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James Corrothers reads a book; or, the lives of Sandy Jenkins.

In recent years, such critics as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (xx-xxi), Houston Baker, Jr. (Blues 1-2), and Robert Stepto (xv-xvi) have issued a call for a reading of African-American literary texts in terms of a larger African-American literary tradition, replete with internal concerns, themes, and intertextualities that give meaning to those texts. They, and others, have looked at examples from within that tradition, reading individual texts in ways that lend support to their cases and that show, persuasively, how an understanding of the specific dynamics of an African-American literary tradition, going back to its beginnings, can give real insight into the meaning and significance of the works of black American writers.

No less important, however, are the ways in which such an understanding can help critics and literary historians address some of the more problematic texts within African-American literature. One such text is James D. Corrothers's 1902 dialect novel The Black Cat Club. Growing out of an earlier series of newspaper pieces, and set in the Chicago ghetto, Corrothers's book focuses on the antics and adventures of a distinctly lower-class and not-too-literary "literary society," led by a self-taught dialect poet named Sandy Jenkins, also known as "Doc." An episodic account of what Corrothers himself called "the humorous side of Negro life" (7), it is one of the most complex works to be found in turn-of-the-century dialect writing. On the one hand, as its subtitle promises, it is heavily based on "Negro humor and folklore," and with more fidelity than most other works from the period. Corrothers's episodes are structured around club meetings, the focus of which tends to be story-telling, and many of the stories are easily traceable to folk sources. The club members tell their tales in a manner that fully captures the forms of banter and verbal play often identified with African-American folk communities. On the other, The Black Cat Club frequently lapses into stereotyped-based situations and, especially, characterizations that owe more to minstrelsy than to African-American life, creating images of ignorance and vulgarity that caricature as much as they represent that "Negro life" Corrothers claims to have revealed.

What to do with the book is far from obvious. It was not poorly received at the time of its publication, not even by such sensitive black critics as William Stanley Braithwaite, who found it "praiseworthy" and a faithful depiction of "a sort of elemental Negro" (151,152), while recognizing the difference between that elemental character and the more urbane middle class, of which both Braithwaite and Corrothers were members. Nevertheless, for readers of a later time, the caricatures are so broad, and the stereotypes so pervasive, that, despite its ties to folk sources, The Black Cat Club has been very hard to fit into most historical paradigms for African-American writing, particularly those emphasizing, rightly, issues of protest and liberation. Within such a model, as Richard Yarborough has argued so well (360-62), the book seems almost a betrayal of African-American interests and concerns, an impression reinforced by Corrothers's own comment in his 1916 autobiography, In Spite of the Handicap, that he had come to "regret exceedingly that it was published" (139).

Interestingly, if Corrothers's assessment is to be believed, his regret did not grow out of a changing attitude toward dialect writing as such. Although he was, for a time, one of the leading exponents of dialect (In Spite 137, Wright), he claims always to have been ambivalent about it. And he claims to have been particularly sensitive about the burden of stereotyping dialect carried with it, recalling his chagrin, even before he began his literary career, at its use in newspapers to represent the speech of virtually all African Americans, even of middle-class professionals whose speech was, in fact, both "standard" and impeccable (In Spite 82-84). That he did have those feelings at the time he wrote The Black Cat Club is indicated by his effort in the preface to the book to distance himself from his subjects, assigning their antics to the habits of by-gone days or to "certain conditions to-day" (8).

Why, given such views, did he write the book? To some extent, and like other writers, he saw it as an effective means to advance his literary career. With the success of Paul Laurence Dunbar in the mid-1890s, there was such a vogue for dialect work by black writers that it had become the most popular form of work among them and their readers alike, developing an audience that was white as well as black. Corrothers, as he himself recalled, discovered he had a talent for such material - thus, his decision to pursue the form (In Spite 137-38). But, suggesting a more complex reading for the book than these motives imply, Corrothers also noted his belief "that certain thoughts could not be expressed so well in any other way as in dialect" (137). Corrothers never said what those "certain thoughts" were, but perhaps some insight may be gained by following the advice of those critics who urge paying attention to questions of African-American literary tradition. In the case of The Black Cat Club, this means not only the rather short-lived tradition of dialect writing, of which it is so obviously a part, but also a longer tradition which extended back even before Emancipation. Corrothers virtually encouraged such an effort by naming his central character Sandy Jenkins, after one of the more notable figures in that longer tradition, the Sandy Jenkins who had played a major role in the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass.

