Terms of Oppression in William Apess and Hosea Easton

If you are at all interested in Native American or Early American literature, I would highly recommend reading Philip F. Gura’s biography of William Apess (Pequot). The Life of William Apess, Pequot chronicles Apess’s life based partly on Apess’s own writings but also on historical documents such as newspapers, correspondence, and other items. Gura takes all of this information and paints a portrait of Apess that further solidifies the activist’s importance in our understanding of American history and literature by showing how Apess existed within the specific miles of early nineteenth century America and how he worked tirelessly to argue for the rights of his own people and other Native American tribes, from the Mashpee to the Cherokee.

There are many aspects of Apess’s life and career that are worth more in-depth discussion, and those are the aspects that I want to briefly explore today. The most interesting aspect of Apess’s career, and the one that I have written about before, deals with his interaction with the abolitionist movement and more specifically with participants in that movement. As I have mentioned before, William Lloyd Garrison repeatedly put notices for Apess’s lectures in his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. While now concrete evidence exists, at least to this point, that Apess came into contact with African American activists such as David Walker, Hosea Easton, Maria Stewart, and others, Gura makes the point that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Apess interacted with, or at least heard and knew of, these individuals. 
Gura does not spend an exorbitant amount of time on the links between Apess and these other activists; this is partly understandable because the book serves as a biography and not as a literary analysis. In this respect, Gura mirrors Maureen Konkle’s and others quick mentions of the possible connections between activists like Apess and Easton. Even though we know that each of these authors focus on the rights of oppressed groups, when we delve into the texts in greater length than Grua does, we discover that each of these authors have similarities on the rhetorical level that need to be examined. I examine these rhetorical connections in relation to the influence of Scottish Enlightenment rhetoric in “We wish to plead our own cause”: Rhetorical Links Between Native Americans and African Americans during the 1820s and 1830s
In my work, I discuss the ways that Apess and Easton both draw on the idea of sympathy to highlight the “psychological disposition, historically formed, [that] had to be eliminated” (Gura 59). Both authors describe the ways that language and wide held beliefs of the inferiority of “colored” people led to psychological indoctrination of the racist ideas in the minds of whites and oppressed groups. Apess does this in his autobiography A Son of the Forest and other writings. In his autobiography Apess relates a childhood story where, as an indentured servant, he was picking berries in the forest and came across a couple of “dark skinned” women. Perceiving them to be “Indians,” he ran home to his master scared that they would harm him. His fears arose from the negative images that his master and other whites painted of Native Americans. Elsewhere, Apess rejects the use of the disparaging term “Indian,” pointing out its negative effects on the psyche of those who say it and hear it. 
Likewise, Easton, in his A Treatise on the Intellectual Character, and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the U. States; and the Prejudice Exercised towards Them: With a Sermon of the Duty of the Church to Them (1837), highlights the dangerous effects of words, in his case “nigger.” Easton writes, “Negro or nigger, is an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon them as an inferior race, and also to express their deformity of person” (105). He then proceeds to discuss the way the term becomes a marker through its use in describing body parts, seats of discipline in schools, and as a specter who could come and discipline or take away a child when he or she becomes unruly. All of these uses, among whites, becomes “most disastrous upon the mind of the community; having been instructed from youth to look upon a black man in no other light than a slave, and having associated that idea the low calling of a slave, they cannot look upon him in any other light” (108).
What I did not consider upon first researching the connections between Easton and Apess was each activist’s relation to the Methodist ministry. Grua notes that both men become linked together because each on did not have the ability to ascend to permanent places within the church ministry because of their race. When I begin to expand on this work, I plan to look at this aspect, especially in relation to the continued idea of sympathy and sentimentalism. What are your thoughts? What other links do you see between the authors mentioned in this post? As usual, let me know in the comments below. 
Note: Hosea Easton was possibly mixed race (African American and Wompanoag).
Easton, Hosea. To Heal the Scourge of Prejudice: The Life and Writings of Hosea Easton. Eds. George R. Price and James Brewer Stewart. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. 
Gura, Philip F. The Life of William Apess, Pequot. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 

Ira Aldridge’s "The Black Doctor"

James V. Hatch and Ted Shine’s two-volume Black Theatre USA has graced my bookshelf for a few years. Occasionally, I pull one of the volumes down to read or reread a play. A couple of weeks ago, I pulled down volume one and read Ira Aldrige‘s translation of Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois’s Le Docteur Noir (1846). Aldridge’s The Black Doctor (1846) contains differences from Anciet-Bourgeois’s original play and other translations. I have not looked at these other texts, so I cannot comment on how Aldridge’s additions or subtractions change the play. However, Keith Byerman has written about these differences in his essay “Creating the Black Hero: Ira Aldridge’s The Black Doctor” in Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius (2007).

Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge attended the African Free School and in 1825, he left the United States for London. Aldridge performed in numerous Shakespearean plays, performing the roles of Othello, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear amongst others. He received a level of recognition and fame in England, and later in Europe, that he would never obtain in the Antebellum United States, no matter if he performed in the North or not. Near the ed of his life, in 1867, plans were in motion to have Aldridge tour the United States; however, his death prevented such a tour to take place. For more information on Aldridge, see Bruce Ware Allen’s blog post on the tragedian.
Today, I want to briefly discuss The Black Doctor, a melodrama that tackles the topics of race and class with a European backdrop. Aldridge played Fabian, a “black doctor” who saves the Pauline Reynerie, the daughter of a French aristocrat, from death. After healing Pauline, the two fall in love, and they privately marry, leading to a conflict with Pauline’s mother based on class and race. The plot follows predictable lines of melodrama and romance leading to Fabian’s death by the end of the play.
When I read this play, and think about Fabian, I cannot help but think about the ideas of racial uplift and assimilation that pervaded African American communities during the nineteenth century. Fabian, as an ex-slave who became a doctor, does not socially elevate his social standing with his “respectable” position as a doctor. Even though he saves Pauline, her family does not think that he should hold the same social standing as themselves because of his race and class. The condescending attitude towards Fabian, along with the loss of his love, causes him to go mad while in the Bastille as it comes under siege during the French Revolution.
Fabian’s position, in part, reminds me of Dr. William Miller in Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901). Like Fabian, Dr. Miller receives rejection from the white characters in the novel. When Major Carteret’s son chokes, Dr. Price informs the major that Dr. Miller is the best doctor to save the child; however, the major and his wife do not want the African American physician in their house, and Dr. Price performs the procedure to save the Carteret child. At the end of the novel, Mrs. Carteret entreaty Dr. Miller to save her child during the race riot that erupts in the town. Dr. Miller refuses because the Carteret’s refused to recognize his humanity.
While written close to 60 years apart, both Aldridge’s play and Chesnutt’s novel highlight Antebellum and Post Civil War struggles of African Americans and those of African descent around the world who strived to exist on a equal plane with whites. Both texts show, just as the first African American newspaper Freedom’s Journal eventually did, that respectability and morality did not coincide with equality. In many ways, this same though pervades today; however, we still see that individuals base their preconceived notions and perceptions on skin color or nationality. Through reading these texts, we can see where we have been, where we remain, and where we need to eventually go.
Chesnutt’s novel, unlike Aldridge’s play, ends on an ambiguous note. After Dr. Miller refuses to save the Carteret’s son, he begins to leave with his wife Janet (Mrs. Carteret’s mulatto half-sister). After he Dr. Miller catches Mrs. Carteret as she begins to faint, he asks parents, “Is the child still alive?” (195). Responding affirmatively, the novel ends with Evans calling down the stairs, “There’s room enough, but none to spare” (195). at this, the novel ends. We do not know if Dr. Miller heads up the stairs, and if he does, we do not know if he saves the child. This is where we come in.
Aldridge as Othello

When we judge or limit people based on their race, nationality, or class, we hurt them as well as ourselves. How can we claim to live in a society with democratic ideals when we still treat individuals in the same way we did during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries? Fabian, like Charles Blow’s son, gets ostracized and profiled because of the color of his skin. Dr. Miller, like Kiese Laymon, receives rejection because of the color of his skin. When one asks why we should care about early American literature or African American literature, show them that the experiences these authors went through still exist. The question is, what will we do to flip the script? What will we do to make sure the students in Detroit, MI, receive the respect and education they deserve? What will we do to make sure that Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddy Gray, and countless others do not happen again? What will we do?

Chesnutt, Charles. The Marrow of Tradition. Ed. Werner Sollers. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print.

Photography in Lyle Saxon’s "Children of Strangers" and Alice Walker’s "Everyday Use"

As I reread Lyle Saxon’s Children of Strangers (1937) for the 2016 NEH Summer Institute “Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience,” I couldn’t help but think about the idea of authenticity and reality when I came to the final section in the book. There, Flossie Smith, Adelaide Randolph’s friend, encounters the fallen Famie as she leaves Easter service with Henry Tyler. Upon first meeting Famie years earlier, Flossie celebrates the mulatto’s near whiteness and praises her beauty; however, by the end of the novel, Flossie does not even recognize Famie as she sits on the mule behind Henry Tyler.

