Master-slave dialectics in Charles Johnson's "The Education of Mingo".
In a postscript to "The Phenomenology of the Black Body" (1993), Charles Johnson describes the difficult circumstances under which he originally composed that essay in 1975. A graduate student in philosophy at SUNY-Stony Brook, Johnson was in the midst of one of the most difficult years in his life--a year marked by "unemployment and hardship," as well as by the birth of his son Malik (611). (1) During this year of increased family responsibilities and decreased financial resources, Johnson nevertheless found time to write the first complete draft of Oxherding Tale, a novel that he would see published seven years--and several revisions--later. More surprising, perhaps, is that Johnson somehow made time during this difficult year to read Sartre's Being and Nothingness, Heidegger's Being and Time, and MerleauPonty's The Phenomenology of Perception--all in little over a month. Thus, if 1975 was a year in which Johnson was to draft what some believe to be his finest novel, it was also a time in which he solidifie d an interest in philosophical descriptions of intentionality and subject-object relations -- what Johnson describes as "the correlate of consciousness and its content, noesis-noema, or subject and object" (600). (2)
Johnson draws upon several philosophical accounts of subjectivity in "The Phenomenology of the Black Body," citing -- among others -- Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Ricoeur, Fanon, MerleauPonty, Sartre, and Du Bois. He concludes that the experience of black embodiment should be understood as a distinctive variation on subject-object relations -- one that develops within and out of a color-caste system. As Johnson explains, "The experience of the Black body becomes, not merely a Self-Other conflict, nor simply Hegel's torturous master-slave dialectic, but a variation on both these conditions, intensified by the particularity of the body's appearance as black ... [and] as lacking interiority" (605). Within a color-caste system, Johnson suggests, the subjectivity of Blacks is denied, as they are "one-sidedly seen" by whites and appear as "body sans mind for the Other" (608). The ambiguity of the lived body -- as both subject and object -- is thus reduced by the white Other to the status of a thing. Influenced by var ious twentieth-century responses to Hegel's phenomenological analysis of the encounter with the Other, Johnson's reading of the phenomenology of the black body as a special variation on subject-object relations anticipates more recent inquiries into what bell hooks calls "looking relations" (125) and Gayatri Spivak identifies as "the mechanics of the constitution of the Other" (294). Johnson's understanding of the phenomenology of the Black body also provides an important context for understanding his early short story "The Education of Mingo." Originally published in Mother Jones shortly after the first appearance of "The Phenomenology of the Black Body," the tale's direct allusion to the "structures of intentional consciousness" (6) serves as a textual invitation to read this philosophical fable in the context of that earlier essay. (3) Indeed, "The Education of Mingo" can be read as Johnson's fictional engagement with -- and self-conscious re-writing of -- various philosophical analyses of subject-object r elations, including Hegel's well-known master-slave dialectic.
Masters and Slaves
... just where the master has effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness. It is not an independent, but rather a dependent consciousness that he has achieved. (Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind 236-37)
The central character in "The Education of Mingo" is Moses Green, a poor white Southerner living in antebellum America. Although he inhabits a country shaped by historical diversity -- a fact made clear when he pays for his purchases with "Mexican coin" and eats "hominy made from Indian corn" - Moses nevertheless feels threatened by what he perceives as an increasing American pluralism (3). Labeling anyone who thinks differently from himself an "outrageous liar," he includes in that category "abolitionists, ... Red Indians," and "nearly everybody in the New World from Anna Baptists to Whigs." Ironically -- yet appropriately -- named after the Old Testament patriarch who set God's laws in stone, Moses is singularly unable to tolerate ambiguity. Fearing the ability of others to "twis[t] the truth ... until nothing is clear anymore," he is intimidated by beliefs that differ from his own "common sense" opinions (4). Indeed, Moses fits Johnson's description in "The Phenomenology of the Black Body" of the person wh o is blind to new ideas because he is "locked within the Natural Attitude ... and has been conditioned ... to fix himself upon certain 'meanings'" (603). Thus the diversity of opinion Moses encounters not only threatens to unsettle his own fixed notions, but also seems to destabilize God's creation itself.
