Professor Grandin and the Empire of Necessity

A NECESSARY LECTURE: Professor Grandin explained the connection between slave trade and Herman Melville.

A NECESSARY LECTURE: Professor Grandin explained the connection between slave trade and Herman Melville.

Jackie Dowling, Maroon-News Staff

On Thursday, April 2, in Golden Auditorium, Professor of History at New York University Greg Grandin spoke at the Douglas Redding Lecture about his book titled The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World

Currently a professor at New York University, Grandin was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for history, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. His published works often focus on relations with Latin America. Additionally, Grandin looks closely at foreign policy, as he served as a consultant to the United Nations truth commission on  Guatemala.

Grandin’s lecture focused on his most recently published book. He discussed how Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno as the inspiration for his book. He explained that Melville’s book follows Massachusetts sea captain Amasa Delano as he encounters Chilean captain, Benito Cereno. The book looks closely at the relationship between Cereno and his black slave Babo, as witnessed by Delano. Using a map of North and South America and Western Africa, Grandin visually translated the sequence of events within the book, showing the audience the relationship between the characters and their geographic location.

In his book, The Empire of Necessity, Grandin tells the story of Amasa Delano through both an economic and racial lens. He structured the narrative in two overlapping arcs: one that follows the voyage of slaves from West Africa to Latin America and a second that observes Delano’s experience with sealing and his journey from New England to Latin America. Grandin highlights similarities between the suppressive institution of slavery and the competitive nature of the sealing economy, and he notes the place of these institutions in the past, present and future.

“Slaves were simultaneously a memento of the aristocratic world and a symbol for a new industrial world,” Grandin said.

In his lecture and novel, Grandin discussed the historical importance of the master-slave relationship. Noting philosopher Hegel’s master-slave metaphor, Grandin explained how interdependency between master and slave and the slave’s complete lack of self played a large role in perpetuating the institution of slavery.

Grandin concluded his lecture by returning back to Melville, focusing on Melville’s intolerance of slavery. Grandin continues to analyze the institution of slavery and race relations from a modern standpoint as he writes articles for the New York Times and other major publications.