Martin Delany was born to a free mother and enslaved father in West Virginia in 1812. He was a prominent figure in the work of black newspapers, serving as the editor of The Mystery in the earlier part of the 1840s, and co-editing The North Star with Frederick Douglass from 1847-1849. In February of 1859, African-American Martin Delany appealed to William Lloyd Garrison to help him find a publishing house for his work, "Blake or the Huts of America" which was, at the time, being serialized in the Anglo-African Magazine (January through July). Only twenty-six chapters were published; 1-23 and 28-31 and it is unclear exactly as to why the complete novel was not printed. The complete novel was later serialized in weekly installments from November 1861-May 1862 in The Weekly Anglo-African. The black nationalistic orientation of the newspaper was particularly suited to Delany's work. By this time, however, the Civil War had begun and fears of an organized slave-rebellion came to be eclipsed by other concerns. Thus, though Delany's novel is easily "the most important black novel of this period," scholarly attention has been slow in coming (SOURCE: Floyd Miller, Intro).
SUMMARY (Anglo-African Magazine serialization, brief sketch of the other chapters in parentheticals):
The first chapter opens on Natchez, Mississippi prior to the Civil War, shortly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. Mrs. Franks is forced to sell Maggie, a faithful slave whom she treated more like a younger sister than anything else to her cousin Mrs. Ballard. Mrs. Ballard was to take her with her to Havana, Cuba as a maidservant. The deal had been settled between the two husbands--Colonel Franks and Judge Ballard. Maggie's husband, Henrico Blacus, a West Indian brought as a slave to the South comes back from an errand and needless to say, is furious. "Henry" (Henrico was re-named Henry Holland in America) expresses his disavowal of the other slaves' patience largely inculcated by what he perceived to be the false Christianity of their masters, embodying a sort of "the time is now" rhetoric.
Henry's rebellious attitude against Mr. Franks leads to his decision to sell him. Mrs. Franks, more sympathetic to the slaves, tells Henry that one Mrs. Van Winters is going to Cuba and she will arrange for him to be sold so he can go to Cuba. Colonel Franks manages to find out about this plan, however, and arranges for Henry's private sale to a particularly inhumane master, Richard Crow. Henry finds this out, and decides to be a runaway. Meanwhile, at the slave huts, Mamma Judy, Daddy Joe, and their friends celebrate and praise Franks as if they believe his ruse that he is giving Henry another chance.
Henry steals away, managing to send his and Maggie's baby son off to Canada. Before leaving, he tells his friends Andy and Charles that he is going to start a large-scale slave rebellion, and that he will make sure there is an organized movement in every state. He gives himself a maximum of two years to lay the groundwork for this rebellion. Soon after Henry runs away, slaves from other plantations start to disappear, and the white masters realize that there seems to be a broader movement. Amidst these happenings, one Major Armsted (a southerner) and Judge Ballard (originally a northerner) meet and converse about race and slavery. It turns out that the northerner is actually more fastidious about race, evincing his disgust about the ways blacks and whites mingle in Cuba. The men later meet up with Mr. Franks and one Captain Grason at Grason's plantation. There, they watch a slave boy being whipped for not readily entertaining them with antics. The slave boy was hemorrhaging from the lungs, and upon seeing this, Ballard couldn't take the sight and involuntarily grabs the whip from Grason to stop the beating. The slave boy ends up dying, and a footnote gives that this was a true incident.
Henry starts spreading the word about the slave rebellion. Able to read and write, and with much practical know-how about the plantation networks, Henry is able to get around without much suspicion. He makes a tour of southern states and speaks to slaves in their huts, inspiring them. Generally, Henry is able to garner much support for his plan, and realizes that many have already been looking forward to the day that someone would come to organize them. Among the things he witnesses is how the slave system inculcates mulatto and black overseers to treat blacks poorly (somewhat like what Stowe describes of black overseers trained for cruelty in Uncle Tom's Cabin). Henry becomes a revolutionary figure described epically and religiously by the narrator: "From plantation to plantation did he go, sowing the seeds of future devastation and ruin to the master and redemption to the slave, an antecedent more terrible in its anticipation than the warning voice of the destroying Angel in commanding the slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt." Henry's own rhetoric is high, preaching that "now is the accepted time, today is the day of salvation," Henry even goes amongst the Indians in Arkansas, who though also slave-holders, end up being sympathetic to Henry's cause after he speaks with an old chief. There is a slight hiccup in plans in New Orleans. Fifteen slave men gathered awaiting him as their leader, and Henry at first successfully lays the foundation for organization, but one man can't wait to be out for blood and makes a ruckus that night. The backlash is harsh, and this incident becomes a cautionary tale of sorts against disorganized, hot-headed rebellion which has not laid its foundations properly and intelligently. New Orleans subsequently laid "municipal regulations...most rigid in a system of restriction and espionage toward Negroes and mulattoes, almost destroying their self-respect and manhood, and certainly impairing their usefulness."
Having made his tour through these states, Henry returns to help get Mammy, Daddy, Andy, and Charles to Canada. He teaches him how to find the North Star, how moss grows on the north side of trees, and about compasses. On their journey, they meet up with two other runaways, one who looks white, so they pretend he was their master in order to get aboard a yawl to Missouri. While crossing Mississippi, Henry manages to convince a poor white ferryman that he should not be doing work for the rich southern slaveholder. Henry militantly threatens those in pursuit with a rifle. Unfortunately, however, they are soon captured.
[Here the Anglo-African Magazine serialization ends. In Part II, Henry goes to Cuba as a manservant, finds Maggie, and buys her freedom. There, he leads a revolutionary force aided by Placido, a Cuban poet and rebel. They plan to overthrow the Cuban government and prevent its annexation to the United States]
Delany's separatist, black nationalistic politics directly speaks against Harriet Beecher Stowe's portrayal of the perservering Christian slave whose ultimate destiny is to resettle in Liberia and transform Liberia into a nation of Christian principles. For Henry, Christianity which teaches slaves to "stand still" awaiting salvation (usually, the rhetoric refers to salvation in the next world) is yet another tool used by masters to keep slaves down. For Delany, slaves must rise up and claim their own freedom in the current time; they are not to wait for a God supposedly asks for their patience through unimaginable suffering on earth. It isn't, however, that Henry doesn't believe in God--Blake is a critique of religious ideology espoused by white masters and passed on to their slaves which keeps slaves from realizing their human dignity here on earth. Henry's own rhetoric and the rhetoric of the narrator is often religious (Moses is a recurring figure in the narrative) and there is a sense throughout that Henry fulfills a spiritual destiny in his revolutionary leadership.
Perhaps one of the more controversial aspects of Henry's characterization is just how different he is from the other black slaves. He doesn't talk in dialect, he is described as a "scholar," and above all, his not having internalized the abjection of slavery perpetuated by an ideology of Christian patience and suffering means he even carries himself differently. This is evident to both blacks and whites alike. He is virile, intelligent, cunning, militant, and strongly principled, an opposite "type" to the gentle, persevering, loving, Bible-quoting (but unscholarly and limited in his literacy) Uncle Tom. The "Uncle Tom" figures in Delany's characterizations are revealed as delusional and naive. Delany tackles Stowe's abolitionism by boldly leveraging his own position as a black writer to show figures like Mammy Judy or Daddy Joe to be woefully inadequate to the task of realizing their humanity.