143 Black Speech and Silence

Miranda Kaplan

Both Benito Cereno and The Heroic Slave strategically use Black voices and stories to gain white sympathies. Babo’s weak stature, calculating brain, and unapologetic use of violence shape him into an unexpected hero. Madison Washington’s eloquent speeches and intrinsic goodness allow readers to sympathize with his struggles, and a shift in narrative perspective allows Washington to maintain his heroism while leading a slave rebellion.

In Benito Cereno, Babo’s perceived submission and weakness makes him more approachable to a white audience. A significant amount of Babo’s power comes from his speech. In the narrative section of Benito Cereno, Babo has very few lines. However, when he does speak, his language is carefully chosen, and he is giving some kind of command. In one scene, Babo instructs Captain Delano to reserve cider for Don Benito, “…and so mouthfuls all around were given alike to whites and blacks; excepting one bottle of cider, which Babo insisted upon setting aside for his master” (Melville). Receiving instructions from Babo would have been a foreign concept to Captain Delano, considering his perception of Babo. In a later scene, Babo is shaving Don Benito, and when Don Benito doesn’t sit still, he draws blood, saying, “‘See, master–you shook so–here’s Babo’s first blood’” (Melville). In both cases, Babo subtly takes control of the current situation such that Captain Delano can not register what is truly going on.

This comes to a head in the deposition, where Babo is killed, “As for the black–whose brain, not body, had schemed and led the revolt, with the plot–his slight frame, inadequate to that which it held, had at once yielded to the superior muscular strength of his captor, in the boat” (Melville). Babo’s body was unthreatening to his captors, easily crushed. His mind, however, had already accomplished a great act of resistance.

This differs from the way strength and voice are used in The Heroic Slave. Before getting a physical description of him, we hear his speech in the woods. The speech tells a few things: Madison is a slave, non-violent, brave, and willing to die for his freedom. Now, with that image, the narrator describes Madison, “Madison was of manly form. Tall, symmetrical, round, and strong. In his movements he seemed to combine, with the strength of the lion, the lion’s elasticity…His whole appearance betokened Herculean strength; yet there was nothing savage or forbidding in his aspect” (7). This suggests that there is something innately good about Madison, at least in the eyes of his white observer.

As Madison Washington’s story progresses, readers gain more and more insight into his integrity and heroic acts. However, the narration changes in Part 4, as Douglass zooms in on a conversation between two shipyard workers. Grant says, “The name of this man, strange to say (ominous of greatness,) was Madison Washington. In the short time he had been on board, he had secured the confidence of every officer. The negroes fairly worshipped him. His manner and bearing were such, that no one could suspect him of a murderous purpose. The only feeling with which we regarded him was, that he was a powerful, good-disposed negro” (47). Here, the glory of Madison’s actions are rhetorically stripped from his voice, and are once again placed into that of a supportive white observer. This separates Washington from violence, the same way Babo’s head was separated from his body.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Miranda Kaplan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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