Flossie tells her husband that she must take a picture of the “wonderful” couple. When she stops Henry Tyler, she directs him and Famie in the manner that she wants them to pose. She says, “Yes, turn the mule around a little and ask your wife to look at me . . . What’s the matter, is she shy? Lift up your head, I can’t see your face in that sunbonnet . . . Well, never mind, you’ll look coy with your head down. Maybe it will be better that way, more natural. Now, boy, you smile. Don’t look so solemn” (294). Famie does not recognize the couple as anything more than a sort of commodity, something that she can take a picture of and “cherish” in New Orleans when she wants to recall the grand life that Adelaide and Guy Randolph live on Cane River. When Harry asks her to come out of the road, Flossie wonders if she has “the grandest picture” because the couple “were so typical” (294). The novel concludes with Flossie exclaiming, “I always say that niggers are the happiest people on earth. Not a care in the world” (294). Flossie’s desire for a picture, and her assumptions about the life that Henry Tyler and Famie lead show that sees them as nothing more than an oddity, as objects that she can exploit for her own personal pleasure. 

In many ways, the entirety of Saxon’s novel leads up to this point. The novel traces the story of Famie Vidal and shows her humanity, along with that of Numa, Henry Tyler, and others. In this way, Saxon counters Faulkner’s presentations of African Americans such as Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury who gets relegated to the kitchen. It would take a much longer post to tease out these aspects of the novel, and it must be said that while Saxon progresses from Faulkner in his represenation, his novel still contains some negative aspects when it comes to his representation of African Americans, mulattoes, and others. 

Rather than focusing on those aspects for the rest of this post, I want to touch on the idea of the picture that Flossie takes at the end of the novel. By taking the picture, Flossie immortalizes Henry Tyler and Famie, proving they existed. However, she does not provide them any agency within the process. She directs the couple on how they should position themselves, and she snaps the picture. They become nothing more than a background, lifeless. This encounter should be read in relation to Henry Tyler’s earlier encounter with Paul Randolph in the novel. 

Paul, an artist, has come home to Yucca Plantation to die. While in his cabin, he befriends Henry Tyler, but an impenetrable fence separates the two men. As they talk, Paul shows Henry a painting he has been working on. The picture shows “a stretch of cotton field, with a plow and a nigger coming along” (161). Paul tells Henry Tyler that the man in the picture is him, and Henry feels pleased, even though “Mr. Paul had put him in a picture without Henry knowing a thing about it” (161). Unlike Flossie’s picture, Paul’s shows Henry working, existing. Paul does not direct Henry, he just observes and paints what he sees. 

However, even though Paul does not act the same way that Flossie does, in fact he wants to eradicate the system of share cropping, he still has a certain position in regards to Henry. Even though he does not exist as a slave, “Henry, in a sense, belonged to Mr. [Guy] Randolph just as the land did” (154). Paul’s brother, in essence, owns Henry. Paul informs Henry that he wants to take him on as a servant, and Henry agrees. Here, Paul wants to show Henry a better life, by educating him while he works as a servant. Henry agrees to do this, but before he can assume the position, Paul dies. While Paul would, no doubt, be benevolent, Henry would still exist in a state of submission to a white man. 

All of this reminds me, to some extent, of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” There, pictures play the same role, as a means of capturing, without really exploring, conditions. Unlike Flossie and Paul, though, Wangero (Dee) takes pictures of her old home to validate where she came from, to show those back at school that she made it out. She wants to highlight her own authenticity. Like Flossie, Wangero stages the pictures. She tells her mother not to get up, and “[s]he never takes a shot without making sure the house is included” (29). When a cow meanders by, she takes a picture with the cow, house, Momma, and Maggie. Wangero’s actions mirror Flossie’s in the fact that she does not necessarily want the pictures to reflect upon positively; instead, they exist as objects that do not recognize the humanity they contain. Famie and Henry Tyler become non-existent, and Wangero’s sister and mother exist as nothing more than a past, one that only serves to show where she came from. 


Right now, I am working out these thoughts, but I find the use of pictures, in both texts fascinating. In both, the idea of possession and ownership continually appears. These concepts play in to the discussion of photographs and should be looked at in greater detail with these texts. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below? 

Saxon, Lyle. Children of Strangers. New Orleans: Robert L. Cramer & Co., 1948. Print. 
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Ed. Barbara T. Christian, New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994. Print.