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?

1 comment:

DCSteve1441 said...

Tim makes some solid criticisms here about Woodard's many shortcomings as a writer and analyst, which we discussed at length during the most recent 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 at least half a dozen 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.

Steve Honley