Johnson's probing investigation of master-slave dialectics unfolds when Moses decides to buy a slave. He attributes his desire to purchase Mingo, a young African man of about twenty, to his need for "a field hand, a help mate -- a friend" (3). But in fact Moses decides to buy a slave in order to shore up his own threatened identity. In The Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel makes the celebrated claim that any attempt to fix the truth of one's own self-consciousness demands an Other. Or, as he explains, "Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or 'recognized'" (229). By purchasing Mingo, and especially by educating the African in his own common-sense point of view, Moses seeks precisely that recognition -- a way to fix the self and simultaneously to escape the plurality of opinion that unsettles him. Thus even though Moses initially realizes that "everything about him and the African w as as different as night and day" -- including the "structures of intentional consciousness" (6) -- he comes to prize Mingo precisely because the enslaved young man begins to function as a mirror for Moses himself, as his "own emanation, but still ... [Mingo]. Different enough from Moses so that he could step back and admire him" (11). Mingo's subordination to Moses provides the personal recognition that Moses seeks, because the master sees himself reflected in the slave according to his own intentions and will. Significantly, Moses also sees in the African a way to fight the larger instability of creation: By making Mingo a reflection of his own opinions, Moses intends to aim "a shotgun at the whole world through the African, blasting away at all that Moses, according to his own lights, tagged evil, and cultivating the good" (5). In short, Moses Green buys Mingo in order to use the slave as a tool for "remaking the world so that it looked more familiar" (5-6).
Moses's attempt to use his relationship with Mingo to flee the unfamiliar and to fix the self at first seems successful. Under his tutelage, Mingo appears to become a reflection of Moses's own thoughts and actions, right down to the smallest detail. Mingo begins to walk and talk like Moses: He even reproduces Moses's limp, although there is nothing wrong with Mingo's leg. Pleased with the results of his instruction, Moses comes to believe that Mingo is "exactly like him, exactly the product of his own way of seeing, as much one of his products and judgments as his choice of tobacco... a homunculus, or a distorted shadow his own spitting image" (7). Hegel suggests that, as part of his project to secure his own identity, the master attempts to force the slave into conformity with his objectifications. Similarly, Moses convinces himself that Mingo is nothing more than a "product" of his own desires and choices-just like his choice of tobacco. But Moses's purchase of Mingo actually propels him headlong into an en counter with just what he would avoid: difference and the Other. For as Moses Green learns through his own education over the course of this philosophical tale, the dialectic between master and slave is inherently unstable.
When the master has achieved superiority though the subordination of the Other, Hegel suggests, it is ironically "not an independent, but rather a dependent consciousness that he has achieved" (236-37). This dependency arises because the relationship between self and Other is not fixed, but dialectical. Because the master's status depends upon the recognition of the Other, he attempts to secure that status by fixing the Other as the object of his own intentions and will. But the slave is not identical to the master's objectifications, and he is fated to betray them. Indeed, the Other as subject is capable of appropriating and transforming the master's objectifications. These transformations generate new recognitions, which in turn lead to further appropriations and transformations in a dialectical process. Moreover, if Moses understands Mingo's body as a mere extension of his own, he is in danger of losing the recognition Mingo's subjectivity provides him, since another subject is needed to help constitute on e's own self-consciousness. On the other hand, if Moses recognizes Mingo as another subject, he must also eventually recognize that Mingo is capable of his own objectifications-that the slave has the latent power to objectify the master. (4)
In "The Phenomenology of the Black Body" Johnson locates the power of the Other to objectify the self in the ambiguity of the lived body. As he explains, "The body is experienced as having an ambiguity or non coincidence of consciousness and matter. ... I know that I cannot see myself as others see me, white and black, as if the secret of my body and the objectivity of its 'outside' belongs, not to me, but to everyone else" (603). As a body, one is able to be seen by, to be taken as an object by, the Other. Through this process of objectification, the ambiguity of the lived body as an "embodied subject" is reduced by the Other to the status of a thing. Because the "objectified self" one confronts in this process may not correspond to the self one attempts to secure through the recognition of the Other, being taken as an object is experienced as an alienation. Furthermore, this "objectified self" is experienced as dependent upon the intentions or will of the Other. As Hegel suggests, "Just where the master has effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness" (236). (5)
Mingo's ability to objectify Moses, as well as to be objectified, is hinted at early in the short story. Soon after Moses has purchased Mingo, the Southerner laughs at the slave's strange speech, which he defines as "half grunt, half whinny" (5). But Moses's objectification of Mingo's speech as bestial is not the end of a process. When Moses laughs, Mingo is struck by the white Southerner' s "strangely unfiled" teeth, and he laughs at Moses in return. Moses's laughter is part of a dialectical process through which both Mingo and Moses objectify each other as uncivilized. This exchange underscores the true nature of the relationship Moses has entered into with Mingo: Because of the ambiguity of the lived body, Mingo can never completely become the product Moses tries to make him. Instead, through his dialectical relationship with Mingo, Moses himself begins to change. First he consciously starts to police his own bad habits -- like cussing and sopping cornbread in his coffee (5)--in order that Mingo doesn't pi ck them up. Later Moses reveals more subtle changes in character, as when, in reaction to a shock, he begins to dance, "half juba, half jig" (13). Rather than functioning to fix Moses's sense of self, the slave ironically causes Moses to "constantly revis[e] himself" (5), for--as Johnson points out in "The Phenomenology of the Black Body" -- "to 'intend' an object or content of consciousness is to be 'informed' by it as well as to 'give form to it' " (602).
