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AFRICAN SKIN, VICTORIAN MASKS: THE OBJECT LESSONS OF MARY KINGSLEY AND EDWARD BLYDEN

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 May 2011

Deborah Shapple Spillman*
Affiliation:
University of Oregon

Extract

While addressing the Royal African Society, founded in honor of Mary Henrietta Kingsley, Edward Wilmot Blyden reflected on one of his more memorable experiences in Victorian England:

During a visit to Blackpool many years ago, I went with some hospitable friends to the Winter Garden where there were several wild animals on exhibition. I noticed that a nurse having two children with her, could not keep her eyes from the spot where I stood, looking at first with a sort of suspicious, if not terrified curiosity. After a while she heard me speak to one of the gentlemen who were with me. Apparently surprised and reassured by this evidence of a genuine humanity, she called to the children who were interested in examining a leopard, “Look, look, there is a black man and he speaks English.” (Blyden, “West” 363)

Blyden, a West Indian-born citizen of Liberia and resident of Sierra Leone, assures his audience that such scenes were not unique for the African abroad, even at the turn of the twentieth century; seen as “an unapproachable mystery,” an African traveler like himself was “at once ‘spotted’ as a peculiar being – sui generis” who, as if by nature, “produce[d] the peculiar feelings of the foreigner at the first sight of him” (Blyden, “West” 362, 363). Keenly aware of how non-Europeans were displayed at metropolitan zoos, fairs, and exhibitions throughout the nineteenth century, Blyden puns on the leopard's spots in order to highlight his experience of being marked as an object of curiosity. Indeed, the nurse's anxious wavering between curiosity and terror dissipates not because Blyden ceases to appear marked, or “spotted,” but because the taxonomic crisis he arouses by not standing on the other side of the fence has been temporarily contained: she distances the threat of Blyden's difference as “a black man” while evading the equally threatening possibility of recognizing his sameness as one who “speaks English.” The nurse, to borrow the words of Homi Bhabha in describing the fetishism of such colonial “scenes of subjectification” (Bhabha 81), constructs the man before her as “at once an ‘other’ and yet entirely knowable and visible” in a way that attempts to “fix” Blyden's identity and the Victorian categories his appearance unsettles (Bhabha 70–71), while making the relation between differences and their appended significance appear natural (Bhabha 67). If, by expressing himself in his characteristically impeccable English in order to vindicate his “genuine humanity” (Blyden, “West” 363), Blyden appears to be “putting on the white world” at the expense of his autonomy (Fanon 36), he simultaneously wages battle in this world at the level of signification in ways that anticipate the work of the later African nationalist and West Indian emigrant, Frantz Fanon. An extensive reader and ordained minister who recognized the politics of exegesis as well as semiosis, Blyden implicitly asks his audience, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” (Jeremiah 13, 23). Posing a rhetorical question that argues rather than asks, that brandishes the very texts often used against him, Blyden subtly deploys this passage typically associated with the intransience of human character in order to defy attempts at determining him entirely from without. Serving as a kind of object lesson demonstrating the need for less objectifying knowledge about Africans and their cultures, Blyden's anecdote challenged his contemporaries to further the lessons he and Mary Kingsley offered through their writing.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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References

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