William Wells Brown's Economy of Entertainment

By Sinche, Bryan | African American Review, Spring-Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

William Wells Brown's Economy of Entertainment


Sinche, Bryan, African American Review


William Wells Brown wrote his final book, My Southern Home: or, the South and Its People, following his 1879 tour of the American South. Published in 1880, the book makes an odd coda to a prolific literary career during which Brown authored numerous versions of his autobiography, four books of black history, one published drama, and three editions of his groundbreaking novel, Clotel. Though much of this work has been subjected to intense scholarly scrutiny, My Southern Home has been all but ignored. (1) One reason for this is that since it was written several years after Emancipation, My Southern Home was motivated by different political and aesthetic goals than those that spurred Brown's antebellum writings, and therefore doesn't fit into typical critical paradigms. My Southern Home also perplexes readers with its form, for though it announces itself as an autobiography in which "earlier incidents were written out from the author's recollections," the text does not deliver on that promise (113). In fact, when readers visit Brown's old home, they find a racially indeterminate narrator, a parade of stereotypical illustrations, and the promised "recollections" of slavery copied verbatim (or slightly altered) from Brown's antebellum writings such as the Narrative of William Wells Brown (1847), Clotel (1853), or The Escape (1855). This recycling and retooling of old material in the antebellum chapters of the book precedes a postwar section featuring loosely connected sketches set in various Southern locales. None of the characters in the first section of My Southern Home appear in the second section, and the narrator himself appears and disappears without accounting for his own movements or actions.

Scholars who have reckoned with Southern highlight the many confusions and dead-ends endemic to the text. William L. Andrews admires the work, but rightly notes that it is nearly impossible to "read into My Southern Home a consistent and verifiable sociopolitical message" and that "the narrator's identity and purposes are ... hard to pin down" (Introduction 11). John Ernest accepts Andrews's arguments and posits that Brown's book is "less memoir than sociology" ("Maps" 91). According to Ernest, Brown's method led him to present all the flaws, contradictions, and pleasures that defined the author's Southern home. Ultimately, Ernest argues, Southern "make[s] the object of the observations the observing subject himself, William Wells Brown" ("Maps" 103). Ernest is correct to note that Brown positions himself at the center of Southern, though I argue that he does so by revealing many of the methods that made him a successful author. Throughout his final work, Brown reveals his ability and dynamism as he both revises old material and creates new scenes, many of which feature songs, antics, and performances that illuminate the workings of an economy of entertainment. (2)

Within Brown's economy of entertainment, black characters use performance to rebalance the economic scales, and to highlight the uncertainty of racial signifiers. The characters in Brown's My Southern Home show that performing rather than working is what defines white power under the slave system and is, concomitantly, one way to reverse the economic inequalities of slavery and Jim Crow. Because it was obvious to Brown that work did not correspond to wealth for the white slaveholders who lived off the fruits of chattel labor, he crafted representations of slavery in which blacks mastered the art of not working. Moreover, as the only autobiography Brown authored after Emancipation, Southern illuminates the economic benefits of entertainment for former slaves within postwar America. (3) Though Brown features free men and women who use performance to realize economic gain in the postwar economy, he also inserts himself into a book that is itself an important postwar performance in order to prove that new economic arrangements necessitate the revision--but not the abandonment--of the economy of entertainment. …

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