Thursday, December 29, 2016

On the Move

The title of the Oliver Sacks' memoir we'll be discussing next Wednesday, but also that of the first poem in Thom Gunn's second book, The Sense of Movement (1957). Highly regarded in general, this poem, and not just by Sacks. Here's a link. The last three lines are quite quotable on their own:

At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.

—and the last even more so (surely a poetic fiction but a good one).

Cannibalism on Southern Plantations

This isn't the cheeriest topic, but I did want to respond to Tim's request (via a comment on my recent posting defending Vincent Woodard's The Delectable Negro):

Meanwhile, perhaps you could, for the record, list the page numbers where Woodard “documents several examples of literal cannibalism on antebellum plantations.” I’d like to read up on those as well.

Let me begin by backpedaling.  After rereading a number of ambiguous passages, I see that only the following two clearly refer to instances where whites literally consumed body parts of slaves:

pp. 59-62: Lilburn Lewis' literal butchering of his slave Georges

pp. 91-94: "After [Nat] Turner was captured, he was hung, skinned and bled, and his body was boiled down to grease."  Admittedly, Woodard doesn't prove that it was Turner's oil that local whites consumed as castor oil, but the preponderance of the evidence he presents (particularly the refusal of local blacks to swallow any castor oil for two years) is good enough to convince me.

And, for what it's worth, footnote 14 to Chapter 2, on p. 252, says the following: "Here I am thinking of persons such as Frederick Douglass, David Walker, John S. Jacobs, Solomon Northup, Harriet Jacobs and Moses Roper, among others.  Most of these individuals I treat in later chapters.  Typically, somewhere in the body of their slave narratives or some other such writing, these African-Americans made reference to a culture of human consumption that shaped and informed slave life.  Their oftentimes very personal and intimate observations on this topic had the effect of implicating plantation owners or broader U.S. culture in cultural practices of consumption."

I'll be the first to admit that Woodard's insinuation here, that any of these authors documented literal cannibalism in the antebellum South, is shockingly thin.  (If there were such a case, I'm sure he would have highlighted it in Chapter 2.)  Yet I also find the notion that Lilburn Lewis was unique in his cannibalism ludicrous.

Again, as I acknowledged in my original posting,  The Delectable Negro would have been a stronger book had Woodard resisted the temptation to stretch and sensationalize his meager evidence.  But the fact that he badly overplayed his hand doesn't mean there is no truth to his claims.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A New Day for Gay Plays?

This is the title of a long article written by Charles Isherwood and published in yesterday's New York Times.  "Old themes are still explored, but the context has changed."

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In Defense of "The Delectable Negro"

In the next posting (below), Tim trenchantly critiques Vincent Woodard's many shortcomings as a writer and analyst, which we discussed at length during the Dec. 7 Bookmen meeting. However, with all due respect, I would still like to offer a qualified defense of "The Delectable Negro."

Yes, Woodard's obsession with cannibalism not only weakens the book, but obscures the many valid points he makes. And yes, like Tim, I wish he had focused primarily on relations, intimate and otherwise, between plantation owners (and their families) and slaves, precisely because I believe he made useful observations about those dynamics. (In that respect, it is striking that he never even alludes to the most enduring of myths about that era, one that is alive and well today: the Mandingo fantasy of virile black men seducing, or overpowering, white women—and white men.)

Let us not forget that Woodard documents several examples of literal cannibalism on antebellum plantations. To my mind, his ability to do that in an era from which we have few primary sources, and in which there was a much greater incentive to bury such accounts than to publicize them, is remarkable. I'd also be willing to bet that such horrors happened more frequently than we'd like to believe, though I'm sure they were still much rarer than Woodard insists.

I also think we should be careful about criticizing authors for not writing the books we think they ought to have written. Yes, "The Delectable Negro" is seriously, perhaps even fatally, flawed. But I still learned quite a bit about the reality of slavery from it—and I say that as a native Louisianan who, even as a boy, knew better than to believe all the crap about happy slaves who delighted in serving their masters.

Here's my bottom line: This book is not an easy read, and it's definitely not for the general or casual reader. It's chockfull of unpleasant material, made even more unpleasant by repetitious, jargon-laden prose. But for all that, it is still worthwhile. If nothing else, look at the final two chapters, which are lively and relatively short.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Indigestible "Negro"

Sorry I had to miss the discussion of Vincent Woodard’s Delectable Negro last night. Sounds like a lot of good clean fun was expended on this, this … [trying to look for a neutral term: farrago, gumbo, hash, jumble, mélange, mishmash — olla podrida! (thank you Mr Webster)]  book  (burp); or, to follow up on Woodard’s own story of poor George, the dismemberment and incineration of its various parts (I’m sorry Vincent—we would have done the head first, had we only found it!).

The story of Lillburn Lewis and his slave George begins the second chapter. His dismemberment and incineration create quite a ruckus. “When his wife asked the cause of the dreadful screams she had heard, he said that he had never enjoyed himself so well at a ball as he had enjoyed himself that evening [Lydia Maria Child, original source]. And Woodard continues:

Lewis's response to his wife, as disturbing and incongruous as it is, puts this entire scenario into context. Contrasted against the plantation mistress and the domestic sphere, we see more clearly George's erotic significance to his master and the clandestine pleasure taking that the white man associates with his slave. The metaphor of the ball is significant insofar as one goes to a ball with someone. Lewis would, under normal circumstances, attend a ball with his wife, dancing with her, holding her close, smelling and touching her body. Instead, we have George as the unwilling feminized partner and conjugal mate; it is George whom the master touches, smells, violently lavishes with attention and care, and ingests with the same relish that he would hors d'oeuvre, fine music, or cocktails served at an open bar at a ball.

How straitlaced Woodard's imagination! How careless with details! Master Lewis may not like balls. He might say—may have said many times—the same thing about any number of his other activities: drinking, hunting, voting, sleeping in his own bedroom (as opposed to hers or theirs). Woodard's imagining the pleasures and sensations that Lewis experiences when being at the ball with his wife are (oh dear, yes, I'm about to say it) heteronormative!  As for "cocktails" and "open bars at balls," just imagine Scarlett sidling up to a bar at Tara and asking for a Harvey Wallbanger!

Woodard's undelectable volume might have been situated anywhere along a spectrum from explicit homosexuality to "cannibalistic" re-interpretations of ante-bellum slavery (with all the gustatory frenzies of a man starving on a desert island). The former lacks documentation. The latter, much grounding in reality. The mean that might have been most practicable and interesting would have been to explore the homosociality of white owners and black slaves. I'm sure there was some, and much might be inferred. Maybe it's already been published. Comments?

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Smelling It (the infamous "gay sensibility")

We'll be talking about Almodóvar when we discuss Emanuel Levy's Gay Directors, Gay Films? — but in the meantime for those of you who have seen the movie (not I) of the book we read (not Pedro), this extract from a recent New Yorker article may be of interest.

This did not stop him [Almodóvar] from playing with the question of whether there was such a thing as a gay sensibility in film. “The furious aesthetic of my films has to do with a liberation that is connected to sexuality,” he said. But, he noted, gay people don’t always make gay art. He offered Truman Capote by way of example: “In ‘In Cold Blood’ there’s no trace of the person who is Truman Capote. But Holly Golightly in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ is a predecessor of all the drag queens of the nineties. She’s a transvestite. You probably have to be gay to see it.” He went on, “And the role of George Peppard? He’s a hustler, and his clients aren’t women—they’re guys! You get this. You smell it.”

(And please, people, start trying to get the accent of his name right.
  Hint: the syllable accented is the syllable with the accent mark!)

Luke's Story

From the penultimate chapter ("The Fugitive Slave Law") of Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1860), which Vincent Woodard discusses in The Delectable Negro, pp. 131-140. Woodard only quotes snippets interpolated into his analysis, and I thought people might like to see and judge the whole text.

This brings up one of my Southern reminiscences, which I will here briefly relate. I was somewhat acquainted with a slave named Luke, who belonged to a wealthy man in our vicinity. His master died, leaving a son and daughter heirs to his large fortune. In the division of the slaves, Luke was included in the son's portion. This young man became a prey to the vices [; when] he went to the north, to complete his education, he carried his vices with him. He was brought home, deprived of the use of his limbs, by excessive dissipation. Luke was appointed to wait upon his bed-ridden master, whose despotic habits were greatly increased by exasperation at his own helplessness. He kept a cowhide beside him, and, for the most trivial occurrence, he would order his attendant to bare his back, and kneel beside the couch, while he whipped him till his strength was exhausted. Some days he was not allowed to wear any thing but his shirt, in order to be in readiness to be flogged. A day seldom passed without his receiving more or less blows. If the slightest resistance was offered, the town constable was sent for to execute the punishment, and Luke learned from experience how much more the constable's strong arm was to be dreaded than the comparatively feeble one of his master. The arm of his tyrant grew weaker, and was finally palsied; and then the constable's services were in constant requisition. The fact that he was entirely dependent on Luke's care, and was obliged to be tended like an infant, instead of inspiring any gratitude or compassion towards his poor slave, seemed only to increase his irritability and cruelty. As he lay there on his bed, a mere degraded wreck of manhood, he took into his head the strangest freaks of despotism; and if Luke hesitated to submit to his orders, the constable was immediately sent for. Some of these freaks were of a nature too filthy to be repeated. When I fled from the house of bondage, I left poor Luke still chained to the bedside of this cruel and disgusting wretch.

One day, when I had been requested to do an errand for Mrs. Bruce, I was hurrying through back streets, as usual, when I saw a young man approaching, whose face was familiar to me. As he came nearer, I recognized Luke. I always rejoiced to see or hear of any one who had escaped from the black pit; I was peculiarly glad to see him on Northern soil, though I no longer called it free soil. I well remembered what a desolate feeling it was to be alone among strangers, and I went up to him and greeted him cordially. At first, he did not know me; but when I mentioned my name, he remembered all about me. I told him of the Fugitive Slave Law, and asked him if he did not know that New York was a city of kidnappers.

He replied, "De risk ain't so bad for me, as 'tis fur you. 'Cause I runned away from de speculator, and you runned away from de massa. Dem speculators vont spen dar money to come here fur a runaway, if dey ain't sartin sure to put dar hans right on him. An I tell you I's tuk good car 'bout dat. I had too hard times down dar, to let 'em ketch dis nigger."

He then told me of the advice he had received, and the plans he had laid. I asked if he had money enough to take him to Canada. "'Pend upon it, I hab," he replied. "I tuk car fur dat. I'd bin workin all my days fur dem cussed whites, an got no pay but kicks and cuffs. So I tought dis nigger had a right to money nuff to bring him to de Free States. Massa Henry he lib till ebery body vish him dead; an ven he did die, I knowed de debbil would hab him, an vouldn't vant him to bring his money 'long too. So I tuk some of his bills, and put 'em in de pocket of his ole trousers. An ven he was buried, dis nigger ask fur dem ole trousers, an dey gub 'em to me." With a low, chuckling laugh, he added, "You see I didn't steal it; dey gub it to me. I tell you, I had mighty hard time to keep de speculator from findin it; but he didn't git it.

This is a fair specimen of how the moral sense is educated by slavery. When a man has his wages stolen from him, year after year, and the laws sanction and enforce the theft, how can he be expected to have more regard to honesty than has the man who robs him? I have become somewhat enlightened, but I confess that I agree with poor, ignorant, much-abused Luke, in thinking he had a right to that money, as a portion of his unpaid wages. He went to Canada forthwith, and I have not since heard from him.