Reading the painterly text: Clarence Major's "The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage.".
In "The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage" (1994), Clarence Major makes his own distinctive voyage across the Atlantic in a poem that is devastating in its attack on the discourse of empire and subtle in its analysis of the difficulties inherent in the project of fashioning an identity through art. In contrast to the "speakerly text" Henry Louis Gates describes as characteristic of fiction growing out of the African American folk idiom, Major's poetry typically offers instead what might be called a "painterly text" - one that presents readers with a complex collage of historical, literary, and philosophical allusions, street talk, cartoons, puns, folk tales, children's songs, advertising slogans, and references to international locales. A talented painter as well as a writer, Major has recently described himself as "a visual thinker," one who tends to "make connections between things more on the basis of visual associations than verbal or logical ones" (McCaffery and Kutnik 132). Building its critique through images drawn from specific art works and from repeated themes in Western iconography, "The Slave Trade" draws heavily on Major's technique of associative collage to document European culture's normalization of its own history of conquest through the representation of black people in a hierarchical history of progress. By drawing upon actual works of art to illustrate the various ways in which blackness has been framed by the designs of others and by offering its own reconfigurations of specific European landscapes, Major's poem ultimately raises difficult questions about representation, self-expression, and the emancipatory potential of art, while simultaneously delineating the special province of the "painterly text."
I. "Hope, Hope, Fallacious Hope / Where is Your Market, Now?"
- J. M. W. Turner, from a poem displayed with his painting
The Slave Ship (1840)(1)
Charting a dizzying route over three continents and several time periods, "The Slave Trade" is composed of four major sections that move from the African past, to Europe, to the Americas, and, finally, to the present-day United States. From this comprehensive vantage point the poem attempts to negotiate the crisscrossing conceptual routes of a triangular trade whose operating principles are Christianity, commerce, and colonialism. The poem begins with "a voice from deep in the Atlantic," identified as belonging to Mfu, an African who committed suicide during his own Middle Passage voyage (11). Most of the poem, however, is actually narrated by an implied, present-day author who is moved by Mfu's spirit to give voice to the African's experiences. Mfu's position beyond the grave - where he sleeps "free to speak his music" - contrasts with the situation of the implied author, whose identification with Mfu can be read as an attempt to achieve a hermeneutic standpoint from which to make sense of the slave trade's legacy:
. . . Mfu, like a tree, is totally without judgment or ambition, suspended between going and coming in no need of even nutrition - gray, eternal - and therefore able to see, hear and know how to shape memory into a thing of wholeness (13)
Assuming the positionality of a mid-Atlantic suicide who preferred death to slavery, the implied author attempts to make "a thing of wholeness" out of the fragmented past of the black diaspora. The attempt itself is suggestive of a tenuously held hope that the individual need not be overwhelmed by the weight of slavery's history. Indeed, from his unique mid-Atlantic position, Mfu is able to look "generously in all directions" in search of a "festive reason / something that might have slipped" (11). The African searches, essentially, for a reason to affirm life in the face of the historical reality of slavery - a reason he might have overlooked before.
This search takes Mfu first to Africa, where his personal history of betrayal unfolds against a larger history of empire. African complicity in the slave trade is depicted through the participation of Mfu's father, chief, and village in his sale. Mfu's memories emphasize both the unnaturalness of his having been sold "without consent of air, fish, water, bird or antelope," and the senselessness of his having been traded "for a damn shaving brush. . . . / Why not something useful? / Even a Kolanut?" (12). A long passage in which ten separate lines begin with the emphatic word Sold, underscores Mfu's recognition that his sale was intentional - "not a mistake, not a blunder" (13). As his memories fall like the "weight of Livingston's cargo / on his head . . . / one in a long line of strong black porters" (14), Mfu begins to make connections among his personal history, the fate of other African peoples, and the white presence in Africa. Mfu's personal history in Africa thus serves as a starting point for the poem's investigation of a system of exploitation that stretches all the way from the indigenous porters who carry missionaries' cargo in Africa to the black porters who serve white travelers on railroad trains in the United States.
By the end of the first section of "The Slave Trade," Mfu's search has led not to "reasons," but to the self-serving rationalizations of a wider discourse of empire through which whites and their black Others are represented. "Praising themselves," confident about "their mission" to "teach all nations, / baptizing them," white missionaries simultaneously construct their own righteousness and a benighted Other as an object of knowledge and power (13). Mfu's personal history unfolds within a wider discourse that in fact serves as a condition of possibility for his sale - "a whirlwind / of praise, explanation, implication / insinuation, doubt, expression of clout" (11). Against this whirlwind, Mfu's otherworldly point of view is offered as a position from which such hegemonic claims may be surveyed and critiqued. By establishing the implied writer's identification with Mfu and by setting the African's personal history within a wider discourse of European colonialism, section one of "The Slave Trade" defines the distinctive perspective from which Western iconography will be viewed in the poem's richly allusive second and third sections.
II. ". . . I cast him, drew him, and painted him till I had mastered every part . . . ."
- Benjamin Robert Haydon, writing about his black model in 1853(2)
In White Man, Listen! Richard Wright speaks incisively about America's use of the "Negro" as a "metaphor," a cultural construct forged out of the long history of slavery (72). Through their symbolic representations of black people, Wright suggests, white Americans reveal more about their own deepest fears and desires than they do about black Americans. The second and third sections of "The Slave Trade" transport this insight to the intercultural waters of the Middle Passage in order to delineate the cultural, political, and psychological outlines of the representation of a black Other in European culture.(3) Building their critique through a re-interpretation of images drawn from specific art works and from repeated themes in Western iconography, these two sections of the poem draw heavily on Major's technique of associative collage as they explore European culture's normalization of its own history of conquest through the representation of black people in a hierarchical history of progress.(4)
Section two of the poem begins as Mfu undertakes a "tour deep into Europe" in order to "explore / its sense of Mother Nature" (13-14). By taking as the object of his analysis European culture's sense of Mother Nature, Mfu reverses roles with white explorers who enter into "deepest" Africa. He seeks to understand the relationship between certain Enlightenment tenets - such as the appeal to universal laws of nature - and the history of the Atlantic slave trade. At first view, however, Europe "baffles" Mfu, and the African describes European principles in terms of a striking dualism (14):
. . . Mother Nature in Europe is a giant pink pig with a black baby at one tit (this is good Europe: charitable, kind, compassionate Europe) and a white baby at the other. A sucking sound, plenty to go around. And in the background, without thought of remission, a band of white slave-catchers force Africans into submission (this is bad Europe: evil, mercenary Europe). (14)
In reading the cultural landscape of Europe from the perspective of the Atlantic slave trade, Mfu here offers a re-reading of a specific work of European iconography. Mfu's description of both aspects of Mother Nature bears a striking resemblance to the frontispiece for G. T. Raynal's 1774 history of the slave trade in the West Indies, Historie philosophique et politique des etablissements et du commerce des Europeens dans les deux Indes, surely its pictorial inspiration.(5) Indeed, the engraving's two juxtaposed scenes correspond precisely to the poem's description: a woman with six breasts - the poem's "pink pig" - represents Nature in the foreground, while in the background a band of whites overpowers a group of blacks.
