Category Archives: Diasporas, Captivity and Nations

Internalized Borders

What I find absolutely fascinating with Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is how she elucidates the ways in which borders that lie within the interiors of our minds can not only solidify and reproduce borders along the external topographies of our lives, but can also provide powerful shiftings and reimaginings that nod towards a more just world. What better way to strengthen her discussion on what it means for “the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country” in a borderland “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” than exploring epistemological borders where her writing bleeds from Spanish to English, poetry to historical narratives to anecdotal confessions? For as she writes, a borderland “is in a constant state of transition,” so shouldn’t the ways in which we write, talk, and therefore come to understand borderlands be in transition as well?

So much of what it means to inhabit or understand borderlands is to live within the hyphen of identities, to live within cultural exchange, to form a mestiza consciousness. As Curtis Marez writes in his essay on the Keyword Mestizo/a, “ Combining the racial and cultural meanings of the term, Anzaldúa used “mestiza” as a metaphor for the kinds of borderland subjectivities produced by multiple discourses and practices of gender, sexuality, race, class, nationalism, and imperialism” (159). The approach in which Anzaldúa uses throughout Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza  is one that is honest and effect precisely because she is attuned to the myriad of borderland subjectivities and demonstrates this throughout her writing and its language/stylistic shifts.

As we were discussing in last class in reference to both the Miles and Deer articles, the importance of land for indigenous communities as a physical referential node to cultural values is something that cannot be ignored. It’d be interesting to explore bordercultures and the way they’ve been inscribed within the physical landscape, especially pertaining to the burgeoning surveillance culture along the U.S./Mexican border. I imagine an aerial shot of the border fence along Mexico (“splits me/splits me/me raja/me raja”), crisscrossed with aircraft landing strips and other inscriptions of surveillance. How has this physical terrain of surveillance been internalized within those living alongside/within borderlands? For, as Anzaldúa shows us, the divide between inner/external geographies of borders is a lot smaller than we may think, if there is one at all.

MQ-9 PREDATOR UAV in action at the Mexican border

Manliness in the Americas

Above is the theme song from the 1960s TV series Daniel Boone. In the video we see Daniel throwing axes and splitting entire trees, living off the land, and generally being the rugged, masculine individual that is mentioned so frequently in our recent readings about the American West. The lyrics, even more so than the imagery, tie into this heroic ideal:

Daniel Boone was a man,
Yes, a big man!
With an eye like an eagle
And as tall as a mountain was he!

Daniel Boone was a man,
Yes, a big man!
He was brave, he was fearless
And as tough as a mighty oak tree!

From the coonskin cap on the top of ol’ Dan
To the heel of his rawhide shoe;
The rippin’est, roarin’est, fightin’est man
The frontier ever knew!

Daniel Boone was a man,
Yes, a big man!
And he fought for America
To make all Americans free!

What a Boone! What a doer!
What a dream come-er-true-er was he!

This image of a Western man of action was portrayed in both the keyword “West” and in Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. The concept of the West, according to Comer, came to mean “‘wild west,’ now ‘won’ by virtue of bravery, pluck, adaptability, wilderness skills, and faith in the common people” (Keywords, 240). Turner also addresses these virtues in his description of the  the first wave of western settlement, where he speaks of the pioneer; a man who lives off the land, building his own cabin and generally being adventurous and rugged. Daniel Boone essentially typifies these ideals.

What I found interesting is that Daniel Boone, by the description given in the theme song, could almost typify the masculine ideal described by Jose Marti in “Our America,” despite the fact that Marti is writing about a different America. I assume that Marti is speaking about Latin America given his references to Incas and Aztecs, and also because he speaks critically of North America as something other than what he is writing about. However, there are a few critical differences between these conceptions of true manliness.

In “Our America,” Marti frequently invokes the image of a “natural man” or a “real man,” and he criticizes yankee or European men as being soft, feminine, and weak. Marti’s natural man understands the realities of problems and solves them, shunning the ignorance of European academia. He claims that “the natural man, strong and indignant, comes and overthrows the authority that manifests needs of the country.” In this passage he is specifically referring to the ideal American statesman, who is different from a European because he understands America and its elements and he solves problems with informed action.

