Atq (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

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Title: "Melville's (inter)national burlesque: whiteface, blackface, and "Benito Cereno"

Author(s): Jason Richards

Source: ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly). 21.2 (June 2007): p73. From Literature Resource Center.

Document Type: Critical essay

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In his Narrative of Voyages and Travels (1817), Amasa Delano, the good-natured and affable captain from Massachusetts, recalls being an unknowing witness to a slave rebellion aboard the Spanish slaver Tryal, which he encounters off the coast of Chile one morning. Delano takes his whaleboat to meet the vessel after it enters the bay where his ship is anchored. He learns the crew has suffered trials at sea, orders supplies to restore them, and then returns to his boat later that day, all the while vexed by the suspicious behavior of the ship's slaves and ostensible captain, Benito Cereno. Amazingly, Delano fails to grasp that the blacks aboard the Tryal have seized power and, by acting as slaves and making it seem as though Cereno still runs the ship, staged an elaborate charade to fool him--a ruse that ends only after Cereno springs into Delano's boat and frantically explains the masquerade. That Delano could spend almost all day on the slaver, fatuously oblivious to the rebellion, must have tickled Herman Melville, who produced a horrific burlesque of the account in 1855 called "Benito Cereno." In his version, Melville renames Cereno's ship the San Dominick, evoking, as many critics have noted, the island of San Domingo, where slaves rose and began seizing power in 1799, the year he sets his revolutionary tale. He depicts Cereno as a mercurial and afflicted aristocrat, attended by his fawning servant Babo, who actually leads the revolt and polices his master with a hidden dagger. He portrays Delano as a dumbfounded and good-natured Yankee, whose affection for "negroes" blinds him to the rebellion and to Babo's atrocities.

Traditionally, critics have read Delano's blind complacency as an indictment of what George M. Frederickson would later term "romantic racialism," the largely northern, sentimental belief that blacks were childlike and good-natured. More recently, scholarship has linked Delano's blindness to the most popular form of entertainment in nineteenth-century America, blackface minstrelsy. Eric Lott and Eric J. Sundquist suggest that Delano's prejudice derives from stereotypes fostered by minstrelsy, and that Babo, in his role as a devoted servant, dons a figurative blackface mask by playing to the Yankee's racial fantasies. W. T. Lhamon, who has eloquently defended minstrelsy' s counter energies, agrees with this basic reading but emphasizes Babo's violence, which he says comes from the minstrel stage, where black-on-white aggression was routine. Similarly, Justin Edwards argues that Babo's rebellion echoes minstrel songs that sang of slave uprisings. He too reiterates the prevailing thesis that Babo's performance as a devoted slave "is a form of minstrelsy that is staged to deceive Delano" (28). While these scholars provide compelling insights into Melville's uses of minstrelsy, they offer a fairly limited reading of Babo, insofar as they argue that he masks his rebellion by playing the familiar role of the blackface slave.

Anyone acquainted with "Benito Cereno," however, knows that the story simultaneously sustains and inverts familiar roles. When Delano boards the San Dominick, the racial hierarchy appears to be in order, but in actuality the slaves have become masters, the masters slaves. Like the opening description of the sea, which, "though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface" (239), the hierarchy seems fixed. But it is also fluid. The roles of the shipmates seem familiar. But they are also inverted. Given how "Benito Cereno" sustains this paradoxical structure, I would argue that besides staging a surface spectacle of blackface, Babo also and simultaneously performs a version of "whiteface." He enacts his masquerade by deploying Cereno's body as a white mask, which allows him to figuratively and temporarily whiten as he enjoys the power and dominance that go hand in hand with white skin. Much as minstrel performers "inhabited" black bodies to indulge racial fantasy and to burlesque blacks, Babo uses Cereno as a kind of surrogate body, through which he occupies, burlesques, and menaces colonial authority.

Since the text sustains and inverts traditional roles, it is only logical that Babo's implicit act of whiteface is balanced by Delano and Cereno, who are sea captains on one level, yet, given Delano's stupidity and Babo's mockery of Cereno, resemble blackface buffoons on another. Melville clearly found Delano's Narrative tragic. He also found the tale of "inferior" blacks bamboozling powerful captains quite laughable, amusing enough to convert their missteps and foibles into a dark satire of white authority, one that both fulfills and undermines the logic of minstrelsy. As several scholars have already noted, the Yankee Delano and the aristocrat Cereno function as symbols of the American North and South and, more broadly, of America and Spain. (1) Because the captains represent local and international geographies, their being minstrelized has national and global implications. If the San Dominick functions as the national stage as well as the world stage, then in "Benito Cereno" minstrelsy collides with the theater of colonialism. This collision is especially worth exploring, since blackface has remained largely outside discussions of postcoloniality in American studies.

In Black Skin, White Masks (1967), the groundbreaking diagnosis of colonialism's impact on the black psyche, Frantz Fanon laments how the colonial condition fosters black desire for white culture and power. "The Negro," he suggests, "wants to be like the master" (221). Fanon's analysis of black desire is useful for understanding Babo' s performance of whiteface, which is a form of mimicry that turns the economy of minstrelsy on its head. In his acclaimed study of the minstrel tradition, Lott describes blackface as the confiscation of black culture by whites for sport and profit. "Cultural expropriation," he explains, "is the minstrel show's central fact" (19). Yet by capturing the San Dominick and controlling Cereno, Babo reverses such expropriation, and by doing so reverses the order of minstrelsy, even while he performs as a blackface slave. To sustain his heist, he executes two kinds of mimicry. On the one hang as Michael Paul Rogin puts it, Babo and the other blacks "destroy their captain by mimicking their obedience to him" (212), although they really demand obedience from their captain. On the other hand, Babo adheres to Homi K. Bhabha's notion of colonial mimicry, which differs from Fanonian mimicry, insofar as it functions subversively.

For Bhabha, when colonial discourse urges the colonized to imitate the colonizer, the outcome can be hazardous, since mimicry can turn to mockery or menace, parodying or threatening what it copies, thereby undercutting authority. Babo mocks and menaces colonial hegemony not only by playing the obedient slave but by imitating colonial command. His mimicry is writ large in the ominous and mocking comment "Follow your leader," which he scrawls in chalky white letters on the San Dominick's prow, where he has substituted the skeleton of his former master, Alexandro Aranda, in place of the ship's original figurehead, an image of Columbus. Most critics suggest that the "leader" is either Aranda or Babo--or both. But "Follow your leader" might also be read as Babo's personal mantra, since he follows, or rather mimics, colonial authority by replacing Cereno as master in command. Much as Babo substitutes Aranda's bones for the image of Columbus, he substitutes himself for Cereno, whose power he usurps and whose costume-like body he virtually inhabits to perform what I am calling whiteface masquerade. If white minstrels preyed upon and dressed themselves in black life, Babo hijacks and inhabits imperial might.

