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Wow. So, what’s it been? Two and a half, nearly three years? Fairly certain my last blog post was in or around the summer of 2012. Any unfortunate soul that stumbled across, decided that they need some masochistic glorification in their life, and actually read my blog, must’ve thought that had I died; went into a witness protection programme; or just lost faith in my abilities and chose a new walk of life. Well, the latter I can confirm is true. The second point, I’m not allowed to comment more upon. And the first? I’m still working on the whole resurrection thing, but so far, no good.

So what’s happened with me, and what’s going to be happening with my blog? I’ll attempt to mount and divulge those two parts in, I suppose, two parts.

Last I was scribbling my inane ramblings, I was an English literature student in Bristol on line for scraping a pass in my degree, with an ambition for writing for a living in the employment realm of journalism. That genuinely was the plan. It didn’t turn out that way. I actually graduated with a 2:1 (for my American chums: one below the top grade). I’m still mounting enquiries into how that happened. I then started a career in writing and journalism, and sincerely got some stuff published. I worked at one or two institutions (the highlight being Front magazine: an alternative men’s lifestyle magazine in London with perks of meeting my favourite bands and gorgeous women), but it didn’t last long.

There are a couple of reasons for me ceasing my premature ambitions. The main one was, regrettably and predictably, security and money. I met practitioners in the role that I aspired to, earning nowhere near enough to sustain an existence in London and forced to working second and third jobs. There is a higher earning potential, but it involves relinquishing the love of writing, and entering more of the bureaucracy: something that I’m not interested in. Unless you’re highly gifted and get noticed, and I’m not of the view that I had that, that’s the way to survive by what I experienced.

So I needed something safer (so rock ‘n’ roll and boheme – I’m sorry Mr Kerouac! 😦 expect a lot of this post- rebellious lamentation of my succumbing to the ‘man’. It’s been a tough adjustment and I’m wholeheartedly not there yet and quietly still vehemently against it), and something that would still intellectually challenge and stimulate me and that I took enjoyment in.

Boom! Here I am, and somehow nearly a qualified lawyer. I know, right? Ridiculous. And slightly disingenuous to everything I’ve historically preached. But there we go. I had to do a three year law degree in nine months, law school, and somehow secure a two-year training contract (again, for those non-acquainted with the legal profession, an apprentice-esq position, which yields itself to around 1 in every 150 graduates) to qualify. I’m currently on the latter, in my second 6 month ‘seat’ working in Commercial Property and Corporate law, with a commute getting me in the office at 8am and leaving at 7pm. I’m not here to brag or bore anyone, I just wanted you to know how hard I’m working.

The second point is more lifestyle focussed.

I moved home (not cool) as that’s where the job is. I also lost a crazy amount of weight (36″ waist to 28″), did CrossFit, got a six-pack, and stopped CF and put half back on again. It wasn’t sustainable, or enjoyable. And now I’m working to get to a happy medium. I would think I’ll be posting about the odd health issue now and then, but be sured it’ll be anthropologically focussed rather than the generic boring waffle we’re used to across social media.

I also got engaged: mega- boom! Not even that: holy shit! As if someone agreed to put up with me for the rest of our lives? Pity the fuel, that she’ll need to progress. I hope someone gets that.

So here we are. I’ve gone from a porky, disorganised, self-sabotaging renegade (I’m not sure if that’s self-deprecating or insufferably arrogant), to a creatively tattooed, work conscious lawyer (ditto again). I suppose the point of my this post is as follows:

1. I’ve been meaning to get back on here and on track for a while. I currently do legal blog writing, but it’s not quite the same and I don’t intend to do it on here. However, I do think it helps giving me another string to my bow of ponderings.

2. I didn’t think I could just post again after such a long absence without an explanation, despite the glaring fact that I doubt many actually reading this.

3. It’s inevitable that the nature of my posts will change; my contention is that this would happen naturally (and here we are back to essentialism vs social constructivism: I told you my philosophical/English degree related posts weren’t through with – I’m still cool. HONEST!)  in a three year absence, but considering my alteration in life direction, this is even more likely. I anticipate less poems (if they ever qualified as much), and more ponderings. Sure, legal stuff may intrude: it’s my job, and has been my mind-set for nearly three years. However, this is not my ambition with this blog. I want it to continue to and nurture the facet of me that it manifested from. I intend that to continue. It’ll just be, different. And let’s face it: it couldn’t get much worse.

