Benito Cereno (1855) by Herman Melville (1819-1891)
“Published in late 1855, as the United States moved toward the Civil War, Benito Cereno is one of the most despairing stories in American literature.” This is the opinion of Greg Grandin, professor of History at NYU. One of the human behaviors most responsible for the ubiquity of despair both historically and today is the act of projection; treating others as less than human leads to tragic consequences.
Benito Cereno is based on a true historical incident. Herman Melville’s version tells the story of Amasa Delano, a New England sea captain in the South Pacific. American traders and whalers could be found literally sailing the seven seas in those days. Delano had boarded a distressed Spanish ship carrying West Africans who he thinks are slaves and offers his help.
The truth is that the slaves had mutinied, slaughtered most of the crew and had demanded that the captain, Benito Cereno, return them to their home in Senegal. Babo, the leader of the slaves, pretends to be Cereno’s loyal servant, but is actually keeping a close eye on him to see that he doesn’t reveal what has actually happened.
An anti-slavery New Englander, Delano admires Babo’s seeming devotion to his master and even fantasizes about how nice it would be to have such a servant of his own. Looking through the eyes of a free white man, Delano projects on Babo what he wants to see, an inferior, thoughtless, less-than-human being. “But when Delano ultimately discovers the truth—that Babo, in fact, is the one exercising masterly discipline over his inner thoughts, and that it is Delano who is enslaved to his illusions—he responds with savage violence.”
Fast forward to today (2014) with President Obama receiving the projections of American racists whose false selves prevent them from seeing him as they see themselves, a loyal American. To many white Republicans and the Tea Party politicians, he is Babo, the other. To them “Mr. Obama isn’t what he seems: that instead of being a faithful public servant he is carrying out a leftist plot hatched decades ago to destroy America; or if not that, then he is a secret Muslim intent on supplanting the Constitution with Islamic law; or a Kenyan-born anti-colonialist out to avenge his native Africa.”
Preposterous we might say; just as preposterous as the belief, still alive and well in the American South among white supremacists, that “the South will rise again.” The slave played the role of the other to white southerners just as African Americans do today for much of modern American society. “This helps explain those Confederate flags that appear at conservative rallies, as well as why Tea Party-backed politicians like Sarah Palin and Rand Paul insist on equating federal policies they don’t like with chattel bondage. Believing in the ‘right to health care,’ Mr. Paul once said, is ‘basically saying you believe in slavery.’”
Perhaps we haven’t progressed as far as we think we have since liberal New Englanders led the fight to end slavery. And the difference between illusion and reality still plagues us. Who is the master and who is the slave? “One Republican councilman in Michigan attended a protest carrying an image of Mr. Obama’s decapitated head on a pike, which happenes to be the very fate that befalls Babo once his ruse unravels. Another Republican ran for Congress in Florida with a commercial featuring Mr. Obama as the captain of a slave ship.”
Without a transformational narrative, all of humanity will continue to sail the Seven Seas of Illusion on a slave ship. On this ship, it is unclear who is slave and who is master, who is the servant and who is the other: but all are in a continuous state of mutiny reacting to their tortured imaginations.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in books by Roy Charles Henry.