Every story about slavery is ultimately about freedom — its absence, the hunger for it, and how we define what it means to be truly free.
That elusive yearning propels Esi Edugyan’s soaring new novel, “Washington Black.” More than a tale of human bondage, it’s also an enthralling meditation on the weight of freedom, wrapped in a rousing adventure story stretching to the ends of the earth.
It is also a bracing tribute to the indefatigable spirit of black people who, for centuries, have reinvented themselves, remained stalwart against bigotry, and squeezed light from the darkest corners. A beautiful and affecting writer, Edugyan manages to keep this rush of emotions and improbable scenarios both grounded and compelling.
The title character, George Washington Black (called Wash), is a “Freeman now in possession of [his] own person.” The opening of the book finds him looking back to 1830 when he was a 11-year-old field slave at a Barbados sugar plantation, incongruously named Faith. When its owner dies, Wash’s fate, along with those enslaved with him, becomes even more precarious with the arrival of the new master, Erasmus Wilde. To Wash, he looks like a man “who must feed on blood to keep himself warm.”
His assessment isn’t wrong; Wilde seems to crave the blood of slaves. Tongues and ears are carved up. A man caught trying to escape is burned alive. Unable to abide a life of bondage one minute more, another hangs himself. Wilde gathers his slaves around the body, informing them that they do not have the right to commit suicide.
“He was my slave, and he has killed himself. He has therefore stolen from me,” Wilde says of the dead man. “He is a thief.” As a deterrent, Wilde orders the body decapitated, its head mounted on a wooden post. He tells them they cannot be reborn in their homelands without a head, so they should “let [their] deaths come naturally.”
Edugyan doesn’t hedge on the savagery of slavery, but neither does she revel in it. It’s not uncommon for works about the so-called peculiar institution to devolve into a kind of torture porn. That’s why such stories, drenched in black pain, can be met with with fatigue or vexation, especially among African-American audiences.
Of course, underplaying the violence plays into the hands of those whose agendas include attempts to rehabilitate slavery into a benevolent institution filled with happy, docile Negroes and munificent owners.
This is always a difficult line to toe, yet one Edugyan navigates without resorting to facile clichés. This is also the case when Wash meets Christopher, known as Titch, the younger brother of the plantation’s owner. He seems too much of a “woke bro,” to put it in modern vernacular. I worried that we might plummet into “white savior” territory. Yet again, the author finds the right balance for the character.
An explorer and inventor, Titch borrows Wash to be his manservant, but the boy quickly becomes more. He discovers his own interest in science and a prodigious talent for art. When Titch’s awful cousin Philip sees Wash’s drawings he’s more dismayed than impressed. “You have put ideas in a slave’s head, Christopher,” he says. “You should be more careful. No good ever came of it.”
Philip doesn’t realize that slaves have their own ideas that, unlike their bodies, remain unbound. He sees Wash only as a creature born to take orders from white people. Titch balks at the idea.
“Negroes are God’s creatures also, with all due rights and freedoms, whatever their faculties and abilities,” Titch later says. “Slavery is a moral stain against us. If anything will keep white men from their heaven, it is this.”
However heartfelt Titch’s comment — “whatever their faculties and abilities’’ – it’s a subtle reminder that while some abolitionists abhored slavery, they did not see black people as their equals.
When Wash and Titch are forced to flee the plantation after Philip’s gruesome death, Wash realizes his own abilities — and the novel takes flight.
“I recalled what Big Kit once said about freedom — that if he did not feel like working, the free man tossed down his shovel,” Wash says. “If he did not like a question, he made no answer.” But even far from the plantation, Wash learns that true freedom is available only to white men who make unfair laws and brutally enforce them.
With her acclaimed novel, “Half-Blood Blues,” Edugyan told the improbable story of a World War II-era black German jazz musician in World-War II and his mysterious disappearance in Paris. With “Washington Black,” she dives deeper into identity, especially anti-black racism outside America, which isn’t explored nearly as often as should be.
Wash’s hard-learned lessons still resonate. For black people, freedom is always a fragile negotiation. Often, it feels more like a concept than a state of being; within sight, but just beyond firm reach. From an escape on a hot-air balloon to travels on ships, Wash’s life becomes a series of close calls and adventures that take him through the known and unknown world.
In search of his place in the world, Wash, like so many black people before and after him, will find that wherever he goes, his safest space is the home he finds within himself.
By Esi Edugyan
Knopf, 352 pp., $26.95
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Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.