Washington Black Book Review
by Kevin J. MacDonald
Washington Black Book Review
Published Friday July 12, 2019
Written by Kevin J. MacDonald for Savant-Garde
During the 2018 ceremony, Esi Edugyan, upon winning the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize award for her book Washington Black, said, “many forms of truth-telling are under siege.” In a tumultuous sociopolitical landscape where the guise of ‘alternative facts’ subvert truth, Edugyan shifts her scope from the macro to the micro, focusing on personal, existential truths instead of polemicizing contemporary social issues and ailments through a historical lens. Her book is a Sartrean exploration of the consequences of freedom and the choice to establish and solidify an identity amid social persecution and the omnipresence of a traumatic past.
Beginning in the year 1829, George Washington Black, the protagonist and narrator of the book, works as a field slave in Barbados on the Faith plantation. But this book is not an emancipation narrative. By chapter 3 of part 1, we learn that George, or ‘Wash’ as he affectionately comes to be known, becomes a Freeman by the time he’s 18. Wash’s emancipation is not the climax—it is the springboard from which Edugyan leaps to begin her story: a cinematic epic focusing on Wash’s quest for truth while managing the burden of freedom shrouded by a past in chains.
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Wash, an 11-year-old who knows nothing but the grim reality of field labour, has his world upended when his master’s brother, Titch, specifically requests that he work as his personal assistant. Titch is an engineer and, while Wash is anxious around him at first, exhibits none of the cruelty that the master, Erasmus Wilde, was feared for. This upending proves fruitful as Titch not only educates Wash but, upon giving him tools to learn and practice his letters, helps him discover that he is a prodigious artist when Wash draws a life-like portrait of a Cassius Blue butterfly.
Wash’s primary focus while assisting Titch, besides cataloguing observations about the biodiversity within the plantation’s property, is aiding in the construction of an aeronautical device which Titch calls a “Cloud-Cutter.” The process of its creation leads not only to a permanent scar for Wash, but also lays the foundation for a frantic midnight escape from the island. During a stormy night, Wash and Titch ride the Cloud-Cutter to freedom, earning themselves a bounty at the behest of Erasmus Wilde’s wounded pride.
The story truly begins with Wash and Titch as fugitives. But even then, Edugyan doesn’t settle in to the story she’s trying to tell until Part 3 begins on page 221. Following a traversal across three continents while trying to escape the international reach of Erasmus Wilde’s bounty, Titch eventually abandons Wash, effectively cutting not only their personal ties but also Wash’s ties to his past. Separated from the man responsible for his freedom, Wash is forced to discover how to live on his own, and his existential quest begins.
I don’t mean to disparage or dismiss the first half of Edugyan’s novel. It isn’t inconsequential. But the invocation of pathos, which much of the first half of the book focuses on, is not where the book’s power lies. Instead, the horrors of slavery sit backstage as she shines a light on the burdens of freedom. The malleability of Wash’s present life and identity juxtaposed with the omnipresence of his traumatic past combine to create a purgatorial state of being; he’s not enslaved, but he’s not quite free. Faith maintains its grip on Wash, and his reclamation project, an attempt to reconcile an unknowable past and future with the demands of the present, is where the book soars.
While summarizing the extent of cruelty inflicted upon the slaves at Faith, Edugyan provides brief anecdotal evidence concerning the extent of their mistreatment. Without drifting toward a portrait verging on torture porn, she briefly recounts a story about a maid named Elizabeth who is forced to eat from a full chamber pot for not cleaning the previous days’ thoroughly. But Edugyan did not set out to illustrate the grotesqueries of slavery. Besides one other memorable moment where Erasmus steals freedom for the slaves even in their death, she chooses to characterize Wash and set up his development instead of lingering within the plantation.
Edugyan manages to capture a kaleidoscopic series of observations through stunted yet graceful lyricism. In part 1, she focuses on addressing the irony of technological and social progress as the reason for slavery. In part 2, she unpacks the complexity of familial duty, exemplified by Titch actively seeking civil rights reform while also assigned by his mother to run the Faith plantation. In part 3, she examines the nature of freedom molded by rogue emancipation, while also analysing the ontological consequences of identity; for Edugyan, identities are compasses, more stewards of being than being in and of itself. In part 4, the conflagatory quest for knowledge, the fire fueling Wash’s determination, becomes as much a source of liberation as it is a reminder of his chain to the past. There is an unsettling conclusion to be drawn; regardless of individual fortitude, we will always remain a victim to the senselessness of history and circumstance.
Following the book’s climax, Edugyan writes, “I understood she desired to know if I had found what I was seeking, if this trip would finally satisfy my erratic pursuit of an unanswerable truth, if it would calm my sense of rootlessness, solve the chaos of my origins. She wanted to know if anything would be laid to rest, or if we’d continue to drift through the world together, going from place to place until I made her like me, so lacking a foothold anywhere that nowhere felt like home.” Edugyan doesn’t answer this, and instead allows the reader to answer the questions themselves. The ending is vague, and, much like real life, we are given a sense of what to expect from the future without assurances. The synthesis of identity and the pursuit of truth are taken to their limits, and while there is clarity in the end, the daunting uncertainty of the future tethered to a harrowing past looms above all that has occurred.
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