Every other Wednesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.I went to campus on Friday for the first time since Election Day, and I met with my American Literature students to discuss the text I’d assigned way back in August: Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. Published in 1855, this novella features an American Captain named Amasa Delano who comes upon a strange ship in the course of his duties. There are several initial indications that all is not right aboard the ship; it struggles to navigate into harbor, it raises no flag, it displays no guns, it shows significant signs of disrepair, and its figurehead is hidden by canvas. The ship’s stern boasts an image of “a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked.” Whatever misgivings Captain Delano feels at the sight of the ship and its eerie stern-piece, he brushes them aside, and Melville’s readers, then as now, must be content with the American’s observations. My daughters crowded around us, wondering about their mama’s sadness, and their questions felt like an echo: “What has cast such a shadow upon you?”Once aboard the ship, while the wind ceases and the players are left adrift, Captain Delano meets his peer, Benito Cereno, and Babo, the black slave upon whom the Spanish captain relies. Delano recognizes the ship as a transport for slaves, and he internally critiques the disorder and impotence of the Spanish captain for whom the story is named. Only Babo, whom Delano likens to a loyal dog, earns Captain Delano’s praise.
The plot thickens as Delano and company inspect the ship, and the American captain brushes aside numerous misgivings, attributing them to the ship’s mysterious travails or Cereno’s weak, sickly leadership. In a particularly harrowing scene, Babo insists upon shaving Cereno in the middle of the day and in the middle of the conversation with Delano, a whim the American chalks up to infirmity and caprice. Delano notes Cereno’s anxiety at the start of the shaving scene, with Babo’s sharpened knife at the Spanish captain’s throat:
Altogether the scene was somewhat peculiar, at least to Captain Delano, nor, as he saw the two thus postured, could he resist the vagary, that in the black he saw a headsman, and in the white, a man at the block. But this was one of those antic conceits, appearing and vanishing in a breath, from which, perhaps, the best regulated mind is not free.
At this moment, if not earlier, my students typically realize what Delano refuses to see—that there has been mutiny aboard the San Dominick, and the roles of master and slave (like those writhing figures on the stern-piece) have been reversed.
Yet even when he recognizes the shaving cape as the Spanish flag, Delano jokes with Babo, “[I]t’s all one, I suppose, so the colours be gay.” Indeed, near the story’s climax, as Delano tries to return to his own ship and wonders at Cereno’s rudeness for refusing to partake of his hospitality, the American captain suspects the Spaniard of foul play—but not the slave. For most of the text, Delano’s prejudices blind him to the possibility of discontent or deceit on the part of the slaves, particularly Babo, whom he views as serving his master out of loyalty and love.
When the truth of the revolt is at last revealed and suppressed, with Babo silenced until his execution, Captain Delano cannot understand Benito Cereno’s grim mood:
At the story’s end, Cereno dies. Babo’s head, “that hive of subtlety, [is] fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites.” Delano walks away, his optimism undimmed by the shadows of the mutiny aboard the slave ship. As I told my class on Friday, many scholars think Babo’s character is modeled from the Haitian revolutionary (also a former slave) Toussaint L’Ouverture. That connection complicates the story, as the United States refused to diplomatically recognize Haiti after their successful slave rebellion in 1804, fearing that its proximity to the American South could incite revolt. Perhaps the United States of the early nineteenth century, like Melville’s mid-century captain, preferred to ignore the shadow of discontent cast by the institution of slavery.
“You are saved, Don Benito,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; “you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”
I ask your indulgence in spending so much time outlining such an old and obscure text. One of the features of this text that I’ve always found most fascinating is its analysis of reading—the way it lures readers into Delano’s perspective so that so many who come to the text for the first time brush away suspicions and accept a prejudiced perspective without reflecting on it much.
My students saw through that, and as we discussed the text on Friday, many of them wept. They commented on Babo’s decapitated gaze, looking down upon the city, even when the legal system of the time allowed no testimony from a slave. How, they wondered, could Delano have been so unaffected by what he witnessed? How, indeed.
When I got home, I shared with my husband the experiences my students also told me about that day. About harassment and threats and vandalism, all in the wake of the election. About students wiping tears from their eyes as they struggled to work through a difficult antebellum text that feels strangely familiar. I fell into my husband’s arms and wept, for my students, for our nation. My daughters crowded around us, wondering about their mama’s sadness, and their questions felt like an echo: “What has cast such a shadow upon you?”
I gave them the only answer I could: we mourn with those who mourn.
Image via Bristol Radical History Group.