The Story and the Truth

“All The Colours of the Spectrum”: Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black”

In Books on October 16, 2018 at 9:38 am

I spent much of the weekend at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and managed to hear five of the six shortlisted Booker authors speak: four – Rachel Kushner, Daisy Johnson, Richard Powers and Robin Robertson – appeared together on stage on the Saturday; the fifth, Esi Edugyan, was on Sunday interviewed alone by the excellent Afua Hirsch. This means I’ve only missed Anna Burns, which is a shame – because for my money her novel, Milkman, is in the top flight of this year’s shortlist. But it’s Edugyan, I think, who is the author to beat this year.

Her novel, Washington Black, begins on a Barbados plantation known as “Faith” in 1830. The titular narrator, George Washington Black (or Wash for short), is a young slave of around ten years old (“I cannot say for certain” [p. 3]), and in the opening pages he gives us everything we might expect from this sort of story: cruel overseers, caring-but-cowed fellow slaves, brutal work, distant memories of earlier identities (“If you dead, you wake up again in your homeland,” insists Big Kit, one of the older slaves and one of the few with knowledge of Africa [p. 9]). Very early on, too, Edugyan makes clear that slavery was not merely an economic system, but a cultural and social one – a means of production as linked to white self-image as it was any particular business model:

Faith itself darkened under our new master. In the second week, he dismissed the old overseers. In their place arrived rough men from the docks, tattooed, red-faced, grimacing at the heat. These were ex-soldiers or old slavers or just island poor, with their papers crushed into a pocket and the sunken eyes of devils. Then the maimings began. What use could we be, injured so? (p. 8)

None at all, obviously. But that was not the point. Rather, slavery was – and, alas, can continue to be – as important in how it shores up, confirms and reflects on white supremacy as it was in providing for the ever-increasing demands of the proto-industrial economy. Very late in the novel, Wash will tell a white man: “You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men” (p. 405). (It’s surely deliberate that even Wash isn’t free of another prejudice of the time: phallocentrism.)

The corrupting influence of slavery as an institution, then, is one of Edugyan’s key themes. But in her talk at Cheltenham, she emphasised that she considers Washington Black a post-slavery narrative, one which shifts the emphasis from bondage to what happens after the bonds are if not slipped free then loosened, little by little over time. This is a wise vision of a novel such as this, since I have some sympathy with the criticism that the recent preponderance of slave fictions can crowd out important stories of other sorts. For the first fifty or a hundred pages of Washington Black, then, I was impressed but uncertain: here was another brilliantly written novel of slavery which was going to rightly argue that the institution was wrong – and then move on. I was left feeling like Wash when he is first allowed by Titch, the naturalist brother of Faith’s master, to climb a hill in preparation for assisting in an experiment: “I was troubled by the enormous beauty of that place, of the jewel-like fields below us, littered as I knew them to be with broken teeth” (p. 60).

Washington Black is indeed very finely written. It has by far the smoothest, most controlled prose style on the shortlist. There is never a dip or a jagged edge, except where one is intended to be; every character emerges from the pages fully-formed and of crystal clarity; the characters’ speech reads redolently of their period without falling into pastiche; description is eloquent and evocative without being over-wrought; there are where necessary flashes of absolute wit and insight – “Mister Wilde had told me I was born with a ring of luck at my neck. Luck is its own kind of manacle” (p. 231) – and elsewhere, where appropriate, of more dilatory and yet no less apposite virtues. In one astonishing passage, Wash oversees the ferrying of live cargo across the Atlantic:

The winter crossed was rough, and some of the less hardy genera began to die off. When the octopus I’d caught in the cover grew colourless, lethargic, we stopped paying the steward to bring us sea water. Goff and I descended to the clanging, grim lower hold on the rare days we were in port and, stepping out into the blanched air, we’d disembark alongside a crewman to gather clean sea water into fir-wood casks. Using some rude instrument of my devising, we tested for impurities. The breeze would lift my hat, and I’d crouch there with my sticks and papers, sometimes cupping the water to my face to taste for deadly metals. Occasionally, a small, curious crowd would gather at the boats glistening rail to peer down at the strand old man and his ugly burnt slave who drank straight from the sea. (pp. 317-8)

No one line in this passage stands out, and yet the whole thing taken together reads as improbably moving. In boasting such complete control, but also in being willing to push its characters into situations which demand she move past the politeness of polished prose into something rawer and yet still beautiful, Washington Black is orders of magnitude better than Edugyan’s previous novel, Half-Blood BluesIt is much broader and deeper, following Wash in four parts from plantation to initial freedom – and on to, ultimately, residence in England – via a series of perhaps unlikely but never less than credible events. At each stage of his journey away from slavery – first as fugitive and finally as a “free” man – Wash perceives more and more a piecemeal process which at first had at first been invisible to him. Here is where the novel becomes the post-slavery narrative it prefers to be: in establishing clearly, but then not dwelling on, the depredations of the slave trade, Washington Black is able more fully to understand its legacies – and those individuals who might once have been a part of it.

