Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"The Skin of an American Slave": African American Manhood and the Marked Body in Nineteenth-Century Abolitionist Literature

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"The Skin of an American Slave": African American Manhood and the Marked Body in Nineteenth-Century Abolitionist Literature

Article excerpt

When the Civil War began in April 1861, African American men attempted in vain to volunteer for military service. As Jim Cullen writes, "The efforts of abolitionists to the contrary, secession, not slavery, was the pretext for the outbreak of hostilities, and the Lincoln administration assiduously courted slaveholding states still in the Union by avoiding any appearance of restructuring existing race relations." (1) For all of their differences, most Northern and Southern white men agreed that this was, indeed, a white man's war, and objected to the idea that black men, slave or free, should occupy a role formerly reserved only for white male citizens. Yet military necessity would accomplish what abolitionist politics could not. The Emancipation Proclamation, effective on January 1, 1863, freed all slaves in states still in rebellion against the Federal government; it also provided for the lawful enlistment of African American men in the Union army. (2) Eventually, 179,000 black men would serve in the army, the majority of whom came from Confederate and border slave states. (3) Black soldiers would play major roles in a number of battles, including those at Port Hudson and Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, and Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

Abolitionists, black and white, and most African Americans were well aware that the enlistment of black men into the Union army would challenge fundamental notions of race, masculinity, and citizenship, and would have a significant impact on the treatment of African Americans during and after the Civil War. On July 4, 1863, seven months after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, Harper's Weekly responded to this controversial development with a drawing illustrating the transformation of one black man from slave to contraband and finally to Union soldier (Figure 1). (4) Gordon, the "typical negro" featured in the drawing, is portrayed in three poses, from left to right. The first panel, labeled "GORDON AS HE ENTERED OUR LINES," shows the subject sitting in a chair with his legs crossed. His feet are bare and his clothes are tattered. In the second panel, "GORDON UNDER MEDICAL INSPECTION," Gordon wears only his pants and sits with his scarred back to the audience, his face turned just enough to reveal his profile. He stands upright in the third panel, wearing a uniform and holding a rifle in front of him; the panel is labeled "GORDON IN HIS UNIFORM AS A U.S. SOLDIER." The purpose of the illustration appears to be to demonstrate Gordon's ability to transform himself--or to be transformed--into a man and a soldier. However, curiously enough, the final panel is not the most conspicuous in the series. Rather, the second panel, depicting Gordon's scars, is the largest and presumably the first to attract the observer's eye. Despite the label, which asserts that this image is drawn from Gordon's medical examination while in the Union camp, the illustration and the scars that it highlights were more likely to remind readers that Gordon had been a slave, and a harshly treated slave at that. (5) The accompanying text also emphasizes "the degree of brutality which slavery has developed among ... whites," rather than the significance of Gordon's military service. (6) While his skin color suggests that Gordon was a slave, the scars are presented in the drawing as proof of that fact. Gordon is ultimately labelled a slave because of his scars and the smaller representations of him as contraband and Union soldier do little to dispel that label.

FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

This depiction of Gordon accents the conflicts inherent in the visual and literary use of the scar in representations of African American men, both before and during the Civil War. (7) Although "GORDON IN HIS UNIFORM AS A U.S. SOLDIER" marks a new opportunity for African American men, the spectacle of Gordon's scarred back is representative of a long tradition in abolitionist literature. …

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