Ancient Ideals and the Healthy Self
Ancient Ideals and the Healthy Self
Mary Ann Shadd’s Plea for Emigration and Martin Robison Delany’s Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny
Abstract and Keywords
Emulating more the conventions of the almanac than those of wildly popular early- to mid-nineteenth-century emigration narratives authored by British émigrés to Canada, Mary Ann Shadd and Martin Delany urge black evacuation through a claim for black health and well-being, vivifying the crucial relation they see between corporeal and political ideals. Each advocates the connection between a healthy black body and black political independence, irreconcilable with U.S. residency. Their quest for and designation of healthful places of settlement draw from classical Greek characterizations, which idealize hygia. Such an ideal forms the primary vehicle for their propaganda.
She is a superior woman; and it is useless to deny it … however much we may differ with her on the subject of emigration. She obtained the floor … and succeeded in making one of the most convincing and telling speeches in favor of Canadian emigration I ever heard. … She at first had ten minutes granted her as had the other members. At their expiration, ten more were granted, and by this time came the hour of adjournment; but so interested was the House, that it granted additional time to her to finish … and the house was crowded and breathless in its attention to her masterly exposition of our present condition, and the advantages Canada opens to colored men of enterprise. Herein consisted the charm and potency of her speech.
ETHIOP, FREDERICK DOUGLASS’ PAPER, NOVEMBER 9, 1855
New York is at present honored with several gentlemen of color, who are candidates for the higher professions, both of Medicine and Divinity. Among them are Peck, Gibbs, Delany, McDonough, and others “too numerous to mention.” It is said that most of them intend to make the field of their future operations beyond the boundaries of this country.
OBSERVER, FREDERICK DOUGLASS’ PAPER, APRIL 1, 1852
Leading up to the middle of the century, when proslavery medical doctors and race scientists vehemently promoted black inferiority and legislators incorporated such hypotheses into the making and revising of slave (p.52) codes, two Black Americans, a man and a woman, sat down to pen substantial works advocating black emigration from the United States, advice they would follow themselves. Both works were published in 1852. They pay particular attention to colonial Canada and come to divergent conclusions, though both authors would settle in the colony for extended periods. In 1852, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” and co-founder of the American Colonization Society, died. It was also the year of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Samuel A. Cartwright’s “Slavery in the Light of Ethnology,” William Harper’s reprinted “Memoir on Slavery” in The Pro-Slavery Argument as Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States, and Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush. American print culture in general indicated the racially charged environment of the nation, and colonial Canadian print (produced in the colony and published in Britain) prominently featured stories of emigration and life in the “Backwoods” or “Bush.”1
By midcentury, several slave narratives by fugitives in colonial Canada had been published, reaching popular audiences also in Britain and the United States. Josiah Henson’s was famously and debatably associated with Stowe’s character, Uncle Tom. As the previous chapter demonstrates, racial science was gaining momentum in the United States with the growing interest in ethnology, polygenesis, and racially specific diseases, creating a cultural climate in which “by the 1850s,” race historian Bruce Dain explains, “the great American issues of the day [were] race and slavery” (197). Shadd and Delany published at the nexus of these dominant North American concerns. Their works offer not only settlement locations outside U.S. political governance but suggestions for self-becoming outside American race theory as well. A comparative literary analysis of these two relatively understudied works, published the same year, reveals the centrality of health to their promotion of emigration and of the ancient world to their conceptions of selfhood.
The complex debates about monogenism and polygenism, adaptability, environmentalism, and biology continued as Shadd and Delany in North America articulated their pursuit of black political authority. Josiah Nott was extending Samuel George Morton’s craniological findings from the late 1830s into arguments about separate species and permanent black inferiority by the mid-1840s. Ten years after Nott’s “Two Lectures on the Natural History of the Caucasian and Negro Races,” and two years after Shadd’s Plea (p.53) and Delany’s Condition, Nott’s work with George Gliddon would culminate in the nearly 800-page volume Types of Mankind, which became wildly popular in the United States, much more widely read and distributed than Morton’s work, to whom the volume was dedicated. Shadd and Delany advocated emigration at the height of the convergence of these theories, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and intense debates about African colonization. Maurice Wallace argues that Delany’s Condition was the “first significant political analysis of its kind” (70). I want to place Shadd’s Plea in the same arena. As noted in the introduction, Shadd was also unique in that most black women refrained from promoting emigration, let alone published sustained work on the subject. Jane Rhodes explains how members of the black male establishment in Canada West “were equally disturbed by Mary Ann’s independence and her refusal to be submissive to [them]. Mary Ann committed the ultimate act of defiance when she took it upon herself to write and publish a pamphlet on black emigration to disseminate her ideas to an audience beyond Windsor” (43). The controversies of the medical and scientific communities, the Fugitive Slave Act, debates within black communities, and gendered power struggles crossed geopolitical borders and provided the context for Shadd’s and Delany’s comprehensive considerations of this sensitive subject.
In contrast (and perhaps in response) to justificatory medical and scientific discourses about Africans’ superior health and therefore suitability for enslavement in the colonies, and writing primarily for a free or fugitive Northern black audience, Shadd and Delany focus on the promotion of African Americans’ good health in order to advocate their emigration from the slaveholding United States. In keeping with most of their contemporaries, they also hotly reject colonization schemes. Shadd’s and Delany’s reiterations of the classical Greek ideal of social organization based on the correlation between individual and state health also harken back more recently, as Bernd Herzogenrath notes, to colonial American models for community building in which the body represented societal cohesion. Herzogenrath cites representations of the body|politic ranging from John Winthrop’s corporeal metaphors (particularly his use of ligaments and connective tissue), to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan and the snake iconography of Benjamin Franklin’s Fugio coin of 1787 to illustrate early American ideas about bodily and political unity (and disunity in the instance of Franklin’s snake). But Shadd’s and Delany’s re-articulations of individual and state (p.54) (p.55)
(p.57) health make a particularly Black American statement about the pursuit of wholeness and autonomy in that they are figured remedies to the U.S. national maladies that are slavery and racial injustice. Such rehabilitative discourse frames their calls for emigration and promotion of political participation—and further, for Delany, a justification for independent black political rule premised on black physical superiority. Delany’s endorsement of such physicality may be ironic in that it signified for racial scientists a criterion demarcating human species; however, it supported his logic that policy, not inferiority, was responsible for the oppressed condition of black people in America.2
My central contention is that the authors’ valorization of health and promotion of political independence through a reworking of classical ideals function propagandistically and polemically to promote emigration. Their recourse to classical democratic ideals at best overlooks and at worst disparages the realities of those whom disability and illness would inevitably continue to affect after emigration but demonstrates the centrality of health to their conceptions of black selfhood. Critique of socially produced suffering contains a different emphasis than do analyses of the political motivations underlying the ideology of disease, for, in the latter, belief in biological predispositions to certain illnesses is the focus of proslavery argumentation promoting control of the enslaved population and enabling social environments of suffering.
Shadd’s and Delany’s theoretical engagements with their historical and scientific contexts are daring, if at times incongruous. The authors theorize the possibility and endorse the achievement of a complete—fulfilled—black sense of self at a time when legal, medical, governmental, and economic institutions functioned, at times in conjunction, to divide and subjugate it. The authors refuse to privilege mind or body or to de-emphasize black physicality for propagandistic purposes, despite whites’ routine hyper-corporealization/sexualization of blacks. Rather, they underscore the health of the black body that is at once physical, intellectual, emotional, and moral. Somewhat ironically perhaps they promote a Platonist completeness that slavery, itself defended by Plato, prohibits. Their rehabilitative and restorative rhetorics of physicality—though at times elitist, ablest, and even racist—reject white-controlled channels of abolition, emancipation, and colonization and instead demand black political autonomy through emigration. (p.58) In short, they demonstrate the perceived necessity of an alternative rehabilitative discourse in the project of rejecting oppressive medically informed restorative theories and rhetorics.
