Beyond Black and White:
Structural Liminality and Slave Insurrection
San Francisco State University
Hayden White has argued that the discipline of "history proper (as it is called) buries [its conceptual apparatus] in the interior of the narrative,
where it serves as a hidden and implicit shaping device" (Tropics of Discourse 127), thereby superficially denying the latent biases and structurings
of thought inherent to the chosen material of the historical study. This rhetorical dissembling is part of a fictive opposition of history to fiction,
constructed by modern historians "to claim occupancy of an epistemologically neutral middle ground that supposedly exists between art and science," a
theoretical space that some historians argue is the only place "that art and science meet in harmonious synthesis" (27). Developing in the nineteenth
century with "the romantic artist's fear of positivistic science and the positivistic scientist's disdain for romantic art," historians sought to
mediate between these two extremes and continued to claim this unique positioning long after this "supposedly neutral middle ground ... [had] dissolved
in the discovery of the common constructivist character of both artistic and scientific statements" (28-29).
As White notes, despite its seeming inoperability, this oppositional vision of historical and fictional discourse persists, and White declares that
our investigations into "the literature of fact" should regard "the extent to which the discourse of the historian and that of the imaginative writer
overlap, resemble, or correspond with each other" (121). While White is particularly concerned with the study of history and the reconceptualizing
of it in terms of its literary merits, this divide can also be examined in the opposite direction, researching ways in which fiction rewrites and
interfaces with the 'empirical reality' normally considered the historian's domain.
As a part of this scholarship, William Luis has argued that Cuban antislavery narratives are part of a system of narrative that seeks "to reveal a
reality not often seen, accepted, or understood by the reader," rather than "a part of a creative process intended to entertain or delight the reader"
(1-2). "By creating a verisimilar narrative system," Luis continues, "fiction ... becomes a way of rewriting other fiction and, most importantly,
history," a "counter-discourse to power ... subversive to a Western form of rule" (2). The import of studying Cuban antislavery narratives becomes
the discovery of a canon of fictional writings that can and are used in an attempt to modify an empirical reality, the 'veri' to which these narratives
are 'similar.' Like the Angel of History in Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History," these narratives utilize historical 'facts' to
structure their narratives, re-encoding empirical events in new ways, re-viewing them in order to open them up both as rewritings of the past and also
as harbingers of a brighter future.
Working within the revealing overlap that here develops between the categories of 'historical fact' and 'imaginative fancy,' I would like to examine
two texts whose origins demonstrate little affinity, Martin R. Delany's Blake; or The Huts of America and Cirilo Villaverde's Cecilia Valdés; or
Angel's Hill. The first text, Blake, utilizes factual footnotes whose placement on the margins of the page, as well as whose shift in narrative voice,
disrupts the diagesis of the main narration, representing distracting intrusions of an outside world into the revolutionary ideology of Delany's
fictive universe. Delany, a relatively forgotten and marginalized African-American of pan-African, emigrationist sentiment writing in the antebellum
United States, makes the noticeably anachronistic choice of placing Cuban poet/revolutionary Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés, alias Plácido, in the 1850s
as a necessary component within Delany's own unfinished novel/revolution. The veracity of the minutiæ in this novel as attested to by Delany's footnotes
are undercut throughout by these extraordinary events, a seeming backlash to the empirical status quo that appears in the footnotes, which frequently
employ phrases such as (picked at random) "This song was sung by a little black boy" (210, emphasis added), and "'Guinea' with the slave, is a five-dollar gold piece,"
(30, emphasis added). These footnotes, which imply an outside world that is absorbed within the footnote with little or no mediation,
create an outside narrative – an exo-narratus – against which Delany's revolution is set.
These (ab)uses of historical verisimilitude have an interesting correspondence with certain techniques of Cirilo Villaverde's Cecilia Valdés; or
Angel's Hill. Villaverde employs inter-narrative scenes, occasional direct addresses to the reader, and a curious "Prologue" by the author, to locate
a historically-deemed reality outside of, but intruding upon, the main narrative. Villaverde's personal history, however, is of quite a different
stripe from Delany's: a canonized (in his patria, Cuba), white, Cuban criollo of reluctant antislavery sentiment and racist mentality, who wrote the
final, extended version of Cecilia Valdés from his exile in postbellum New York. Despite these texts' disparate histories, both of these fictional
texts specifically recall the material reality against which Luis has placed the antislavery works of Cuba (including, at least in reference, Cecilia
Valdés) and against which I would like to extend Blake. Examining the resemblances between two such different novels is not an arbitrary choice for at
least three reasons: the first is fairly obvious, that they are both antislavery texts in their own highly idiosyncratic ways; second, their particular
emplotment, which I will theorize as an exonarratus, of the divide (the 'opposition' against which White argues) between history and fiction seems to be
quite similar, even across thirty years, two countries, and two different motivations; the final reason for which a juxtaposition of these texts seems
justified is that they both use, in a very ordered if obscure way, the figure of the Cuban poet and (possible) revolutionary Plácido. But before we
examine the overdetermined world of the historio-fictive Plácido, let us review some of the tools of historical reconstruction that (re)create an
empirical reality on the edges of these fictional narratives.