Signs of this hijacking, of this counter-theft, surface before Babo emerges. We see them when the San Dominick appears to Delano as "a whitewashed monastery," seemingly occupied by "a shipload of monks" or "Black Friars pacing the cloisters." What Delano really sees is a Spanish slaver "carrying negro slaves" (240). Yet his hallucination paradoxically unmasks the story's dominant reality, namely that free roaming blacks control the ship. Seen as Black Friars, they evoke the famous Blackfriars Theatre, two separate London playhouses that were converted from an old Dominican monastery, the second of which was home to the King's Men, a talented acting troupe Shakespeare wrote for. (2) The friar-like slaves also evoke Spain's mighty Catholic empire. As H. Bruce Franklin notes, "The Black Friars were the Dominicans, who, operating directly under the orders of Charles V, became the main executors of the Spanish inquisition, a key instrument of imperialism and racism." He adds that the ship's name, San Dominick, belonged to the "patron saint of the Dominican order" (148). All told, the slaves becoming Black Friars on the San Dominick cleverly combines European theater, Christendom, and empire in one stroke, suggesting that aboard this theatrical-monastic vessel the slaves are highly capable actors who now occupy and administer colonial power.

The notion of blacks occupying imperial power is also intimated by Babo's trousers, which are "made out of some old top-sail" and make him look "like a begging friar of St. Francis" (251). Along with hijacking Christian authority, Babo dresses himself in a potent symbol of colonial conquest--the white sail. By inhabiting the "whitewashed" ship and its topsail, Babo reverses cultural expropriation and whitens himself--something Melville plays on with the word "whitewashed." Originally a liquid preparation used for whitening skin, "whitewash" doubtless gave rise to the nineteenth-century label "white-washer," which referred to any black person who acted white or tried to join white society. The word "whitewashed," then, becomes a racial signifier, an obvious counterpart of blackface makeup, inferring that the slaves have become whitened by seizing colonial power.

But how exactly does Cereno serve as Babo's white mask? Let us first consider Babo's situation. He is forced to play the humble servant, but he wholly contradicts minstrel stereotypes, for behind his meek exterior lies ruthless ambition. Babo has a Napoleonic capacity to achieve revolution, but he does not have Napoleon's imperial skin. So he must masquerade as a slave to cozen white authority. Besides his blackface mask, he needs another disguise, without which Delano or any white authority he meets would spot him as a rebel. So he wheels Cereno forth as a prop, a mask, or as Delano suspects, "one of those paper captains" (253). Consider an early description of master and slave, wherein Cereno appears as a kind of empty hull:

His voice was like that of one with lungs half gone--hoarsely suppressed, a husky whisper. No wonder that, as in this state he tottered about, his private servant apprehensively followed him. Sometimes the negro gave his master his arm, or took his handkerchief out of his pocket for him; performing these and similar offices with that affectionate zeal which transmutes into something filial or fraternal acts in themselves but menial; and which has gained for the negro the repute of making the most pleasing body-servant in the world. (245)

Tottering about as he does, Cereno must be supported by Babo, who not only sustains the captain but moves his limbs for him, giving "his master his arm," as if he were a puppeteer. Cereno is often figured as puppet-like or dummy-like. Delano, for instance, observes "the black upholding the white" (250) and that the captain's "knees shook [while] his servant supported him" (254); and Babo worries that prolonged contact between Delano and Cereno might "unstring his master" (293). More important, Babo tells his captain what to say and, like a ventriloquist's dummy, he says it. Blackface minstrelsy, of course, resembled ventriloquism and puppetry. Lott has even called blackface "a perfect metaphor for one culture's ventriloquial self-expression through the art forms of someone else's" (92)--a "white ventriloquism through black art forms" (95). By speaking his desires through Cereno, Babo turns Lott's blackface metaphor upside down. By practicing a "black ventriloquism" through Cereno's white body, he performs a version of whiteface. In an added ironic twist, Babo mimics colonial authority, and then forces that authority, which he effectively colonizes, to imitate him.

Delano sees the "negro" as "the most pleasing body-servant in the world." But is Babo not really making his master's body serve him? When the mercurial captain advances to bid Delano a final farewell, Melville tells how his "nervous eagerness increased, but his vital energy failed; so that, the better to support him, the servant, placing his master's hand on his naked shoulder, and gently holding it there, formed himself into a sort of crutch" (293). It is easy to see how Babo as a human crutch becomes a symbol for slave labor and that Cereno embodies Spanish imperialism and southern aristocracy resting on the black crutch of human toil. But what about how Cereno serves as Babo's crutch? Babo could not move his revolution forward without his master. Without Cereno, he could not navigate back to Senegal nor pass the reefs of Delano's slow suspicion. Babo accumulates power and erects a virtual empire by leaning on Cereno, who ironically labors for his "body-servant." His exploitation of Cereno's white body mimics colonial and slave domination. He leans on the extreme methods of imperialism and slavery in order to undercut--to de-crutch--colonial authority.

Besides a lust for domination, Babo's use of Cereno's body reveals cross-racial desire, the same desire that formed at least one piston in the motor of blackface minstrelsy. When the white performer smeared himself with burnt cork, he could symbolically inhabit the fetishized black body and all that it signified. As Lott puts it, "To wear or even enjoy blackface was literally, for a time, to become black, to inherit the cool, virility, humility, abandon ... that were the prime components of white ideologies of black manhood" (52). Babo reverses this concept of masculine mimicry, whitening himself by enjoying through Cereno's body the dominance, violence, and control that were the prime components of white authority. He further exhibits racial desire by removing Cereno's sword--we are told later that Cereno's "scabbard, artificially stiffened, was empty" (315)--thereby laying claim to the white phallus. By holding on to his master's sword, Babo reverses blackface desire, an attraction that Lott suggests was rooted in an obsession over the black penis. If, by blacking up, the white performer penetrated the black body and temporarily laid claim to the black phallus, Babo will whiten himself by penetrating Don Cereno and laying claim to a powerful white masculinity.