It is unlikely that the naming was accidental. Naming as such has been of great importance in African-American literary tradition, and not a matter to be taken lightly. Moreover, Corrothers was a great admirer of Douglass and, as a young journalist, had met and talked to him; Corrothers had also been Douglass's champion in a brief controversy surrounding the older leader at the time of the Chicago Columbian Exposition (In Spite 128-29). We cannot be certain that Corrothers read any of Douglass's autobiographies, but given his feelings about Douglass, it would be surprising if he had not. A major edition of Douglass's final version of his life, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, initially published in 1892, had appeared at Douglass's death in 1895, only a short time before Corrothers began the sketches that would result in The Black Cat Club. The story of Douglass's own Sandy Jenkins, briefly told in the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, had entered Douglass's accounts in fullness in his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). Sandy is an important part of Douglass's efforts in that book to explain what it meant to be a slave.

Certainly, the name itself was important to Corrothers. It is to the point that, at the beginning of The Black Cat Club, all the members take on assumed names, to be used while the club is in session - except "the imperial Jenkins himself" (18). Corrothers, though he sometimes lets Sandy use the nickname "Doc," wants to keep the name before the reader and does so throughout the book. While this hardly constitutes definite proof that Corrothers was drawing directly on Douglass in constructing his work, it does strengthen one's sense that Corrothers's choice of "Sandy Jenkins" for his main character should not be readily dismissed.

Who, then, was Sandy Jenkins, and how can one use him to gain entrance into Corrothers's work? To see this, one must go back to the source, to Douglass, and to a life story in which a man named Sandy Jenkins played a far from negligible role.

Douglass's Sandy Jenkins, who really did exist, was a free black man (although Douglass presents him as a slave) some years older than Douglass and a leader in the slave community (Life and Times 136; McFeely 46; Preston 125, 227n3). A "conjure doctor," with a strong attachment to folk traditions and an African heritage, he was widely respected by all, including Douglass himself. In Douglass's autobiographies, Sandy Jenkins appears in two of the most significant episodes of Douglass's life as a slave. In the first, Jenkins, drawing on his knowledge of conjure, gives Douglass the root which helps embolden him to resist the brutality of the slavebreaker Edward Covey. In the second, Jenkins is presented as the most likely betrayer of the attempt by Douglass and his friends to escape from the Freeland farm, the older man having earlier been made wary of the plot by a vivid dream that appeared to foretell its failure.

Douglass's words point toward the most reasonable assessment of Jenkins's role in Douglass's stories. Discussing Sandy's wariness about the escape attempt, Douglass laments his friend's having succumbed to "slaveholding priestcraft" (Life and Times 157), to the power of the slave system to corrupt and delude anyone caught in its web. Houston Baker, in a brief discussion of Douglass's Sandy Jenkins, describes Sandy as "the pure, negative product of an economics of slavery" (Blues 47) and of the powerful limits slavery could impose on the individual's awareness of himself and of the real meaning of freedom. Consistent with Baker's view is William L. Andrews's assertion that Douglass used the Jenkins character to stress the futility of looking for any kind of external support, including conjure traditions, in the face of slavery's totality and theneed to cultivate an inner strength capable of resisting the overpowering pressures of the system (226-27). Sandy Jenkins offered an object lesson in what could happen to a good man in such a situation of massive oppression as slavery.

James Corrothers's Sandy Jenkins - founder, president, and poet laureate of the Black Cat Club - is not simply Douglass's translated to a new environment. There are similarities and there are differences, but the similarities are notable.

