Toward a Revolution in American Studies: The Counter-Narratives of José Martí and Herman Melville

The field of American Studies underwent significant changes in the 1980s as a result of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the ‘60s. Native American literature for the first time became part of the canon, along with many previously ignored classics from the African American and Latina/o traditions. Women’s writing gained a new prominence, and the established white male writers were reread with a close eye to the peculiar gaps and aporias of their texts. In short, the anti-racist and anti-imperialist character of the popular counterculture movement led to a restructuring of the discipline. The term “multiculturalism” emerged as the organizing principle of this process, as “inclusiveness” replaced the longstanding tradition of white male exclusionism.

While these developments have broadened the understanding of North American history and society, at the level of American culture as a whole – the culture of all the Americas –- a kind of reactionary political camouflage has been at work, in which the anti-imperialism of the ‘60s is invoked but at the same time scaled back to make it acceptable to the ruling class in the United States. This is particularly evident in the ascendancy of a North American multiculturalism that celebrates diversity but fails to practice it intellectually. American Studies thus has not produced critical works that pair Latin American and Caribbean writers with those from North America. Instead, there has been a reaffirmation of American Exceptionalism –- the myth that the US is a special sort of pluralistic society, where everyone has an equal place. Yet the nature of this place at the banquet of American pluralism is rarely questioned, and the colonial or neocolonial context of American multicultural literature is not engaged. Multiculturalism in fact might be called a hustle.

Ironically, one of North America’s most celebrated “multicultural” writers, Herman Melville, was a ruthless critic of the myth of American Exceptionalism, and when his writings are paired with those of Latin American and Caribbean authors, the limits of American multiculturalism (the kind being advanced in American Studies) come clearly into view. In what follows, I position Melville next to the great Cuban writer José Martí with two objectives in mind: first, to critique the insidious North-over-South bias that persists in American Studies; and second, to show that an alternative kind of North American multiculturalism is available, one that foregrounds the anti-imperialist tradition and, in so doing, brings into direct contact hitherto partitioned and segregated writers and texts.

The Exception to the Rule

In 1904, a year after the United States successfully engineered a counterrevolution in Colombia with the express purpose of creating the “independent” state of Panama, the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío (1867-1916), in his famous poem “To Roosevelt,” passionately denounced US imperialist interventionism in Latin America. President Roosevelt’s secretary of state, Elihu Root, had a year before put it plainly: “The inevitable effect of our building the Canal must be to require us to police the surrounding premises. In the nature of things, trade and control, and the obligation to keep order which go with them, must come our way” (LaFeber 37). Darío’s reply was immediate:

You are one part George Washington and one part Nimrod
You are the United States,
future invader of our naïve America
with its Indian blood, an America
that still prays to Christ and still speaks Spanish
You think that life is a fire,
that progress is an irruption,
that the future is wherever
your bullet strikes.
No. (33)

Darío’s words were laced with defiance. They were also prophetic of the future US role as invader and occupier of Spanish-speaking America. Darío had long been troubled by US intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean. Already in 1892 he had prophesied that “the coming century will see the greatest of the revolutions that have bloodied the earth” (Galeano 237). Darío’s “No” was the South’s promise to the North that its aggressive expansion into Latin America would reap bloody revolution. He warned the US in straightforward terms: “Big fish eat little fish? So be it but… No force will be able to contain the torrent of fatal vengeance” (238).

The Cuban poet, revolutionary, and journalist José Martí (1853-95) also passionately denounced US imperialist designs in Latin America. In his magnificent 1891 essay “Nuestra América” (“Our America”), Martí condemned US policy, like Darío, with a potent mix of prophecy and political critique. Yet Martí’s words were directed to middle-class Latin Americans rather than to the US ruling class.

Our America is running [a] risk that does not come from itself but from the difference in origins, methods, and interests between the two halves of the continent, and the time is near at hand when an enterprising and vigorous people who scorn or ignore Our America will nonetheless approach it and demand a close relationship… The scorn of our formidable neighbor who does not know us is Our America’s greatest danger (93).

One of the driving forces behind the immensely influential writings of Martí and Darío was the desire to create a pan-American counter-narrative to the exclusivist and dominant US narrative, which preached Anglo-Protestant cultural superiority and a self-serving myth of a so-called “non-imperialist” new American nation. In fact, the platitude that the US is not imperialist was an essential part of the invention of the United States as a nation. Nineteenth-century historians, such as George Bancroft (1800-91), William H. Prescott (1796-1859), John L. Motley (1814-77), and Francis Parkman (1823-93), were in large part responsible for the creation of this US narrative projecting and rationalizing supposedly non-imperialist principles such as white supremacy, Protestant superiority, and Manifest Destiny. In defiance of logic, these distinctly Anglo-American ideologies were declared non-imperialist by their proponents on the basis of the all-embracing myth of American Exceptionalism. As historian Jill Lepore has nicely put it in her book, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (1998), the English colonists of New England “defined themselves against both the Indians’ savagery and the Spaniards’ cruelty: between these two similar yet distinct ‘others,’ one considered inhuman and one human, the English in New England attempted to carve out for themselves a narrow path of virtue, piety, and mercy” (xvi).

