Denmark Vesey: an Atlantic perspective.

Author:Flemming, Tracy Keith


Tracy Keith Flemming, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of African/African-American Studies

International Area Studies Unit

Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies

Grand Valley State University

Allendale, Michigan/USA


(1) See "Example 1 (above and opposite). 'You Can't Trust in Love' from Denmark Vesey. Author's [Melissa J. de Graaf s] transcription," in Melissa J. de Graaf, "Searching for 'Authenticity' in Paul Bowles's Denmark Vesey," in Blackness in Opera, Naomi Andre, Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Saylor, Editors (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 198-199. According to Melissa J. de Graaf, "[i]n January 1938, Juanita Hall conducted the Negro Melody Singers in an unstaged performance of the first act of Denmark Vesey for the New York Composer's Forum. The performance, featuring music by Paul Bowles set to libretto by Charles Henri Ford, provoked thoughtful and pointed questions from listeners. The work ... [was] never completed[,]" but the author notes the critical, racialized and politicized reception "to the language and music, which overwhelmingly emphasizes Africanisms and African American folklore, much of it thoroughly researched and, in the white creators' minds, authentic." The author also agues that "[f]or Bowles and Ford, the main theme of the opera--Love versus Hate--had deep political and racial implications. Throughout the work, love is equated with betrayal, and hate (particularly the hatred of whites) with strength and freedom." Indeed, this "love-hate duality" is captured in one of "the three songs on the single extant recording" from the opera (Denmark Vesey) titled "'You Can't Trust in Love,' in no small part because it encapsulates the love-hate dichotomy at the heart of the story." de Graaf does make an important historiographical observation about this song, arguing that "[t]his musical instability reflects Bowles's conception of the story's larger moral: the 'failure of blacks to free their race because they were unable to see beyond race hatred.' Thus, Bowles, the omniscient composer, appears to possess insight about the eventual failure of the power of hate that Denmark, the protagonist, does not .... Despite their attractiveness and dramatic propriety, Bowles's musical setting of these songs effectively neutralized Ford's goal of authenticity." The author does point out that "[w]hat sets Denmark Vesey apart [from minstrel-like, stereotypical and racist "precursors such as Porgy and Bess and Emperor Jones"], however, is its evocation of Communist-style revolution. The opera abounds with romanticized Marxist imagery, which would have had powerful resonances in the context of race and labor conflicts in the 1930s .... The artistic choices Ford and Bowles made transform the opera from a historical event into a heroic, romantic struggle for liberation. Denmark becomes a Soviet-style hero, dying dramatically for the cause." It is important to note that "Bowles was a member of the Communist Party, though an infrequent participant, [and] Ford leaned toward Trotskyism." de Graaf also indicates in her study that Ford and Bowles "discussed the possibility of including the historically accurate offer of aid from several white men, but in the end decided against it, fearing black outrage." Indeed, "Bowles and Ford achieved a distinctive result in their integration of race and politics and their bridging of 1820s and 1930s race and labor turmoil." See de Graaf, "Searching for 'Authenticity' in Paul Bowles's Denmark Vesey, 187, 194, 197200, 202-205. See also Tracy Flemming, "Black Marxism, Creative Intellectuals and Culture: The 1930s," Journal of Pan African Studies, Volume 3, Number 9 (June-July 2010): 7-24, accessed September 21, 2014, and Philip F. Rubio, "'Though he had a white face, he was a negro in heart': Examining the White Men Convicted of Supporting the 1822 Denmark Vesey Slave Insurrection Conspiracy," South Carolina Historical Magazine, Volume 113, Number 1 (January 2012): 50-67.

(2) Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the U.S. (New York, New York: Viking Press, 1941), in Richard Wright Reader, Edited by Ellen Wright and Michel Fabre, Notes by Michel Fabre (New York, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978), 234 (emphasis added). In his reply to David L. Cohn's review of Native Son, "The Negro Novel: Richard Wright" (Atlantic Monthly, May 1940), Richard Wright wrote in "I Bite the Hand That Feeds Me" (Atlantic Monthly, June 1940), "The unconscious basis upon which most whites excuse Negro oppression is as follows: (1) the Negro did not have a culture when he was brought here; (2) the Negro was physically inferior and susceptible to diseases; (3) the Negro did not resist his enslavement." The third element--nonresistance to American slavery--is critical to understanding psychological and physical resistance to enslavement and adherence to African Atlantic religious traditions and was viewed by Wright as one of the "three falsehoods [that] have been woven into an ideological and moral principle to justify whatever America wants to do with the Negro," which Wright described as central tenets of American White supremacy. Wright asked, "Does it sound strange that American historians have distorted or omitted hundreds of records of slave revolts in America?" Wright, Ibid., 50, 64-65 (emphasis added).

