Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Slavery through the White-Tinted Lens of an Embedded Black Narrator: Sejour's "The Mulatto" and Chesnutt's "Dave's Neckliss" as Intertexts

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Slavery through the White-Tinted Lens of an Embedded Black Narrator: Sejour's "The Mulatto" and Chesnutt's "Dave's Neckliss" as Intertexts

Article excerpt

One of the familiar conventions of nineteenth-century southern plantation short fiction is the frame narrative, featuring retrospective accounts by slaves or former slaves. The origin of this form, Victor Sejour's "The Mulatto," is the first short story by a U.S.-born African American. (1) Set in Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti), "The Mulatto" inaugurated the pattern of using an embedded slave or former slave narrator who recounts a harrowing tale of oppression, inhumanity, and psychological suffering under bondage. The story was written in French and published in the March 1837 issue of the Parisian antislavery journal La Revue des Colonies, a monthly periodical owned and sponsored by a "society of men of color" (O'Neill 14). (2) A free man of color, a colonial mulatto, and a native of New Orleans, Sejour migrated to Paris to continue his education and to embark on a career of successful authorship, principally as a playwright, in an environment far less repressive than in the antebellum South (O'Neill 1). Frances Smith Foster, in noting Sejour's achievement as a playwright in France, sees this "as proof of international acclaim for a writer of African descent" (632). As the first work to treat the pattern of the atrocities of slavery in the plantation Americas, "The Mulatto" serves as an intertext for subsequent works that employ an embedded African American slave or former slave as a raconteur. One such text is Charles W. Chesnutt's dialect story "Dave's Neckliss," originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in October 1889 and acclaimed by Richard Brodhead as "one of [Chesnutt's] most powerful works from any phase of his career," in that it "shows Chesnutt projecting both a more dignified, more capable black figure than elsewhere in the Uncle Julius tales" (17-18). While it seems doubtful that Chesnutt had ever read or even heard of Sejour's story, since it was not translated into English until 1995 for inclusion in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, still "The Mulatto" and "Dave's Neckliss" share key intersections. Both may be viewed within a postcolonial context in that they feature colonizers who exploit and victimize African slaves whom they regard as inferior and subordinate; both exhibit freedom of African American voice; both share parallels in subject matter--psychological trauma, the oppression and dehumanization of slaves, and suicides of principal African American slave characters. Most significantly, both reflect the limitations experienced by black writers working within the restrictive space of the Euro-American literary conventions of melodrama (Sejour) and local color (Chesnutt) for the purpose of appealing to a largely white reading audience. To execute this, Sejour and Chesnutt employ racial tinting of the embedded narrators and of the protagonists of the stories they recount. Both black writers assume the guises of white auditors of the embedded stories of their narrators, Antoine and Julius, a slave and a former slave. Adopting this stance and approach partly negates and compromises the effect of what the black narrators say as well as how they choose to present their narratives; in other words, it restricts the range and credibility of their principal narrative voices through melodrama (Sejour) and local color (Chesnutt), respectively. Moreover, "The Mulatto" and "Dave's Neckliss" connect in yet another way. According to Jon Smith, "the literature, cultures, and identity politics of the U.S. South are seen as important ... because they share several traits with those of the global South--a history ... of colonial plantations, race slavery ... [and] vibrant African cultural survival" (125). In noting some of the general similarities among the geographical areas known as "Plantation America," George B. Handley generally observes, "the historical patterns that characterize the U.S. South also connect to a larger region of the Americas ... creat[ing] a region of perplexing but compelling commonality among Caribbean nations, the Caribbean coasts of Central and South America, Brazil, and the U. …

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