The premise of American Exceptionalism is that Spanish imperialism was cruel to the Indians but the new English dominion would be different, as the English would approach the colonized virtuously, piously, and mercifully. And once the English colonists became white Americans, they would stretch this exceptionalism even farther, beyond the English rule of monarchy and tyranny. Lepore further notes that the English colonists were “plagued with anxieties of identity, not of self and other but of a more complicated, triangulated self, other, and another” (xvi).

At least as far back as the Reformation, the English have measured themselves -– their civility, their piety, their humanity -– against other Europeans, especially the Spanish, whom they condemned for their cruelty to Protestants during the Spanish Inquisition. And, after the first European ventures to the New World, the English continued to measure themselves against the Spanish, whom they again condemned for cruelty, now against the Indians during the conquest of Mexico (xiv).

Thus, the myth of American Exceptionalism enabled the founders of American national identity to claim, without irony, that Manifest Destiny and white supremacy were opposed to imperialism. Works such as “To Roosevelt” and “Our America” attacked this myth and celebrated, in the language of the day, the unassailable dignity and equality of Spanish-American peoples and cultures.

Darío’s denunciation of US expansionism was also a critique of the rhetoric of Anglo-Protestant cultural superiority. By 1904, Darío had experienced first-hand the way the US was using Anglo-Protestantism to rationalize the occupation of Cuba and the annexation of Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. He wrote: “O men with Saxon eyes and barbarous souls, / our America lives. / Our own America, which has had poets / since the ancient times of Nezahualcóyotl / the America of Moctezuma and Atahualpa, / Catholic America, Spanish America / Long live Spanish America!” (70). By invoking the names Nezahualcóyotl, Moctezuma, and Atahualpa, Darío was reminding Anglo-Protestants that Nuestra América had a long tradition of indigenous poetry, religion, and science that preceded the arrival of Christopher Columbus and other Europeans, and that this culture could easily rival their upstart imperialist culture. Martí also challenged the rhetoric of Anglo-Protestant cultural superiority. For example, in his report to the delegates at the International Monetary Conference of the American Republics in March 1891, Martí said of the US: “They believe in the incontrovertible superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race over the Latin race. They believe in the inferiority of the Negro race … and of the Indian” (306). Like Darío’s critique, Martí’s writings are today more relevant than ever.

The Southern Critique

In the vein of Darío and Martí, North American author Herman Melville (1819-91) condemned US imperialism and wrote brilliant prophecies and ruthless political critiques of US racial ideology, even before his Latin American counterparts. All three lived during a time when the US ruling class was asserting its colonialist and racial designs on the entire hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine of 1824, for example, established the US as the hemisphere’s local enforcer and claimed for the US the right to invade and occupy any country in Nuestra América that faced “danger” from the outside, i.e. European economic competition.

Melville’s surprising novella Benito Cereno, which US critics considered a failure and a sign of the great author’s decline, was published eight years after the Mexican-American War. The seizure of the lands now known as the states of Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, California, Nevada, and parts of Utah and Colorado stretched the borders of the US from sea to shining sea. Fully one-half of Mexico’s land, populated with indigenous peoples and Mexicanos, was ceded to the US in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty also established the southernmost border between Texas and Mexico at the Río Grande, 150 miles south of the previous boundary. Melville, before the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, had written his brother: “Nothing is talked of but the ‘Halls of Montezuma.’… Lord, the day is at hand, when we will be able to talk of our killed and wounded like some of the old Eastern conquerors reckoning them up by thousands” (29 May 1846). Melville, like Darío and Martí, perceived in US cultural self-fashioning the particular ideological binary responsible for establishing the US empire as “New World” in opposition to “Old World” Europe, and attacked it cleverly. In this way, he proposed a compelling counter-narrative and one that, if considered outside the narrow parameters of US-centered American multiculturalism and American Studies, places Melville in the robust pan-American tradition. Yet Melville’s Weltanschauung differed from Darío’s and Martí’s. It is this fruitful difference that I wish to explore.

Particularly in the case of Martí, idealism shaped his condemnations and prophecies. In “Our America,” for instance, Martí shows the bourgeois tendency to romanticize Indians and Blacks; the warning about US expansionist plans for Latin America does not appear until the very end of the work, which is primarily a clarion call for Latin America to unite and “go forward in close order, like silver in the veins of the Andes” (85). Martí wanted the inhabitants of what he named “Nuestra mestizo América” to overcome their national and ethnic antagonisms and unite as one in direct opposition to their “formidable neighbor” to the North –- a romantic desire springing from the ideology of revolutionary nationalism. Martí believed that if the Norteamericanos were only made aware of the greatness of Latin American culture, they would halt their imperialist machinations. “Through ignorance,” he wrote, “[North America] might even come to lay hands on us. Once it does know us, it will remove its hands out of respect” (93).

