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  • The Time to Rise:Imagining Black Maturation in Blake
  • Jennifer J. Baker (bio)

Narratives of maturation were central to the autobiography and fiction of the U.S. antislavery moment. In this literature, the black mind's capacity for intellectual and spiritual growth offered proof of black humanity, and examples of notable black men and women were especially important in showcasing the latent powers and potential of peoples of African descent. Individual maturation in the face of crushing odds demonstrated a collective potential that could, in turn, challenge proslavery claims of black inferiority. "No race so abused, maltreated, and enslaved, could have developed faster than the African during the last fifty years," Harriet Beecher Stowe declared in 1858. "Although the world has been in arms against them … there is now no manner of doubt that the race is rising."1

Although Stowe hails a collective "rising" of the "race," the focus of antislavery novels and autobiographies was almost always individual maturation. Such texts, organized around narratives of character formation and coming of age, used the single life to advocate the need for emancipation and rehabilitation. Martin R. Delany's only novel, Blake; or, The Huts of America (1859–62), is remarkable in that it deliberately does not tell the story of its hero's bildung, opting instead to feature a character who is already a "mature West Indian" when the story commences. Although the first half of Blake reads like a fugitive's tale, Henry Blake, as it turns out, was raised free in Cuba and does not grapple with the developmental challenges typical of the slave narrative. His story is not about overcoming odds to acquire literacy, enlightenment, and consciousness of himself as a free subject but rather a quest to liberate and elevate peoples of African descent.2

"Maturation," a term that appears more than a dozen times in the novel, is a central concern of Blake, but rather than depict the process through which an individual [End Page 239] matures, the novel dramatizes the importance of mature leadership for black liberation and elevation. As defined in critical age studies, "maturation" is the acquisition of various markers of adulthood, including physical strength, learning, autonomy, financial independence, and legal and political rights; as such, it is distinct from "aging," or the passing of the years of one's existence. When he describes individuals as mature in Blake, Delany refers to a set of traits related to decision making: mature individuals are circumspect, deliberate, tempered, and adept at long-term planning. Delany believed such qualities were as important as revolutionary fervor, for "no great project was ever devised without the consultation of the most mature intelligence, and discreet discernment and precaution."3 Mature individuals could envision, plan for, and help realize black futurity.

Maturation is crucial for the rise of black leadership in Blake, but it is not a process restricted to individuals. Consistent with nineteenth-century theories of historical change, the novel also presents revolution, social progress, and the amelioration of human problems as themselves processes of maturation. In this sense, the term is closely allied with the word "development" as it was used in life sciences to designate a progressive, and even teleological, emergence of new conditions or new life forms. As a practicing physician and lecturer on comparative anatomy and ethnology, Delany appreciated the common impulse among scientific thinkers to map growth phases of individuals on to phases of social advancement and historical progress. Emancipation, uplift, and other reforms were thought to unfold steadily but on their own time and only under the right conditions.

Although this organic development should neither be rushed nor stalled, according to Delany, it would need to be supervised and facilitated by circumspect leaders who understood the delicacy of this timing. For this reason, Delany often conjoins different, but always interrelated, forms of individual, collective, and historical maturation. That the concept was multiply resonant for Delany's thinking on black uplift is clear in a letter he penned to fellow black abolitionist James T. Holly objecting to Holly's support for a Haitian emigration project headed by a white abolitionist. Delaney characterizes the project as an affront to black manhood because it grants...


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pp. 239-263
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