Marginalization and Legitimation on the Borders
Martin R. Delany's Blake; or the Huts of America narrates the (unfinished) history of Carolus Henrico Blacus/Henry Blake/Henry Holland (whose history
of self-naming in Chapter 42, though fascinating, does not concern us here), a slave in Louisiana who, as we discover, was born free in Cuba, but who
was wrongfully kidnapped and sold. When his wife is sold away from the plantation on which they both live, an act performed while Henry is absent,
Henry decides to run away, travelling throughout the southern United States sowing the seeds of slave rebellion. He eventually makes his way to Cuba,
where his wife is held in bondage, and where, upon her manumission, he proceeds to plot a Cuban slave rebellion in hemispheric correspondence to that
already plotted in the United States.
Fascinatingly for those of us a hundred and fifty years after the original publication in serial form (1859; 1861-62), the last six chapters of the
novel have never been recovered, leaving readers of the first collected edition (1970) with a poignantly unfinished novel. The novel stops abruptly
after Chapter 74, "American Tyranny—Oppression of the Negroes," a chapter that ends with the phrase "Woe be unto those devils of whites, I say!"
uttered by a conspirator in the revolution (313). The abridged ending to a conspiracy whose planning had been the central theme of the novel does not
merely prevent closure at the end of the novel, but irremediably opens up all of the other actions that have taken place. This overdetermined ending
is a refraction of Walter Benjamin's Angel of History, who, "[w]here we perceive a chain of events, ... sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling
wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet" (257). As if the history of Blake as a manuscript wished to ally itself to Benjamin, the
inability of the unfinished novel to close itself opens it up to the modern-day reader, allowing us to review the events of the conspiracy not as
leading to a definitive end – and thereby annexing the narrative to a fictional world, as no such hemispheric rebellion is recorded – but to see them
as a history of relevance in a "state of emergency," in which the "[t]radition of the oppressed teaches us that ... we live" constantly (Ibid.).
The image of 'wreckage' in Benjamin's passage implies both melange and dis-junction, discordant parts fused resolutely together and towards the same end,
as it is meant to both disassociate events from each other along a continuum and yet make them allied in equal accessibility to the present moment.
This view of history is what Benjamin refers to as "Messianic time," a historical view that allows for "every second" to be "the strait gate through
which the Messiah might enter" and redeem the past (264). Benjamin's disjunctive Messianic time, which "comprises the entire history of mankind in an
enormous abridgement," suffuses Blake, and I would argue, is the main temporal index by which Delany structures his novel (though it would be
anachronistic to claim that he did so knowledgeably) (263). As an example of this, let us review the scene of the novel where Henry finds himself
among a Maroon colony in the Dismal Swamp of North Carolina. Here, "some of Virginia and North Carolina's boldest black rebels" sit and invoke "the
names of Nat Turner, Denmark Veezie [sic], and General Gabriel," recalling a history of insurrection and revolution both within and against U.S.
national history, "some of the narrators claiming to have been patriots in the American Revolution" (Delany 113). This image of centenarians retelling
histories of rebellion and anointing Henry, as the footnote on page 115 attests, "Seven-finger High-glister," highest degree of the order of High
Conjurors, draws together myriad forms of revolutionary history, both the accepted U.S. history and one more specific to the African-American
experience.1 The (remote) possibility that these men could have been alive within the proposed timeframe of the novel
(roughly 1853) does not in any way obstruct the impact of this scene, connoting a compressed black revolutionary history, decades if not centuries
in the making, into a single scene, investing the figure of Henry with messianic distinction. These compressions of time are also extensions of
the individual moment beyond the meeting itself into the personal and national histories that permeate the "time of the now," disjointing the
consecutive flow of history into a 'present' that reaches beyond itself, that is "blasted out of the continuum of history" (Benjamin 263, 261).
The coherence of linear time blasted apart through Delany's use of Messianic time is further critiqued, page by page, through Delany's running
commentary nestled at the margin of the page. The footnotes in Blake are an endless source of disjunction from the overall diagetic flow of the text,
a narrative outside and apart, an exonarratus, whose presence impedes, echoes, and extends the narrative as a whole. These footnotes are almost
invariably recollections to a time and place different than that in which the narrative locates itself, recalling, as previously suggested, a non-textual,
outside time-space. What is the purpose of these invocations of the 'real' within the fictional domain of the novel? In his essay, "Beyond Fidelity:
The Dialogics of Adaptation," Robert Stam claims that with film's "multitrack nature," "cinema offers possibilities of disunity and disjunction not
immediately available to the novel. The possible contradictions between tracks become an aesthetic resource, opening the way to a multitemporal,
polyrhythmic" medium (60). Meanwhile, prose fiction is caught in what Stam calls (invoking Vladimir Nabokov's character, Humbert Humbert) "the plodding
deliberateness of prose fiction, with its subordination to linear consecution, its congenital incapacity to seize the moment in its multifaceted
simultaneity" (59). While Stam's argument is persuasive in terms of the simultaneity (or lack thereof) of information reception, he fails to take
into account how the organization of the page could modify the post-reception mode of information organization. For this, let us analyze two distinct
uses of footnotes in Blake.
