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American Literary History 12.4 (2000) 659-684

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Free Carpenter, Venture Capitalist:
Reading the Lives of the Early Black Atlantic

Philip Gould

As this is a time of great anxiety and distress among you, on account of the infringement not only of your Charter rights; but of the natural rights and privileges of freeborn men, permit a poor, though freeborn African, who, in his youth, was trapanned into Slavery, and who has born the galling yoke of bondage for more than twenty years; though at last, by the blessing of God, has shaken it off, to tell you, and that from experience, that as Slavery is the greatest, and consequently most to be dreaded, of all temporal calamities: So its opposite, Liberty, is the greatest temporal good with which you can be blest!

Caesar Sarter, "Essay on Slavery"

Human liberty cannot be bought or sold.

Thomas Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African

In light of recent critiques of Enlightenment ideology's rela tionship to race, we should read Benjamin Banneker's famous letter to Thomas Jefferson suspiciously. A free African American living in Maryland, Banneker was a gifted mathematician and astronomer whose public renown was due chiefly to the popular almanacs he produced during the 1790s (Carretta 324). His letter to Jefferson was published in Philadelphia in 1792, along with Jefferson's gracious reply as well as a testament to Banneker's character by a leading Maryland politician. It is, in sum, an antislavery epistle. Assuming the conventional persona of the humble plaintiff, Banneker begins, "I am fully sensible of the [End Page 659] greatness of that freedom which I take with you on the present occasion, a liberty which seemed to me scarcely allowable, when I reflected on that distinguished and dignified station in which you stand, and the almost general prejudice and prepossesion, which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion" (Carretta 319). Then its tone changes altogether. By invoking key passages from the Declaration of Independence (1776), Banneker turns Jefferson the writer into Jefferson the reader--of his own avowed principles of natural rights. Though not an entirely original strategy, it is nevertheless effective in gaining the black writer the moral high ground: "Sir, how pitiable it is to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges . . . you should at the same time counteract his mercies . . ." (Carretta 321). In this way, Banneker makes particularly racial claims to such "rights" by interrogating the res (read "race") publica: "Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge that I am of the African race . . . but that I have abundantly tasted of the fruition of those blessings, which proceed from that free and unequalled liberty with which you are favored . . ." (Carretta 320; emphasis added). But this last phrase is potently ambiguous: does "free and unequalled" make egalitarian claims to the very man before whom Banneker supposedly humbles himself? Or does it suggest, and even accept, the hierarchical privilege underwriting the republic?

Yet it is just this kind of reading of the creative potential of individual rights discourse for black writers that influential cultural critics resist. Paul Gilroy, for example, understands the "rational, scientific, and enlightened Euro-American thought" that emerged in the eighteenth century as the ideological source of modern "terror" for writers of the black Atlantic. Indeed, Gilroy's use of the term black Atlantic is meant to displace the modern categories of "race" and "nation" that imply "the supposedly primitive outlook of prehistorical, cultureless, and bestial African slaves" (220). He likely would read Banneker's letter to Jefferson as an instance of what he calls the "politics of fulfillment" as opposed to the "politics of transfiguration": "The politics of fulfillment is mostly content to play occidental rationality at its own game. It necessitates a hermeneutic orientation that can assimilate the semiotic, verbal, and textual. The politics of transfiguration strives in pursuit of the...


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