Monday, December 7, 2009

Black Like "Bewitched": Sitcoms and Race, Part 1

As many of you know, I am interested in “passing” narratives and in popular culture representations of race relations. Back in the civil rights era of the 1960s, even situation comedies did their part to help end persistent racism and color prejudice. One of the shows that has retained much of its charm since then is the 1960s-70s era television comedy, Bewitched, which starred Elizabeth Montgomery (In addition to playing Samantha Stevens, Montgomery was also a committed civil rights activist).

Bewitched has long been one of my favorite shows, as its metaphorical richness provides an ample field for analysis. While doing research (my best excuse for surfing YouTube!), I recently came across this “very special episode” of Bewitched, which originally aired back in 1971. It's called "Sisters at Heart," and in it, Tabitha and a friend of hers want to be “sisters,” as they have become so close. Her little friend is black, though, so Tabitha has to come up with a way to make them appear as sisters.

What I also find fascinating is that the sponsor, Oscar Mayer, had Montgomery introduce the episode with an explanation (or disclaimer? or apologia?) of why they felt it was important, although they don't provide ANY context for viewing it. The disclaimer is at the beginning of the episode. I have included the link to the first section--the other two are available as well--this is a charming episode.

All best,



Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Pardon for John Brown, Hero of the Civil War

Today, December 2, marks the sesquicentennial of the hanging of John Brown, the abolitionist who led a multiracial group of freedom fighters in a raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia in 1859. Many were killed, some were captured and later hanged, and some escaped and were never captured (most notably African American abolitionist Osborne Perry Anderson, who later wrote a book on his experiences, titled A Voice from Harper's Ferry, published in 1861.)

Below is an email sent to the Grad Center's American Studies list-serv by David S. Reynolds, Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at the Graduate Center and Baruch College of the CIty University of New York. Professor Reynolds is also serving as my dissertation director.
He is the author of numerous books on antebellum literature and culture, including John Brown, Abolitionist, Beneath The American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville, Walt Whitman's
America: A Cultural Biography, and others. His most recent book is Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson (available at the Plainfield Public Library).

Fellow Americanists,

Today is the 150th anniversary of the hanging of the Abolitionist,John Brown. In today’s New York Times, I make a plea on the op ed page for President Obama or Gov. Tim Kaine to posthumously pardon John Brown:

If you agree with me, please add your name to the online Pardon John Brown petition at:

Forward this note to your friends and encourage them to join this worthy cause by signing the petition too.

Let’s act in the spirit of Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, and DuBois. Let’s make Pardon John Brown a national movement!

--David Reynolds

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

World AIDS Day - Conscientious Objector

Today is World AIDS Day. Back in 2005, the City of Plainfield held an AIDS Day observance on the steps of city hall. Mayor Al McWilliams, Pastor Jeanne Yurke, the Bayard Rustin Progressive Democrats, and other community people participated in the remembrance of friends, family members, and other loved ones who left us too soon. Part of the observance included a reading of the poem below. I hope that you will take a moment to remember those who suffer from AIDS, and, in the words of my friend Al Cunningham, with whom I will be sharing the official observance at Essex County College today, use WORLD AIDS DAY, December 1, to talk about someone who died of AIDS.

Conscientious Objector

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

--Edna St. Vincent Millay

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wamsutta James's Suppressed Speech of 1970

I think it's important to note other reflections on the idea of "Thanksgiving." The fourth Thursday of November also marks the National Day of Mourning in remembrance of the genocide and decimation of Native American populations. This year marks the 40th National Day of Mourning observance. One of the texts I assign to students in my American Literature course is the 1970 suppressed speech of Wampanoag leader Wamsutta Frank James, which was to be delivered at Plymouth, Massachusetts on the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims' landing. I have reprinted the text here from United American Indians of New England (UAINE). You can visit the website by clicking here:

All best, Rebecca
To have been delivered at Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1970
Three hundred fifty years after the Pilgrims began their invasion of the land of the Wampanoag, their "American" descendants planned an anniversary celebration. Still clinging to the white schoolbook myth of friendly relations between their forefathers and the Wampanoag, the anniversary planners thought it would be nice to have an Indian make an appreciative and complimentary speech at their state dinner. Frank James was asked to speak at the celebration. He accepted. The planners, however , asked to see his speech in advance of the occasion, and it turned out that Frank James' views — based on history rather than mythology — were not what the Pilgrims' descendants wanted to hear. Frank James refused to deliver a speech written by a public relations person. Frank James did not speak at the anniversary celebration. If he had spoken, this is what he would have said:

I speak to you as a man -- a Wampanoag Man. I am a proud man, proud of my ancestry, my accomplishments won by a strict parental direction ("You must succeed - your face is a different color in this small Cape Cod community!"). I am a product of poverty and discrimination from these two social and economic diseases. I, and my brothers and sisters, have painfully overcome, and to some extent we have earned the respect of our community. We are Indians first - but we are termed "good citizens." Sometimes we are arrogant but only because society has pressured us to be so.
It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you - celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.
Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt's Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians' winter provisions as they were able to carry.
Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.
What happened in those short 50 years? What has happened in the last 300 years? History gives us facts and there were atrocities; there were broken promises - and most of these centered around land ownership. Among ourselves we understood that there were boundaries, but never before had we had to deal with fences and stone walls. But the white man had a need to prove his worth by the amount of land that he owned. Only ten years later, when the Puritans came, they treated the Wampanoag with even less kindness in converting the souls of the so-called "savages." Although the Puritans were harsh to members of their own society, the Indian was pressed between stone slabs and hanged as quickly as any other "witch."
And so down through the years there is record after record of Indian lands taken and, in token, reservations set up for him upon which to live. The Indian, having been stripped of his power, could only stand by and watch while the white man took his land and used it for his personal gain. This the Indian could not understand; for to him, land was survival, to farm, to hunt, to be enjoyed. It was not to be abused. We see incident after incident, where the white man sought to tame the "savage" and convert him to the Christian ways of life. The early Pilgrim settlers led the Indian to believe that if he did not behave, they would dig up the ground and unleash the great epidemic again.
The white man used the Indian's nautical skills and abilities. They let him be only a seaman -- but never a captain. Time and time again, in the white man's society, we Indians have been termed "low man on the totem pole."
Has the Wampanoag really disappeared? There is still an aura of mystery. We know there was an epidemic that took many Indian lives - some Wampanoags moved west and joined the Cherokee and Cheyenne. They were forced to move. Some even went north to Canada! Many Wampanoag put aside their Indian heritage and accepted the white man's way for their own survival. There are some Wampanoag who do not wish it known they are Indian for social or economic reasons.
What happened to those Wampanoags who chose to remain and live among the early settlers? What kind of existence did they live as "civilized" people? True, living was not as complex as life today, but they dealt with the confusion and the change. Honesty, trust, concern, pride, and politics wove themselves in and out of their [the Wampanoags'] daily living. Hence, he was termed crafty, cunning, rapacious, and dirty.
History wants us to believe that the Indian was a savage, illiterate, uncivilized animal. A history that was written by an organized, disciplined people, to expose us as an unorganized and undisciplined entity. Two distinctly different cultures met. One thought they must control life; the other believed life was to be enjoyed, because nature decreed it. Let us remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white man. The Indian feels pain, gets hurt, and becomes defensive, has dreams, bears tragedy and failure, suffers from loneliness, needs to cry as well as laugh. He, too, is often misunderstood.
The white man in the presence of the Indian is still mystified by his uncanny ability to make him feel uncomfortable. This may be the image the white man has created of the Indian; his "savageness" has boomeranged and isn't a mystery; it is fear; fear of the Indian's temperament!
High on a hill, overlooking the famed Plymouth Rock, stands the statue of our great Sachem, Massasoit. Massasoit has stood there many years in silence. We the descendants of this great Sachem have been a silent people. The necessity of making a living in this materialistic society of the white man caused us to be silent. Today, I and many of my people are choosing to face the truth. We ARE Indians!
Although time has drained our culture, and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts. We may be fragmented, we may be confused. Many years have passed since we have been a people together. Our lands were invaded. We fought as hard to keep our land as you the whites did to take our land away from us. We were conquered, we became the American prisoners of war in many cases, and wards of the United States Government, until only recently.
Our spirit refuses to die. Yesterday we walked the woodland paths and sandy trails. Today we must walk the macadam highways and roads. We are uniting We're standing not in our wigwams but in your concrete tent. We stand tall and proud, and before too many moons pass we'll right the wrongs we have allowed to happen to us.
We forfeited our country. Our lands have fallen into the hands of the aggressor. We have allowed the white man to keep us on our knees. What has happened cannot be changed, but today we must work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men and nature once again are important; where the Indian values of honor, truth, and brotherhood prevail.
You the white man are celebrating an anniversary. We the Wampanoags will help you celebrate in the concept of a beginning. It was the beginning of a new life for the Pilgrims. Now, 350 years later it is a beginning of a new determination for the original American: the American Indian.
There are some factors concerning the Wampanoags and other Indians across this vast nation. We now have 350 years of experience living amongst the white man. We can now speak his language. We can now think as a white man thinks. We can now compete with him for the top jobs. We're being heard; we are now being listened to. The important point is that along with these necessities of everyday living, we still have the spirit, we still have the unique culture, we still have the will and, most important of all, the determination to remain as Indians. We are determined, and our presence here this evening is living testimony that this is only the beginning of the American Indian, particularly the Wampanoag, to regain the position in this country that is rightfully ours.
September 10, 1970