Babo's penetration is suggested by the following example, in which Delano, quite ironically, believes that Cereno is too imperious to assign errands to his crew:

Proud as he was moody, he condescended to no personal mandate. Whatever special orders were necessary, their delivery was delegated to his body-servant, who in turn transferred them to their ultimate destination, through runners, alert Spanish boys or slave boys, like pages or pilot-fish within easy call continually hovering round Don Benito. So that to have beheld this undemonstrative invalid gliding about, apathetic and mute, no landsman could have dreamed that in him was lodged a dictatorship beyond which, while at sea, there was no earthly appeal. (246)

By hiding behind Cereno, Babo gets his "boys," which was then racist lingo for black men, to execute orders for him. He bosses them as a plantation master might, delegates like an emperor dispensing authority in his empire. That Babo fully occupies white power is inferred by Delano's musing that inside Cereno there "was lodged a dictatorship." Despite Cereno's apparent impotence, Delano believes the captain is still a colossal dictator. But the phrase "undemonstrative invalid" better describes the Spaniard, who has clearly become invalid. Cereno is merely imperial decor, inhabited by Babo, the real dictatorship "lodged" within the captain. By lodging himself inside, that is, by penetrating Cereno, Babo virtually dresses in white flesh. The limp and empty Spaniard, like his empty scabbard, is "artificially stiffened" by his servant. Babo's virtual occupation of Cereno is more than a blackface inversion; it represents the colonized moving from the margins of power to the very center of empire. We learn in the end that Babo's "brain, not body, had schemed and led the revolt" (315). Perhaps it is more accurate to say that with his brain, and Cereno's body, Babo plots and pushes his revolution forward. In a white world, Babo is forced to use a powerful white body as a medium for his black brainpower.

Babo never dislodges himself from Cereno, who is consumed to death by the memory of his tormentor. But the curtain does fall on Babo's masquerade. It falls when Cereno unstrings himself from his captor by leaping into Delano's boat. As if springing from a stage, Cereno's jump ends the illusion. His action marks the point when the blacks fall out of character, and Delano finally sees them not as dutiful slaves, "but with mask torn away, flourishing hatchets, and knives, in ferocious piratical revolt" (295). The mask removed is blackface, with which the slaves have disguised themselves. Removing this mask reveals how revenge can lurk behind the smile of any contented slave. The mask removed is also whiteface: it is Don Cereno himself. By escaping his master, he exposes Babo as an insurgent slave, his white "mask torn away." Once Cereno jumps ship, Babo becomes powerless again. He becomes black again, crushed to the ground by Delano and effectively re-enslaved.

No one, not even Delano, is immune from identity inversion in "Benito Cereno." If the blacks are whitened and the whites blackened, it figures that he too is racialized. Along these lines, Carolyn L. Karcher notes that Babo's intellect and Delano's brawn reverse "the conventional appraisal of the black and white races' respective fortes" (130). David Leverenz suggests this inversion by invoking Shakespeare. "If Babo is Iago," he writes, "Delano becomes an unwitting parody of Othello, prevailing through the brute strength he attributes to blacks only after he has been manipulated nearly out of his wits" (94). If Delano is a comic Othello, this would link him to the minstrel stage. After all, Othello was, in most cases, a white actor in blackface, and American productions of Othello, which began in 1751, were an important source of minstrelsy. Early versions of the play were performed in straight blackface, but around Melville's time burlesques of Othello--or Otello, as the legendary blackface pioneer T. D. Rice renamed his parody--were becoming fixtures of the minstrel stage, wherein Othello was portrayed as a slow-witted clown, not unlike Delano. (3) But my intention is not to focus on parallels between Delano and the duped Othello. Instead, it is to explore how the simpleminded, good-natured, and ridiculously complacent captain resembles minstrelsy's blackface slave.

It is tempting to isolate Delano from the drama aboard the San Dominick, to see him as a spectator, a "visitor." Until he quashes the rebellion, he is primarily an observer, who blindly watches the masquerade Babo arranges for him. Given the pleasure he draws from seeing the servant coddle his master and the slaves hard at work, Delano clearly resembles a minstrel-show audience, marveling at the reenactment of southern slavery. Minstrelsy was notorious for serving up sentimental plantation scenes to indulge northern curiosity about slavery, which it represented as comical natural and inevitable as a way to help black out white anxieties over black discontent and lurking slave revolts. Babo, of course, turns these minstrel conventions to his advantage. By playing to Delano's racialist sensibilities, he eases the captain's suspicion that the blacks are part of a coup. In other words, and exactly as Lott, Sundquist, Lhamon, and Edwards have suggested, he stages blackface to dupe Delano. But we know that "Benito Cereno" inverts the rules of minstrelsy, even as it keeps those rules in place. Indeed, it is the sentimental, dull-witted Captain Delano who wears the real blackface mask. As the Yankee delights in Babo's ironic recreation of slavery, he is simultaneously dragged into the play, removed from his strictly spectatorial position, and made to look like a blackface slave on this floating minstrel stage.

Inside the San Dominick theater actors and audience are basically one. Delano is described as a spectator observing the shipmates: "his eye falling continually, as from a stage-box into the pit, upon the strange crowd before and below him" (273); yet, as Rogin suggests, he "cannot tell if the common sailors are part of the audience or dangerous actors in the play" (214). In Babo's complex masquerade--partly rehearsed, partly improvised--everyone plays a role while they watch and play off each other. Thus, while approaching the ship early on, Delano observes "tenantless balconies" (241)--which evoke the theater--tenantless because the acting audience is confined mainly to the ship's deck: the stage. Shortly after Delano ascends one of the balconies, which is "cut off from the deck," the balustrade he leans on crumbles, almost tossing him into the sea before forcing him back to the deck (268-69). Though he may want to, Delano cannot escape the play. Like the entire San Dominick crew, he cannot escape the (inter)national crisis that "Benito Cereno" is all about. As a representative northerner, he may fancy himself distant from slavery. As a representative American, he may fancy himself distinct from a decadent imperial Europe. But like the notorious Gordian knot he observes a sailor weaving--a knot that can suggest the twining together of North and South as well as of America, Africa, and Spain--he is inextricably woven into the local and global dramas of colonialism and slavery. That he will act in this play is anticipated by the ship's stern-piece, which contains a "dark satyr in a mask holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked" (241). The engraving prefigures how Delano crushes Babo after he is bamboozled. The satyr itself, being masked, suggests Delano wears a disguise. Being "dark," it implies that he is blackened.

