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  • The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within US Slave Culture by Vincent Woodard
  • Christopher Lloyd
THE DELECTABLE NEGRO: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within US Slave Culture. By Vincent Woodard. New York: New York University Press. 2014.

The Delectable Negro explores American slave culture, revealing the fantasies, investments, and discourses that figure the black slave as consumable and desirable—both charged with homoeroticism. For Vincent Woodard, notions of cannibalism and consumption within slave culture have been overlooked by scholars, so this radical and incisive book disrupts our conventional readings of slavery as well as key literary and political texts. It should be noted here that Woodard died before this book was published; it is a shame that he could not see his daring work enter debate. Praise must go to Joyce and McBride, moreover, for their careful and attentive editorial work that made the publication of this text possible.

Woodard’s study attends to the moment when “black masculinity, racial identity, homoeroticism, and a distinctive American appetite for black male flesh and soul congealed” (24). In chapter one, Woodard looks to the intersection and “correlation between the consumptive appetites of whites and the transatlantic slave trade” (30), reading various cultural co-ordinates together, including Olaudah Equiano’s famous slave narrative. The next chapter describes the relation between slave degradation (often sexualized) and the master’s sense of honour, which is catalysed through modes of consumption. In chapter three, Woodard attends to Frederick Douglass’s [End Page 146] writings for he described slavery “more than anyone else has, as a cannibalistic institution” (95). The next chapter reads Harriet Jacobs’s slave narrative through the gendered elements of consumptive desires. Taking the character of Luke as central to this argument, Woodard ultimately suggests that scholars of slavery need “to get beyond our theoretical aversions to gender and sex variance” (170) in this world and its literature. Chapter five circles around the figure of Nat Turner: the literal, literary, and metaphorical consumption of his body. Through a reading of William Styron’s novel about Turner, the critiques of that book by black intellectuals, as well as James Baldwin’s defence of it, Woodard mounts an argument about the way Turner’s body is continually consumed. While the chapter is otherwise engaging and light-footed, Woodard problematically eschews an explicit critique of the homophobic and sexist opinions that saturate the attacks on Styron and his novel; I find this silence strange and counter to the larger concerns of this project. The final chapter optimistically locates “black self-fashioning and cultural formation within the eroticized male interior” (211). In excavating the black male interior—particularly through the site and figure of the anus—Woodard claims we can garner a better understanding of slavery’s complex relation to the hunger of (and for) black men. While Woodard’s male focus throughout the book is not a problem in itself, I wonder if this final chapter could have gestured more openly to the interiority of both male and female black bodies; for surely it is across genders and sexes that we will most richly understand the corporeal vicissitudes of slavery.

Woodard’s book might be coordinated with contemporary scholarship such as Russ Castronovo’s Necro Citizenship (2001), which looks to social death and slavery in nineteenth-century American culture or Michael Bibler’s Cotton’s Queer Relations (2009) which reads literary texts that restructure the plantation as a queer space. Both texts can illuminate further Woodard’s interest in black bodies, male interiors, homoeroticism, and consumptive desires. Reading The Delectable Negro in relation to these works alone reveals the highly nuanced and exciting directions that critical works on slavery are moving. Woodard’s career would surely have been even bolder after this book, but this text’s interruption into critical theory alone is itself worth celebrating.

Christopher Lloyd
University of East Anglia, United Kingdom


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pp. 146-147
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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