152 Urgency and Lack Thereof

Delaney John-Zensky

The introduction passage says that Melville works though irony and indirection while Douglass chooses a more direct path to show the reader what his themes are. As someone who just read both of these texts back-to-back, I think it is fair to say this. By the end of Benito Cereno, I was still left unclear as to what Melville wanted the reader to come away thinking. The way Babo, the main black character is written leads one to think that he should be perceived as the villain. Babo was the mastermind of the entire plot, and when Don Benito is released from this plot, it is seen as a victory. On page 216, Don Benito and Captain Delano are having a conversation, and it opens with “Again and again, it was repeated, how hard it had been to enact the part forced on the Spaniard by Babo.” After the illusion falls apart, we are not given any sort of perspective from Babo, or why he took the actions he did. Instead, we are given the perspective of an American who came in to save the day, but the person he was saving was a Spainish man trying to sell slaves. 

There is also Babo’s “voiceless end” in which his body is burned and his head is stuck on a stake for white people to see, and I am sure, to serve as a warning for any other slaves who might attempt to gain freedom themselves. Babo, who if he had succeeded, could have set free a ship full of slaves, could have been a hero. Instead he is given a brutal death, and does not even seem to become a martyr. Melville’s treatment of Babo does not give a great impression on his opinions of the rights of black people, or slavery. And I don’t even have the time to dive into some of the incredibly racist comments that the ‘hero’ of the story, Delano makes. 

So while Melville’s Benito Cereno may work with indirection through the plot of deception, it also makes it hard for a reader, at least in 2019, to come away with a clear idea of what Melville was trying to tell us. The words tell us that Babo should be the villain, but morally, who are we to judge an enslaved man trying to set him and other enslaved peoples free?

Douglass’ The Heroic Slave left no such issue for me as a reader. I came away with a clear understanding of what Douglass was promoting through his text: freedom and the need for allyship. The introduction to this book says “Washington gains the allegiance of the main white character in The Heroic Slave, in ways that Douglass hoped would gain the allegiance of his white readers” and this is very clear in the text. The white main character, Mr. Listwell, happens to overhear Madison Washington’s speech to himself for freedom. Listwell sees Madison as having “Herculean Strength” while also having “nothing savage or forbidding in his aspect.” Douglass creates an easily approachable and likeable black character for Listwell to come to see as a friend, and by extension, the reader. By the end of Madison’s speech, Listwell exclaims “From this hour, I am an abolitionist.” In a way, the novel aims for the same reaction. This story, in itself a speech for freedom, then calls the reader to declare themselves an abolitionist, for if there are slaves as nice and wonderful as Madison, then there must be something they can do. 

I still haven’t addressed why these two stories, published only three years apart, matter when placed together. It seems telling that a white man can write a novel about a slave revolution at sea that leaves its claims on actual slavery so vague, can get away with it. There was no urgency or need for Melville to write this text, but there was for Douglass. As a man who escaped slavery, he understood the need for freedom, and the help that it would take. It seems he had taken a route of getting white people on the side of the abolitionist movement to add to its effectiveness. It seems that the literary trends of these slave rebellion stories will depend heavily on the reason, or the lack of reason, that it is being written. With no push or true desire for black people to no longer be sold and owned, a story like Benito Cereno will only use the slave trade as a fact, something that is part of the story and not something to be questioned. In a story like The Heroic Slave, where the author is fully aware and a large part of the fight against slavery, there will be a clear message, a call to action, and even as a hopeful ending. Even with just two texts to pull from, this shows how the urgency of the matter of slavery can be changed between two people, who’s most noticeable difference is the color of their skin.

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Urgency and Lack Thereof by Delaney John-Zensky is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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