Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Racial Sacrifice and Citizenship: The Construction of Masculinity in Louisa May Alcott's 'The Brothers.'

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Racial Sacrifice and Citizenship: The Construction of Masculinity in Louisa May Alcott's 'The Brothers.'

Article excerpt

How do you make a man? In Frederick Douglass's slave narrative, man-making is the consequence of physically and psychologically resisting slavery's oppression -- in his case, through battle with his overseer, Covey. However, implicit in the formulation of his claim is the discursive quality of that masculinity, a manhood achieved in the process of writing physical resistance into metaphysical subjecthood as we, his audience, become witnesses to, and thus participants in, Douglass's narrated transformation. As Priscilla Wald has recently argued, Douglass's claim to manhood is part of his general claim to a national personhood, a symbolic citizenship marked by both gender and race.(1) Twenty-three years after Douglass had described his process of man-making, the Fifteenth Amendment granted suffrage to African American males and thus made them men," at least in the juridical terms by which men have been differentiated from women through their access to political agency. This development is remarkable when we consider it comes only a decade after the Dred Scott (1857) decision explicitly denied African American males (as well as females) access to political forms of empowerment granted to citizens: agency, consent, and a national identity constructed in association with what Lauren Berlant has called the National Symbolic."(2) What happened between 1857 and 1868 to cause this transformation from object to subject? One way to answer this question is to understand the peculiar forms of black masculinity constructed during early Reconstruction.

Most historians agree that the principal reason for the transformation of African-American men into political subjects was their participation as soldiers in the Civil War. Narratives of their bravery at Fort Wagner and other battles provided ostensible evidence of their masculinity. In "The Brothers," Louisa May Alcott describes the attack on Fort Wagner by the black Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, led by the white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw: "through the cannon-smoke of that black night the manhood of the colored race shines before many eyes that would not see, rings in many ears that would not hear, wins many hearts that would not hitherto believe" (p. 593).(3) Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the abolitionist commander of one of the first black " contraband" regiments, claimed, "Till the blacks were armed, there was no guaranty of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men."(4) The causal connection between black masculinity and military service has, however, been uncritically accepted by historians. Although W. E. B. Du Bois ironically claimed "only murder makes men," he was only half right.(5) Popular accounts of African American soldiers in battle focused on their sacrifice, on their dying for freedom as the ultimate test of their manhood. As James M. McPherson has said, the suicidal attack on Fort Wagner, in which half of the black soldiers died, proved their "courage, determination, and willingness to die for the freedom of their race."(6)

To use Alcott's key metaphor of sight, the attack on Fort Wagner rendered visible their "manhood." The metaphor itself is important, for just as Douglass requires his reader's vision, the process of manmaking in Alcott's story and in other accounts of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth occurs only under the disciplinary gaze of an audience. It isn't, as Alcott says, that people willfully would not see; rather, they could not see because the soldiers were, as Ralph Ellison might say, discursively invisible. This essay traces the relationship between racial sacrifice and masculinity by focusing on Alcott's story. Written soon after the attack on Fort Wagner, "The Brothers" was just one of a number of poems, orations, and stories commemorating the battle and thereby participating in the wider construction of black masculinity that eventuated in the Fifteenth Amendment.' However, the very existence of a story written by a white woman about a black man testifies to the complex ways race and gender intersected at this critical moment. …

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