(3) Charles Spurgeon Johnson, "Chapter IX: Intrarace Attitudes" in Johnson, Growing Up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural South. Prepared for the American Youth Commission (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1941), 243, accessed July 17, 2014, Gunnar Myrdal also references part of the above quote in An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, "Chapter 35: The Negro Protest," Section I. The Slave Revolts (New York, New York and London, United Kingdom: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1944), 736-737, 1391n2. See also Jamie Lynn Johnson, "The Undead Bones of Denmark Vesey: The Complications of History" (M.A. Thesis, Georgetown University, 2010), 32.

(4) Huey P. Newton, "Aftermath," in Newton, With the Assistance of J. Herman Blake. Introduction by Fredrika Newton. Revolutionary Suicide, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2009; 1973), 197.

(5) Sharon Ewell Foster, The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part Two: The Testimony (New York, New York: Howard Books, 2012). According to Foster, "Courage was standing to do what was needed, even afraid ... Courage was summoning the strength to keep living ... Courage, despite the odds, to keep fighting." Foster, Ibid, 228-229.

(6) For example, an African Atlantic presence was a constitutive dimension of diasporic life and was captured in the following scene from the recent novel in which Vesey is a character, The Invention of Wings. According to Handful, one of the central characters:

Misses didn't have Christmas that year, but she said go ahead and have Jonkonnu if you want to. That was a custom that got started a few years back brought by the Jamaica slaves. Tomfry would dress up in a shirt and pants tattered with strips of bright cloth sewed on, and a stove pipe hat on his head--what we called the Ragman. We'd traipse behind him, singing and banging pots, winding to the back door. He'd knock and missus and everybody would come out and watch him dance. Then missus would hand out little gifts to us. Could be a coin or a new candle. Sometimes a scarf or a cob pipe. This was supposed to keep us happy. See Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings (London, United Kingdom: Tinder Press/Headline Publishing Group, An Hachette UK Group, 2014), 199. According to Simon Gikandi, these were

forms of play that frightened white planters because they took place in a dark, secretive world--one that was imperceptible to their eyes and seemed outside the realm of European reason--[and] were the essence of the slaves' revolt against the political and cultural order that rationalized bondage ...[,] a counterculture, including one that went against the grain of sense and sensibility ... Dance, song, and sound represented what had clarity for the slaves but was inaudible to the masters. See Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton, New Jersey and Oxford, United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 2011), 263. For further analysis of "John Canoe festival" in the Atlantic world, see Gikandi, Ibid., 269, 271-78, 317-318n96. According to Steeve O. Buckridge,

In Jamaica, carnival celebrations included masquerades, called Jonkonnu or John Canoe, that consisted of masked troupes, dancers, actors and processions of women, called Set Girls, in their finest dresses .... Jonkonnu has its roots in West Africa. Among the Mende, Igbo and Yoruba, masks were used in religious ceremonies, festivals and initiation rites. Yoruba ritual masks were very elaborate in design, consisting of human features frequently combined with animals, snakes or geometrical forms ... Slave carnivals existed throughout much of the Caribbean and other parts of the colonial empire, from Belize in the southwest to Bermuda and North Carolina in the north ... These masquerades had a long and complicated history. However, the origins of the name Jonkonnu are still unclear. See Steeve O. Buckridge, The Language of Dress: Resistance and Accommodation in Jamaica, 1760-1890 (Kingston, Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2004), 98-99. See also Dianne M. Stewart, Three Eyes for the Journey: African Dimensions of the Jamaican Religious Experience (Oxford, United Kingdom and New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 51-52, 54, 59, 141, 181, 221, 257n128. "Fiction," according to Alice LaPlante, is defined as "[m]ade up events presented as if true in a narrative [and] [c]an be either a novel, a novella, or a short story." See Alice...

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