the development of the public—hence, Habermas’ notion of a public sphere that essentially keeps property relations off stage, in private.
[xxxiv] For history, whether oral or written, substitutes narrative for the Wordsworthian “spots of time” that define the limits of individual memory. Those “spots of time” must be suppressed, forgotten, however temporarily, in order to thread together a narrative that projects “meaning” onto them (memories themselves have no intrinsic “meaning”).
[xxxv] Isadora set the entire story in motion by taking revenge on Rutherford after he refused to marry her. She went to Papa Zeringue, a financier of the slave-ship The Republic, and had Rutherford blackmailed into becoming a crew member.
[xxxvi] See, for example, the essays collected in Habermas and the Public Sphere, edited by Craig Calhoun.
[xxxvii] In “The Goophered Grapevine” the narrator, a Northerner who has moved South, notes that Uncle Julius’ story about the cursed grapevine was actually an attempt to preserve his own comfortable living on the property, drawing an income from selling the grapes. Though Julius benefits personally from many of the stories he tells, he also helps the black community on occasion. For Chesnutt, Uncle Julius represents the “new” freed slave, free only in legal terms. Whatever he attains in the other spheres (economic power, for example) he does so by wit and deception. He does not have the cultural clout to negotiate, to claim any kind of property rights.
[xxxviii] In the distance between the wry wit of the early stories and the more extreme cynicism and idealism of the later stories collected in The Conjure Stories we see Chesnutt perhaps writing against the effects of “northernization” and urbanization, he is beginning to witness. Dunbar’s frankly cynical vision is the logical conclusion to Chesnutt’s.
[xxxix] Having been falsely accused of theft by the white landowner on the one hand and having provoked the jealousy of the black community because of their relative prosperity on the other, the Hamiltons find themselves socially adrift in the no-public land between the white and black communities.
[xl] Once they arrive in an unnamed Northern city the Hamiltons find, initially, relief from economic hardship but the individualistic, crass, and immoral problems of urban living destroy the family.
[xli] Jean Toomer presents yet another example of a writer seeking authenticity, but unlike almost every writer under consideration here, Toomer looks neither to the past nor the present, working class or upper class. For him individual and group authenticity resides in the future, in the advent of an “America” long after the “births” of the First Americans—Toomer and his wife, Margery Latimer. As Charles Scruggs, S.P. Fullinwider and especially George Hutchinson demonstrate, Toomer’s refusal of the racial categories available to him in the United States led him to search for a “place” (a country) and “space” (in his post-Cane writings) where he could be “himself.” Yet his restlessness, his sojourns in and out of the country, his multiple autobiographies, point to the unfulfillment of the task at even the individual level. In many ways his life offers evidence of my argument in my Ellison essay that individual authenticity, however defined, seems impossible before group—however understood—authenticity.
[xlii] I’m thinking of their classic works of fiction---Passing and Quicksand for Larsen, Plum Bun for Fauset and Their Eyes Were Watching God for Hurston—that all concern the “problem” of black women in white and black public spheres.
[xliii] The collection of essays called Black Popular Culture raises this question which has haunted black art—literature, art and music—since at least the Harlem Renaissance. What is the relationship between a putative black public sphere and black popular culture, especially given the economic value of the latter? That is, has black popular culture eclipsed or disabled the possibility of a “coherent” (to use Kenneth Warren’s word) black public sphere, one unified by racial and cultural authenticity that goes beyond negative values (e.g., the ongoing killing of unarmed black people by law enforcement personnel)? Or do these two spheres co-exist as a Venn diagram with distinct and overlapping concerns?
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Dent, Gina. Ed. Black Popular Culture: A Project by Michelle Wallace. Seattle: Bay Press, 1992.
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