William Wells Brown Maps the South in My Southern Home: Or, the South and Its People
Ernest, John, Southern Quarterly
In the opening paragraph of the first chapter of My Southern Home: Or, The South and Its People (1880), William Wells Brown introduces his readers to a "mansion ... surrounded with piazzas, covered with grapevines, clematis, and passion flowers."1 "The Pride of China," he informs us, "mixed its oriental-looking foliage with the majestic magnolia, and the air was redolent with the fragrance of buds peeping out of every nook, and nodding upon you with a most unexpected welcome."2 Surrounded by this luxurious growth, Brown's story begins - a somewhat embellished return to the plantation at which he had been enslaved in his youth. However, in writing about this mansion towards the end of his career - in the last book he would publish and years after the end of the Civil War and the legal end of slavery, Brown looks back at the mansion and finds both his former home and a qualified but lasting pride of place. "The tasteful hand of art," writes the man who spent most of his adult years in Massachusetts, "which shows itself in the grounds of European and New-England villas, was not seen there, but the lavish beauty and harmonious disorder of nature was permitted to take its own course, and exhibited a want of taste so commonly witnessed in the sunny South."3 From this site, Brown proceeds to tour both his life and the South in a book that itself has challenged the assumptions about taste among his readers, a book in which, one might say, "the lavish beauty and harmonious disorder of nature" is "permitted to take its own course."
Indeed, the remarkable, winding, and luxurious turns that characterize My Southern Home make this Brown's most significant and challenging text. As William L. Andrews has noted, "historians of African American literature have praised My Southern Home as Brown's most finished book, a fitting capstone to the literary monument he built for himself during a writing career that spanned four of the most turbulent decades of American history."4 Other readers have found it to be a problematic pastiche of a narrative, with shifting genres and perspectives, and sometimes shifty opinions and commentary. Brown presents this multigenre book as an autobiographical memoir that begins with an account of his life as a slave and concludes with reflections from his tour of the South during the post-Reconstruction era - including, as Brown notes in his preface, "incidents [that] were jotted down at the time of their occurrence, or as they fell from the lips of the narrators, and in their own unadorned dialect."5 Parts of the text are presented in dramatic form (for, indeed, they were drawn from Brown's plays); parts are presented as transcriptions of African American folk songs that Brown encountered in his travels; other commentaries are presented about the uncertain situation of African Americans recently emancipated from slavery and deep into what many historians take to be one of the most conflicted and threatening periods in African American history. Along the way, Brown manages to reprint material from virtually all of his publications, making My Southern Home less a capstone to a career than a lavish garden, with previously published texts "peeping out of every nook."
Brown's writing career began in 1847 with both a slave narrative and a published lecture, and these two publications - bringing together autobiography and activism - represented well the course of his life after his successful escape from slavery in 1834. Brown was born in 1814 near Lexington, Kentucky, one of seven children of an enslaved woman named Elizabeth. His father was a white man probably related to his owner, Dr. John Young. Young moved his family and property to the Missouri Territory in 1816 and eventually, in 1827, settled on a farm outside of St. Louis - at which time he also, claiming financial difficulties, sold Brown's mother, sister and brothers. Brown himself was hired out to various businessmen who were willing to pay slaveholders for the services of their slaves. In addition to working as Dr. Young's assistant, Brown worked in a tavern and on steamboats, and he worked as well for a slave trader and for the Reverend Elijah P. Lovejoy, the editor of the Saint Louis Times who was later murdered for his antislavery activism. Following an unsuccessful escape attempt in 1833, Brown was sold and then sold again to a steamboat owner; it is from that owner, Enoch Price, that Brown finally escaped in 1834. Brown settled first in Cleveland, Ohio, and then in Buffalo, New York, where he became active in the temperance and antislavery movements. Following his participation in the 1843 National Convention of Colored Citizens of the United States in Buffalo, Brown became an agent for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. By 1847, Brown was working as a lecturing agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and could claim both a slave narrative and a reputation among abolitionists that rivaled the publishing fame and activist credentials of Frederick Douglass.
By the time Brown wrote and published My Southern Home in 1880, he had a rich world of experiences to draw from in fashioning a luxurious textual mansion to serve as his final home. Scholars have only begun to grapple, though, with the "harmonious disorder" of Brown's career-long representations of those experiences - his fondness for contradiction and paradox, or his reliance on twisting narrative lines, sudden transitions, and competing story lines - but it is in that luxuriant growth from story to story, scene to scene, and opinion to opinion, I suggest, that Brown's talents can be best appreciated. In My Southern Home especially, Brown does not simply tell the story of his own experiences, perspectives, and opinions; he also calls attention to unstable social contexts and political frames of reference, and he goes out of his way to represent the opinions of those most threatening to African American security and progress, at times in rather surprising ways. Indeed, one might say that My Southern Home, like most of Brown's work, is designed to represent tensions rather than resolve them. Brown presents multiple frameworks for understanding the world he represents, and he guides his readers to an understanding of that world while still refusing to make the journey easy or comforting. At the end of a career that began with Brown's reflections on the impossibility of telling the full story of slavery, Brown engages his readers in an extended examination of the possibilities of literary representation in response to a racist and often threatening culture.6 Ultimately, My Southern Home is an attempt to read the South by reading the experiences and documents generated by and generative of a region that was itself a complex of mythological and ideological (mis)representations. At stake in this attempt are not only the possibilities of literary representation but also of African American southern identity, the "home" that traveled with Brown through his various writings, and the home that he hoped to rediscover and reclaim not simply in his travels but through this book.
