The Slumbering Volcano: American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity.
One of the great paradoxes of American history is the fact that the Revolutionary War was fought to attain freedom from British rule, but people of color and women, particularly African Americans and Africans, were not supposed to participate in that freedom or even question their inferior position in American society. In a culture that constantly expounded the rhetoric of "equality," it seems only logical in hindsight that eventually these oppressed groups would claim the same rhetoric, what author Maggie Montesinos Sale calls the "trope of revolutionary struggle," in order to attain their own rights and freedoms, though the white male power structure of the time saw nothing logical about it at all. In her book The Slumbering Volcano: American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity, Sale sets out to account for and explain this paradox and the illogical but powerful discourses of national identity that made such a system possible.
Sale takes the provocative title of her book from a speech Frederick Douglass delivered in 1848 in which he warns, "The slaveholders are sleeping on slumbering volcanoes, if they did but know it." Though the title might suggest that this is a history of slave ship revolts, its real emphasis is on the production of what Sale calls "rebellious masculinity" and the discourse of national identity in the period between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War in the United States. She chooses to examine the context in which slave revolts took place and then the ways in which supporters of slavery used the events to bolster the national identity of white male superiority and in which antislavery advocates used the events to disrupt that national identity. Slave revolts, she says, exemplify the various "ways in which, and the ideological purposes to which, unequally empowered groups claimed, manipulated, and transformed the statements associated with the discourse of national identity." Revolts on slave ships are a particularly rich site for this exploration, since it was much more difficult for whites to overcome Africans and African Americans aboard ship because, as a character in Herman Melville's Benito Cereno recognizes, "on a ship they do not have an entire social, political, legal, and military system to support their repressive practices." Hence, it was necessary for all the interested political factions to find ways to interpret these revolts to suit their own agendas.
In order to demonstrate exactly what this national identity was, Sale examines sources such as articles from nineteenth-century periodicals, newspapers, popular magazines, and penny press publications. She also considers political speeches, Congressional records, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, two novellas (Herman Melville's Benito Cereno and Douglass's The Heroic Slave), travel narratives, and myriad other documents and sources. It is necessary to explore all these discourses in order, as she says, to "reconceptualize the history, culture, and literature of the United States together with that of chattel slavery and of enslaved and free people of African descent." Sale manages quite convincingly to do exactly that. She draws her theoretical basis and methodology from the fields of African American studies, American studies, gender studies, and studies of colonialism, clearly positioning her work as New Americanist.
In her first chapter, Sale explores the rhetoric of nation, race, and masculinity by establishing the "competing myths of national development." "The Course of Civilization," an article published in 1839 by the Democratic Review, conceives a mythology regarding the origins of Anglo-Americans in the United States. One of the crucial factors of this mythology is that, as Sale explains, it "masked ethnic and 'racial' differences among light-skinned peoples and drew them into an alliance based on notions of their own 'racial' superiority." This mythology also asserts the teleological development of individualism in the United States, which finally reaches its peak in the democratic state. In contrast to "The Course of Civilization," which "discursively erased" blacks and slavery, the South and slaveholders argued about the particular ways in which slavery was good for slaves and slaveowners. One position taken in this debate saw slavery as a necessary hierarchical order that preserved the harmony of human relati onships while recognizing the humanity of Africans. Herrenvolk democracy, the other argument, held that Africans were subhuman and therefore subject to the master race and unfit for participation in the republic. This second position was argued in another 1839 article, entitled "Domestic Slavery," published by the Southern Literary Messenger. This article creates a different kind of mythology and positions the United Slates as an inheritor of the slaveholding republics of Greece and Rome. The superiority of white men is established, and whiteness is" 'the badge of distinction,' the mark of equality." Enslaved people are here not erased at all, but rather their inferiority is demonstrated and "their subordination" welcomed. Sale argues that, in the same time period, African American abolitionists were creating their own oppositional rhetoric, particularly evident in David Walker's Appeal, with its use of the trope of revolutionary struggle in quoting parts of the Declaration of Independence. In challenging the racialized rhetoric of national identity, Walker appeals to the "common notion of masculinity" and manhood.
Understanding the nature of the national identity prepares the reader for the next four chapters, of which the two most interesting analyze the discourse surrounding the revolts on the Amistad (dubbed "The Amistad Affair") in 1839 and the Creole (dubbed "The Case of the Creole") in 1841. Since both of these cases brought slavery and the slave trade into the arena of international law and politics, the rhetoric regarding these revolts was particularly intense. In the last two chapters, Sale examines Douglass's The Heroic Slave and Melville's Benito Cereno not so much as literary texts but as historical documents which "entered into then-current debates regarding the place of rebellion and slavery--and slave rebellion--in U.S. national identity." She thoroughly answers the question of what these historical fictions could offer Americans culturally that previous journalism on these slave ship revolts could not. In the case of Benito Cereno, Sale argues, Melville brings to the surface readers' anxieties about ra ce, slavery, and masculinity. In the case of The Heroic Slave, however, Douglass attempts to amend abolitionist rhetoric, which simply called for an end to slavery. He asserted in this novella not just the humanity of blacks but their absolute equality to whites, a position that Douglass believed white abolitionists had not adequately pursued.
Sale's demonstration of the development of racialized and gendered discourses of national identity in the nineteenth century is thorough and convincing. She carefully and skillfully synthesizes the work of other philosophical, literary, and historical scholars, and she assiduously pursues her theoretical objectives. Unfortunately, this scholarship, while impressive, is encumbered by a great deal of academic jargon and, at times, an excessively complicated syntax. But for scholars of African American and nineteenth-century history and literature, this book is an important and excellent addition to the growing body of work in these fields.
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|Author:||Albright, Angela K.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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