Leonard Quart | Letter from New York: Melville felt Black Lives Matter

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In a time when Black Lives Matter has evolved into a powerful, effective political movement, I decided to reread a great novella by Herman Melville, "Benito Cereno." It appeared in Melville's story collection "The Piazza Tales" published in 1856.

In the last four or five decades it has been recognized as a brilliantly subtle and prophetic evocation of white attitudes and preconceptions about Blacks and slavery. Robert Lowell turned it into a memorable play in 1964, which demonstrated both fidelity to the original text and, as I recall, also made it uniquely his own.

Melville's novella is a more-powerful indictment of slavery than any work that directly polemicizes against the institution. In its oblique, ironic way, it captures both the unthinking cruelty of the slave masters and the rage they aroused among those whose humanity they never perceived. The book is set in 1799 when, off the coast of Chile, captain Amasa Delano of an American sealer and merchant ship Bachelor's Delight visits the San Dominick, a Spanish slave ship apparently in distress. Melville describes Delano as "a person of a singularly undistrustable good nature," and "a man of naive simplicity as to be incapable of satire and irony. "

Delano is essentially a benign American innocent — "a good man" — who perceives little of the complexity of the world even when he looks directly at it. Though he does notice the relationship between Don Benito, the gloomy, sickly, strangely passive Spanish captain and his manservant/slave Babo, including whispered conversations, and the fact that the manservant won't leave his side.

Even an unseeing and complacent man like Delano becomes confused and wary about the unrest aboard the ship. He picks up signs that something is terribly wrong, sensing the acute tension between the few remaining white sailors and the black slaves — especially when a Black boy slashes the head of a white boy with a knife. However, Delano is able to repress his suspicions, and accepts Don Benito's story about a storm and its accompanying diseases that killed passengers, crew and slaves as an explanation for what happened to the boat. Melville's sometimes unreliable narrator writes: "Besides, who ever heard of a white so far a renegade as to apostatize from his very species almost, by leaguing in against it with Negroes?"

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As the novella unfolds, we learn that Delano has got it all wrong: the slaves have taken over the ship, and Don Benito is under the control of Babo, who has skillfully and subtly manipulated every aspect of the rebellion. And Don Benito turns out to be a man without evil intent towards Delano, (a thought that had gone through Delano's mind while onboard the boat). On the contrary, it's Babo, allied with other slaves, who has orchestrated the killing of many of the whites aboard, including the slaveowner.

Melville's treatment of Delano is utterly ironic, for this "good man" believes in slavery and in the inferiority and stupidity of Blacks, and is blind to their suffering humanity and capacities. Delano's vision of Blacks moves him to fully embrace the performance that Babo has shaped. For all the blacks, including the courteous elegant mixed-race steward whom Delano sees as a "good worthy fellow," are totally committed participants to the revolt and are playing parts for Delano's benefit.

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Meanwhle, Melville slyly tells us that Delano believes the stereotype that Blacks contain "a certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture; as though God had set the whole Negro to some pleasant tune."

Delano, like the vast majority of 18th-century whites, supports the horrors of slavery and the slave trade, and mainly sees Blacks as childish commodities to be bought and sold.

Melville, who was an abolitionist, reverses the usual roles here and makes Don Benito, who served and never questioned the slave trade, the suffering sentient chattel of Babo, and turns him into a broken man who is coerced into playing a part — just like some Black slaves played at being docile for their masters as an act of subtle subversion.

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In Melville's great novel Moby Dick, which is rich in multiple meanings, he creates a friendship between totally different men — the white sailor and novel's narrator, Ishmael, and the tattooed South Pacific islander Queequeg. Their friendship demonstrates that race is no barrier between people, as does Melville's special tenderness for Pip, the black cabin boy, who descends into a seer-like madness.

In the darker "Benito Cereno," the revolt is suppressed and Babo (who Melville neither condemns nor exults) is hanged. But a mournful Don Benito remains obsessed with his agonizing experience of the revolt and dies a few months later, while the insouciant American Delano can say: "Forget it. See yon bright sun has forgotten it all " and has cast all those painful memories aside.

I don't want to make a too facile analogy between Delano's inability to see what is truly happening on the slave ship with white America's inability to comprehend the anger and bitterness Black Americans for countless years have felt toward their treatment by the police. But it's clear that, despite much talk about police brutality, most white Americans passed over the issue. We might be a bit more knowing than Delano about Black lives and consciousness, but most of us who speak of our concern about police behavior and other blatant inequalities rarely get to the heart of what systemic racism does.

At the same time, let us be clear: A complex range of Black sensibilities and attitudes exists, and that anger is just one piece of their reality. Human beings are just more intricate than the nature of their racial, class or gender identity.

Leonard Quart can be reached at Cinwrit@aol.com.


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