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Chapter 2 Black Catalogues: Crime, Print, and the Rise of the Black Self “Own nothing!” said I. “Own nothing!” was passed around and enjoined, and assented to. —Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) Writing for the abolitionist National Era newspaper five years after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had debuted in its pages, prolific Southern novelist and death penalty critic E.D.E.N. Southworth concluded one of her popular serialized “nouvellettes” with a tableau that vividly illustrates the belated penal political membership accorded the enslaved condemned.1 “The Brothers” tells the story of Valentine, the cosmopolitan, Shakespearereading , mixed-race slave who kills Oswald Waring, his half-brother, childhood companion, and now master, in a fit of enraged self-defense. When Execution Day arrives, Valentine is joined on the gallows by his fellow slave Governor, a “jet-black” naïf who has committed the equally justifiable crime of killing an overseer in flagrante delicto with Governor’s enslaved wife Milly.2 The “very high” scaffold, “reached by a flight of more than twenty steps,” has been “erected upon a gentle elevation” on the outskirts of the Southern “city of M———.”3 Facing “a crowd of many thousands, each moment augmented,” so as finally to become a virtual “forest of human beings,” the men “stood in full view of every individual of that vast concourse of people”—some of whom, at least, would have perceived a telling anomaly: “The prisoners were not prematurely clad in the habiliments of the grave, as is usual upon such occasions, but were attired in ordinary citizens’ dress.”4 With this one detail, Southworth captures how the rites of execution fleetingly resurrect the civilly dead slave into political and civic life prior to his 88 Chapter 2 bodily destruction. If Valentine and Governor had been the “usual” victims of the gallows (that is, white male citizens), their sepulchral clothing would mark the final stage in their descent from the civil death of the prisoner into the physical death of those terminally excluded from the social compact. But the unusual execution of a capital sentence upon slaves occasions a change in the ritual’s sartorial trappings. Governor, we are told, wears “his best Sunday suit of ‘pepper and salt’ cassinet,” while Valentine is clad in “a suit of black broadcloth, with a white cravat and gloves.” Possessed, if not owned, by the quondam slaves, their clothing is transformed by the extraordinary occasion into “ordinary citizens’ dress,” marking the men’s corresponding metamorphosis into members of the polity, the requisite preliminary to their legally authorized hanging. Discrepancies in skin tone and education notwithstanding, the condemned men are united by their vestiture in the habiliments of citizenship, from dark woolen suits to execution “cap[s]” and “cords.” Yet, only for Valentine does this spectacular penal affirmation of political membership coincide with the emergence of a personality that, without attaining civil standing, nevertheless transcends formal legal personhood, achieving plenitude through a pervasive civic presence. The divergence between the two men is not spiritual in origin. Both are genuinely penitent, with Governor—as romantic racialism would lead us to expect—the more expressively soulful of the two. Rather, the unworldly Governor differs from his well-traveled companion in his failure to realize and thus internalize the transformative publicity of his apprehension and conviction. Misled by his own experiences of slaveholding paternalism and the presiding judge’s physiognomic display of the profession’s vaunted moral-formal dilemma, Governor confuses the criminal trial’s due process with the plantation’s summary disciplinary measures .5 “Ole marse up dere on de bench put a black nightcap on his head, an’ said somethin’ ’r other ’bout hangin’,” Governor acknowledges after his brief trial, “but I reckon he only did it to scare me, ’case I saw by his face how his heart was a saftening all de time.” Unable to “understand one-half of what had been done or said during the whole course of his trial,” Governor cannot apprehend, in Frederick Douglass’s dual sense of the word, that the proceedings have formally converted him from human property into legal person in order to hold him accountable for his crime. Thus, seeking to console Valentine, Governor obstinately reassures him: “Dey’s only doin’ dis to scare we! Sho! dey’s no more gwine to hang we, nor dey’s gwine to heave so much money in de fire! Sho! we’s too walable . . . ! I heern de gemmen all say...


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