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Unit 1: The Black Atlantic in the Age of Revolutions

Amistad Mural

Note: This mural depicts the 53 Africans kidnapped from Sierra Leone to be sold into Spanish slave trade, and the uprising of Senbeh Pieh, also known as Cinqué. Woodruff's three murals were installed at Talladega College in 1939 to commemorate the centennial of the Amistad rebellion. The other two are The Trial of the Amistad Captives (considered the first Civil Rights case in U.S. history) and The Repatriation of the Free Captives (depicting the repatriated slaves on the shores of Africa).

Hale Woodruff, The Mutiny aboard the Amistad (1939)  

This unit replicates the process of building a literary historical account of Herman Melville's story Benito Cereno (1855), a fictionalised account of the rebellion aboard the slave ship the Tryal in 1805. It begins with Melville’s novella and progressively considers a range of subjects—some foregrounded in the text and others which have the potential to enhance our understanding of the text. Our inquiry begins with the hypothesis that this literary text has something important to say, but that we need to train ourselves in how to read it. The weeks that follow are organized around questions about how literature’s aesthetics, its art, is related to its politics; and how we as literary scholars can account for these questions, if not answer them.

 

Week 2: Text

Lecture slides

Readings:

  • Herman Melville, 'Benito Cereno' in Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories (Penguin, 2016)

(Originally serialized in three installments in Putnam’s Monthly (October, November, and December) and later published as part of The Piazza Tales (1856))

 

Seminar Questions:

  • When did you 'know'? Point to the exact moment in the text and explain why.
  • Where are other earlier moments in the text when your suspicions began to be raised.

  • What genre of story is this?

  • Is this a surprising context in which to encounter these genre(s)?

  • Why doesn't Delano see? What makes him see?

 

Week 3: Sources

Lecture slides

Readings:

  • Chapter XVIII (pp.318-353) of Amaso Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages Round the World ... (1817, 35 pp. - available here)
  • Greg Grandin, 'Introduction' (pp.1-12) and 'Who Ain't A Slave?' (pp.203-38) in The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (2014, 47 pp.)

Suggested readings:

  • Jonathan Beecher, “Echoes of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution in Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’” Leviathan 9, no. 2 (2007, 16 pp.)
  • Sterling Stuckey and Joshua Leslie, “Aftermath: Captain Delano’s Claim Against Benito Cereno,” Modern Philology 85, no. 3 (1988, 22 pp.)

 

Seminar Questions:

  • How does Delano the narrator differ from Melville’s Delano?

  • Speculate as to why Melville changed the actors, events, and other details from what is represented in Delano and Grandin.

 

Week 4: Politics and Philosophy of Race

Lecture slides

Readings:

  • Walter Johnson, “Reading Bodies and Marking Race,” in Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999, 27 pp.)
  • Charles W. Mills, “Introduction,” in The Racial Contract (1999, 8 pp.)
  • Karen Haltunnen, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture,” The American Historical Review 100, no. 2 (1995, 31 pp.)

Suggested readings:

  • C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (1938)
  • Julius Scott, “‘Ideas of Liberty Have Sunk So Deep’: Communication and Revolution, 1789-1793” in The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (2018, 40 pp.)
  • Primary source documents related to the slave revolt on the Tryal

 

Seminar Questions:

  • What is the definition of the racial contract?

  • What is the relationship between labor systems and race in Johnson’s “Reading Bodies, Marking Race?”

  • What role does fantasy play in the construction of race?

  • Why is the gothic not the opposite of sentimental humanitarianism?

  • What is the problem that pain poses for humanitarianism?

  • Is Delano more racist or humanitarian?

  • Is there a "racial contract" between Delano and Cereno?

 

Week 5: Reading Benito Cereno

Lecture slides

Readings:

  • Re-read select scenes, including the opening scene and shaving scene
  • Geoffrey Sanborn, “ ‘Where’s the rest of me?’: The Melancholy Death of Benito Cereno,” Arizona Quarterly 52, no. 1 (1996, 34 pp.)
  • Sterling Stuckey, “The Hatchet-Polishers, Benito Cereno, and Amasa Delano,” in African Culture and Melville’s Art (2009)

Suggested readings:

  • Jean Fagan Yellin, “Black Masks: Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’” American Quarterly 22, no. 3 (1970, 11 pp.)


Seminar Questions:

  • What did you gain from rereading the novella?
  • Use your newfound knowledge of the history and philosophy of the story to draw connections you weren’t able to see before.
  • Why is Babo’s strategy nearly successful?
  • Is Babo dead?