Mary Ann Shadd was founder, editor, and correspondent for the second black newspaper in colonial Canada, the Provincial Freeman (1853–57). She later became a Civil War recruiter and graduate of Howard University Law School. Emulating other colonial almanacs of the time, Shadd’s Plea for Emigration; or, Notes of Canada West (1852) also depicts exodus as the only option for Black Americans, free or enslaved, with health forming a key consideration in her suggested settlement locations. She designates Canada West as a most healthful place for relocation. Furthermore, she relates black well-being to the acquisition of citizenship, impossible in the United States even for free blacks born there, and calls for blacks’ almost militaristic duty to forestall the expansion of U.S. slavery.
Shadd was a free black woman from Wilmington, Delaware, who became one of the most influential Black Americans in colonial Canada; she was also one of the most controversial black figures in British North America. The eldest daughter of abolitionist lecturer Abraham Shadd and Harriet Parnell, Mary Ann was educated at boarding school in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, she returned to Wilmington where no public education was available to people of African descent and opened a school for black children. Shadd also taught in various cities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York before immigrating to Canada West around the time of the government’s enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law. There she established a racially integrated school that received support from the American Missionary Association. Her advocacy of racial integration and criticism of the Refugee Home Society in Canada West put her at odds with other prominent members of the black community there, whose priorities were to support fugitives—in Shadd’s mind at free blacks’ expense—and who advocated racial segregation. To this end and in response to an attack in the first black abolitionist newspaper in colonial Canada, The Voice of the Fugitive, Shadd and prominent black abolitionist and intellectual Samuel Ringgold Ward founded a rival publication, the Provincial Freeman. Shadd supported integration and education. Her politics set her apart from other black leaders in Canada West as controversial and somewhat elitist. A single black woman and public figure, Shadd often garnered as much criticism as she did respect from her male contemporaries. As a writer, she (p.59) was enormously influential, particularly through her editorship of the Provincial Freeman, but Plea marks her singularly most direct, extensive contribution to nineteenth-century letters and black political theory.
Martin Delany also foregrounds health in his polemical Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, figuring well-being in terms of a particularly gendered notion of racial uplift—the development of black manhood—as well as concentration on commercial production and the acquisition of citizenship rights. Born in West Virginia of a slave father and free mother, Delany had free status—enslavement and freedom following the condition of the mother. He was educated in Pittsburgh and trained in medicine by a white doctor. Delany practiced as a bleeder, leecher, and cupper in 1836. He was admitted to Harvard Medical College and then dismissed because his colleagues deemed “‘the admission of blacks to the medical Lectures highly detrimental to the interests, and welfare, of the Institution of which [they were] members, calculated alike to lower its reputation in this and other parts of the country, to lessen the value of a diploma from it, and to diminish the number of its students’” (qtd. in Ullman 115–16). Defiant, Delany practiced medicine in the United States and colonial Canada, where he began writing his novel, Blake; or, The Huts of America (1859, 1861–62), a fictive exploration of revolutionary promise, which I discuss in chapter 5. He lectured on comparative anatomy, published a program for cholera prevention in the colony, became leader of an expedition to Africa, and then served as a major in the U.S. Army. Delany in this study appropriates a sort of intermediary position between the book’s professional physician-writers and its lay authors and orators whose cultural concerns are health and well-being. His work theorizes race and politics more explicitly and in greater depth than Shadd’s Plea, and his assertion of black physical superiority frames his call for black self-rule. For Delany, black selfhood is synonymous with black manhood.
Delany has recently enjoyed somewhat a resurgence in academic interest—even though his Condition still garners less critical attention than his other works—but Shadd remains of interest mostly as a historical figure (woman, editor, army recruiter, law student, with a collection of “firsts” or “notables” attending her name and actions) than a writer or thinker whose works themselves merit close study.3 Delany, however, didn’t see it that way. He was an early promoter of Shadd’s talent. In an 1849 letter to the North (p.60) Star, he commended Shadd’s pamphlet, Hints to the Colored People of the North and noted that “Miss Shadd is an excellent girl, and will henceforth give her whole attention to writing” (January 16th). I like to recall Delany’s early recognition of Shadd’s literary talent and dedication in hope that after more than a century and a half, literary scholars will study her writings in earnest, extending the work of historians and pay attention to her as an author and intellectual whose literature deserves acknowledgment for its contributions to black literary history as well as American literary history more broadly. As recently as July 2013, cultural communication scholar Carolyn Calloway-Thomas highlights Shadd’s empirical rhetoric as an example of the “first influential North American Black female to use a quantitative approach fortified by moral philosophy as a central argument, which functioned as an organizing principle” (241). Despite Calloway-Thomas’s emphasis on Shadd’s contribution to a tradition of Black American firsts, she does, unlike many Shadd scholars, pay close attention to her writing style. I read this as signaling a turn in scholarly interest in this literary and historical figure. Shadd still appears neither in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature nor the 2014 Wiley Blackwell Anthology, and though her inclusion in the 2012 edition of The Dictionary of Early American Philosophers suggests her prominence as a thinker, the entry itself reveals very little about her actual contribution to early American philosophical thought.4
For various reasons, notably her stance on emigration as well as her status as a single black (not to mention determined) woman for much of her writing and editing career, Shadd met with resistance from the free black intelligentsia. In our time, perhaps her interest in Canada seems tangential to scholarship on African American literature and questions of canonicity. It’s difficult to say, though I suspect the field’s turn to cultures of print and the expansion of digital accessibility will contribute to an increased interest in Shadd as a journalist. In her time, a significant factor obscuring her earlier work seems to be its neglect by Frederick Douglass. Neither Plea nor Delany’s Condition enjoyed Douglass’s promotion, and this still seems a major stumbling block to Shadd’s acceptance as an author and not just a historical figure.
Referring to the silence surrounding Condition’s publication, Robert Levine has usefully traced Delany and Douglass’s journalistic fisticuffs as they appeared in the pages of Frederick Douglass’ Paper. It began with (p.61) Delany’s criticism of Douglass in July 1852 for not even offering notice of Condition’s publication: “This work, a copy of which I sent you in May, on its issue, has never been noticed in the columns of your paper. … You could have given it a circulating notice, by saying such a book had been written by me, (saying anything else about or against it you pleased), and let those who read it pass their own opinions also. But you heaped upon it a cold and deathly silence” (July 23). In April of the following year, Douglass chastised Delany for his harsh words directed at Stowe and then criticized Condition for “leav[ing] us just where it finds us, without chart or compass, and in more doubt and perplexity than before we read it” (April 1). Levine surmises that “it may well have been that the main reason he chose not to review Condition was because, faced with the two principal (and politically opposed) antislavery works of spring 1852, he decided to invest his cultural capital and prestige in promoting the book he believed had the greatest possibility of improving the condition of blacks in the United States: Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (71). Levine’s suggestion seems most probable and heightens the importance of the publishing context for both Delany and Shadd as their works vied for attention in the year during which appeared a condemnation of slavery that would become in its time, apart from the Bible, the best-selling book.
There is another aspect of Douglass and Delany’s debate that does not appear in (or really apply to) Levine’s study of the two men, but it sheds more light on Douglass’s potential effect on the reception of Shadd’s work and about the hotly contested climate during which these debates took place and these writings appeared. In a subsequent letter to the Provincial Freeman in 1856, Delany attacks Douglass’s initial silence on Shadd’s work as well as his more recent lauding of her talents. Summarizing Douglass, Delany begins, “Miss Mary Ann Shadd (now Mrs. Cary), is made the special subject of compliment, with traits of talents and literary acquirements, which places her without an equal among the colored ladies of the United States.” Then comes his critique: “Is this a recent discovery? Are the talents and acquired ability of Miss Shadd just beginning to develope themselves that this great keen eyed expositor of our ‘awakened mental abilities’ has just discovered them? Is Miss Shadd of to-day any more deserving of a complimentary notice than Miss Shadd of a few years ago whom Frederick Douglass never deigned to notice but to disparage?”5 Delany concludes the letter with an even more sarcastic swipe at Douglass when he argues, “The (p.62) Freeman in fact, has a much larger circulation among the colored people than Frederick Douglass’ Paper. But we had quite forgotten our position and must beg to thank the Editor … for arresting the names of a few Emigrationists from the obscurity to which they were consigned, and showing to the public at large, that they might possibly possess some talents, and thereby merit his notice. For this we are very thankful, and bow uncovered with obsequious reverence!” (July 12, 1856). Whatever Delany’s personal feelings about Douglass may have been at this point, the letters demonstrate the complex politics that played out in these influential newspapers about the best future course for Black Americans and the fraught historical and literary moment during which Shadd and Delany’s emigration polemics appeared as well as the lasting feud that followed their publication and frustrated reception.6
Beyond Douglass’s actual or presumed effect on Shadd’s and Delany’s popular print reception at midcentury, the two authors’ at times elitist and conservative stances on issues of class, I suspect, also contribute to their works’ having fallen somewhat to the margins of black literary and historical studies. Likewise, extending past the authors’ own time, their advocacy of emigration positions them somewhat at odds with subsequent scholarly and literary traditions of the recovery/reclamation of African American literary texts and emphasis on the desire for black U.S. citizenship.