This passage is reminiscent of Turner’s writing on the Western politician, who, like Daniel Boone, is a “doer.” Turner, similar to Marti, draws a distinction between the “talking politicians” of the East and the “working politicians” of the West. The fact that this working politician has “bone and muscle,” according to Turner, makes him a more able statesman and preserves his republican principles.

The crucial difference between Marti’s natural man and the hero of the frontier is that while both ideals are rooted in action, strength, and other typical masculine traits, Marti’s natural man is based on authenticity and the ability to accurately understand his country, while the Western pioneer is based on selfishness and individualism. Turner outlines the danger involved with such “pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds,” and makes a criticism reminiscent of Marti’s, claiming that when individualism becomes intolerant of education and experience, the result is a lax and potentially corrupt government.

So really, although Marti and Turner are speaking of different men (always men) and different places, their messages go hand in hand. Manliness is important in a Nation, but part of that manliness includes informed understanding and authenticity. Unfortunately, in the United States, selfishness, bravery, and individualism are often valued at the expense of the aforementioned traits, as we can see in the popular depictions of Western heroes.Clint Eastwood

These arguments obviously raise huge issues regarding gender, especially given the violence experienced by so many women on the frontier and elsewhere. I also think it’s interesting how while Marti speaks exclusively about the qualities essential for natural men, he always speaks about America as a woman. However these are topics that will have to be addressed another time.

 

 

Marti: The Border Created By the “Other”

“…The urgent duty of our America is to show herself as she is, one in soul and intent, rapidly overcoming the crushing weight of her past and stained only by the fertile blood shed by hands that do battle against ruins and by veins that were punctured by our former masters,” (6) Jose Marti proclaimed with revolutionary fervor. In his 1892 article Our America, Marti calls for all Cubans to shake off their regional, hometown mindsets and unite under a common Cuban voice in order to gain independence from Spain and resist American expansion. He urges his compatriots to have faith in their land and trust in their heritage, of which he asserts, “No Yankee or European book could furnish the key to the Hispanoamerican enigma” (5).

In this article, Marti does not discuss exactly what he means by “ the Hispanoamerican enigma,” but instead unites his targeted readers by building an imaginary border around Cuba and condemning the imperialistic powers beyond it. He seems to say, “We have a common Cuban patrimony that must be protected. But instead of focusing on that, let me remind you that our way of life is imminently challenged by European and American powers.” He works to create a sense of urgency, a sense of anger toward the races that recklessly “drive Persian ponies and spill champagne” (2). Thus he creates a border for Cuba by defining a tangible “Other.” He defines a Cuban identity not by listing their unique patrimonial links, but by listing what they are “fighting” against: the Other.

What is the most meaningful border for a sovereignty? Is it a physical border that delineates where one culture starts and another begins? Is it an imagined border beyond which one’s way of life is under attack? Is the more real border one that is physical or one that is symbolic or cultural?

I think Marti effectively uses his platform to draw Cubans together. By insisting who Cuba is not, he defines who Cuba is.

Indigenous Women Rendered Invisible in U.S. Society

In this weeks Keywords reading for “Indian,” Robert Warrior points to the essence of the word as a position of social and cultural misunderstanding both within communities of indigenous peoples, and the remainder of the U.S. populace. Warrior recognizes how most college students don’t have the basic knowledge about how to refer to indigenous people of the Americas, leaving our modern understanding of indigenous people clichéd if not disturbingly caricatured by the teachings received in elementary and secondary school. It is our very lack of understanding that keeps a discussion silenced. Without the tools and the rhetoric to speak frankly about minority group that has been systematically rendered invisible. This point is particularly intriguing given the legal studies research paper conducted at William Mitchell College of Law by Sarah Deer entitled, “Relocation Revisited: Sex Trafficking of Native Women in the United States.” The focus of Deer’s paper is to illuminate the reality that the U.S. faces in terms of sex trafficking (particularly American Indian and Alaska Native women) and how in failing to acknowledge this reality, we hinder the resolution of sexual exploitation which is/has been an epidemic in this country. Further more, Deer argues that the U.S government’s efforts seem disingenuous given their failure to understand the sexual subjugation of women of color as a product and legacy of the European and American colonization projects.