Because Moses fails to understand the structure of the relationship he has entered into with Mingo, he mistakenly believes that he has succeeded in stripping the slave of his own interiority and in reducing Mingo to a mere extension of his own will. As Moses explains to Harriet Bridgewater, a retired schoolteacher to whom he contemplates proposing, "'It's like I just shot out another arm and that's Mingo'" (10). When she hears him bragging about his success in "educating" Mingo, Harriet cautions Moses, "'There's only so much [Mingo] can learn, being a salt-water African and all, don'tchooknow?'" (9). Harriet's counsel has been read as a needed corrective to Moses's attempts to reshape Mingo in his own image, and Jonathan Little identifies her as the "the voice of wisdom in the story" (110). But although Harriet does serve a positive function in the tale, her understanding of Mingo ultimately turns out to be as misguided as that of Moses.
Harriet is a positive influence upon Moses precisely to the extent that she offers him the opportunity to overcome his fear of difference and to establish a meaningful relationship with an Other. Certainly Moses finds Harriet attractive in several respects. With a class longing that grows out of his own lowly economic status, he even admires Harriet's "three decked stove, sheet iron stovepipe, and large wooden cupboard"--all of which stand against his own "rude, whitewashed cabin." More importantly, Moses is attracted to Harriet's voice, which sounds like song. Thus, even though Moses doesn't always agree with Harriet's opinions, he finds that he can be so taken by the "sound" of her voice that he doesn't hear what she is "saying." The music of Harriet's voice figures for Moses a positive encounter with difference not conceivable when he concentrates on what is "said"--or upon his differences of opinion with her and with others. Lonely, Moses seeks out Harriet for companionship, finding a "warmth, well-being, and wonder," as he only "half listens" to her "chatter" (9). Significantly, what Moses finds most attractive about Harriet is an elusive interiority: "a certain silvery beauty intangible, elusive, inside" (8). Harriet functions positively in the tale, then, by offering Moses the opportunity to embrace difference, as it is represented in particular through her gender, education, and class standing. But in spite of her many attractions, Moses "thinks better" of asking Harriet to marry him when he remembers "how married folks... got to favoring each other... like they was wax candles flowing tergether" (20). This image of familiarity stops his plans cold by reminding Moses of exactly what he most fears: an intimacy with difference that requires a transformation of the self. When Moses again considers proposing, he abandons his imaginings of shared intimacy in favor of the language of ownership, reasoning with himself, "I got to have somebody, don't I?" (18; emphasis mine). Moses's rationalization reveals a conf usion of values similar to the one that leads him to buy Mingo in the first place: By thinking in terms of buying a slave in order to have a friend or of marrying a woman in order to have a wife, Moses conflates--in Johnson's phenomenological terms--"being with having" (8).
But if she inspires the vision of a relationship with the Other built on something other than an oppositional dialectic, Harriet ultimately reveals that she, too, confuses being and having. Indeed, it is Harriet who explains the Reverend Liverspoon's sermon on "property" to Moses, by "spell[ing] out how being and having were sorta the same thing: 'You kick a man's mule, for example, and isn't it just like ramming a boot heel in that man's belly?'" (8). Liverspoon's example forcefully makes a point opposite to the one he intends: One's own being is not identical to what one owns. Nor, Johnson's philosophical tale is designed to suggest, is the being of the Other reducible to one's possession or an object of one's perception. During their discussion of whether or not Moses can successfully transform Mingo, Harriet draws upon Aristotle to explain that" 'slaves are tools with life in them, Moses, and tools are lifeless slaves'" (10). (6) Her comments reveal that her warning to Moses about the dangers of trying to educate Mingo come not from her perception that Moses sees too little in the young man, but that he sees too much. By arguing that slaves are nothing but living tools, Harriet also refuses to draw the distinction between being and having that would require her to recognize Mingo as more than a mere extension of self. (7) Taken as mirror, gun, or any other tool, Mingo is denied interiority. Already institutionalized in the Reverend Liverspoon's sermon on property, Harriet's and Moses's personal views on slavery thus reinforce the underlying confusion of being and having that sustains the institution of slavery in the antebellum South.
