Emerson and Race: A Provocation

Leslie Dumont, The University of California, Davis

I believe Emerson has more to offer on the topic of blackness than what he has written explicitly about race. While I still do not know if when he says “man” he also means black man, it is clear to me that Emerson—whether he fully realized it or not—modeled his ideal person, the self-reliant man, on the life and work of the black slave.

American whiteness has always been socially constructed. Without Native Americans and enslaved Africans, there would be no white American, as whiteness exists conceptually and historically only in contrast to these categories. Native Americans were used in the construction of the white race in Emerson’s thought and in nineteenth-century American culture more generally, but here I would like to focus on how blackness specifically contributed to the crystallization of ideas of whiteness in Emerson’s writing. In general, those who believe in the social construction of whiteness believe that because blacks were enslaved, whites were free; blacks were barbarous, so whites were civil; blacks were criminal, so whites were legitimate, and so on. Until the 1830s and 40s, Emerson adopted the anti-Black theories of evolution—that some races are less evolved—found in the work of Louis Agassiz (Woodward-Burns 146). These theories allowed Emerson to make invidious comparisons between the races (Porte 20). Attaching these pseudoscientific ideas to the discourse of Anglo-Saxon supremacism taught by his English contemporary Thomas Carlyle, Emerson developed an idealized vision of American manhood that was in many ways more Anglo than the English themselves (Painter 201). His pursuit of this abstracted form of whiteness, however, draws immediate attention to the racial alternatives, abundantly attested in the actual antebellum United States, that were pressing upon Emerson’s thought.  So many of Emerson’s formulations about virtues like self-reliance are transparently shadowed by an anxiety around the blackness they exclude. They helped him to eventually use blackness to create an idealistic, and arguably white version of manhood, one that would set the American apart from the British.

For Emerson, the self-reliant man is in hierarchical order, the highest version of manhood:

What we commonly call man, the eating, drinking, planting, counting man, does not, as we know him, represent himself, but misrepresents himself. Him we do not respect, but the soul. Whose organ he is, would he let it appear through his action, would make our knees bend. When it breathes through his intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue. (“The Oversoul” 152)

Emerson is pointing here to the soul of the self-reliant man. He who is self-reliant is not a mere individualist who relies on himself; instead, he is a universalist who relies on the Self, who for Emerson, is God (“The Oversoul” 178). In effect, the more self-reliant a person is, the more God-like they are. For Emerson, the world is divided into two categories: The “Me,” which is the divine, and the “Not Me,” which is nature (Nature 16). Ironically, Emerson says the body itself fits in the category of Not Me, which further signifies his theory of the body being secondary to the soul which inhabits it. Thus, for Emerson, to know thyself, one must not merely know their own body and its desires, but one must leave society and go into nature to meet themselves by communing, in reflection, with the God-self who inhabits all people (Nature 19).

Though Emerson thinks all people should strive to be self-reliant, he implies in saying that we misrepresent ourselves, that complete and consistent self-reliance is impossible. By saying that we are organs of the soul we misrepresent, Emerson is both saying that the soul, which is the universal self on which self-reliance teaches us to rely, exists separate from our bodies, and that the body and soul are not always in accord. Speaking of the genius created when the soul combines with our intellect, Emerson writes, “These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter the world (“Self-Reliance” 153). For Emerson, self-reliance requires solitude, but in reality, complete and constant solitude is just not practical. Emerson says, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members” (“Self-Reliance” 153). Here, Emerson’s idealist idea that we humans can exalt ourselves by rejecting society and embracing solitude, conflicts with the reality that it is very difficult for us to leave society and even more difficult for that leaving to be permanent. Even for Thoreau, solitude was an experiment and could not be sustained as a way of life.