Melville, on the other hand, was an iconoclastic realist. In Benito Cereno, for instance, there is none of the revolutionary idealism found in Martí’s “Our America.” The story is straightforward. In 1799, a North American sea captain named Amasa Delano finds a large vessel adrift off the coast of Chile. He takes a dinghy to the vessel (named the San Dominick) and discovers that it is a Spanish slave ship on which the black captives are extremely restless and the Spanish officers entirely missing, except for their own captain Benito Cereno. The action, which takes place over the course of a few hours, is mainly psychological, yet Melville clearly lays out the specific contours of a daring slave revolt, led by a Senegalese called Babo. But Captain Delano never realizes what is happening until it is spelled out for him at the very end of the narrative, and even then he expresses disbelief that such an elaborate slave-uprising had been nearly successful while he himself was on board the ship.

The close reader of Benito Cereno will recognize Melville’s vision of the future as one of racial domination driven by an aggressive white Anglo-Protestant supremacism and naked ruling-class lust for capital accumulation. Because Melville was not an idealist, he did not romanticize any group of not-whites, as Martí would later do with the Indians and Blacks of Nuestra América. Unlike Martí, who directed all Latin Americans, regardless of “race,” class, or gender, to unite in order to stave off the “giant in seven-league boots,” Melville directed his warnings at ordinary whites. If white Americans continue to “follow their leader” –- to use the ominous words that the mutineers have chalked over the San Dominick’s original foremast figure of Christopher Columbus (within which the skeleton of Don Alexandro Aranda, the owner of the African captives on board, is now being stored) –- they will soon be reduced to the position of bit actors on a national stage in which US society’s racial and class hierarchies are left undisturbed. That is, as the US Empire blunders into the same waters as the European imperialists had before them, the historyless white Americans are actually worse off than their working-class European counterparts, who at critical conjunctures had turned against further colonization of the Americas. The white American working class, however, lacks class consciousness, which is precisely what makes them historyless. As Marx avowed in Capital, “labor in the white skin can never be free as long as labor in the black skin is branded.” In Benito Cereno, this problem is precisely the issue, as the North American captain must think historically in order to survive his own white blindspot. His other choice, which is the same choice all white Americans face, is to go the way of Don Alexandro.

My thesis, which has never been treated seriously in the US academy, is that Martí and Melville -– the nationalist Latin American bourgeois idealist and the anti-capitalist North American iconoclastic realist –- are two parts of a larger whole, namely, pan-American revolutionary nationalism. Together, they offer a hemispheric counter-narrative to the dominant Anglo-American colonialist mythology.

In his perceptive essay, “The Anglo-Protestant Monopolization of ‘America’” (1998), literary scholar David W. Noble takes up the same counter-narrative as Melville and Martí when he argues that, for Bancroft and his contemporaries, American civilization consisted of only one nation –- the United States. The other nations and cultures of the Americas, largely Catholic, were unworthy of scholarly discussion because they were not part of the “New World.” Noble traces the Anglo-Protestant myth of origins to the metaphor of the “two worlds”: New World Protestant America versus the Old World Catholic/Anglican Europe. In fact, the “two worlds” theory shaped the work of most 19th-century US historians and writers. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, for example, were merely expressing the popular sentiment of the day when they wrote with great passion that the America of the 1830s was in the process of achieving complete cultural independence from Europe, and that North Americans would thankfully no longer have to look to Europe as their muse. Instead, artists and scholars could turn to the “American” landscape for inspiration (259).

Noble maintains that, for Anglo-Protestant historians and writers, “progress as the history of liberty was a movement from the space of the despotic Oriental civilizations westward.” He goes on to note that this Anglo-American narrative of history began with “the great battle fought between tyranny and liberty in Western Europe when the Germanic peoples of the German states, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and England chose Protestant liberty over Catholic tyranny” (259). Essentially, Protestants could choose liberty over tyranny because they were able to give “total loyalty to the nation-state,” something Catholics were unable to do because of their perceived loyalty to the Pope. This supposed loyalty to the Pope negated the ability of the Catholic not only to be a good citizen, but also to be a good benevolent patriarch, meaning to control properly his blacks and Indians. This perception of Catholics as “half-citizens” prevents Captain Delano and Melville’s white readers, even today perhaps, from recognizing the African slave mutiny aboard the San Dominick. Moreover, the racial ideology of US society has completely disabled both Captain Delano and Melville’s white readers: it is impossible for them to see Babo or Atufal, or any of the other black slaves aboard the ship, as autonomous subjects and epic heroes.

It is not my intention to argue for a clash of religions or civilizations in the Americas of the 19th century. Instead, I turn to Noble’s exposition in order to provide a pan-American cultural context for the important intellectual contributions made by Melville and Martí. The argument that Protestantism is superior to Catholicism is important insofar as it illuminates the specific course on which the inventors of the US grand narrative of America would embark to hide the truth about their capitalist-imperialist designs in the hemisphere. In contrast, Europeans made no bones about their imperialist ambitions: England, for instance, was proud of its imperialism. The US, on the other hand, claimed that its military forays in Latin America and the Caribbean were quests to share democracy and to free the peoples of these regions from the despotic rule of the Catholic Church and, later, from a kind of Communist nationalism. Similar rhetoric is being used today to defend the US war in Iraq.