During his peregrinations in the southern U.S., drawn from a trip that Delany made through several southern states in 1839-40, Henry encounters a slave
by the name of Sampson, "a black, tall, stoutly built, and manly ... person, ... [father of] a most interesting family of five pretty children" (Delany 84).
Sampson, as the next paragraph informs us, has "an amply [sic] supply of means" stored away, awaiting "a favorable opportunity to effect his escape from
slavery." Impeding the flow of our attention through this scene, and even through the sentence that reveals this last part, is an asterisk immediately
following the acknowledgment of his 'means.' The footnote claims that "[t]his person [Sampson] had really $2,000 in gold, securely hid away unknown to
any person but his wife, until showing it to the writer." Like all 36 footnotes excluding one2 this sentence redraws the
lines that distinguish fiction from fact, narrating the fictive "Sampson" from an empirically-constituted slave. Implicated in the hemispheric slave
rebellion that develops –but never climaxes– in this novel, the slave on which Sampson is based, doomed –as we modern readers know– to suffer the
uncertainty of Reconstruction, has his life appropriated and rewritten within the messianism of a black revolutionary moment that has not
Nor does the intrusion of the real presented by this footnote end with the acknowledgment of Sampson's real-life counterpart, for the mediation of
these two discourses also becomes a subject of this marginal aside in the figure of 'the writer.' Delany places himself as a character in the
temporally dissonant (to the novel) footnote, which highlights most centrally his role in exposing this secret. But this exposition is not merely
the recounting of an anecdote, but the incorporation (by 'the writer') of this fact within the discourse of slave resistance that will lead ultimately
to the unfinished revolution. Delany's presence within the exonarratus, not as a self-conscious 'I' but as the third-person 'the writer,' is included
within the formation of a black revolutionary history, becoming another site of mediation between the fictional conspiracy of the novel and the
necessarily real sentiment of rebelliousness on which the novel bases itself. Delany creates a "polyrhythmic," disjunctive reality from fragments
of marginal history (isolated incidents in the lives of individual slaves) that are redeemed through the Delany-as-writer figure. This telescoped,
insurrectionary history of fictional and empirical correspondences places at its center the quotidian rejection of white control by black slaves,
helping to break the "historical (and/or theoretical) master plot" with which, according to Vera M. Kutzinski in her readings of later African-American
literatures, most interpretations of U. S. society as a "dialectic of the center and the margin" are concerned (133). While Delany may fail to deliver
an alternative to the "totalizing narrative" that privileges a hegemonic center through invocations of a periphery, his restructuring of the "problematic
valuations and hierarchies" of center/periphery approaches, seen visually in the disruption and imposition of the footnote upon the text, at least
provides us with another way to imagine the relation of the marginal, quotidian, black experience to narrative construction and control (ibid.).
The negotiations of material that transpire between Delany-as-narrator and Delany-as-'the writer' can also be seen through a different technique,
equally outside of the narrative, and therefore a part of the exonarratus, and yet incorporated more directly into the novel as a whole, if anything
broadening the impact of these techniques. I refer here to Chapter 72, "King's Day," of which only the first four (short) paragraphs are related to us
through the regular narrator –who in a curiously self-conscious moment references itself as an "I"– before the voice becomes that of an unnamed, racist,
"eyewitness to the exhibition" in a long quotation from what the narrator claims to be "a popular American literary periodical" (299). The introduction
of intermediaries here seems initially to endorse Raymond Hedin's argument in his exploration of mediated black bodies in nineteenth-century texts by
African-Americans, "Probable Readers, Possible Stories: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Black Narrative." Hadin says that "[t]hroughout the century,
angry black characters could be heard only under certain circumstances. They could be seen hardly at all, and then only under even more stringent
circumstances," due to the anticipated "white audience outside the texts ... [that] exerted such pressure that it all but forced itself onto the very
pages of black texts" in the form of white listeners or observers that mediated and repressed a certain amount of their anger (180). In light, though,
of the (many) other moments of black anger and righteous violence within Blake –including Henry's claim to have murdered in order to aid his tour of
the South– that remain unmediated by a white presence, this seems an inadequate framework with which to interpret Delany's use of a racist, presumably
The "deflected, diminished, or carefully hedged physicality" of this scene is un-deniable (Hedin 201), especially where the "eyewitness" suggests that
the slaves, allowed one day of free privileges, "suggest very uncomfortable thoughts of Negro insurrection," thoughts that are diminished by the
