The Poetics of Abolition

tags: African American history, poetry, literature, Literary Criticism

Manu Samriti Chander is associate professor of English at Rutgers University–Newark and the author of Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century (Bucknell University Press, 2017).

“Let’s lie to each other,” urges Honorée Fanonne Jeffers in the poem that opens her new volume, The Age of Phillis, and that is where I propose we begin: with the lies. Once, the lies begin, Man lived in darkness, a state of what Kant would call Unmündligkeit, “immaturity” or, via an etymology that is rich and contested (the richer indeed because it is contested), “unmouthliness.”1 At that time, Man could not speak for himself, not even to lie. Then he emerged from his self-imposed torpor and, with his newfound “mouthliness,” began to make observations and speak truths, some of which he held to be self-evident: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” These truths were belied by the fact that Man bought and sold other men (and women and children), but, so the lie goes, that fact should not trouble us because those men (and women and children) had, as Kant writes and Jeffers quotes, “by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.”2 That was the age of Enlightenment.

Let’s lie some more: an age of revolutions followed, coincident with the Romantic era, during which all men, even those without the capacity to feel above the trifling, those whose imaginations were, according to Thomas Jefferson, “dull, tasteless, and anomalous,” were freed from tyranny and oppression.3 The same ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity that mobilized the French in 1789 would inspire American abolitionists to storm what was sometimes called the “slave Bastille.”

Enough lies: calling 19th-century abolition “the slave Bastille” was, as Matt Sandler points out in his new book, The Black Romantic Revolution, “an uneven comparison,” an analogical ruse whereby a prison located at Number 232, rue Saint-Antoine could be likened to a massive, addressless “system of enforced labor … [that] elites in the South were seeking to expand.” At any rate, the South lost, and—so goes another lie—the widespread devaluation of Black lives ended with the formal abolition of slavery.

Jeffers’s The Age of Phillis and Sandler’s The Black Romantic Revolution do not simply expose the lies about freedom and abolition we have inherited from the 18th and 19th centuries; rather, they turn to the past to call forth lyrical alternatives to long-standing narratives about enlightenment and revolution. Sandler locates these alternatives in the work of such underexamined poets as Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, George Moses Horton, Albery Allson Whitman, and Joshua McCarter Simpson. For him, they are Black Romantics who took up the mythic role of the poet in order to argue for abolition both before the US Civil War and, importantly, in the years afterward as it became increasingly clear that freedom remained, as A. A. Whitman put it, “an empty name.” These poets share with canonized Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron a tendency to celebrate poetic genius and the power of subjective feeling, as well as a commitment to revolutionary politics. But, far from Black American imitators rehearsing the tropes and techniques of their more famous, white European Romantic counterparts, these figures, as Sandler writes of Harper, “sought to bring abolition into the everyday lives of people for whom it might have otherwise been a distant and vague injustice.”

Read entire article at Public Books

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