But how does Delano resemble the blackface slave? We might start looking for an answer in Moby Dick (1851), where Ishmael asks early on, "'Who aint a slave?'" (6), a rhetorical question that resounds in "Benito Cereno," where everyone is some kind of slave. We already know Babo enslaves Cereno and his crew. But he also masters Delano, who serves his design unknowingly. After consulting Cereno, whom Babo has carefully rehearsed for the initial encounter, Delano has his men return to ship to "fetch back" water and supplies for the scorched crew. The returning vessel, which Delano had arrived in and will be identified with, is significantly named Rover, a name that puns on Babo's getting the captain to, in a sense, step-and-fetch-it for him, making Delano another of Babo's errand "boys." Delano likes to believe the slaves are "stupidly intent on their work" (252), but in reality they intently watch as he stupidly works for them. Dispensing water, the northerner fancies himself an impartial republican, "serving the oldest white no better than the youngest black" (275), unaware that he also plays the part of water boy. When Delano first serves Cereno, the Spaniard bows excessively before drinking, a spectacle that "the sight-loving Africans hailed with clapping of hands" (275). In Melville's burlesque of minstrelsy, a black audience applauds white servitude and humility.

Whatever Delano attributes to blacks boomerangs back on him, so that he quickly resembles the stereotypes that inform his racist ideology. Wondering whether the slaves are co-conspirators in the mutiny, he concludes no, because "they were too stupid" (270), a notion that ricochets and makes him look ludicrous. While he calls blacks "sight-loving," he delights in Babo's "spectacle of fidelity" and ogles a "slumbering negress" (250, 267). For Delano, Babo's using the Spanish flag as a barber's apron reveals "the African love of bright colors," but he himself is dazzled by the hues, giddily remarking, "'so the colors be gay'" (279, 280). Delano believes in the quintessential "good-natured qualities of the negroes" (244), yet those qualities rebound on the seven occasions where Melville describes the captain as "good-natured." (4) Delano characterizes a group of blacks as "droning and drooling," then chides himself for "beginning to dote and drool" (243, 272). Not long before he thinks "God has set the whole negro to some pleasant tune" (279), we catch the contented captain "lightly humming a tune" (259).

The similarities intensify during the infamous shave that Babo gives Cereno. The shaving occurs in a cuddy filled with various weapons, a room Melville compares to a hall where a country squire might hang his hunting gear. To this analogy he adds, "The similitude was heightened, if not originally suggested, by glimpses of the surrounding sea; since, in one aspect, the country and the ocean seem cousins-german" (277). This heightening of similitude prepares us for a scene where the likeness between Delano and his cliched view of blacks crescendos. Watching Babo prepare for the shave, Delano muses:

There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one's person. Most negroes are natural valets and hair-dressers; taking to the comb and brush congenially as to the castanets, and flourishing them apparently with almost equal satisfaction. There is, too, a smooth tact about them in this employment, with a marvelous, noiseless gliding briskness, not ungraceful in its way, singularly pleasing to behold, and still more so to be the manipulated subject of. And above all is the great gift of good-humor.... a certain easy cheerfulness.... [T]o this is added the docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind, and that susceptibility of blind attachment sometimes inhering in indisputable inferiors. (278-79)

Although Delano observes the shave from an audience position, he unwittingly resembles almost everything he perceives. He envies Cereno--"the manipulated subject of" Babo's technique--but fails to grasp that he too is Babo's manipulated subject, whom the slave controls by playing to his minstrel fantasies.

Sundquist suggests the text, and especially this scene, "merges and separates the captains by bringing them into a mirroring or tautological relationship, locked in a stance of communion and isolation that mimics the respective histories they represent" (158). I would add that Delano is also brought into a mirroring relationship with Babo, particularly here, since Delano's description of the servant really describes himself. His notion that Babo, like all blacks, has a lazy, limited mind reflects his own captive thinking, which blinds him to the servant's game, while his belief in the slave's "blind attachment" to Cereno more accurately depicts his own blind attachment to Babo, whom he offered to buy earlier. Given how Babo manipulates Delano's stupidity and racial desires, it is the captain, not the servant, who becomes the "indisputable inferior," a wicked irony indeed, because when Melville wrote his story, blackface minstrelsy, which had often worked against racism in its earliest stages, was now part of the white American cultural agenda, focused on reinforcing white supremacy via racist caricature. But "Benito Cereno" we know undermines the logic of minstrel-show racism. If blackface injected images of contented and "unaspiring" blacks into the cultural mainstream in order to strengthen white supremacy, the strategy backfires here, making the captain look like a minstrel stereotype, not a superior white male.

It is fitting that Delano resembles a blackface buffoon. After all, he personifies the basic impulses that drove minstrelsy. Thrilled as he is by Babo's talents, the captain of The Bachelor's Delight resembles minstrel performers who were obsessed with black culture and black bodies, actors who sought out and bonded with black men, before they corked-up and mimicked them on stage. Like Billy Whitlock, who would "'quietly steal off to some negro hut to hear the darkeys sing and see them dance,'" and Ben Cotton, who would "'sit with [blacks] in front of their cabins,'" becoming "'brothers for the time being and ... perfectly happy'" (qtd. in Lott 50), Captain Delano when at home "had often taken rare satisfaction in sitting in his door, watching some free man of color at his work or play. If on a voyage he chanced to have a black sailor, invariably he was on chatty and half-gamesome terms with him" (279). Whereas minstrel performers applied burnt-cork to become black, Delano figuratively blackens through racial fantasy and desire. If Babo whitens through colonial mimicry, mimicry reverses itself in Delano's case, as the gamesome captain eases into a mirroring relationship with the "negro" he fantasizes. Ultimately, Captain Delano ends up with black on his own face. And Melville's white readers, should they view blacks as Delano does--and many likely did given the racialist thinking of the day--end up with black on their faces.

Thus Delano burlesques how blackface stereotypes were, in many ways, an extension of the white American psyche. He embodies how minstrelsy's "accurate" delineations of black life were often white cultural assumptions masquerading in black makeup. By portraying Delano, the representative American, as a blackface fool, Melville lambastes minstrelsy, exposing how its racist caricature can bounce back, mirroring and mocking those American audiences who consumed such caricature. As such, "Benito Cereno" becomes the most complex and rigorous indictment of blackface in all antebellum literature. Further, that Delano blackens while Babo turns wickedly white challenges popular nineteenth-century beliefs in racial fixity and racial essentialism, suggesting instead that black and white identities are mutually constitutive, mutually destructive, and constantly in flux.

