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  • Of Mules and Men, Fathers and Husbands, Schools and Suffrage:African American Manhood and the Paradox of Paternalism in Law and Literature after Emancipation
  • Brook Thomas (bio)


Near the end of stephen crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming, having demonstrated his bravery in battle, “felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of a sturdy blood. . . . He was a man” (103). As is well known, Henry’s confidence in his manhood is potentially, if not necessarily, undercut because, although his company does not know it, on the first day of combat his badge of honor is inflicted by a fellow soldier, who like Henry is in cowardly retreat. Less often noted is that the courage he displays on the second day of battle is set in motion when Henry overhears an officer tell a general that his regiment fights “like a lot ’a mule drivers” (79). This derogatory comparison to “mule drivers,” not a hatred of the enemy, gives Henry his Emersonian “new eyes” (79) and sparks his heroic deeds. The significance of that comparison is illuminated by the book’s first scene, when we are given our only African American in the book. “A negro teamster who had been dancing upon a cracker box with the hilarious encouragement of twoscore soldiers” is “deserted” the moment the possibility of battle arises and the serious business of war begins.1

Even if Crane suggests something cowardly about this desertion, Henry’s assertion of military manhood in response to a comparison with [End Page 1] those coded as African Americans in the most famous fictional portrayal of the war that ended slavery is telling. According to authors as different as Mark Twain and W. E. B. Du Bois, slavery had taken away African American manhood. In the same year that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, Twain wrote a friend, “We have ground the manhood out of them & the shame is ours not theirs & we should pay for it” (Twain, Letter to Francis Wayland). Almost twenty years later, Du Bois writes of the sudden emancipation of “black men emasculated by a peculiarly complete system of slavery” (Souls 50).

Today manhood is usually considered a gendered category, but at the time African Americans were denied manhood because they were considered childlike.2 The alleged childlike nature of African Americans was used to justify the paternal institution of slavery. African American military service during the Civil War challenged that stereotype. The three Civil War Amendments to the Constitution laid the groundwork for its complete overturn. These amendments ended slavery, granted citizenship and civil rights, and made it illegal to deny someone the right to vote on the basis of race. As a result, former slaves could become legal husbands and fathers with the right to enter into contracts and become breadwinners for their families. They could also develop their manhood through education and through participation in the political sphere. I will look at a variety of literary works of the time to illustrate African Americans’ efforts to assert their manhood. But I will also look at how, around the time that The Red Badge of Courage appeared, those efforts were questioned in many works of fiction. These works helped to foster and to reinforce views like those in a well-known history of United States since the Civil War that African Americans, even after emancipation, remained “as credulous as children, which in intellect they in many ways resembled” (Oberholtzer 1: 73).

African Americans’ attempts to assert their manhood were also undermined by various Supreme Court decisions. Frequently dismissed for simply replicating the dominant racism of the time, those cases are, in fact, more complicated. If they stripped the Civil War Amendments of their truly egalitarian potential, they did so by insisting that African Americans needed to be treated like other men and not be the special favorites of governmental policy. Thus, they call attention to what I will call the “paradox of paternalism.” How could African Americans become self-reliant men if they continued to depend upon the governmental [End Page 2] protections demanded by their advocates? My final section will show how two authors—Du Bois, briefly, and Albion W. Tourg...


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