Most importantly, Wash comes to live in a world still defined by white supremacy. He can achieve nothing without a white sponsor or benefactor – and, even when he finds one, his talents are co-opted by them without permission or second thought. A prodigiously talented illustrator, via Titch Wash becomes fascinated by the natural world, and marine biology in particular. He comes to make a huge contribution to that discipline – and yet, in the sort of act of erasure that the recent movie Hidden Figures made so palpable, his name appears nowhere close to the record of that invention. It will be remembered instead as the work of a white man, Wash having merely drifted from an explicit slavery to another sort of indenture. “I had been a slave, I had been a fugitive […] and I had survived it only to let the best of my creations be taken from me,” Wash sighs (p. 337).

Not everything is perfectly balanced in the novel, however. Edugyan also said at Cheltenham that she was keen not to allow her white characters to become cruel caricatures – but rather to show how slavery came to erode their senses of self and personal relationships, too. In treating the figure of Titch with such care and even sympathy, however, the novel comes perilously close to centring the experience of a white man in a narrative about black slavery and emancipation. Prior to the moment at which she wisely removes Titch from the narrative, Edugyan cannot help but lead us, fascinated, by the nose in Titch’s wake. Perhaps we are meant to feel some of the unearned hero-worship Titch encourages in Wash, the slave he “frees” from the oversight of his master; but later in the novel Wash still believes that Titch “had risked his own good comfort, the love of his family, his name […] His harm, I thought, was in not understanding that he still had the ability to cause it” (p. 406). This is an extremely forgiving vision of the scion of a slaveholding family, whatever abolitionist identity they may adopt in reaction to that practice; and there’s even something of the tragic to it, a poignancy which renders Titch some kind of hero, a figure of unusually poetic proportions who inevitably takes some of the narrative’s momentum with him when he leaves.

Crucial to all this is Edugyan’s concept of freedom. She sees it not as an unalloyed good so much as a tool we must all be given so we may be the person we truly are – good or bad. Wash is spun a story on the plantation by Big Kit, who tells him that freedom is about doing what you wish at all times. The novel is a journey away from that simplicity. “Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people,” Titch at another point lectures him, “as though I did not know the truth of this better than he” (p. 154); when Wash learns that the Faith plantation has been sold and disbanded, he comes to wonder about his old friends – “did they use their freedom wisely or foolishly?” (p. 183)  We never know. What we are sure of, however, is that they will have been able, to one extent or another, to pick their path, unlike when they were held in bondage. “You speak of slavery as though it is a choice,” Wash later upbraids another character. “As if there are those who are naturally slaves, and those who are not” (p. 268). This, of course, is a calumny – and Wash is a proof of that, but one which the white scientists around him never quite fully perceive. Only in the Arctic wilderness where Titch’s father toiled in cataloguing natural phenomena is racism seen to be on hold, the exception proving the rule:

“And who introduced you to this delicacy?” said Titch. “Your man? […] Your Esquima, I mean. The one who brought us here on his sled.”

“Hesiod? But he is not our servant. […] He comes and goes at his own choosing. There is no word for ‘servant’ in his tongue.” (p. 203)

(No servant, perhaps; but he is named nevertheless by white men.)

Again, you’ll notice, Titch is the vehicle through which the lesson is dramatised. He is the crease in Edugyan’s philosophy, the anchored line that keeps the big ideas of her novel rooted a little too squarely in place. This is the primary reason I can see for the other big book on this year’s shortlist, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, pipping Edugyan at the post. As distinct from what I still consider to be Milkman‘s unique qualities, both Washington Black and The Overstory feel like weighty novels addressing universal concerns – works which escape the particular. I won’t have time before tonight’s ceremony to write up my thoughts on The Overstory, but it is almost monumental in its solidity, its fixedness of purpose. It, too, is a philosophical novel: in Powers’s case, the governing principal is environmentalist unblinding, the book as a whole a sort of arboreal DeLillo, an American epic following nine disparate characters through a twentieth- and twenty-first-century reckoning with trees (“a tree is a passage between earth and sky” [p. 57]). As one has come to expect from Powers, an intellectual novelist whose books are influenced very much by his previous life as a computer programmer – all flawless logic and clarity of parameters – The Overstory is as complete as a megalith. It has no ideological flaws or accidents, no Titch to skip disruptively through the text. It is insistent, oddly monomaniacal for a novel so gloriously baggy, focusing squarely on its vision of the necessary reorienting of our understanding of what the world is, of “what life wants from people, and how it might use them” (p. 494).

Perhaps it is part of this project that The Overstory is never quite human, however. Washington Black, on the other hand, is only ever over-generous in its extension of sympathy, too readily understanding of individuals’ perfidy and weakness. “I rather underestimated the intrepid nature of human stupidity,” we read at one point in the novel (p. 200), and it seems a lodestar for the book’s vision of us. The seminal line is given, of course, to the patriarch of a slaveholding family. I think it may be this clear-sightedness, but also this compassion, which wins Edugyan the prize this evening.


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