As Melville finishes describing Delano's affection for black men, he notes that the captain "took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs" (279). While blacks remind Delano of the faithful black Newfoundland, here they are actually the opposite, which is to say catlike, even "sphynx-like" (243). And Melville will use much feline imagery to contrast Babo's catty cunning with Delano's dogged faithfulness. When the captain is watching his trusty boat Rover return with provisions, his cheek is fanned by a "cats-paw" (268), a soft breeze that ripples the sea in a dead calm. But a cats-paw is also a person used by another: a tool, a dupe. These latter meanings obviously describe Delano and Cereno, who function as Babo's cats-paws. When Rover draws nearer, Delano reminisces how his faithful vessel, when it used to lay anchored near his childhood beach home, always reminded him of "a Newfoundland dog." And now "the sight of that household boat evoke[s] a thousand trustful associations" (271). Trustful to a fault, faithful and eager to retrieve supplies for the crew, it is Delano, and not the "negro," who becomes the real Newfoundland--a name that invokes the new founded land of America, especially since the Newfoundland-like Delano represents the new nation. Given his extreme "native simplicity" and the fact that he is "incapable of satire or irony" (257), the dog-like Delano becomes, on the one hand, a parody of white American innocence. On the other hand, the captain, like Harriet Beecher Stowe's good-natured Uncle Tom, reflects how the myth of American innocence and the myth of African-American innocence existed in an intimate mirroring relationship--a relationship that suggests, once again, how black stereotypes could reflect the white American self. While romantic racialism and minstrelsy argued for natural distinctions between the white and black races, Delano and Babo show how ridiculous and arbitrary those distinctions actually were.

Before Delano boards the ship, Babo makes Cereno don his old captain's apparel, forcing the Spaniard to imitate his former aristocratic self in order to deceive Delano, who nevertheless finds Cereno's costume incompatible with his sickly and suspect behavior. As mentioned earlier, several critics have read the well-dressed, ailing captain as emblematic of an exhausted Spanish empire and decadent aristocratic South. Nicola Nixon, however, argues "that what Delano recognizes in Cereno is not the features of the southern gentleman but the aristocratic gentility that institutions like Harvard prided themselves in instilling in sons of the northern elite" (366). As Melville was growing up, schools such as Harvard were urging their students to refine themselves through attention to etiquette and dress and by looking to Spain as a model of high civilization. By mid-century, Nixon notes, "the romantic, aristocratic culture of colonial Spain and the Europeanized (or Harvardized) figure of the gentlemanly, aristocratic American dandy" were "two faces of cultivation that constituted a cultural currency of the northern elite" (367). Cereno's dandification, she concludes, synthesizes these northern trends, "highlight[ing] the degree to which the North, even if it appeared to concern itself with the issue of slavery, was really consumed with its own social distinctions" (370). Nixon's reading of Cereno as a white northern dandy is compelling and convincing. Yet she never considers the overdressed captain in relation to the minstrel show, a mostly northern phenomenon, which was famous for its extravagant dandies. Because the ship functions as a virtual minstrel stage, I would suggest that any dandyism on board inevitably reflects the fashion and politics of minstrel theater. As such, the final sections argue that Cereno becomes reminiscent of minstrelsy's dark dandy and that Babo dandifies and minstrelizes Cereno through a series of elaborate costumes and humiliations, burlesquing the once powerful captain and everything he stands for.

To appreciate how Cereno resembles the minstrel dandy, we must first understand his racial inversion. While Babo whitens by enjoying authority through Cereno, and Delano blackens through his rebounding racialism, Cereno is darkened by racial signifiers. For instance, when Delano first greets the captain, he finds "his national formality dusked"; he then later observes the Spaniard's "pale face twitching and overcast" (244, 259, my italics). When Delano becomes suspicious of Cereno, the "pale invalid" turns into a "dark Spaniard" (258, 263). (5) And we ultimately learn that Cereno dies blackened. When Delano puts his famous question to the expiring aristocrat--"what has cast such a shadow upon you?"--Cereno's gloomy response, "'The negro'" (314), suggests he wears a black shadow to the grave.

Cereno is blackened because he has been thoroughly enslaved, so much so that he becomes a kind of symbol for slavery. Much as unsuspecting Africans were seized and shipped to America, Cereno is captured and--in a reversal of the slave's journey--is on his way to Africa when we meet him. Thus, Delano's early impression of the Spaniard evokes how slaves were bound and shipped across the Atlantic Middle Passage: "Shut up in these oaken walls, chained to one dull round of command" (245). Cereno's command, of course, is no longer his but belongs to Babo, who completely dominates him. After being brutalized and controlled, Cereno escapes his master and subsequently produces a deposition, a document that bears an astonishing likeness to the slave narrative, a genre in full bloom when "Benito Cereno" was written. Like the ex-slave author, Cereno is testifying as one freed from enslavement, his purpose being to detail his slave experience. He reclaims his voice and subjectivity through his testimony, much as ex-slaves did through their stories of bondage and freedom. Contrary to Delano, who paints a vexed but rosy enough picture of slavery, Cereno's deposition, like the slave narrative, reveals the abominations of the institution--only his testimony describes a hierarchy turned upside down. The brilliant irony is that Babo, like the white master, has tried to make slavery appear good and natural, but Cereno intervenes to expose the evils of the institution. Whereas slave narratives ritually described white-on-black violence to stress the horrors of slavery, Cereno gives a detailed account of blacks terrorizing whites aboard the Spanish slaver. Much as powerful masters became corrupt tormentors in slave narratives, Babo's authority makes him one stereotypically wicked master. Thus the deposition, like the slave narrative, reveals how slavery dehumanizes slaves and masters alike. Because the authenticity of slave narratives was often called into question, it became necessary that a respected citizen vouch for the ex-slave's authorship. As a parallel, the Majesty's notary, a man named Don Jose, declares that Cereno is, in fact, the deponent. The writer of the slave narrative was often assisted to freedom by a northern abolitionist. Cereno is saved and freed by the liberal northerner, Amasa Delano. If ex-slaves were forever haunted by their experience in slavery, so too is Cereno. He dies under Babo's shadow--the shadow of slavery--which indelibly marks him.

