The first though fragmentary appearance in 1859 of Blake; or, The Huts of America, by Martin R. Delany (1812–1885), marks an important milestone in the development of the literature of black America: it is the first novel by a black writer published in the United States. The historical significance of the novel has been somewhat obscured, in part by a complicated publication history. The novel is significant, however, not only for its place in literary history but also for the way its literary themes are interwoven with complex commentary on wide-ranging social debates of the time and for the polemical ideas its prominent author espouses in the novel.
COMPLEXITIES IN PUBLICATION AND PLOT
The complexity surrounding Blake arises in part from its idiosyncratic publication history. The novel's incomplete debut came with the January 1859 issue of the Anglo-African Magazine. In that issue excerpts from chapters 28, 29, and 30 appear, and an introduction details the novel as spanning eighty chapters. The following issue, February 1859, provides the first chapters of the novel, and chapters continued to appear monthly until July 1859, when publication ceased abruptly with chapter 23. More than two years later, in November 1861, the magazine, by then called the Weekly Anglo-African, began a serial publication of Blake which started with the first chapters and continued straight through with subsequent chapters until the serialization presumably ended with the novel's conclusion sometime late in May 1862; however, the final issues of the magazine are missing, and thus the novel remains incomplete. The latest surviving issue of the magazine carries the novel through chapter 74, leaving scholars to estimate, based upon the Anglo-African's early information about the novel, that six chapters are missing. Still without its concluding chapters, Blake was eventually published in 1970 with an introduction by Floyd J. Miller; this was its first publication in book form.
Just as Blake's complicated publication history has evoked scholarly investigation and conversation, so too has the complex nature of the narrative itself allowed for a range of interpretation, due in part to the novel's breadth of content and theme that draws from Delany's personal experiences as well as from slave narratives and other literary forms. The novel opens with the sale of the slave Maggie and her subsequent removal to Cuba by her father and owner, Colonel Stephen Franks. Following Maggie's departure for Cuba, her husband and the protagonist of the novel, Carolus Henrico Blacus, known by his slave name of Henry Holland, returns to the Franks' plantation from a business expedition made on the colonel's behalf and finds his wife gone. Although Henry too has been living as a slave, readers come to know that he is a West Indian who was enslaved under false pretenses. Upon discovering Maggie's sale, Henry realizes that life as a slave is no longer possible for him, so he runs away, beginning a campaign throughout the South in which he lays the foundation for a slave revolt. The first part of the novel ends with Henry's completion of his travels through the southern United States and his plans to journey to Cuba. In the second part of the novel, Henry, now known as Blake, arrives in Cuba and orchestrates his wife's freedom. Then, with the help of the historically famous Cuban liberation poet Placido, Blake extends the scope of his planned insurrection into Cuba by planning the overthrow of the Cuban government in order to prevent the United States from annexing Cuba as a slave territory.
THE PAN-AFRICAN COMMUNITY
The broad geographic scope of the novel—from the United States to Canada to Cuba to Africa—signals the importance of the Pan-African community, one of the themes upon which scholars most widely comment. An overarching goal of Blake's travels is the unification of the black community, for he envisions the power and potential of racial unity bringing about radical political change: the cessation of slavery, including the suppression of U.S. attempts to annex Cuba. Blake's attempts to unite the larger black community commence more locally in the southern United States with his efforts to create a network of black insurrectionists located throughout the slaveholding South. While Maggie's sale immediately instigates Henry's efforts, several contemporary political debates inform the larger range of his mission of uniting those blacks held in the bondage of slavery. For Delany, the emergence in the 1850s of arguments advocating the reopening of the African slave trade provided a backdrop for the examination of the possibility of violent revolt by slaves. Although only a minority of the southern population supported a reopening of international slave trade, the issue had several prominent and outspoken advocates, including the editors and political activists James D. B. DeBow and Leonidas W. Spratt as well as Governor James Adams of South Carolina. The Southern Commercial Conventions (1855–1859) became primary forums for discussing the topic. Proponents argued that reviving the international slave trade would lower the costs of slaves, thereby raising the profits from products of slave labor, further cementing slavery's position in the South. Blake enters this discussion by emphasizing the urgency of ridding the nation completely of all forms and vestiges of slavery, by violence if necessary. A second important political context of the novel is the United States Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision in 1857 that held that blacks were not citizens and could not be assured of freedom even in states in which slavery was illegal. This ruling provides a significant backdrop for Delany's almost separatist call for a unified black revolt: in light of the failure of white laws, blacks may have to choose violence as the only means to attaining their freedom. In Blake, Delany reaffirms that black freedom will have to be primarily the result of black effort, without the aid of white abolitionists or the white legal system.
