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Originating in race-based African chattel slavery, racial stereotypes have plagued American history. Antebellum stereotypes characterized African Americans as inferior and unevolved, which perpetuated the opinion of most white Americans that African Americans were suited to servitude, as they were seen as incapable of learning and being civilized. The stereotypes propagated by slavery, Minstrel Shows, and later books and films found their place in a variety of well-known pieces, including Bishop Whipple’s Southern, which preserved repugnant stereotypes. However, antebellum author Herman Melville employed these racial stereotypes in Benito Cereno in a seemingly innovative way; he utilizes stereotypes of African Americans to critique 19th century racial discourse by calling into question the validity of rigid racial boundaries, and suggesting the danger of viewing a race as a monolithic body.
Benito Cereno, a novella set in 1799 – in the midst of the age of slavery – details the thoughts and feelings of Massachusettsan Captain Amasa Delano amidst a puzzling encounter on a slave ship. Often referred to as “the American” (Melville 121), Delano is the captain of a whaling ship, the Bachelor’s Delight. While his ship is docked off the coast of Chile, Delano comes in contact with a “strange sail” (Melville 109), which readers soon learn is a Spanish slave ship in the midst of a rebellion. Once on board, Delano begins to witness events he considers odd and inexplicable due to his acceptance of racial stereotypes. For instance, he observes a group of six slaves clashing their hatchets with a “barbarous din” (Melville 119), whom he describes as “unsophisticated Africans” (Melville 120). In addition to calling their behavior unorthodox, Delano describes these men as equal to barbarians. This description paints a picture of Africans as lazy, ignorant, and uncivilized, all of which are considered the opposite of what it means to be American. Ultimately, Delano’s perception of slaves as being uncivilized brings to light the conviction of early Americans that slaves and minority ethnic groups were the ‘other.’ From this point forward one could begin to consider Delano as an American lens or viewpoint, as he is beginning to exhibit views consistent with the majority of his contemporary Americans.
Moreover, Delano continues to judge situations based on his acceptance of racial stereotypes. As he observes a group of slave mothers breastfeeding their children on the deck of the ship, he remarks, “like most uncivilized women, they seemed … [as] Unsophisticated as leopardesses; [as] loving as doves” (Melville 175). The undertones of racism become clear as Delano compares these women to undomesticated animals. Moreover, the juxtaposition enunciates Delano’s paradoxical view of African women. Indeed, various sources on antebellum culture, such as Gettysburg College’s digital archive on slave communities, suggest that white men were drawn to the “exotic charms” of female slaves, and their perceived lack of modesty appeared to signal a compromised sense of morality, as well as a heightened sex drive, which white men often felt entitled to exploit. (Slave Communities) These stereotypes are evident in Benito Cereno, as Delano observes them while exposing their breasts, all while he describes them as comparable to wildlife. Truly, his view that African women are exotic and picturesque, but still subordinate due to their race, exhibits an overwhelmingly baffling view of these women, by suggesting they are seductive and appealing, but unworthy of respect, due to their race. Ultimately, Delano’s conflicting account reveals his contradictory interpretation of slave women, from which the text begins to question the importance of race as a means for judgement of character by considering their femininity in addition to race.
By the side of Captain Benito Cereno and behind the events of the whole day is Babo, a slave who understands and manipulates the stereotypes many people apply to him to conceal the ongoing slave revolt. Described by Delano as “less a servant than a devoted companion,” (Melville 124), Babo initially appears to be the dedicated African slave assistant of Don Benito Cereno. Delano perceives the intimacy of their relationship when Babo goes as far as to speak for Cereno, claiming that, “His mind wanders. He was thinking of the plague that followed the gales” (Melville 132). Later, Delano witnesses Babo shaving the captain’s face. While watching Babo serve Cereno, Delano posits “there is something in the Negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person” (Melville 200). This sentence clearly illustrates Delano’s belief that African Americans are inferior to whites and specifically suited to serving the superior race. Furthermore, he goes on to state that African Americans possess a “certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture; as though God had set the whole Negro to some pleasant tune” (Melville 200). Delano’s statement not only reveals his racist attitude, but also his insensibility to the feelings of Babo. This statement enforces the idea that an entire ethnic group not only has an inherent purpose to serve, but also that they enjoy serving. Without a doubt, this racial stereotype denies a large group of people agency by implying their natural position on Earth is to please not themselves, but the men that have captured, tortured, and exploited them for centuries. Ultimately, by revealing Delano’s obliviousness to the reality of the situation, the text asks the reader to not only consider people as more than their race, but also begins to suggest the danger of believing an entire race is “harmonious” (Melville 200) and incapable of independent thought.
Interestingly, Melville’s choice to include variations of stereotypes that characterize slaves as ignorant, lazy, and uncivilized contrasts starkly with the reality of the story; the slaves are capable of much more than pleasing the white man. Ironically, Babo has been playing into these racial stereotypes and acting accordingly to avoid suspicion from Delano. In fact, Babo has been leading a clandestine operation, in which he cunningly strings Delano along to believe that Cereno controls the ship, when in reality, the slaves have seized power. Because Cereno must be supervised by his captor, Babo, and pretend he controls the vessel while wielding no real power, the increasingly odd events of the day begin to make sense once a “flash of revelation” (Melville 238) sweeps across Delano’s mind, and he finally understands the situation at hand. One could argue that Delano fails to understand the charade due to his “undistrustful good-nature” (Melville 110), but given the explicit racial stereotypes included throughout the course of the story, it is clear that Delano would never consider that an African would be able to control a ship, especially since this job usually belonged to an educated white man, such as himself. In other words, Delano cannot fathom the idea of a so-called inferior race appearing as his equal. The irony of his obliviousness not only debunks the dreadful stereotypes peppered throughout the story, but also criticizes the sense of racial superiority, as well as the necessity of race in significant judgements. By including these racial stereotypes only to question them, Melville offers a thought-provoking critique of American racial relations. By representing people whom were considered too ignorant, lazy, and pathetic to be capable of pulling off an intricate and seemingly well thought out plan, Melville calls the reader to question the validity of stereotyping – an invitation that would have shaken his contemporary readers to the core.
It is important to understand that Melville utilizes common stereotypes in an unprecedented way to critique racial relations, rather than perpetuate them. One can understand his disapproval of existing racial stereotypes through his choice to stray away from including a white character who saves the day. Melville’s choice to move away from this standard is most profound, not only given the situation, but most significantly the time period; antebellum literature rarely gave slaves agency, and even landmark works, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin include the success of a slave as contingent upon a white character. As a result, Melville artfully crafts a story addressing the validity of racial stereotypes, which also calls the reader to question the danger of denying a race agency and consequently viewing a race as a monolithic body, all of which were far ahead of Melville’s time. Without explicitly pronouncing a stance on the principle of racial discrimination and the legitimacy of mainstream stereotypes, Melville communicates to the reader that considering a person’s ethnicity above their outward character and actions can mask intentions and ultimately adversely affect the outcome of a situation.
Chihos, Victoria. “The Role of Women in Slave Communities.” Slave Communities, Gettysburg College Department of History, www.gettysburg.edu/~tshannon/hist106web/slave%20communities/atlantic_world/gender.htm. Accessed 21 Sept. 2017
Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” The Piazza Tales, edited by Dave Maddock, Josephine Paolucci, and Joshua Hutchinson. Gutenberg Press, 2014, pp. 109-271.
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