142 A Pill to Swallow
Melville and Douglass are both strategic in the flattering of white people. Both wrote of slave rebellions and offered unique characterizations of both slaves and their masters, but they did more than that as well. They cast white characters as heroic figures to serve as a perspective for white audiences.
In Melville’s Benito Cereno, we receive all of the events of the story from the American sailor’s perspective. There is a far more indirect theme on slavery and race in this story than in other texts about slavery, in that the slaves are cast as the antagonists of the story. Now it can be easily debated about whether or not the slaves’ actions at sea are just, but the way we receive the information in the story tells us that we are supposed to be reacting to the violent uprising that unfolds. Babo and his followers are dispatched by Captain Delano’s crew and the idea is that the “crisis” is over. However, this story evokes a theme of racial understanding by depicting Babo as intelligent. He comes very close to pulling off an incredible feat and there is a strange catharsis in his defeat.
It is important to note that it is white people who are in awe of his accomplishments. This is where the audience is supposed to receive an opinion as well. White readers are supposed to find Babo an interesting character, while still having their swashbuckling white “hero” in Captain Delano.
A similar reliance on comforting white audiences is seen in Frederick Douglass’ The Heroic Slave, but in a more direct and clear message. Yet again the main character of this SLAVE REBELLION story is a white man. Mr. Listwell serves to be the viewpoint character who, like Delano and Babo, has the chance to interact with a runaway slave character. Upon seeing Madison for the first time and hearing the struggles that he has gone through he has an entirely new perspective on slavery: “From this hour I am an abolitionist” (9).
We have now been given character development from the start. Listwell now serves as the standard for how audiences should feel and behave. The title of the story may be The Heroic Slave, but it is the “heroic white man” who takes front stage. Madison is not the perspective character that we follow and hear the inner thoughts of; it is a free white man who means to help.
I think it is clear that both Melville and Douglass decided to have white protagonists in order to appeal to a white demographic. The people of the time can have their heroic fantasy where they get to be hopeful abolitionists or sea-faring saviors. Either way, it’s an easier pill to swallow in a less accepting time.