Emerson’s implied impossibility of self-reliance makes me think of another group of “Impossible Subjects” (Ngai). Mae Ngai calls immigrants “Impossible Subjects” because they do not add to the fictional “melting pot” of America, as they are noncitizens, unprotected by rights. Though Ngai is talking about the undocumented immigrant in her essay, who is the slave but an impossible subject too? A soul, a person, who is forced to live in America, but banned from citizenship and further unrecognized as a person? Who is the slave to 19th-century American thought, but an imbalance of body and soul–the direct opposite of Emerson’s esteemed self-reliant man: too much flesh, and not enough soul? I cannot be the only one who looks at Christopher Cranch’s illustration of Emerson’s transparent eyeball and sees a black slave. The human body is a work of division: two eyes divide perspective, two arms divide the strength, reproductive organs divide the entire person etc. And transcendentalists, including Emerson, believed that human beings themselves are divisions of a greater whole. But while Cranch’s Transparent eyeball resembles an actual human, it lacks all of those human qualities of division. Just one eye, no arms, no reproductive organs. The enormous eye fits awkwardly onto the emaciated, barefoot body. This image alludes conflict, an imbalance of body and soul that is so significant, it manifests physically. While the slave does not have an actual imbalance of body and soul, society reads her this way, forcing her, just like Cranch’s figure, into the category of human-like. While Cranch’s figure has too much soul and not enough body, the slave has the opposite problem. Society’s expectations for the body of the slave—to be whipped but not bruise, to work through pain, to satisfy the sexual desires of men she cannot reject, to nurse infants who are not hers—are exponentially greater than its expectations for her intellect.

The slave not only mirrors that imbalance of body and soul in Cranch’s illustration, but her life is also an extreme example of self-reliance. The slave does not just reject society like Emerson’s self-reliant man would; she is forcibly cut off. She cannot return like Thoreau could. In Nature Emerson condemns society, saying, “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers” (Nature 1). The American slave, in her world, cannot be retrospective. Her culture and past are not recognized. Her family is broken, and the whip keeps her mind on present pain. The slave, even in her reproduction, produces no new members of society. She is the only self-reliant individual who does not need to retreat to nature, because the burden of taking part in society cannot be hers, even as she lives in a house, buys groceries from a store, sits on a pew in a church. Her self-reliance can be practiced anywhere. To pair in metaphor the slave to Emerson’s transparent eyeball, the slave’s body is nothing; as Hortense Spillers writes, it is reduced to flesh, unprotected by law, and therefore vulnerable (67). Yet in its nothingness, it both witnesses and nourishes life: it sees all. Thus, the conditions of disempowerment of black people are the strengths of Emerson’s self-reliant man: no attachment to the past, no obligations to conform to the present—and above all, a power of critical observation unmatched in other parts of society.

Emerson was not yet an active abolitionist when he wrote “Self-Reliance.” I cannot say for certain that the slave is even included in the metaphysical makeup of God and Nature in Man that he proposes. I wonder this though: did Emerson’s work set the foundation for ideas that he himself could not entertain in the context of his personal experiences and bias? Maybe it is our job, as scholars with more liberty to think about the implications of race, to gather from Emerson’s conscious or subconscious use of the slave in self-reliance, that true American freedom, as expressed in the ideals of self-reliance, is eerily akin to slavery. Is it our job not to look for how scholars talked about race but instead to decipher how they used it in the knowledge they produced?

Works Cited

Bode, Carl. The Portable Emerson. Penguin, 1981.

Ngai, Mae. Impossible Subjects. Princeton UP, 2004.

Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People W.W. Norton, 2010.

Porte, Joel, ed. Emerson in His Journals. Harvard UP, 1982.

Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, pp. 65-81.

Woodward-Burns, Robinson, “Rethinking Self-Reliance: Emerson on Mobbing, War, and Abolition,” The Journal of Politics, vol. 83, no. 1, 2020, pp. 136-149.

How to cite this post

MLA 8th Edition:

Leslie Dumont. “Emerson and Race: A Provocation.” The Transparent Eyeball, Fifth Series, The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, September 23, 2022, https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emerson-and-race-a-provocation/. Accessed [date of access; ex. 5 Dec. 2021].

APA 7th Edition:

Dumont, Leslie. (2022, September 23). Emerson and Race: A Provocation. The Transparent Eyeball. https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emerson-and-race-a-provocation/.

Chicago 17th Edition:

Dumont, Leslie. “Emerson and Race: A Provocation,” The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society. The Transparent Eyeball, September 23, 2022https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emerson-and-race-a-provocation/.