First, Corrothers, like Douglass, presents Sandy Jenkins as a man of authority, one who attracts repect from others as a leader of his community. In addition, Corrothers, like Douglass, bases Jenkins's authority in the traditions of folk society, especially those of folk belief, or "superstition." Like Douglass's Sandy Jenkins, Corrothers's is a master of such traditions; indeed, Corrothers's occasional use of the nickname "Doc" for his Sandy seems an obvious play on the role of Douglass's Sandy in the antebellum black community. The attitude of Corrothers's Jenkins toward these traditions is not, on the surface, the same as his predecessor's, since he and the other club members generally talk about folk beliefs in the context created by Corrothers's evocation of banter and verbal play. Nevertheless, the association between Sandy and folk beliefs is strong, and the Black Cat Club itself is dedicated to them. It is named for Sandy's cat Mesmerizer, and both the title of the book and the name of the club grow out of the fun Sandy and his friends have - not entirely incredulously - with "the old Negro superstition that black cats are the children of his Satanic majesty" (16). And, seriously or not, Sandy skillfully articulates the old traditions, both in the verbal by-play of the club and through his poetry.

Another parallel lies in Sandy's characterization as a dialect poet. The presentation is far from positive, because the poetry with which he is credited is far from harmless. His masterpiece, a work called "De Cahvin'," describes the efficacy of the razor for settling disputes, and is fairly typical of most of the pieces on which Sandy has based his fame. Many, if not all, are presented in a way that helps to reinforce the stereotypes the characters themselves bring to life; and Jenkins, unlike Corrothers, is wholly oblivious to the doubts and ambiguities that made Corrothers's own turn to the form so problematic.

Allowing for the nature of Corrothers's genre, the common connection between name and the matter of dialect is still worthy of note. Corrothers's Sandy is a dialect-speaking, dialect-writing poet; in Douglass's autobiography, as William McFeely has noted (54), the Sandy Jenkins character is distinguished from the author's more courageous companions in the escape attempt by a rendering of his speech, and his alone, in dialect. Thus, in both, the embedding of dialect in a context of stereotypical behavior, along with a lack of awareness of the significance of that behavior, is an important aspect in the process of characterization itself.

Such parallels support the view that Corrothers's use of the name Sandy Jenkins is more than coincidental, and, taken with his more general ambivalence toward dialect and his concerns about stereotypes, suggest that the poet Sandy stands in relation to Corrothers, as, years before, the conjure man Sandy had stood to Frederick Douglass, as an essentially negative or, at best, ambiguous figure. If this is so, it points to a reading of The Black Cat Club which must take place on two levels. One of these focuses on the text itself and on its presentation of folk society; the other, on the text as framed - to draw on Robert Stepto's ideas (esp. 204-05) - by a narrative voice identified as "Sandy Jenkins." Taken at this level, The Black Cat Club becomes a highly reflexive work, one in which Corrothers uses the popular dialect form to express a much larger set of concerns - perhaps the "certain thoughts" to which he referred - to the kind of broad audience the form enabled him to reach.

These concerns tend to revolve mainly around questions of cultural control and recognition in African-American life at the turn of the century. Moving from Sandy Jenkins's position in the club, Corrothers addresses a series of issues related to such questions, and in ways that carry forward the points Douglass had raised though his own Sandy Jenkins, including the notions of submission and betrayal at the heart of Douglass's characterization.

The issues Corrothers raises in The Black Cat Club are especially visible in the one major episode of the book involving whites. The club has scheduled a debate on "Courage and Common Sense" - or, "Resolved,'at a good run's bettah'n a bad stan'" - and it attracts a great deal of attention. On the night of the debate, the club members turn out in force, and they are joined by a large number of interested white observers, mainly reporters and civic leaders. As the debate proceeds, it takes a turn fully in keeping with Corrothers's use of caricature and folk sources. Beginning with high humor, the debate is filled with absurd arguments and verbal play. These, however, soon degenerate into threats and accusations, then, bedlam. Sandy ultimately restores order, in part through a recitation of his masterpiece, "De Cahvin'," and the debate concludes. As all this proceeds, the white observers dissolve into gales of laughter.