Tropologies from the Margin

In terms of the literary, both Melville and Martí used a variety of rhetorical devices, genres, and prose styles to construct their counter-narratives, but I would like to focus on what I term their tropologies from the margin. In literature, a trope is a familiar or repeated symbol, motif, style, or character. Benito Cereno and “Our America” are both structured by multiple tropes, yet they come not from the dominant ideologies but, rather, from the margins. A tropology from the margins is the literary act of putting under the bright lights of center stage that which has been politically repressed and imaginatively twisted. In both Benito Cereno and “Our America,” the tropes called forth from the margins are explicitly Catholic. In Melville’s case, what better way to expose the megalomaniacal Anglo-Protestant colonial-settler, before even placing one word onto paper, than to put Latin American Catholicism front and center, in the form of his Catholic Spanish title Benito Cereno? Melville could just as well have called the novella Amasa Delano, but that would have maintained the dominant narrative of the Anglo-Protestant settler as center of the hemisphere. In the tradition of the African American and Native American trickster figures, Melville cunningly and mischievously puts Catholics, as well as Africans, onto center stage to expose the self-deceptive hubris of Anglo-Protestant colonialism.

There are many places in the novella where Melville deploys the Spanish language as a trope from the margins: for example, in opposition to the dominant North American mythos of the Protestant “New Jerusalem.” Benito Cereno is referred to as Don Benito, for instance, a title of respect in Latin America. Amasa Delano, on the other hand, is referred to as Captain Delano, following Yankee etiquette. The ship also bears a Spanish name, San rather than Saint, and the phrase chalked just beneath the canvas, covering either a figure-head or a plain beak, is written in Spanish: “Seguid vuestro jefe” (“Follow Your Leader”). Also, all the dialogue taking place on board the San Dominick is in Spanish, although we read it in English. The narrator tells us that shortly after Delano boarded the San Dominick, just after sending his men back to the sealer to fetch water and other victuals, “Captain Delano sought, with good hopes, to cheer the strangers, feeling no small satisfaction that, with persons in their condition, he could –- thanks to his frequent voyages along the Spanish main –- converse with some freedom in their native tongue” (168). Further into the action, when Delano encounters an aged sailor working lengths of rope into a large knot, we learn that the words the sailor mumbles to Delano, which sound something like, “Undo it, cut it, quick,” are spoken in “broken English – the first heard on the ship” (202). Finally, the legal documents, which close the novella, were written in Spanish; the deposition took place in Lima, Peru, before the vice-regal courts.

As noted above, a literary trope can be a character as well as a symbol. Thus Babo, Atufal, the oakum pickers, and the hatchet sharpeners function as tropologies from the margin. Babo, for example, as leader of the revolt and as puppet-master of Don Benito, is ubiquitous in the text. As a revolutionary black male character, he is routinely kept to the margins in white American literature. Melville puts Babo in the center and, in so doing, evokes the names of Toussaint, Nat Turner, and Gabriel Prosser, among other African antislavery heroes of the Americas. Atufal, who wears “an iron collar about his neck, from which depended a chain thrice wound round his body, the terminating links padlocked together at a broad band of iron” (52), is a different version of this same trickster-syle antislavery tropology. As part of the performance that dupes Captain Delano, Atufal appears every two hours in front of Don Benito, to “ask his pardon” in order that he might be unchained. This proud black man, who does not bow and scrape to the white master, is rarely if ever found in the tropes that have shaped canonical American literature, in which the preferred trope of the black man is Uncle Tom. In Benito Cereno, the politically savvy anti-imperialist black man is the superstar.

Catholicism is another trope from the margins that Melville employs as part of his counter-narrative strategy. He makes multiple references to Catholic clergy; for example, the San Dominick is described as a “whitewashed monastery after a thunderstorm.” And as Delano initially approaches the ship, he sees “peering over the bulwarks what really seemed… throngs of dark necked cowls; while fitfully revealed through the open port-holes, other dark moving figures were dimly descried, as of Black Friars pacing the cloisters” (163). This description of Delano’s first impressions of the San Dominick, just before he climbs aboard the ship, evokes the Catholic stage on which he will no longer be front and center. In fact, Delano is central in the text only insofar as his white colonialist blindspot functions as the central plot device.

Delano cannot deal with the evidence of the slave revolt staring him in the face once aboard the San Dominick because he is unfamiliar with the methods of the Catholic center stage. Catholicism is important here because it cannot be separated from what it means to be Spanish for American Protestants and what it means to come from Nuestra América for Martí and Darío. A brief detour through the essay by Cuba’s Roberto Fernández Retamar, “Against the Black Legend” (1976), will help substantiate the claim that Melville’s center stage in Benito Cereno is Catholic America.

As noted in the passages from Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, the early origins of American identity (from the standpoint of the white supremacists) were English and were grounded in condemnation of Catholic Spanish tyranny during the Inquisition and in the Americas. By condemning Spanish Catholics for their cruelty, English Protestants could feel virtuous, civilized, and merciful. As Fernández Retamar puts it, “beginning in the sixteenth century, Spain and her culture had been branded by an unrelenting anti-Spanish campaign that has come to be known as the Black Legend” (57).

The Black Legend was created and disseminated precisely to hide the truth that “capital [comes into the world] dripping from head to foot, from every single pore, with blood and dirt” and to throw the blame on a single nation, Spain, which in the sixteenth century was the most powerful on earth and whose place, therefore, others desired, and plotted to, and finally did, take. It was the nascent bourgeoisie of other metropolises who created the Black Legend, not, of course, for the benefit of those peoples martyred by the Spanish conquest but rather to cover up their own rapacity (60).

