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  • Melville and Black Lives Matter
  • Christopher Freeburg, Chair

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Participants in the "Black Lives Matter" panel at MLA 2017, from left to right: Brenna Casey, Christopher Freeburg, Gary Vaughn Rasberry, Christine Wooley, and Ivy Wilson.

Black Lives Matter is a political movement that finds its purpose and necessity in protesting the unarmed killing of African Americans by the police. One thing that media commentators recognize (not often enough) is the diversity of people who support the progressive reforms for [End Page 102] which the BLM advocates. Yet, when it comes to racial conflict and the political sacrifices necessary to address it, most people are unwilling to shake up, risk, or lose their current identity and way of life. Melville's fictional portrayals that emphasize racial difference offer a contrast. How did the racialized tapestry on Queequeg's body imbue Ishmael's survival with moralistic significance? What did Benito Cereno refuse to face, in history and in himself, that landed him forever in the haunting shadow of "the negro"? The BLM moment is not just about protest against the police and solutions to political violence; it is about the difficulty of simultaneous urgency and the paralysis of personal and political sacrifice. In other words, to demonstrate that black lives matter like all lives matter, what are you/we willing to do, lose, or change in our identity or way of life?

With the stakes of self and social transformation in mind, we turned to Melville, a writer in whom artists such as Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, David Bradley, George Lamming, and C.L.R. James found great insight during moments of racial unrest throughout the Americas. Melville critics have no doubt discussed race and blackness before, but this current moment demands a robust attempt to expand and deepen those conversations with new aesthetic materials and historical archives. This panel encouraged scholarship on how Melville's art both speaks to racial crises and mediates philosophical dilemmas, political unrest, and concepts of history across Latin American, the Caribbean, and the United States.

Christopher Freeburg, Chair
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


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pp. 102-103
Launched on MUSE
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