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95 3 Black Audio-Visionaries and the Rise of Miltonic Influence in Colonial America and the Early Republic The journey out of hell and up to a marvelous light of freedom in early African American literature continued to complete and complicate Milton well beyond the publication of Wheatley’s Poems. As early as 1788, a writer adopting the name Othello published two essays in Matthew Carey’s “widely circulated magazine, the American Museum,” containing infernal echoes of books 1 and 2 of Paradise Lost as a means for critiquing slavery.1 A year later, Olaudah Equiano published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. This slave narrative appropriates four passages from Milton ’s epic as an intertextual strategy for justifying the Christian tenets of his antislavery views. Subsequent orators and pamphleteers like Lemuel Haynes, Peter Williams Jr., William Hamilton, and David Walker would contribute to this slow yet sure tradition in early African American literature and oratory. Drawing equally on both the spoken and written word, these orator-poets might be best understood as black audio-visionaries. These black audiovisionaries occupy and produce demonic grounds by transforming 96 Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt the geographical space of the speaking or reading moment into amphitheaters of black revolt. On these grounds where geographical space is re-produced to audiovisual effect, Milton’s black audiovisionaries project diffuse scenes from his satanic epic. Their strategies of intertextual engagement with Milton allow audiences to see, hear, and relive the terror of hellish slavery or godly censure as the literary occasion may demand. The term “audio-visionary” extends the phenomenon of intertextual influence that Joseph Wittreich examines in Visionary Poetics: Milton’s Tradition and His Legacy. In that work, Wittreich contextualizes the book of Revelation as a biblical source of poetic influence “on first-rate minds and talents” like Milton.2 This tradition, with its apocalyptic scenes, inspires the literary art of visionary poets, providing them “a whole aesthetic system” that bridges prophecy with literature and provides artists a range of poetic “subjects and an iconography for representing them.”3 Black audio-visionaries complete and complicate Milton on these demonic grounds of influence by extending this literary art form to oratory. Whether they imbue their oratory with scenes from Milton’s satanic poetry or blend them with aural effects in their slave narratives, essays, or political pamphlets, these audiovisionaries extend Milton’s afterlife within and across the literary color line as practices of freedom and racial uplift. Additionally, completing and complicating Milton through their audiovisionary poetics coincides with the epic writer’s own oratorical talents. For instance, Wittreich, in Why Milton Matters, acknowledges the epic writer’s presence in his prose writings as that of an “orator/preacher.”4 Several of the black audio-visionaries examined in this chapter were preachers by vocation. Others channeled the vocation through the oratorical power of their religious convictions and rhetoric. As preachers, these audio-visionaries projected their declamatory voices, inflecting them with vivid scenes strategically selected from Milton’s epic. They preached Miltonic gospels that exposed and indicted the hell of slavery, often capitalizing upon the moment to prophesy God’s imminent wrath. Because their gospels contained fragments of Miltonic engagement, they produced a distinct variation on a style of visionary poetics that fuses epic with prophecy, therefore constituting “‘total form’ by containing Black Audio-Visionaries and Miltonic Influence 97 within themselves all other forms and by achieving a perfect harmony through a combination of styles.”5 Milton’s satanic epic makes poetry out of this mixing of genre, producing epic prophecies . Bringing satanic epic into union with godly prophecy, Milton, channeling his infernal hero, “re-creates [poetic tradition] in a different image” than that which was bequeathed to him.6 This descent into fallenness and poetic tradition manifests as a satanic encounter that replays “a certain discontinuity between [readers ’] own horizon[s] and that of the text.”7 Black audio-visionaries perform similar acts of satanic re-creation, troping with Milton by projecting and replaying scenes of hellish abjection or Edenic fallenness. An end goal of this audiovisual art form with Milton aims to promote cognitive experiences of emotional woe that lead readers and auditors to embrace a spirit of antislavery revolt. Collectively, this transitional wave of black audio-visionary essayists, prose writers, preachers, and orators embraced an infernal spirit of Miltonic revolt in the messianic cause of liberty. They preached their gospels of black revolt...


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