How to Observe Morals and Manners
My Southern Home is a book of departures and returns, as Brown moves from present to past, city to city, telling of escapes from slavery, shifting demographics, and the promises and challenges, successes and failures, of the nation and of the African American community both before and after the Civil War. The early part of the book is based on Brown's life, though it is an account filtered through the autobiographical, dramatic, and even fictional versions of his experience that he had crafted for his other books. He tells of escapes and describes life under slavery, but largely presents himself as an observer and commentator. In many ways, Brown provides readers with the narrative form and content similar to a great number of publications after the Civil War that approached life on the antebellum plantation with a kind of idealized fascination - publications rife with dialect, song, and descriptions of an earthy but crafty people largely at home in the difficult but romanticized world of slavery. However, Brown's own position is never entirely clear - not only his former and present position in the world of slavery but also his position in relation to the settings, events, and opinions he presents throughout the book. He never tells of his own escape from slavery, for example, and only lightly references his youthful presence in the early scenes on the plantation in My Southern Home that stands in for and is based on the troubled "home" of his youth. As Andrews has observed, "When compared to Brown's Narrative, written more than thirty years earlier, My Southern Home seems carefully designed to deindividualize the narrator, to distance his voice and his experience from that of Brown."7 As Andrews notes, we encounter in My Southern Home "a narrative mask, or persona, whose racial identity is often hard to determine," making it difficult to identify in the narrative "a consistent and verifiable sociopolitical message."8 On the one hand, one often has cause to "wonder if Brown in 1880 was trying to accommodate himself to a new generation of white readers in a post-Reconstruction era increasingly indifferent to the problems of slavery and racial justice over which the Civil War had been fought"; on the other hand, one meets in My Southern Home a narrator sometimes determined to "denounce the increasingly white supremacist governments of the post-Reconstruction South, attributing to them a 'cause of oppression scarcely second in hatefulness to that of chattel slavery' in the Old South."9
Such contesting perspectives and conclusions are very much the point here, for My Southern Home is less memoir than sociology. From very early on in his career, Brown had been profoundly influenced by British reformer Harriet Martineau, whose 1838 publication How to Observe Morals and Manners has been called "the first substantive treatise on sociological methodology."10 Martineau was intimately associated with Garrisonian abolitionists and had been quite vocal in her commentary against slavery in two books based on her travels in the United States: Society in America (1837) and Retrospect of Western Travel (1838)." Society in America, which originally Martineau wanted to entitle "Theory and Practice of Society in America," is not only a commentary on the United States but also, more significantly, a consideration of the United States as a case study in sociological method. Martineau accounts for the challenges of generalizing from her limited experience in the United States, and she accordingly outlines a two-part method in presenting her findings. The first part is "to compare the existing state of society in America with the principles on which it is professedly founded; thus testing Institutions, Morals, and Manners by an indisputable, instead of an arbitrary standard, and securing to myself the same point of view with my readers of both nations."12 "The other method by which I propose to lessen my own responsibility," Martineau states, "is to enable my readers to judge for themselves, better than I can for them, what my testimony is worth. For this purpose, I offer a brief account of my travels, with dates in full; and a report of the principal means I enjoyed of obtaining a knowledge of the country."13
In My Southern Home, Brown similarly offers a brief account of his travels, and he similarly provides readers with the means to judge for themselves the perspectives and opinions they encounter along the way. Like Martineau, Brown looks for opportunities to compare, as he had done throughout his public career, "the existing state of society in America with the principles on which it is professedly founded." In addition to the chapters based loosely on Brown's own experience of enslavement in and beyond St. Louis, My Southern Home tours various locales, both urban and rural; it takes us to the Democratic State Convention of 1860, and it has us enter a cabin for a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation; it reports on a narrow escape from Ku Klux Klan, and it describes the churches built by African American congregations in the South after the Civil War. It also draws us into a complex social environment populated - either physically or by historical example - by whites, blacks, Southerners, Northerners, women, men, Jews, Arabs, Gypsies, Irishmen, Germans, and Frenchmen. Some of these groups and nationalities are referenced in discussions of the challenges of oppression and collective self-determination; others are referenced as examples of the prevalence of prejudice. Often the stance and prejudices of our guiding narrator are themselves either unclear or all too clear but rather hard to reconcile with the apparent tone and purpose of the book. We are told, for example that "[h]istory shows that of all races, the African was best adapted to be the 'hewers of wood, and drawers of water'" and that "the negro is better adapted to follow than to lead"; we encounter both assumptions and assertions of white superiority, but also critiques of the effects of a white supremacist culture, a culture that keeps African Americans from establishing their equality.14 Brown's southern tour, in other words, unlike Martineau's American tour, offers no stable frame of reference, not even in the form of the consistency of the narrator's own commentary on history, culture, and collective character.
To be sure, My Southern Home is very much a book that measures actual social life against guiding or professed principles, one that builds to a consideration of the best means of improving the condition of African Americans, but it is also a book about a multiplicity of guiding principles, competing "higher laws," and the challenges of applying and sustaining principle in social practice. Part of what took Brown to the South for this tour was his ongoing work for the temperance movement, a cause to which he devoted himself from the beginning to the end of his career, and one that took him just as far, in his travels and arguably in his writings, as did his antislavery work.15 This was a time of significant tensions concerning the integration of the Good Templar lodges with the white South determined to establish and maintain segregated lodges, and with international groups opening the doors for integrated lodges. Brown was sent by the Independent Order of Good Templars of the World "to organize blacks in Virginia in 1877 and 1879-80."16 This work within the racially fractured temperance and fraternal organizations, work that brought Brown to the travels he drew from for My Southern Home, could only have reminded him that even shared principles and a guiding cause are no guarantees of a stable social framework.