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pip's Confusing Genealogy - Part 3 (Conclusion)

Here are my final thoughts on Pip's confusing genealogy. I had planned to write about the academic conference I presented at last week, but I decided to finish this brief series of posts first. When we left off, I wrote about Pip playing his tambourine as a squall approaches. Again, I want to offer suggestions on how Pip may have come to ship on board the Pequod.

In Chapter 16, “The Ship,” we are introduced to Peleg and Bildad, the two self-described “part owners and agents” of the ship. Given the dubious scruples of these characters, it is possible that Pip was hired out by his father to work on board the ship, and taken advantage of. It is also possible that he, at some point, realized that he actually had been abducted and would be forced to stay on the Pequod in a state of forced servitude. There is no evidence of this, but it remains a possibility, for, as Parker adds, “If [Melville] wanted, he could borrow...a description of the chicanery by which landsmen lured green youths to sign on a whaling voyage.”

That Melville was using minstrel signifiers to help define Pip’s character is not hard to decipher. The major one is his tambourine. “…He had once enlivened many a fiddler’s frolic on the green;” notes Ishmael in “The Castaway.” His minstrel origins are further supported in the text by his singing lyrics from “Old King Crow,” after he goes insane and is taken under the wing, so to speak, of Ahab. It is somewhat ironic that Melville used minstrelsy to help define his African American characters, as blacks did not appear formally in minstrel troupes until at least 1855. Melville, then, would have seen whites in blackface makeup performing on the stage when he went to the theater. An intriguing explanation may be found at the end of Pip’s seemingly nonsensical and bizarre monologue, which forms the final passage of Chapter 99, “The Doubloon.”

After several inhabitants on board the Pequod, including Starbuck and Ahab, pause and soliloquize on the doubloon, which has been nailed to the masthead of the ship, Stubb comes along to reflect upon it as well. When he is done, he notices Pip, who has been watching. He remarks on Pip’s “…unearthly, idiot face…” as he listens to all the “interpreters,” as Stubb calls them, ruminate on the meaning of the doubloon. Pip then steps up with his own interpretation: “I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.” He repeats the conjugation twice more. Stubb notes Pip’s facility with the conjugation, but is unable to decipher why Pip keeps repeating it. He is frightened by Pip’s insanity, and goes off.

Eric Lott makes an interesting observation about this connection between Pip and Stubb, suggesting that in using the verb “look,” Melville is alluding to the minstrel tradition called “The joking triangle, in which white men share a dominative relationship to a black man which is based above all on looking… [a] northern analogue of black men on the auction block.” There is support for this theory, in that Stubb had previously threatened to sell Pip into slavery.