So here I am. If any of my old discipl…ahem, followers, are still out there and read this – comment and say hi! Let’s see what happens with this. I won’t be the prolific poster I was before, thanks to the obsessive job, but I intend to use this space to exorcise my creative demons which, despite being utilised in some areas of my work, perhaps are being ignored. To our mutual benefit I suspect.

So, as the title articulates: my apologies. But, I’m back.

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‘White and black authors will necessarily represent the experience of slaves differently.’ To what extent to you agree with this statement?

It is my aim in this essay to provide the view that ultimately white and black authors will generally portray the experience of slaves differently. However, it is my opinion that there are definite similarities in the methods that authors of the two races will represent slaves, their experiences and treatment. It will be my aim to provide accounts of these differences and similarities by referencing and paying close attention to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave written by himself and Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno.

Frederick Douglass’ account of his life in slavery and his attempts and eventual success to escape are, quite plainly, attempting to expose and highlight the awful conditions and treatment of black slaves in the 19th century. As a liberated slave who turned to become an abolitionist, Douglass’ motives are quite clear within his slave narrative and it is a solid place to start when commencing upon the similar and alternative accounts of slavery. This is due to the fact that it represents slavery in a blatant and eloquent fashion the terrible treatment and conditions that slaves were subjected to.

Douglass’ representation of the black slaves that he himself worked and lived with is, in essence, that they are victims of the cruel regime and sadistic treatment of their white owners. Additionally, he portrays the majority of the slaves as both relatively docile and without ambition to escape, but also not particularly intelligent. Douglass does account for the latter observation to be that the slave owners would pay close attention to prevent the slaves from learning to read or write, but it does strike one upon reading Douglass’ account that he, being eloquent, extremely pensive and keen to fight and revolt, is among few the slaves that is of such disposition. An effective example of this characterisation is seen in the form of a slave named Sandy Jenkins. Sandy is set apart from the other slaves by his description. Not only does Douglass himself evidently hold him and his opinions in high esteem by accrediting him as his mentor but the fact that it is mentioned that he has a wife who legally was no longer a slave, causes the reader to regard Sandy as, perhaps, a character along the similar build of Douglass himself. This is however not the case, as Sandy’s advice is, however benevolently, rather primitive and compliant to the slave’s way of life.

I went home with him […] and got his advice to what course it was best for me to pursue. I found Sandy an old adviser. He told me, with great solemnity, I must go back to Covey; (Douglass, 2103)

This quote is then followed by Sandy’s further advice to procure a certain root that, if worn on Douglass’ right side, would prevent Covey or any other white man to beat Douglass again. Although this is, to some extent, proven to be genuine shortly after this, the reader is inclined it is down to mere chance and Douglass’ own fighting spirit that he is protected. This quote therefore illustrates how, within Douglass’ narrative, he largely portrays his fellow slaves as relatively docile and of primitive thinking.

The portrayal of the black slaves within the story of Melville’s Benito Cereno is phenomenally different to that of the representation provided above. Wherein Douglass may portray himself as one of the few scheming, intelligent, threatening and rebellious slaves in his story, Melville’s account could not be more different. Although this is something I shall digress further upon at a later stage in the essay, in Benito Cereno, it could be arguably said that the white men are the victims and slaves within the story, which is a totally different portrayal from Douglass’ account, but another most potent difference is indeed the representation of the black slave’s characteristics and qualities. Not only are the black slaves seen to be more threatening and imposing, but they are also portrayed as far more intelligent and capable of just as much, and in many cases more, physical and mental activity as the white characters. The reason of this is largely ambiguous and is something I shall explore at an alternative section.

The character I will focus particularly on to account for this view is the character Babo. He is given all the tools needed to conquer the white owners and superiors that Douglass’ slaves seem to be lacking. He, and much of the rest of the slaves depicted as not only strong and threatening, but intelligent and cunning. This is something rarely seen before and is quite different to Douglass’ depiction of helpless, bullied and near to gormless and content slaves within his narrative. Babo is able to harness not only the intelligence previously not associated with black slaves, but the tools he has learnt from being a downtrodden slave. This is something that critic Simpson comments upon saying that:

[…] this is exactly what the Negroes aboard the San Dominick are doing-Babo especially. He is role-playing to the hilt, making use of his techniques learnt as a slave […] As he reminds Delano at the end, the latter had been […] lulled by his trust of the “docile” Negro (Simpson, 38)

Additionally, the sheer violent and threatening presence of Babo and the other black slaves, causing the white characters to role play as their intended positions, gives a whole different image and representation to that of Douglass’ portrayal of the slaves.

