September 08, 2008

The first nonwhite characters

Who were the first great nonwhite characters in English literature? Well, if we include plays, we might say the first was Shakespeare's Othello. Along with perhaps Cleopatra and the pseudo-Indian Caliban.

If we limited ourselves to novels, we could add Oroonoko in Oroonoko (1688), arguably the first English novel. But few people know about this royal African slave. Then there was Friday in Robinson Crusoe (1719), another contender for the first English novel.

Two nonwhite characters in early American novels were James Fenimore Cooper's Chingachgook and Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans. Herman Melville was one of the first novelists to write about indigenous or "exotic" characters: Queequeg in Moby-Dick, Typee, Omoo. Mark Twain wrote about Injun Joe in Tom Sawyer, Jim in Huckleberry Finn, and Pudd'nhead Wilson. Helen Hunt Jackson wrote her romantic novel Ramona.

Outside of novels there was Metamora in the 1829 play of the same name and Hiawatha in the 1855 epic poem. No doubt there were plays about Pocahontas and Minnehaha too. Along with minstrel shows featuring white characters in blackface and Wild West shows featuring savage Indians.

Around the time of the Civil War, people began writing seriously about black characters. Until then, most of the nonwhite characters in English literature were Indians and other indigenous people. Someone could write a thesis on this, but I suspect Native characters played a notable role in the development of English and American literature.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

Below:  Edwin Forrest as Metamora in 1829.


dmarks said...

I've understood that Cleopatra was descended from the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty and was thus white.

Rob said...

Well, WASPish actresses have portrayed Cleopatra in the movies. Going by Russ's "theory," that would make her a WASP also. But here is what's actually known about her:

Here's where the scholars seem to agree: Cleopatra was the last in a line of Ptolemies--Macedonian Greeks--who ruled Egypt from the death of Alexander the Great in 305 B.C. until Antony's defeat in the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. The Ptolemies, as was the custom, were an incestuous, intermarrying breed (they were concerned about preserving the royal bloodline). But they took their pleasure with the courtiers and concubines who filled their palaces. Many of the children born of these assignations were bestowed a place in the royal lineage despite their dubious--and unspoken--parentage.

Many believe that Cleopatra's father was the product of such a union--his mother may have been a concubine from Nubia or Alexandria. Lending credence to this theory is the fact that Cleopatra's bond to the people of Egypt seemed greater than those of her Ptolemic ancestors, who aligned themselves culturally and linguistically with Greece. "Far more than her predecessors, [Cleopatra] made an effort to learn Egyptian and was very savvy about presenting herself as Egyptian to the people that she ruled," says Molly Levine, a professor of Egyptology in the classics department at Howard University.

So it seems that Cleopatra may have had a true Egyptian (as opposed to Macedonian-Greek) grandmother. Does that make her "Black"? It is a question the organizers of the Field Museum's exhibit wanted to tackle head-on.

"It is a question that is nearly impossible to answer," says Ben Bronson, the museum's curator of Asian archeology and ethnology. "What we've tried to do is narrow down the range of possibilities for her ancestry. And when you do that, you see that there is a perfectly good chance that Cleopatra was an African Egyptian. Was she 100 percent African, meaning was her skin dark? Probably not. The Romans, who wrote extensively about her, probably would have noted that. But it is quite possible--given the comings and goings of people in the Ptolemic court--that she was a mixed-race Egyptian."

Rob said...

Also, don't forget what we said in The Genetics of Being Indian: "Race in general usage includes both a cultural and biological feature of a person or group of people." Even if Cleopatra was "white" biologically, she was raised in a largely nonwhite culture. She probably perceived herself as a mixed-race Egyptian just as Barack Obama perceives himself as a mixed-race American.