eyewitness' ascription to the slaves of ignorance of "their power" (Delany 301). Delany's eyewitness views the slaves of Cuba through the contradictory
lens of a racism that ascribes the "savage" capacity to "make the streets of Havana run with blood" while simultaneously curtailing them with the equally
"savage"/uncivilizable quality of bestial ignorance in a single alarmist paragraph that suggests that a projected white audience must still fear a
rebellion that the slaves are too ignorant to achieve (301). This 'perceived white control of black assertion' (and here I paraphrase Hedin) is replayed
explicitly at the very beginning of the next chapter, when the Delany-as-narrator again takes the reins to depict a plot by "disaffected whites" to turn
suspicion from their planned insurrection to that of the blacks. A "stupid, demented slave" is plied with spirits and sent into the African ball to scream
"Blood, blood, blood! Rise, Negroes, rise!", filling the streets with National Guards to arrest and brutalize the black population (302-3). This narrative
event underscores the constructedness of the threat of black insurrection that permeates the exonarratus article of the previous chapter (exonarratus
in that it is ascribed to "a popular American literary journal" that is constructed as existing outside of the novel time: the excerpt is not recounted as
part of the narrative, but rather inserted in place of a description by the narrator) by making this figure of black violence a puppet of white interests
and by inverting the threatened violence of black insurrection with the actual violence of state-sponsored suppression. As Hedin claims of Charles
Chesnutt's short story "Her Virginia Mammy," so too does Delany's use of the white observer underscore its own unreliability.4 Delany's brief foray into
white observation/mediation is not used to create a legitimizing and pacifying framework, as with the stories and novels that Hedin discusses, but to
highlight the falsity and constructedness of white discourse about blacks.5 In a reversal of the Southern (U.S.) discourses of 'civilizing the savage
Negro' (a discourse intimately tied with notions of slave docility), Delany presents us with the "handsome, manly and intelligent" Henry Blake, a highly
articulate and cultured but unflinchingly aggressive product of the slave-holder's violence (16). The 'outside' (con)texts that are (re)created in Delany's
exonarratus –discourses circulating in the white power structures of the time– are exposed as fradulent through the radical juxtaposition of the black
violence that is imagined by empirical reality with the white, state-sponsored violence that is the reality of the following imaginary scene. The
perception of violence in the empirically 'real' world is imagined and that in the imagined world is real.
Translation of the Real in Cecilia Valdés
Unlike the fantastic, mystical, fitful narrative of Blake, Cirilo Villaverde's Cecilia Valdés;
or Angel's Hill is almost formulaic in its narrative linearity and Realist representations. Published in two forms, a shorter version in 1839 and a
longer, final version in 1882,6 Cecilia Valdés narrates the story of an illegitimate mulatta child who grows up to be "
La virgencita de bronce," a comparison that draws both on Old World culture for its expression of beauty and New World racial markings for its
social stigmatization. Cecilia falls in love with a young criollo who desires her as his mistress, leading to many games and much dissembling
for, as we discover at the very end of the novel but as is suggested throughout, Cecilia and the young criollo share the same father. After
fathering a child by his half-sister, the young criollo, Leonardo, marries a fellow criollo, cementing a (doubly) legitimate romantic
bond within the racially divided society of mid-nineteenth-century Cuba. As the couple exits the chapel, the mulatto admirer of Cecilia "accidentally"
murders Leonardo after Cecilia had sent him to kill not her lover, but her rival.
Nowhere within Cecilia is linear narratability as blatantly unstable as it is in Blake. The ability to narrate history is seen as inherent
to the events of history themselves, within a historical discourse that seems to believe that if "nothing but factually accurate statements about a realm
of events which were (or had been) observable in principle" were presented in "the order of their original occurrence," it "would permit them to
figure forth their true meaning" (Tropics 123). At the end of his introduction to Cecilia Valdés, the translator of the sole English-language edition,
Sydney G. Gest, encourages the reader to "picture himself for a moment standing at the Punta, the Spanish flag flying overhead" (12). Sliding from this
third-person invocation of the imagined audience to a second-person imperative, Gest continues: "Gaze at the sails gliding past the Morro, and listen
to the waves breaking with a roar upon the Malecón, 150 years ago." This photographically imagined, nineteenth-century Cuba in which Gest wishes to
dissolve his contemporary readership (of 1962) mirrors exactly his goal as translator, to translate "a true picture of an age now gone forever," a
picture of "every class" painted "with unfailing accuracy" that Gest wishes to convey without any confusion, or even interpretation (11). It is with
this goal in mind that Gest feels the need to apologize for dividing "many Spanish sentences into two or more English ones, wherever [he] thought
that clarity in the English version might be better served" (12).