Taking into consideration the U.S. government’s historical superiority complex, actually lets make that the entirety of “Western Society.” The hypocrisy in this situation grows beyond an alarming proportion in the wake of this quote by scholar Jack D. Forbes, “from the raping of women to the raping of a country to the raping of the world. Acts of aggression, of hate, of conquest, or empire building [evolve to] Harems of women and harems of people; houses of prostitution and houses of pimps”(625). Forbes suggests that sexual violence can be used as a metaphor for the concept of colonialism as a whole. Sex traffickers’ tactics utilize systems of oppression in the United States today, the exploitation and displacement of Native women are causes them to be both physically rendered invisible (due to official indifference and institutionalized racism and prejudice) and metaphysically (a lack of representation in media) in the “American” cultural imagination.

As residents of the United States, we are not frequently provided the opportunity to revise this cultural imagination, yet are we not complacent if we do not seek it out?

The Expansion of National Borders and American Culture

Frederick Jackson Turner in his “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” constructs the argument that the progressive settlement of the frontier led to a redefining of culture and national identity in the United States. This conclusion is important as it draws evidence from agricultural and economic perspectives, social reaction, as well as border interactions to portray and explain a time of great change in United States history.

Elementary and secondary history classes often portray the American view of the frontier as a singular partition between settlement and wilderness, a so to speak “line of demarcation.” In his article, Turner states “Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and new development for that area” (Turner, 1). This statement becomes the foundation of the debate that the settlement of the west would cause an intermingling of cultures as well as a challenging of accepted norms to develop a more diverse national identity. “Thus, the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines” (Turner, 2). The initial settling of America lead to a culture heavily influenced by Europeans. The exploration and settling of the west would allow the American culture to become more independent as settlers interacted with indigenous groups and other American settlers to add variance to national identity.

Much of the history of the settlement of the frontier was marked with interactions between settlers and Native Americans. “The trading frontier, while steadily undermining Indian power by making the tribes ultimately dependent on the whites, yet, through its sale of guns, gave to the Indian increased power of resistance to the farming frontier” (Turner, 5). The technological advances from European culture, specifically guns, allowed for control over the indigenous peoples. Native American culture also became an aspect of American Identity through the exploitation of previously used lands. “The buffalo trail became the Indian trail, and this became the trader’s “traces”; the trails widened into roads, and the roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads” (Turner, 6). The expansion of the use of lands originally settled by the Native Americans allowed for the United States to develop a system of transportation.

Transportation along the frontier would cause a pivotal change in American society and the relation between individual States and the Federal Government. “The pioneer needed the goods of the coast, and so the grand series of internal improvement and railroad legislation began, with potent nationalizing effects” (Turner, 8). The formation of the railroads was a response to the demand for goods to be transported to and from the frontier. This would require federal programs and funding, as the railroad would expand through several states. This would begin to form another aspect of US culture, as the federal government would need to seize and allocate public lands in order to benefit the US public. This would eventually lead to tension between the powers of federal vs state government in the ownership of land.

“The Significance of the Frontier in American History” by Frederick Jackson Turner maps out the cultural changes of the US in relation to the settlement of the frontier. These comparisons are profound as they explain cultural changes including the formation of American thought, relations between Native Americans and the United States, as well as the continuation of a national debate between the powers of Federal Vs. State government in controlling these lands. This argument has convinced me that settlement of the frontier has had a much more substantial influence on US History than I had once believed.

Construction of Identity and Denial

Americans have largely lived in denial about the centrality of their racial-imperial project to national self-conceptions.- Nikhil Pal Singh Rethinking Race and Nation

I believe very strongly that American identity is so much an act of wild imagination gone awry.  One of the first books that brought me to this idea was the book Playing Indian by Phillip J.Deloria.  The book dealt a lot with how early in American history the identity of the colonist was very much underdeveloped.  To resist the aura of British gentility colonists looked towards and helped to create myths of the epic savagery of Native American populations. “… the ideal national subject has actually been a highly specific person whose universality has been fashioned from a succession of those who have designated his antithesis, those irreducibly non-national subjects who appeared in the different guises of slave, Indian, and , at times, immigrant.” (Singh) Because once they could establish the other of the Native American all points opposite of that could exemplify their best characteristics.   However, ironically, whenever it came to acts of rebellion or grotesque violence they often took on stereotypical Native regalia to partake in those actions (ie. war paint and war bonnets)  to live up to their own construction of the mythical warrior spirit.

