Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and many other nineteenth-century antislavery texts, Blake opens with the forcible separation of the slave family. Henry’s wife, Maggie, discovers that her owner and biological father, Colonel Stephen Franks, has arranged to sell her, partly because his wife has become too close to Maggie and partly because Maggie has refused his sexual advances. Returning from an errand for the Franks family, Henry learns that his wife has beenfrom the Franks plantation. Maggie’s parents, Daddy Joe and Mammy Judy, weep, pray for better times, and implore Henry to “stan’ still an see de salbation.” Henry, however, chooses instead to leave the Franks plantation and travel through each state of the antebellum South in order to “sow the seeds” of rebellion.
Readers soon learn that Blake is not all that he appears. Born free to wealthy West Indian tobacco planters, Blake as a youth goes on what he mistakenly believes to be a Spanish man-of-war but what turns out to be a. When Blake protests at the auctioning of the slaves in the United States, the ship’s commander sells him to Franks. Once on the Franks plantation, Henry marries Maggie, and they have a son. Henry’s decision to respond to Maggie’s sale with a revolutionary plot contrasts strikingly with the religiosity advocated by his in-laws and by Stowe’s Uncle Tom. While most of the slaves Henry meets on his travels talk in a stereotypical, black southern slave dialect, Henry speaks in standard English. He is characterized as a well-educated, strong, Moses-like figure who will be the deliverer of his race.
Henry’s travels throughout the southern states give his readers a detailed and diverse view of slavery. As he makes his way from plantation to plantation, Henry interviews the slaves about their conditions. While visiting the Dismal Swamp located between North Carolina and Virginia, he encounters slaves who claim to have fought in the American Revolution (1775–1783) and alongside African American rebels such as Nat Turner and, from Virginia, and Denmark Vesey, of South Carolina. While traveling, Blake imparts his plan for widespread revolution to trusted slaves in each state. Many of the slaves receiving his message have also contemplated a similar plan and have anticipated his arrival, adding to the mythic quality of Blake’s tale. He eludes authorities, charms and kills slave-catching dogs, and, after making his way through southern plantations, leads a party of escaped slaves from the Franks plantation to freedom in Canada.
Part 2 of the book finds Henry taking his quest to Cuba, where he locates Maggie. He helps her buy her freedom and reunites with his cousin Placido, a character based on Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés, the Cuban poet famously accused of sedition and executed by the Cuban government in 1844. (Set in 1853, the book compresses the historical time periods of 1840s and 1850s; the fictional world of the novel is both after the 1857 Dred Scott decision and before the 1844 execution of the Cuban revolutionary poet.) Henry surreptitiously enlists himself on a slave ship in order to lead an Amistad-like mutiny on the return from Africa. The mutiny never happens, and when the Africans arrive in Cuba, they join Blake’s revolutionary cause. Blake and Placido help form the Army of Emancipation of the Oppressed Men and Women of Cuba, which in turn elects Blake as its general-in-chief. Henry’s elaborate plans for a revolution grow and develop, but even as the tension continues to build, the novel breaks off before revolutionary action takes place.
Martin R. Delany was a free black born in Charles Town, Virginia (later West Virginia). Raised in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, he attended Harvard Medical School before being asked to leave after protests from white students. Although Delany is well known for espousing an early black nationalist vision, his thinking and political action changed and evolved over his long career. A journalist, scientist, and political actor, Delany worked with Frederick Douglass at the North Star. In the 1840s he, along with Douglass, advocated freedom and citizenship for American blacks before coming to endorse South American and then African emigration in the 1850s. He would later be commissioned as the first black major in the U.S. Army, serving during the(1861–1865). He worked for the Freedman’s Bureau after the .
Delany wrote Blake during the 1850s, when he was advocating for black emigration. While a few sample chapters were beingin the Anglo-African Magazine, he solicited the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to publish the entire novel, but when this did not happen, Delany continued to publish his book in the black periodical press.
The Anglo-African Magazine published chapters 28 through 30 in its January 1859 issue, and the next month it began serializing Blake from chapter 1. The magazine continued to publish the novel through July 1859, when the last installment stopped with chapter 23. This was probably because of Delany’s departure to Africa on his “Niger Valley Exploring Party” trip to find a suitable place to which free blacks could possibly immigrate. At the end of 1859, magazine editor Thomas Hamilton reissued the year’s issues as The Anglo-African Magazine, Volume I. Two years later, in November 1861, the Weekly Anglo-African newspaper (edited by Hamilton’s brother, Robert) began publishing Blake again, this time with different installment breaks. The Weekly Anglo-African published chapters 1 to 74 through the issue of April 26, 1862. The last six chapters of Blake were probably published in the now-lost May 1862 issues of the Weekly Anglo-African. In 1970 Floyd Miller published all the available chapters in a single book form. Because the May issues of the newspaper have not yet been recovered, however, contemporary readers do not know how the novel ends.
Although Blake did not receive as much popular attention as Uncle Tom’s Cabin during the nineteenth century, scholars are increasingly studying the novel (and Delany’s other journalistic and scientific writing) for its portrayal of antebellum black life. Blake responds specifically to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal for any free person living in a free or slave state to aid an, and to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which stripped all blacks living in the United States—enslaved and free—of any citizenship rights. At the same time, Blake departs from historical accuracy by also depicting the Cuban slave uprisings of the 1840s. While it may not be historically accurate, the scholar Eric Sundquist has pointed out that this collapse of historical periods allows the novel to imagine hemispheric violent revolution as a possible answer to New World slavery.
The novel has both domestic and international concerns. Henry Blake’s travels take him through the United States, into Canada and Cuba, and back and forth from Africa. Indeed, as the nineteenth-century subtitle to the book details, Blake is “A Tale of the Mississippi Valley, the Southern United States and Cuba.” Thus, the novel not only shows how the transatlantic slave trade is a problem; it also shows how a transnational black revolution might be a solution to that problem. Much like other seafaring novels of the nineteenth century, such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or the Whale (1851), Blake is international in scope.
Blake also explores the role Christianity played in antebellum slave life. Henry Blake excoriates slave owners like Franks for beating their slaves and breaking apart slave families while claiming to be “Christian people.” He also disapproves of slaves like Daddy Joe and Mammy Judy who adopt their masters’ Christianity whole cloth. Rather than waiting on salvation, Blake asks slaves to be violent. Nevertheless, Blake himself does rely on religion in his own endeavors, frequently leading prayers among his followers. Ironically, while disapproving of the way that whites have distorted and used Christianity to advance their own interests, he claims that blacks should behave similarly. He states that “‘[t]he whites accept of nothing but that which promotes their interests and happiness, socially, politically and religiously. They would discard a religion, tear down a church, overthrow a government, or desert a country, which did not enhance their freedom. In God’s great and righteous name, are we not willing to do the same?'” Religion can be useful to Blake, as long as it is used to advance black freedom.
Blake is a significant cultural document for both its depiction of transatlantic slavery and its characterization of hemispheric, violent revolt as a fitting response to slavery. In this way, it is an important early progenitor of black nationalist thought. At the same time, as some scholars have pointed out, Blake does a great deal of revolutionary planning, but he does not incite a great deal of actual violent revolt. Because we have yet to recover the last six chapters of the book, readers are left to ask whether the revolution ever actually came.