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Blood and Character in Early African American Literature

  • Hannah Spahn

Abstract

James McCune Smith’s unique series of character sketches, “Heads of the Colored People” (published in Frederick Douglass’ Paper between 1852 and 1854), opens with the character of a maimed “black news-vender” who bears a remarkable resemblance to Thomas Jefferson:

Our colored news vender kneels about four foot ten; black transparent skin, broad and swelling chest, whose symmetry proclaims Virginia birth, fine long hooked nose, evidently from the first families, wide loose mouth, sharpish face, clean cut hazel eyes, buried beneath luxuriantly folded lids, and prominent perceptive faculties. I did not ask him to pull off [his] cloth cap [covering] long greasy ears, lest his brow should prove him the incontestable descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Black Sal.1

Keywords

National Character Slave Trade Person Plural Character Sketch Mixed Blood 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    James McCune Smith, “‘Heads of the Colored People,’ Done with a Whitewash Brush: The Black News-Vender,” in The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, ed. John Stauffer (Oxford University Press, 2006), 190–4. On this text, I have consulted Stauffer’s “Introduction” (at 187–90); Bruce Dain, A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 239–42; John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 218–24.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See Deidre S. Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (University of Chicago Press, 1998), ch. 1, esp. 30–5; 40–1.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Carla L. Peterson, “Untangling Genealogy’s Tangled Skeins: Alexander Crummell, James McCune Smith, and Nineteenth-Century Black Literary Traditions,” in A Companion to American Literary Studies, ed. Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2011), 500–16, esp. 511–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 10.
    David Hume, “Of National Characters,” in Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (London, 1758), 119–29, at 119. I have discussed the Scottish background of the Declaration of Independence at greater length in “Character and Cosmopolitanism in the Scottish-American Enlightenment,” in Character, Self, and Sociability in the Scottish Enlightenment, ed. Susan Manning and Thomas Ahnert (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 207–24.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    Hume, “Of National Characters,” 121. On Enlightenment views of national character in Britain, see Colin Kidd, “Constitutions and Character in the Eighteenth-century British World,” in From Republican Policy to National Community. Reconsiderations of Enlightenment Political Thought, ed. Paschalis Kitromilides (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2003), 40–61.Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    On the example of horse races, see Werner Conze and Antje Sommer, “Rasse,” in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, ed. Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck, 7 vols (Stuttgart: Klett, 1984), V: 135–78, at 139–40.Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    Hume, “Of National Characters,” 124. On the similarities between Hume’s and Diderot’s accounts of the enforced homogeneity of French national characteristics, see Jerrold Seigel, The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 204–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 15.
    Susan Manning, Poetics of Character: Transatlantic Encounters 1700–1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2013), esp. chs 5 and 2, at 129; 59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 17.
    See John Immerwahr, “Hume’s Revised Racism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 53.3 (July-September 1992), 481–6. Hume’s revised formulation in the posthumous 1777 edition targeted blacks exclusively while, arguably, downplaying polygenesis in omitting the phrase “other species of men.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 27.
    Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, ed. William Andrews and William McFeely (New York: Norton, 1997), 15.Google Scholar
  11. 28.
    J. St John de Crèvecœur, Letter III, “What is an American?,” Letters from an American Farmer (1782) (New York: Penguin, 1986), 69; 71.Google Scholar
  12. 29.
    On the problems of connecting sympathy to blood, see Christine Levecq, Slavery and Sentiment: The Politics of Feeling in Black Atlantic Antislavery Writing, 1770–1850 (Hanover: University of New Hampshire Press, 2008), esp. ch. 4.Google Scholar
  13. 30.
    See Peter Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000), ch. 5.Google Scholar
  14. 33.
    Friedrich Meinecke, Cosmopolitanism and the National State (1907), trans. Robert Kimber (Princeton University Press, 1970), 15. I have discussed Meinecke and Jefferson’s shared interest in blood imagery in the “Introduction” of Cosmopolitanism and Nationhood in the Age of Jefferson, ed. Peter Nicolaisen and Hannah Spahn (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), 3–22, at 7–8.Google Scholar
  15. 36.
    See, for example, Jefferson to Benjamin Austin (9 January 1816), in Jefferson: Writings, 1370. On Jefferson’s use of the Sibylline prophecy, see Peter Onuf and Nicholas Onuf, Nations, Markets, and War. Modern History and the American Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 343–52.Google Scholar
  16. 38.
    Thomas Jefferson, “Query XVIII,” Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (1954; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 162–3, at 163.Google Scholar
  17. 46.
    Douglas Egerton, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (Oxford University Press, 2009), ch. 9, esp. 247.Google Scholar
  18. 48.
    On the history of the term, see Elise Lemire, “Miscegenation”: Making Race in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 4; 51.Google Scholar
  19. 49.
    Ralph Ellison, “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), 489–519, at 505.Google Scholar
  20. 50.
    On the problems of overemphasizing Jefferson as a source of one-directional influence on African American literature, see Dain, Hideous Monster, ch. 1, esp. 4–6, and Gene Jarrett, “‘To Refute Mr. Jefferson’s Arguments Respecting Us’: Thomas Jefferson, David Walker, and the Politics of Early African American Literature,” Early American Literature 46.2 (2011), 291–318, at 308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 51.
    Lemuel Haynes, “Liberty Further Extended,” in The Literatures of Colonial America: An Anthology, ed. Susan Castillo and Ivy Schweitzer (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001), 573–80, at 579.Google Scholar
  22. 54.
    See John Saillant, Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes, 1753–1833 (Oxford University Press, 2003), chs 1 and 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 55.
    Ruth Bogin, “‘The Battle of Lexington’: A Patriotic Ballad by Lemuel Haynes,” William and Mary Quarterly 42.4 (October 1985), 499–506. The quotations are from stanzas 12 and 14; 13; 24 and 25; 17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 62.
    David Walker, Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, To the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, … of the United States of America, ed. Charles Wiltse (New York: Hill and Wang, 1965), at 36 n.; 65; 13, 65, and 68; 65.Google Scholar
  25. 68.
    See Guy Williams, The Age of Miracles: Medicine and Surgery in the Nineteenth Century (London: Constable, 1981), chs 1 and 10; Geoffrey Sanborn, “Mother’s Milk: Frances Harper and the Circulation of Blood,” English Literary History 72.3 (Fall 2005), 691–715; Jules Law, The Social Life of Fluids: Blood, Milk, and Water in the Victorian Novel (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), esp. 3–6; 86–7.Google Scholar
  26. 70.
    William Wells Brown, Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter, ed. M. Giulia Fabi (London: Penguin, 2004), 43.Google Scholar
  27. 73.
    Ibid., 154. A similar incident in New Orleans is related, for example, by Eliza Potter in A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life, ed. Xiomara Santamarina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 104.Google Scholar
  28. 77.
    See John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: Everyman, 1961), II.10, 84–5.Google Scholar
  29. 80.
    Douglass’s conception of the “gold” of character in “What Are the Colored People Doing for Themselves?” is analyzed in James B. Salazar, Bodies of Reform: The Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age America (New York University Press, 2010), 174–7.Google Scholar
  30. 82.
    Mia Bay, The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas on White People, 1830–1925 (Oxford University Press, 2000), 58–63, at 61.Google Scholar

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© Hannah Spahn 2014

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  • Hannah Spahn

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