Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Command Performances: Black Storytellers in Stuart's "Blink" and Chesnutt's "The Dumb Witness"

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Command Performances: Black Storytellers in Stuart's "Blink" and Chesnutt's "The Dumb Witness"

Article excerpt

In one of many notorious scenes near the end of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1885), Tom Sawyer tries to persuade Jim to tame a rattlesnake during his imprisonment in order to give his ordeal more style and "glory":

      "Why, Mars Tom, I doan' want no sich glory. Snake take 'n bite
   Jim's chin off, den whah is de glory? No, sah, I doan' want no
   sich doin's.... Ef you en Huck fetches a rattlesnake in heah for
   me to tame, I's gwyne to leave, dat's shore."

      "Well, then, let it go, let it go, if you're so bullheaded
   about it. We can get you some garter-snakes and you can tie some
   buttons on their tails, and let on they're rattlesnakes, and I
   reckon that'll have to do" (235)

This dialogue from Chapter 38 exemplifies a basic feature of comedy--one character with enough power over another to make the comic victim do just about anything. The fact that race is at the center of this unequal power relation, however, introduces complications--at least, for many contemporary readers, if not for most of Twain's white contemporaries. Tom's treatment of Jim has been be linked by much recent Twain criticism to the rise of Jim Crow culture and racial politics of the late nineteenth-century U.S.--including but not limited to the racist humor frequent in blackface minstrel shows. Some have argued that Tom's torturous freeing of an already free black man should be read as Twain's satire of whites' treatment of blacks during the Reconstruction and, especially, the post-Reconstruction period after 1877. Others, more cautious, have stressed the ways in which Twain's text may critique but also is complicit in the cultural violence of the times.

Tom Sawyer's performance requests of Jim are usually read in isolation, but they are hardly unique. Southern postwar fiction by authors other than Twain frequently replays scenes in which a white person "requests" a black to perform for him or her; indeed, this motif appears so often it is not unreasonable to claim that New South fiction was rather obsessed with this scenario and its dangerous possibilities. These scenes have generally not received the sustained attention that cultural historians have given to Huckleberry Finn or minstrel show performances.

Requests for performance can vary greatly in tone and meaning, of course--from an apparently friendly request and/or a voluntary performance to situations that involve overt or implied coercion, even violence. The fact that racial difference is at the heart of many such scenes, of course, means that the exchanges are never innocent nor equitable: an unequal power dynamic is always involved. Many requests in southern fiction by whites for blacks to tell stories or otherwise perform for them mask a deep need on the part of whites to control another character's words, actions, and meanings and to have them appear to be voluntary. Yet so insecure may the figure be who tries to wield power that violence may threaten to break out if desires are thwarted. Jim understands the danger underneath Tom's "tame" requests only too well. For him they are even worse than a rattlesnake.

Scenes featuring whites requesting or commanding blacks to perform are particularly prominent in New South short stories. Consider the following plot synopses of stories by whites and blacks published between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the twentieth century. Some contain relatively straightforward scenes of command performance. Other examples below vary the basic scenario considerably, but the politics of performance is arguably still a central issue for interpretation:

* Loyal black servants are called upon to testify to both the evils of "freedom" and Reconstruction and the nobility of a white aristocrat who was or is their master, in stories by Sherwood Bonner [Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell], Thomas Nelson Page, Grace King, Kate Chopin, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

* A black servant agrees to be hunted down like a fox or a coon as part of an elaborate trick played by his former owner on a visiting bill collector (Bonner, "The Gentleman of Sarsar," Dialect Tales, 1883). …

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