Black Benefactors and White Recipients: Counternarratives of Benevolence in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

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My study examines four African American-authored narratives written between 1793 and 1901 (Richard Allen and Absalom Jones' Narratives of the Proceedings of the Black People, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes, and Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition) that depict acts of benevolence by African Americans to white recipients. This work focuses on the power relations represented by acts of benevolence, social perceptions regarding the roles of benefactor and recipient, and authorial choices in the depiction of these acts. The study highlights how these four narratives complicate representations of benevolence, both in terms of race and of the historical contexts in which they were written.

Previous scholars have documented the emergence of what they identify as a genre of benevolence texts within nineteenth-century American literature and even identified several subgenres among these texts (including poorhouse stories, seamstress novels, panic fiction, settlement house narratives, and maternal literacy management narratives). My work contributes to this critical literature by identifying what I call counternarratives of benevolence depicting interactions between black benefactors and white recipients, thereby expanding the scholarly discourse surrounding benevolence and challenging the dominant American narrative about it. 

I call the texts under consideration here counternarratives because they challenge the dominant narrative of black inferiority in benevolent encounters. Unlike benevolence texts previously studied, which usually portray white benefactors and white recipients, white benefactors and black recipients, and even occasionally black benefactors and black recipients--portrayals that often reinforce social hierarchies--the texts I discuss work to disrupt social hierarchies by both uncovering and challenging cultural hegemony. In doing so, they facilitate the expression of black agency and declare African American readiness for full citizenship.  

Drawing on the methods of social history, cultural anthropology, moral and political philosophy and literary studies, my analysis examines issues of agency, performativity, gift theory, and the psychology of gratitude. My study interprets two canonical and two non-canonical texts to show how benevolence is used as a narrative device to question race and power, to demonstrate a connection between narrative and ideology, and ultimately to destabilize ideologies of race and nation. My study also contributes to current debate about benevolence. By recovering the African American intellectual foundations of today's community-based learning movement within higher education, I raise questions about using traditionally understood nineteenth-century benevolence as a means for teaching students to challenge constructs of race and power in social activist movements in the twenty-first century. The writers I discuss offer a new and important model for community-based learning today.