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Matthew Henson and the Antinomies of Racial Uplift

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 1, Summer 2012
pp. 19-44 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0001

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Matthew Henson’s 1912 memoir, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, seems to adopt a vindicationist discourse of work, merit, and recognition that accords with Booker T. Washington’s vision for racial progress, but Henson’s narrative actually demonstrates how such a discourse inadequately resolves the complex tangle of race, masculinity, and citizenship during the Jim Crow era.

When Matthew Henson returned to the United States after reaching the North Pole with Commander Robert Peary in 1909, he responded wearily to one reporter’s question: “How did I feel when I reached the Pole? Well, I didn’t notice any particular difference. I was very tired, as I had been working more and sleeping less on the last four days. The thing I wanted most at the Pole was a smoke” (“Tells”). Three years later, however, Henson would characterize the attainment of the Pole in significantly different terms, describing this moment in his memoir as a profound experience of “savage joy and exultation” (136). More importantly, this moment in A Negro Explorer at the North Pole situates him within an historical discourse of racial vindication as he expresses his pride that “it was I, a lowly member of my race, who had been chosen by fate to represent it, at this, almost the last of the world’s great work” (136). The contrast between these two accounts is certainly stark. In the immediate aftermath of Peary’s final expedition, Henson treats his journey to the top of the world as a joyless anticlimax, whereas the memoir he would publish in 1912 treats it as a joyful culmination for this “lowly” black worker, an occasion that induces a racially synecdochic self in narrative. This contrast between journalistic account and autobiographical narration encapsulates the cultural work that attends Henson’s production of A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, and his transformation from explorer to autobiographer refracts, I argue, the racial uplift ideologies of his era.

Indeed, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole bears the weight of racial uplift in the form of an introduction by no less a personage than Booker T. Washington, who, beyond his own abiding commitment to the rhetorical uses of autobiography, institutionalized a broad range of autobiographical practices at his school, Tuskegee Institute. Whether among his students, his instructors, or the supporters who attended Tuskegee’s annual conferences for black farmers and businesspeople, Washington consistently promoted spoken and transcribed testimonials, anthologized personal essays, and formal autobiographies. In effect, Washington established a culture of autobiography at Tuskegee that coincided with his elevation as a race leader in the 1890s and continued after his death in 1915. Within this culture, autobiographical acts themselves became fundamental to the interpellating processes of racial uplift. The result, he hoped, would be the formation of a new black middle class of teachers, entrepreneurs, artisans, and land-owning farmers devoted to his conception of racial progress. Despite Washington’s prominent introduction, Henson himself refuses to offer the conventional testimonial narrative of conversion and consent that was vital to Tuskegee’s reproduction as an ideological institution; likewise, Henson fails to configure himself as an acquisitive Negro for whom the accumulation of property and the achievement of bourgeois domesticity qualify him to stand as a symbol of black progress. Washington’s imprimatur thus raises a poignant question: How do discourses of racial uplift determine the self-presentation of black figures who existed on the edges of an emerging social formation, one that established limits and exerted pressures upon the production of black autobiography prior to World War I?1 As I argue, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole—an ambivalent narrative that stands outside of the selective tradition of black autobiography—demonstrates how uplift discourses of work, merit, and masculine recognition inadequately resolve the complex tangle of race and citizenship that marked Jim Crow America, even beyond the nation’s borders.

Henson’s narrative of his role in Peary’s celebrated polar expedition registers a range of competing discourses of race and citizenship that can be traced to the bitter North Pole controversy that greeted him once he returned. When Peary made his final dash to the North Pole in 1909, he famously...


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