The Specter of Conspiracy in Martin Delany's "Blake"

By Biggio, Rebecca Skidmore | African American Review, Fall-Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Specter of Conspiracy in Martin Delany's "Blake"


Biggio, Rebecca Skidmore, African American Review


With his serialized novel Blake (1859-62), Martin Robison Delany carried the message of militant revolution into a discourse dominated by the often more temperate and sentimental approaches favored by his contemporaries Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe. However, Blake's popular reception was disappointing, certainly due to many complicated contributing factors, not least of which were its promotion of black insurrection and its disjointed publication at a time when much of Delany's prospective black audience had turned their attention to the possibility of emancipation encouraged by the Civil War. (1) Despite Delany's efforts, Blake would not move quickly from serialization to publication in book form, as would the much-lauded Uncle Tom's Cabin. (2) Instead, Delany's representation of organized, violent resistance would fade into virtual obscurity until Floyd J. Miller's 1970 reprint of the extant chapters in novel form.

Upon its re-release, Blake was again received by audiences wary of its radical message, which remained so even in the 1970s, despite the fact that the novel's central image of slave revolt was no longer immediately significant. Skeptical critics like John Zeugner both lamented Delany's literary skills and compared him to representative "recent militants" James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael. Zeugner credits the novel as representing "the birth of the black militant position, at least in fictional presentation," and yet provides a narrow reading almost entirely focused on the violence in the novel (102). Zeugner's one allowance is that Delany maintains a consistency of position in this novel that is not present in his other published works, identifying the violence of insurrection as the central and surprisingly consistent message of the novel (98). However, violence serves a secondary rather than central function in Blake, presented as a lamentable but ultimately embraceable response to the betrayal of African American human rights and as a means to an end rather than as a discrete solution. Zeugner's argument that "[v]iolence is the essential message Henry carries from plantation to plantation, as he imparts his 'secrets' and builds an insurrectionary organization" (99) is an assumption that overlooks the possibility that this community-building secrecy is, in and of itself, the central and consistent insurrectionary message of the novel. If, as Roger W. Hite has claimed, Delany's novel functions as "artistic support" (194) for his political views, then the novel's apparent literary shortcomings, especially its ostensible vagaries of plot, can be read instead as a formal reflection of its politics of secrecy.

Recent critics have looked more deeply at the implications of the historical context in which Delany produced Blake, and have found it to be both timely and perceptive. Eric Sundquist argues that "in its narrative inconclusion, Blake is a most appropriate final account of New World Slavery--and of the antebellum world of slaves and masters alike--at the moment of its revolutionary cataclysm" (221). Patricia Okker evaluates Delany's serialized novel as an important text both for its timely "engagement with the slave trade" and for its literary distinction in depicting the slave trade as "global and systemic" as well as "local and personal" (104). John Ernest goes so far as to suggest that Delany was something of a trickster who "devoted the narrative above all to a determined mystery," a claim that brings to mind the many apparent contradictions of Delany himself (Resistance and Reformation 111). Employed at different times in his life as "journalist, editor, doctor, scientist, judge, soldier, inventor, customs inspector, orator, politician, and novelist" (Gilroy 19), Delany was an enigmatic personality, volatile and elusive.

By the time of Blake's original publication, increasing sectional animosity, rumors of aggressive abolitionism, and images of corrupted slaves turning against their masters had contributed to a climate of fear and paranoia among slaveholders in the South. …

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