In many ways, then, My Southern Home is Brown's own attempt to both identify and address the challenge of his onetime mentor Martineau, "how to observe morals and manners." Brown, though, resituates and recontextualizes this challenge, so that it seems less the prelude to a method than the frustrated plea that follows from observation and experience. Brown's observations, that is, draw readers to difficult questions about race, social relations, and political power. But rather than look for answers to these questions by surveying a complex cultural terrain and weighing the competing demands of different social groups, Brown echoes established social opinion and uses his survey - a tour of both time and social space - to examine the ways in which different historical situations promote different configurations of the exercise of power. In the opening line of the book's preface, Brown wams, "No attempt has been made to create heroes or heroines, or to appeal to the imagination of the heart."17 This seems especially the case when the book turns to issues of race, for both the white and the black communities he observes seem to be subject to familiar patterns of power - as when, for example, Brown devotes a series of chapters to an exploration of the condition of free blacks before emancipation and the relation of race and power during Reconstmction and beyond.
At the beginning of this exploration, at the opening of the book's fourteenth chapter, Brown addresses the deliberate suppression of some "fifty thousand free colored people in the slave States" in 1850.18 "In all the States these people were allowed but few privileges not given to the slaves," Brown observes, "and in many their condition was thought to be even worse than that of the bondmen."19 Brown discusses the laws that restricted mobility and opportunity of free blacks, emphasizing the existence of laws "for the punishment of the free colored people" that did not exist for white people, and the existence of "thirty-two offences more for blacks than had been enacted for the whites."20 He addresses as well "public opinion, which is often stronger than law," which was "severe in the extreme."21 Brown then focuses on "a movement ... made in several of the Southern States to put an exorbitant tax upon [blacks], and in lieu of which they were to be sold into life-long slavery."22 Following general commentary on that movement, Brown quotes extensively from a southern dissenter, Judge Catron of Tennessee, though he shows how little such dissent was able to accomplish. This commentary leads to an even more extreme example of white supremacist control: "efforts ... made to re-open the African slave trade" at the Democratic State Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1860. Brown quotes from the Convention proceedings, concluding with one speaker's statement, "I believe that the African slave-trader is a true missionary, and a true Christian."23 This is the statement that nearly concludes this chapter, with but one last sentence of commentary from Brown: "Such was the feeling in a large part of the South, with regard to the enslavement of the negro."24
This sentence might seem to speak for itself, but in the following chapters Brown explores this "feeling in a large part of the South" from numerous angles. The fifteenth chapter addresses "the success of the slave-holders in controlling the affairs of the National Government," this time leading to the comment that such views created the tension between North and South that led to the Civil War. We then find ourselves, in the sixteenth chapter, in "a negro cabin in South Carolina" witnessing a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation - and this prepares us for the following chapter's discussion of "one question that appeared to overshadow all others" both during and following the Civil War, "Negro Equality."25 Brown's approach to this issue echoes that of Booker T. Washington ("Paddle your own canoe," is his advice to African Americans), though with the difference that Brown's own racial position and allegiance remain ambiguous: "as if the liberating of a race, and securing to them personal, political, social and religious rights, made it incumbent upon us to take these people into our houses, and give them seats in our social circle, beyond what we would accord to other total strangers."26 But if Brown begins with mild advice, offered from an immense social distance from southern blacks, the chapter quickly becomes more pointed in its commentary on the response of southern whites to the specter of social equality: "Through fear, intimidation, assassination, and all the horrors that barbarism can invent, every right of the negro in the Southern states is to-day at an end. Complete submission to the whites is the only way for the colored man to live in peace."27 Brown concludes the chapter by suggesting that the "War of Races" has been ended only by the complete submission of the blacks, and that the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups await any attempt by African Americans to change the situation. Brown then turns from white southern feeling to African American experience, gradually both contextualizing his apparent sympathy with whites and his pointed condemnation of white violence and suppression of even basic civil rights. His eighteenth chapter addresses post-emancipation Saturdays in the South, or "nigger day," during which African Americans visited the city to spend their hard-earned pay. Focusing on this day of "gaudy-colored goods" in shop windows and the "gaudy articles of wearing apparel" favored by black women,28 Brown devotes the chapter to a blend of social description and folklore that would not be out of place in many magazines of the time that favored the Uncle Remus school of exotic characterization.
This extended consideration of the history and context of race relations in the South prepares Brown for one of his most direct statements of his assumed role in these journeys. At the beginning of his nineteenth chapter, Brown states, "Spending part of the winter of 1880 in Tennessee, I began the study of the character of the people and their institutions."29 Of course, we have been reading just such a study for several chapters by this point, a study that has included a reprinting of excerpts of primary documents and reportage from both secondary sources and direct experience. We have encountered political debates, legislative decisions, social politics, individual experience, shared social assumptions and exoticized folkways. In this chapter, we encounter something of a mix of everything. The chapter begins with a somewhat sympathetic account of white Southerners, harkening back to Brown's commentary on social equality. Indeed, Brown goes out of his way to present this account with an air of objectivity - leading into the subject (rather strangely, by this point in the book) by stating, "I soon learned that there existed an intense hatred on the part of the whites, toward the colored population."30 Arguably, this statement adds little to Brown's authority, making him seemingly the last to realize what is obvious to everyone else, but the statement is there in large part to identify and define Brown's role in these proceedings.