Fernández Retamar’s argument is that US cultural identity was formed in large part by Protestant opposition to Catholic tyranny. Captain Delano, who hails from Duxbury, Massachusetts, could hardly have escaped this shaping and formation of American identity, and his behavior aboard the San Dominick makes this evident. Part of the reason he cannot recognize the African mutiny taking place on board, besides his white blindspot, is his prior notion of how Spanish Catholics interact with their slaves. Thus, while he finds the lax discipline aboard the San Dominick “peculiar,” he is able to brush off his misgivings by chalking everything up to “typical” Catholic Spanish behavior.

Moreover, Captain Delano’s racial ideology prevents him from seeing a new people, Latin Americans, including Afro-Latin Americans, as anything other than noble savages. Although the ship and Benito Cereno are called “Spanish” in the story, the narrative specifically tells us that the San Dominick is moving “from one colonial port to another,” which implies that Don Benito lives in the Americas. I use the term “Afro-Latin Americans” here in order to draw attention to the fact that, while all the blacks aboard the San Dominick are called “Africans” by the white narrator of the story, some of them have actually “some years among the Spanish.” We are told in the deposition at the end of the story that José “speaks well the Spanish, having served him [Don Alexandro] for four or five years”; that Francisco, the mulatto cabin steward, is a “native of the province of Buenos Ayres”; and that a “smart Negro named Dago… has been for many years a gravedigger among the Spaniards.” Babo, the leader, is “a small Negro of Senegal, but some years among the Spaniards,” who speaks fluent Spanish (93).

As Martí wrote in “Our America,” there were “differences in origins, methods, and interests between the two halves of the continent.” Delano is, in fact, familiar with the imperialist backdrop provided for the stage against which Melville shows that there is little difference between Spanish and US imperialist aims, as both seek to strip open what Eduardo Galeano has called “the veins of Latin America.” By writing against the Black Legend, Melville highlights the similarities between the two imperial powers. Literary scholar Jonathan Scott crystallizes this point in his essay “Peculiar Relations: White Identity and Imaginative Literature”:

Delano immediately identifies with the Spanish sailors on board the San Dominick even though they are in direct competition with his own commercial operations, speak a different language, represent a different empire, and practice a different religion… [and although] Delano himself does not traffic in slaves… he is eager to collaborate with the Spanish slave-trading captain Don Benito to get his human cargo back on route to its destination (218).

Yet Captain Delano, once aboard the San Dominick, finds himself no longer at the center of the universe –- despite his self-serving embrace of Spanish imperialism. Suddenly he is thrust into “Catholic America,” a place where the margin displaces the center and the center dissipates into the grey fog that opens the narrative of Benito Cereno.

The description of the Yankee captain’s initial encounter with the San Dominick is not the only place where one finds references to Catholic clergymen. In one scene Captain Delano compares Don Benito to “some hypochondriac abbot… shut up in these oaken walls,” which follows a conversation between the two captains that is interrupted by Don Benito’s sighs, gasps for breath, and fainting spells (169). In a different scene, Babo is said to look “something like a begging friar of St. Francis,” because of the “wide trowsers” he wears as his only item of clothing (177). And finally, the novella closes with the death of Benito Cereno in a monastery at St. Bartholomew’s Church.

Martí, in his counter-narrative of América, placed Catholicism onto center stage as a liberatory tropology. Martí emphasizes the rosary as the guide in Latin American national liberation struggles and tells us that freedom was conquered under the banner of the virgin (88). In this manner, Latin Americans oppressed under the cross reclaim it as a symbol of their liberation because they refashion Spanish Catholicism into something distinctively American. Martí’s references to Catholicism are anything but elusive or subtle: a rosary, the patron saint of Mexico, and a priest preside over the whole affair. In contrast to Melville, whose references to Catholicism are deliberately opaque, like the monasteries and cloisters scattered throughout Europe, Martí focuses on some of the most external symbols available to Latin American Catholics. This is because Melville placed Catholic America on center stage in order to deflate the Anglo-Protestant ego and to release the repressed (the Catholic Other). In felicitous contrast, Marti’s argument placed Catholic America on center stage in order to boost the Spanish-speaking Catholic ego.

For Martí, Catholic America and not Anglo-America is the center of the Americas. Martí’s argument posits the Anglo-Protestant as a ruling-class minority, and perhaps this helps to explain why few contemporary US scholars of American literature are familiar with his magisterial body of work. By calling into existence “Nuestra América,” Martí hoped to restore the proper balance of the hemisphere, a balance that had been wrecked by the hubris of US military expansionism. A different way to put it is that Martí did not need to fill his writings with images of Catholicism as Melville fills Benito Cereno, because Martí wrote from Catholic America in which Catholics do not function as the Other. Catholic Americans are la gente for Martí – the salt of the earth. At the same time, Anglo-Americans are not really the Other to Martí because he lived among them from 1881 to 1895 (mostly in New York), and he recognized them. For Martí, Anglo-Americans, like the Spaniards, were simply a derivative of the old imperialist European ruling class. In spite of all their declarations that they were different, Martí knew that they were just new faces in old masks. With an unblinking gaze, Martí smashed the narrative of an innocent North America free of European imperial power and influence. For him, an American nation could be truly free from Europe only if “the European university bowed to the American university,” through the teaching of “the history of America, from the Incas to the present, even if the archons of Greece were overlooked” (88). The complete restructuring of the American university system was one important way to move Catholic America from the margins to center stage. Later in the same passage Martí stated: “Our Greece must take priority over their Greece which is not ours,” a reference to the fetishization by the Latin American creole class not only of everything European, but also of North America. He thus lampoons the creoles as “masqueraders in English breeches, Parisian vest, North American jacket, and Spanish cap” (88).

