I recently joined Ed Blum on the editorial staff at Christian Century‘s religious history blog, Then and Now. I’m looking forward to working with Ed, whom I’ve gotten to know over the past several months through CFH and S-USIH. His religious biography of W.E.B. Du Bois is truly outstanding and I highly recommend it.
My inaugural post appeared today–I wrote about an 1835 novel entitled Marie or, Slavery in the United States. Marie was written by Gustave de Beaumont (1802-1866), Alexis de Tocqueville’s travelling companion on their famous tour of the United States that took place in 1831-1832. Tocqueville is famous for having written Democracy in America, which is an extensive consideration of American “institutions,” as Tocqueville put it. Democracy is much more well-known: it was translated into English for the first time during the 1860s, and has been widely read here in America, especially in the years since World War II. (And for a brief word of shameless self-promotion, I am currently in process of editing a new abridgment of Democracy). Democracy is not an uncritical work, but it is a work celebrating American exceptionalism. It is often appealed to by political conservatives, who are found of misattributing the “America is great because she is good” line to Tocqueville.
But Beaumont’s work, a true-to-life work of fiction that he meant to be read alongside Democracy, is less well-known to Americans. It was not translated into English until 1958, nearly 100 years after Democracy. In contrast to Democracy, there is nothing celebratory about America in Marie. It is a tragic story, and it strikes at the heart of something very central, albeit very ugly, about American culture–deep-rooted racial prejudice.
I hope that you add Marie to your reading list, and that you settle in to absorb its message. Marie is much more than a critique of slavery. It is a critique of the myriad absurdities inherent to racial prejudice, to say nothing of the glaring hypocrisy of racial injustice in America. While the work is set in the 1830s, the book offers us a way to think historically about racism in America, as it also continues to give opportunity to reflect on the abiding reality of white privilege in contemporary times.
Here is a taste of my post—
Beaumont’s Marie was a work ahead of its time. It was not the first abolitionist work in America, but it was the first one to go beyond slavery and look squarely at the broader problem of racial injustice in America. Not only that, but it presented racial injustice as being ingrained in American culture, reaching not only to African slaves but also to “mulattos,” those in whose veins coursed the slightest hint of African blood. Beaumont told the story of Ludovic, a Frenchman who migrated to America in search of a new life invigorated by liberty. Ludovic fell in love with Marie, a lovely American girl of 1/32 African descent. Because of this, she was considered “colored,” and she and her brother George were ostracized by society. Ludovic’s marriage to Marie incited a race riot in New York, from which they barely escaped. Ultimately the couple had to flee prejudice to the wilderness of Michigan, where deeper tragedies awaited. The novel ended with a disconsolate Ludovic, having witnessed the destruction of the ones he loved most in what he believed was the land of the free.