Brown's role is that of an objective observer, a role that he performs by representing different perspectives - as shaped by different cultural experiences - on the source and significance of racial tensions. Throughout much of My Southern Home, Brown's representation of African Americans in the South often seems to play to existing stereotypes - the very characterizations, indeed, being used at the time in attempts to justify white supremacist control. This apparent accommodationist approach can be seen not only in Brown's critiques of African Americans but also in his explanation of white racism. "The older whites," he observes,
brought up in the lap of luxury, educated to believe themselves superior to the race under them, self-willed, arrogant, determined, skilled in the uses of side-arms, wealthy - possessing the entire political control of the State - feeling themselves superior also to the citizens of the free States - this people was called upon to subjugate themselves to an ignorant, superstitious, and povertystricken, race - a race without homes, or the means of obtaining them; to see the offices of State filled by men selected from this servile set made these whites feel themselves deeply degraded in the eyes of the world.31
Arguably, this statement is sympathetic to the whites, though it is also, of course, qualified in that sympathy - addressing not only immense social inequality and white supremacist dominance but also the tools used in that control (side-arms, wealth, and political power). The hint of sympathy is amplified, though, when Brown turns to what he terms the "Comedy of Errors" resulting from the attempt by ignorant black men who were "congratulated as 'Statesmen'" by those northern whites and others looking to take advantage of the temporarily "disfranchised" whites.32
When Brown turns to a more heroic narrative of black achievement, this dark comedy still lingers in the text, for the chapter does not end with this commentary. Brown is quite forceful in defending African Americans who stumbled on the public stage, and he is quite forceful as well in praising their performance in the global theater of achievement. Indeed, the facts of white resentment and black ignorance only emphasize the achievements of the race. Noting the extensive efforts to "cripple" the "energies" of African Americans, to "darken their minds" and "debase their moral sense," Brown marvels at "how wonderfully they have sustained the mighty load of oppression under which they have groaned for thousands of years.33 Thus does African American experience contrast with the response of whites who felt themselves, after a period of only a few years, "deeply degraded in the eyes of the world." Brown's account, in other words, provides the reader with background not only on law, professed ideals, and social tensions, but also on the dynamic history of racial interactions, mutual influences, and the intricate structures of social power that have shaped both individual and collective identity over time. There are no heroes here, as Brown has noted; but there is a method of social observation that attends to all sides and identifies the problems that call for heroic efforts.
Reclaiming the South
The competing contexts and racial struggles Brown describes complicate, of course, his claims to the South as his original and lasting home. While he is sharp in his critique of the white supremacist control that followed the Civil War and Reconstmction, he also presents white Southerners as people caught up in the inevitable logic of a historical process driven by shifting inequalities of power. Although he celebrates the achievements of southern blacks, he is also critical, even condescendingly so, of the priorities and values of the emancipated population - a population that serves as the primary and sometimes the only black presence in My Southern Home. The South of My Southern Home is a sort of perfect storm of regional, racial, and class tensions, resulting in a destructive force that is all too predictable:
This extravagance of black men, followed by the heavy taxes, reminded the old Southerners of their defeat in the Rebellion; it brought up thoughts of revenge; Northern sympathy emboldened them at the South, which resulted in the Ku-Klux organizations, and the reign of terror that has cursed the South ever since.34
To be sure, Brown asserts that this storm could have been anticipated and, if not avoided, then at least diverted. "The restoring of the rebels to power," he states, "and the surrendering the colored people to them, after using the latter in the war, and at the ballot box, creating an enmity between the races, is the most bare-faced ingratitude that history gives any account of."35 Here Brown once again suggests that a region free from racial resentment and hatred was, at one point, at least theoretically possible. This time, though, the fault lies with the surrender and humiliation not of the defeated white population but of the black - and the opportunity lost was historical in its proportions. Indeed, the challenge of claiming a home in the South for an expatriated black man is indicated even in the rhetorical conventions that Brown follows here, whereby it is assumed that "southerners" and "northerners" always refer to white people. As Brown here reminds us, those Northerners and Southerners could unite to enforce and extend the white dominance of the land.