The Other as Object
Now instruments are of various sorts; some are living, others lifeless....a slave is a living possession...and the servant is himself an instrument. (Aristotle. Politics 1253b-2)
The elusive interiority that accounts for Harriet's attractiveness but is invisible in Mingo is ultimately put at issue in Johnson's short story through two climactic events: Mingo's violent confrontations with Harriet and with Isaiah Jenson, a neighbor on a nearby farm. Like a proud father or an artist pleased with his creation, Moses leaves Mingo to work at Isaiah's one day, certain that the slave will prove how much Moses has taught him. But when Moses returns to pick Mingo up that evening, he is shocked to discover his slave eating calmly in the kitchen--while Isaiah's bloody body lies nearby. As Moses struggles to understand what could have gone so wrong--how it is possible that Mingo could have buried a meat cleaver "deep in Isaiah's forehead" (12) and why it is that the slave seems so indifferent to Isaiah's death--he suddenly remembers back to what he had taught Mingo about chicken hawks: "Months ago, maybe five, he'd taught Mingo to kill chicken hawks and be courteous to strangers" (13). Moses now re alizes that Mingo has misinterpreted his admonition: In a violent--but comic--reversal of Moses's law, Mingo is kind to chicken hawks and kills strangers. Distraught, Moses goes immediately to Harriet's for solace. But while he is inside looking for a drink to calm his nerves, Mingo kills Harriet out in the yard. In a single afternoon, Mingo has turned Moses's world upside-down.
By raising the question of how Mingo's murderous actions are to be interpreted, Johnson's tale focuses the reader's attention on the hidden nature of the slave's interiority. Ashraf Rushdy reads Mingo's killing of Harriet and Isaiah as an "outpicturing" of Moses's innermost desires, which Mingo--as a descendent of the Allmuseri nation of sorcerers--would be able to divine. Indeed, Moses himself admits that his feelings for both Isaiah and Harriet are mixed, and he confesses, "Jenson was so troublesome, always borrowing tools and keeping them, he hoped he'd go to Ballyhack on a red-hot rail" (14). Rushdy concludes that, because Mingo has "lost his desiring function," his murders reflect the "half understood desires of his master" (376). One way of reading Mingo's actions, then, is as fulfillment of Moses's unstated intentions.
But Mingo's actions can also be understood as an indication of the instability of the master-slave dialectic and as the expression of Mingo's own latent powers of objectification. Hegel argues that the slave's own labor moves him in the direction of liberation: By transforming recalcitrant nature, the slave develops mastery--or the ability to transform the world in ways more responsive to his own needs. Unlike the master, the slave is not content with the world as it is. Although Mingo's interiority may be hidden to Moses, the slave's interests are clearly served when he strikes back at whites, reversing the power relations Moses has dictated. Indeed, Mingo's attack on Isaiah--who, like Moses, is named after an Old Testament figure--can be read as an act of resistance to the larger patriarchal position that whites occupy in the American South, a position also implicit in Moses's suspiciously paternal attitudes toward the enslaved youth. The fact that Moses is "careful not to look [Mingo] in the eye" (15) after the murders signals a change in their relationship, and the tale's historical allusion to "free soilers" implies that power relations between master and slave are also becoming unstabl e in the country at large. Significantly, when Moses examines Isaiah's dead body, he finds Mingo's image fixed on his neighbor's retina--a reflection that suggests that Mingo has been successful in turning the Other into a mirror for his own objectifications.