However one wants to interpret Pip’s commentary on the act of looking and perceiving—one should not ignore the conjugation’s significance as a marker of his actual literacy. As noted above, there is a strong possibility that if he is a freeborn black, he would have at least gone through grade school. He then delivers a final commentary, wherein a third, intriguing hint as to his origins is offered: “Hish! Hish! God goes ‘mong the worlds blackberrying. Cook! ho, cook! and cook us! Jenny! hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, Jenny, Jenny! and get your hoe-cake done!”

A clue as to how Pip might have come on board the Pequod is hidden in this passage. As already noted above, it was not uncommon for black children to be hired out by their parents for money under apprenticeship agreements. These children were also quite vulnerable to kidnapping by corrupt employers, who were not above selling them into slavery. Charles Feidelson notes that the term ‘blackberrying” might be derived from the term “blackbirding,” the practice of hiring Pacific Islanders as indentured servants, and then forcing them into slavery.

Melville’s fondness for punning lends an air of truth to this, if one imagines the scenario of a child going “blackberrying,” or blackberry picking, and then being accosted and kidnapped into slavery, i.e., made a victim of “blackbirding.” Melville would certainly have been aware of (or perhaps even had first-hand knowledge of) blackbirding, given his own South Seas adventures. He was certainly familiar with the similar practice of the British impressment of black sailors, which he wrote about in White-Jacket.

Also, as Wilson notes in Freedom at Risk, “…black sailors [were] extremely vulnerable to seizure and sale as slaves…” during the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. Hershel Parker adds that the character of Pip was said to be based on John Backus, a black sailor who shipped on board the Acushet, the ship from which Melville deserted in July of 1842. One of Melville’s former shipmates on the Acushnet, Henry F. Hubbard, made the connection between Backus and the portrayal of Pip. According to Parker, Hubbard “…saw Pip’s jumping overboard as a recollection of Backus’s panicky leap from a whaleboat.” Backus deserted the ship as well, disappearing in San Francisco. As opposed to the fictional Pip, Backus was not a child. If, as Hubbard suggested, Pip was modeled on the adult Backus, why then, did Melville decide to portray Pip as a child? I’ll take that up in the New Year—we can take a little break from Melville. It would be great if those who have an interest would think about spending some time during the upcoming holiday season curled up with a copy of Moby-Dick! There is nothing more rewarding than reading!

For my next post, I will discuss my impressions of the SAMLA conference in Atlanta, at which I delivered my paper on Margaret Halsey’s Colorblind: A White Woman Looks at the Negro.



Monday, November 9, 2009

Pip's Confusing Genealogy - Part 2

Pip illustration by Catherine Kanner (from Cetus, the Whale, pub. by Melville Press, 1996).

The first mention of Pip as a native of Alabama is contradicted later in the book, when, in Chapter 93, “The Castaway,” Ishmael notes that Pip is from Tolland County, Connecticut. The reasons for this shift are unclear, but the subject of slavery was prominent in Massachusetts in 1851, while Melville was in Arrowhead, writing Moby-Dick. During that time, two momentous events concerning slavery occurred in nearby Boston. The first involved a runaway slave named Frederick Wilkins, who had escaped from the south to Boston, where he was employed as a waiter. Wilkins had been arrested in February and brought to the courthouse for a hearing in front of Melville’s father-in-law, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court Lemuel Shaw. As Wilkins’s supporters were leaving the courthouse, a crowd of blacks surged through the open doors, rescued him, and spirited him away. This act was in direct defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law, passed the previous year, which held that runaways could no longer seek refuge in the North, but were required to be returned to their owners in the slave-holding states.

Even opponents of slavery were outraged by this blatant disregard for the rule of law. Scarcely two months later, another fugitive, Thomas Sims, was also arrested. He, however, was not able to escape, and was tried, found guilty and returned to his owner in Georgia. As Melville scholar Hershel Parker notes in the first volume of his authoritative biography of Melville, “Naturally Melville knew a good deal about this second important fugitive case of the year, but it did not capture his full moral attention.”