It should not surprise us that Gest not only believes that a direct translation of "A Novel of Cuban Customs" ("Novela de costumbres cubanas") is
possible, but that he has managed to achieve something close to that 'perfect' translation. After all, Villaverde himself seems to believe in a form
of Realism that would 'transcend' the fictional world that he creates, that would be a textual simulacra of 'real' historical events. Thus in the
"Prologue" to his final edition of Cecilia, Villaverde claims: "[l]ejos de inventar ó de fingir caractéres y escenas fantasiosas, é inverisímiles
he llevado el realismo, segun lo entiendo, hasta el punto de presentar los principales personajes de la novela con todos sus pelos y señales, ...
vestidos con el traje que llevaron en vida, la mayor parte bajo su nombre y appelido verdaderos" (1: 59) ["f]ar from inventing or pretending imaginary
and un-realistic characters and scenes, I have carried realism, as I understand it, to the point of presenting the principal characters ... with all
their 'hairs and ear-marks,' ... clothed in the dress that they wore in their lifetime, the majority under their true Christian surnames" (16)].
Villaverde's 'realism' (note the lack of capitalization) is intended as a representation of what Gest claims as, "in the form of a novel, a true
story of Cuba" (11). Both Villaverde and his later translator, Gest, initially present themselves as ambassadors of the real, textual transcribers
of the empirically testable reality of Cuban social life in the nineteenth-century.
But Gest's introduction to the translation unintentionally underscores several of the problems with assuming, as he and Villaverde seem to do, that
anyone can transcend the fictionalizing inherent to narration to produce an unvarnished reiteration of the past. Gest expresses a contempt for fictional
writing reminiscent of Hayden White's nineteenth-century empirical historicists, privileging Cecilia as "life on the coffee and sugar plantations as
it was" and denigrating the way that "writers of fiction might imagine it to be" (12). However, Villaverde's prologue does not claim such an extensive
power, and claims in fact that the reason for the length of time elapsed between editions of Cecilia is due to his "troqu[ando sus] gustos literarios
por mas altos pensamientos: pasé del mundo de las ilusiones, al mundo de las realidades" ["exchang[ing] [his] literary tastes for higher
thoughts… pass[ing] from the world of illusions to the world of realities" (14)] during his two exiles in New York (1: 56). He later specifically
calls his novel an "obras de imaginación" [imaginative work" (15)] and links his 'realism' to "el sentido artístico que se le dá modernamente" [the
artistic sense in which [this word] is used today" (15)] (1: 58). Even Gest himself suggests an emphasis on the fictive nature of the narrative when he
states that "[m]embers of every class are pictured with unfailing accuracy. The innermost feelings of the characters are revealed… Nothing is omitted,"
(11-12, emphasis mine) highlighting not only the relation of the author to the text as one of representation, but also suggesting that an 'accurate
picture' of historical fact requires elaboration of the material.
I encourage us, though, not to view the complications and contradictions presented by Gest's introduction as obstacles to understanding either his or
Villaverde's motivations, or the narrative itself. Rather I wish to emphasize precisely this problem in the representation of historical fact. Gest's
comments7 suggest that historical recreation, as he claims Cecilia Valdés to be, is of necessity an
elaboration of historically empirical 'truths.' For nothing to be omitted, psychological frameworks unexpressed by but latent to the actions must
be written into the narrative. According to this logic, the systems of signification embedded in human actions must be drawn to the fore; the 'conceptual
apparatus' of the narrative must be placed on display. Here again, White is useful, for as he points out, "real events should not speak, should not tell
themselves. Real events should simply be; they can perfectly well serve as the referents of a discourse, can be spoken about, but they should not pose
as the subjects of narrative" (The Content of the Form 3). The actions of Villaverde's narrative have no subjective volition of their own,
but are interpreted by his narrator as responses to the political, social, psychological web of "Cuban Customs" as it pervades each character. The
subject of the actions is not the actions themselves, as in an unguarded moment the historian might wish, but the 'Cuban Customs,' the social life of
nineteenth-century Cuba itself.
