Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

HERMAN BEAVERS


The Blind Leading the Blind: The Racial Gaze as Plot Dilemma in "Benito Cereno" and "The Heroic Slave"

By virtue of "The Heroic Slave" and "Benito Cereno," Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville share an affinity that has often been alluded to but never explored in depth. It is undeniable that the two texts demonstrate numerous points of contact: their historical proximity, their mutual acts of transforming factual events into fiction, their use of slave rebellions as source material, and, finally, their depictions of democracy in a state of contradiction, straining against itself. Having acknowledged these aspects I want to move swiftly past them to a more compelling feature these texts share in common. Both novellas dramatize the "racial gaze," a mode of voyeurism that takes on aoristic significance in the context of nineteenth-century American racial relations. Under the auspices of the racial gaze, difference and hierarchy come together within a procedural nexus.1 This is not to suggest that Douglass's and Melville's purposes were the same. Nor is it to suggest their sources led them to identical points of emphasis. However, we need to pay close attention to the manner in which "The Heroic Slave" and "Benito Cereno" utilize the racial gaze as a way of organizing the plots of their fictions. By pairing Douglass and Melville we can come to understand how these fictions have the complementary aim of positing arguments which subvert the visual sphere as the zenith of representational modes.

To understand the significance of the racial gaze, one needs to understand the emergence of an irrefutable correlation between visualization and persuasion during the nineteenth century. As Peter Brooks suggests, the dominant nineteenth- century tradition of realism

insistently makes the visual the master relation of the world, for the very premise of realism is that one cannot understand human beings outside the context of the things that surround them, and knowing those things is a matter of viewing them, detailing them, and describing the concrete milieu in which men and women enact their destinies. To know, in realism, is to see, and to represent is to describe.2

One finds further evidence for Brooks's claim by noting that by the middle of the nineteenth century the visual sphere had come to play an important role in foregrounding difference, and racial difference in particular. As Elizabeth Johns has demonstrated so ably in her excellent study of American genre painting, the "politics of everyday life" were such that African Americans were an ambiguous presence, on the margins to be sure, but necessary to concretize the visual

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