According to the description accompanying the engraving's plates, the work was intended to represent "Nature," who "nurses at the same time and with the same interest a white child and a black child" (Honour 4.1: 54). But if the frontispiece illustrated in Figure 1 seems originally designed to suggest that slavery perverts the natural relationship between the two races - a relationship represented by the two suckling infants - Mfu sees in the juxtaposition of the "two Europes" more troubling possibilities. His suspicion, of course, is that the two images do not really stand in relation to one another as opposites, but that "Good Europe" and "Bad Europe" are somehow more intimately related. Illustrating the Enlightenment's appeal to natural law, the engraving also represents that norm as white, revealing that the work functions, in part, as an act of self-definition. But from Mfu's marginalized position, Europe's bounty seems piggish, her claims to regard others as equals mere acts of noblesse oblige. Suggestive at least of an ironic two-sidedness in regard to stated principle and actual practice, the two juxtaposed scenes imply further to Mfu that the cultural ideals of the Enlightenment gloss over - and somehow support - a material economy based upon human commodification.(6)
The moral ambivalence of Europe is further critiqued as Mfu focuses his attention on "a good white monk," a central figure in the poem's second section. The good monk has apparently escaped the more virulent forms of racism common to his day: Unlike those motivated by profit, he has no interest "in the gold" of Africa, and the prayers he offers to black saints point to his ostensible acceptance of black people. The monk's liberalism on issues of race is also signaled by his implied skepticism toward contemporary theories of racial difference, including both ethnographic accounts of orangutans who are reputed to kidnap black babies "thinking they" are their "own kin," and naturalists' accounts that attempt to rank the races on an ascending scale through exaggerated measurements of facial angles.(7) Rejecting the racist scientific theories that burgeoned simultaneously with the Enlightenment's elevation of reason, the white monk puts his faith instead in visions of the "Queen of Sheba as a healing spirit for the down-trodden blacks" (15). The monk's visions in fact introduce a number of painterly allusions into Major's poem, and an understanding of the visual theme of the black Queen of Sheba helps to explain the significance of his meditations.
Compared to the exaggerated diagrams used by naturalists to depict the supposedly ape-like facial angle of blacks, the artistic and often beautiful representations of Queen of Sheba would seem to provide Western iconography with much needed, positive images of black people.
As she appears in the stained glass window illustrated in Figure 2, the black Queen of Sheba was commonly depicted in works representing her visit to King Solomon. Many of these works portrayed her positively, as a lover of wisdom, and the scriptural source of the queen's visit, found in I Kings 10, suggests that she comes specifically to test the king's knowledge. Afterwards, the queen admits that Solomon's wisdom is superior to her own, and she praises the god who gave him such insight. As one who traveled far for the sake of learning, the figure of the black Queen of Sheba in Western art has often been interpreted as an icon representing spiritual and intellectual enlightenment.(8) Certainly, to the good monk, the queen represents the spiritual enlightenment he believes he can offer to "down-trodden blacks" (15).
But Mfu's sarcasm in describing the monk's visions not only reflects the sense of moral superiority he detects in the monk's spiritual magnanimity, but also invites readers to re-interpret the iconic significance of the queen's "enlightenment." By shifting the spectatorial gaze from the monk to Mfu, the poem demonstrates that representations of the black queen's visit to King Solomon can also be seen to delineate a clear racial hierarchy, one in which the queen functions disturbingly as a scriptural - and visual - exemplum of the proper respect "inferior" races should demonstrate when faced by a "superior" culture. (Such a racialized reading may be supported by the many Christian portrayals of the black Queen's visit to King Solomon that exaggerate the pair's racial differences by portraying a very dark Queen of Sheba and a white King Solomon.)
By inviting readers to view a series of painterly images from Mfu's specific cultural and historical vantage point, sections two and three of Major's poem make concrete the visual metaphor of the poem's subtitle, "View from the Middle Passage." Indeed, as the poem's painterly allusions accumulate, images drawn from varying time periods cohere to form a poetic gallery that illuminates specific moments in a long history of European representations of racial difference. The cumulative effect of these unsettling representations is an artistic ranking of the races that is more subtle - but no less insidious - than the overtly racist hierarchies of the naturalists. In their studies of the representation of black people in Western art, Honour and Devisse have identified several visual themes that recur in the representation of Blacks in European art. As these themes evolve over time, they can be seen to provide visual genealogies of certain European attitudes toward racial difference. Two such themes and their unfolding genealogies seem especially important to Major's poem - the theme of the black supplicant and that of the powerful black man at arms.
The theme of the black supplicant in Western iconography forms a visual genealogy that stretches from images of the kneeling penitent in Christian art, to representations of the supplicating slave in abolitionist illustrations, to depictions of colonial subjects paying homage to their "magnanimous" rulers. This particular genealogy is evoked by the poem's painterly allusions to the Ethiopian Eunuch (16), to the well-known abolitionist seal produced by Josiah Wedgwood (14), and to several representations of colonial rulers and subjects.
According to Devisse, illustrations of the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch, like the one in Figure 3 from the early sixteenth century, became popular in Western art from the third century on (2.1: 21). Devisse attributes the popularity of the Eunuch as a visual theme primarily to the rich theological implications he held for Christians as the first non-Jew to be brought into the Christian economy of salvation. In Acts 8: 26-40, the Ethiopian Eunuch invites Philip into his chariot to help him interpret scripture. As Philip witnesses to the Eunuch, their chariot approaches a pond. At this point the Eunuch asks Philip if there is anything that prevents him from being baptized immediately. Philip then baptizes the Eunuch, convinced that the Ethiopian believes "with his whole heart." The figure of the Eunuch thus represents a specifically Christian version of the spiritual enlightenment represented by the Queen of Sheba (and in fact the Eunuch is the minister of the Queen of Sheba's literal heiress, Queen Candace). More importantly, the baptism of the Eunuch was seen by Christian interpreters as the event that establishes Christianity as a universal religion to be offered to all people, not only Hebrews. Understood from this perspective, the Eunuch's conversion validates the proselytizing of all peoples, including pagans.
The baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch thus serves as the scriptural origin for the missionary efforts Mfu encounters in section one of "The Slave Trade," while also providing a visual inspiration for the good monk's meditations in section two. Clearly familiar with the Eunuch and with the lesson in evangelization he represents, the good monk prays that the "lean Children of Ham / will be washed clean / by the spirit and say of the Lord / and made as white as the light of day" (15-16). Identifying the black Other with spiritual sin through the curse of Ham while simultaneously associating his own whiteness with enlightenment and spiritual cleanliness, the monk fetishizes racial difference, revealing that his superficial acceptance of black people is in fact based upon an underlying ranking of souls. Not surprisingly, from the African's perspective, the good monk's prayers conceal a spiritual tyranny "not innate" or even "mean-spirited," but one that reveals nonetheless a "contradiction / implicit in its quest" (16). The theological lesson Mfu draws from the poem's repeated representations of baptism is not the promise of spiritual enlightenment, but the threat of an ethnocentricism that endorses the exercise of power through which "one culture . . . modif[ies] another" in the "name of its God" (14).
The supplicating pose of the Eunuch and the simplicity of his characteristic dress are recapitulated in later abolitionist representations of enslaved people, including the well-known abolitionist seal produced by Josiah Wedgwood. In "The Slave Trade," the missionaries who baptize African converts wear this seal around their necks:
They do the dunking. These are the good white men who wear Josiah Wedgwood's medallion of a pious-looking African face with the inscription: "Am I not a Man and a Brother?" (1787) (14)
By depicting a black man in a pose of humility similar to that found in many representations of the Ethiopian Eunuch, the abolitionist seal defines a role for blacks in asking for their freedom similar to the Eunuch's in seeking salvation: Enslaved blacks should not demand, but supplicate for their freedom.
Providing the white public with the reassuring image of a docile black man in the position of asking for his freedom, the pose of the supplicating slave in fact suggests a prior emasculation of power that identifies the supplicant as a figurative, if not a literal, eunuch. The person of power whom the slave entreats is present only by implication. Nonetheless, the abolitionist seal could and did serve as a form of self-representation by Whites, many of whom wore the medallion to display their own philanthropic sentiments. Pointing out that the seal was used as something of a fashion statement by Whites to indicate their membership in a philanthropic elite, Honour discusses the use of its image on personal items such as hair pins, jewelry, and snuff boxes (4.1: 63). Zachary Macaulay, who served as governor of Sierra Leone, went so far as
to have the medallion engraved into his funeral monument, as seen in Figure 4. Similarly, by displaying the abolitionist seal around their necks, the missionaries in section two of "The Slave Trade" make their own fashion statement, adopting a visual symbol associated with abolition to validate their own evangelical efforts. With the abolitionist seal around their necks providing a material connection between the philanthropic principles of the abolitionists and European colonizing practices, the missionaries in "The Slave Trade" point backward to representations of the Ethiopian supplicant, while pointing forward to later representations of colonial peoples as kneeling subjects gratefully receiving the gifts of cultural enlightenment. By illuminating specific moments in which scenes of enlightenment - spiritual, civic, or cultural - articulate racial difference, the visual theme of the black supplicant thus exposes a philosophy of progress complicit in the rationalization of exploitation.
The popularity of the abolitionist seal also led to the appropriation of its images by those who wished to argue against abolition. Thus, in Figure 5 (1789), the black supplicant is transformed into a white victim in order to illustrate the presumed dangers of ending slavery. The print depicts a white man kneeling in the position of the supplicant slave while a well-dressed black man strikes him, reversing the power relations suggested by the abolitionist seal. Receding in the background are other scenes which illustrate a similar reversal. In one, Whites work at cutting down sugar cane while Blacks are shown banqueting and dancing. Near the foreground, two busts represent the Folly of abolition and the Wisdom of regulation. Significantly, Folly wears a foolscap, Wisdom, a military helmet. Wisdom's identification with the military acknowledges - and endorses - the physical force needed to regulate and maintain the slave system. A parody of the abolitionist seal, this illustration is undoubtedly the "cartoon" referred to in section three of Major's poem:
A black man dressed like an English gentleman is bludgeoning a poor, suffering white man over the head with an ignorant-stick. And in the background: Similar configurations dot the diminishing landscape. Message: Let them go and they will enslave you. Rationale: Abolition is folly. (19)
As the poem makes clear, the cartoon argues against abolition by equating freedom for Blacks with slavery for Whites. Designed specifically to arouse Whites' fears of reprisal, the print includes a beheader's ax marked "RETALIATION" in the foreground. In parodying the abolitionist medallion, the print counters the seal's visual presentation of enslaved people as docile supplicants with images of the enslaved as violent revolutionaries. Clearly reflecting the hopes and fears of those who produced them, neither image expresses the complexity of enslaved people's own subjectivities. Rather, the abolitionist seal and its cartoon parody, taken together, define the acceptable and unacceptable roles for Blacks to play in their own emancipation, as seen from the perspective of Whites.
As the personal embodiment of this larger process of representation, the good monk reveals a similar displacement of his own fears and desires for the black Other through his icons. Through his visions of the black Queen of Sheba and his prayers to the "Black Madonna" (15), the monk sublimates his erotic desires for the black woman who appears to him in secular dreams of the "Sable Venus":
. . . Though this secular dream is out of rhyme with his devotion, much of his time is spent on his vision of the Sable Venus, herself a Creole Hottentot, surrounded by chubby pink cherubs (15)
If the cherubs who surround the Sable Venus hint at the monk's concupiscence, they also allude to a specific work which names the "Sable Venus" as its subject, illustrated in Figure 6. The Voyage of the Sable Venus (1801), an engraving modeled after a painting by Thomas Stothard, is considered to be one of the most outrageous works "inspired" by the Atlantic slave trade. The work depicts a black woman in a pose similar to that of the famous Medici Venus. The Sable Venus, naked except for a narrow cloth around her hips, stands on a half-shell lined with an expensive fabric. Sea creatures pull her gently across the Atlantic by chains of gold, while cherubs fly in attendance, shielding her from the sun. King Neptune appears at one side, apparently pointing the way to the West Indies. Nude except for his crown and brandishing the Union Jack, he projects a strange combination of eroticism and empire. His robust physique, which appears somewhat out of keeping with his graying head, serves to heighten the sensuality of the work, and his desires for the Sable Venus are signaled by the arrow Cupid aims at him. An obscene glossing over of the actual horrors endured by black women making the Middle Passage journey aboard slave ships designed to hold hundreds of captives in their holds, the work seems designed to portray the Atlantic crossing as a benign method of procuring black women for the enjoyment of white men. Reinforcing the work's suggestive connotations, a poem which accompanies the engraving includes the salacious observation that black women and white women are essentially alike "at night" (Honour 4.1: 34).