I suggest that, although it did not receive his full attention, Melville was not completely oblivious to the state of the world around him. It is possible that, in order not to confront the issue of slavery head-on, given his father-in-law’s direct involvement in the Wilkins and Sims cases, Melville changed his mind about Pip’s origins, deciding instead to avoid the issue altogether by making Pip a freeborn black. Parker wryly adds: “Even though [Melville] counted himself one of those ‘who always abhorred slavery as an atheistical iniquity,’ as he later wrote in the “Supplement” to Battle-Pieces (1866), in Moby-Dick (ch.1) he asked, ‘who aint a slave?’ thereby shifting the focus from the immediate horrors of Negro slavery in the United States to the level of cosmic tyranny.”

Tony Tanner, writing about the flogging of the African American seaman, Rose-Water, in Melville’s White-Jacket, echoes Parker in calling attention to Melville’s penchant for philosophical musings, as opposed to clear, direct statements: “…the figure of the black slave (or freed slave) provokes ambivalent feelings which confuse him....when a writer engages in universals he absolves himself from having to confront local, historical, and political problems—like the status of the black slave in America....”

It is also entirely possible that Melville simply forgot that the earlier chapter had mentioned Alabama as Pip’s birthplace, and merely was using Alabama metaphorically. When Pip first jumps from the whaleboat and the line is cut, Stubb warns him that the whale has more worth than a black child: “‘We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind, and don’t jump anymore’.” This threat goes unheeded as Pip again jumps into the water, in the impulsive act of a young child. He is rescued, but has gone insane.

Pip himself provides a clue that he might be a runaway, although, given his mental state, it would be difficult to take anything he says at face value. In Chapter 125, “The Log and Line,” he cries out, in the midst of his madness, “Pip! Pip! Pip! Reward for Pip! One hundred pounds of clay—five feet high—looks cowardly—quickest know by that!” As the ship’s-crier, Pip is ironically calling out a reward for his own capture, which would support the contention of some scholars that he is, indeed, a runaway slave. Alternatively, it could simply show awareness on Pip’s part of how fragile his status remains.

Melville, however, has already compounded the confusion with Pip’s earlier description of life with his father in Tolland County, Connecticut. In 1784, Connecticut had enacted a law to end the practice of slavery in the state. Known as “The Gradual Abolition Act of 1784,” this act “…set all children born to slaves in Connecticut after March 1, 1784, on a gradual course to freedom and thus prevented the growth or replenishment of the slave population through procreation,” notes David Menschel. However, Menschel adds that as there were “…other methods for introducing new slaves into the state, such as capture and importation,” and warns against viewing this progressive law “…in isolation, but rather … as part of a larger legal framework, the constituent parts of which were not foreordained.”

By the time Melville began Moby-Dick, however, slavery in Connecticut had ended, and the chance that twelve year old Pip had been born in servitude was practically nonexistent. According to David L. Parsons, author of Slavery in Connecticut 1640-1848, “By 1800, 83% of Connecticut’s 6,281 Blacks were free, and by the time general emancipation was enacted in 1848 there were only six slaves left in the state.” Melville has acknowledged a black northern population in Chapter 2, “The Carpet-Bag,” when Ishmael happens upon the black church service in New Bedford, so it is possible that Pip would have originated from such a community.

In Chapter 99, “The Doubloon,” Pip notes details of his life in Connecticut, noting that his father had cut down a pine tree and found an “… old darkey’s wedding ring,” which would seem to imply that he has clear memories of his prior life in New England. We cannot be sure which of his utterances are to be taken with any degree of veracity, as he has become “insane” by this time. However, in his role as “the Fool, Pip would seem to be telling the truth. Charles Feidelson, Jr., in his annotated edition of Moby-Dick, refers to Pip as a free Northern black. There is support for this, as Pip appears to be literate. Although he has ostensibly lost his mind, he is nevertheless able to correctly conjugate the verb “look.” This gives further credence to the position of those scholars who have suggested that he was a freeborn black.

