Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

self-definition had already made the "African presence" an essential element in Anglo-American society. It was but a short step from there to Poe, and beyond.25

At the same time, if the African presence has historically been an essential part of a white American self-definition, the moral ambiguities the memorial reveals have made that presence no less problematic, even unmanageable, from the white point of view. When white Americans felt compelled to take a black voice seriously, as colonizationists did in the "Memorial of the Free People of Colour," they unavoidably subverted the foundations of difference upon which their self-definition was based.26

Thus one can understand the more common approach, resting on stereotype and ridicule. Unable to escape the "African presence," white writers have had to find ways to make it manageable, to bring it under control by maintaining the sense of difference upon which the presence was supposed to be based. In the era of the memorial, this effort was embodied in minstrelsy or, during that same time, in ugly "Bobalition" broadsides, dialect parodies of black antislavery appeals designed to descredit both the cause and black contributions to it. In Anglo- American culture, and in Anglo-American letters, the creation of a black voice in more ridiculous, distancing forms has at least appeared to allow that voice to be used without the contradictions it could easily entail; hence, a perplexing tradition at least as old as the memorial itself.27

This analysis of what may seem an obscure document should, therefore, stress the contingencies which must be acknowledged in any discussion of "voice" in a nation where, as the memorial notes, race has been such a formidable element. Not only does the document help to illuminate the inseparability of "black" and "white" voices, but it also helps to indicate the conditions under which such terms as "black voice" and "white voice" even have the resonance so much taken for granted today.

The specific "voices" found in the 1826 memorial were tied, in part, to the issues that gave rise to it. But, as with colonization itself, those issues were endemic to the American understanding of race, and to the demands that understanding imposed upon black and white Americans alike. In those demands, rather than in any irreducible distinctions among Americans themselves, lie the deepest sources for the differing "voices" in American thought and letters.


Notes
1.
On early colonizationism, see Floyd Miller, The Search for a Black Nationality: Black Emigration and Colonization, 1787- 1863 ( Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), esp. Part 1; Philip J. Staudenraus, The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865 ( New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), ch. 1-14; and, for whites, Winthrop Jordan , White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 ( 1968; rpt. New York: Norton, 1977), esp. 546-69.
2.
On the motives of the Society's founders, see Douglas R. Egerton, "'Its Origin Is Not a Little Curious': A New Look at the American Colonization Society," Journal of the Early Republic 5 ( 1985): 463-480.
3.
"Memorial of the Free People of Colour," African Repository 2 ( 1826): 295. Subsequent quotations are cited in parentheses, in the text.

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