Mingo's murders of Harriet and Isaiah suggest that the invisibility of the slave's interior masks hidden and potentially powerful depths. In "The Phenomenology of the Black Body," Johnson argues that it is precisely the denial of interiority that is characteristic of the lived experience of African Americans within a color-caste system. He also suggests three common stances that blacks assume in the face of white objectification of blacks as "body sans mind." The first of these is to "use the invisibility of interior" to deceive, in trickster fashion, by leading whites to believe that their objectifications of blacks are accurate. (8) This is precisely the strategy that Mingo deploys in order to escape punishment for his murders. Thus when Moses tells him, "'I gave you thought and tongue, and looka what you done with it--they gonna catch and kill you, boy, just as sure as I'm sitting here'" (14), it is Mingo who educates Moses in the logical consequences of the master's definition of the slave as tool:
"What Mingo know, Massa Green know. Bees like what Mingo sees or don't see is only what Massa Green taught him to see or don't see. Like Mingo lives through Massa Green, right?"
Moses waited, suspicious, smelling a trap. "Yeah, all that's true."
"Massa Green, he owns Mingo, right?"
"Right," snorted Moses. He rubbed the knob of his red, porous nose. "Paid good money--"
"So when Mingo works, it bees Massa Green workin, right? Bees Massa Green workin', thinking' doin' through Mingo--ain't that so?" (15)
Punctuating his argument with questions carefully designed to prompt Moses's agreement, Mingo through his speech recalls both Socratic dialogue and African-American trickster tales. Logically and craftily, Mingo leads Moses step-by-step to the conclusion that follows unavoidably from his definition of the slave as a tool or an extension of self: the recognition that, according to his own logic, Moses must assume the responsibility for Mingo's "workin'" and "doin'" --or the murders of Isaiah and Harriet. Mingo's carefully constructed argument advances his own interests rather than those of the master. Indeed, because Mingo is successful at convincing Moses of his own culpability, Moses eventually decides not to kill Mingo or even to turn him in, but to set out "thataways" (23) with the slave, to head west in the "general direction" of Missouri. Moses's uncertainty about the exact location of Missouri and the tale's reference to "free soilers" may indicate that Mingo has successfully tricked his master into hea ding for free territory. In any case, the slave's appropriation of the master's discourse effectively subverts the epistemic hegemony that Moses attempts to maintain.
Through Moses's ultimate failure to fix his opinions in stone, Johnson calls attention to the unstable and equivocal nature of language itself. Although Moses imagines the American landscape to be a place where definitions can be clearly and authoritatively established, his relationship to Mingo demonstrates that he in fact inhabits a realm in which meanings are continually subject to challenge and revision. Indeed, from the outset of the narrative, language is portrayed as a contested site of inter-subjective exchange: Moses intends to counter the "lies" of others with his own "common--sense" views; Harriet sings the promise of reciprocal dialogue even as she rationalizes slavery; Mingo speaks at times with a voice that sounds exactly like Moses's nasal twang and at other times with the exaggerated dialect of a Sambo character. Moses, in particular, exhibits language difficulties. He searches unsuccessfully for the names of commonplace objects (for example, he calls fences "watchermercallems" ), agonizes over how best to explain lightening to Mingo, and avoids proposing to Harriet until he ties one on. And although Moses claims to have given "thought and tongue" to Mingo, it is clear that the slave's use of language far outstrips his own. Through Moses's language problems, Johnson effectively dramatizes the slippage in meaning characteristic of dialectic and underscores Moses's refusal to recognize the interdependency that characterizes his relationships with others--both linguistic and otherwise.
In explaining his theory of conversation, Hans-Georg Gadamer has suggested that "to be in a conversation... means to be beyond oneself, to think with the other and to come back to oneself as if to another" (110). Instead of entering into such conversation, Moses offers his own opinions as pre existing law--a common-sense, readymade language that requires no contribution from the Other. Merleau-Ponty--perhaps the philosopher most influential upon Johnson--describes such "commonplace utterance" as language that has already been institutionalized: the language of "a world already spoken and speaking what we think" (184). From the tale's outset, Moses relies upon common-sense views to neutralize difference. But the linguistic acts of others repeatedly transgress the boundaries of Moses's perceptions throughout the story, and they build to Mingo's climatic reversal of Moses's admonition to" 'Kill chicken hawks and always be courteous to strangers.'" Ironically, it is through Moses's own pronouncements that his obj ectifications are ultimately appropriated and transformed. The master's attempt to claim language as a site of control over the slave fails to account for language as a site where control is also contested and modified. Rather than effectively silencing the "liars" who oppose his common-sense views, Moses finds that by the end of the tale his own voice has been reduced to "a rasp and a wheeze" (23).
