Meredith L. McGill, Jan. 2016 (2015–Jan. 2016 Ch.)
Ivy Wilson, Jan. 2017 (2015–Jan. 2016 Sec.)
Dana Luciano, Jan. 2018
Rodrigo Lazo, Jan. 2019
Hsuan L. Hsu, Jan. 2020
Text of talk for Session 773, The Graphic Nineteenth Century
Session: The Graphic Nineteenth Century
A Slave Is Being Beaten:
Word, Image, and the Subject of The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb
NOTE: PLEASE FIND THE POWERPOINT FOR THIS TALK ON THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN LITERATURE GROUP SITE ON THE MLA COMMONS
PPT SLIDE 1: BIBB PORTRAIT
Thank you for coming. Today I will talk about the relationship between images and text in Henry Bibb’s slave narrative, The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb. Of the thousands of American slave narratives written in the nineteenth century, this is one of the very few that is illustrated. The text contains twenty-one images: twenty woodblock engravings plus a frontispiece, which you see here. Of these, only the frontispiece was made specifically for the narrative. The fascinating story of Bibb’s appropriation of the other twenty woodblocks is told by Marcus Wood in Blind Memory. These images were taken from the abolitionist press, probably for economic reasons. Though it would have been too expensive to have illustrations made expressly for the Life, they contribute to the appeal and sale-ability of the work. As Wood’s research reveals, some of the images had also been used by the anti-abolitionist text, a fact that suggests to him that the experience of slaves was understood through a very limited set of narrative and visual conventions. Wood proposes that these generic images work within Bibb’s own particularizing narrative by enforcing the stereotypicality of all slave experience. He argues that the images become mute, standing in for the distortions of memory, the denials and erasures produced in slave narratives that are produced by the trauma of slavery. In Wood’s view, then, the images are figures for the unspeakable horrors of slavery.FN1
PPT SLIDE 2: TWO BEATING SCENES
Wood’s argument is compelling, but I find the images to be quite eloquent in the context of Bibb’s narrative—to speak alongside his text rather than remaining mute within it. I will argue, then, that these generic images raise questions about personal agency and authorial control. Bibb’s story, unlike Frederick Douglass’s, for instance, emphasizes his devotion to his slave wife Malinda and daughter Frances, and also the fact that he has no legal status as a husband or father under slavery. Where Douglass writes of a more or less linear journey from slavery to freedom and knowledge, Bibb tells a recursive tale in which he escapes and returns to his family several times over the course of the narrative, failing repeatedly to liberate them.FN2 My reading will connect the generic illustrations in the text to this set of painful personal failures. I suggest that the images open up a space in the text where Bibb can experience the guilt and pain of his slave wife’s violation without losing the frame of his own structuring voice.
Like many slave narrators, Bibb frequently invokes the notion that the depredations of slavery are not expressible in language. Early in the narrative, he addresses readers with an appeal: “Reader, believe me when I say, that no tongue, nor pen ever has or can express the horrors of American Slavery. Consequently I despair in finding language to express adequately the deep feeling of my soul, as I contemplate the history of my life.”FN3 This appeal becomes almost a refrain in the text; here is one of many more examples: Bibb writes regarding his anxieties about being discovered while in hiding that “no tongue nor pen can describe the dreadful apprehensions under which I labored” (75). Bibb is certainly not alone in recurring to this trope. Frederick Douglass, for instance, begins his narrative with the memory of witnessing of the beating of his aunt. He writes, “I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it as long as I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was the most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.”FN4
Such statements, as Wood argues, “go beyond a merely popular rhetoric of disavowal.”FN5 Rather, these linguistic evasions point to “the difficulties of remembering and representing trauma within the context of slavery.”FN6 These denials—signaled by statements such as “I cannot tell”—are not rhetorical flourishes or conventions but signs of psychological trauma. Like the trauma-induced silences of Holocaust survivors, slave narrators, according to Wood, suffer from “terrors that exhaust the capacity of language.”FN7 I won’t have time here to explore this parallel between slaves and Holocaust survivors; for now, I simply want to note it, and to emphasize that in the Douglass passage I just read, his ability to put into words the full range of feeling evoked by the spectacle of a woman being beaten stands in inverse proportion to his ability to remember that spectacle. His is not an act of forgetting but an inability to express, a need to remain silent. With this beating, Douglass becomes “a witness and a participant” in slavery, in essence occupying two subject positions. He continues, “It struck me with awful force,” as if he himself were under the lash that beat his aunt (as indeed, he later would be). This kind of substitution of the witnessing self for the subject of violence is, I believe, precisely what is at stake in Bibb’s mobilization of the images in his text.