David L. Parsons writes “The state of public education in Connecticut improved markedly in 1795 when proceeds from western land sales were used by the state for schools. For the next twenty-five years grade schools in Connecticut were of good quality, and in most communities Blacks attended.” Parsons goes on to note that, after 1820, the state government stopped its support of grade schools, and the quality of education in the public schools declined. However, education was still a possibility for black children in Connecticut, and Stubb’s reference to Lindley Murray’s The English Grammar provides an indication of where Pip might have learned his grammar skills. The probability is quite slim that Pip would have been able to read had he been a slave because, as Schwartz notes in Born in Bondage, only 10% of slaves ever learned to read.

Other scholars seem to be divided on the issue of Pip’s birthplace and circumstances. In writing of him in an essay titled, “Our Crowd, Their Crowd: Race, Reader, and Moby-Dick,” historian David Bradley refers to Pip as a fugitive slave: “Pip is first introduced in Chapter 27 as an ‘Alabama boy’ and later in Chapter 93 as hailing from ‘Tolland County in Connecticut’—which is to say he is a fugitive slave.” How Bradley arrives at this firm conclusion, given the conflicting textual evidence, is puzzling, as there is no compelling evidence in the text to support such a contention. Pip is a small cabin boy—twelve years old—how would he have gotten north and shipped on board a whaler? Melville, of course, preferred to remain obtuse.

In the absence of any specific textual evidence, it is easier to believe that he is either a freeborn northern black who shipped on board the whaler of his own volition, or that he was a kidnapped apprentice. Of this last proposition, given that he retains clear memories of an earlier life with his father, he would have to have been quite young when any kidnapping occurred. It is much easier to believe that Pip was a freeborn black from Connecticut, possibly a former member of a musical troupe. The linguistic markers would seem to agree with this first supposition.

Pip speaks in the language of the other New Englanders, in contradistinction to the “plantation dialect” of Fleece, the old black cook who makes an unforgettable appearance in Chapter 64, “Stubb’s Supper.” Had Pip been a fugitive from Alabama, would he not have spoken more like the stereotypical Fleece, whose southern drawl recalls portrayals of blacks in other, antebellum literature, such as that of Abbott, Trowbridge, Stowe, and others? Melville could write in dialect, if he deemed it appropriate, but he also insisted upon demonstrating (as many of his contemporaries did not) the wide range of linguistic differences among blacks.

That he would make such a strong distinction between Fleece and Pip, who sounds no different than Stubb, the “Cape-Cod-Man”, suggests northern roots. It would appear to me, then, that Pip is a freeborn black, given his linguistic style. As to his “minstrel” origins, the signifiers are much clearer. Pip as the on-board entertainer-cum-cabin boy is expressed directly in Chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” wherein Melville, using dramatic form, delineates the crew’s movements, as well as the uneasy tensions among the many races and ethnicities at the changing of the watch, just before a coming squall. The French Sailor calls for “a jig or two” and immediately shouts for Pip, who, sleepy at first, perfunctorily beats his tambourine (147). He later plays amidst the increasing tensions between the racially heterogeneous crew and the coming squall.

Tomorrow, I hope to post my impressions (not to be confused with Post-Impressionism--ha ha!) of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) in Atlanta, where I presented my paper on Margaret Halsey's Colorblind: A White Woman Looks at the Negro. (see my September 4, 2009 post) for background. In addition, I may write a little about a topic I am thinking of presenting at a future conference.

On Friday, I'll post Part 3 (the final section) of "Pip's Confusing Genealogy."

All best,


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pip's Confusing Genealogy - Part 1

Pip illustration by Rockwell Kent.

The phrase “luckless child,” used by Captain Ahab to describe Pip, the young African American cabin boy of Moby-Dick, could be applied to the majority of African American children back in the 1840s, given their inferior status to every other group in America at that time. This inferiority expressed itself in many ways—they were, as children (whether freeborn or enslaved), inferior to adults, and as black children, inferior to white children. That slave children were property, and thus unable to feel a sense of safety and security in their parents’ care, would have burdened them additionally. Although laws prohibiting the sale of very young slave children existed, this did not apply to orphaned children. These laws, designed primarily to protect children under the age of ten, would scarcely have protected a child such as the fictional Pip since, as children got older, the possibility of separation increased.

