Review: Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black” offers unique meditation on freedom

  • Among a number of awards, “Washington Black” was a finalist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. The New Yorker calls the novel “a lush, exhilarating travelogue reminiscent of Jules Verne.”

  • Canadian author Esi Edugyan. Photo by Tamara Poppitt

  • Canadian author Esi Edugyan, whose parents are originally from Ghana, has won widespread praise for her newest novel, “Washington Black.” The Washington Post calls her “a magical writer.” Image from Facebook

For the Gazette
Published: 2/14/2019 8:56:54 AM

In a time when even supposedly liberal Democrats can be found wearing blackface or KKK robes, when American history textbooks use the word “bondman” instead of slave and white nationalists ask about the trampled rights of slave owners, “Washington Black,” the acclaimed new novel by Canadian author Esi Edugyan, is the book to set the record straight (again) and to remind us what our history is about: not grievance, but the journey towards freedom.

All this we see through the eyes of the eponymous character, George Washington Black — “Wash” — who begins life as a young slave, a boy in a Hell on Earth called Faith Plantation in Barbados in the early 1800s.

When we first meet Wash, his only companion is Big Kit, a “Dahomeyian,” born in Africa. Big Kit is explaining that she knows an incantation from Dahomey, which, if spoken just right, under the right moon, will allow her to kill Wash and herself and have them both reborn in Dahomey — free and whole.

But word has spread at the sugar plantation about this desperate plan for escape, and a spate of suicides follow — even by some who do not know the incantation. To put a stop to the loss of his “stock,” the new master, Erasmus Wilde, drags a suicide’s corpse into the slave quarters, telling them “This man was my slave, he killed himself … he is a thief.”

Erasmus then orders the dead slave beheaded, warning the others that “No man can be reborn without his head … Let your deaths come naturally.”

And in that one scene, the unbearable brutality of chattel slavery is revealed: you are a slave not only in life, but in death, too.

Into this hell one day alights Christopher Wilde — “Titch” — the brother of the seemingly mad Erasmus. Titch is a scientist but also a secret abolitionist; he’s in Barbados to write an exposé on the horrors of slavery. Yet his lavish lifestyle, as that of his father and entire family back in London, is paid for by the blood-soaked fields of Faith.

Titch is the liberal, his brother the monstrous slaver. Between them, Wash is traded like a poker chip as the brothers battle over who will be stuck running Faith, once news of their father’s death arrives.

Wash’s story is the story of all Diaspora Africans in the new world: from chattel to despised freedman. Like Wash, all must endure living in that shadow world of non-personhood, unless they light the world with an inner flame. For Wash, a talented artist, the candle that does not curse the darkness is studying nature and recording its beauty.

After Titch arrives, Wash is plucked from the cane fields and made his assistant and official illustrator. But Wash only swaps the deadly cane fields for the danger of close proximity to the all-powerful master. When Titch’s cousin, a melancholy white man, kills himself during a hunting trip, Wash, who innocently witnessed the suicide, is marked for death.

In a thrilling scene, Titch and Wash escape from Faith and Barbados in a “Cloud-cutter,” a hot-air balloon designed by Titch. They slowly make their way to the far white north, the Arctic, in search of Titch’s father.

The novel segues seamlessly from this escaped-slave narrative into the story of Wash’s long, lonely journey from property to freedman. Though no longer a slave, Wash is totally dependent on Titch, who, after a Freudian-like argument with his father who is actually alive, abruptly abandons Wash. The white man disappears in an all white-world of deadly snow and ice.

His savior gone, Wash, not yet a teenager, must make his way on his own: alone, terrified, haunted by the face of the slave-catcher his master still has hunting for him. Wash settles in Nova Scotia, where he begins a bleak existence. The terror of slavery is replaced by the soul-numbing dirge of the wage slave, amongst the lowest and poorest.

Wash labors for years like this, into manhood, growing bitter, haunted by Titch’s cruel act. So buried is he in his disappointing new life that the abolition of slavery in Barbados passes almost unnoticed.

Yet some voice within him calls Wash back to his drawings, to his study of nature. His art. This leads to a serendipitous encounter with the Goffs, a father-daughter team of marine zoologists. Not only does the meeting begin the next phase of Wash’s journey to freedman, he also finally encounters love, with Tanna Goff, whose mother was Polynesian; Tanna thus inhabits the nether world of neither white nor black.

With the Goffs, