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.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Thanks for your “defense” which is, at the very least, better informed than my critique (since I was only able to gag my way through the introduction and the first two chapters). I’ll make an effort, on your recommendation, to read the last two. 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.