Blood and Character in Early African American Literature

  • Hannah Spahn


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


National Character Slave Trade Person Plural Character Sketch Mixed Blood 
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  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
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  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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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.
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  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
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    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
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    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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