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Do You Get It?–“The African Chief” of William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)Like a good American Romantic, William Cullen Bryant took a stand against slavery. That’s a stand I can admire, but reading his poem “The African Chief,” one has to question just how thoroughly the Massachusetts writer understood his subject.┬áThe situation of this narrative poem is fairly straight-forward. The African chief of the title has found himself in a slave market.

Chained in the market-place he stood,
A man of giant frame,
Amid the gathering multitude
That shrunk to hear his name–
All stern of look and strong of limb,
His dark eye on the ground:–
And silently they gazed on him,
As on a lion bound.

Like Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, Bryant’s chief is a noble, both by birth and in his overall character. Essentially, and this is my complaint against the poem, this chief is exactly the sort of person that the Bryant’s well-heeled, Unitarian-inclined reader would want him to be. In fact, he is exactly the sort of person that those readers would like to imagine themselves to be. ┬áLet’s consider his qualities.

He had fought well but vainly, a “warrior true and brave.” What Massachusetts parlor reader would not want to be thought “true and brave”? He was proud–but not the bad kind of proud. This pride had been well earned by the chief’s overall awesomeness. Here was a family man concerned for his wife who “weeps by the cocoa-tree” and his children who “ask in vain for me.” You can almost hear the sound of handkerchiefs drawn from pockets all around New England as those lines pass by. And like a practical Yankee, the chief attempts to purchase his freedom, first with promised ivory and gold dust and ultimately by chunks of gold secreted in his hair.

Why do I seem to have so little respect for this poem? It is not because I disapprove of William Cullen Bryant’s condemnation of slavery. In his heart, Bryant understood the deep evil of slavery, but having a profound feeling is not sufficient to create great art. And attempting to inhabit the mind of someone in a wholly different life situation and from a wholly different culture is a perilous thing. We see the same sorts of moves made by authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Joel Chandler Harris. These writers attempted to create images of slavery as they believed it ought to be. In the case of Stowe and Bryant, we have the noble African slave who behaves just as a decent white New Englander would be supposed to behave in such a dismal situation. In Harris’ case, slavery is portrayed in a more favorable waybut is still one that casts more light on the author’s predispositions than on the reality of the situation.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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