Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity.
John Ernest University of New Hampshire
As has been noted more than once, U.S. culture seems to like to take its Black male historical figures in pairs: Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois; Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X; Colin Powell and Jessie Jackson. In addition to avoiding the history of Black feminism, these oppositions serve a number of ideological purposes, not the least of which is to simplify and distort the complex figures they include and thereby to reduce African American political activism to a set of controllable choices, more often then not some version of moderation versus militancy. The main subjects of Robert S. Levine's often brilliant book, Martin Delany and Frederick Douglass, have at times similarly been paired, and one sometimes wonders whether choices have been made as a result. As Levine notes, "It could be said that Delany as the reified Black Separatist, even with the attention garnered by the 1970 book publication of Blake, has been separated from U.S. literature. Astonishingly, the major anthologies of American literature, including the Heath, fail to reprint any of Delany's multifarious and complex writings." Levine now has reason to be astonished all over again: Delany is missing also from The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. But there are signs of Delany's return - for example, recent work by Carla Peterson, Paul Gilroy, Robert Reid-Pharr, and Eric Sundquist. Douglass, on the other hand, is everywhere, but in many ways he, too, is making a return, though many didn't know he was missing. Recently, that is, scholarly attention on Douglass's writings has started to shift from what was an obsessive focus on the 1845 Narrative to include his other writings and his other autobiographical narratives. And as scholars look to construct a more complex understanding of Douglass, they will want to spend more time studying the Douglass-Delany relationship. Among other things, Douglass's strange omission of Delany from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass is significant, for reasons that Levine helps to explain.
This is, in short, a timely and important study, one that will make it difficult to reduce approaches to African American male social activism and leadership to simple oppositional camps alongside of clear ideological paths. Levine enters into the general messiness of social and political life, and he avoids reducing Douglass and Delany to contending performers in a familiar ritual of U.S. racial politics. Levine's study of the mutually contingent performances, the shifting conceptions of representative identity, and the cross-influences both direct and indirect among Douglass, Delany, and Harriet Beecher Stewe (who is not present in the book's title, but is an important player in this study nonetheless) is complex, compelling, and persuasive. Levine challenges us to reread both these figures and their texts, and to reach for an understanding of antebellum literature that recognizes that authors stand on uncertain and shifting cultural ground, and that they adjust constantly to meet the multiple forces pressing upon them. Levine puts it better than I can: "Considering Delany and Douglass together, with Stowe as a prominent example of the cultural forces that helped to mold their changing vision of black representativeness, this book is a study of two (gendered) embodiments of (gendered) cultural forces and thereby a study of the processes by which representative identity and cultural memory are formulated over time."
Beginning in chapter one with a careful reading of Delany's "Western Tour" writings for the North Star during the time when Delany was listed as that publication's coeditor, Levine explores the ways in which Delany and Douglass worked with and around their sometimes vaguely conceptualized differences on the proper mode and direction of African American struggles and goals. These differences emerged particularly when they faced the issue of black emigration, the subject of chapter two, and this split was brought into sharper focus (and was subtly transformed) in their disagreements about Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. This split, Levine argues in chapter three, then played a role in Douglass's attempt to redefine himself and his representative purpose in My Bondage and My Freedom. Levine is particularly impressive here on the connections between the temperance and antislavery movements. And this reading leads, in turn, to one of the highlights of Levine's book, an important reconsideration (and defense) of Stowe's understudied Dred. Arguing persuasively that a reconsideration of Dred in the context that Levine provides "explodes critical myths about [Stowe's] purported blindness to African American realities," Levine argues also that Stowe herself was influenced by Douglass's and Delany's debates (and by those between Douglass and Stowe, which were themselves, perhaps, shaped by Douglass's self-positioning in relation to Delany). This "triangulation of influences" in part informed Stowe's revision of her literary and antislavery politics in Dred, Levine argues, which emerged from her "engagement with a wide range of African American discourses." Dred can then, in turn, be read as an additional presence in Delany's Blake, the subject of Levine's last chapter.
If my summary here indicates a complex narrative of influences and of historical and literary process generally, I would emphasize that this is a rich complexity. It is to Levine's credit that Delany, Douglass, and Stowe become complex and in some ways elusive historical actors as one reads Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity. As he puts it in his introduction (discussing his two principal subjects, Delany and Douglass), "By situating these leaders in relation to each another and by studying the ways in which their ideas and writings emerged from their personal and ideological conflicts, I hope to replace inevitability with contingency, univocal politics with pragmatic (and principled) improvisation. And by paying attention to their overlapping and shared concerns, I hope to challenge reductive binarisms that lead to Delany and Douglass being regarded as unequivocal opponents on the subjects of race and nation." Adding Stowe to the mix, Levine undertakes a study of cross-influences and of self-fashionings that rely on both positive and negative identifications with the other forces, the other fashioning selves, in the field. The result is a thoroughly intriguing book that should help launch a new phase of scholarship on Delany, Douglass, and Stowe.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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