Another factor that causes my argument to be of such a nature is, similarly to the points made above, the depiction of the white characters and the effects of their character in the two portrayals.

Douglass’ portrayal is, as with the portrayal of the slaves and their conditions, for the effect to seem most horrific and savage, which is something that can be accounted for by numerous sources. The white slave owners within Douglass’ narrative are generally described as cruel, sadistic, crude and ultimately the epitome of the sinner in Douglass’ opinion. Douglass’ testimony for the way in which the slaves are beaten and treated is indeed grievously graphic and terrible. The sadistic nature is also clearly seen throughout and also the added feature of being most cunning to achieve their sadistic wishes. An example of this could be seen in the form of the slave owner Douglass comes across who uses other slaves to pose as spies to find out exactly what the other slaves are thinking so he may then wreak his punishment upon them afterwards.

The white owners are, as previously mentioned, keen to prevent any of the black slaves procuring any means whatsoever to be taught or teach themselves to read, write and generally anything that might enable them to become more free thinking and independent. This is seen in the latter part of chapter six wherein the character of Mr Auld discovers Mrs Auld has began to teach Douglass the very basics of reading. Mr Auld’s reaction is to remark that:

A nigger should nothing but to obey his master-to do as he is told […] if you teach that nigger to read […] he would become unmanageable and […] would make him discontented and unhappy. (Douglass, 2086)

In essence, every part of the white owner’s description in Douglass’ slave narrative causes the feeling every time one is mentioned of foreboding and the knowledge that they are in control.

This again is different when looking at Melville’s account. As previously mentioned, the white men in Melville’s story could arguably seen as the victims and the characters that the reader should be wanting to emerge victorious. The main difference however is their characters in themselves and their interaction and treatment of the black slaves. Despite the fact that the black slaves have taken and been in the position of power from the beginning of the story, the white men’s view and treatment of the slave’s is, compared to Douglass’ account, near to humane. This can be seen in the character of Delano whose attitude and opinion towards the slaves is far more benign than previously seen.

In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men took to Newfoundland dogs. (Melville, 2435)

The other facet of the white character’s personas in Benito Cereno that sets the account so differently when set alongside Douglass’, is the way in which the white men are indeed thwarted and at the mercy of the black and are by many counts less intelligent. Babo in this case takes on the form of the white slave owners in Douglass’ narrative and Don Benito the form of the oppressed slaves. This sort of role reversal could be said to be in the part where Delano inquires upon Benito what has cast the ‘shadow’ over him of whom Benito replies ‘the Negro’. (Melville, 2460) This could be suggested that due to Benito realising Babo’s intellect being superior to his own, he feels a shadow cast over his skin, resulting in him appearing darker and therefore, the black slave.

The sheer fact that the black slaves are indeed the victors over the white men is a strong contrast to Douglass’ writing. Arguably critics will say that the white men win at the end once Babo has been prosecuted and put to death. However, this is marred by the fact that shortly afterwards Don Benito becomes extremely withdrawn and unwell and eventually dies. A key quote in this instance would be the very end where the narrator says how Benito ‘did, indeed, follow his leader.’ (Melville, 2461) Although some critics would argue that this is referring to the slave owner Alexander Aranda, I think it far more likely to be referring to Babo as this then reaffirms the role-reversal again and the victory of Babo over Benito.

Another key point to be explored when considering the extent of the difference between white and black authors on slavery is to consider the position on slavery that the authors themselves were and what time of outcome they wished from their writings. This type of point is where similarities as well as differences occur between Douglass and Melville that have to be considered to come to an overall conclusion.

Douglass’ political position and motives behind his slave narrative are far clearer and simple to fathom compared to that of Melville. Douglass, accounting his own mistreatment and becoming an abolitionist and powerful political figure, is quite clearly writing for white audiences of the north of America, to further the cause to abolish slavery and expose the evil doings of the southern slave owners. This therefore gives the reader a further understanding of his writing and the motives behind the portrayal of the experience of slaves.