Cereno is so much a slave that he becomes minstrelized the moment he is dressed up and paraded as a high-born aristocrat. As a virtual slave playing the part of gentility, Cereno becomes reminiscent of the blackface dandy, one of two major types that dominated the minstrel stage. Around 1830, the blackface dandy--who manifested variously as Long-Tail Blue, Dandy Jim, and Zip Coon--emerged alongside the ragged trickster Jim Crow. Also known as the "aristocratic negro," the minstrel dandy was a white performer who, extravagantly dressed and smeared with burnt cork impersonated a black impersonating the aristocracy: the same series of symbolic transformations Cereno has undergone. The dark dandy was often derided as a "white nigger," a term that has ironic resonance for the enslaved white captain. Usually seen as an urban upstart, the minstrel dandy mainly burlesqued ambitious or ostentatious blacks in the North. But to see him as exclusively northern is limiting, for the dandy could cut across sectional lines. In her important work on the dark dandy's evolution, Barbara Lewis deflates the conventional thesis that the blackface dandy was entirely northern, locating the "urban" Zip Coon in "the nostalgic plantation genre" (270).

The geographical complexities of the dandy are couched in Delano's fullest description of the dandified Benito Cereno:

The Spaniard wore a loose Chile jacket of dark velvet; white small clothes and stockings, silver buckles at the knee and instep; a high-crowned sombrero, of fine grass; a slender sword, silver mounted, hung from a knot in his sash--the last being an almost invariable adjunct, more for utility than ornament, of a South American gentleman's dress to this hour. Excepting when his occasional nervous contortions brought about disarray, there was a certain precision in his attire curiously at a variance with the unsightly disorder around; especially in the belittered Ghetto, forward of the mainmast, wholly occupied by the blacks. (250-51)

The passage is riddled with sectional signifiers. The word Ghetto, for instance, heavy with urban connotation, conjures an image of blacks crammed into a city ghetto. Add the mechanized work of the slaves--that is, the monotony of the oakum pickers and "the industrious hum of the hatchet polishers" (292)--to the capitalized Ghetto, and we have a gritty portrait of northern capitalist industry. Whereas the dandy paraded through city streets, opulently attired and distinguished from everyday blacks, Cereno is figured in a city-like setting, sartorially distinguished from the black Ghetto.

But Cereno is also unmistakably southern. And so is his ship, given its pervading decay, garden imagery, mossy exterior, and slavery. Further, Don Cereno's "South American gentleman's dress," while it literally ties him to South America, figuratively situates him in the American South. From this angle, Cereno's dandyism clearly signifies southward. Whereas the dark dandy chiefly reflected northern social concerns, in his various southern guises he satirized the landed gentry. A fine example of the black southern dandy is found in Stowe's virtual minstrel show Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), in which Adolph, the effeminate and preening dandy who mimics (and mocks) his lazy master Augustine St. Clare, reflects the vice and pretensions of the southern elite. Paul David Johnson has astutely observed that Cereno's "aristocratic origins, his gloomy-passionate temperament, his indolent manner, his erratically tyrannic behavior, his attention to dress and concern with decorum suggest in abundance a sort of Augustine St. Clare who has suffered a sea change" (429). If, as Johnson suggests, Cereno parallels St. Clare, then he has to resemble St. Clare's notorious black echo, Adolph. Like Adolph, who strives to sartorially disguise his slave status, Cereno's decadent costume conceals his actual slave position. Thus, in one of Delano's suspicious moments, Cereno becomes an "imposter ... masquerading as an oceanic grandee ... playing a part above his real level" (258). The reason we laugh at Adolph is the same reason we laugh at Delano's observation. For, like Adolph, Cereno is really a servant, playing the role of a southern gentlemen. As a kind of synthesis of St. Clare and Adolph, Cereno is both a white southern patrician and a slave pretending to be an aristocrat.

Cereno, of course, is not the only one to signify across sectional lines. All the major characters have northern and southern traits. Delano embodies Yankee liberalism in the same instant that he resembles the comic plantation slave. Babo has all the earmarks of the southern Sambo trickster, but he also evinces such mythic northern qualities as ingenuity, industry, self-reliance, and leadership. Like the infamous Black Sam, another minstrel type from Stowe's text, Babo has "a talent of making capital out of everything that turn[s] up" (Stowe 64). Viewed in a northern urban context, Babo becomes a sort of industry boss overseeing a factory of deception. But it is Cereno, "the central hobgoblin of all" (263), who signifies across boundaries in the most extraordinary ways. No wonder Melville named his elaborate tale after this kaleidoscopic figure. The slow and sullen commander is everywhere and everything at once. He is a Harvardized dandy, a sickly southern cavalier, a mighty Spanish imperialist, a humiliated slave, and a minstrel dandy all rolled into one.

That each character embodies sectional overlap is consistent with the minstrel tradition, wherein whites crossed racial lines and where northern politics lurked behind staged plantation facades. Like the minstrel stage, the San Dominick stage is where white and black, North and South, Africa, Europe, and America are overlaid and become hybridized. The ship's stage, which is on one level the American national stage, collides with the colonial stage, the international theater, revealing the permeability of not just sectional lines but of global lines as well. Melville's minstrel ship, floating as it does between Africa, Europe, and America, doubles as what Mary Louise Pratt would call the "contact zone," which contains "social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other" (4). That identities are so easily crossed and combined in "Benito Cereno" speaks to the intensely hybrid nature of national and global identities, a hybridity that disrupts fictions of cultural and racial purity that were central to preserving colonial hegemony. Like the minstrel stage, the ship's theater collapses cultural and racial divisions while at the same time it endeavors to uphold those selfsame distinctions.

Babo's extravagant sadism, Delano's astonishing stupidity, and Cereno's excessive apparel--all of which belong to the over-the-top energy of minstrel burlesque--are brought to a head during the horrific shaving ritual. We have already seen how Delano is most like a blackface fool during the scene. We have not seen what happens to Cereno, whom Babo bloodies and humiliates with a razor. I know of two readings that relate this scene, what many call the "play of the barber," to minstrelsy. Lhamon contends that the violent ceremony upsets minstrel cliches of happy black servility, and that it does so "without ever 'transcending' minstrelsy" (84). He explores how the shave parallels Dan Emmett's minstrel play, "German Farmer, or, The Barber Shop in an Uproar," wherein a slave named Pompey terrorizes a German immigrant during a gory act of shaving, an act of black-on-white violence that, he argues, working-class audiences would have sympathized with (8485). In an equally absorbing analysis, Jennifer Gordon Baker argues that the shave invokes Beaumarchais's The Barber of Seville, becoming "reminiscent of a blackface parody of elite theater" (103). These readings handily explore how the episode reflects minstrelsy's ability to stage class resistance; yet they overlook the scene's greatest minstrel irony, namely that during the ritual Cereno, like Delano, is mocked as a minstrel clown.