According to Marie Jenkins Schwartz (author of Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum Southavailable at Plainfield Library), approximately ten percent of adolescent slaves from the upper South were separated from their parents and sold between the years 1820 and 1860.This statistic, however, must be considered a fraction of the actual percentage of lost families. Separation of children from their parents was not confined to the south, however, nor was it confined to slave children, i.e., children born into slavery. Slave children were only marginally worse off than freeborn black children, whose lives also contained the threat of separation, usually in the form of kidnapping.

For the purposes of this discussion, kidnapping will be defined as it is in Carol Wilson’s Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865, i.e., as the abduction of free blacks, whether manumitted or freeborn, into slavery. I would like to bear in mind, however, the definition posited by abolitionists, who contended that any enslaved black was “kidnapped” from a natural state of freedom into the unnatural state of servitude. Untold numbers of blacks were kidnapped into slavery and, although laws against kidnapping existed, and abolitionists sought redress through the courts, state, as well as federal, authorities often turned a blind eye to those who flouted the law.

As mentioned above, children had no legal rights, and were thus, dependent on adults to guard their freedom. The general economic condition of the vast majority of free blacks, however, was quite poor, and their children’s security was under constant threat. They were, in effect, luckless children, not unlike Pip, the cabin boy.

The sense of abandonment that Captain Ahab ascribes to Pip toward the end of Moby-Dick, would not, then, have been considered unusual or odd, given the condition of most African American children in antebellum America. One might examine Pip’s particular “lucklessness” from several perspectives. It could derive from his status as a black child in antebellum America, or his status on board the Pequod, as well as from his lack of family ties, and the nurturing that a child might be expected to receive. In Chapter 93, Ishmael notes that he is “…the little negro Pippin by nick-name, Pip by abbreviation.” Here we discover that the lowly Pip’s true nickname, “Pippin,” has been condensed yet again to “Pip,” a foreshortening that further illustrates his lack of status and importance.

His correct genealogy is confusing as well, since it appears that Melville has given two locations for his birth. There are several implications for each of these places, in terms of what Melville’s intentions might have been.

Pip first appears at the end of Chapter 27, titled “Knights and Squires,” and fittingly so. After describing in detail the mates and harpooneers who make up the multiracial crew of the whaling ship, narrator Ishmael ends the chapter with a final meditation on these “Isolatoes,” as he calls them, all “…accompanying old Ahab in the Pequod to lay the world’s grievances before that bar from which not very many of them ever came back. Black Little Pip—he never did! Poor Alabama boy!”

In this first reference to Pip as an “Alabama boy,” Ishmael’s exclamation suggests that he might be a fugitive from the slave-holding state of Alabama. His status as a slave is further compounded by his status as a child. Ishmael’s comments continue, foreshadowing the larger role that Pip will play:

On the grim Pequod's forecastle, ye shall ere long see him, beating his tambourine; prelusive of the eternal time, when sent for, to the great quarter-deck on high, he was bid strike in with angels, and beat his tambourine in glory; called a coward here, hailed a hero there!

Ishmael notes that Pip beats his tambourine like an angel—an image that Melville might have seen (blacks playing tambourines and singing spirituals), an image that continues to be reflected in African American iconography to this day. The “great quarter-deck on high” is a direct reference to a celestial/heavenly future. “Called a coward here, hailed a hero there!” evokes the Christian admonition toward pacifism over confrontation.

Pip is thus made a part of the future of Melville’s America—intertwined with the possibly tragic future of a nation headed on a dangerous path. Ishmael’s lament gives the reader a first glimpse of Pip, who is consigned to the fateful voyage am ong the other “isolatoes,” and yet is doomed not to return.

Pip is not what he seems at first—he is not an Alabama slave child, he is no runaway, and he has no identifiable family ties—what, then, brought him to the Pequod? Whaling ships sailed for months, even years, before returning to their homeports. Had Pip been on board the Pequod previous to this journey? Had he been picked up along the way? Where was he from? Was he a runaway? I’ll take this up in the next post.

Best, Rebecca