196 Gentle Giants

Nicholas A. Prescott

One thing of note that I’ve been constantly underlining in these texts are the ways that white people or even narrators describe black people. In most cases, they see black people as these monsters among men but also as beautiful creatures of nature at the same time. They’re strong and docile in equal measure (except when they aren’t).

Look at “Benito Cereno,” for starters. Babo, as we now know him, is this dastardly “villain” in the story. He is the reason for the plot and we should be inclined to see him as such. He’s clever, we can give him that much. But Captain Delano seems more interested in the idea of Babo being good-natured compared to his white counterparts, “Marking the noisy indocility of the blacks in general, as well as what seemed the sullen inefficiency of the whites it was not without humane satisfaction that Captain Delano witnessed the steady good conduct of Babo” (Melville 12?). Later, we learn of Babo’s deception and the script is flipped.

But that’s not to say that there isn’t a theme here. Don’t believe me? Let’s go to example #2.

The Heroic Slave, page 7:

“Madison was of manly form. Tall, symmetrical, round, and strong. In his movements he seemed to combine, with the strength of the lion, a lion’s elasticity. His torn sleeves disclosed arms like polished iron. His face was “black, but comely.” His eye, lit with emotion, kept guard under a brow as dark and as glossy as the raven’s wing. His whole appearance betokened Herculean strength: yet there was nothing savage or forbidding in his aspect. A child might play in his arms, or dance on his shoulders. A giant’s strength, but not a giant’s heart was in him. His broad mouth and nose spoke only of good nature and kindness. But his voice, that unfailing index of the soul, though full and melodious, had that in it which could terrify as well as charm. He was just the man you would choose when hardships were to be endured, or danger to be encountered, — intelligent and brave. He had the head to conceive, and the hand to execute. In a word, he was one to be sought as a friend, but to be dreaded as an enemy” (Douglass 7).

Although more of a passage than a quote, I think the idea is clear, here. Madison is described many times as a large manly figure, as a hero, as a beacon of goodness in early America. Madison Washington even proves his strength and valor when he enacts his mutiny on the Creole. So my question is, why (and ESPECIALLY why in this case) the white characters hold black people on this raised pedestal? Why does it happen so often? What is the purpose? It perplexes me. And to further prove my point, example #3.

Another long example, forgive me.

“Here the door opened, and a small quadroon boy, between four and five years of age, entered the room. There was something in his appearance remarkably beautiful and engaging. His black hair, fine as floss silk, hung in glossy curls about his round, dimpled face, while a pair of large dark eyes, full of fire and softness, looked out from beneath the rich, long lashes, as he peered curiously into the apartment. A gay robe of scarlet and yellow plaid, carefully made and neatly fitted, set off to advantage the dark and rich style of his beauty; and a certain comic air of assurance, blended with bashfulness, showed that he had been not unused to being petted and noticed by his master” (Stowe 2?).

This case is perhaps more realistic to the situation because the subject is an actual child. Also, it is important to note, I think, that his mother was one-fourth black and described herself as nearly indiscernible from white people. But again, we see the kind of reverent way that slaves are described as. The child is beautiful and soft and lovely to look at.

I’m not entirely sure why this happens. across these early texts. But I think it’s interesting to see that three texts that differ in so many ways have one, extremely specific commonality. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a vastly different text than the other two, with one of the only major crossovers, thus far, is the rebellion of the slaves. But even in that case, the ways that they are done differ vastly, as well. Perhaps it’s less of a commonality between the black characters and more about how the white people in the stories all share a lens through which they look at slaves.


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

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