The Expanding Blaze: Moderate vs Radical Enlightenment

IsraelIn The Expanding Blaze, Jonathan Israel argues that the American Revolution, the first of a series of revolutionary upheavals in the West during the period of 1775 to 1859, exerted a massive impact on the rest of the world that was ultimately central to the shaping of democratic modernity. According to Israel, the Atlantic revolutions were all linked pragmatically and philosophically, and were propelled forward in part by a tension between moderate Enlightenment ideas and radical Enlightenment ideas.

Israel argues that all “national” enlightenments were characterized by a struggle between moderate and radical Enlightenment streams. More specifically, the Atlantic revolutions all involved debate between democratic and aristocratic republicanism including support for, versus rejection of, universal rights, citizenship for all versus limited suffrage, and disagreement over the place of religious authority in society. On one side of the debate were individuals including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, who admired such philosophers as Locke and Montesquieu. They argued for a more conservative, aristocratic system. On the other side of the debate were people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, who became icons for the Atlantic revolutions for their universalizing, secularizing, and egalitarian beliefs.

The tension between moderate and radical Enlightenment beliefs was particularly felt in the debate about slavery. In the late eighteenth century, European colonial territories in the Caribbean were very prosperous, importing valuable goods back to Europe. The large plantations were headed by white planters and run by hundreds of thousands of slaves. In fact, slaves outnumbered the rest of the population by a huge margin. In order to counter claims that slavery was morally unjustifiable, the Caribbean aristocracy invoked the ideas of moderate Enlightenment philosophers, including Montesquieu’s moral, social and political relativism. Conversely, the anti-colonialism espoused in radical Enlightenment texts of the mid-eighteenth century based their arguments on the basic unity of mankind, the equality of races, and universal human rights. These ideas called into question the prevailing notion that white people possessed an innate superiority and authority over other groups and, therefore, the notion that black slavery was defensible.

To learn more about how moderate and radical Enlightenment ideas influenced the Atlantic revolutions between 1775 and 1848, pick up a copy of Jonathan Israel’s The Expanding Blaze.

Bryan Wagner on a controversial folktale: The Tar Baby

WagnerPerhaps the best-known version of the tar baby story was published in 1880 by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, and popularized in Song of the South, the 1946 Disney movie. Other versions of the story, however, have surfaced in many other places throughout the world, including Nigeria, Brazil, Corsica, Jamaica, India, and the Philippines. The Tar Baby: A Global History by Bryan Wagner offers a fresh analysis of this deceptively simple story about a fox, a rabbit, and a doll made of tar and turpentine, tracing its history and its connections to slavery, colonialism, and global trade. Wagner explores how the tar baby story, thought to have originated in Africa, came to exist in hundreds of forms on five continents.

What is the tar baby story?

BW: There are hundreds of versions of the story, involving many characters and situations. It’s not possible to summarize the story in a way that can encompass all of its variants. The story does, however, follow a broad outline. I provide the following example in the book: “A rabbit and a wolf are neighbors. In the summer, the rabbit wastes his time singing songs, smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine, while the wolf stays busy working in his fields. The rabbit then steals from the wolf all winter. The next year, the wolf decides he will catch the rabbit by placing a tar baby, a lifelike figurine made from tar softened with turpentine, on the way to his fields. When the rabbit meets the tar baby in the road, and the tar baby does not reply to his greetings, the rabbit becomes angry and punches, kicks, and head-butts the tar baby until he is stuck at five points and left to the mercy of the wolf. The rabbit, however, is not trapped for long as he tricks the wolf into tossing him into the briar patch where he makes his escape.” In addition to this summary, I also provide an appendix with versions of the story transcribed in Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, the Cape Verde Islands, the Bahamas, Corsica, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, and the United States. I also include a map of these stories representing when and where they were collected.

Why did you write a book about the tar baby story?

BW: The tar baby has some familiar associations. People think about the ways in which the term “tar baby” has been used as a racial slur. Or they think about it as a figure of speech referring to a situation that gets worse the harder you try to solve it. Or they think about the version of the story that was published by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1881). Or they think about the adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories in the Walt Disney movie Song of the South (1946). Most people don’t know that that the story of the tar baby was not invented by Harris. They don’t know that the story exists in hundreds of versions in the oral tradition that were collected on five continents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Scholars during these decades were fascinated by the story. They wanted to know how the story came to exist in all of these far-flung places. Some people, including Harris, thought the tar baby story was a key example of the cultural tradition that slaves brought with them from Africa to the Americas. Others believed that the tar baby originated not in Africa but in India or France. Still others believed it was invented by American Indians and borrowed by African Americans. The argument was fierce, and the stakes were high. Did culture belong to a race of people? Or did it cross over racial lines? Did culture construct or transcend racial identity? These questions have stayed with us even as they have been applied to a wide range of examples. It is important to recognize that the tar baby was one of the earliest and most important cases through which these questions were formulated.

The tar baby story is important to ideas about culture and race. Is it also important for politics?

BW: Yes that’s right. Increasingly over the twentieth century, scholars looked to trickster stories like the tar baby for evidence of how peasants and slaves reflected on the politics of everyday life.

Peasants and slaves told stories like the tar baby, it was argued, to share lessons about how to survive in a hostile world where the cards were stacked against you. These ideas were essential to intellectual movements like the new social history and certain strains of political anthropology. At the same time, other scholars have questioned this approach, arguing that it turns politics into the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest, failing to account for the importance of cooperation. I think that scholars have been right to bring these big questions about culture and politics to the story, but I also think that the answers they have discovered in the story have been insufficient. My book approaches the tar baby as a collective experiment in political philosophy. It argues that we need to understand the ways in which the story addresses universal problems—freedom and captivity, labor and value, crime and custom—if we are to gauge its powerful allure for the slaves, fugitives, emigrants, sailors, soldiers, and indentured workers who brought it all the way around the world.