Consider, for example, the argument in one of the few white-authored texts of the nineteenth century that quotes Brown extensively, the Reverend Hollis Read's The Negro Problem Solved; or, Africa As She Was, As She Is, and As She Shall Be, published in New York in 1864. Read quotes favorably, and at length, from Brown's The Black Man; His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863). As the title suggests, The Black Man is a historical survey of the African Diaspora (with a particular but not exclusive focus on the United States) from its origins, but the major part of the book is a collective biography, a series of biographical sketches of a wide range of people of African origins, including but extending far beyond African Americans. Read draws liberally from Brown's sketches to support his argument that, "notwithstanding the crushing pressure of ages, men of the crisped hair and thick lips have become statesmen, scholars, soldiers; brave, accomplished, successful; men of science; writers, poets, novelists, dramatists; men of business and wealth; men of good social position; and Christians, illustrating, in an eminent degree, the religion pure and undefiled - the spirit of the meek and lowly One."36 If traces of what had, by Brown's time, been identified as the Uncle Tom school of Christianity can be apprehended here, Read's main point is that black men (and he follows Brown in focusing primarily on men) have distinguished themselves in virtually all professions and all walks of life. Read seems quite sincere when he states, "We mean to claim for them capabilities of competing with white races" and when he concludes that "Africa still produces men."37
But Read's high praise for the black history and black lives that Brown records only emphasizes the difficulty that Brown or any of his biographical subjects would face in attempting to claim as home the land, the region, or the town of their birth - for Read's point is that those of African origins are quite capable of thriving in Africa, and that they are almost morally bound to look to Africa for their future. "In the following pages," Read states in his preface, "colonization is advocated ... as a boon to the colored man, a privilege to every one who is fitted to profit by it, and the most suitable and hopeful agency by which to raise Africa from her present debasement, and to assign her an honorable place among the nations."38 Success for African Americans in the United States, Read argues, will be long in coming if it is taken to mean social equality and equal opportunity - achievements which will depend on "time, events, changes, revolutions, which wait the sure, though often mysterious movements of Providence."39 In Africa, though, there will be no wait, for one could be sure of "connecting the highest and best destiny of the colored man with his fatherland," an opportunity like that of "Israel of old" to "quit the land of his captivity, and return to the land of his fathers and the land marked out by Heaven for his habitation."40 Those who remain in the United States, Read seems to suggest throughout his biblically based argument, have chosen the lesser path of moral responsibility, and therefore cannot complain of the slow movement of Providence.
While Read was more respectful in offering his advice than were most white commentators of the time, the substance of the advice, and the assumptions behind it, were all too familiar. Consider, for example, travel writer Henry M. Field's Bright Skies and Dark Shadows (1890). In his preface, Field notes that he presents this narrative of a Florida journey to "furnish a background, the more effective by contrast, for the dark subject of my story," for
[i]t is under these 'bright skies' that the 'shadows' creep on the scene. Out of the palms and the orange groves starts up a spectre, the ghost of something gone, that, though dead and buried, sleeps in an unquiet grave, and comes forth at midnight to haunt us in our dreams. The Race Problem is the gravest that ever touched a nation's life.41
Zombies, ghosts, and other monstrous threats aside, Field presents himself, though rather unpersuasively, as a friend to the African race. Indeed, much like Read, Field seems to take up the cause of African Americans, and perhaps might compete with Read's claims in this regard, since Field argues against various colonization schemes inspired by the "shadow of the African" that "still darkens the South," schemes geared towards "The Expatriation of a Whole Race," as one chapter title has it.42 He praises the industriousness, the endurance, and the possibilities of "the black race," and argues that "education is the only remedy" to the race problem. But the limits of this remedy quickly become clear, as Field envisions a day "[w]hen the schoolmaster is abroad in the land," and "there will be raised up ... a labouring population, no matter how poor or how humble, not below the rank and file of the foreign contingent of our New York democracy, and quite intelligent enough to exercise the right of voting without danger to the State."43 He concludes this argument by noting that "[n]o matter how the blacks may increase they can never be a match for the superior intelligence and power of organization of the whites," assuring his resistant white readers that the black race is in no danger of being fully uplifted for centuries to come, so that "our Southern friends may safely postpone the catastrophe of negro domination to the next generation!"44 Ultimately, then, Field asserts with Read that African Americans have a right to claim the United States as their home, though in place of Read's assumption of the "privilege" of moving to Africa we now have Field's of the "privilege" of joining the labor force after participating in a system of education based on the assumption of white supremacy and constructed so as to sustain the cultural grounds for that assumption.
Read and Field were quite representative of their time, if tending towards the side of white supremacist moderation. In books and magazines, in fiction and nonfiction, from legislative halls to pulpits, white Americans addressed the "problem" of African Americans, more often than not concluding that black Americans should be restricted, controlled, or otherwise removed from the realm of social authority. As George M. Fredrickson has observed, late-nineteenth century "racial Darwinism" enabled some to argue that education of African Americans amounted to "the artificial preservation of the unfit," and that therefore the nation should not waste its time on such unscientific efforts.45 At the same time, racial Darwinism enabled other whites to reassure themselves that humanitarian efforts could be rather strictly defined, and that the nation was required to help blacks only by way of education. If blacks, thus aided, should fail, then the question of racial equality would be settled scientifically. In either case, education and various other cultural mechanisms for promoting rights, security, and opportunities were safely either held or withheld by the dominant culture, and both the premises and the results of these restrictive measures were used to define the "emancipated" community, either by implication or by design. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that Brown himself makes a great point of grappling with this problem, or that he does so in a way that, as I have suggested, emphasizes the social position both of commentators and of subjects.
Equally significant, perhaps, is that Brown largely avoids revealing his own social position. Indeed, it is rather difficult to even locate Brown in the early chapters of My Southern Home, though we encounter various other people living in the home of his youth and even engaged in some of the incidents of his youth. But Brown generally avoids placing himself in any scene, relying instead on his role as an observer or peripheral participant - indeed, an observer of racially ambiguous status. Brown does not even apply the words "I," "me," or "my" to himself through most of the early chapters, and when he does, he sounds less like an autobiographical narrator than a social commentator like Read or a travel writer like Field. When a mistress looks for her slave, Brown enters the narrative only to say, "I hastened out to look for the boy."46 When the mistress worries that she will not have a clean cap to wear when greeting the guests who would soon arrive, Brown's comment seems designed to distinguish himself from the mistress's slaves: "I tried to comfort her by suggesting that the servants might get one ready in time."47 During the mistress's visit with company, Brown states simply, "I listened with great interest to the following conversation between Mrs. Gaines and her ministerial friend."48 When he observes that "[b]oth Dr. and Mrs. Gaines were easily deceived by their servants," Brown does not seem to group himself with those servants when he reports, "I often thought that Mrs. Gaines took peculiar pleasure in being misled by them."49 Although readers might well be familiar with Brown's story, the early chapters of My Southern Home are devoted more to detached observation than to anything approaching autobiography or memoir. Brown only gradually reveals himself, as if his real purpose is to present the various social forces - people, geography, law, economics, and social custom - that shaped his identity day by day, year by year.
