Throughout his oeuvre, Frank Yerby works to deconstruct myths of the Old South and historical misinformation. Along with these goals, he also dismantles the dichotomy of Black and White; instead, he populates his works with individuals and scenes that defy a simplistic characterization. In this manner, Yerby shows that race is not a biological fact; rather, it is a social construct. One of the key ways that Yerby accomplishes this, especially in regard to the commingling of individuals, is through his descriptions of cities and the multitude of different people that populate the space. Today, I want to look at a couple of scenes where he does this from his first novel The Foxes of Harrow (1946) and his seventh novel The Saracen Blade (1952). I chose these two texts because the first takes place in antebellum New Orleans and the second occurs in thirteenth century Italy. Both, though, comment on issues of class and race during the mid-twentieth century.
Walking through the Vieux Carre to catch a glimpse of the Marquis de Lafayette in The Foxes of Harrow, Andre LeBlanc gives Stephen Fox an education in the rules, customs, and racial stratification of New Orleans, a stratification that does not fall easily into the dichotomy of Black and White. After Andre stops to buy some pieces of estomac mulâtre (mulatto belly), from a vendor, he gives Stephen four of the cakes and asks, “Our mulattoes have delicious bellies, do they not?” Labeling the “gingercakes” estomac mulâtre, Andre draws attention to the ways that, as Mark C. Jerng notes, “racially othered bodies are consumed and cannibalized” in the novel. While the cakes are a symbolic cannibalization, Stephen, his son Etienne, and Mike Farrell, among others, prey upon the “racially othered bodies” around them—when Stephen buys and sells slaves, when Etienne orders the mulatto Aupre beaten up, when Mike attempts to rape Suzette, when Stephen has an affair with Desiree, and when Etienne rapes Desiree. Each of these instances play into the the dichotomy of Black and White, or more importantly the ways that some use Black and White to construct a social hierarchy based on the color of an individual’s skin or his or her lineage.
After eating the estomac mulâtre, Stephen espies “[a] group of young girls, afoot, and dressed in bright colors” who wore “the bright tignons of slaves” and not the bonnets that Creole ladies wore. Stephen looks on and proclaims, “They’re dressed like blacks.” The girls’ phenotype disorients Stephen, and Andre explains to him that the girls he sees are “quadroons” and free. While Stephen espouses his repulsion at the idea of sleeping with “a black,” Lafayette arrives and the Arceneaux sisters cross Stephen and Andre’s path. Stephen sees Odalie and proclaims she will one day be his. After Lafayette’s speech, Stephen and Andre walk “through the multicolored throngs, whites and octoroons, quadroons and mulattoes, raged blacks, and sober merchants, and the sombre-gowned priests and nuns moving quietly off like dark strands in the patterns of bright colors.”
The positioning of Stephen seeing Odalie for the first time, situated between images of New Orleans as a multicultural city, places Odalie, the beauty of Stephen’s eye, amongst the “multicolored throngs.” If, as Odalie’s father Pierre Arceneaux claims, his family wealth originated with “petty thieves and prostitutes,” then the only thing that separates Odalie from the rest of the people around her is the money that her family has amassed. Desiree, through the placage system, amasses her money, even posing nude for Paul Dumaine to increase her income. The only difference is that the Arceneauxs have built their wealth over generations and they seek to maintain that wealth partly through the social construction of race that limits Desiree’s options for ascending the social ladder.
In the The Saracen Blade, Yerby transports his “costume novel” formula to thirteenth century Italy. Here, he still retains the same points that he presents in the Vieux Carre scene from The Foxes of Harrow. In Chapter 1, Pietro rides out of the castle into Palermo, and there, he encounters a mixture of people from all over the world. Rather than encountering a binary view of Blacks and Whites, he passes “black garbed monks, beturbaned Saracens, bearded Greek priests, Jewish merchants, and money lenders, Negroes blacker than the bottom pit of Hades, tall Norman knights, dignified in hauberks and helmets, and the latest comers of all–the German knights of Emperor Henry VI.” Just like New Orleans, Palermo contains “multicolored throngs” of people walking the streets amidst palaces, cathedrals, and mosques. The cosmopolitan nature of Palermo, like New Orleans, points towards a world where people mix together and live together.
Yerby drives this point home by having Pietro raised partly by his Christian father but also by Isaac, a Jewish merchant who befriends his father. While others view Isaac as deplorable because he is Jewish, Pietro views him a loving and respectful manner. Pietro comes to mix together Christianity, Judiasm, Islam, and even secularism within himself, thus becoming the embodiment of the throngs that walk the streets of Palermo.
Along with images of multicultural cities, Yerby makes clear that Africa was a continent of scientific discovery and advancement. In this manner, he follows the intellectual tradition of activists such as David Walker, John Russwurm, Marcus Garvey, and others. At one point, Pietro and Isaac travel to see Donati, Pietro’s father. They stop over at a yeoman’s house, and we learn that Isaac assisted Paoli with his start in life. He lived on land that had once been constantly contested and fought over by various Barons. However, over time the land became barren due to over cutting and other actions.
To assist Paoli, Isaac gave him money and instructions on how to build a waterwheel “after the fashion of the ones Isaac had seen in Egypt.” The waterwheel worked and made Paoli’s land fruitful, causing the local monks to believe that Paoli used witchcraft to increase the land’s crop. After examining the waterwheel for twelve days, “they went back to the Abbey and promptly produced vastly superior copies of it for their use upon the Abbey’s lands, thus doubling their own produce.” Even though the monks were men of science, they initially feared Paoli’s waterwheel, but once they saw its use, they took the idea and used it themselves.
There are two aspects that are important here. First and foremost, it is important to note that the design for the waterwheel comes from Egypt, not Europe. The idea originiated in Africa, not the learned European continent. In this manner, Yerby points out that Africa was not, and is not, devoid of learning and advancement. Second, the monks take the design and make it their own. There is an interchange of ideas. We can look at this in two ways as well. One, it can be viewed as a simple interchange of ideas; however, it can also be viewed as the monks taking (colonizing) the plans and stealing them. The first view plays into Pietro’s ride through Palermo and his upbringing. The second plays into ideas of colonization and the destruction of lands. (I am not sure which I think is more appropriate at this time.)
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.