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American Literature 73.1 (2001) 1-46
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A Soliloquy “Lately Spoken at the African Theatre”:
Race and the Public Sphere in New York City, 1821
Michael Warner with Natasha Hurley, Luis Iglesias, Sonia Di Loreto, Jeffrey Scraba, and Sandra Young
In 1821 a small theater opened in New York City, billing itself as the American Theatre but known to most New Yorkers only as the African Theatre. After playing with frequent interruptions, it apparently closed in 1824. Although it was the first African American theater, and although William Brown, its impresario, is known to have authored at least one play, very little is known about the theater, about Brown, or about his lost play. Even Brown’s first name was disputed until recent archival discoveries by George Thompson. In the absence of texts, the African Theater has remained an obscure trace, a scholarly footnote to American literary history.1
On 4 December 1821, however—when the theater was widely known in New York City, and when controversy swirled around it in the newspapers—a new literary periodical, St. Tammany’s Magazine, published a text entitled “Soliloquy of a Maroon Chief in Jamaica.”2 Its issues now extremely rare, the magazine has been unnoticed by scholars.3 According to its editor’s headnote, the monologue was “Lately spoken at the African Theatre.” Could this text be the earliest surviving work of African American theater?
The possibility would be enough to give the monologue tremendous importance to scholars. But the text has more than antiquarian interest. Whatever its origin, and whether or not it was in fact delivered on stage, the monologue is an extraordinary reflection on racial conflict, and on the very idea of race. It may be described as one of the most radical statements on the topic by any American before the Civil War. It explicitly engages the language of scientific racism, which was only then emerging, and it challenges all then-current grounds for claims of [End Page 1] white superiority, whether based in racial nature or in arts of civilization. At more than one point it challenges the very coherence of racial generalization—both the false label black and the equally false white—and offers especially pointed scorn for the emergent rhetoric of whiteness. It suggests violent resistance, providing its speaker a notable opportunity for sword rattling. And it does all this, as we shall see, in a highly charged political context in which whiteness was for the first time being advanced as a condition for suffrage and other political rights in New York. If it is true that the monologue was “[l]ately spoken at the African Theatre” in the fall of 1821, then its timing and its delivery could hardly have been more dramatic.
The text of “Soliloquy” follows. The remainder of this essay will introduce the text rather than provide an extensive interpretation. It will turn out, however, that some of the mysteries surrounding its publication raise difficult interpretive questions.
Soliloquy of a Maroon Chief in Jamaica
(Lately spoken at the African Theatre.)
Are we the links ’twixt men and monkeys then?
Or are we all baboons? or not all men?
O lily-tinctured liars! o’er whom terror
Hangs her white flag! why need I prove your error?
Cold is your blood as snow that paints your skin;
And impotent Albinos are your kin.
Your hue is of the pallid cocoa-nut;
Ye fear the stains of parent Earth’s own smut;
Ye shun the fiery god who gilds our hides,
And fills with generous fire life’s ruddy tides;
In graceful curls who crisps our stubborn hair,
The matted helm which ’gainst our foes we wear;
Whose warmth prolific fills all heaven and earth,
Whose lawful child is nature’s every birth.
We, in the image of primeval man,
Are what our fathers were when life began:
From virgin earth’s red breast red Adam rose;
And we are red,—not...