Rewarding Passivity

Marty Rojas

University of Rhode Island

My class, an upper-level undergraduate seminar on the literature of enlightenment and revolution, read Humanity in Algiers midway through the semester. Most students were English majors or double majors in English and Primary or Secondary Education. In the first weeks of the class we had grappled with Letters of the American Farmer, Notes on the State of Virginia, and an extensive selection of Phillis Wheatley’s poems and letters. My students were becoming versed in the rhetoric of freedom and anti-slavery. Yet, so far we had read exclusively non-fictional prose and poetry. Thus, I paired The Story of Constantius and Pulchera and Humanity in Algiers as a transition to a more extensive focus on fiction. Since I teach in New England I should also mention that on the day that fell between our discussions of the two novellas, the Red Sox won the final game of the 2013 World Series. That might explain the tight, focused, enthusiastic conversation we had about The Story of Constantius and Pulchera and the initially belabored discussion of Humanity in Algiers by what seemed simultaneously to be an overtired and frenetic group of undergraduates.

A few things struck me about our first attempt to address Humanity of Algiers: no student-generated discussion of Islam or the specific setting of Africa (Algiers, Senegal, Gambia); a gravitation toward episodes of contemplated suicide; and the students’ particular interest in the role of education (particularly in the characters/fates of Azem and Valachus), and in the conventions/limitations of genre fiction. Sustained discussion however tended toward the abstract. For instance, when one student pointed to the ways in which the frame narrative about an American sailor enslaved in Africa asks readers to think about the transatlantic slave trade and the practice of slavery within the United States, another pointed to a line in the preface, “we frequently condemn in others the very practices we applaud in ourselves,” steering the discussion from the preface’s indictment of hypocrisy to Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding to a host of other communal and personal hypocrisies they had witnessed or experienced.

At another moment they catalogued the varieties of slavery that the text explored (chattel slavery, the status of war captives, being a slave to passion/lust, mental or intellectual slavishness). They were less interested however in the ways Humanity in Algiers depicted total control over individuals and their bodies, and were more drawn to the ways in which the nevella prompted them to think about how the mind becomes fettered. Discussion seemed to veer too quickly away from the text, either toward other texts we had read, toward contemporary issues, or more personal situations. When I pressed them about their reluctance to discuss the text, one astute student answered that it read like a parable, and that therefore the text itself encouraged readers to analogize, to make comparisons. Another student pointed to Faherty and White’s introduction and how they had contextualized novella within the Shaftsbury Baptist Association, citing that its printer also published a number of Baptist writings and that the novella’s subscribers were drawn from communities affiliated with the association.  Why not read the novella as a kind of religious writing as well as a fictional tale? With this we were able to turn to didacticism, the connection between certain religious figures and congregations and the antislavery movement, and what we knew (largely from the introduction) about the novella’s contemporaneous readership.

I adjusted our reading schedule to continue discussing Humanity in Algiers the following week, this time alongside The Algerine Captive. In the meantime students wrote formal responses to the text. Though we resumed some of the previous conversations, the combination of written reflection and a different pairing of texts led us in different directions as well. The repairing also freed Humanity in Algiers from negative comparison with The Story of C&P, which they judged the more engaging popular fiction. The seminar now had questions about the incorporation of historical figures (Richard O’Brien in Humanity in Algiers and David Humphreys in The Algerine Captive) into a fictional narratives that lead to discussions about the conflicts between the United States and North African regencies and Barbary captivity narratives, as well as about literary patronage and communities of readers.

The relationship between Azem and Alzina became less interesting to the group as an incest-adverted element of a sensational melodramatic narrative and instead more visible as a variation of the emerging trope of siblings separated/families torn asunder common to slave narratives. Students speculated that the introduction of Alzina as a love interest and the consequent detailing of the harassment and threat of rape that she suffers might have been an attempt to incorporate the conventions of popular romance and of seduction narratives into a text they had begun to understand largely as a didactic parable. Here the progression of reading the Story of Constantius and Pulchera, followed by Humanity in Algiers, and then The Algerine Captive produced curiosity about genre. The class shorthand had settled on labeling the fictions respectively, an adventure-romance, a parable, and a satiric novel. Yet as they considered the conventions and tropes that these texts shared with each other as well as with nonfictional slave and captivity narratives, they asked about what generic designation enabled and foreclosed, and about what texts were able to accomplish by stretching formal limits or expectations.

The moments in which various characters consider suicide in Humanity in Algiers (Azem, and Alzira both consider suicide as a form of self-emancipation and their father jumps ship and drowns rather than be trafficked as a slave) became occasions to think about what the novella had to say about personal agency. They pointed out that Azem considers several ways to achieve his freedom and yet suicide, escape, and rebellion are not countenanced by the text as viable means to liberty. When Azem contemplates suicide and escape, he backs down and surrenders personal agency to God’s will. When Azem petitions for his freedom or Alzira’s he does so through Omri, the family’s healer and Azem’s confident and mentor. Initially Azem’s manumission is to be secured through indentured servitude to the members of the family among whom he had been raised, but only after the matriarch, Sequida, has a dream that Omri interprets as an expression of Mahomet’s desire for Azem’s freedom. The period of servitude is foreshortened when Azem prevents the rape of the family’s eldest daughter.  The group concluded that Azem is ultimately “rewarded” with freedom for his heroic and virtuous actions, but only within the frame of divine sanction and Azem’s prior consent to labor, to serve each member of the family for a year or what they had deemed equivalent to the purchase price of his liberty. Purchase emerged as the only legitimate way to self-emancipation. Indeed Azem purchases his own freedom, not in a clear-cut deal, but in a circuitous set of exchanges.

A student observed that the only direct agency Azem is allowed is entrepreneurial. Another scrutinized Azem’s entry into the marketplace as an entrepreneur, particularly his refusal to traffic in bodies though trading in Senegal and Gambia in the presence of a profitable slave trade. Ultimately the seminar was troubled by the fantasy the novella indulges of commerce on the west coast of Africa entirely free from the taint of the slave trade. Azem’s fortune, accumulated by carefully selecting non-human commodities to meet the desires of a particular market, funds the legacy that Azem leaves upon his death: money for the “yearly release of some honest slave.” Again, they remarked, the reward is for dutiful obedience not direct action toward freeing oneself. There was a kind of collective dismay that a post-revolutionary text might ultimately advocate for passivity instead of agency. Gradual emancipation indeed.


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