Martí’s accusation of neo-colonialist masquerade, or camouflage, helps to illuminate some of the peculiar actions of Melville’s Captain Delano. One of the most powerful scenes of the novella occurs when Babo shaves Don Benito in front of Captain Delano. After draping his “master” with the Spanish flag as bunting, as Babo commences to shave Don Benito, Delano is struck with the idea that possibly “master and man, for some unknown purpose, were acting out, both in word and deed, some juggling play before him” (217). In fact, the real actor is Captain Delano who has come aboard in the guise of the Yankee captain, the benevolent American always ready to extend a helping hand to those in need. In truth, Delano hides behind a masquerade of benevolence in order to mask North American colonialist megalomania, which does not allow him to comprehend that he is actually aboard a Catholic Spanish slave ship in mutinous revolt. In this sense, Melville seems to refer back to an earlier creation, Captain Ahab. Ahab is so blinded with megalomania that he cannot see the futility of his quest for the great white whale. This is what Melville meant when he warned, “Follow Your Leader,” because to follow the imperialist white leader is to go to one’s death.

The reason Delano acts as a masquerader once aboard the San Dominick is that, as noted earlier, he does not understand the methods used on the Catholic center stage. He is lost inside the white incubus that does not allow him to see black people as autonomous subjects. The combination of the Protestant and the white blindspot overwhelms him. Delano is thus made most uncomfortable by the familiarity with which Babo treats him: “somewhat annoyed by the conversational familiarities, Captain Delano turned curiously upon the attendant” (184). Delano’s annoyance comes from the particular system in the US that reduces all not-whites to a status below that of the lowest “white” person. A riddle that Malcolm X used to tell captures this peculiar element of US white supremacy: “What’s the first English word that European immigrants learn when they land on the shores of America?” The answer: “Nigger.” Malcolm was a master of signifyin’, an antagonistic aspect of his culture duly noted by scholars of African American literature and culture, and this riddle is a classic example. He used yet another riddle to illustrate the peculiarity of the US system of white racial oppression. “What do you call a black man with a PhD?” Answer: “Nigger.”

Both riddles capture the peculiar nature of white racial oppression in the United States. The only other place these riddles could work would have been South Africa under apartheid. They could not work in the Catholic American nations, nor in the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean countries where blacks with PhDs were promoted to high levels of government administration as well as distinguished university posts. Likewise, in countries like Brazil and Colombia, blacks could buy their way to “whiteness,” and once in the middle class would have the same rights and privileges as any other member of that class. Of course, because of the legacy of racial slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is far more difficult for a person of African descent to come up with the money necessary to advance into the middle class. Consequently, a color caste system has always existed down to the present. But in the US no such color caste system exists. The lightest-skinned and the darkest-skinned African American are subject to the same racial discrimination in education, housing, and employment, as well as financing and racial profiling. Melville’s renegade perspicacity can be seen in the way he portrays Delano, whose blundering approach to the race and class signifiers in the Spanish Catholic environment is the object of the story.

In his two-volume study of white racial oppression, The Invention of the White Race, American historian Theodore W. Allen substantiates a definition of racial oppression that sheds light on this peculiarity of US history and society. “The hallmark of racial oppression,” he shows, “is that it reduces all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, a status beneath that of any member of any social class within the colonizing population” (1994: 32). Allen’s thesis and Malcolm’s riddles help solve the puzzle of Delano’s annoyance with Babo’s familiarity.

Delano is clearly caught up in Anglo-Protestant supremacism when it comes to the Catholic Spanish approach to Indians and Africans. For Anglo-Protestants, it was no accident that the only successful slave revolution in the Americas, which established the first black republic outside the African continent, occurred in Haiti, a former colony of the Catholic French. For Anglo-Protestants, the success of the Haitian Revolution was due in large part to the ineptitude of Catholic Americans when it came to controlling “their blacks.” Captain Delano embodies this attitude in his observations of Don Benito’s interactions with the black captives on board the San Dominick. Take for example the scene in which the dinghy returns from the Bachelor’s Delight loaded with supplies. Delano waits for a moment to see if Don Benito will assert his authority and control the blacks hanging over the bulwarks in “disorderly raptures” (206). But when Don Benito does not act, Captain Delano “yielded to the impulse of the moment, and with good-natured authority bade the blacks to stand back; to enforce his words making use of a half-mirthful, half-menacing gesture” (206). Don Benito does not act because he is no longer the captain or master of his ship, yet Captain Delano does not understand this because he came aboard with an already existing idea of how Spaniards behave toward their slaves, which seems to him to be playing itself out on the ship. He is badly mistaken, however, as Melville takes great pleasure in showing.

