A panel of college professors claimed that Herman Melville’s books can be applied to today’s issues of Black Lives Matter, America’s capitalist society and the presidency of Donald Trump. The panel discussion was held at the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) annual convention in Philadelphia earlier this year.
Gary Vaughn Rasberry, an assistant professor of English at Stanford University, claimed that Melville’s books could be seen in the prism of “anti-colonialism Cold War politics.” He cited the likes of W.E.B. DuBois and others for their noted third-world perspectives and how it applied to today. For example, they would agree with him in that “Starbucks represents liberalism.” Melville’s character in “Moby Dick,” Captain Ahab, “personifies the fascist” future of the world. He continued, “The paralysis of liberalism [i.e. Starbucks]” faces off the face of fascism [i.e. Ahab]. He claimed, “These maritime proletarians [the captain’s crewmen] didn’t revolt” because “their stillborn revolt would have little meaning beyond their own self preservation” in the book. Yet, Rasberry claimed, “It doesn’t undermine the [meaning] of the novel” because it highlighted “latent totalitarianism” and other similar totalitarian impulses.
Christine Ann Wooley, an associate English professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, praised Black Lives Matter in her remarks. She said, “In the days of the election of Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter issued a statement… we fight for our collective liberation…until black people are free, no one is free.” She continued to quote their statement, where the group said, “We do not and will not negotiate with fascists and racists” because “these words still fortify us, those reeling from the election.”
Furthermore, the group claimed, “Far too many white folks feel free” and how “economic justice [should be] fully legible to an audience.” To her, this “dramatizes the uncertainty of identification” and yet, “Melville’s works teem with examples” that Black Lives Matter highlighted. Referring to the group’s symbol of wearing safety pins, Wooley wondered, “We may debate whether to wear safety pins after the election.”