By undermining the hegemony that Moses seeks to maintain, the dialectical relationship he enters into with Mingo would seem to hold out the possibility for improved relations. By the end of the short story there is some evidence that Moses has begun to recognize Mingo as more than a mere extension of self. After the murders, Mingo suddenly strikes him as "strangely elemental," and Moses becomes aware that the young man appears changed. When he is away from "the familiar setting of the farm," Mingo's skin takes on "the texture of plant life" and "the stones of his eyes" take on "an odd, glassy quality like those of a spider, which cannot be read." Moses's association of Mingo with plant and animal life might be judged as another failure on his part to recognize the slave's interiority, but actually his new appreciation of the slave's physicality reveals the master's nascent perception of alterity. Rather than perceiving Mingo as merely an extension of the self, Moses now senses a strange, embodied Otherness to the slave. Johnson suggests that such embodiment does not deny the subjectivity of the Other, but in fact is a condition for it. Thus at the same time that Moses associates Mingo's appearance with a spider (a traditional trickster figure in African folklore), he also begins to suspect that the slave has depths-- depths that "cannot be read." As a result of his own education, then, Moses momentarily perceives Mingo as radically Other and as possessing a mysterious interiority, if one that is "faintly innocent, faintly diabolical" (21).
But in this tale of "monstrosity and existential horror" (17), Moses's few, momentary glimpses of the basis for a more complex inter-subjectivity-- either through an identification with the Other as figured by Harriet's language or through an acknowledgment of difference as encountered through embodiment-- are ultimately overwhelmed by nightmare visions of an obstinate, destructive dualism. (9) In one "night vision," Moses imagines that he and Mingo are "wired together" like "two ventriloquist's dummies" (15-16). When Moses tries to run away, so does the illusory Mingo, "pumping his knees right alongside Moses, shrieking, their voice inflections identical" (16). Moses's second vision is of a coin, with his own image engraved on one side and Mingo's on the other. Both visions suggest that what is etched in stone is not Moses's own precepts, but his inescapable relation to the Other. Like two ventriloquists' dummies or two sides of the same coin, both master and slave are locked in association. Moses's visions demonstrate that he now senses the truth of Hegel's claim that "it is not an independent, but a dependent consciousness that the Master achieves" (236-37). Recognizing that "it was a bitter thing to siphon your being from someone else" (18), Moses finds that he is unable either to turn Mingo in or to manumit him, precisely because the slave "shores up, sustains, lets be [Moses's] world... every time he opens his oily black eyes" (13).
In "The Education of Mingo," Johnson uses Moses's disturbing and complicated relationship with Mingo to signify on subject-object relations in general, and on Hegel's master-slave dialectic in particular, positioning them within the historical institution of American chattel slavery. (10) By doing so, he crafts a devastating satire of what some historians have identified as the central "deception" upon which chattel slavery rested: "the notion that in fact, as well as in one's fantasy life, some human beings could become mere extensions of another person's will" (Genovese 30). Originally Moses intends to use Mingo to neutralize difference by "aiming a shotgun at the whole world through the African" (5), but by the end of the tale Moses's intentions have backfired. He has learned--as Sartre warns--that the Other treated as object is an "explosive instrument" that must be "handled carefully": "Thus the Other-as-object is an explosive instrument which I handle with care because I foresee around him the permanent possibility that they are going to make it explode and that with this explosion I shall suddenly experience the flight of the world away from me and my being" (364). (11)
The Other taken as object is an explosive instrument because the invisibility of the interior hides a latent power. The Other is never reducible to a mere extension of self. As embodied subject, Johnson suggests, the Other is capable of his own objectifications--of transgressing the boundaries of self and of remaking the world according to his own needs, aims, and desires.
Through Moses Green's attempts to use Mingo as a tool, Charles Johnson probes the singular variation of subject-object relations that he identifies as developing within a color-caste system, wherein a black Other is denied the interiority that would make him capable of his own intentionality. Through Mingo's unanticipated and violent attacks upon Harriet and Isaiah, Johnson dramatizes the explosive force of the Other taken as object, who--contrary to the Reverend Liverspoon's sermon equating being and having--is never completely reducible to an object of one's knowledge or will. Moses Green's attempt to use Mingo as a tool for neutralizing difference leads to the loss of friends, farm, and all that is commonplace. Ironically, Johnson's narrative closes as Moses--who initially purchases a slave in hopes of making his world look "more familiar" -- rides out with Mingo into unfamiliar territory.
