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Kevin Michael Scott “LikewiseMasked”: Blackface and Whitewash in Melville’s “BenitoCereno” In December of 1855,CharlesF. Briggs,the editor of Putnamk Monthly,published an editorial,“About Niggers,”in which he defended the presence of stories about Africans and African Americans in the short-lived magazine that provided a home for severalof Melville’sinfluential novellas.Briggs ends his piece with an anecdote from a friend aboutAnthony Rox, an ex-slaveand now a “superb enginedriver, on the Ohio river,”who,when asked how he came to be free, responded: Why, MassaVincent,my healthwas very bad when I was in Kentucky,I couldn’tdo no kind of work; I was very feeble; ’twasjes’ as much as I could do to hoe my own garden and eat the sass; and the missus that owned me see that I was a mis’ablenigger-ne of the mis’ablest kind. So I said to her: “Missus,I’m a mis’able nigger, and I aint worth nothing, and I think you’d better sell me, I’m such a mis’ablenigger.”Now, Massa Vincent,I was such a poor niggerthat missusagreedto sell me for a hundreddollars,and 1agreedto try to work and earn the moneyto pay her,andI did,andmyhealthhasbeen gettingbettereversince,andI ’specksI madeaboutnine hundreddollarsthattime,outof that nigger!Wah,wah, MassaVincent.l It is an exemplary scene that, like the captive sailor who hands Amasa Delano the intricate knot, begs the reader to cut through the layered and convoluted racial dynamic of antebellum American culture and begin to question not only Rox’sassigned identity of racial performance, but the reader’s own as well. In the anecdote, a white man, an editor and member of the information elite, relates the story-at second hand-to support his contention about the innate good nature of blacks and later describes it as demonstrating their “charmingjollity and waggishness.”While the article protests common assumptions about the ignorance and laziness of African Americans and attempts to stake out positions that argue for black humanity and against slavery, the abilityof the editor to see behind Rox’smask of blacknessisquestionableand limited at best. Obviously,Rox is a clever man who likelywas healthier as a slave than he cares to admit . He isalsoaware of how antebellum American culture enforces the commodification of his body, and he knowshow to negotiate the value placed on him, indeed, how to manipulate and leverageit. In order to accomplish his freedom, he has adopted, as a mask, the constructed imageof blackness that white culture hascreated, of the good-natured-if shiftless and undependable-Negro. Rox appropriates , in a limited but effectiveway, the power of the racist mechanisms of control. The issue of Putnam’s that contained Briggs’s essay also published the conclusion of “Benito Cereno,” Herman Melville’s deconstruction of the same racial dynamic that Rox so deftly navigates to freedom. Rox’s performance of socially accepted blackness depends, for its success, on his owner’ssense of her own superiority in terms of basic worth, health, and intelligence-in short, her unacknowledgedwhiteness.When he assumes, correctly, that his owner will perform her own assigned role as “white,”Rox subverts the power of racism and slaveryby inverting the vectors of the performance of race they enforce, in otherwords, by making the performance more about whiteness than blackness.Thisinversion,and itsgothic implication that identity is a great unknown covered by a performance, indeed, by layersof performance, is the subject of Melville’s tale of slave rebellion. Rox’s subversion of white authority, like the rebellion aboard the Sun Dminick in “BenitoCereno ,” is far from a complete success:Rox provides an effective example of how white stereotyping, Blackfaceand Whitewashin “BenitoCereno” 127 even from the liberal-minded, could reenfold threatening racialfiguresbackintothe statusquo. Briggs argues strenuously-if haphazardly-for egalitarian treatment of African Americans,and his conclusions are unequivocal: “The nigger is nojoke, and no baboon;he issimplya black-man, and I say: Give him fairplay and letus seewhat he will come to.”Tosupport hiscontention, however, Briggspraises the “nigger”for “suchlarge capacities for enjoying the present, however absurd,” and for providing the “rich,sensuous civilization which will bring a new force into thin-blooded intellectualism,and save our noble animal nature from...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-6095
Print ISSN
1947-4644
Pages
pp. 126-135
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-07
Open Access
No
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