After Babo parades Cereno about as a sham aristocrat, he escorts him into the cuddy for his daily grooming. The servant prepares for the shave by "taking from the [ship's] flag-locker a great piece of bunting of all hues, and lavishly tucking it under his master's chin for an apron." The improvised barber's apron, which affirms Delano's racialist belief in "the African love of bright colors and fine shows" (279), is actually the flag of the Spanish empire. Babo's audacious decision to use it indicates how confidently he commands both captains. When Cereno's nervous shuddering causes it to unfurl, spreading across his body, the flag becomes reminiscent of the brightly colored, oversize outfits worn by blackface comedians on the minstrel stage. Using a flag as a costume was nothing new to blackface performance; in fact, Babo's doing so evokes a vivid and celebrated minstrel tale. When T. D. Rice debuted as Jim Crow in venues throughout the Ohio River valley, he wrapped himself in the American flag, sporting red and white stripes for pants and a long blue coat boasting a star-spangled collar. With his black face and national colors, Rice was burlesquing the nation's most howling contradiction: that a country founded on radical principles of freedom and democracy was sustaining itself in part with slavery. Moreover, and more than he probably knew, Rice was predicting that minstrelsy would become part of the national fabric. By having Babo dress Cereno in the Spanish flag, Melville revises Rice's blackface national burlesque to make a mockery of Spain's slave empire.

The flag also suggests how minstrelsy was patched together from a larger, international fabric. When Delano mentally notes "the theatrical aspect of Don Benito in his harlequin ensign" (282), he evokes the relationship between minstrelsy and European theater. His observation likens Cereno to Harlequin, the clownish, motley colored servant from Italian commedia dell'arte and English harlequinade. In his article "Harlequin Jim Crow," George F. Rehin has called Harlequin a "kindred spirit" of Jim Crow (696). With his black half mask and his role as a comic servant, the rustic and varicolored Harlequin is a perfect counterpart for the raucous Crow; and Melville, who in 1849 visited Europe and toured its theaters, may have noticed Harlequin's similitude to minstrelsy's most recognized personality. By dressing Cereno in a "harlequin ensign," Babo intensifies his minstrelization. In the cuddy, which Philip Fisher suggests "suffers from simultaneity" (97), European downing and American minstrelsy collide and overlap, displaying the postcolonial intermix of blackface minstrelsy. But Delano misses his own clue. Entranced as he is by Babo's performance as hairdresser, he fails to see how Cereno really is Harlequin and minstrelsy's buffoon. Ironically, when Babo is at the top of his blackface game, adroitly playing the faithful, fawning, and amusing servant, Cereno and Delano become the real objects of minstrel burlesque. When Delano suddenly realizes the apron is Spain's flag, he says, "'It's well it's only I, and not the King, that sees this,'" then adds, "'it's all one I suppose, so the colors be gay,' which playful remark did not fail to somewhat tickle the negro" (280). In this satirical inversion of minstrelsy, the black servant chuckles at white buffoonery.

In yet another inversion, Babo parodies the blackface makeup ritual and by doing so unmasks the slippery and constructed nature of race. After tucking the flag under Cereno's chin, Babo lathers the Spaniard with a soap and salt-water mix, which is, as Melville suggestively notes, "rubbed on the face" (279). The soap is white, yet its racial significance is complicated by the salt-water Babo uses. In Melville's day "salt-water" colloquially described black immigrants, and a sailor like Melville would have been quite familiar with the term. The soap and salt-water concoction strikes at the heart of the text's racial ambivalence. It whitens literally while it blackens figuratively, washing away Cereno's racial signifiers as it puts them back on. Racial identities appear stable on the ship, but below the surface those identities overlap and are interchangeable. Delano's observation that the soap is "intensified in its hue by the contrasting sootiness of the negro's body" (280) might seem to solidify Cereno's whiteness and Babo's blackness, yet it only heightens the racial ironies. As external compounds, soap and soot function as racial markers. Like minstrel makeup, they can be put on and taken off at will. If the slave's "sootiness" is washed away, we see him performing whiteness below his blackface exterior. If we look past the white in Cereno's shaving lather, we find a blackened captain beneath.

Delano, although he fails to grasp his own inversion, is vaguely aware that Babo and Cereno are not what they seem. In another suspicious moment, he wonders whether the two are performing for him, "acting out, both in word and deed, nay, to the very tremor of Don Benito's limbs, some juggling play before him" (282). Actually, Babo and Cereno are both juggling and being juggled. They deceive Delano and they circulate through moments of blackface and whiteface much as props would wheel through the hands of a juggler. This wheeling, this juggling, is the stuff of revolution. The blacks have rolled to the top, the whites to the bottom. The wheel will turn again when Delano crushes the rebellion. But for now Babo, as he puts the final touches on Cereno with comb, brush, and scissors, is the revolutionary. He revolves about Cereno, "going round and round ... evincing the hand of a master" (282), running circles around his captain, punning on and performing revolution. On the text's surface, everyone appears stuck in their familiar roles: revolution seems stalled and hidden behind masks. But beneath those masks, racial identities are turning: revolution is really happening, and we can see it.

The ferocious shave is a textbook example of mimicry slipping into excess and mockery. If Delano suffers from a blind stupidity that mirrors blackface stereotypes, Babo enjoys a blind ambition that burlesques colonial authority. It is axiomatic that during the colonial encounter the colonizer risks "going native," meaning he risks being absorbed into the lifeways of the Other. Here, however, the colonized "goes colonizer," which is to say that Babo becomes polluted and depraved through his recent acquisition of power. As William Bartley puts it, Melville's text is "a study in tyranny ... in which the slave, now master, is susceptible to all the temptations and corruptions of having absolute dominion over another human being" (450). As evidence of Babo's corruption, Bartley suggests that "Cereno is helpless and Babo mocks this helplessness in numerous ways with an intense preoccupation irrelevant to the practicalities of rebellion" (460). Babo's mockery may be impractical for serious rebellion, but it is ideal for satirizing colonial authority. And "Benito Cereno" is all about Babo's assuming such authority, not just to undercut it, but to ridicule it for sport and revenge. Whereas minstrelsy often mocked black dispossession, Babo derides and abuses white hegemony.