This elaboration of human motivation beyond the mere empirical action, though, is hampered by Villaverde's own narrator and the white criollos of the
narrative who share his epistemological space. The criollos in Cecilia seem to have trouble identifying reasons, either expressed or unexpressed, for
their actions regarding the blacks with whom they exist in contradistinction. The privileged criollos of Villaverde's narrative, a reflection of the
ones with whom he associated in his own life and whose politics tended to favor annexation to the racist United States, "refuse to hear or see the
population of blacks. ... The whites simply decline legitimate intercourse with blacks. Villaverde's text keeps pointing to the white narrator who draws
blanks in order to preserve the color-fast fabric of slave society" (Sommer 208). What is fascinating about Cecilia Valdés is that while the narrator
makes 'the open secret' of incestuous, miscegenating relations conspicuously obvious, as Doris Sommer points out, the secret is never actually revealed
within the narrative framework of the novel. What Sommer fails to make explicit, though she implies this throughout her essay, is that the 'open secret'
of Cecilia's origins is explained only in the epilogue of the story, outside of the narration itself. As Sommer says, "the educated and articulate
narrator never spells out the connections between Don Cándido and Cecilia, between her lover and her/his father"; the information is only encountered
by the reader explicitly from the outside (189). Since the notion of black familial ties, and the subsequent notion of possible black equality, is
unmentionable within the confines of 'Cuban Customs,' Villaverde is incapable of narrating this (hi)story within the fiction-space of the novel. It is
only outside of the proscriptive restraints of the narrative, within a separate exonarratus frame, that this ineffable historical subject can reveal
It is, in fact, the very first line of the Epilogue of Cecilia Valdés epilogue that conveys this information, telling us that "Cecilia Valdés era hija
adúltera de[l] marido [de Doña Rosa] y medio hermana por ende de su desgraciado hijo" [was the illegitimate child of [Doña Rosa's] husband and
consequently a half-sister of her unfortunate son" (546)](2:269). Like the prologue, this 'outside' to the narrative has a direct impact on how we
read the text, this time an attempted tying up of all the loose threads of the narrative within the same type of historical recitation with which the
prologue's emphasis on 'realism' would like us to conceive of the whole text. The exonarratus within Cecilia, as within Blake, wishes to make direct
connections with a historical reality, though this time with an eye towards closing off the overdetermination of the events that Blake so ably
The missing link, the opening-up of the Benjaminian historical materialist view, though, is still present, again in the unspoken event, like the
unpresented (unpresentable) revolution in Blake. In the Epilogue's attempt to close down each open channel, one remains unaccounted for. The catalogue
of ends includes the aftermath that befalls each of the main characters that had not been killed off in the narrative itself, except for the murderer
of Leonardo, José Dolores Pimienta. This absence is especially poignant in light of Susan Gillman's figuration of Pimienta as the final in a string of
figures that embody "black aggression," having previously been "anchored within the novel's most revolutionary moment, a threatening conversation with
the tailor Uribe about the slaves' time coming" (116). No repercussions befall Pimienta from his assassination of the young Gamboa, and the threat of
successful black violence is extended nebulously into the undefined future. As much as Villaverde's exonarratus seeks to circumscribe and control the
threat of black insurrectionary activity through the emphasis in the prologue on the real nature of these events — therefore closed down physically in
their completed action — and through the emphasis on delineating — and thereby determining the aftermath of — these actions in the epilogue, the fissures
within the discourse of historicity that these un-narratable events display overshadow the neat-and-tidy ending to this Cuban tragedy. As metaphor for
this open-ended, unknown future, I would draw our attention to Dionisio's sentence for the murder of Tondá (another instance of black aggression, though
this time directed at black collaborators with the slavocratic government): "El tribunal le condenó á diez de cadena ... para la composicion de calles"
["The court condemned him to ten years ... work[ing] on the construction of the streets" (546)] of Havana, opening new roads through which the future of
Cuban history will be navigated, his unfinished narrative the founding of the future Cuba (2: 269).
The (Over)Determination of Plácido
Having now examined some of the many ways in which Villaverde and Delany fashion their open-ended histories, let us now turn to the figure upon which
both Cecilia Valdés and Blake rely, namely Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés, or more accurately for our purposes, his nom de plume, Plácido. Studying how
uncertainty and overdetermination defines historical discourse, Ann Rigney has claimed that as "history is the domain of collective experience, past
events are often the focus of conflicting interpretations motivated by conflicting interests in the latter-day society" (64). No figure could be more
emblematic of this problem inherent to the historical imaginary than Plácido, who, dying in 1844 under orders from the Cuban colonial government, Robert
L. Paquette claims has received more attention than any other Cuban historical figure, excepting José Martí (4). The conspiracy of La Escalera (a
suggestive name in that the conspiracy became only known by the torture instrument on which 'confessions' were extracted) is so multifaceted that
Paquette devotes the entirety of the 23 page introduction to his book Sugar Is Made with Blood to a brief overview of only the major arguments that
have surfaced over the conspiracy and the question of whether Plácido "should be celebrated as a martyr for liberty or mourned as a docile
The figure of Plácido is a Benjaminian monad, his historical figure defined specifically by his indeterminacy — or better, polyvalent recoverability —
within La Escalera; or, as Rigney might say, the "[h]istorical meaning" in the case of Plácido, "is produced in the gap between the nature of events
and the demands of discourse" (65). This is quite easily seen in Delany's Blake, where Plácido appears within Part II shortly after a correspondence
between Henry and a friend in New York establishes the year as 1853, nine years after Plácido's empirically-defined death. Two chapters later, Henry
seeks out "the distinguished poet of Cuba, Placido," who we discover is Henry's cousin, reifying the ideological relation between planned slave
insurrection in the U.S. and abortive attempts in the Spanish colony of Cuba (192). Plácido, anglicized in Delany's discourse into 'Placido,' becomes
one of the key figures of Blake's insurrectionary committee in Cuba; as Gillman calls him, "the lynchpin of Delany's disruptive temporality" (111).
