Revealing the Man beneath the “Negro”

In a previous post, I discussed issues of race in Melville’s Benito Cereno, and this week, I couldn’t help but return to the depiction of race in Melville’s works. Now, Melville’s The Confidence-Man was indeed as challenging and perplexing as I thought it would be; after all, most of Melville’s works are characterized for being “devious,” ambiguous, and downright difficult. One of the most complex characters within this narrative was the “Black Guinea,” a crippled African American beggar who ostensibly was a free slave. The narrative strongly suggests that Guinea was one of the personas donned by the Confidence-Man, seeing as it was he who listed some of the other personalities that the Confidence-Man embodied, and seeing as Guinea was accused of being an impostor—a white man pretending to be a crippled beggar of African lineage.

What caught my interest in the scenes where Guinea appears is that they say much about the perception of black people during Melville’s era. However, the perception of the African American race becomes an even more prominent and complex issue if we were to approach Guinea as a white impostor, for then, we are witnessing a white man performing and interpreting what he deems to be an accurate portrayal of blackness. Thus, within these scenes, we have blackness as distilled through three perspectives: Melville’s perspective as an author, the perspective of the white audience that surrounds the beggar (particularly the drover), and the perspective of the white man performing blackness.

What first caught my attention in terms of Guinea’s depiction and representation in The Confidence-Man was the fact that animal qualities and traits are used to describe his actions and his appearance. Guinea describes himself as “der dog widout a massa” [the dog without a master] (Melville 10). The drover states that Guinea’s appearance “seemed a dog, so now, in a merry way, like a dog he began to be treated” (Melville 11), and he even goes as far as to compare Guinea’s physical traits to that of a “Newfoundland-dog” (Melville 13). Guinea’s animalistic depiction, however, is not limited to descriptions of a canine persuasion. When Guinea shivers as he recalls the harshness of the winter cold, he moves himself into the crowd, resembling “a half-frozen black sheep nudging itself a cosy berth in the heart of the white flock” (Melville 11). Even as Guinea tries to entertain the crowd in order to “earn” cash from the surrounding crowd, the drover points out that the beggar opens “his mouth like an elephant for tossed apples at a menagerie” (Melville 11-12).

What is clear is that these animalistic qualities are alluding to the fact that the beggar perceives himself as non-human or sub-human, for he belongs to a social hierarchy that is clearly different from the white folks that surround him. Although it may be argued that this notion of Guinea as an animal may be attributed to the fact that he is crippled, and not to the color of his skin, this assumption becomes moot with the presence of a wooden-legged man. Despite the fellow limper’s physical condition, he did not draw the attention that Guinea drew from the crowd, but rather, the Guinea’s position is so inferior that the wooden-legged man stumbles against him in a threatening position, demonstrating his superiority. Thus, although his crippled state attributes to his inferior position in society, it can be argued that Guinea’s animal depiction is attributed mostly to his skin color.

Melville’s choice to depict Guinea using animal qualities is indeed an interesting literary and semantic choice. After all, animals in literature, contrary to human characters, require little to no description in order to be “understood.” Whereas we expect human characters to be described in terms of personality, dress, conduct, and intellect, animals are stereotyped or pigeon-holed into particular molds and expectations: people know what to expect when elephants, sheep, or dogs are mentioned, and not a lot of effort must go into describing how they look like or how they act. Could it be that in the case of Melville’s novel, slaves and “negroes” were no different to animals in this aspect?

At first, Guinea does seem to live up to the 19th Century stereotype of the African slave, especially when concerned with his cheerful demeanor. Despite not having a home, a master, food, or currency, Guinea happily plays music with his tambourine and entertains the crowd—alluding to the perception of slaves being extremely happy people who constantly laughed and sang in spite of their horrible living conditions. However, the drover notes that Guinea was perhaps quite adept at acting and at hiding his emotions: “whatever his secret emotions, he swallowed them, while still retaining each copper this side of the [e]sophagus” (Melville 12). Guinea’s cheerful demeanor dissipates with the presence of the wooden-legged man, and he then begins to wail in defense of who he is, and why he deserves the crowd’s charity. Notice that Guinea also seems to possess a great deal of power, seeing as he is not afraid to challenge the people that surround him. When the crowd asks him to present documentation to prove his status, and when they question Guinea’s trustworthiness, the beggar repeatedly wails “have you no confidence in dis poor ole darkie?” (Melville 18), which serves to directly challenge the crowd’s perceptions and sense of charity to the less fortunate.

This is a poster titled “Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee,” originally published in 1900. The poster illustrates a white man “transforming” into a black man, colloquially known as donning “black face.” Some characters within “The Confidence Man” question whether Guinea was a white man disguised as a black man simply because of the unrealistic and cartoonish (and downright racist) demeanor of white people who typically disguised themselves as African Americans.

Guinea thus engages in a slight appropriation of social power by alluding to the moral sympathies of the crowd, and he also disengages from the cheery and optimistic demeanor that slaves were deemed to don during the 19th century. This may be slightly problematized if we were to believe in the statement that Guinea is truly a white man in disguise, or even the Confidence-Man himself. If this notion of Guinea as an imposter were true, this supposed disruption of racial stereotypes and appropriation of social power loses its currency, for when it comes down to it, it is a white man who is undergoing the social negotiations performed by Guinea. Even more so, given the fact the Guinea is quite believable as a “negro” according to the perception of other characters, Melville could have been further perpetuating the stereotypes of blackness that existed during his time.

True, at first it may seem that Melville’s approach towards Guinea seems somewhat stereotypical, racist, and inhumane; but in turn, he highlights the hypocrisy that exists within 19th century perspectives of race. It is convenient to view Guinea as an animal until he requests the human virtue of charity—it is then that he is required to offer human proof that justifies his requests. Although Melville’s perspectives of race are perhaps as ambiguous in The Confidence-Man as they were in Benito Cereno, we must admit that the portrayal of Guinea in The Confidence-Man certainly opens up room for debate, racial emancipation, and the hypocrisies of racial stereotypes.

On a side note, I must confess that The Confidence-Man has been my least favorite Melville text up to now. I found it disjointed and nonsensical, and overall less enjoyable than his short stories. Some argue that Melville intended for the novel to be disjointed and full of gaps–an early example of a postmodern text. Postmodern or not, the book was too difficult and inaccessible for my own personal tastes.

Source:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0192837621/

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In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this post is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

This image titled “Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee” is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

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