PPT SLIDE 3: “CAN A MOTHER FORGET…” AND “THE TENDER MERCIES…”
Let’s start with these two images, which bear the captions, “Can a mother forget her suckling child” and “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” They appear in the text as they do here—one on top of the other—serving to illustrate Bibb’s assertion that “I was compelled to stand and see my wife shamefully scourged and abused by her master; and the manner in which this was done, was so violently and inhumanly committed upon the person of a female, that I despair of finding decent language to describe the bloody act of cruelty” (43). In despairing “of finding decent language,” Bibb alludes to atrocious acts that exceed the bounds of polite language or society, the language, that is, of his presumed readers. Bibb emphasizes his role as witness to these atrocities but avoids describing them. The images likewise point to such scenes but like Bibb, they withhold details. With the overseers turned toward us and the stilled action dramatized in essentially a single plane, the surface meaning of the images can be immediately grasped by observers; we don’t need to look closely to understand them, but can remain at a distance, as Bibb in a sense does.
From this position outside the action, Bibb slides quickly inside, suggesting in the text that he is implicated in the mistreatment of his daughter as well as his wife. He begins with the lament, “Who can imagine what could be the feelings of a father and mother, when looking upon their infant child whipped and tortured with impunity, and they placed in a position where they could afford it no protection” (43); but he then moves from helplessness to culpability, writing, “if ever there was act of my life while a slave that I have to lament over it is that of being a father and husband of slaves” (44). By marrying and fathering slaves, Bibb finds himself guilty of complicity in perpetuating the institutions of slavery. In having a family, he becomes a “witness and a participant” in slavery in unexpected ways, participating not only by being beaten himself but also, in having a child, by helping perpetuate slavery in the next generation. Having no legal rights as either husband or father, he has no way to defend his family from physical abuse. These scenes, then, illustrate Bibb’s sense of guilt and loss of agency as a husband and father for as long as he remains a slave. As constructed by the narrative, the greatest trauma of slavery for Bibb is the impossibility of having a family and being free.FN8
By the middle of the narrative, the relationships among images and text—and with them, Bibb’s status as witness and participant, author and agent—become increasingly complex. Bibb relates that he and his family are being held in prison as punishment for an attempted escape. Their master, Garrison, removes Malinda and Frances from Bibb’s cell and takes Malinda to “a private house where he kept female slaves for the basest of purposes” (98). She repels this “disgraceful assault on her virtue,” for which he beats her “until her garments were stained with blood” and threatens to sell Frances (98). But Bibb did not witness Malinda’s beating and probable rape at the hands of Garrison; she tells the story to Bibb after the fact. Shortly thereafter, the narrative returns to this incident, representing for a second time the unwitnessed trauma of his wife’s violation through a series of displacements which simultaneously reiterate Bibb’s powerlessness to defend her and, paradoxically, his shore up his own authorial agency.
PPT SLIDE 4: TEXT
[this is the text from the powerpoint:] The object for using the paddle in place of the lash was, to conceal the marks which would be made by the flogging. And the object for flogging under such circumstances, is to make the slaves anxious to be sold.
The paddle is made of a piece of hickory timber, about one inch thick, three inches in width, and about eighteen inches in length. The part which is applied to the flesh is bored full of quarter inch auger holes, and every time this is applied to the flesh of the victim, the blood gushes through the holes of the paddle, or a blister makes its appearance. The persons who are thus flogged, are always stripped naked, and their hands tied together. They are then bent over double, their knees are forced between their elbows, and a stick is put through between the elbows and the bend of the legs, in order to hold the victim in that position, while the paddle is applied to those parts of the body which would not be so likely to be seen by those who wanted to buy slaves. (See on page 133.) (103-105)
In order to return to the scenes of Malinda’s violation, Bibb interjects a long and unusually detailed description of the process of paddling. Rather than read the whole passage, I’ve reproduced it in the powerpoint. You can see that he tells us how the paddle was made, why it was used, and the kinds of wounds it inflicts. I’ve highlighted in yellow his description of the contorted position that slaves were made to assume during paddlings. At the end of the passage, in the words highlighted in red, Bibb even refers us to a place later in the narrative where we will find an illustration of the paddle in use. However, when Bibb turns to Malinda’s paddling, he offers only the briefest of comments. Bibb explains that while he was in prison, Garrison “got mad with my wife, and took her off in one of the rooms, with his paddle in hand, swearing that he would paddle her; and I could afford her no protection at all, while the strong arm of the law, and public opinion and custom, were all against me” (105). Notably, Bibb spends almost three times as long describing the paddle as he does Malinda’s beating with it. He no longer tells readers that no tongue or pen can describe his despair; he performs the unspeakability of the horror of this beating by nearly banishing it from the text. In place of words, Bibb supplies us with another set of paired images:
PPT SLIDE 5: TWO IMAGES
The top image does contain a paddle, but it doesn’t illustrate in any literal way Malinda’s beating or the contortions of the paddled slave as described in the text. The horror is elided not only in the telling but also in the illustration. In this odd sequence, Bibb only repeats what he has told readers before, that “I could afford her no protection at all,” and he interrupts his story with the direction to “see page 133.”