A brilliant example of Babo's mockery is suggested by an image on the Spanish flag. After the standard loosens, it unfurls to the floor, "revealing ... a closed castle in a blood-red field diagonal with a lion rampant in a white" (280). The design is indeed "revealing," for it symbolically reveals the reality of power relations on the ship. If the independent and stealthy Babo is a catlike counterpart of the doglike Delano, here the sly servant is represented as a cat in its mightiest form: the lion. While the lion, which on the flag of Spain is crowned, suggests Spanish imperial might, in the context of the humiliating shave it stands not for Spanish but for African power, becoming a displaced emblem of Babo's kingly authority. The word "rampant" is a humanizing term, describing a lion standing on its hind legs, its front paws extended, an image that might remind us of Delano and Cereno: Babo's cats-paws, his tools and fools. The word "rampant" also means menacing wildness, extravagance, or absence of restraint. Such reckless extravagance speaks to Babo's impractical burlesque of Cereno and his lavish abuse of power. If Delano's earlier hallucination of the "whitewashed monastery" filled with Black Friars suggests how the slaves run the ship, the flag exposes how the faithful servant Babo is really a lion running rampant in a field of white authority. He occupies this white field just as he symbolically occupies Cereno by performing whiteface through the captain's white body.

Whereas Babo represents the corrupting nature of colonial authority, Cereno embodies the devastating effects of colonialism and slavery. As Leela Ghandi puts it, "Colonialism does not end with occupation" (17). Nor does slavery, for that matter, end with emancipation; and Cereno, it would seem, allegorizes the aftermath of both forms of dominance. Once he frees himself from Babo--once the slave no longer occupies his master--Cereno, like the ex-slave or ex-colonial, faces the difficult task of postcolonial self-recovery. The captain, however, is unable to reclaim who or what he originally was. And Delano, not surprisingly, fails to grasp that Cereno's absolute degradation makes self-recovery impossible When the American urges Cereno not to dwell on what has happened--"'the past is passed,'" he says, "'why moralize on it. Forget it. See, yon bright sun has forgotten it all, and the blue sea, and the blue sky; these have turned over new leaves"--Cereno mournfully replies, "'Because they have no memory'" a remark that reflects how the colonial past relentlessly, psychologically hounds the postcolonial present. "'You are saved,'" Delano cries, "'you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?'" Cereno's answer, "'The negro'" (314), implies that Babo overshadows the captain's attempt to recover his previous condition. If, as Fanon suggests, colonization destroys the colonized's sense of self, Babo's acquisition of subjectivity through Cereno, his menacing whiteface masquerade, annihilates Cereno's subjectivity. By the end, Cereno becomes synonymous with his fake sword, that "apparent symbol of despotic command, [which] was not indeed, a sword, but a ghost of one. The scabbard, artificially stiffened, was empty" (315). Once the phallic, violent, creative force of Babo physically withdraws from Cereno, the captain is little more than a ghost--a shadowy white mask.

Works Cited

Baker, Jennifer Gordon. "Staging Revolution in Melville's 'Benito Cereno': Babo, Figaro, and the 'Play of the Barber.'" Prospects: An Annual Journal of American Cultural Studies 26 (2001): 91-107.

Bartley, William. "'The Creature of His Own Tasteful Hands': Herman Melville's 'Benito Cereno' and the 'Empire of Might.'" Modern Philology 93 (1996): 445-67.

Bhabha, Homi K. "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse." The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.85-92.

Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Collins, Kris. "White-Washing the Black-a-Moor: Othello, Negro Minstrelsy and Parodies of Blackness." Journal of American Culture 19 (1996): 87-101.

Delano, Amasa. A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages Round the World, Together with a Voyage of Survey and Discovery in the Pacific Ocean and Oriental Islands. Boston, 1817.

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Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markman. New York: Grove, 1967.

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Franklin, H. Bruce. "Slavery and Empire: Melville's 'Benito Cereno.'" Melville's Evermoving Dawn: Centennial Essays. Ed. John Bryant and Robert Milder. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1997. 147-61.

Fredrickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. New York: Harper, 1971.

Gandhi, Leela. Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

Johnson, Paul David. "American Innocence and Guilt: Black-White Destiny in 'Benito Cereno.'" Phylon: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture 36 (1975): 426-34.

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Lewis, Barbara. "Daddy Blue: The Evolution of the Dark Dandy." Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy. Ed. Annemarie Bean, James Hatch, and Brook McNamara. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1996. 257-72.

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Melville, Herman. "Benito Cereno." 1855. Great Short Works of Herman Melville. Ed. Wemer Bertoff. New York: Perennial, 1969. 238-315.

--. Moby Dick; or, The Whale. 1851. New York: Penguin, 1992.

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State University of New York

Brockport, NY


(1) Jean Fagan Yellin and Carolyn L. Karcher discuss Cereno as the stock southern cavalier figure from plantation fiction. H. Bruce Franklin reads him as emblematic of Spain's imperial decline while calling Delano "a representative American of his own time" (150). Eric J. Sundquist reads Cereno as "a symbol of American paranoia about Spanish, Catholic, slaveholding despotism" and as "the southern planter, the dissipated cavalier spiritually wasted by his own terrifying enslavement" (148). He also suggests that "Delano is an American in relation to Cereno's European colonial rule, and a northerner in relation to Cereno's southern planter rule" (157).

(2) The first of these private theaters opened in 1576. The second opened in 1597 and eventually became the winter quarters of the King's Men. Interestingly, in 1606 the Whitefriars Theatre, located in the priory of the London Whitefriars monastery, was also opened. For more information on the Blackfriars, see Russ McDonald 17, 20, 50.

(3) Enormously popular between 1830 and the early 1850s, Thomas "Daddy" Rice is famous for "Jumping Jim Crow." In 1837 Rice took his act to England where he obtained a copy of Maurice Dowling's Othello Travestie (1813), which he adapted as the blackface parody Otello in 1838. For more on Rice, see Chapter 3 in Dale Cockrell. For two excellent discussions of Othello burlesques, see Joyce Green MacDonald and Kris Collins. Also see Cockrell 27-28.

(4) Delano is described as "good-natured" on pages 239, 258, 273, 274, 291, 292, 314.

(5) Dana D. Nelson suggests that for early Americans "'Spanish' was an unstable marker, semiotically balancing between light/fellow Westerner and dark/Other." She reads Delano's perception of Cereno as sometimes "pale" and other times "dark" in terms of American ambivalence toward the Spanish (112).

Richards, Jason

Source Citation

Richards, Jason. "Melville's (inter)national burlesque: whiteface, blackface, and 'Benito Cereno." ATQ [The American Transcendental Quarterly] 21.2 (2007): 73+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

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