- Blake; or, The Huts of America: A Corrected Editions ed. by Jerome McGann
By the time Martin Delany was writing his novel Blake, in the late 1850s, he had lost patience with the white-led abolitionist movement and was committed to black self-emancipation. Insurrection and emigration were possible actions, but, besides the practical difficulties — from money to a place for resettlement — “Delany believed”, says Jerome McGann in this new edition, “that black emancipation was impossible without the ‘elevation’ of black consciousness” (xiii). Blake tells the story of a black man in his mid 30s, Henry Blake, born free in Cuba, who, after being enslaved in the American South and having his wife sold away, becomes a revolutionary. McGann suggests that Blake is more polemic than work of art, and that Delany (1812–1885), born free in West Virginia, who had been a newspaper editor, physician and activist, used the “conventions of traditional fiction to make an argument about what black emancipation in America meant and how it was to be achieved” (xv–xvi). The novel thus asks a “which comes first” question: consciousness or action? It takes seriously the need and possibility for black-led action, but McGann reads both the story and its textual condition as indicating an ultimate priority for Delany: emancipation is a matter of self, and readers are included.
After his wife Maggie is sold, Henry declares his liberated state to the man who had claimed to own him: “I’m not your slave, nor never was, and you know it!” (21). Maggie’s departure wakes him up, and in Henry’s case he can truly say that he was born free and his enslavement was a scam. He wants to extend this revelation to all. The slave industry put all involved into an altered state of consciousness, drugged in a sense, with slaves forgetting their original freedom and whites their humanity. (This may explain, in part, why Henry will sail across the Atlantic to Benin, aboard a slave ship. The story asks that we remember where many Americans came from, as well as the barracoons and the middle passage.) Henry would prefer that his awakening was widely shared, that others also instantly understood “[t]he authority of the slaveholder ceases the moment that the impulse of the slave demands his freedom” (274). But they struggle to remember and [End Page 131] “self-reliance was the farthest thing from their thoughts” (124). How could he “make them sensible that liberty was legitimately and essentially theirs” (102)?
Before Henry travels to Cuba to rescue Maggie, he circumnavigates the South and primes slaves for insurrection. When he sails to Benin, his presence inspires one of the ship’s owners to renounce his villainy (208), and the Portuguese slave trader in Benin likewise promised “never again to traffic in human beings” (222). These moments of rescue and enlightenment read as conventions of traditional fiction and wane in the latter part of the novel as it confronts the lesson that history had mainly taught: that heroic action and emancipated consciousness were difficult to achieve, share widely, and sustain. Delany could send escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad to Canada, he could arrange love marriages, and he could reunite a shattered family — but what, as the novel moved toward a conclusion, was realistically plausible? The plot in the final chapters is stuck in a holding pattern and earlier declarations are revised. After Maggie and Henry reunite, she says, “as we are now both free and happy, let us attend to our own affairs. I think you have done enough”. He replies, “I am not free” (194). As others are, so is he. On the other hand, when his cousin Placido — the character is based on a Cuban poet of that name executed by the Spanish in 1844 for his role in a failed insurrection — says to Henry that “every day convinces me that we have much yet to learn to fit us for freedom...