But these same observers also single out Sandy for praise, one telling him," |You've got the makings of a fine man in you,'" and urging, "|You ought to develop into a leader among your people'" (196). Given the context - Sandy has just finished reading his poem - Corrother's comment is pointed. Sandy is the comic leader of a comic group, and he is precisely the kind of "Negro leader" white people like. Corrothers brings home the implications of this point when he has Sandy happily accept the advice of another member, in response to the white men's praise, always to "|mine whut de gem'un tell you'" (197). Just as Douglass's Sandy Jenkins was, ultimately, the ideal slave, whatever his actual status, so is Corrothers's Sandy the kind of leader whose role is defined according to the terms set by whites in a racist society.

This is a theme Corrothers pursues throughout the book, and in several ways. For one thing, he shows Sandy to have a fame, especially a literary fame, extending beyond the club and among blacks as well as whites. Among Sandy's African-American readers, it is a fame that, as Corrothers presents it, is based mainly on the fact that whites have recognized Sandy's poetry, and one that willfully disregards, as Sandy himself does, the ramifications of the work itself. I have argued elsewhere that one aim of Corrothers's book is to satirize the vogue for dialect among African-American writers of the period (124). However, the reference to Sandy Jenkins, coupled with Corrothers's own views of dialect, allows one to take this argument further and to see an additional dimension to Corrothers's stance toward the form.

In Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Houston Baker has discussed the prevalence of inherited forms from minstrelsy in turn-of-the-century African-American literature, showing how some writers "mastered" the form to insinuate subversive messages into material addressed to a white as well as a black audience, while others engaged in what he calls a "deformation of mastery," rejecting that denial of humanity which the adoption of what Baker has called minstrel "masks" seemed to entail (21, 49-52). By naming his main character Sandy Jenkins, Corrothers has created precisely the sort of deformation Baker has discussed, undermining by the traditional connotations of the name and by Jenkins's character - as well as by his works - the form and even the surface humor which characterize the book.

As the conclusion of the debate episode makes clear, there is, from Corrothers's perspective, an element of slavishness in the minstrel mask, a playing into the hands of white Americans on the part of the putative minstrel, and on the part of those in the African-American community who uncritically celebrate such works. Dialect literature was taking black writers to new heights in American society. But their fame came only as a result of accepting the literary imperatives of a white American audience, achieving that audience's recognition while doing nothing to demand its respect. To the extent that mastery of the form actually reinforced the racial assumptions behind the mask, both the artist and his followers in the black community were submitting to the same kind of white domination that, to put the parallel with Douglass succinctly, left the fundamentals of slavery's "priestcraft" in place, even if slavery itself was gone. Like Douglass's, Corrothers's Sandy Jenkins revealed how easily that priestcraft could be exercised, how easily its victims could fall under its spell, creating a literary space for themselves at the cost of accepting white America's most insulting literary expectations.

Portraying his understanding of the problems of literary creation and literary reputation, then, Corrothers made The Black Cat Club highly complex and highly reflexive. Adopting what Henry Louis Gates would call a "signifyin(g)" relationship (49) with both the dialect tradition and the more heroic tradition exemplified by Douglass - and with each through the characterization of Sandy Jenkins - Corrothers used dialect to talk about dialect in a way that displayed both the problematic nature of the form and the issues he felt it raised. He saw a strong connection between literary fashion and the force exerted by a racist society on African Americans, a connection in no way weakened by the recognition at least some of those writers had been able to achieve. Deforming the form, Corrothers gave concrete shape to his own discomfort with the bases upon which a growing number of literary reputations, including his own, appeared to rest.