The monk's fantasies about the Sable Venus indicate that his visions ultimately have more to do with sensualism than with asceticism. Identifying the black body with his own repressed sexual desires as well as with the curse of Ham, the monk sublimates his desire for the Sable Venus in visions of the beautiful pagan queen saved by Faith - and, perhaps, in his own spiritual power over black converts. His sexual anxieties are also exposed by his attitude toward the Ethiopian Eunuch. While early church fathers interpreted the Eunuch's conversion as an allegory about faith overcoming lust (Devisse 2.1: 22), the monk seems more concerned about the Eunuch's lingering sexual prowess than with his spiritual principles. His prayers that "the white Venus and the black Eunuch, / seen together like white on rice, / will remain cool, nice and chaste (16), expose the monk's continuing anxieties about the virility of the black man, while suggesting that the monastic celibate experiences difficulty controlling his own libido.(9) Through the monk's complex religious, political, and psychological relationship to his icons, "The Slave Trade" exposes the cultural ambitions and personal appetites underlying European representations of a black Other.
A second grouping of painterly allusions raises issues more directly concerned with the subjectivities of marginalized black people. These representations are not of humble supplicants, but of powerful black men, often a king or soldier, presented in elaborate costumes of state. Popular subjects for this second grouping of images in Western art include the Black Magi who attended the birth of Christ; the black knight, St. Maurice; and black soldiers, frequently shown in colorful costumes fighting by the side of their white masters. These visual themes are evoked through the poem's references to "Caspar at the birth of Christ" (15), through the monk's prayers to St. Maurice (15), and by allusions to several specific works of art depicting black soldiers.
Unlike representations of the penitent Eunuch or the supplicating slave, the iconography of the black King Caspar typically depicts an authoritative male figure. In keeping with his royal status, representations of the King are often quite ornate, and he is sometimes accompanied by an exotic entourage. But if the black King offers a more dignified visual icon for the black man than his more submissive counterparts, like them he is usually shown in a position of deference, and is often portrayed in the act of paying homage to the Christ child. Somewhat ironically, the King's own magnificence helps to define his act of obeisance, since the greater his own prestige, the greater honor that is paid to Christ through his act of veneration. Devisse points out that representations of the "giving of homage" in Western art were often used "to indicate the farthest outreach of centers of power" (2.1: 25). In particular, since Africa was identified as one of the four corners of the earth before the discovery of the Americas, black figures were used iconographically to represent the furthermost reaches of the globe. From the standpoint of homage giving, then, the black King's visit to the Christ child can be read as a sign of the far-reaching consequences of that event. In other words, the very Otherness of the exotic black King could be used to define the magnitude of the event's importance.
The use of the powerful black male figure as a sign for another's power and influence is also seen in representations of the black St. Maurice in Germanic culture.(10) Martyred for refusing to renounce Christ for Rome, St. Maurice eventually came to be represented as a black knight, as Mfu describes him, "in armor" (15). Both the richness of his garb and his association with Christianity align St. Maurice with King Caspar, as in Figure 7. But St. Maurice also came to represent Germanic military and cultural power, as his knighthood suggests. Mfu's description of Maurice as the "patron saint of the Crusade / against the Slavs" (16) captures well the knight's combined military and religious significations. Emblazoned on banners used to lead invading Germanic armies into battle, representations of St. Maurice were in fact used to inspire Germanic expansionism and the forced conversion of the Slavs, as Mfu suggests. Indeed, St. Maurice's identification with Germanic military force was at times so strong that his name was given to eleventh-century Saxon men at arms, called milites mauriciani, and the term Maurician Imperialism came later to denote the twin activities of conquest and forced conversion (Devisse 2.1: 154, 157). With stained-glass windows, churches, and entire towns dedicated to him, and with his image adorning family crests, shields, and even the drinking goblets of the Germanic royal and imperial families, St. Maurice represents par excellence the appropriation of the image of the powerful black man to express white imperial, ecclesiastical, and cultural power. By praying to St. Maurice, then, the monk not only demonstrates his personal devotion for a black saint, but also identifies his own attempts to convert Africans with a crusade mentality grounded in force.
More importantly, however, by offering a visual paradigm for the powerful black male who gives his allegiance to Western culture, representations of Saint Maurice and other powerful men at arms raise questions about the cultural positionality of black men who gain - at least to some degree - the ranks of the "good Europeans." At the end of section two, Mfu reflects on the position of black intellectuals and military leaders who successfully achieve a degree of status in white society:
And Mfu also wonders at the noble, dignified presence of black intellectuals and military leaders among the good Europeans: There is Jean-Baptiste Belley, sad, ironic, sardonic, aging, elegant, in the French Army, a captain during the French Revolution, fighting, no doubt, for justice for all, with strong memories of having been born a Senegalese slave at remote Goree (1747). Surely this man lived with irony as if it were a cancerous sore in his throat. (17)
By contemplating the example of Jean-Baptiste Belley, Mfu turns from considering the iconographical significance of the strong black figure to focus upon the black man's own subjectivity. Born as a slave in Goree, Belley was transported as a child to Saint-Dominque, where, by his own account, he overcame slavery through "hard labor and sweat."(11) He joined the French army, was eventually promoted to Captain, and served as one of six elected representatives from Saint-Domnique to the French National Convention in 1793. The poem's description of Belley is highly suggestive of a portrait by Anne-Louis Girodet, illustrated in Figure 8.
The painting shows Belley elegantly dressed in his Captain's uniform, his tri-color sash signifying his elevated public position. Looking upward as though lost in thought, Belley leans against a bust of Raynal, frowning slightly. The fluid lines of his body contrast with the straight lines of the marble pillar that supports the bust, lending an informality to the stately tone set by the sculpture and Belley's own dress uniform. Commenting on the painting's identification of Belley with the famous philosophe, Honour suggests that the work may have been intended to provide an "image of blacks freed from slavery as a result of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution"; he further describes Belley as "perfectly at ease in this attire and in this space" (Honour 4.2: 106, 110). To Mfu, however, Belley appears "sad" and "sardonic." Rather than discerning the efficacy of the Enlightenment in the painting, Mfu recognizes in Belley the complex psychological ambivalence experienced by black men who succeed within the cultural horizon of a white society. The figure thus raises several disquieting issues for Mfu, who seems concerned about the degree of accommodation to European principles Belley's success implies yet sensitive to the intellectual and emotional strain that must result from the Captain's inhabiting of a position that is both "dignified" and necessarily "ironic."