Melville, alternatively, is far harder to come to a solid conclusion over, as there is much speculation of his own views towards slavery. When analysing Benito Cereno, there are many different conclusions that can be drawn from its portrayals and implications.

To look upon Melville to be demonising the black slaves in his writing, and that his portrayal of them is perhaps a warning to southern slave owners that if not kept under very close watch could revolt and show themselves for what they really embody. The warning that the slaves are not as docile and content as many owners might think, and as Douglass’ novel at times may hint at, is also something that could be taken from the types of portrayal in Melville’s story. There is also the fact that Benito Cereno has parts taken from Melville’s own life. One part that can be seen clearly is the fact that Melville himself lived with cannibals for a time and therefore could be demonising the black population in this same image, and taking their behaviour to describe the black slaves within his story.

However, there is much to support the view that Melville’s story is an account supporting and perhaps slightly in favour of the abolishment of slavery and the enlightenment of many readers. There is an equal amount of evidence to support this opinion as there is with the prior, which makes it far harder to come to conclusion with Melville than Douglass, which in turn makes it more difficult to come to conclusion on the question being discussed.

In a similar way to the evidence for the negative, Melville could well be displaying how black slaves are not as docile, animal like and inferior to white people as previously considered. As Simpson suggests, it was in fact often the abolitionists who perpetuated this view and claimed that the slaves were in fact similar to this.

It was, rather, the Northerner, abolitionist or not, who most likely to accept the image of the Negro as primitive […] It was an abolitionist […] claimed that Negroes were by nature docile, friendly, and cheerful that if they possessed less energy and courage than whites and were inferior intellectually, they compensated for this in their “amiableness, tranquillity, gentleness, and content.” (Simpson, 37)

The extract digresses that it was in fact the North of America that perpetuated this image of black slaves which both were false but also hid the level of anger and violent feeling that slavery could induce upon it’s victims. So Melville’s Benito Cereno could therefore be exposing this and showing the deep anger that will inevitably fight back.

There is also the point that Melville is displaying the black slaves as the victors in this story, and could in fact be giving them credit. The character Delano does indeed praise Babo, and holds esteem for the chained slave Atufal. It is in these parts that we see Melville’s writing and portrayal of the slaves similar to that of Douglass’.

The third paragraph of Benito Cereno uses the word ‘gray’ (Melville, 2405) four times and the word ‘lead’ which being grey in colour provides a powerful motif rather than just to set the tone. Alongside many other possible meanings, there is the suggestion that grey is the colour in between black and white. Therefore one could suggest that Melville is implying the similarities between the two races. There is also one of the most convincing factors, that Melville might be providing the point that the black slaves are not so different to white men, and are capable too of great anger and violence, rather than tranquil obedience as previously mentioned.

Finally, he was able, unlike most people of his day-in North or South- to see Negroes as multifaceted, complex individuals, capable of both good and evil and neither simply docile not simply vicious. (Simpson, 38)

Therefore it is capable to see that black and white authors could give the same representations of slavery and their experiences, although it is my opinion that, generally, they will give different accounts. This is due not necessarily down to the race, but more the personal involvement with slavery and their own motives for writing. Above I have explored how Douglass and Melville portray slavery and the characters surrounding it in their writing, and how they are similar and different in their representation. However, I would suggest that, despite there being similarities and that authors won’t always differ, black and white authors will ultimately represent the experience of slaves differently.

   Word Count: 2554

Bibliography

  • Brawley, Lisa. ‘Frederick Douglass’s “My Bondage and My Freedom” and the Fugitive Tourist Industy.’: NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction Vol. 30, No. 1 (Autumn 1996) Duke University Press. pp. 98-128.
  • Douglass, Frederick. ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave’: The Norton Anthology of American Literature Vol. B, 1820-1865. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2007. 1536. pp. 2064-2129.
  • Melville, Herman. ‘Benito Cereno’: The Norton Anthology of American Literature Vol. B, 1820-1865. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2007. 1536. pp. 2405-2461.
  • Simpson, Eleanor E. ‘Melville and the Negro: From Typee to “Benito Cereno”’: American Literature Vol. 41, No. 1 (March, 1969) Duke University Press. pp. 19-38.

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