An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man (American History Through Literature)
Almost forgotten until the late 1970s, the writing of William ApessApess" has become standard although the name is also sometimes spelled "Apes" Pequot, exists today in a volume of complete works and in a growing body of critical work. His extraordinary essay "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man" (1833) is a powerful indictment of what Apess called color prejudice and what would today be called racism.
William Apess was born in 1798 in the small town of Colrain, Massachusetts, some distance from North Stonington and Ledyard, Connecticut, where his people, the Pequots, mostly resided on two small reservations. Early in his life his parents moved back to Connecticut and unfortunately entrusted his care to his alcoholic grandparents who beat him severely and then sold him as an indentured laborer when he was only four or five years old. Apess eventually ran off from his master's house and, later, although still a very young man, participated in the unsuccessful American attack on Montreal in the War of 1812. He had taken up drinking in the army, and after leaving it in 1815 he wandered about and held a number of odd jobs. In 1813 he had had a religious experience, and he turned to evangelical Methodism to help him regain control of his life. He was baptized into the church in 1818 and was ordained a minister in 1829. Apess died in New York in 1839, apparently of alcoholism.
Apess's first publication was a full-scale autobiography, A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apes, a Native of the Forest (1829), the first such text to be written entirely by a Native American person. (An earlier, eighteenth-century autobiographical text by a Mohican, the Reverend Samson Occom, was only
RHETORICAL STRATEGIES IN "THE INDIAN'S LOOKING-GLASS"
Careful attention to "An Indian's Looking-Glass" will note the ways it works against the dominant society's racialist construction of Indians as an inferior race and employs a still-powerful religious discourse to insist that native people and people of color generally are equal to whites in the sight of God.
Although "An Indian's Looking-Glass" was not delivered orally by Apess, its oratorical style is immediately apparent. The regular use of direct addresslthough the address is always to the "reader"nd the number of insistent interrogativesNow I ask," "Now I would ask," and so onll suggest a situation in which a speaker stands before an audience, sometimes sharply pointing a finger. It is tempting to assign this tactic to the influence upon Apess of some form of traditional Native American oral performance, but he nowhere writes of Pequot or any other native oral performances. (He says almost nothing, in any of his work, about New England native cultures.) Thus, without entirely ruling out the possibility that native oral performance of one sort or another might possibly have influenced Apess, it seems reasonable to point out that he lived in a time when the lecture hallhich might feature Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, or Frederick Douglassnd the pulpit provided abundant examples of the powers of oratory.
Well aware that Indian peoples in popular discourse had regularly been consigned to passivity (because they are inferior to the more active whites) and to the past (they are a last remnant, a doomed and dying race), Apess opens with words that insist upon the active presence and equality of at least one Indian person, the author himself: "Having a desire to place a few things before my fellow creatures. . . ." By opening with the participial "Having," and the characterization of his audience as his "fellow creatures," Apess asserts the activity, contemporaneity, and equality of the Indian writer. This is reinforced by his second sentence: "Now I ask if degradation has not been heaped long enough upon the Indians?" (p. 155, emphasis added). Apess will go on to pose many troubling questions to his readers.
He will also stir their thoughts and emotions with his wordplay. In his third paragraph, for example, Apess writes of the white neighbors of the Indians that they are people "who have no principle" (p. 156), and in the second sentence of his fourth paragraph he asks whether Indians are not "said to be men of talents" (p. 156). Principles and talents are, of course, moral and intellectual or cultural qualities. But both these words also reference the economic and financial: principle and interest, this is to say, are words that have to do with money, and "talents" appear in the Bible as monetary units. Apess will develop the notion that the materially well-off whites are not at all superior to the Indians from a religious and moral perspective because they are unprincipledankrupthen it comes to dealing with those of a different skin color. Indeed, his fourth paragraph has no fewer than five uses of the word "principle" or a variant, and in every case this is to establish the unprincipled actions of white men in regard to red men (p. 156).
Apess uses "black" as an adjective metaphorically to describe moralsrincipleshat have become corrupted by an aversion to literally black or colored skin. He writes of "the impure black principle . . . as corrupt and unholy as it can be" (p. 156), of color prejudice, leading to his notation of the "black inconsistency that you place before me," the extremely bad "principle" of considering "skins of colorore disgraceful than all the skins that Jehovah ever made" (p. 157). Not only is this bad, but it is absurd, for if "black or red skins or any other skin of color" were disgraceful in God's eye, "it appears that he has disgraced himself a great dealor he has made fifteen colored people to one white and placed them here upon this earth" (p. 157).