In the scholarship that does interrogate their complication of black political ideals, an overlooked aspect of Shadd’s and Delany’s entries into mid-century emigration debates is their concentration on health and well-being as the critical frame through which they reject colonization and promote black exodus from the United States—another potentially exclusionary standpoint. Nevertheless, their classical Greek corporeal analogies for the healthy state provide the lens through which their rhetorics of physicality articulate a complex and unique negotiation and rejection of nineteenth-century racism that racial and medical science informed. I mean “rhetorics of physicality” to denote the rhetorical principles informing the theoretical study and depiction of corporeal physicality. Shadd’s and Delany’s rhetorics of physical health in depicting the pursuit of political self-mastery, for example, run counter to those of Nott, Cartwright, and others who argue that the “negro’s” constitution fails to master itself and therefore requires enslavement. By revisiting ancient ideals about health and democratic civil order, the authors critique proponents of white supremacy and tackle the (p.63) many limitations they tried to place on the black body and, by extension, Black Americans’ sense of self, their physical, moral, and intellectual capabilities.7
In conflict with Morton, Nott, Cartwright, and other racial scientists and doctors, Shadd’s and Delany’s work presents the promise of a black condition based on a model of political autonomy very closely tied to health and well-being, one that rather than conceptualizing a mind/body dualism and privileging the former, instead understands them as producing subjecthood in concert. In doing so, their emphasis on health de-emphasizes the body’s definition as property—in oneself or in another or as belonging to another. Furthermore, Shadd’s and Delany’s theories offer criteria for a black political philosophy that stresses the role of physical place and the importance of movement. Their works aspire—if troublingly—to a politics of healthy wholeness in order to attain a freedom and fulfillment that promises to repair the fragmented senses of self that the discourses of U.S. medicine and law produced. Their theory rejects colonization, tires of abolitionism, and refuses to wait for emancipation. It is a project to reclaim black rights that white people have stolen, even if it requires residency outside the United States—it does not anticipate or entertain whites’ possible return of those rights through abolition and emancipation, particularly, as Marcus Wood outlines, under the auspices of the gift.8
Shadd and Delany wrote emigration propaganda from the standpoint of free black professionals in defiance of whites’ regulation of black people in the New World at a time when race theory in general figured biology as a key racial determinant and when the United States, in particular, placed the most severe restrictions on black mobility. Not only was mobility curtailed, but the era saw the most active regulation—medical and legal—of enslaved blacks’ labor, re/production, intellectual development, interpersonal relationships, and food and oxygen consumption as well. Disregarding such corporeal control, these authors develop a rhetorics of physicality that directly confronts proslavery and white supremacist theory on specific aspects of regulation—much of which mid-nineteenth-century Southern valorization of classical empirical ideals informed and justified—as they highlight health to promote black autonomy and articulate the promise of a free black self that is physically, morally, and intellectually capable of individual and collective self-mastery and self-governance outside the United States.
(p.64) Before Shadd’s immigration to Canada West and her subsequent newspaper career, her pamphlet A Plea for Emigration; or, Notes of Canada West, in Its Moral, Social, and Political Aspect with Suggestions Respecting Mexico, West Indies and Vancouver’s Island for the Information of Colored Emigrants appeared in Detroit in 1852. The work claims to respond to the need for information about emigration options for both the free and fugitive black communities of the United States. Less polemical than Delany’s Condition, Shadd’s Plea spends little time arguing for emigration but rather presumes its necessity and therefore presents a source of intelligence on the subject. Peterson acknowledges that Shadd differed from Frances Watkins Harper, who “deemphasize[s] the African-American body and focus[es] instead on emotional response” (127). Furthermore, I argue, Shadd weaves considerations of health into nearly every aspect of her report advocating the improvement of Black Americans’ condition. According to Shadd, the body that racist policies and their proponents tried to limit would find itself unrestricted and restored to a state of physical, mental, and moral health if it found the right environment. Furthermore, the ideal black body would realize a commensurate black politics.
The relationship between health and self-sufficiency|mastery in Shadd’s Plea calls on readers to reject the limitations of U.S. black regulation, physical, intellectual, and political. She creates a picture of a “healthy” British province in contrast to the common trope of a pestilent Africa and in opposition to a proslavery United States that places all Black Americans at risk. By making one location healthy and pathologizing another, Shadd grafts black well-being and illness onto the healthy and diseased geopolitical spaces Black Americans occupy.9 Conversing with proslavery discourse, she offers an alternative to black subjugation and demonstrates how to realize it through emigration, a movement from illness to health, from restriction and regulation to freedom and self-mastery. Alluding to political ideals of ancient Greece, Shadd challenges her readers to view the black self|citizen in ways that compete with principles of Enlightenment modernity, to identify a sense of self that is comprehensive and complex and extends beyond economies of property ownership.
Shadd articulates a discourse of fulfillment and wholeness evocative of the classical era that potentially closes the divides between mind and body that the Enlightenment opened up and proposes new, utopist definitions of black selfhood. By conceptualizing the possibility of good health as integral (p.65) to freedom and a redefinition of personhood, she counters proslavery rehabilitative discourse with her own to suggest new ways that Black Americans might understand themselves politically. To this end, Shadd looks to the model of the monarchical head, which governs the body politic—even as she draws on classical figurations of individual and state health. Turning away from U.S. republican ideals, Shadd refuses to reproduce or recycle colonial American utopist political models, such as Winthrop’s wherein, as Herzogenrath eloquently puts it, the body is figured as a system of parts “overcoding and subordinating the potential multiplicity into one body [and in which the body|politic] consists of a complex interplay of both hierarchical|democratic and hierarchical|totalitarian tendencies” (60). Rather, she promotes black émigrés’ alignment with the British monarchy in Canada West, a figuration in which the crowned head governs and protects its parts.10 In doing so, she participates in a broader antebellum black abolitionist and activist tradition of valorizing Britain as a paragon of freedom.11
The body|politic (or parts) for Shadd in this transcolonial African diasporic context would involve black individuals working toward the development of a communal ideal harkening to Plato, whose Gorgias “ties excellence and well-being to order, prefacing its observations of arête with a reminder that self-control and justice are accessible only to those whose epithumiai are rightly controlled” (Levin, “Eryximachus” 288). For Shadd, black emigration to the colony is a means, ultimately, of forming a community closely modeled on such an ancient political ideal. Shadd seeks a context wherein Black Americans can enjoy self-rule and justice under the aegis of benevolent state control, in this case the British Crown. Referring to colonial Canada where “[t]he climate is healthy, and [Black Americans] enjoy as good health as other settlers,” Shadd notes that emigrants “may enjoy full ‘privileges of British birth in the Province.’” She continues, “The general tone of society is healthy; vice is discountenanced, and infractions of the law promptly punished; and, added to this, there is an increasing anti-slavery sentiment, and a progressive system of religion” (89). We might note here, too, that her language engages at least implicitly with the “vices of character” we saw outlined in the previous chapter, particularly with regard to U.S. slaves and “Negro diseases.” She writes of vice in a way that suggests that there is nothing particularly racial about vice, contrary to the contentions of slaveholding ideology.