One might say about this approach to self-presentation, with Brown working behind the scenes of his account of his own youth, that instead of using this book to place himself in his former home, Brown uses the book to place his home in his life. The phrase "My Southern Home," in other words, refers not only or even primarily to a region but instead refers to the man we encounter on every page of the book that carries this title. Of course, this is to say nothing more than that Brown presents himself as a Southerner, a man for whom "the South" is not simply a region but a world of experiences, the blood that runs through his veins. This constitutes a rather significant transfusion for Brown, if we are to trust the racial logic of the Reads and the Fields of the world, but this is the point of this book. Brown's identity in My Southern Home is defined not by the history he relates but by his ability to relate that history - a history that goes beyond what can be recorded by personal observation or experience. That is, this is a history that encompasses the experiences, the histories, and the opinions of white and black, rich and poor - and it is a history that further represents these social groups by placing them in dynamic relation with one another. Who is Brown? He is the man behind the curtain, the participant-observer who is both a part of and apart from the events and people he describes. Brown does not just claim the South on his journey; he brings it with him.
Every Character is Modified by Association
When Brown emerges and asserts himself as a black man as well as a Southerner, he recenters the race relations that have been so much a part of his story.50 In much of his commentary on African American life before, during, and after the Civil War, he draws so much from standard frameworks for representing black life - minstrel humor, dialect folk recording, and the like - that one might assume that he was directing his comments primarily to a white readership. But when Brown steps more deliberately into his text and presents himself as a black man, he also redefines his authence, addressing directly a black readership and assigning white readers to the periphery. "Emerging from the influence of oppression," Brown laments in a late chapter, "taught from early experience to have no confidence in the whites, we have little or none in our own race, or even in ourselves." Brown turns the weight of the book to this cause, calling on his readers for
more self-reliance, more confidence in the ability of our own people; more manly independence, a higher standard of moral, social, and literary culture. Indeed, we need a union of effort to remove the dark shadow of ignorance that now covers the land. While the barriers of prejudice keep us morally and socially from educated white society, we must make a strong effort to raise ourselves from the common level where emancipation and the new order of things found us.51
Suddenly Brown is not just a witness to but a participant in emancipation; finally his escape years ago is brought to closure as he joins again the rest of the enslaved community in a common cause. While certainly Brown presents himself here and elsewhere in My Southern Home as an assumed leader of the emancipated community, this is a dramatic if implicit reunion. If the South is something Brown brought with him in his travels, My Southern Home eventually finds the realization of that something in the cause of African Americans.
Brown's appeal to an imagined black community - the "we" that has emerged from the influence of oppression - might seem to require no explanation were it not for the dramatically contradictory statements and contending perspectives we encounter in My Southern Home. To be sure, it would be relatively simple to "identify" two primary positions to which this book seems devoted - a critique of white oppression and a defense of and praise for black achievement. It would be simple as well to account for the complexity of this book by noting that Brown modifies both of these positions - explaining the situation of the whites, and at times even sympathizing with them, and critiquing African Americans for everything from gaudy dress to irresponsibility. But, in fact, the world of My Southern Home is more complex than either of these positions, as is the imagined community held tenuously together, though only momentarily, by Brown's "we." The community - indeed, the communities - invoked throughout My Southern Home is the result of the complex and dynamic current of history. Brown's representation of that history, and of the African American community with which he ultimately aligns himself, would need to be just as dynamic.
However, Brown was up against a culture that characterized black communities as anything but dynamic. Consider, for example, John F. Watson's ambitious historical survey, Annals of Philadelphia, Being a Collection of Memoirs, & Incidents of the City and Its Inhabitants from the Days of the Pilgrim Founders, first published in 1830. The book includes a resolution of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania recommending the book, along with Watson's dedication of the book to the Society, so that Watson's Annals comes as close to being an official and authoritative history as one could hope for. Significantly, then, the book includes just a single chapter on black Philadelphians, "Negroes and Slaves," a brief chapter that quickly takes the reader from the time when Philadelphia was under "the curse of slavery" to the then present, a time when "better views and feelings had long prevailed."52 Watson offers a rather curious documentation of black Philadelphia, beginning the chapter by taking the reader back to a seemingly remote time. "In the olden time," Watson begins, "dressy blacks and dandy colour'd beaux and belles, as we now see them issuing from their proper churches, were quite unknown." "Once," Watson continues, black Philadelphians "submitted to the appellation of servants, blacks, or negroes, but now they require to be called coloured people, and among themselves, their common call of salutation is - gentlemen and ladies. Twenty to thirty years ago, they were much humbler, more esteemed in their place, and more useful to themselves and others."53 Although the chapter covers the abuses of slavery, suffice it to say that its tone fundamentally follows its opening paragraph. There is, of course, nothing terribly curious about a racist portrayal of African Americans in the 1830s; what gets curious, though, is the subsequent career of Watson's book. Watson published an expanded, two-volume, version of the book in 1843; and then a third volume was added, with the help of another writer, in 1881.54 In all three versions, the chapter on "Negroes and Slaves" is exactly the same, aside from very minor typographical changes - each one, in 1830, 1843, and 1881, complaining that black Philadelphians were much more tolerable twenty to thirty years ago than in the present, each one advancing by thirteen and then thirty-eight years the time when African Americans in Philadelphia were humbler, more esteemed, and more useful to themselves and others.