All of this is, obviously enough, delivered with a full freight of irony, and Apess's use of irony as a rhetorical device is something we might have noted earlier. His first strong irony, for example, appears in only the seventh paragraph of his text, where he writes, "But, reader, I acknowledge that this is a confused world, and I am not seeking for office, but merely [!] placing before you the black inconsistency that you place before mehich is ten times blacker than any skin that you will find in the universe" (p. 157, emphasis added). Apess will use ironic discourse again and again to induce the sort of shame in his audience that might produce a revolution in moral feeling.
It is in his eighth paragraph that Apess launches his bitter and powerful indictment of the white man's crimes and a strong challenge to his presumptive racial superiority. Echoing the strategy with which he began, he poses a rhetorical question: "Now let me ask you, white man. . . ." He then offers the truly horrifying possibility that if all the world's "different skins were put together, and each skin had its national crimes written upon ithich skin do you think would have the greatest?" (p. 157). We have noted earlier that Apess links his outrage at the mistreatment of Indians to the mistreatment of blacks. In this particular paragraph, Apess's charge against the white citizens of the United States is not only that they have robbed "a nation almost of their whole continent, and murder[ed] their women and children" but as well that they have robbed "another nation to till their grounds and welter out their days under the lash with hunger and fatigue under the scorching rays of a burning sun" (p. 157, emphasis added). The verb choicewelter"s interesting in that Apess knows well that "the lash" raises "welts" on the backs of black men and women, writing, as it were, on their skin.
Perhaps most extraordinary in this indictment of the United States is Apess's repeated use of the word "nation" and his complete avoidance of the word "race." Racialist thought was abundant in Apess's time, and it would soon become the dominant discourse for the expression of difference. The word "race," this is to say, was in common usage in a great deal of American writing by 1833 (it would become even more common later in the century), but it does not appear even once in "An Indian's Looking-Glass." (Apess does occasionally use it in other of his writings.) It is surely no accident that Apess here refers to Indians and Africans not as races but as nations, a potent political term.
Apess's counter-discourse, as we have noted, grounds itself in religious doctrine. Thus Apess can rhetorically ask, "Is not religion the same now under a colored skin as it ever was? If so, I would ask, why is not a man of color respected?" (p. 158). He goes on to adduce biblical support for these arguments, noting that "Jesus and his Apostles never looked at the outward appearances. Jesus in particular looked at the hearts, . . . and his Apostles . . . looked at their fruit without any regard to the skin, color, or nation" (p. 158). Directly addressing his audience, he throws out the challenge, "But you may ask: Who are the children of God? Perhaps you may say, none but white. If so, the word of the Lord is not true" (p. 159). At this point Apess boldly engages what he knows may be for some the unacknowledged heart of these matters: "Perhaps you will say that if we admit you to all of these privileges you will want more. I expect I can guess what that ishy, say you, there would be intermarriages" (p. 159). This "would be nothing strange or new to me," Apess writes. He then virtually taunts his audience, noting, "I do not wonder that you blush, many of you, while you read," becoming thus as red as those against whom those "many" discriminate. He continues in this vein of irony, assuring the reader that he is "not looking for a wife, having one of the finest cast" (p. 160).
Apess's penultimate paragraph repeats what has been central to his argument thus far, as the author again addresses the reader directly: "By what you read, you may learn how deep your principles are. I should say they were skin deep" (p. 160). He assures the reader that many "men of fame" advocate the cause of the Indians, among them such luminaries of the period as Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, and William Wirt. He takes pains to conclude on a positive note, exhorting his readers to be hopeful:
Do not get tired, ye noble-heartednly think how many poor Indians want their wounds done up daily; the Lord will reward you, and pray you stop not till this tree of distinction be leveled, and the mantle of prejudice torn from every American hearthen shall peace pervade the Union. (Pp. 16061)
William Apess would continue to speak out against race prejudice, most particularly in his "Eulogy on King Philip" in 1836, raising a powerful voice in favor of equal rights and justice for all.
See also Crime and Punishment; Evangelicals; Indian Wars and Dispossession; Indians; Methodists; Native American Literature; Oratory; Rhetoric
Apess, William. On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. Edited by Barry O'Connell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Donaldson, Laura. "Son of the Forest, Child of God: William Apess and the Scene of Postcolonial Nativity." In Postcolonial America, edited by C. Richard King. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Krupat, Arnold. "Monologue and Dialogue in Native American Autobiography." In his The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Murray, David. "Christian Indians: Samson Occom and William Apes." In his Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing, and Representation in North American Indian Texts. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1991.
Walker, Cheryl. "The Irony and Mimicry of William Apess." In her Indian Nation: Native American Literature and Nineteenth-Century Nationalisms. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.