The use of Belley's portrait as an icon for the emancipation of slaves is itself suggestive of the difficulty of self-representation for marginalized peoples. Portraiture is often regarded as one of the most personal of art forms. But if Belley's portrait is read iconographically to represent the freeing of slaves in general, both Belley's individuality and his agency are elided. That the work could be used in just this fashion is suggested by the fact that the portrait was given an iconic title in which Belley's name is erased - Portrait de Negre - when it was shown in the Exposition de l'Elysee in 1797 (Honour 4.1: 106). Such a representative use of his portrait also seems at odds with Belley's attribution of his social rise by his own "hard labor and sweat." The portrait of Belley thus underscores the difficulty of constructing a self in a society that tends to see one iconographically as representing a type and that consistently attempts to reduce one's identity to the color of one's skin. Finally, by ending with a consideration of the elegant officer who lives with irony "like a cancerous sore in his throat," section two of the poem concludes with a more complex and realistic representation of black subjectivity than Mfu's otherworldly perspective, established at the end of section one. Mfu's disinterested stance was in fact never a hermeneutic possibility, as is reflected in his own positioned readings of the European cultural landscape. Hereafter, the voice of the poem becomes increasingly engaged, Mfu's imaginary point of view having been deepened through a consideration of the compelling historical position of Belley.
From glorified knights to humble supplicants, the images evoked by the painterly allusions in Major's poem point to a larger social process of representation whereby racial difference is commodified for the consumption of a white public. Designed, produced, and disseminated by the culturally privileged, images of Blacks in European culture reflect the artistic - and the social - mastery of their makers. The effects of this process upon black men and women are chillingly captured in the poem's description of the figures found in a child's jack-in-the-box:
. . . And even Peter Noire can be made to leap out of a box like those that French children play with where a black Martinique maid, complete with apron and headpiece, springs up with a jolly smile, ready to dust. (16-17)
Removed from the aesthetic realm of high art and reduced to playthings packaged for children's play, the two black figures described above serve as grim illustrations of the social manipulation of black men and women for the purposes of others. The black maid, modeled after a woman from the French colony of Martinque, springs up ready to serve at the children's whim, a "jolly smile" fixed permanently on her face to indicate her perpetual satisfaction with her menial social role. Peter Noire, a figure who carries Saint Nicholas's bag of sticks and candy in certain European folk legends, is also confined and controlled, signifying the successful harnessing of the black man's labor. Boxed for French children's amusement, the two figures exemplify the social marginalization of people who are expected to be both permanently accessible as workers and perpetually amenable to authority. Painted, molded, sculpted, boxed - images of Blacks in the "The Slave Trade" document a process of representation that obscures black people's own subjectivities, raising serious questions about the possibilities for their effective self-expression and about the emancipatory potential of art.
III. "If the effect of Colonial power is seen to be the production of hybridization . . . [it] enables a form of subversion . . . that turns the discursive conditions of dissonance into the grounds of intervention."
- Homi Bhabha, "Signs Taken for Wonders" (154)
By drawing upon actual works of art to illustrate the various ways in which blackness has been framed by the designs of others and by presenting its own reconfigurations of European landscapes, Major's poem ultimately foregrounds complex questions relating to representation, self-expression, and art. The last two sections of the poem build from Mfu's initial examination of the "new-world" landscape to an explicit consideration of the situation of the black artist in contemporary society. Section three of the poem begins as Mfu turns his attention from Europe to the Western hemisphere, his droll "Ah Ha!" satirizing the discourse of discovery that was used to rationalize European expansion into the new world (17). Leading readers through a catalogue of offenses that transpired throughout the Caribbean and the Americas, Mfu associates countries which were the actual destinations of Middle Passage voyages with specific vignettes of human suffering. In Saint Dominique, a "group of maroons" is ambushed by "white overseers with guns" (17); in Georgia and Carolina, "men, women, and children" toil in cotton fields; in Barbados, a crying "mulatto girl" is sexually abused by a planter; and in Jamaica, a "sambo, white as his tormentors," is bull-whipped until his back runs red (18). Providing a counter-text to these acts of violence against the enslaved, another passage depicts a black army in Haiti in the act of attacking French soldiers - "pulling them up / by way of pulleys to hang them dangling from stakes, / to hang in the sun till they die" (17).(12) This new-world landscape of abuse, violence, counter-attack, and human misery, Major's painterly text vividly suggests, is the logical and factual outcome of European efforts to "civilize" the world.
One scene is especially expressive of the dangers this landscape holds for the people of the black diaspora. In this passage, a black horseman is described as he is attacked by a boa constrictor:
A giant snake, sixty yards long, drops from a massive, ancient tree onto the back of a black horseman, right or wrong you see, and wraps itself around both, squeezing till the horse and the man, taking all they can stand, stop moving, then swallows first the man and then the horse. (18)
Encircled by a power from which he cannot escape, the horseman meets a fate suggestive of the historical situation of Blacks caught within the unyielding system of slavery. The injustice of their condition has no effect upon their circumstances - or upon the securing of their release - just as the horseman is attacked, "right or wrong you see." The poem's description follows closely the scene depicted in a study by James Ward (1803), which also portrays a black horseman being attacked by a boa constrictor.(13) The snake, which has dropped from a nearby tree, stretches the man's body out over the back of his horse, encircling them both. The black man's muscles are rigid with exertion, but his facial expression reflects the horrified recognition that his struggles will prove ineffective. Although neither the subject nor the naturalistic setting of Ward's study refers to slavery overtly, by recontextualizing the scene among other vignettes of slavery's abuses, the poem invites readers to see the black horseman's ordeal as a powerful visual metaphor for the suffering of black people who are caught up in a system of trade that relentlessly consumes black bodies.
The spectacle of Western slavery prompts Mfu to identify the psychological destruction that threatens to be the final destination of all Middle Passage voyages, real or imaginary - "the insanity / that welcomes us at the other end: where one does not believe there is hope." To keep from slipping into the despair that overcame him before, Mfu brings to mind two images. First, he remembers a coin given to him by an "Ashanti Ju Ju" girl with the entreaty that he "believe that the good / in human beings will prevail." One side of the coin shows a black man's head with the inscription Me Miserum; the other depicts the figure of the "antique goddess" Nemesis, who holds a scourge in one hand and an olive branch in the other (20). The images and the inscription are the same as those found on a medal commissioned in commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade to the Danish West Indies in 1791.(14) Since Nemesis is the traditional scourge of those who use their power unjustly, the coin seems designed to suggest that the goddess will avenge the suffering of the oppressed. The Ashanti girl gives the coin to Mfu in an effort to bolster his hope that, in the long run, justice will triumph over misery.
Mfu also strains to keep before him the "gentle face / of Carl Wadstrom, white man, bent over Peter Panah, black man, teaching him to read." A concrete example of a white person performing an act of kindness for an African, this image would seem to support the coin's promise that the good in people may eventually win out. This image is also inspired by a specific work of art, a portrait of Carl Wadstrom and Peter Panah by Carl Fredrik von Breda (1789).(15) The portrait depicts Panah sitting at a desk with a book open in front of him, while Waldstrom stands over him, pointing to the page. As Mfu attempts to counterbalance the prior scenes of human cruelty with this picture of human concern, however, he eventually realizes that he wishes the portrait "said something more than it does" (20).
