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Blake


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Martin R. Delany's Blake, or the Huts of America: A Tale of the Mississippi Valley, the Southern United States, and Cuba is an awkward, brave, and complex novel. Twenty-six chapters from a promised eighty appeared in the Anglo-African Magazine (Jan.–July 1859); and, after revisions, the complete tale appeared in the Weekly Anglo-African Newspaper (New York City, Nov. 1861–June 1862). Installments appeared on the front pages; the American Baptist said Blake was “beautifully written”; both Anglo-African introductions encouraged blacks to read it. In part, however, because issues including the last six chapters have been lost, today Blake's realistic portrayal of white carelessness and oppression of black people across the African diaspora is more impressive than its romantic dream of deliverance.

Out of print until 1970 and still lacking an unmodernized critical edition, Blake has received complaints about its untrained author's shortcomings: awkward, complex plots and sentences, lack of narrative bridges, inadequate descriptions of action, and a too often passively observant hero. Others have enthusiastically praised Blake's informative range of midcentury sociopolitical conditions, characters, attitudes, and boldly black-nationalist, Pan-African perspective. Fewer have recognized its fifty black-originated or adopted songs and poems, or its varied vernaculars and folklore pointed out in Delany's footnotes and in conversations that are Blake's major story-telling vehicle.

Its plot is complicated. Part 1's first chapter introduces international characters involved in the illegal slave trade. On a Mississippi plantation the novel's unadulterated black hero, Henry (who uses several surnames), finds his slave wife has been sold away to Cuba. He complains about false Christians, confronts his master, and considers running away, but decides instead to organize a slave rebellion conspiracy. He travels through twelve southern states and Indian Territory creating cadres of comrades-male and female—ready to strike upon his signal. He returns to lead his son and wife's parents north to Canada. Part 1 ends with Henry going to New York City and thence to Cuba.

In Part 2, the hero, who now calls himself Henry Blake, organizes Cuba, rescues his wife, enlists the mulatto elite, works on a slave ship to and from Africa, attempts to turn Africans against the trade, returns to Cuba, and arranges sales of the cargo to coconspirators in his antiwhite revolution.

Blake enlarges Emerson's call for an American epic (1842) and answers African American calls for literature by their own (1844–1854) as it touches all shores known to African Americans. Negatively, Blake borrows the doomed tones of Byronic romances and his own Condition of the Colored People (1852) and revives two historical heroes dead long before 1850 (Blake from Haiti's General Charles Belair, and Plácido [Gabriel Valdés] from Cuba). Positively, its hero bravely struggles before rescuing his wife as in the Odyssey; he is like a Moses and a looked-for savior from the Bible and black folklore, while occasional footnotes ground hopeful scenes in Delany's personal experiences.

Blake's black hero and its emphasis admit no white abolitionists or underground railroad agents, revising tales of light-skinned heroes and white allies in slave narratives and by contemporary mulatto storytellers Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, George B. Vashon, and Frank J. Webb. Its Afrocentricity counters Euro-centered tales of slave rebels by such whites as Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Hildreth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, and J. B. Jones.

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Subjects: Literature.


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