As others have said and what Singh very much asserts is that American identity is defined by what it believes it is not.  In this process I believe this is what has caused racial groups to arise to be the subjects of a problem especially when they do not conform to the ideals of Americanness. As a Black immigrant from the Caribbean I believe that life for me has been economically easier because of my family’s willingness to conform and to assimilate to American society.  Growing up I very much was the model student.. the model minority. I was instructed to not cause trouble in school and I always held myself to a higher standard than other students around me because of the conviction in upward social mobility my family taught me .

For many other racial groups primarily Native Americans their very presence and survival is an affront to the American project to convince itself and others of its greatness.  This is in contrast to my own narrative which largely solely required that I as an immigrant be complicit in notions of American sovereignty by accepting political identifiers such as U.S. passports and citizenship.  But still on the flipside as a Black citizen of the U.S. I must contend with color-unaware ideology with results in the material and civil losses of Black people.  “ I am very much in agreement with Singh. Believers in American exceptionalism might hold that America does aspire to rectify social inequality however I call into question upon whose schedule does this process of redressing of inequality occur?

“The conservatives who say, “Let us not move so fast,” and the extremists who say, “Let us go out and whip the world ,” would tell you that they are as far apart as the poles. But there is a striking parallel: They accomplish nothing; for they do not reach the people who have a crying need to be free.” -Martin Luther King Why We Can’t Wait

The Gordian Knot of our Time

“What are you knotting there, my man?”

“The knot,” was the brief reply, without looking up.

“So it seems; but what is it for?”

“For some one else to undo,” muttered back the old man, plying his fingers harder than ever, the knot being now nearly completed.

Throughout Benito Cereno, Mellville structures a narrative around an ever-present imperialist consciousness through the American ship captain Amasa Delano and his encounters aboard the Spaniard Benito Cereno’s San Dominick. It’s important to remember that the book was published in 1856 within the aftermath of the Compromise of 1850, spilling forth a whole slew of political disruption and slave rebellions in America.

Delano is characterized as possessing a “benevolent heart” and an “intellectual perception”, a level-headed man who “had often taken rare satisfaction in sitting in his door, watching some free man of color at his work or play. (73)” However, despite being moderately “liberal”, given the historical context of his views towards blacks, Delano is so wrapped up in a racist and imperialist way of seeing and observing the relations and activities on the San Dominick, he fails to see the actual power dynamics at hand. He is too busy normalizing the crew/slave relations (“I know no sadder sight than a commander who has little of command but the name (49)” that he fails to see the power Babo holds over Cereno and he fails to see the nuanced hints towards what is actually going on the ship.

Two examples of this are the uncontrollable shaking of Cereno getting his beard shaved (an important and symbolic performance of control and the real power dynamics at hand). Despite Delano recognizing the absurdity of the time and urgency of this beard shaving, he doesn’t probe further the underlying fear and trembling of Cereno during the act.  Another missed hint due to the particular way of Delano’s “seeing” is literally dropped right into his hand in the form of the Gregorian Knot (noted for its allusions to intractability, unsolvability complexity), hinting at a hidden problem on the ship, something larger or outside the narrow scope of Delano’s character.

Situating imperialist ways of “seeing” within Rethinking Race and Nation by Nikhil Pal Singh, it seems as if a Gregorian Knot of our time is to undo the double optic of antiblack racism presented in the article. To do so hinges on our ability to imagine and reimagine the ways in which both market society and democratic republicanism “collude in the perpetuation of racial inequalities by denying their own theoretical limitations (12)” whether it is the deployment of racial particularities or universalities in order to advance a white supremacy without taking culpability. Racism as a nationalist project begins with the slave trade world that Melville brings forth in his novel and has continued to this day, constantly restructuring itself and realigning identities along racialized borders that dictate the us/them boundary integral to nation building.  Singh writes, “The long centrality and normativity of whiteness in US political culture has not been inconsistent with the history of American liberal-democracy, but integral to it.” To even consider untying the Gregorian Knot of our time, whatever it may end up being, it must, I believe, begin with this assertion.

Justice in Benito Cereno: Justified?