My previous quotation of Rigney cuts her off in mid-sentence, a break that I will here restore, as she cautions us that by creating the historical
meaning through "the gap," one also produces "formlessness, fragmentation, digression" in the narrative. These historically "ragged edges
that ... [surround] stories based on actuality" take their form(lessness) in Blake through Delany's compression and anachronistic use of black
insurrectionary activity and through the multiple, simultaneous narratives as seen in his use of footnotes and putative 'real' literature that
reach outside of the text, in the process modifying and elaborating the main narration (Rigney 65). Plácido, a historically existing person whose
metaphoric significance has become more important than anything that he actually achieved (like the slave who served as the model for Delany's
"Sampson"), represents the entire structural instability of Delany's Blake, appearing as a living presence within the acknowledged past.
Villaverde's use of the figure of Plácido in Cecilia is different in style, but not in substance or impact. Like the reified revolutionary appeal
that Delany found in his Placido, Villaverde seeks the stature of his "poeta mas estro que ha visto Cuba" [the most gifted poet Cuba has seen (my
translation)] — both as 'martyr for liberty' and as 'meek victim' — to legitimize the anti-slavery sentiments of his novel (Villaverde 1: 399). While
Delany's use of him displays his revolutionary quality in a subordinated role as a generally unknown quantity, in Villaverde's normally single-lens,
linear narrative Plácido is also precisely what he must remain forever to us: overdetermined. Villaverde's invocation of this shadowy, mulatto poet
appears within a guest list to a Colored Ball (one of many) that occurs more than halfway through the novel, of which here is an excerpt:
Vargas y ... Dodge, ambos de Matánzas, barbero el uno, carpintero el otro, que fueron comprendidos en la supuesta conspiracion de la gente de color
en 1844 y fusilados ... José de la Concepcion Valdés, álias Plácido, el poeta de mas estro que ha visto Cuba y que tuvo la misma desastrada suerte
de los dos precedentes ... Tomás Vuelta y Flores, insigne violinista y compositor ... el cual, en dicho año pereció en la escalera, tormento á que le
sometieron sus jueces, para arrancarle la confesion de complicidad en un delito cuya existencia jamas se ha probado lo suficiente. (1:399)
and Dodge of Matanzas, a barber and a carpenter respectively, both of whom took part in the alleged conspiracy of the Negroes in 1844 and were shot
in an execution ... José de la Concepción Valdés, whose penname was Plácido, the most inspired of Cuban poets, who had the misfortune to follow in
the footsteps of the two just mentioned; Tomás Vuelta y Flores, celebrated violinist and composer ... who that same year died on the rack, a torture
decreed by the judges to force him to confess complicity in a crime, the existence of which had never been legally proved. (316-317)
Positioning Plácido between three other conspirators (for their role in the conspiracy is not called into question, even if the conspiracy itself is),
Villaverde, as Gillman points out, "calls attention to conspiracy as an absence: by the time we read and hear of it in the novel, it has not even
occurred (in historical time) yet is already over and done with, a disturbing memory in novel-time" (114). Unlike in Blake then, where the
novel-time is undisturbed by the anachronisms with which Plácido seems perennially clothed, Cecilia's use of Plácido is as the problematic monad of slave
insurrection. With the essentially anticolonial, nationalistic project of Villaverde, the reified revolution that Placido and his relations to
Henry represent in Blake, become circumscribed in time, still elaborating the moment, but no longer able to maintain its position. Villaverde
could not miss mentioning such an important figure in the legitimation of slave insurrection, and therefore Villaverde's own project of abolition,
but the placement is unstable, mentioned for events that have not occurred when (but must occur because) the story takes place. Plácido, that unknown
quantity within the hemispheric history of slave insurrection, is unstable in both narratives; but where his instability is a part of the entire
narrative instability of Blake, in Cecilia his liminality highlights the problems that Villaverde's prologue and epilogue are seeking to control.
As with Pimienta, the inability to narrate Plácido's history points to the general inability of Villaverde to close his 'realist' discourse within
the accepted modes of linear narrativity.
Sewing Together Ragged Edges
Towards the end of his examination of the Conspiracy of La Escalera, Paquette concludes that "[t]he evidence does not permit the ending of all
uncertainty about the events of La Escalera and the people entangled in them" (263). According to Hayden White, it is precisely this openness to
interpretation that endows the historian (I use the term broadly enough to include Delany and Villaverde) with authority. According to White,
[i]t is the fact that they [historical events] can be recorded otherwise, in an order of narrative, that makes them, at one and the same time,
questionable as to their authenticity and susceptible to being considered as tokens of reality. ... Unless at least two versions of the same set
of events can be imagined, there is no reason for the historian to take upon himself the authority of giving the true account of what really
happened. The authority of the historical narrative is the authority of reality itself. (Content 20)
The authority of White's historian is found in Rigney's "gap between the nature of events and the demands of discourse" (65), lending the author not
only control over meaning, but, in White's argument, control over reality itself.