Through this scene an interesting connection can be made between Benito Cereno and Martin Delany’s classic novel Blake (1862), for a similar scene plays itself out in Blake aboard the Vulture, a slaver sailing from Cuba to the West Coast of Africa to pick up its cargo and then back to Cuba. The ship is staffed by both a Cuban and a Yankee captain with their corresponding first mates. The North American first mate Royer is appalled by the familiarity in the relationship between the Spaniards and their slaves. In response to a song1 sung by Gascar, the cabin boy, Royer declares that “the only place where a white man was safe and a Negro taught to know his place, was the United States; and he cared not to go, not to live anywhere else but there.… In his own country a white man was all that he desired to be; and out of it he was not better than a Negro” (210). In a passage deeper into the text, the Yankee Captain Paul, who is able to see the uniqueness of the black Blake, tells Royer: “You better treat him well; he’s no common Negro, I assure you” (222). To this, Royer responds:

“But we’re going where he will be common, where every Negro is made to know his place.”
“Where is that?” whispered Paul.
“Home, in the United States, where else!” replied Royer.
“Yes, but you’re not yet there, and it might be that you’ll never reach there!” rejoined he.
“Curse the niggers, I hate ‘em!” retorted Royer impatiently.
“That may be, Mr. Royer, but it wasn’t the way to show it I’m thinking, by comin’ to Africa after ’em,” calmly replied Paul (222).

Royer shares Delano’s Anglo-Protestant attitude toward Catholic Americans. Although Don Benito is a Spaniard rather than a Latin American, his presence in the novella stands in for Catholic Latin Americans. Royer cannot wait to return to the US, where “negroes know their place.” The Spanish colonizers, because of their elaborate color caste system, do not reduce all blacks to the same social status, which is interpreted wrongly by Anglo-Protestants as a lack of control over “their blacks.” This preconception of the Catholic American’s relationship with his slaves leads Delano to hypothesize that Don Benito “might be in complicity with the blacks” aboard the San Dominick (201). White supremacy rears its illogical head for Delano, however, and he quickly concludes for himself that the blacks are “too stupid.” He then reassures himself with the following thought: “Besides, who ever heard of a white so far renegade as to apostatize from his very species almost, by leaguing it with negroes?” (201). In fact, before they became “whites,” European bond laborers from Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales did indeed “league it with negroes,” in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, “in which African-American and Anglo bond-laborers together had demanded an end to bond servitude” (Allen 17). But those enveloped by the white fog, like Delano, cannot recognize the significance of something like Bacon’s Rebellion because acknowledging such actions undermines the dominant Anglo-Protestant colonialist narrative.

Martí recommended that “nations should have a pillory for whoever stirs up useless hates, and another for whoever fails to tell the truth in time” (93). Truly a man before his time, Martí declared: “There can be no racial animosity, because there are no races… Whoever foments and spreads antagonisms and hate between the races, sins against humanity” (93f). The racial animosity that Martí speaks of here also applies to anti-Catholic sentiment. True to his pan-American nationalist idealism, Martí urged his fellow Catholic Americans not to fall prey to the reverse of anti-Catholic American sentiment, that is, Catholic American superiority over the Anglo-Protestants. Martí’s vision of an American future did not include any of the rhetoric of the dominant North American narrative despite his counter-narrative’s placing of Catholic America onto American center stage.

Placing Catholic America onto center stage, as both Melville and Martí do successfully, is enabled by the use of parody and sarcasm to expose the hubris and blundering stupidity of those who propagate the dominant narrative. Melville takes Anglo-Protestants from the center to the margin, while Martí takes Catholic Americans from the margin to the center. It is thus absurd to keep Martí and Melville separate, as scholars and critics of American literature have done and continue to do. Martí and Melville do not represent two different worlds: arguably, they have more in common than Melville and Emerson, for instance. When Martí and Melville are read together, scholars of American literature can be liberated from the narrow authority of the Anglo-Protestant grand narrative of American history, whose salient characteristic is an exclusivist myth of monocultural racial origins. More, reading their writings from the standpoint of counter-narrativity allows us to conceive a new American literary history – of harmoniously interconnected American writers in strong opposition to the mythology that portrays the United States as non-imperialist. Finally, the pairing of writers such as Melville and Martí makes the study of American literature immensely more interesting, exciting, historical, and intellectually productive.

Toward a Revolution in American Studies

In closing, I would like to offer a few suggestions for broadening the base of American Studies. While multiculturalism is a welcome advance in the human sciences, it should be approached with the same caution with which one approaches any sudden change in ideas -– that is to say, was this change in ideas accompanied by a corresponding change in social structures and forms? Is US society really more “multicultural” than it was twenty years ago? A century ago? The answer from most sociologists and cultural anthropologists is No, since “race” has been debunked as a biological category. The historically accurate way of framing the question is to say, as Melville and Martí put it prophetically more than a century ago, that the Americas have always been multicultural: the problem is with the ruling classes of the hemisphere, whose obsessive profit-making interests are imperialist and therefore militantly against the expression of a pan-American national cultural identity and social consciousness.