But literary concerns were only part of the message Corrothers's work portrayed. Corrothers was, at the time he wrote, pessimistic about relations between white and black Americans, and on grounds having to do with more than literary imperatives. Even as he was beginning to produce the sketches that developed into The Black Cat Club, he expressed that concern to his fellow journalist, John E. Bruce, following some widely noted comments by Theodore Roosevelt praising the performance of black troops during the Spanish-American War. "I really wish he meant what he said," Corrothers despaired. "Our race has no real friends among the whites, any more" (Letter), a view he dramatized clearly enough through the anointing by whites of such a man as Sandy Jenkins as a leader of his people.

Such an opinion was far from irrelevant at the time Corrothers wrote, because more general questions of black leadership were assuming great significance, and in a manner very much related to the whole problem of the slaveholders' priestcraft, in a turn-of-the-century incarnation. These questions focused mainly on the period's most prominent leader, Booker T. Washington, a mask master par excellence, as Houston Baker has stressed (Modernism 30-33). This was the period during which Washington, with his message of selfhelp and accommodation, reached his ascendancy as not only a leader but also a spokesman for black Americans. It was also a time when opposition to Washington was beginning to take shape, although, leading up to 1902, it had not really coalesced.

Corrothers himself was not an active figure in the developing debate over Washington and Washingtonianism, but to the extent that his sentiments can be gauged from other sources, Corrothers would have been on the anti-Washington side. He had long expressed an unwillingness to accommodate to segregation, once refusing to ride in a Jim Crow car, and instead walking to his destination (In Spite 111). He wrote and published some standard English poetry during this time and expressed there, as well, a rejection of accommodation (e.g., "The Snapping of the Bow" and "The Psalm of a Race") Thus, while it is true, as Richard Yarborough notes (360-61), that the text of The Black Cat Club does not assume a clear stance on this thorny issue of African-American thought at the turn of the century, Corrothers's own views are not impossible to infer, and when the text itself is read in fight of its allusions to Douglass, the ideas behind those views become clearer, as well.

There is little overtly political in The Black Cat Club, but Corrothers's Sandy Jenkins is an unwavering proponent of Booker T. Washington and of Washington's ideas. In a lengthy address to the club, and despite a familiar playfulness in his remarks, Jenkins genuinely champions Washington. He urges the utility of self-help and accommodation over protest. He also decries liberal education in terms very similar to those Washington himself used, but by speaking in his own style, he unwittingly reduces the Washingtonian position to absurdity. Proposing to give such views concrete form, moreover, Sandy takes the occasion to exclude any college "graddiates" from membership in the Black Cat Club. And he praises the current members, none of them "graddiates," for proving, as he says, the truth of Washing-ton's views: Even without "book l'arnin'," they have "cahved" their way to "fame an' fortune" (59-60).

Using the frame created by Sandy Jenkins to create a stance toward Washington, Corrothers, consistent with the anti-accommodationist views he expressed elsewhere, has done much to create a real, if implied, parallel between the Washingtonian strategy of self-help and accommodation and the kind of acceptance of stereotypes that Sandy and his career represent. There is no less a parallel between the kind of recognition Sandy achieves from influential whites and that which Washington himself achieved, a recognition Corrothers tacitly condemns as servile. But perhaps even more importantly, when read against the background provided by Douglass's Sandy Jenkins, Washington's ideas and position are put in a framework that evokes weakness and even betrayal. The connotations of treachery - not out of malice but out of wrongheadedness - created by such a reference are extended from Douglass's Sandy Jenkins to Washington himself, through the Washingtonian Jenkins of Corrothers's book.

One does not want to go too far toward turning The Black Cat Club into a political tract; there is no evidence that Corrothers intended it to be taken as such. However, it is not too much to say that, based on much that is in the book as well as on the specific reference back to Douglass, the book demonstrates a real concern about the nature of African-American leadership - cultural, political, and ideological - in Corrothers's time. It reveals a sense that the leadership itself was buying into a presentation of black America that played into, rather than challenged, the popular white racial attitudes of the period.