What about the story’s longstanding association with racism? Is “tar baby” a racist term?

BW: That last one is a complex question, but the short answer is yes. Some people like William Safire and John McWhorter have argued that the racism associated with the term “tar baby” is a recent invention, and that the term’s original meaning is not about race. This is disproven by the fact that there are examples from the early nineteenth century where the term was already being used as a racial slur specifically directed at African American children. Harris published his first version of the tar baby story in the Atlanta Constitution at a time when the newspaper was using the term as a racial slur in its news articles. The term’s racism is not incidental to the story. This is also confirmed by the fact that illustrations from early versions of the story represent the tar baby as having phenotypically African facial features. In complex ways, the story is about the history of racism, and for this reason, I don’t think the term should be used in an offhand way as a figure of speech for an intractable situation. This usage is offensive not least for its willful ignorance of the long history of suffering and exploitation that the story attempts in its own way to comprehend.

Bryan Wagner is associate professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery and Tar Baby: A Global History.

Throwback Thursday #TBT: Donald G. Mathews’s Slavery and Methodism: A Chapter in American Morality, 1780-1945 (1965)

Matthews, Slavery and Methodism - A Chapter in American Morality

Hello again, folks! It’s time for this week’s edition of Throwback Thursday! On this #TBT, we’re showcasing Donald G. Mathews’s Slavery and Methodism: A Chapter in American Morality, 1780-1845.

A 1780 conference of Methodist ministers identified slavery as an evil that went against humanity, God, and nature. When the Methodist Episcopal Church was officially organized in America four years later, it required its members to free their slaves or leave the congregation. But the church soon softened its stance; although slavery remained frowned upon, the church allowed the practice and set their own regulations in order to maintain their influence over white and black followers of the church and hold the institution together. Slavery and Methodism examines the six decades of religious turbulence that followed as the Methodist church struggled to maintain a precarious balance.

Called “essential reading for all students of American culture” by Choice, Mathews’s book is an illuminating read for anyone interested in Southern history and emancipation.

See you next Thursday!

 

 

Simon Gikandi is Co-winner of the 2012 Melville J. Herskovits Award

Simon Gikandi – Slavery and the Culture of Taste
Co-winner of the 2012 Melville J. Herskovits Award, African Studies Association

The Herskovits Award is presented annually by the African Studies Association to the outstanding book published in African Studies during the previous year.

More information about this and other African Studies Association awards for 2012 can be found here: http://www.africanstudies.org/images/ASA-News-Archive.pdf

Slavery and the Culture of TasteIt would be easy to assume that, in the eighteenth century, slavery and the culture of taste–the world of politeness, manners, and aesthetics–existed as separate and unequal domains, unrelated in the spheres of social life. But to the contrary, Slavery and the Culture of Taste demonstrates that these two areas of modernity were surprisingly entwined. Ranging across Britain, the antebellum South, and the West Indies, and examining vast archives, including portraits, period paintings, personal narratives, and diaries, Simon Gikandi illustrates how the violence and ugliness of enslavement actually shaped theories of taste, notions of beauty, and practices of high culture, and how slavery’s impurity informed and haunted the rarified customs of the time.

Gikandi focuses on the ways that the enslavement of Africans and the profits derived from this exploitation enabled the moment of taste in European–mainly British–life, leading to a transformation of bourgeois ideas regarding freedom and selfhood. He explores how these connections played out in the immense fortunes made in the West Indies sugar colonies, supporting the lavish lives of English barons and altering the ideals that defined middle-class subjects. Discussing how the ownership of slaves turned the American planter class into a new aristocracy, Gikandi engages with the slaves’ own response to the strange interplay of modern notions of freedom and the realities of bondage, and he emphasizes the aesthetic and cultural processes developed by slaves to create spaces of freedom outside the regimen of enforced labor and truncated leisure.

Through a close look at the eighteenth century’s many remarkable documents and artworks, Slavery and the Culture of Taste sets forth the tensions and contradictions entangling a brutal practice and the distinctions of civility.

Simon Gikandi is the Robert Schirmer Professor of English at Princeton University.

 

New Literature Catalog!

We invite you to be among the first to check out our new literature catalog! http://press.princeton.edu/catalogs/lit13.pdf

Of particular interest is the fourth edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which no reader or writer of poetry will want to be without. Also be sure to note Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste, co-winner of the 2011 Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize. The catalog also features our Essays in the Arts series including Alexander Nemerov’s stunning Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s and Leonard Barkan’s examination of the deliciously ambiguous history of the relationship between words and pictures, Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures.

Forthcoming titles you’ll want to add to your reading list include the expertly rendered Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 selected and with an introduction by Michael Wood, Reiner Stach’s riveting Kafka biographies, and Ruth R. Wisse’s fascinating No Joke: Making Jewish Humor.

If you’re interested in hearing more about our literature titles, sign up with ease here: http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/ Your email address will remain confidential!

We’ll see everyone at the meeting of the Modern Language Association January 3-6 in Boston, MA. Come visit us at booth 508! Be sure to stop by at 4:30 p.m. Friday, January 4th for a celebratory reception with the editors of the fourth edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics—the most comprehensive and authoritative poetry reference for more than four decades. Wine and cheese will be served!