PPT SLIDE 6: PADDLING
In other words, Bibb orchestrates a complex series of evasions here. To look at the illustration of paddling on page 133, readers must stop, flip through the pages, look, and come back to Malinda’s story; ultimately, when we arrive again at the image on page 133, we learn that it was Bibb, not Malinda, who was beaten this way—in fact, he was flogged almost to death. While reading Malinda’s story, then, we are asked by Bibb to contemplate unknowingly an image of his own torture. In deflecting readers’ attention this way, Bibb’s text approaches his own near-death experience only indirectly and in stages; moreover, Bibb allows himself to take Malinda’s place in her beating narrative, disguising from himself and readers the fact of this substitution.
These kind of indirection and substitution, of course, have the earmarks of Freudian psychic structures, and so I want to turn very quickly to a short essay by Freud called “A Child Is Being Beaten.” As I hope will be clear, I enlist Freud not with any faith in the universal applicability of his psychoanalytic categories. But if we bracket the undeniably huge cultural gulf between early twentieth-century Vienna and the mid-nineteenth century American plantation, as well as the fact that Freud is writing about infantile identity formation and fantasy where I am thinking about the horrific, lived (albeit textually mediated) experiences of an adult, then the model Freud offers in his essay can, when taken metaphorically, be quite suggestive.
In the essay, Freud notes the recurrence of a beating fantasy expressed by his patients according to the linguistic formulation, “a child is being beaten.” The lack of specificity of this utterance is crucial, because it enables the patient to enter the beating scenario from multiple and sometimes simultaneous points of identification, either as the spectator of the scene or as the child, whose gender shifts at different stages of the fantasy. To translate to the language I’ve borrowed from Douglass, the subject enters the scene as both a witness and a participant. Freud’s essay has had an important place in film theory, enabling critics such as D. N. Rodowick and Kaja Silverman to posit alternatives to monolithic theories of the male gaze by conferring these multiples points of identification on the film spectator. The circuit of identifications observed by Freud, however, does not include the parent figure who is the agent of the beating. As Rodowick has argued, the relationship of the child to this parent can be understood “as an explicitly ideological struggle” in which the authority of the parent, and the Oedipus complex itself, can be seen “as the Maginot line of patriarchal culture[,] and the discursive structure of phantasy as a site of resistance and revolt.”FN9
Returning to Bibb, we can see some parallels between Freud’s scenario and Bibb’s insertion of himself into the text as the subject of a beating that began with Malinda.FN10 Freud’s model makes it possible to read this identification in at least three ways. In the first, Bibb’s textual identification with Malinda is generated by guilt.FN11 When he learns she has moved in with her master, Bibb declares himself no longer married to her and abandons her to her fate. In a reading consistent with Freud’s explanations of the ambiguity of the child’s identity in the beating fantasy, such guilt which would cause Bibb to substitute himself for Malinda to receive the punishment of the beating. But as I’ve suggested above, I wouldn’t want to impose an anachronistic reading of Bibb’s psyche onto his literary text. Alternatively, then, we could read this substitution more literally, seeing Bibb’s textual substitution of himself for Malinda as a covert statement about some possible sexual abuse visited upon him rather than her. But I would like to read this substitution as, in Rodowick’s words, a discursive strategy of resistance and revolt against Garrison and the perverted patriarchy of slavery. By censoring the scenes of Malinda’s violations and insisting on taking her place within them, Bibb takes control of the story away from Garrison. Bibb asserts a kind of authorial license that enables him to take back what law and custom have denied him—the right of refusal to show or tell, and with that refusal, the power to intercede on Malinda’s behalf.
1. Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (New York: Routledge, 2000), 117-142. Wood borrows from Derrida the formulation that the images are “the ‘figurative representation’ of the erasure of language. . . . Taken as such the pictures are a commentary upon, perhaps even a solution to, Bibb’s repeated statements of the impossibility of describing the experience of slavery” (133).
2. See Charles Heglar’s introduction to Henry Bibb, The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, intro. by Charles Heglar (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).
3. Bibb, Life and Adventures, 15.
4. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (New York: Signet/NAL, 1968), 25.
5. Wood, 133.
6. Wood, 99.
7. Wood, 99. Wood is quoting Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993).
8. Charles Heglar makes this point in his introduction.
9. D. N. Rodowick, The Difficulty of Difference: Psychoanalyis, Sexual Difference, and Film Theory (New York: Routledge, 1991), 69.
10. Again, I am not talking about auto-erotic gratification, as Freud does, nor am I suggesting any equivalence between Bibb and a child. By contrast, Stanley Elkins, in his controversial Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1959), does try to explain what he sees as the perpetually childlike nature of American slaves by comparing strategies of survival under slavery and in the camps.
11. This would correspond to the way that Freud reads the girl child’s guilt over forbidden libidinal responses to the beating. See “A Child Is Being Beaten: A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions,” Standard Edition 17, 189.