While the first part of the novel focuses on Henry's efforts to organize the black community in the southern United States, the Pan-African schematics of the novel reach much further. When Blake first appeared in 1859, conflicts over the annexation of Cuba were changing the debates raging over slavery. Due in part to philosophies of manifest destiny held by some Americans, the 1850s spawned a movement aimed at the U.S. acquisition of Cuba. As early as 1848 President James K. Polk, supported by annexationists in Cuba eager to secure slavery's hold within Cuba as well as U.S. planters, attempted to purchase Cuba from Spain, an offer the United States repeated in 1854. After annexation Cuba was expected to be an extension of the American South, expanding the interests of slavers. For those invested in the push to expand slavery, Cuban annexation was justified in part as a response to the potential "Africanization" of Cuba, an increase in the freedoms allowed blacks living there. In Blake, Delany draws upon the controversy surrounding the Cuban debate, depicting the time as being strategic for unified black action. As the "Commander in Chief of the Army of Emancipation" (p. 256), Blake capitalizes upon the political instability of Cuba in order to stage an armed rebellion aimed at instituting a new government by the blacks themselves.
Delany's inclusion of the debates surrounding Cuban annexation gestures toward his belief in the importance of solidarity among the African diaspora: only by looking out for the interests of the entire African community will any plans for uplift succeed. Delany highlights this concept in the novel in a scene in which a meeting of the key members of the "Army of Emancipation" occurs. One of the attendees, Madame Cordora, an affluent mulatta, questions Placido's use of the term "Ethiopia's sons," remarking, "Although identified together, we are not all Ethiopians" (p. 260). Delany here uses Placido to emphasize the ways in which the conditions of all members of the African race are inherently woven together. Placido clarifies his position for Madame Cordora by explaining that "colored persons, whatever the complexion, can only obtain an equality with whites by the descendants of Africa of unmixed blood. . . . The instant that an equality of the blacks with the whites is admitted, we being the descendants of the two, must be acknowledged the equals of both" (pp. 260, 261). Additionally Placido demonstrates the extent of Delany's Pan-African vision by proceeding to outline the rich resources found in Africa, describing that, once these resources are correctly utilized, the African "race and country will at once rise to the first magnitude of importance" (p. 261). These comments pointedly lay the philosophical foundation for the culmination of Delany's Pan-African proposal: emigration to Africa. Early in the 1850s Delany advocated emigration to Central or South America with the foundation of a new "black" nation as opposed to the more prevalent push for emigration to Liberia, which was rejected by other African American leaders as well; however, after a trip to Africa in 1859 and 1860, Delany began to make plans for establishing an African settlement, a place for the permanent unification of the African community under black leadership as suggested in Blake.
LEADING THE RACE
Black leadership is an important and recurring theme for Delany; therefore it is not accidental that in his novel he utilizes a fully black, educated leader in Blake to unite the African diaspora. Although Delany agreed with other African American and abolitionist activists that African Americans were in need of leaders who would encourage the recovery of mental and moral stamina lost through the degradation of slavery, he disagreed about how best to reach those goals. Delany believed strongly in the prominence of black leadership. For Delany, efforts aimed at black uplift should be instigated and sustained primarily by blacks themselves, as he fictionalizes in Blake; white abolitionists should have a secondary role.
This speech, taken from Blake's sixty-first chapter, "The Grand Council," follows the Cuban poet Placido's discourse on the wealth and resources of Africa and its people. The speaker, Madame Cordora, a wealthy and influential Cuban mulatta, expresses her new understanding of the importance of black initiative and a Pan-African vision for the leaders of the uprising:
Although I thought I had no prejudices, I never before felt as proud of my black as I did of my white blood. I can readily see that the blacks compose an important element in the commercial and social relations of the world. Thank God for even this night's demonstrations, if we do no more. How sensibly I feel, that a people never entertain proper opinions of themselves until they begin to act for themselves.