Mfu's dissatisfaction may be a reaction to an ambivalence inherent in both images. Certainly Nemesis, in her dual aspect, is reminiscent of the morally ambiguous icons of nationality found elsewhere in the poem. Whether she is the savior or the cause of the African's misery is difficult to discern, especially since she holds in one hand the instrument frequently used to discipline slaves. Furthermore, given the tragic history of the Ashanti people under colonization, the Ashanti girl's hopeful predictions for the future are bitterly ironic. Similarly, Carl Wadstrom's educating of Peter Panah is reminiscent of the role that Philip plays toward the Ethiopian Eunuch. Whether his actions are motivated more by kindness or by cultural ethnocentricism is also uncertain, but they are certainly suspicious, especially given the plans of the historical Wadstrom to start a colony in Africa. Finally, Mfu's wish that the portrait "said more than it does" may suggest a privileging of verbal expression over the visual arts (in terms of their political potential) and a concomitant call for linguistic self-expression.(16)
Indeed, the striking image of the black horseman encircled by the thick coils of the serpent can also be understood to signify the ensnarement of black individuals in a hostile system of racial representation. The final sections of "The Slave Trade" consider the possibilities for relaxing those bonds - if not for escaping them entirely. One possibility that is explored for mitigating the effects of a racialized social discourse is found in the hybridization of culture that is a result of colonization. In its earlier vignettes of new-world slavery, section three emphasizes the diverse ethnic backgrounds of those captured in the Western slave system - including maroons, Creoles, mulattos, and sambos. This diversity is the material embodiment of a larger process of cultural hybridization engendered by the slave trade. Although the new cultural combinations created by this process do not reflect all cultures equally - or affect all people in the same way - Major's poem proposes that the process of cultural hybridization may itself serve as a condition for loosening the bonds of a reified system of representation. A concrete illustration of this process is offered by the function of African American folk song in the poem.
While references to folk material from both European and African traditions appear throughout "The Slave Trade," African American folk songs emerge in section three to play an important role by signifying on the poem's more painterly descriptions.(17) Juxtaposed to folk material from other traditions, the songs provide a powerful counter-text to the negative representations of Blacks those other traditions encode: "Catch a nigger by the toe . . . ? Let my people go!" (19). Revealing both the ambivalent acculturation of African Americans to mainstream society's linguistic and cultural heritage and their lived experience of cultural dissonance, the songs are expressive of both communal identity and social alienation. Thus after the description of a white general who fights in a battle while his slaves "watch for him to botch it," a song interrupts to comment on the competing group interests represented: "Pharaoh's army sunk in the sea, / Pharaoh's army sunk in the sea, / Sho am glad it ain't me" (19). The song's identification of Blacks with the chosen people and Whites with Pharaoh's army also reverses the earlier association of Blacks with the benighted in Christian evangelicalism. In another fragment of song, "Never will forget the day, / Never will forget the day, / Jesus washed my sins away" (18), the meaning of baptism is transformed to express Blacks' sense of personal righteousness and their hopes for social salvation, displacing the earlier representations of baptism as spiritual enlightenment or cultural ethnocentricism. By embodying both the culture of their captors and the needs and desires of the enslaved, then, the spirituals exhibit a cultural ambivalence that is itself expressive of the concrete historical situation of African Americans. Major has recently described the voices of African American poets as being "constructed out of intense cultural and artistic conflict and cross-fertilization" ("Introduction" xli). The spirituals in "The Slave Trade" underscore both the conditioned materiality of that conflict and the opportunities for self-expression afforded by that cross-fertilization.
In Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy notes that black social critics have long suggested that Blacks in the West have not placed their hopes for social self-creation in labor but that, instead, "artistic expression" has been seen as the "main means of individual self fashioning and communal liberation" (40). Major attempts to think through the possibilities, and the limitations, of identifying artistic activity as a means for the personal and communal reconstruction of Blacks in the conclusion to "The Slave Trade":
Mfu remembers Equiano Equiano (1789) said: "We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets." So, if this is so, why not celebrate? Mfu calls on all of his people of the Diaspora: Come on Connie, do the Congo Cakewalk! Come on, ya'll, put Mfu in a trance! (20-21)
Not convinced by the Ashanti girl's prediction that the good in human beings will eventually prevail, Mfu calls to mind Olaudah Equiano's definition of the African people as a nation of artists. Considering whether this creative productivity may itself be reason enough to "celebrate," Mfu abandons his analytic search for "reasons." Instead, Mfu now seeks conviction through engagement, his "trance" indicating a final departure from the distanced positionality he personified at the beginning of the poem. Calling upon a long list of black artists and other accomplished black cultural figures, Mfu initiates a sort of poetic ring shout that builds for almost a page. The ring shout of the African American religious and musical traditions - designed to excite the spirit and revitalize belief - offers Mfu an alternative model of spiritual enlightenment. He thus attempts to invigorate his personal search for faith by drawing upon a tradition that counters the methodologies of mainstream culture. Mfu's inspirational chant seems, then, to confirm the idea that Blacks who have been defined out of the national identities constructed by whites through racialized civic discourse may achieve a degree of personal renovation and communal restoration through hybridized art forms.
But the last stanza of Major's poem suggests that the work's final position is far from an unproblematic assertion of the potential for art to serve as a site for authentic self-fashioning and communal expression:
Come on, ya'll. . . . You can do more than Jackie Robinson did for Wheaties, or Joe Louis did for Chesterfields. Mfu says, Come on, ya'll. You can get out of the cotton field and you can rise above the coconut tree. Mfu says you can get off your knee and change your image. Do it your way. It's nobody's business but your own. (21-22)
His language parodying the particularly American versions of progress found in popular self-improvement rhetoric, Mfu urges the people of the black diaspora to "get off [their] knee[s] and change [their] image" - explicitly comparing contemporary Blacks to the supplicant on the abolitionist seal. Combining the commodification of legendary black sports figures in popular advertising jingles with historical examples of the exploitation of black labor in the Americas, Mfu's call for the creation of liberating art forms is situated within particular traditions of cultural production. Framed by contemporary media industries, the efforts of African Americans to "change their image" can be appropriated, sometimes with the collusion of Blacks advancing their own economic and social interests.(18) Efforts at self-improvement lead ironically to the reproduction of the likenesses of successful Blacks on cereal boxes and in cigarette ads that function disturbingly as manufactured versions of iconic portraiture. These fabricated images point to commercial and technological processes that speed up, rather than challenge, the social system of representation through which blackness can be packaged and sold. The personal achievements of Blacks thus seem to benefit that larger system of trade, as the individual accomplishments of Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis are seen to increase the fortunes of "Wheaties" and "Chesterfields." The commercialization of representation that characterizes this contemporary landscape thus complicates notions of the emancipatory potential of art by depicting hybridization as a process through which African American culture itself becomes available to be sold as products.