As promising as her ideal may seem, Shadd’s iteration of it shares some (p.66) of the prohibitions Plato emphasized about health—physical and spiritual—and human worth. Philosopher Susan Levin’s translation regarding Plato’s Republic reads: “if a man afflicted with serious incurable physical ailments did not drown [while with the helmsman] this man is miserable for not dying and has received no benefit from him. But if a man has many incurable diseases in what is more valuable than his body, his soul, life for that man is not worth living, and he won’t do him any favor if he rescues him from the sea or from prison or from anywhere else” (300). Levin goes on to explain that the greatest evil is corruption of soul. As does perhaps Levin’s translation of Plato’s ideas about health and human worth, Shadd’s healthy ideal prompts one to wonder where her emphasis on individual and state health leaves those injured, ill, and disabled, who were numerous among both fugitive and free black populations, figures we will encounter in the next chapter. Shadd’s Plea is propaganda. Her theory attempts to remove the integrity of individual personhood from economies of property ownership, where it had been located since the seventeenth century. Rather, her rhetorics present the possibility of locating subjecthood in a healthy self residing in a salubrious environment outside the United States and, at least at first, under the protective governance of Britain.
Shadd begins, “The people are in a strait. On the one hand, a pro-slavery administration, with its entire controllable force, is bearing upon them with fatal effect. On the other, the Colonization Society, in the garb of Christianity and Philanthropy, is seconding the efforts of the first named power, by bringing into the lists a vast social and immoral influence, thus making more effective the agencies employed” (43). The strait represents a dividing line on which Black Americans are “torn” between equally harmful options: to accept the proslavery administration of the United States, which had recently passed the Fugitive Slave Law, or ally themselves with the Colonization Society and depart for Africa. The image of the strait evokes 2 Samuel 24:14: “And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait,” referring to David’s dilemma of choosing between three forms of punishment for his sin: famine, flight, or pestilence.
Here the government, Fugitive Slave Law, and American Colonization Society, respectively and figuratively, are sentences to starvation, exile, or disease. Shadd frames her argument as a remedy. Her religious (and medico-juridical) allusion favors the rehabilitative over retributive aspects of her analogy. Shadd adamantly advocates flight. Her portrayal of (p.67) Black Americans’ political dilemma, which lands them in a strait, divided between two racist alternatives, might visually remind us of the multiple fragmentations nineteenth-century government, medicine, and law enacted upon Black Americans. In the scenario Shadd presents, both options prohibit satisfaction. The only choice is to reject the alternatives on either side of the divide and find what she proposes is the only other way to repair the broken self: immigrate to a healthy locale. Delany uses specific reference to brokenness in the appendix to his Condition: “We have been, by our oppressors, despoiled of our purity, and corrupted in our native characteristics, so that we have inherited their vices, and few of their virtues, leaving us in character, really a broken people” (221). Later, he refers to “Representatives of a Broken Nation” (224). This general discourse of brokenness, remedy, and rehabilitation explicitly details what Shadd more often implies.12
It is a given in Plea that Black Americans reject a proslavery government by moving from the United States; however, Shadd devotes a part of her “Introductory Remarks” to the rejection of colonization. There she begins to formulate her theory of health through rhetorics of physicality that critique the Colonization Society and Africa itself. Shadd remarks that “Tropical Africa, the land of promise of the colonizationists, teeming as she is with the breath of pestilence, a burning sun and fearful maladies, bids [the colonists] welcome; she feelingly invites to moral and physical death, under a voluntary escort of their most bitter enemies at home” (43). In her figuration, the promised land of the colonizationists is a place of sickness, pain, and death. The colonizationists (the “voluntary escort”) are Black Americans’ “most bitter enemies,” leading them, in grim-reaper fashion, to their moral and physical death. The conflation of these deaths contradicts what Dain articulates as the Colonization Society’s belief that “Blacks’ return to Africa would slowly lift both Africa and America out of sin” (116). The characterization of the continent of Africa as diseased is a common trope among other black activists and authors of the period; Shadd employs it in the promotion of emigration to Canada West, which is by contrast a decidedly healthful place.
Shadd’s interrelation of environment and health in Canada West reiterates her ideal healthy body|healthy politic. Her subsequent promotion of Canada West as the preferred alternative to colonization creates space in North America for the attainment of Black American political agency. (p.68) As historian Van Gosse points out, “From early on, African Americans in Canada voted, sat on juries, testified in courts, and fought in their own militia units under their own officers. Abroad, black Canadians were recognized as British subjects, with the privileges attached to that status. Nowhere in the United States could a black person reach this level of citizenship” (1012). Though Shadd’s plan would require the acceptance of British rule, she splits the difference between remaining in the United States and “returning” to Africa. She proposes that by locating health and free political participation in Canada West, Black Americans can achieve a subjecthood that the previous two options preclude. Her theory depends on civilization rhetoric—perhaps tactically so, for she represents the United States and Africa as largely uncivilized as well as unhealthy—but within her support of British government, she articulates the potential for good health as a promising way to conceptualize Black American freedom and political action.13
Shadd maintains that in British America “the climate is healthy and temperate: epidemics are not of such frequency as in the United States, owing to a more equable temperature, and local diseases are unknown” (45). She emphasizes the centrality of health to her argument by comparing the healthfulness of Canada West (described above) and Canada East where “The land is of good quality, and vegetation is of rapid growth, but the general healthiness of the country is inferior to some of the other districts” (44–45). Within British America, Canada West offers the best settlement location because it is the most healthful of places. Shadd commences her argument from the Hippocratic premise that “An intelligent man understands that health is a person’s most valuable possession” (Tountas 188). She continues: “In Canada West, the variation from a salubrious and eminently healthy climate is nowhere sufficient to cause the least solicitude: on the contrary, exempt from the steady and enfeebling warmth of southern latitudes, and the equally injurious characteristics of polar countries, it is highly conducive to mental and physical energy” (46).
Shadd rejects Africa, but her rhetorical structure seems also to converse (and rather directly so) here with Nott, who a year earlier argued that “the Negro Races[’] … physical type is peculiar; their grade of intellect is greatly inferior; they are utterly wanting in moral and physical energy” (Natural 15, emphasis mine). Shadd counters Nott’s assertion about energy. For Shadd, the temperate climate produces the temperate, energetic self. The environmental (p.69) and therefore individual excesses of Africa, as Shadd depicts it, also correspond with the physical and spiritual self-indulgences Plato opposes. The climate that is “healthy and temperate” produces an “infrequency of violations of law” that is “unprecedented” rather than an “increase of vice, prejudice, improvidence, laziness, or a lack of energy” (45, 68). Self-control goes hand in hand with a commensurably moderate environment. Her theory is also reminiscent of Pythagorean doctrine in which “[h]ealth was a condition of perfect equilibrium, and the Pythagorean way of life meant preserving this equilibrium by practicing moderation and maintaining self-control and calmness” (Tountas 187). Her reiteration, even recitation, of contemporary “negro diseases” explicitly makes an environmentalist claim against Africa, but implicitly draws a parallel between Africa and the United States, too. Here Shadd is clear that she does not accept the racialized definitions of vice and deficiencies of character that Southern doctors promoted, but rather (along with other free black writers and reformers) sees blacks and whites as susceptible to the same vices.
Shadd’s relation of climate to energy here does not rely on physiological distinctions between whites and blacks as, for example, Nott’s, Drake’s, and Cartwright’s theories do, but she argues that the climate of Canada West will produce an enabling effect unknown in extremely cold or warm climes. Whereas physicians such as those listed above espoused the benefits of enslavement in the southern climate as producing an effect of increased energy, Shadd advocates the removal of blacks from the South altogether and uses similar environmental justifications about invigoration, in this instance, to promote the physical benefits of a colder climate. Cartwright, in particular, advocates adopting classical medical theories and practices based on a perceived similarity of Greek and southern U.S. climates, while Shadd draws on the ancients for their physiological as well as empirical|environmental medical arguments. Calloway-Thomas, for example, argues, “Inherent within [Shadd’s] political geography are strong Aristotelian deliberative ideas, modes of reasoning, how to persuade, and skill-sets that were required for the ex-slaves to live well in civil society” (252). In Shadd’s single-minded project to promote emigration, she shapes her propaganda to draw on classical Greek ideals and rhetoric to portray the possibility of a polis commensurate with an idealized black selfhood. She appropriates Greek philosophies of health and government as a mode of critique and persuasion.
