Early US Literature

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Melville, Racism, and Bhabha


With the impending pressure of a civil war, Herman Melville produced a novella, Benito Cereno, which captures the racial tensions during the antebellum. The story exists at the very rim of what we call chaos and questions everything that whites believe to be civilized. Melville begs the question: How is it that we are smarter than what we call barbaric? Babo, the leader of the slaves being transported, is certainly smarter than Captain Delano or Don Benito. For the colonizer to bring into question everything a nation thinks about the edge of the “civilized” humanity, it becomes a reversal of the intelligent and the naïve. It is this very reversal that is seen throughout Benito Cerino—the group being colonized is not barbaric and the colonizers are not intelligent. This story can then be read as allegory for the racial tensions of the time.

Homi K. Bhabha, a well-known theorist of post colonialism,  has an idea that applies here. The scope of this essay will only allow me to examine it briefly; but it is worthwhile to understand its uses in Melville’s novella. For example, Bhabha’s theory of hybridity is a perfect tool for the story’s question of slavery. Hybridity is “the revaluation of the assumption of discriminatory identity effects” (1175). In short, just because it’s 1799 and the slave trade is a universal in the west, it is not one for those being colonized. Slavery cannot be “Truth” if it contradicts the ingrained ideas of black culture.

Bhabha makes reference to Indians being given a translated version of the bible; however, they are not able to accept it as a universal Truth because they would have to eat flesh (1177). However, slavery is a much more blatant form of hybridity. It is a truth to white normativity at the time the story was written because the African race was considered inferior. As Delano thinks: “Most negroes are natural valets and hairdressers […] Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs” (Melville 2435). This shows Delano’s degradation of Africans to beasts even though he is the one being utterly fooled by the slave Babo.

An incredibly interesting event in the novella appears when Delano spies a Spaniard tying knots. He goes forward to speak with the man who “looked like an Egyptian priest, making Gordian knots for the temple of Ammon” (2429).  Delano is puzzled—as normal—about the intricacies of the knot. He is told to: “Undo it, cut it, quick” (2429), but gives it to one of the slaves instead. It’s rational to conclude that Delano should understand that Alexander the Great “slipped the Gordian knot” by cutting it with his sword and then went on to conquer Asia. This small scene is an undeniable allusion to one of the greatest warmongers and territorial collectors of all time, and Melville throws the audience a hug, proverbial bone by alluding to some of the most savage colonization—just as the slave trade was—in the history of mankind.

The phrase “follow your leader” (Melville 2453), which is told in Benito Cereno’s deposition, is about as colonial as it gets. Babo is not some dumb beast and slavery is not a universal “Truth.” Furthermore, Babo’s comment about bones is the most illuminating speech on racism in the novella (2453). He realizes all bones are white, and ironically tells the Spaniards sine the bones are of the said color they must be from a white man. This plays on the notion of whiteness as an internal quality. For, once skin is removed, Babo and his companions have the exact same color skeletons.

Benito Cereno  is all about imperialism and post-colonialism sheds more light on the work which, in itself, reveals the very nature of what is “civilized” and what is “barbaric.” The novella takes the very fears of the time period and asks the reader to question what is right and what is wrong.

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. “Distinction.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 1167-1184. Print.

Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. 2405-2461. Print.


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