This historical uncertainty, the shroudedness of events and their subsequent recovery within specific discourses is at the heart of both Blake
and Cecilia Valdés, negotiating their invocations of fact in their fanciful narrative thrust. Like eclectic patchwork, events simultaneously real
and imaginary are sewn (sew themselves?) together in what is initially a rather startling aesthetic impression (I myself found it difficult to
wade through the sheer volume of information that these novels attempt to encompass: Blake is 313 pages, Cecilia a ponderous 604, 546 in Gest's
translation). Interestingly, even the histories of these novels reflect their methods of dealing with history: Blake forgotten and unfinished,
so fraught with loose threads as to render it almost unreadable; Cecilia Valdés, despite its attempted mastery of all of its subject material,
has been the subject of several remakes, both textual and visual. The inability of these narratives to close themselves off, expressed almost as
much in their length as in their mediations of multitrack time and Benjaminian monads, their footnotes and prologues, endows these narratives with
the 'authority of reality itself.' The 'ragged edges' expose latent tensions in the narration of history, tensions pregnant with explosive power.
These narratives open the messianic doors that lurk at the edges of untold histories of slave insurrection in the Americas, offering us
possibilities as to how slave dissent and insurrection can — and cannot — be told. History, when viewed as narrative as White insists, is fragmented
by these texts, recognizing as they do, that narratability itself is problematic. These conflicting, fragmentary reports, no matter how mediated
by references to outsides and insides, no matter how closed-off they first appear, are always open to revision.
I am indebted to Professor Susan Gillman for suggesting this reading to me in her seminar, LTWL 190B, UC Santa Cruz, Winter 2004.
An interesting side note is that the one footnote, on page 186, that does not negotiate questions of 'fiction' and 'fact' is an
attempt to straighten out the ambiguous chronology of the narrative itself, a reflexive intrusion that carries, like the other
footnotes, the tone of a commentator on the novel, rather than either the narrator or even what we would expect from Delany
himself. See the following paragraph.
Footnotes, Anthony Grafton has written, "are the humanist's rough equivalent of the scientist's report on data: they offer
the empirical support for stories told and arguments presented" (vii). Grafton continues, stating that footnotes are the
means by which historical theses are "verified or disproved." Grafton's conception of the footnote seems to be the exact
paradigm under which Delany wishes his footnotes to be seen, that is as the empirical verification of his ideological argument.
My project here, however, is to underscore the very particular ramifications that Delany's use of this historico-factual
convention has on us as readers of his rewritten, revolutionary history.
See Hedin, page 194.
The deformation of Hedin's structure that Delany perpetrates has a parallel in Delany's use of footnotes vis-à-vis that of
Grafton's conception (see my note 3): they both have at their base a similar idea, but Delany extends the basic concept to
underscore more poignantly the unreliability of narration in general.
See Sommer for discussion of the ways in which and reasons for which the two versions of Cecilia (1839; 1882) differ.
And in addition, those of Villaverde in his prologue on the subject of moral probity in representation. There Villaverde states:
"I have never believed that a writer, in his desire to present to the public a faithful and exact picture of manners and morals,
should forget that the rectitude and probity of the reader deserve respect" (17, emphasis added).
Benjamin, Walter. "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Illuminations. Trans.
Harry Zohn. New York: Schoeken Books, 1968. 253–264.
Delany, Martin R. Blake; or The Huts of America. Boston: Beacon Press,
Gillman, Susan. "The Epistemology of Slave Conspiracy." Modern Fiction
Studies 49.1 (2003): 101–123.
Grafton, Anthony. The Footnote: A Curious History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP,
Hedin, Raymond. "Probable Readers, Possible Stories: The Limits of
Nineteenth-Century Black Narrative." Readers in History:
Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Contexts of Response.
James L. Machor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. 180–205.
Kutzinski, Vera M. "History, Literature, and the Problem of Synthesis."
Reconstructing American Literary and Historical Studies. Eds. Günter H.
Lenz, Hartmut Keil, and Sabine Bröck-Sallah. Frankfurt am Main: Campus
Verlag, 1990. 128–144.
Luis, William. Literary Bondage: Slavery in Cuban Narrative. Austin, TX: U of
Texas P, 1990.
Paquette, Robert L. Sugar Is Made with Blood: The Conspiracy of La Escalera
and the Conflict between Empires over Slavery in Cuba. Middletown, CT:
Wesleyan UP, 1988.
Rigney, Ann. Imperfect Histories: The Elusive Past and the Legacy of Romantic
Historicism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2001.
Sommer, Doris. Proceed with Caution, when Engaged by Minority Writing in the
Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999.
Stam, Robert. "Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation." Film Adaptation.
Ed. James Naremore. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2000. 54–76.
Villaverde, Cirilo. Cecilia Valdés; o La loma del ángel. Ed. Olga Blondet
Tudisco and Antonio Tudisco. 2 vols. New York: Anaya, 1971.
---. Cecilia Valdés; or Angel's Hill. Trans. Sydney G. Gest. New York: Vantage
White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical
Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.
---. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
Back to top