(p.70) Shadd’s interest in “mental and physical energy” foregrounds the necessity of both for black success in a new location. She repairs rifts between mind and body, one of the many distinctions that slaveholders and pro-slavery theorists emphasize in order to maintain the institution and on which modern political economy in general relies, for example, the “vices of body” and “vices of character” that determined a slave’s commercial and legal value. Shadd implicitly rejects Nott’s 1851 assertion that, “If … the Negro Races stand at the lowest point in the scale of human beings, and we know of no moral or physical agencies which can redeem them from their degradation, it is clear that they are incapable of self-government, and that any attempt to improve their condition is warring against an immutable law of nature” (17). The combination of energies of which Shadd speaks provides the basis for black industriousness that will be essential to the personal and political agency that is the ultimate goal of emigration. Shadd argues, “I firmly believe that with an axe and a little energy, an independent position would result in a short period” (52). The climate promotes health, necessary for energy, which in turn garners the ideal of self-sufficiency—one might go so far as to say, self-mastery. Here Shadd draws together Plato’s notion of the body’s influence on the mind and Hippocrates’s recognition of the relation between the physical, social, and political environments. For the ancient Greeks, as for Shadd, “an autonomous society means ipso facto autonomous persons. But, autonomous society or autonomous persons mean empowered society and empowered persons. Therefore, the notion of empowerment is not only related with self-sufficiency … but with the notion of autonomy as well” (Tountas 188–89). Shadd’s depiction of the possibility of independence in Canada West also reiterates a broader call for black self-sufficiency in her promotion of emigration. As historian Erica Ball notes with regard to the importance of landownership, delegates to the 1848 National Black Convention urged that “young African American men who sought to live truly antislavery lives would need to prepare themselves to take up new forms of labor and embody the ideal of the self-made man” (46). This is precisely what many of Shadd’s proposed émigrés would have to do. That her proposed location is still governed by a monarchy, and therefore not an example of the classical Greek ideal democracy, is not a problem for Shadd. She portrays the British monarchy as a protective rather than oppressive system, in stark contradistinction to the false democracy in the United States.
(p.71) Shadd’s argument allies with British North American propaganda against U.S. political policy. She promotes the notion that self-sufficiency is possible through relocation to the proper place and argues that in Canada West, “There is every inducement to buy [property]” and that there is “no lack of employment at fair prices, and no complexional or other qualification in existence” (59). Her reference to a lack of “complexional qualification” conjures the physical limitations the United States placed on blacks, lacking both citizenship and the right to own property. She anticipates W.E.B. Du Bois’s “color line” (1903) and underscores the skin as the barrier, which contains the physical self but also that bars it from attaining political rights. In advocating immigration to Canada West, she rhetorically removes such restrictions from the black physique and encourages the realization of a healthy self that encompasses the body as an interrelated site of physical, mental, emotional, and moral functions.
Shadd sets out “the advantage of a residence in a country in which chattel slavery is not tolerated, and prejudice of colour has no existence whatever—the adaptation of that country, by climate, soil, and political character, to their physical and political necessities; and the superiority of a residence there over their present position at home” (60). In doing so, she weaves the evolutionary rhetoric of adaptation and superiority to craft a sense of self with animal, social, and political needs. This self is intimately related to and shares a mutually influential relationship with its environment and challenges the United States’ economics of property ownership as tied to citizenship and race. Shadd argues that in the province “[t]he climate is healthy … [and black people] enjoy the ‘privileges of British birth’” where there is an “aristocracy of birth not skin, as with Americans” (88–89). For Shadd, health combined with the possibility of citizenship provides a way for Black Americans to acquire subjecthood free from the United States’ racially inflected/motivated articulations of possessive individualism.14
She argues that in the province, where “slavery is not tolerated [and] skin colour means nothing,” the “native good sense of the fugitives, backed by proper schools, will eventually develop the real character of their operations and sacrifices. … The refugees express a strong desire for intellectual culture, and persons often begin their education at a time of life when many in other countries think they are too old” (60–63). Shadd’s recourse to a sense of innate black character recalls some of the essentialist (p.72) rhetoric of her proslavery contemporaries even as she valorizes the meaninglessness of skin color. More specifically, she pinpoints any meaning that skin color might hold as particularly related to man-made (use of “man” deliberate here) political constructions. Advocating the cultivation of an inherent quality through education also evokes the ancient ideal of eventual self-mastery, which those same proslavery contemporaries thought was impossible for black people to attain, hence the paternalistic argument for the institution.15 Reaching toward a Greek ideal, Shadd rather advocates the possibility for black achievement of a classical political model founded on an integrated sense of the embodied black self as active and energetic, physically and intellectually. She reiterates the 1847 Convention declaration that “‘man is a compound being, a being of mind, soul and body,’” the “tripartite model [that] … undergirded nearly every analysis of African American’s plight” (Rael 127).
Thus the lack of racially motivated legislation in Canada West, beyond removing physical restrictions that American policy asserts on the enslaved, provides opportunity for black intellectual development. Though Shadd emphasizes what she sees as the unimportance of race in Canada West,16 she does seem to appreciate the distinctions that class and status create, also in keeping with the Platonic sense that “[a] stable and orderly society … must rest on class divisions” (Bay 38). She does not criticize Canada West’s “aristocracy of birth” but rather privileges it in opposition to American racism. Shadd sees greater freedom under monarchy than under republicanism, thus identifying her project not only with Canada (a state rejecting republicanism) but rather with the global superpower of the time: Great Britain.17 She argues, “There would not be as in Africa, Mexico, or South America, hostile tribes to annoy the settler, or destroy at will towns and villages with their inhabitants: the strong arm of British power would summarily punish depredations made, of whatever character, and the emigrants would naturally assume the responsibility of British freemen” (99). Shadd sees the power of Great Britain not only to protect emigrants from harm but also to curb the spread of slavery. “More territory has been given up to slavery, the Fugitive Law has passed, and a concert of measures, seriously affecting their personal liberty, have been entered into by several of the Free States. So subtle, unseen and effective have been their movements, that, were it not that we remember there is a Great Britain, we would be overwhelmed, powerless, from the force of such successive shocks” (100). (p.73) Shadd conflates her ideal of the healthy body in a healthy state as autonomous and protected by a benevolent monarchy.
Whereas for Shadd, rehabilitative discourse seeks to cure political inequities, for Delany, recovery from illness and restoration to health means to remedy the “corruption of blood.” For him it is a physiological degradation of Black Americans (the result of racist politics) that needs fixing. As does Shadd, Martin Delany develops a rhetorics of physicality and health in his emigration polemic appearing in the same year. Delany, however, advocates a radical politics of black autonomy that rejects Canada West as a permanent solution to the injurious political climate of the United States. At best, according to Delany, the colony might function as a temporary refuge for fugitive and free blacks en route to a better locale. He rejects the promise of abolition, seeming to understand the potential of emancipation as the two thefts that Marcus Wood outlines: first, the theft of black freedom and, second, of the possibility of black revolution. As the last chapter of the book will demonstrate, Delany later seems to fantasize about, perhaps even promote the fomenting of revolution via his novel Blake—emigration failing to secure the politics he desires. Levine explains, “In Blake, Delany somewhat differently attempts to resolve the problem of imperialism inherent in Blake’s building of a black nation by connecting the revolutionary hero to the region through his personal history and black body. In doing so, Delany more explicitly brings to the center of the novel the problem of conjoining race and nation that had interested him since the 1852 publication of Condition” (203). I think this “problem of conjoining race and nation” succinctly sums up the cause of the sense of restlessness we get in Condition, which perhaps prompted criticism that the work did not offer a thorough enough program for improvement. But it is through that uneasy relation between race, the body, and nation that Delany interrogates the critical or analytical value of health and well-being. Whereas for Shadd health is a means of acquiring independence, for Delany it is an assertion of black racial superiority that necessitates more than the privileges of citizenship; it demands self-rule.