Watson's Annals of Philadelphia is an apt if inadvertent representation of "the changing same" of the black presence in the white mind - a static black community, always tied to slavery and struggling with the responsibilities of freedom, always defining the shifting horizon of a once unencumbered, white-supremacist golden age, and always marking the suffering white liberal burden of promoting the rights of this presence, this minuscule and unchanging chapter, in the municipal and national story. In a recent discussion of the American colonization movement, David Brion Davis notes that Pennsylvania's House of Representatives received in 1819 "a petition expressing alarm over the increasing number of blacks, including fugitive slaves, who seemed to be pouring into Philadelphia."55 One might say that Watson's Annals of Philadelphia functions as a kind of response to that petition, restricting that growing black presence to a single chapter that effectively shrinks with each successive enlargement of the past.
Brown's My Southern Home offers a different mode of historical representation, one directed towards a significantly different end. As I have argued, My Southern Home works to locate Brown's southern home not in a region or even in the established divisions - primarily, race and class - of the communities of the South. Rather, Brown locates the South precisely in what he terms "inward culture, at the springs and sources of individual life and character."56 Whereas Harriet Martineau adopted a method for observing and discerning the "manners and morals" of the social world, Brown presents a highly dynamic and unstable world that simply cannot be thus described - a world of contending opinions and interests, of violent and shifting struggles for power, a world lost in its own reliance on invested assumptions, caricatures, conventional wisdom, and stereotypes. Accordingly, Brown works in My Southern Home to invert Martineau's method, so as to make the object of the observations the observing subject himself, William Wells Brown, whose method during his tours becomes the southern home he seeks. Brown's claim to the South as home, finally, is based on the fact that he is the product of this complex and dynamic push and pull of forces that constitutes the South - as a black man and former slave, as a temperance man and an antislavery activist, as a fugitive Southerner who has lived most of his life in the North, and as an internationally recognized writer and lecturer who is still subject to the same prejudices and restrictive laws that plague the recently emancipated communities in the South. My Southern Home represents this vision of the South in all of its complexity, in its unresolved conflicts, and in its play of opinions that neither begin nor end with shared premises.
Certainly, Brown's own life and character had been "modified by association" again and again in his extensive travels and experiences, and the understanding he presents in My Southern Home is less the product of a singular life and character, the conclusions reached after a long and active life, than the process of its modifications over time. One might say, in fact, that the home to which Brown returned did not fully exist until he wrote about his return, for the South Brown hoped to reclaim was a product of the many political and social forces that had shaped Brown's life, answered by the many stories he had written about his life and his world. To find the South with which Brown ultimately associates himself, one need only follow the shifting perspectives, the competing histories, and the multilayered representations -"the lavish beauty and harmonious disorder"- of Brown's most seemingly detached but most intimate achievement, My Southern Home.
1. Brown (1880: 119).
4. Andrews (1993: 4-5).
5. Brown (1880: 113). As William L. Andrews has observed, Brown sometimes represented dialect strategically, allowing the slaves in My Southern Home to "profanely redefine the very language of authority as the whites employ it" (1990: 12).
6. Brown's reflections on the possibilities of representation appear in his 1847 lecture to the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, Massachusetts, in which he asserts that "Slavery has never been represented; Slavery never can be represented" (1847: 4). For a discussion of this lecture, see John Ernest (2004: 39-40). This lecture has been reprinted in Paula Garrett and Hollis Robbins (2006: 3-18).
7. Andrews (1993: 9-10).
8. Ibid., p.11.
9. Ibid.. pp. 10-11.
10. Michael R. Hill (1989: xi). For a discussion of Martineau's influence on Brown, see John Ernest (2002: 159-160).
11. "In 1838," Valerie Pichanick notes, Martineau "was made an honorary member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, and in 1840 she was elected as a delegate from Massachusetts to the London Anti-Slavery Convention" (1980: 92). Martineau's articles were regularly reprinted in the United States. For background on Martineau's involvement in antislavery efforts, see Douglas Charles Stange (1984); Clare Taylor (1974).
12. Martineau (1837: viii).
13. Ibid., p. ix.
15. On Brown's activities during this period of temperance activity, see William Edward Farrison (1969: 430-436); on Brown's interest in and presentation of temperance concerns, see Robert S. Levine (1997).
16. David M. Fahey (1994: 16).
17. Brown (1880: 113).
18. Ibid., p.216.
23. Ibid., p.220.
25. Ibid., pp.224. 231.
26. Ibid., p.231.
28. Ibid., p.233.
29. Ibid., pp.234-235.
32. Ibid., p.244.
33. Ibid., p.245.
36. Read (1864: 180).
37. Ibid., pp. 179-180.
38. Ibid., pp.v-vi.
41. Field (1890: i). For a discussion of Field's argument in relation to the work of another post- Reconstruction African American writer, Frances E. W. Harper, see Ernest (1995: 191-192).