The poem's final position on the emancipatory function of art is also complicated by the concluding lines to the poem, which combine a strong call for action with a problematic image of aesthetic and social redemption:
Mfu says let's gather in a sky chorus today with all of those gone and all of those coming, with Josephine and Leopold the King, and make, he says, some sounds mean what they're supposed to mean. (22)
Expressing the hope that reconstructed artistic expression can be used to transcend personal despair and social injustice by making some sounds mean "what they're supposed to mean," Mfu enjoins others to form a "sky chorus" composed of all "those gone and all of those coming." His heavenly choir ' recalls the kingdom evoked by the spirituals earlier in the poem, which expressed the hopes of African Americans for social emancipation as well as for spiritual redemption. Furthermore, Mfu's final emphasis on "sound" points to the voiced as the possible locus for a less restrained representation and recalls the African's earlier wish that the portrait of Peter Panah "said more."
Disturbingly, however, the sky chorus Mfu describes may also include a colonial presence. "Leopold the King" may refer to Leopold II, notorious nineteenth-century sovereign of the Belgium Congo. Furthermore, while the emphasis on music in the last stanza would suggest that "Josephine" be identified as Josephine Baker, the pairing of that name with Leopold the King suggests that the name refers to Josephine Beauharnais, Empress to Napolean and a white Creole from Martinique who was influential in restoring slavery to the Carribean. If so, the surprising appearance of these infamous colonial rulers in Mfu's sky chorus indicates that not all of its music would be expressive of a communal identity like that evoked by the spirituals of section three; it also suggests that transcendence to some plane of authentic black expression may not be possible. And yet the poem ends with a forceful call for action that is both aesthetically and ethically engaged: "to make some sounds mean / what they're supposed to mean." What is the poem's final position on the emancipatory potential of art?
The conclusion to Major's poem confronts readers with an ambiguous contemporary landscape in which the long struggle of black people to free themselves from their status as commodities is complicated by changing systems of trade and the restrictive representations of blackness that these systems reproduce. Major's emphasis on the historical contexts of artistic production is underscored by his recent assertion that "aesthetics aren't a set of abstractions existing outside historical circumstances and daily reality, they're always grounded in the needs and aims of specific artists and audiences, influenced by the social setting and context" (McCaffery and Kutnik 124). By emphasizing the historical motives that shape artistic production, Major distances his views from conceptions of fixed principles and universal laws of beauty often attributed to Enlightenment thought. His painterly approach also distances his work from that which attempts to ground African American literary art in a particular form of black authenticity.
In defining the "speakerly text," Henry Louis Gates has argued that its practitioners draw upon the "authority of the black vernacular tradition" in order to construct a "transcendent, ultimately racial self" (181). But artistic activity in Major's poem is not suggestive of the attempt to construct essences or to effect transcendence. Instead, Major's painterly juxtaposition of conflicting cultural forms defines artistic engagement as an ongoing struggle over meaning and form that takes place within an arena of conditioned systems of production. By resisting the constructions of blackness in actual works of art, Major's poetry works to destabilize Western representations of racial difference and joins in the critique of fixity or essence often associated with textualist understandings of meaning. Yet the "painterly" part of Major's poetic approach goes beyond the critique of European constructions of racial difference to insist on the materiality of art forms, of the economic systems in which those art forms are produced, and of the people who work and create within these systems. Given the textual/materialist synthesis attempted within the painterly text, then, Major's poem not surprisingly combines the critical act of destablization with a simultaneous call to creative production.
In "Figurations for a New American Literary History," Houston Baker argues that the authors of the slave narratives wrote within certain economies of trade that often necessitated their own participation in the slave trade if they were to achieve increased autonomy and social control. In "The Slave Trade," Clarence Major offers his own refiguration of literary and artistic history that ultimately locates the social function of art in the continuing battle of black artists to negotiate for themselves evolving and complex systems of cultural representation and production. Finally, Major's painterly compositions point not to fixed definitions, to concepts of authenticity, or even to an autonomous realm of self-referential signifiers with which his art has often been associated, but to the situated struggle to confer conditional meaning and form.
At the beginning of "The Slave Trade," Mfu considers the situation of slave and slaveowner, "locked in a dry struggle / of social muck." Major's poem suggests that there is no escaping this cultural muck, "then or now" (11). There is no privileged position this side of the grave from which Mfu - or any artist - may be completely "free to speak his music" (1). In a retrospective article on becoming a writer Major has recently spoken of his own "long battle with the history of art and literature" ("Necessary Distance" 37). "The Slave Trade" suggests that the situated struggle to render meaning and form through equivocal systems of signification is not a contest that can be settled once and for all. For it is a struggle in which personal and social redemption are never guaranteed.
1. See Gilroy's discussion of Turner (14).
2. The Autobiography and Memoirs of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1766-1846, qtd. by Honour 4.2: 23.
3. In addition to the works of art examined in this essay, several others are described in enough detail in Major's poem to be identified with reasonable certainty, although it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss them all. They include (in the order in which they appear in the poem): Henry Fuseli's The Negro Revenged (1806-07), William Blake's A Negro Hung by the Ribs to a Gallows (1792), Francois-Jules Bourgoin's The Maroons in Ambush on the Dromily Estate, Trelawny, an illustration of Haitian soldiers for Marcus Rainsford's An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti (1805), John Trumball's The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill (1775), Thomas Gainsborough's Portrait of Ignatius Sancho (1768), and the frontispiece for B. Frozzard, La cause des esclaves negres (1789).
4. I am deeply indebted to the Menil Foundation's magisterial four-volume collection of representations of Blacks, The Image of the Black in Western Art, for help in identifying the numerous works to which Major's poem alludes. In particular, my understanding of the genealogies of various visual themes representing Blacks and of individual works themselves has been influenced by Vol. 2.2, edited by Jean Devisse and Michel Mollat, and especially by Volume 4.1, edited by Hugh Honour (which covers the time period of most of the works to which Major alludes). Other works helpful for understanding the representations of Blacks in art include Albert Boime's The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century, and Christopher C. French, ed., Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940. The latter includes an introduction by Guy McElroy, "Introduction: Race and Representation," xi-xxviii, and an essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "The Face and Voice of Blackness," xxix-xliv. Several articles in Gates's "Race," Writing, and Difference are also useful for analyzing European constructions of blackness, especially Mary Louise Pratt's "Scratches on the Face of the Country: or What Mr. Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushman," 138-162, and Patrick Brantlinger's "Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent," 185-222.