As Shadd does in her Plea, Delany asserts himself as an intellectual and a professional in The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States. He argues, “A moral and mental, is as obnoxious as a physical servitude, and not to be tolerated; as the one may, eventually, lead to the other” (38). Similar to Shadd, Delany espouses the (p.74) interconnectedness of one’s moral, mental, and physical condition and promotes an ideal individual and political condition reminiscent of the ancients. In fact, near the beginning of the book he makes particular reference to Greek political theory in his comparative history of slavery: “In past ages there were many such classes, as the Israelites in Egypt, the Gladiators in Rome, and similar classes in Greece” (41). He longs for the ideals of classical Greek literature in his lament: “We have no reference to ancient times—we speak of modern things” (70). Delany also converses directly with nineteenth-century proslavery medical and legal theory and in particular with midcentury racial science.18 Similar to Shadd’s, his rehabilitative discourse frames his argument for emigration as a “remedy”—indeed the word appears at least five times in the volume in this precise context—for the “miserable position” blacks in America occupy (57). Furthermore, he characterizes the United States as particularly unhealthy in his descriptions and his rhetoric.
His purpose is to outline and advocate the opportunity for black people, “Broken People,” to free themselves of U.S. regulation and to realize their potential for moral, intellectual, and physical well-being, which will result in their political independence. Robert Reid-Pharr explains that for Delany, “Black America can be actualized once she runs from herself, moves away from the very realities out of which she has been produced” (115). However, Delany’s concept is uneasy and contradicts Shadd’s theory that the protective governance of Great Britain will offer Black Americans the political agency they seek. Rather, Delany promotes black self-rule and proposes a politics that would later be recognized as Black Nationalism. He is much more extreme than Shadd in presenting the possibility of a triumphant black subjecthood—specifically male—and he is far more critical of colonial Canadian race relations.
He characterizes the political situation in the United States as pathological and that it is “folly to deny, insanity not to understand, blindness not to see” that “[w]hat the unfortunate classes are in Europe, such are [blacks] in the United States” (45, emphasis mine). His rhetoric of disability shifts to illness and suffering as he describes the situation which is “the result of an unnatural prejudice,” even “Anti-Slavery men” refusing to “make common cause with [colored men] in affliction” (55, emphasis mine). He details the “colored men[’s]” “miserable position in the community” as well as the “injurious character of the Colonization Society” (57–62, emphasis mine). (p.75) Delany structures his argument as a movement from the pathology of race relations in the United States toward the “remedy” of emigration. Health forms not only the content of his polemic, but its structure and rhetorical features as well. Similar to Shadd’s work, Condition’s appeals to classical health and governance, and ideals of political autonomy function as modes of critique and persuasion.
Delany begins by reiterating what Spanish priest and historian Bartolomé de las Casas articulated in the early sixteenth century and what Delany’s medical contemporaries and later Kiple and other medical historians have more recently rearticulated: that Africans were chosen as slaves because of their (perceived) ability to withstand certain hardships that the aboriginal population could not. He argues that it was not hatred that inspired the enslavement of black people, but rather that “the African race had long been known to Europeans, in all ages of the world’s history, as a long-lived, hardy race, subject to the labor of various kinds, subsisting mainly by traffic, trade, and industry, and consequently being as foreign to the sympathies of the invaders of the continent as the Indians, they were selected, captured, brought here as a laboring class, and as a matter of policy held as such” (50). He refutes the “absurd idea” of African “natural inferiority” as the reason for enslavement and alludes to the relatively new nineteenth-century preoccupation with racial science to declare that the notion was only “recently adduced by the slaveholders and their abettors, in justification of the policy” (50). His conversation with medical history and contemporary race theory dispels some of the mythology of proslavery thought and frames his argument for the possibility of black physical and intellectual superiority and ultimate political autonomy.
Delany reiterates the correspondence between mind and body, familiar to his black Northern free or fugitive audience, and emphasizes exercise of physical and mental capacities to counter the restraints the oppressors of the slave system have placed on the development of black independence and asserts that slaves have internalized such restricted subjectivity and become “degraded.” He not only recognizes the acceptance of racist attitudes but argues that they materialize as physiological facts from one generation to the next as well. Delany asserts, “The degradation of the slave parent has been entailed upon the child, induced by the subtle policy of the oppressor, in regular succession handed down from father to son—a system of regular (p.76) submission and servitude, menialism and dependence, until it has become almost a physiological function of our system, an actual condition of our nature” (72). Thus racist social policy poisons the minds of the oppressed to the extent that they not only accept it but begin to “wear” it on the body as well. Later, Delany argues that the “offsprings of slaves and peasantry, have the general characteristics of their parents; and nothing but a different course of training and education, will change the character” (219). This is the pathological condition in the United States, transgenerationally infectious. Here Delany does not refer to such a condition rhetorically or metaphorically but discusses the actual physiological effect of slavery on the mind and body of the enslaved.
Delany also observes a conversely similar physiological improvement in Irish immigrants to the United States, analogous to his predictions about the effects of Black American emigration: “the instant they set their foot upon unrestricted soil; free to act and untrammeled to move; their physical condition undergoes a change, which in time becomes physiological, which is transmitted to the offspring, who when born under such circumstances, is a decidedly different being to what it would have been, had it been born under different circumstances” (219). Delany’s analogy of Irish immigrants suggests the similar potential for Black Americans’ mental and physiological improvement through emigration. In short, a free place is a healthful place. Before detailing and evaluating such healthful places, he establishes the premise that emigration is essential to black health and well-being. Arguing for a method of moving from a condition of degradation to one of health and self-sufficiency, he discounts religion as a remedy: “success in life … does not depend upon our religious character, but that the physical laws governing all earthly and temporary affairs, benefit equally the just and unjust. Any other doctrine than this, is downright delusion, unworthy of a free people, and only intended for slaves” (66, emphasis mine). To accept the logic of a pathological place is pathological in and of itself, as his reference to delusion implies.
Again emphasizing health as the frame of his argument, he asks the rhetorical question: “What then is the remedy, for our degradation and oppression?” (66, emphasis mine) and again later, “What we desire to learn now is, how to effect a remedy” (71, emphasis mine). His conclusion is that “Our elevation must be the result of self-efforts, and work of our own hands” (71, emphasis in original)—like Shadd, reiterating a broader value of self-sufficiency (p.77) among black activists and reformers. Also similar to Shadd’s appeal in Plea, Delany’s harkens back to ancient Greek notions of self-sufficiency and independence (Protagoras) and, more particularly here with regard to Delany’s argument, Socrates, “who distinguished ethics from religion and established the autonomy of the former” (Tountas 187). Such appeals to self-sufficiency became standard in Black American notions of elevation and were part of a broader American cultural ideal: “In the words of black authors, mind, morals, and the capacity to develop character merged in a vision of uplift that pervaded their thought. From cultural elites to writers in the expanding popular press, contemporary white thinkers issued remarkably similar statements” (Rael 129). Hence the cultural credence of Delany’s and Shadd’s appeals to a principle of self-sufficiency utterly at odds with life in an unhealthy place that deems them unfit for citizenship. This is where the appeal to a particularly classical ideal of the healthy body in a healthy state distinguishes their argument somewhat from broader notions of self-sufficiency within Black American communities and America in general.
