Friday, November 13, 2015

*Blake, or the Huts of America, by Martin R. Delany

Beacon Press, 1971
originally published in serialized form 1861-1862
321 pp


"Stand still and see the salvation." 

Chances are highly likely that on considering African-American anti-slavery novels from the antebellum period, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, of 1852 would be the first one to pop into someone's head.  I almost decided to reread Uncle Tom's Cabin or one I haven't yet read -- her Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (which I'm still  planning to read sometime down the road) for this project --  but the more I researched, the more Delany's Blake or The Huts of America appealed, and despite some flaws in the actual writing, I was absolutely floored by this book. No Uncle Tom philosophy here -- this book is radical and deserves a much wider readership.

But why this book?  First of all, it's not hugely popular -- it seems that with a couple of exceptions, my little survey of  American literature has led me down my usual path of books that not a whole lot of people have read (which is okay by me, Joe)  and Delany's novel sort of  keeps that momentum going.  The second reason I decided on this rather obscure title is that while researching which book to read, I came across an article by Theodore Draper (March 12, 1970) about Delany called "The Father of American Black Nationalism"   in the New York Review of Books. I was wowed -- I had no idea Delany (1812 - 1885) even existed. Let's just say that in all of my American history classes (and I majored in the field of history 3 times so I have done a LOT of reading), the name of Martin Delany never once appeared. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the man was actually a sort of predecessor to Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X.   Furthermore, as I continued my search to find more about this man, I again turned to  the New York Review of Books  issue of May 21, 1970, where I discovered letters in response to Draper's article. [ Just as an aside, apologies if you can't get to the NYRB through my links -- I have a subscription that allows access to archives.]  One of the letters is from Floyd J. Miller, who wrote the introduction to my edition of  Delany's novel -- and this is the part that sold me:
"To an extent greater than perhaps any significant black leader, Delany combined a wide variety of responses to the racism of the white majority. Thus, he serves as a “father” of several black nationalisms—not merely emigrationism. In his novel, Blake, for example, he conceived of unified slave rebellions and spoke as a revolutionary nationalist. "
then later,
"Delany’s realization of the intensity and persistence of white racism and his call for racial unity are as relevant today as they were during his own time. This, then, was his legacy to such men as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X."
That part cinched the deal -- I bought this book immediately after reading those articles -- I absolutely had to know more about this rather obscure figure who was actually quite important to African-American history but who seems to have been forgotten in the American mainstream.

Just a wee bit about plot here -- not much, just enough perhaps to whet someone's appetite enough to make them want to explore either Blake or Delany himself.   The main character of the novel is Henry Holland, a slave in Louisiana.  His real name is Henrico Blacus, and he was "decoyed" into slavery while he was serving on a ship in the West Indies.  Henry, who was very well educated before he was sold into slavery and ended up at the plantation of Colonel Franks, is married to Maggie, a slave who was a product of the union of Franks and another slave serving at his home.   Franks sells Maggie who, with her new mistress, ends up in Cuba, and Henry vows that he will do what it takes to find her.  But before that can happen, Henry decides to escape Franks and sojourn through the American South and hold "seclusions," secret meetings with plantation slaves, to convince them to participate in a "unified rebellion" against their masters.  Part Two finds Henry in Cuba, where he continues to stir seeds of rebellion against Americans and Cubans who wanted the US to annex Cuba, among other things.

Floyd J. Miller in the intro (1971)  notes that Blake is in part a "socio-historical account of Southern slavery and Cuban society in the 1850s," but even moreso, it
" the vehicle for the expression of a a racial philosophy as radical today as it was when originally conceived. Central to the novel is a racial consciousness which is expressed in a variety of ways."
So while the book may not be the best ever written, and while it may be perceived as being didactic in nature,  there is so much going on in here that any serious student or reader of African-American history or literature should definitely not miss it.  I plan to spend some time in further research of Delany; luckily there are a few academic treatments of this man and his work out there to afford a starting place. If you're at all interested, here's one from African Diaspora Archaeology Newletter 10:1, 2007 by Traore Mussa, which is quite good.

I will just add that sometimes there is great merit in stepping off of the beaten path in terms of reading ... and this book is just one incredible find I've made as I've been going through American literature so far this year.  Definitely recommended.

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