With the novella Benito Cereno, Herman Melville adds himself to the ranks of white men that have written about slavery, black people and/or African Americans, and race-based oppression by white people. While reading this novella, I came to conclusions on Melville’s attitude about African slaves. But first, I want to briefly examine another literary comparison to Benito Cereno.
Written some 30 years after Benito Cereno, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) publicized the character of Jim, an adult, black slave. Twain presented Jim as a wise, good-natured, caring figure, though many question Twain’s often patronizing tone with Jim’s character. As a white man growing up in the post-Reconstruction Era South who was critical of slavery, Twain was able to give an honorable face to black people to mainstream white, American readers.
Melville wrote Benito Cerino in the pre-Civil War years. I consider the pivotal villain-hero, Babo, to be a sort of pre-Huck Finn “Jim” in the sense that Melville endowed Babo with rare traits that even surpassed the white characters in the novella. In Huck Finn, Jim is presented as more street-smart than the other white adults Huck knows, and, more importantly, Jim is presented to be more loving and paternalistic than Huck’s own parents and legal guardians.
In Benito Cereno, the “Negro Babo” is presented with cunning so infallible that he—along with the cooperation of his fellow captured Africans—is able to overthrow his captors, actively control them, and hide the truth from the growingly suspicious American Captain Delano. Melville presents Babo with villainous omnipotence and he uses Babo’s power to invoke a sense of discomfort or even fear among readers. In passages such as, “[Babo’s] body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites…”) (p. 123), Melville ensures that Babo shows his position as a leader who must be followed even after his death.
Yet we must remember that the overall tone of the novel is one that does not condemn the slaves for their uprising. It is a story that allows a set of slaves to seek vengeance after hundreds of years of merciless treatment as a human subspecies. Particularly to the 21-st century reader, with our more progressive ideas about race than Melville’s 19th century readers, we cannot immediately write off Babo and company as ruthless, soulless, and unjustified. There is something that feels vindicating about Babo’s triumph in the end, as if for just a moment in history, we hear about African slaves rising up in a rare moment of justice, if a violent form of it.
Lastly, this form of rooting for violent justice reminds me of the plot of Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglorious Bastards, which portrays a group of Americans that assassinate Hitler. Throughout the film, the viewers are expected to share the anger that Brad Pitt and his mates feel when they encounter Nazis, culminating in a climactic cinematic justice when Hitler is slaughtered while in a cinema.
The tactics used in this film made me feel conflicted; for is it ever moral to delight in the violent murder of another human being? The tactics in Benito Cereno similarly trouble me. Does Melville wish for his readers to triumph alongside Babo’s terrifying, yet redemptive violence?

A slave ship being loaded off West Africa

The Power Dynamics Aboard the San Dominick

In Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, what was so striking was the examination of the power dynamic between the enslaved and the enslaver within the book.  All throughout the novel, up until the very end, readers are faced with a certain mystery surrounding the power dynamics on the San Dominick as seen through Captain Delano’s eyes.  Delano constantly questions the workings of the ship and doubts Cereno’s ability to captain the ship at all.  However, by the end of the novel, readers and Delano, himself, are privy to why there was such a reversal of power on the San Dominick and why Cereno’s constant misgivings were so necessary.  This discussion of power dynamics was extremely reminiscent of Nikhil Pal Singh’s passage, “Rethinking Race and Nation,” and his analysis of the “decisive symbolic and cultural elements for creating hegemonic political and economic arrangements throughout US history” and how those hegemonic arrangements play out on the San Dominick (Singh, 13).

For instance, in Benito Cereno, when Delano is witness to “one of the black boys, enraged at a word dropped by one of his white companions, [seizing] a knife, and, though called to forbear by one of the oakum-pickers, [striking] the lad over the head, inflicting a gash from which blood flowed,” Delano questions the insubordination present aboard the San Dominick and is unable to make sense of the incident (Melville, 25).  Furthermore, Cereno’s immediate rejection of Delano’s comment that “instant punishment would have been followed,” on the Bachelor’s Delight, confuses Delano even more with regard to the authority on the San Dominick, or lack thereof (Melville, 26).  As a result, Cereno’s lack of authority keeps Delano in a place of doubt aboard the ship, causing Delano to continue questioning Cereno’s qualifications and intentions as captain.  Consequently, Delano begins to fear for his status aboard the ship because he is so unsure of what is occurring aboard the ship and is so baffled by the power dynamics on the ship and is unsure of how to navigate them in dealing with Cereno as well.