By laying claim to and reworking ideals of antiquity that resurfaced in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American social thought more broadly, Delany and Shadd create distinctly black utopic visions of self-governance and position themselves as potential commanders of their ideal polis. Delany and Shadd were seemingly comfortable with divisions of class. “In a dialogue with his disciple Glaucon on how to create a great republic, the great philosopher Socrates argues that the creation of an ideal society might require an ‘audacious fiction.’ A stable and orderly society, the philosopher maintains, must rest on class divisions” (Bay 38). Delany is explicit about social organization, arguing for the value of people of letters, as well as business- and craftsmen. In a sort of catalogue of elite black figures, Delany offers a host of men and women, Mary Ann Shadd among them, who demonstrate accomplishments academic, legal, literary, with classical education and languages. This class fits the rubric Socrates outlines: “So the citizens of the ideal republic will be divided by education and merit into three ranks: rulers, auxiliaries, and craftsmen. But the republic will prosper only if its citizens accept their ranks” (Bay 38). This final qualification about the acceptance of class divisions appears in a substantial footnote Delany includes as he discusses this first rank. In it he chastises those who attempt to exceed their rank as well as those who are (p.78) of the first rank but don’t use their talents in its service. The focus of his criticism is an early work of black ethnology by Robert Benjamin Lewis, Light and Truth: Collected from the Bible and Ancient and Modern History, Containing the Universal History of the Colored and the Indian Race from the Creation of the World to the Present Time (1836). Delany argues with reference to Lewis’s book, “We much regret the fact, that there are but too many of our brethren, who undertake to dabble in literary matters, in the shape of newspaper and book-making, who are wholly unqualified for the important work. This, however, seems to be called forth by the palpable neglect, and indifference of those who have had the educational advantages, but neglected to make use of them” (fn 143).
Criticism of Lewis’s book affords Delany opportunity to reinforce the rank divisions across black class lines while simultaneously excoriating the work of white ethnologist/Egyptologist George Gliddon (Nott’s coauthor of Types of Mankind) “who makes all ancient black men, white,” whereas Lewis “makes all ancient great white men, black—as Diogenes, Socrates, Themistocles, Pompey, Caesar, Cato, Cicero, Horace, Virgil, et cetera” (fn 143). In exposing the faults of Gliddon’s and Lewis’s methodology, Delany makes the case for the responsibility incumbent upon black men and women of letters, classically educated, who form that first rank or ruling class in an ideal society. At the same time, he makes the case for the value of the second and third ranks, the business- and craftsmen.
In fact, he argues that the tendency for black elites to have skipped over these secondary ranks and straight to the first has done the race a disservice. “What we most need then, is a good business practical Education; because, the Classical and Professional education of so many of our young men, before their parents are able to support them, and community ready to patronize them, only serves to lull their energy, and cripple their otherwise, praiseworthy efforts they would make in life” (208). Delany is quick to note that “he fully appreciates [a Classical and Professional education] having had some advantages himself” (208) but fears that Black Americans have “jumped too far; taking a leap from the deepest abyss to the highest summit; rising from the ridiculous to the sublime; without medium or intermission” (208). Delany’s attentiveness to Socrates’ “audacious fiction” offers a social structure from which Black Americans of various classes, backgrounds, and types of education might contribute to the ideal society he envisions. In determining a geographical location, the possibility for (p.79) good health is a central contention for the fulfillment of his ideals of self-sufficiency and self-governance.
Delany discounts Liberia—the choice of the ACS—as “signally unhealthy, rendering it objectionable as a place of destination for the colored people of the United States” (185). Unlike Shadd, he only briefly and under only certain circumstances recommends settlement in Canada West, not because of its potential for healthy living, given its geography, but as an unhealthful place politically: “The climate being milder than that of the northern portions of New York, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, or any of the States bordering on the lakes, the soil is prolific in production of every description” (189). Beyond climate, he also praises its agriculture: “Grains, vegetables, fruits, and cattle, are of the very best kind; from a short tour by the writer, in that country in the fall, 1851, one year ago, he prefers Canada West to any part of North America, as a destination for the colored people” (189). His political objection to Canada West is his perceived certainty of the colony’s susceptibility to American annexation. Canada West may provide temporary respite for fugitives, but it is not the location for his ideal society. In short, it may offer temporary comfort, but it is not the desired “remedy.” “That country is the best, in which our manhood can be best developed; and that is Central and South America, and the West Indies—all belonging to this glorious Continent” (197–98). For Delany, manhood is selfhood, and the best places to develop that are Nicaragua and New Grenada, “the climate being healthy and highly favorable … opportunities for us to rise to the full stature of manhood … in these countries, colored men now fill the highest places in the country” (202). And, punctuating his point about the fulfillment of black selfhood and good health, he argues in the penultimate paragraph, “The black race may be found, inhabiting healthful improvement, every part of the globe where the white race reside; while there are parts of the globe where the black race reside, that the white race cannot live in health” (226). His implication that black people on the whole enjoy better health in a variety of geographic environments than do white people suggests the vital importance of choosing from a range of options a location that is geographically and politically conducive to “healthful improvement,” especially as white supremacist policies are the main barrier to black political improvement—black well-being requires an environment wherein black selfhood/manhood can secure itself free from powerful white interference.
(p.80) Delany certainly does not see a limit to blacks’ capacity for improved condition and promotes the “perfectibility of intellect” notion to which “black elites and their allies gave great credence” (Rael 128). He warns his readers of the drastic effects of continued degradation. Without an outlet through which to exercise independence, Delany argues, the impulse to do so “degenerates” into a physiological condition of complacency in servitude. His use of the passive voice to characterize this unhealthy process serves as a warning to readers that they must exercise their physical and mental capacities if they are to achieve self-rule.
Highlighting the organizational role of power, Gregg Crane argues, “A wide variety of Northern and Southern intellectuals, authors, jurists, and politicians found in the very existence of slavery, war, class and racial domination ample proof that neither conscience nor consent but power actually structures and organizes law and society” (131). He identifies Delany as one of these intellectuals in whose writing power overshadows race as the focus of his politics as he adopts a “strategic positivism” to achieve his political goals. Crane writes, “Probably better than any white American, Martin Delany appreciated the degree to which power governed social and political association in nineteenth-century America despite pretensions to the contrary” (135). Delany’s advocacy of black removal from white supremacist power of the United States and a perceived politically aligned Canada West altogether speaks to this. For Delany, Crane argues, “The failure of moral suasion to alter the nation’s racist policy … made it clear that the only legal order capable of inscribing and protecting black Americans’ rights would be grounded not in consent (‘rights by sufferance’) but in majority power” (140) because ethnic domination was the result of oppressors’ self-interest and an imbalance of political and economic control (148). Shadd seems to an extent to share this understanding, and so deliberately calls on Black Americans to reject the United States in favor of the then-more-powerful British Empire. Her Plea is also an argument to garrison Canada West, Jamaica, and British Columbia against U.S. imperialist/slave-holding expansion. Furthermore she argues for the continued protection from slavery in Central and South America and the Caribbean: “The policy of the dominant party in the United States is to drive free coloured people out of the country, and to send them to Africa; and at the same time, to give the fullest guaranty to slaveholders, for the continuance of their system. To fulfill, to the letter, this latter, they make large calculations of a future (p.81) interest in the West Indies, Honduras, and ultimately South America. They wish to consecrate to slavery and the slave power that portion of this continent; at the same time they deprecate the vicinity of freemen. To preserve those countries from the ravages of slavery should be the motive of their settlement by coloured men” (90). But Delany is neither satisfied with citizenship under a monarchy nor forestalling the expansion of slavery. He seeks a broader sense of self through black political autonomy.
Delany’s work represents a call to dismantle the power structures on which racist thought sits comfortably. For Delany, racism is not the foundation of white political power; it is its beneficiary. In order for blacks to secure political autonomy, they must reject subjugation and the discourses, namely religion, medicine, and law that white supremacists use to support it. They must conceive themselves as embodying the promise of a politically relevant selfhood whose locus is in health and well-being apart from the U.S. government or colonizationist Africa.
These authors emphasize a connection between personal potential and physical fortitude and perceive the healthy black physique as free and unlimited in its capacity for individual development and self-betterment. They portray mobility and choice in exercising the ability to move freely, legally, and at will from one geographical location to another as a crucial component of autonomy that would allow black people in the New World to explore and fulfill their potential. Shadd’s and Delany’s ideological frames rework some of Plato’s and Aristotle’s notions of societal organization in their promotion of emigration, particularly these philosophers’ “concepts of wholeness, unity, autonomy, [as well as] the structure of the state [as] … compared to the anatomy of the body” (Herzogenrath 2). Whereas Plato and Aristotle compare these notions to the body’s anatomy, Shadd and Delany are specifically concerned with the black body’s physiology, wellbeing, and centrality to community building. Referring to Aristotle’s relation of freedom and well-being in his Politics, Foucault explains, “The individual’s attitude toward himself, the way in which he ensured his own freedom with regard to himself, and the form of supremacy he maintained over himself were a contributing element to the well-being and good order of the city” (Pleasure 79). Shadd and Delany echo such a philosophy as they theorize and propagandize black individual and political independence.