42. Field (1890: 154).
43. Ibid, pp. 174- 175.
44. Ibid., pp. 176, 178.
45. Fredrickson (1971:251).
46. Brown (1880: 123).
48. Ibid., p. 133.
49. Ibid.,p. 154.
50. As Andrews has observed, "[t]he more the narrator of My Southern Home warms to his role as critic and advisor of southern blacks, the more openly he identifies with them" (1990: 15). "[T]he narrator's impersonation of white in the first part of his text," Andrews argues, "looks more like an act of appropriation and empowerment through, than an act of betrayal of, color. Reading the narrator's behavior in this way makes his adoption of a black persona in the second half of My Southern Home a confirmation, rather than a contradiction, of the authority that the concluding lines of the text seek to summarize for all blacks" (1990: 16).
51. Brown (1880: 233-234).
52. Watson (1830: 479, 482). The book includes references to African Americans in the first section, on laws in the "primitive settlement," and in the chapter devoted to "Persons and Characters." In the later, expanded, versions, material on minstrelsy is included as well.
53. Ibid., p.479.
54. The publication record of this text is a bit confusing, since many editions and printings were published, and I do not entirely trust my own accounting here. In addition to the first edition noted above, the printings available to me, the ones I have worked with, are John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time, Being a Collection of Memoirs, Anecdote, and Incidents of the City and Its Inhabitants, and of the Earliest Settlements of the Inland Part of Pennsylvania from the Days of the Founders (1860); and the three-volume edition "enlarged, with many revisions and additions, by Willis P. Hazard," with the same title, published by Edwin S. Stuart in 1905.
55. Davis (2003: 67).
56. Brown (1880: 288).
PUBLISHED WORKS CITED
Andrews, William L. 1990. Mark Twain, William Wells Brown, and the Problem of Authority in New South Writing. In Southern Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Jefferson Humphries. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, pp. 1-21.
_____. 1993. Introduction. In From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown. New York: Mentor, pp. 1-12.
Brown, William Wells. 1847. A Lecture Delivered Before the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, at Lyceum Hall, November 14, 1847. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
_____. 1848. Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself . Boston, MA: Anti-slavery Office.
_____. 1863. The Black Man; His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. New York: Thomas Hamilton.
_____. 1880. My Southern Home; or, The South and Its People. Boston, MA: A.G. Brown.
Davis, David Brion. 2003. Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Ernest, John. 1995. Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature: Brown, Wilson, Jacobs, Delany, Douglass, and Harper. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
_____. 2002. Fugitive Performances: William Wells Brown's Three Years in Europe and Harriet Martineau's Society in America. In Literature on the Move: Comparing Diasporic Ethnicities in Europe and the Americas. Eds. Dominique Marçcais, Mark Niemeyer, Bernard Vincent, Cathy Waegner. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, pp. 159-168.
_____. 2004. Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Fahey, David M. 1994. The Black Lodge in White America: "True Reformer" Browne and His Economic Strategy. Dayton, OH: Wright State University Press.
Farrison, William Edward. 1969. William Wells Brown: Author & Reformer" Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Field, Henry M. 1890. Bright Skies and Dark Shadows. New York: C. Scribner's Sons.
Fredrickson, George M. 1971. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. New York: Harper.
Garrett, Paula and Hollis Robbins, eds. 2006. The Works of William Wells Brown: Using His "Strong, Manly Voice." Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hill, Michael R. 1989. Introduction to the Transaction Edition. In How to Observe Morals and Manners. Sesquicentennial ed., 1838-1988. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, pp. xi - xv.
Levine, Robert S. 1997. 'Whiskey, Blacking, and All': Temperance and Race in William Wells Brown's Clotel. In The Serpent in the Cup: Temperance in American Literature. Eds. David S. Reynolds and Debra J. Rosenthal. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, pp. 93-114.
Martineau, Harriet. 1837. Society in America. 3 vols. London: Saunders and Otley.
_____. 1838. How to Observe Morals and Manners. Philadelphia, PA: Lee & Blanchard.
Pichanick, Valerie Kossew. 1980. Harriet Martineau: The Woman and Her Work, 1802-76. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Read, Hollis. 1864. The Negro Problem Solved; or, Africa As She Was, As She Is, and As She Shall Be. Her Curse and Her Cure. New York: A. A. Constantine.
Stange, Douglas Charles. 1984. British Unitarians against American Slavery, 1833-65. London: Associated University Presses.
Taylor, Clare. 1974. British and American Abolitionists: An Episode in Transatlantic Understanding. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
Watson, John F. 1860. Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time, Being a Collection of Memoirs, Anecdote, and Incidents of the City and Its Inhabitants, and of the Earliest Settlements of the Inland Part of Pennsylvania from the Days of the Founders. Philadelphia, PA: Elijah Thomas.
_____. 1905. Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in the Olden Time, Being a Collection of Memoirs, Anecdotes, and Incidents of the City and Its Inhabitants, and of the Earliest Settlements of the Inland Part of Pennsylvania from the Days of the Founders. Enl., with many revisions and additions by Willis P. Hazard. Philadelphia, PA: Edwin S. Stuart.
John Ernest, Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of American Literature, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV.…
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Publication information: Article title: William Wells Brown Maps the South in My Southern Home: Or, the South and Its People. Contributors: Ernest, John - Author. Journal title: Southern Quarterly. Volume: 45. Issue: 3 Publication date: Spring 2008. Page number: 88+. © Southern Quarterly Fall 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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