(1.) Johnson's "The Phenomenology of the Black Body" was originally composed in'1 975 as a "style paper" for his graduate program in philosophy. The article first appeared in print in the Winter 1976 issue of Ju-Ju: Research Papers in Afro-American Studies.
(2.) Johnson names Hegel as one of the writers whom he most admires (Boccia 615).
(3.) For other readings of "The Education of Mingo." see Benesch (173-77), Byrd (340-44), Griffiths (536-38), Little (109-11), and Rushdy (378-80). Benesch reads the tale as a philosophical parable that criticizes the Cartesian notion of an autonomous self and dramatizes Johnson's understanding of universal connectedness. Byrd analyzes the tale in light of Whitehead's theory of organism. Placing Johnson in an intertextual dialogue with Toomer and Plato, Griffiths reads the story as an "antebellum parable about education and slavery" (527). Little stresses the many layers of meaning available in the parable form and focuses on the tale as a "shocking allegory of artistic creation gone awry" (109). Finally, Rushdy approaches the tale from the perspective of the version of phenomenology he identifies as figured by the Allmuseri tribe in Johnson's fiction. By approaching the short story from the perspective of Johnson's article on the phenomenology of the black body. I also offer a phenomenological reading of the tale, but draw different conclusions about the precise nature of the relationship between Mingo and Moses and, especially, about the significance of Mingo's actions.
(4.) See Leiberman's description of the structures of epistemic domination and racial objectification in "The Dialectics of Oppression."
(5.) Johnson draws heavily on theories of subject-object relations expressed in the language of consciousness and intentionailty. It should be noted that many contemporary theorists of difference have increasingly criticized such language for privileging the individual subject and for ultimately reducing the other to an epistemological problem for the self. For example, Derrida, Levinas, and Lyotard redirect the discussion of the Other to the language of alterity in an effort to place more emphasis on the encounter with difference and less on an epistemological understanding of the Other.
(6.) See Aristotle, section 1253b, 23-32, and 1255b.
(7.) The fact that Harriet keeps a gun in her cupboard "on account of slaves who swore to die in the skin of freemen" (22) suggests that even she does not truly believe in her definition of slaves as tools.
(8.) Although Mingo uses this strategy effectively, Johnson seems not in general to view such deceptions positively, but rather as a form of bad faith. In "The Phenomenology of the Black Body," Johnson describes those who use such strategies as "cynically" playing with "frozen intentions, presuppositions, and stereotypes" (608).
(9.) Harriet is seen reading Shelley's Frankenstein, described as a tale of "monstrosity and existential horror" (17).
(10.) By suggesting that "The Education of Mingo" "signifies" upon theories of subject-object relations, I want to stress the "double-voicedness" through which Johnson both calls up and revises such theories from a specifically African-American perspective. For the vernacular origin of signifying as a linguistic practice and for its importance to African-American literature, see Bell. For an analysis of linguistic signifying as a metaphor for other African-American "signifyin(g) revisions" of dominant cultural theories and practices, see Gates.
(11.) The conclusion to Johnson's short story is in fact reminiscent of Sartre's pessimistic revision of Hegel In his analysis of "The Look" in Being and Nothingness. See, for example, Sartre's claim that the relationship between consciousnesses is essentially "a conflict" (502). See also Liberman's discussion of Sartre (272-73).
Aristotle. The Politics. Ed. Stephen Everson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1986.
Boccia, Michael. "An Interview with Charles Johnson." African American Review 30 (1996): 611-18.
Bell, Bernard. The Afro-American Novel and Its Traditions. Amherst U of Massachusetts P, 1987.
Benesch, Klaus. "Charles Johnson: 'The Education of Mingo.'" The African American Short Story, 1970-1990. Ed. Wolfgang Karrer and Barbara Pushmann-Nalenz. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher, 1993. 169-79.
Byrd. Rudolph P. "It Rests By Changing: Process in The Sorcerer's Apprentice." I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson. Ed. Byrd. Bloomington: Indiana UP. 1999. 333-52.
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-----. "A Phenomenology of the Black Body." Michigan Quarterly Review 32 (Fall 1993): 590-614.
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Linda Selzer is Assistant Professor of English at Penn State University, where she teaches African American literature, American literature, and American Studies. She has written elsewhere on Johnson's short fiction and is the author of articles on Clarence Major, Alice Walker, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and nineteenth-century political rhetoric. Currently she is working on a book-length study of Johnson's fiction.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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