The appeal for Black Americans of an autonomous condition of self-mastery in the context of antebellum U.S. race politics may seem obvious, (p.82) but for Shadd and Delany its achievement was impossible within the confines of the slaveholding nation. Unlike many of their literary contemporaries, neither author had been enslaved, yet the Fugitive Slave Law rendered them vulnerable in new ways to slave laws while the colonizationists’ alternative, for them as well as their primary readership, constituted another form of black regulation, degradation, and oppression. Asserting black political autonomy through the advocacy of emigration, Shadd and Delany rework the classical correlation between individual freedom and social order in their promotion of racial uplift and improved social condition. Among the practical goals they promote in their discourses of black betterment are access to education and realization of an ideal of self-reliance. Underpinning all practical and conceptual ideals is their philosophy of good health.
Although concepts of wholeness and autonomy have historically reproduced repressive and exclusionary orders—and Shadd’s and Delany’s writings in this respect certainly reassert such potentially problematic calculations in the context of black selfhood—here they also productively challenge the pathologization of the black body that informed much of the racism of their time. Each author depicts emigration’s potential contribution to good health as vital to individual intellectual, political, and professional development as well as black social organization. Presenting themselves as among the professionals, intellectuals, and political leaders of their communities, Shadd and Delany converse with prevailing and emergent race and medical theories to identify and reject scientifically informed restrictions on the black physique and instead theorize its potential. Their public, printed entrance into emigration debates engages with proslavery and white supremacist theory and marks the centrality of health and wellbeing in the development of black political philosophy in the face of medical justification for the enslavement and oppression of people of African descent in North America.
Shadd’s approaches succeeded to varying extents. Her advocacy of immigration to Canada certainly did not prevent further atrocities that resulted from the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850). Neither did the “privileges of British citizenship” secure for Black Americans in British North America a place free of racism. Nevertheless, as an activist, intellectual, and author, she helped build a substantial and politically influential black community in Canada West (now Ontario) that prospered to (p.83) a greater extent than any other would in the area until well into the next century. And although Delany temporarily abandoned his emigrationist projects after the Civil War and turned his intellectual energies specifically toward a racially problematic ethnology, his Condition presented a bold argument that would evolve in later political writings and in his novel, all of which would garner for him a reputation as the father of Black Nationalism whose intellectual influence extends into our current time.
Shadd and Delany highlight health as a means of conversing with and rejecting contemporary race theory and establishing a nineteenth-century black politics of autonomy through a dynamic, comprehensive notion of the self. Their portrayals are reminiscent of classical ideals of self-mastery aspiring to a commensurable healthy, independent politic. They centralize the physique and white supremacist attempts to limit its potential. Insisting that blacks in the United States recognize access to well-being in securing of individual, political, and professional autonomy through mobility, they pursue a model of healthy black selfhood through emigration, industry, intellect, and science. But as is the case in most political propaganda, their overtures and exhortations overlook reality as often as they are overshadowed by it. The theorization and pursuit of the ideal, healthy Black New World self in many ways grew out of the physical realities of the injured, ill, and disabled black self. Indeed the political and philosophical potential of such embodied notions of selfhood, in the accounts of formerly enslaved women to follow, it seems offer a more productive notion of what an ideal self might actually be.
(1.) These refer specifically to Catherine Parr Traill’s 1836 book The Backwoods of Canada and Susanna Moodie’s 1852 Roughing It in the Bush. Literary critic Richard Almonte has attempted to read Shadd’s Plea in this larger tradition of early Canadian literature, and I applaud his consideration of the text from a literary perspective. It’s somewhat an uneasy fit, though, because Plea follows more the genre of the almanac, not to mention polemic, and lagged in popularity behind the tremendously successful examples from English emigrants partly because it had no home audience in England. Nevertheless, Almonte’s reading challenges critics to see Plea as traversing colonial Canadian, British, and U.S. literary traditions, not just as a historical document. It is also noteworthy that before emigrating to Canada West, Moodie (née Strickland) served as amanuensis for Mary Prince’s History. Moodie in a sense embodies some of the intimate connections between imperial, colonial, and national literatures on the issue of slavery and immigration.
(2.) Delany was not alone in his promotion of black physical superiority. Henry Highland Garnet, for example, along with Delany recognized “the reality of the rampant racialism of their day” and believed that “blacks needed to employ it on their own behalf.” See Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North, 51.
(3.) A notable exception is Richard Almonte’s introduction to A Plea for Emigration, 73n30.
(4.) Perhaps Eric Gardner’s call for critics to look for African American literature in “unexpected places” might inspire scholars to pay more literary attention to the Provincial Freeman.
(5.) Of course Ethiop, whom I note in one of the chapter epigraphs, describes Shadd in a flattering light in the same paper where Delany disparages her. Levine identifies Ethiop as one of Douglass’s contributing editors, William J. Wilson. See Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity, 75. Despite Shadd’s complimentary appearance in Wilson’s letter, I think that Delany is focusing his critique on Douglass’s individual silence about Shadd’s accomplishments.
(6.) In part informing my reading of the role of women in Delaney’s novel Blake is his (p.204) public support of Shadd, as well as their lasting friendship solidified in Canada West. See Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, 50.
(7.) I want to acknowledge three other readings of these works. One situates Delany’s Condition as promoting capitalist entrepreneurship (Wallace) and Shadd’s Plea as espousing a neo-Jeffersonian agrarian model (Peterson, Doers of the Word). Another argues that “Delany turned to law, rather than other readily available discourses such as Christianity or sentimentality, to make his case against slavery and foster a consolidated African American community.” See Zuck, “Martin R. Delany and Rhetorics of Divided Sovereignty,” 40. Within these excellent analyses of the two writers’ models of becoming, health and rhetorics of physicality are largely overlooked.
(8.) See Marcus Wood, The Horrible Gift of Freedom. Wood describes emancipation as a second theft: slavery stole black people’s freedom and emancipation stole blacks’ ability to revolt and reclaim their own freedom. As Wood duly notes, the iconography of emancipation suggests it was a gift from white people, when in fact they were really just returning what they took in the first place.
(10.) Rhodes goes so far as to say, “Notes of Canada West consistently romanticized British rule, and elevated white institutions to the pinnacle of civilization” (Mary Ann Shadd Cary 44). Perhaps we can see the profound effect of colonial Canadian civilization rhetoric, particularly in contradistinction to portrayals of a backward, if not savage, United States (as we saw nineteenth-century physician and medical historian William Canniff promoting in chapter 1) operating on and through Shadd. We’ll see similar civilizationist rhetoric embedded in Benjamin Drew’s celebration of colonial Canada in chapter 3.
(12.) See also Zuck, “Martin R. Delany and Rhetorics of Divided Sovereignty,” on divided sovereignty in Delany, another (legal) iteration of his sense of brokenness.
(14.) Indeed, Shadd did become a Canadian citizen just before the conclusion of the Civil War. For historical interpretations of Shadd’s decision, see Jane Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and Rinaldo Walcott, “‘Who Is She and What Is She to You?’”
(17.) We might consider here a distinction Shadd may be making between actual monarchy and a republicanism that is little more than a disguise for an underlying monarchy that persisted even after the revolution. See Paul Downes, Democracy, Revolution, and Monarchism in Early American Literature, and Judith Shklar, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion.
(18.) Though I don’t go into Delany’s post–Civil War writings, it is worth noting here that his Principia of Ethnology (1879) reasserts central tenets of mid-nineteenth-century (p.205) racial science but for the purpose of promoting black rather than white superiority. As noted, the appearance of black ethnologies extended back to the earlier part of the century.