Melville and the Language of Denial

Melville and the Language of Denial

The events behind his story Benito Cereno are more than two centuries old, but the deceptions of racial inferiority that Melville exposes resonate today.


“Black slavery,” Toni Morrison wrote in her classic work of criticism, Playing in the Dark, “enriched” America’s “creative possibilities,” resulting in “a playground for the imagination.” Nothing better illustrates this observation than Herman Melville’s haunting Benito Cereno, a tale about a slave ship where nothing was as it seemed. Over the years, Morrison has noted how the deception that Melville masterfully depicted in his story replays itself again and again in the racial spectacles that regularly grip the nation, including Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I asked Morrison about the first time she read Benito Cereno and if she realized what Melville was up to. Below is her answer. —Greg Grandin

Since my earliest readings of Moby-Dick, I always sensed Melville’s deliberate misdirections: that he was telling some other story underneath the obvious one. So it was not hard to suspect his manipulation of the reader as well as his tendency to hide/display deeper revelations underneath the surface narrative. Benito Cereno fell quickly (for me) into that category because I didn’t believe a kidnapped African slave en route to ownership by a stranger in a foreign land would be so accommodating. Why would he care about the health and well-being of his captor? I understood that the massacre of violently rebelling slaves would be condoned in nineteenth-century “slave history” as the erasure of evil or the culling of herds. But I saw the equally violent response of the slaves on the ship as that of rational, if enraged, humans unwilling to be kidnapped for profit. 

Following the discovery of Babo’s rebellion, Amasa Delano has a choice between fear and profit. But when measuring fear and the loss of control against money, money wins. Delano has to lie and promise his men gold and silver to encourage them to recapture the ship. 

More than two centuries have passed since the events on Benito Cerreño’s ship took place, but the deception of racial inferiority as an excuse for theft of resources and labor is worldwide and in important ways contemporary. Slavery was not unique; the Americas, Europe, Africa—all knew its benefits and engaged in a “moral rationale” of benevolent civilizing efforts in order to deflect from its lethal consequences. A stunningly deceitful discourse had to be developed among slaveholders and abolitionists alike. Melville reveals to the reader the willful blindness of Delano’s language, a language that absolves him of all responsibility. It is similar to the “happy, loyal slave” antebellum discourse that peppered early debates on black civil rights. From illogical claims that the Negro is both a “natural valet” and an untamed animal, the language of denial has now moved to the assumption of endemic unworthiness of the poor (generally assumed to be black in spite of census data saying otherwise), the always and already criminalized who receive food stamps, unemployment checks, Medicaid, etc., and who seem outrageously and fraudulently eager to vote. You make this clear in The Empire of Necessity, exposing the self-satisfaction, the willed deception in the construction of racism to sustain slavery in a nation committed to the freedom of its people.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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