A Student Response to Carlyle’s “The Negro Question”

I love garbage literature. I go to school listening to a podcast about the best-worst things written on the internet, and I go to sleep listening to another podcast on bad books. Every month, I and about a dozen others meet up to watch three bad films, and I know of at least one relationship in which an early connection amongst them came from a mutual interest in Tommy Wiseau’s spectacularly awful 2003 film The Room. But a question that comes up frequently is: do these works have any value beyond entertainment? If we work under the assumption that popular works of art and writing reflect, and at the same time change the culture around them, the answer is that no matter if they are poorly constructed, problematic and profoundly bigoted, these works often and unfortunately have captured the mood of the time period they were written in. If one were to speak of the culture of the 2010s, for example, one would have to discuss the Transformers film series and Fifty Shades of Gray as much as Moonlight and Mad Max Fury Road. The same has to be said of classical works of literature; one could not have a full appreciation of Elizabethan plays if one only read Shakespeare and his esteemed (though less renowned) colleagues’ works; one would also have to read those that were popular but have not stood the test of time. Indeed, one problem that does come up in English literature classes in general is that they focus all too much on the highbrow. These works have their place, but if one only reads the classics and the literary there is a risk of not fully understanding or appreciating the literature read by the majority.

The question arises, though, whether or not it is worthwhile to read the truly irredeemable. While it can be argued that the works previously mentioned do have their own value, the same cannot be said of Thomas Carlyle’s Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, a polemical essay arguing that the newly freed slaves of the British held islands in the Caribbean should be held in perpetual indentured servitude. His defense of this is generally what one would expect: Africans were lifted out of savagery by whites and should be remain in the “natural” hierarchy as servants. He further defends slavery in that the slaves were actually happy living under the threat of the whip. Yet Carlyle is, at the same time, noticeably disgusted by images of their gnashing, pumpkin devouring mouths, and terrified that they might unleash machete armed revenge such as what happened in Haiti five decades prior. This contradiction between high minded morality and savage cruelty is not unique of any defender of such institutions.

Is it worth reading the Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question today in order to understand the time period it was written in or even understand our present? The work certainly has no merits by itself, but I would offer a timid yes in certain contexts. Carlyle’s ravings are as bizarre as they are dreadful and it is a shame that someone that wrote something as meaningful as “The sailor furls his sail, and lays down his oar; and bids a strong, unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters” could write something as terrible as “Our beautiful Black darlings are at last happy; with little labour except to the teeth, which surely, in those excellent horse-jaws of theirs will not fail!” Racism in all of its contradictions and cruelties are displayed here, so there is some value in understanding that unfortunate perspective that was present at the time, as well as today. This, however, runs the significant risk of intellectualizing or abstracting the realities faced by people in the past and present. One does not need to read The Protocols on the Elders of Zion to understand twentieth and twenty-first century anti-Semitism, for example, as an issue that manifests itself in material and deadly ways. The same has to be said of Carlyle’s essay, that while such works have their place, it is far more productive to understand the effect this racism had in material realities rather than merely in the essay itself.

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