In relation to “Rethinking Race and Nation,” I think it is important to note that part of the confusion that rests on Delano is the automatic “recognition…of the extent to which a normalizing claim to whiteness” is created, and how “racial subordination have been tied to the reinforcement of hierarchies of property,” and how the ownership of property is automatically assumed to be a characteristic of whiteness (Singh, 9 & 11).  Therefore, Delano never recognized the reversal of power between the enslaved and the enslaver as a point of deception because the hegemonic arrangements of power were so solidly in place and anything other than the expected power arrangement would have been seen as an impossibility.  As a result, the concept of the enslaved taking over the ship was never a possibility for Delano, solely because, “One owned oneself insofar as one was white and male” (Singh, 9).  Consequently, Delano would have never been able to figure out that the black slaves aboard the San Dominick had taken over, by himself, because of the strength of racial stigmas on a slave ship and the fact that the ability to own and control was an ability only ascribed to whiteness.

As a result, I think it’s important to ask what characteristics are still ascribed to whiteness in present day and how do they remain recognized or unrecognized?  In addition, how can we begin to challenge the “torturous but creative efforts to accommodate the racism internal to the nation-state’s constitution,” and provide room and accessibility to begin disinvesting from those values and efforts (Singh, 10)?

Benito Cereno and the Fear of Black Rebellion

[CONTAINS SPOILERS]

Herman Melville’s gripping short story, Benito Cereno, touches on a number of critical aspects of America’s racial history, but one element which I think warrants greatest scrutiny is its slave rebellion narrative. The tale, of course, reveals at its conclusion that our unassuming protagonist Captain Delano had been outfoxed by the slaves aboard a wandering ship. Melville cleverly and subtly inverts the traditional slave-master relationship, so that the servants—particularly Babo—make Don Benito their instrument and strip him of his power for their gain. One’s interpretation of this parable, however, depends heavily on the context in which it is read, and I struggled with determining Melville’s motives behind writing the story.

Over the course of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, one of the most potent and unifying fears among slave-owning Americans was a creeping anxiety over black uprisings against slavery. Despite instances of slave revolts being relatively infrequent, this terror was pervasive. Essential to sustaining a system that explicitly subordinated African-Americans was a manufactured fear of black liberation. The Virginia House of Burgesses declared, in 1700,

[A]ccording to our present Circumstances we can hardly govern them [slaves] and if they were fitted with Armes and had the Opertunity of meeting together by Musters we have just reason to fears they may rise upon us. [sic]

Here is a letter from North Carolina following a rare case when a fire was started in 1720:

I am now to acquaint you that very lately we have had a very wicked and barbarous plot of the designe of the negroes rising with a designe to destroy all the white people in the country and then to take Charles Town in full body but it pleased God it was discovered and many of them taken prisoners and some burnt and some hang’d and some banish’d. [sic]

This fear remained prevalent up to and beyond the time of Benito Cereno’s publication in 1855, so it’s worth thinking about how Melville’s picture of rebellion would have been received at a time when the white psyche was stalked by this nightmare being played out*. Perhaps I’m being too cynical, but I found that Benito Cereno only reinforced these fears and adhered to a tired formula in slave rebellion storytelling. To begin, Melville’s story is generally cast through the eyes of a benevolent white man, Captain Delano, who is portrayed as an empathetic, albeit gullible, character. Delano and a fellow white conquistador Don Benito Cereno, fall victim to the guile and chicanery of Babo, a slave who—while receiving a more nuanced persona than the black caricatures that were commonplace among Melville’s contemporaries—is ultimately revealed to be a manipulative fiend when Benito blows his cover. While it can be appreciated that Melville attributes some clever intellect to the slaves on the ship who outwitted Captain Delano, it was difficult for me to extricate this tale from the broader narrative of slave rebellions which instilled fear in the minds of slave-owners across America at the time.

Of course, there is plenty of room for other interpretations and judging by my peers’ blog posts, some have been able to tease out more positive aspects within Melville’s story–which brings me back to my first point: the context in which the text is read matters a lot. Today’s “millennial” generation is less susceptible to the anxieties of a black uprising (keeping in mind the fear-mongering over a black presidency), and are more likely to recognize the humanity of enslaved blacks; so perhaps the message of Benito Cereno is malleable over time.

* One crucial difference is that Melville’s novella is set at sea, not on, say, a Virginia plantation, which is manifested in Boba and the slaves’ raw desire to go back to their home country (Senegal), rather than directly rebelling against the plantation owners and greater systems of white supremacy in America.