Empathy’s Dark Labor: Feeling, Fact, and the Black Subject in Late Nineteenth Century Black Narrative
Cook, Hubert Alexander
Literary scholarship has proceeded with the assumption that empathy is a moral achievement. This assumption has hidden not just the elaborate process wherein one projects one’s own feelings into an object of identification but also the implications of that projection. “Empathy’s Dark Labor” challenges the assumption that empathy is a moral category by reading this notion in the historical and cultural context of work by U.S. black writers of the late nineteenth century. It holds that empathy is a process that commodifies its object and is better understood through the grammars of capital. To make visible this revision of empathy, this study pays close attention to the writing careers of Ida B. Wells, Charles W. Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, and W.E.B. Du Bois from 1892 to 1905, a period in which knowledge about black persons was increasingly managed on the written page. It argues that the brutal history of U.S. slavery—one rife with the violent commodification of black bodies, where others determined the fate of black lives—made black writers wary of subjecting black personhood to narrative exploitation as well. These writers transformed their narrative style and their practice in order to rebuff any further abuse to black persons. Their métier became to move the text away from being an easy-access site that prepared and packaged black bodies for commodification to one that permitted them to instruct their readers differently about black persons, especially at the safe distance that reading permits. This study analyzes these writers’ usually unexamined letters—their notes to publishers, advocates, and mentors; their journal entries; and manuscripts in progress—to show that they were attempting to tutor their readers in how to regard black bodies and persons with nuance and an assumption of complexity. To undertake their work, the writers examined rejected, or at times exploited, the emotional identification a text presumes from its reader and strategically adopted the seemingly impersonal use of facts—statistics, citations, capital, international cartographies, and percentages to portray black persons.