The pattern in American Studies has been to claim Melville for multiculturalism, yet it is a Melville robbed of his irrepressible literary iconoclasm and rebellious political opposition to all compromising and temporizing with the capitalist powers-that-be. As for Martí, American studies has made no room for him, despite the fact that he lived in Florida and New York for many years and wrote copiously about North American intellectuals and political leaders. Clearly, the North over South geopolitical agenda of Washington has been mimicked in American Studies by the subordination of the giant Martí to minor North American writers who wrote exclusively about their own provinces and not about the Americas as a totality. Thus the first suggestion is to put in place a method of pairing North American writers with Latin American and Caribbean writers. For example, why is a Caribbean writer such as George Lamming, whose reputation internationally is unassailable, never paired in American studies with Philip Roth or Saul Bellow? Each writer produced much of his oeuvre during the same period (the postwar years), and each gained prominence for exploring in the novel the theme of American identity. Similarly, there are few studies comparing Latin American and Caribbean women writers with North American women writers, despite the fact that they share in common a rejection of patriarchy and the assertion of women’s central place in the development of democratic institutions and social practices. In fact, one could pair any region with any other region in the Americas, with similar intellectual results.

There are many other obvious interconnections between the literatures of the North and those of the South. To take another example: Whereas Che and Malcolm are routinely paired in popular culture, there are no pairings of their writings in American Studies. Likewise, during the 1960s and ‘70s the Black Liberation Movement produced an outpouring of marvelous poets just as the Cuban and Nicaraguan Revolutions were producing some of the finest poets that Latin America and the Caribbean have seen since Rubén Darío and José Martí. These are not controversial claims. The real controversy is how American Studies, in the face of the Latin American literary boom as well as the massive Caribbean cultural upsurge in the form of reggae, salsa, and dub poetry, has managed to avoid broadening its own horizon. I have offered a thesis for this systematic subordination of the South within American Studies, namely, that it is a function of the colonialist racial agenda of the US ruling class. Yet there is good reason to be hopeful, especially in light of the Chávez movement in Venezuela, which is proving to be a fulfillment of the prophecies of Melville and Martí.

Last, it should be noted that the middle-class phenomenon known as “identity politics” has had a severely deleterious effect on the transformation of American Studies. In this ideology, the notion that Melville and Martí have more in common than Melville and Hawthorne is considered anathema. The governing idea in identity politics is that writers and intellectuals are forever trapped inside their own discursive universes, which in US cultural studies has produced an elevation of micro-politics over the politics of class struggle and pan-American cultural identification. Yet the texts themselves disprove this “postcolonialist”/“post-structuralist” approach to knowledge. Hence, another of my suggestions for broadening American Studies is a return to the dialectic of text and history in which the writer and her or his participation in the events of the day are given primacy and appreciated in their totality, which in practical terms means literary history, formal analysis, and political economy at the same time. If the last twenty years have been a disaster for Latin America and the Caribbean economically and politically, because of the Washington Consensus, the next twenty years are unpredictable. The next twenty years in American Studies are crucial for North Americans, as the extremely harmful consequences of colonialist Anglo-Protestant racial exclusionism in US society become more evident every day. A pairing of counter-narratives such as those from Melville and Martí can help refocus attention on the root of the problem and guide scholars toward a revolution in American Studies.

Notes1. The words to the song are: “I’m a goin’ to Afraka, / Where de white man dare not stay; / I ketch ‘im by de collar, / Den de white man holler; / I hit ‘im on de pate, / Den I make ‘im blate! / I seize ‘im by de throat – / Laud! – he beller like a goat!” (210).


Works Cited

Allen, Theodore W. The Invention of the White Race, Volume One. New York: Verso, 1994.

Arvin, Newton. Herman Melville. New York: William Sloane Associates, Inc., 1950.

Darío, Rubén. Selected Poems of Rubén Darío. Trans. Lysander Kemp. Austin, TX University of Texas Press, 1965.

Delany, Martin R. Blake: or, The Huts of America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.

Fernández Retamar, Roberto. Caliban and Other Essays. Trans. Edward Baker. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Galeano, Eduardo. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Trans. Cedric Belfage. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973.

LaFeber, Walter. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States and Central America. New York: Norton, 1983.

Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity.
New York: Random House-Vintage Books, Inc., 1998

Martí, José. Our America: Writings on Latin America and the Struggle for Cuban Independence. Trans. Elinor Randall, Juan de Onís, and Roslyn Held Foner. Ed. Philip S. Foner. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.

Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Stories. New York: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1986. 161-258.

Noble, David W. “The Anglo-Protestant Monopolization of ‘America.’” José Martí’s “Our America”: From National to Hemispheric Cultural Studies. Eds. Jeffrey Belnap and Raúl Fernández. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998. 253-271.

Scott, Jonathan. “Peculiar Relations: White Identity and Imaginative Literature.” Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 18. No. 1 (January-June 2004). 211-234.

Melville’s Reflections.” The Life and Works of Herman Melville. Ed. J. Madden. 25 July 2000. 14 May 2002.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

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