Benito Cereno

Racial Stereotypes in Benito Cereno College

Originating in race-based African chattel slavery, racial stereotypes have plagued American history. Antebellum stereotypes characterized African Americans as inferior and unevolved, which perpetuated the opinion of most white Americans that African Americans were suited to servitude, as they were seen as incapable of learning and being civilized. The stereotypes propagated by slavery, Minstrel Shows, and later books and films found their place in a variety of well-known pieces, including Bishop Whipple’s Southern, which preserved repugnant stereotypes. However, antebellum author Herman Melville employed these racial stereotypes in Benito Cereno in a seemingly innovative way; he utilizes stereotypes of African Americans to critique 19th century racial discourse by calling into question the validity of rigid racial boundaries, and suggesting the danger of viewing a race as a monolithic body.

Benito Cereno, a novella set in 1799 – in the midst of the age of slavery – details the thoughts and feelings of Massachusettsan Captain Amasa Delano amidst a puzzling encounter on a slave ship. Often referred to as “the American” (Melville 121), Delano is the captain of a whaling ship, the Bachelor’s Delight. While his ship is docked off...

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