5. The work was included as the frontispiece for Vol. IV of the 1774 edition of Raynal's history. One of France's leading philosophes, Raynal has been accused of some ambivalence on the issue of slavery, and the frontispiece may have been included by a later editor who wished to foreground the treatise's anti-slavery passages. See Honour's discussion of Raynal (4.1: 54).
6. The Enlightenment's role in the promulgation of racism is an issue of critical debate. See, for example, Tzvetan Todorov's claim that it is "inaccurate and dangerous" to understand racism as a result of Enlightenment humanism (in Gates, "Race" 373), and Henry Louis Gates's response to Todorov in the same work (407ff). Major's position on the subject, I believe, is made clear in "The Slave Trade."
7. The reference to the naturalists' diagrams are probably to illustrations for Julien Joseph Virey's popular Histoire naturelle du genre humain (1775-78); some illustrations are reprinted in Honour 4.2:15.
8. Like many subjects that enjoyed a long iconographic history, the meanings attributed to the black Queen of Sheba vary according to time, place, and tradition. Devisse suggests that the particular iconography described in my account gained currency during the medieval Christian period (2.1: 129). Read typologically, the Queen's enlightenment signifies the universal truth of Christianity, intended for the pagan as well as the Christian world. It should be noted here that the Queen was not represented as black during her entire iconographic history, and that in many traditions she is represented negatively as a seductress who tempts Solomon.
9. Major is probably referring here to the common artistic practice of pairing the eunuch with a white woman, often a saint, in religious art.
10. The long and interesting history of representations of St. Maurice cannot be summarized here. Devisse and Moffat devote half of a volume to tracing the black knight's various appearances (2.2: 149-205). It should be noted that, like the Queen of Sheba, Maurice was not represented as black at all times and at all locations, but he became black in some areas around 1250. In discussing the grouping above, I do not mean to intend a chronological genealogy for any particular images leading from the black King to Maurice, since specific images of the black Maurice may predate images of the black King.
11. Jean-Baptiste Belley, Le bout d'oreille des colons, ou le systeme de l'hotel de Massic, mis au jour par Gouli (Paris, n.d.) 5. Qtd. by Honour 4.2: 104.
12. The image is very likely inspired by Revenge Taken by the Black Army, a line engraving by J. Barlow for Marcus Rainsford's An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti (1805). Barlow's illustration depicts the pulleys in clear detail. The work is illustrated in Honour (4.1: 104).
13. Honour suggests that, although the work is entitled The Liboya Serpent Seizing its Prey (1803), the subject would be associated with the Western hemisphere since boa constrictors are indigenous only to South America.
14. Medal commemorating the abolition of the slave trade to the Danish West Indies, designed by Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard and engraved by Pietro Gianelli, 1792 (illustrated in Honour 4.1: 77).
15. Carl Fredrik von Breda, Portrait of Carl Bernhard Wadstrom Instructing a Negro Prince, Peter Panah, 1789 (illustrated in Honour 4.1: 75). Honour points out that Wadstrom's attitudes toward Africans were complex. A Swedenborgian, Wadstrom wanted to start a colony for Blacks and Whites in Africa, which he thought would be the site of the New Jerusalem. Believing that Blacks were superior in will and affection, while Whites were superior in understanding, Wadstrom thought that Whites should direct the colony he planned - and guide Africa at large.
16. At times Major points to a lack of parallelism among the arts. For example, he has recently stated that "literature is unlike the other arts" (McCaffery and Kutnik 134). He elaborates by suggesting that the" 'reflexive problem' all writers have to face is that the materials fiction is created out of - that is words, language - 'mean something' in the sense of making reference to the outside world" (McCaffery and Kutnick 134-35). Elsewhere Major discusses the possibility that literature "can be, in French sense, a means of engagement" ("Introduction" xxviii). These comments would seem to suggest that Major's rejection of Black Nationalist Aesthetics has been mis-read as committing him to a position of radical non-referentiality that he may not hold, or that his position has changed over time.
17. Not surprisingly, the poem's early references to European folklore reinforce the same racial attitudes found in high art: Thus, "little Dutch children" try to make their African playmate shine with "Snow-white" soap (16); Hansel is overhead saying to Gretel, "I'm afraid to go / to Africa because cannibals may eat me / as they do one other" (18); and efforts are made to keep black bodies "far from the mistletoe" (16).
18. Joe Weixlmann makes a similar point in interpreting Major's criticism of Black Aesthetics as a reproach of those "for whom blackness was an extant commodity the writer might simply pour into a literary mold" (77).
Baker, Houston. "Figurations for a New American Literary History." Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. 15-63.
Bhabha, Homi. "Signs Taken for Wonders." Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 144-65.
Boime, Albert. The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century. Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1990.
Devisse, Jean. The Image of the Black in Western Art. Vol. 2.1-2. Menil Foundation Project. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1976.
French, Christopher, ed. Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940. With an introduction by Guy McElroy and an essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1990.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. "Race," Writing, and Difference. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1996.
-----. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
Hayden, Robert. "Middle Passage." 1945. Modern and Contemporary African-American Poetry. Ed. Bernard Bell. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1972. 56-61.
Honour, Hugh. The Representation of the Black in Western Art. 4.1-2. Menil Foundation Project. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.
Johnson, Charles. Middle Passage. New York: Athenaeum, 1990.
Major, Clarence. "Introduction: How and Why the Garden Thrives." The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-Century African-American Poetry. Ed. Major. New York: HarperPerennial, 1996. xxv-xliii.
-----. "Necessary Distance: Afterthoughts on Becoming a Writer." African American Review 28 (1994): 37-47.
-----. "The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage." African American Review 28 (1994): 11-22.
McCaffery, Larry, and Jerzy Kutnik. "'I Follow My Eyes': An Interview with Clarence Major." African American Review 28 (1994): 121-38.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Random, 1987.
Weixlmann, Joe. "African American Deconstruction of the Novel in the Work of Ishmael Reed and Clarence Major." MELUS 17.4 (1991-92): 57-79.
Wright, Richard. White Man, Listen! 1957. New York: Anchor Books, 1964.
Linda Furgerson Selzer teaches at The Pennsylvania State University. Her work has appeared previously in AAR, as well as in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Review and The Rhetoric Review. Professor Seizer would like to thank Bernard Bell for his advice on an earlier draft of this essay.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Selzer, Linda Furgerson|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
|Previous Article:||Unmaking the male body: the politics of masculinity in 'The Long Dream.'.|
|Next Article:||Keeping an "old wound" alive: 'The Marrow of Tradition' and the legacy of Wilmington.|