And, as in the case of literary recognition, Sandy's position in his community indicates that the acceptance of such leadership by African-Americans themselves was itself a matter of concern to Corrothers. There would always be victims of slavery's - and racism's - priestcraft. That such victims should be lionized for the very acts that revealed their victimization, whether in the form of "superstition" or what might be labeled a primitivist accomodationism, showed a need for much clearer thinking about the kind of leadership demanded in an oppressive society. Like Douglass, before he finally recognized the foolishness of placing himself in the hands of conjure man Sandy Jenkins, those who follow the poet-ideologist Jenkins are squarely on the wrong path, too.

Corrothers ends his book strangely. In the last chapter, club members answer an invitation to perform at a local church where, Sandy included, they acquit themselves admirably, displaying a level of taste and refinement utterly absent in the rest of the book. Moreover, Sandy himself has promised to give up many of his more troubling habits, and has even married into the middle class. With the help of a white benefactor, he is about to begin a career in the catering business. Other members of the club have pledged to follow Sandy's example, although whether they will succeed in doing so is left an open question.

It is hard to quarrel with Richard Yarborough's contention that the ending lacks credibility, being wholly unanticipated by anything that has gone before. Yarborough argues that the best explanation for it is that Corrothers wanted to show the improvability of his characters (357-58, 359-60). Given Corrothers's views, such a softening of what is really a brutally stereotyped characterization - and one unbalanced, as is the case in Douglass's works, by alternative types - was probably necessary as a concluding statement for the book.

In other ways, however, the ending fits well into the overall structure of Sandy's characterization, as defined by its background in African-American tradition. For one thing, the Sandy of the ending, like his colleagues, alternates between his improved and original selves throughout the chapter. Even as the characters put on their somewhat surprising performance, lapses on the part of club members do occur; and Sandy, while accepting help to open a business, does so after turning down an offer of support through college - maintaining, perhaps, his Washingtonian faith. Rather than focus on improvability, perhaps one should focus on how the ending stresses the point, from Corrothers's preface, that the more questionable behavior chronicled throughout the book does not represent innate characteristics in African Americans. Such a point is quite consistent with the connection between the Sandy Jenkinses of Douglass's and Corrothers's times, since it makes clear that, even for Corrothers, the story of Sandy Jenkins is that of a man who would be better in a world less devoted to making him bad.

Thus, even at the close of the book the focus remains on Jenkins, mainly as he is defined by the tradition which lends meaning and significance to his character. And that significance is great. Writing at a time of enormous difficulty for African Americans, and at a time of enormous ideological turmoil, Corrothers created a Sandy Jenkins who, when placed in the context of a larger African-American literary tradition, suggests a real fear on the author's part about the future of black America. This fear was born out of the problems of turn-of-the-century life. But it was a fear informed and shaped by an understanding of the past, one focused on how difficult real greatness was in a society so permeated with the complex demands of race.

Works Cited

Andrews, William L To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986. Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. -. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. Braithwaite, William Stanley, Rev. of The Black Cat Club, by James Corrothers. Colored American Magazine 5 (1902):151-53. Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition, 1877-1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989. Corrothers, James D. The Black Cat Club: Negro Humor & Folklore. New York: Funk, 1902. -. In Spite of the Handicap: An Autobiography. 1916. Freeport: Books for Libraries P, 1971. -. Letter to John E. Bruce. 1 July 1899. John E. Bruce Papers. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. -. "The Psalm of a Race." Colored American Magazine 6 (1903): 323-24. -. "The Snapping of the Bow." Colored American Magazine 3 (1901): 23-24 Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. 1892. New York: Collier, 1962. -. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1855. New York: Dover, 1969. -. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 1845. New York: Signet, 1968. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1991. Preston, Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980. Stepto, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. 2nd ed. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991. Wright, John Livingston. "Three Negro Poets." Colored American Magazine 2 (1901): 404-13. Yarborough, Richard. "The Depiction of Blacks in the Early Afro-American Novel." Diss. UCLA, 1980.

Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., is Professor of History at the University of California Irvine, and author of a forthcoming biography of Archibald Grimke.
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Author:Bruce, Dickson D., Jr.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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