Delany, Blake, p. 262.
Delany's characterization of Blake as a "fully black" revolutionist works on several levels. Engaged in debates with other prominent African American leaders, such as Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), over the leadership qualities most needed to represent the race, Delany may have fictionalized his assertions in Blake. Some critics, such as Robert S. Levine, have proposed that Blake's racial status argues for the fitness of the fully black Delany to himself be the representative leader for African Americans. Placido's comments on the important role of Africans of "unmixed blood" emphasize a belief in the need for leaders of unmixed blood to guide the race.
A DISTINCT RESPONSE
On another level Delany's use of a hero of unmixed blood also counters abolitionist literary stereotypes of his time that often portrayed mulatto rather than racially pure blacks as having the skills and characteristics needed for leadership. In fact, rather than a response to general literary stereotypes, Delany's Blake may specifically be a response to the popularity and acceptance received by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). In Blake, Delany revises the portrayal of black manhood given by Stowe (1811–1896) by allowing his fully black hero to participate in a violent response to the oppression of slavery. While Stowe avoids characterizations of insurrection and violence, Delany, in Blake, recasts the most notable slave revolt in the United States, Nat Turner's bloody rebellion of 1831, and broadens the scope of the insurrection to suggest that the growing population of black slaves could be a formidable foe if organized and coalesced into a unified army. Among other points of contention, Delany also questions Stowe's portrayal of "white" religion as a means of bringing comfort to blacks, but instead of dismissing religion altogether, Delany allows Blake to question religion and ultimately to revise the religious thinking espoused by the white community—in effect, to formulate his own religious beliefs.
Delany's response to the portrayal of religion in Uncle Tom's Cabin illustrates his approach to other American social issues facing blacks: African Americans must chart their own course and actively participate in meeting the social, political, and moral challenges facing their community. While the nonextant status of the novel's ending problematizes certain elements of interpretation, other thematics are clear. In Blake, Delany suggests that whether responding to a corrupt economic system or to a moral system that values intemperance and a lack of self-control among slaves, African Americans must evaluate societal mores in order to construct beliefs and philosophies that will meet the specific needs of their community. The primacy of communal goals is emphasized by the final words of the last extant chapter of the novel. One of the female members of Blake's inner circle of black leaders exclaims, "My lot is cast with that of my race, whether for weal or woe" (p. 313). Her comments spark the haunting reply that ends the novel: "Woe be unto those devils of whites, I say!" (p. 313). These comments encapsulate the heart of Blake's message of the imperative need for black community and black leadership.
Delany, Martin R. Blake; or, The Huts of America. 1859, 1861–1862. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.
Bernstein, Barton J. "Southern Politics and Attempts to Reopen the African Slave Trade." Journal of Negro History 51, no. 1 (1966): 16–35.
Ernest, John. "The White Gap and the Approaching Storm: Martin R. Delany's Blake." In his Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature: Brown, Wilson, Jacobs, Delany, Douglass, and Harper, pp. 109–139. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
Miller, Floyd J. "Introduction." In Blake; or, The Huts ofAmerica, by Martin R. Delany, pp. xi–xxix. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.
Okker, Patricia. "William Gilmore Simms, Martin R. Delany, and Serial/Sectional Politics." In her Social Stories: The Magazine Novel in Nineteenth-Century America, pp. 79–108. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.
Reid-Pharr, Robert. "Violent Ambiguity: Martin Delany, Bourgeois Sadomasochism, and the Production of a Black National Masculinity." In Representing Black Men, edited by Marcellus Blount and George P. Cunningham, pp. 73–94. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Sundquist, Eric J. "Melville, Delany, and New World Slavery." In his To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature, pp. 135–224. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993.
Sundquist, Eric J. "Slavery, Revolution, and the American Renaissance." In The American Renaissance Reconsidered: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1982–83, edited by Walter Benn Michaels and Donald E. Pease, pp. 1–33. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
Shelley R. Block