I’m going to save you the suspense on this one: this book is not so great. Blake: or; Huts of America was serialized in The Anglo-African Magazine and The Weekly Anglo-African from 1859 to 1862. It would not receive a book publication until 1970, long after the final chapters were lost (or they were never completed, no one knows), making this an incomplete novel. Part 2 is only available in print, but you can read Part 1 online if you so choose. Blake was written by Martin Delany, an African American major in the US Army, as an angry response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). While I love Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work and think it’s subversive in its own way*, I was excited to read a work by angry African American man. Unlike Stowe’s pacifist Tom, Delany’s Henry Blake is anti-Christian, furious, and wants to kill all the white people … in the world! At least at first, things kind of peter out.
Part 1 is actually fairly promising, Henry Blake is a very articulate, intelligent, slave on a plantation whose wife, Maggie, is sold while he is out of town on business for his master. I wrote “articulate” not because I’m super racist, but because this book has some of the most out of control dialect I’ve ever read (and I’ve read Faulkner people). There are points where it borders on unreadable and Delany puts it in the mouths of slaves and a few very poor white folks. Here’s some dialog from a character named Mammy Judy:
“Henry, wat de mauttah wid yeh? I neveh heah yeh talk so fo’ – yeh sin in the sight ub God; yeh gone clean back, I reckon. De good Book tell us, a tousan’ yeahs wid man, am but a day wid de Laud. Boy, yeh, got wait de Laud own pinted time” (16).
I opened the book up randomly to find this passage and I’ve had to read it four times to figure out what it says. This is not even close to the most difficult dialog in the book, either, since it was selected at random. I’m still not sure what “pinted”** is supposed to be, but I have the general idea of the sentence. Normally I consider it the weakest of weak sauce when someone complains about dialog, so if I’m complaining about it, then it must be some very dense, phonetic vernacular.
Back to the plot, when Henry gets back and Maggie is gone he’s like, “Oh hells no!” and then is all “Hey, Colonel Franks, remember when I was a free Cuban who was sold to you illegally and have only been staying a slave until I could save up enough money to buy my wife from you? Well with her gone I’m peacing out and taking a bunch of other people with me, lates. PS: Because you’re the worst I’m going to get all the slaves in America to rise up and kill all the white people, now I’m out,” then he throws down the mic and leaves.
At this point I’m pretty into the story because Henry is just not going to take any guff from anyone. Like a veritable Johnny Murderseed he travels to plantations all around America sowing the seeds of uprising and eventually meets back up with his band of friends. At one point he interviews a large number of women who are being terribly treated while they work at the cotton gin. When he finds out that a fellow slave, who is their overseer, is the culprit, Henry tells them he’ll take care of it, and the guy’s body just shows up on the farm. Bam! Henry will kill anyone who messes with slaves … except later on when he’s working on a slave ship and the captain throws dozens of African captives overboard. I don’t get it Henry, in Part 1 you were so kill-tastic, except when you killed those blind horses, which was pretty mean, and not to be celebrated. Also, for seemingly no reason, he has a passage where young slaves trick an old man slave into eating a big bowl of cockroaches (in the old man’s defense it was dark out and he couldn’t see what was in the bowl). I’m not sure what this is supposed to do in the plot, aside from establish that slaves are awful to each other sometimes.
Anyway, eventually, in Part 2 Henry goes to Cuba and frees his wife from a super awful slave mistress. Then he reunites with his Cuban cousin, goes on aforementioned slave ship, and is really not in the book very much anymore. Also there are about a dozen new characters who are introduced and they’re all basically the same, he doesn’t differentiate whose talking most of the time, and he alternates between using their name and a vague descriptor. Bad writing. It’s called bad writing. Then Henry’s group keeps talking about an uprising, but when the few Americans in Cuba institute a lock down they’re still like, “We’re going to rebel some day probably!” while their core members are literally being assaulted in the streets. Maybe now would be a good time to rise up? “Not until I drag it out for six more chapters!” says Delany.
So the book lost me, I couldn’t keep track of all these new characters, Henry’s aliases finally got impossible to sort, everyone having three names and the dialog being unlabeled got confusing to the point you can’t care whose talking anymore, and after 550 pages of talking about a slave uprising you’re thinking maybe it’s just talk. Also, even though Henry dismissed Christianity as the master’s religion which is implemented to keep the slaves in line, he randomly converts back with little explanation. The last lines of the book (that they have, remember it was lost/unfinished, I think it’s unfinished) is “Woe be unto those devils of whites, I say!” Yes, someone has been “saying” that for 500 pages, are you going to do something about it besides talk? Because I’m bored. Are you going to go to post-revolution Haiti and live free? Are you just writing an account of the so-called Ladder Conspiracy? Because one of the principal actors is clearly a character in this book. If the drop off was on purpose (I doubt it, the pacing is all wrong for it, so it’s either an accident or bad, take your pick) it really should have ended with some knives glinting in the pre-dawn darkness.
Also, I get that it’s a big deal that an African American man wrote this during the 1850s to 60s (I believe he was working on it over a pretty big chunk of time), but if you’re going to publish something then it’s going to be held up to some standards. Reading in context is one thing, but judging a work by overly-adjusted, qualifier-heavy standards doesn’t help anyone. It’s the same thing that happened when women’s literature was “discovering” works from authors that had been buried in time. Resurrecting bad novels by ladies of yore and then saying, “Well these novels are good considering that an olde timey woman wrote them!” does women no service, more than that, it does them a disservice. Giving women’s literature vastly different standards to be judged by (in regards to quality, not formal structure, topic, period in which is was written, etc.) reinforces the idea that women are incapable and that, to be included, they need a lower bar set for them. I’m not saying that older works should infinitely hold up to, but there’s a risk of over-correcting and a reluctance to say that some old literature just isn’t that good. That’s why I’m not trying to justify the huge flaws in Delany’s novel by peppering this post with qualifying statements, because that would be like stating, “Well for an African American in 1840 this is really good,” and that is incredibly condescending. Not to mention that I thought Part 1 was pretty engaging, I think the book could have worked if Part 2 was as good as Part 1. Besides, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave came out in 1845 and that book has some air-tight pacing. Just saying.
* She literally makes a slave into Christ, can you get more subversive than that in 1852?
** My super smart dad informs me that “pinted” is “appointed,” but he has more degrees than I do so I’m not going to feel too bad about not getting that one.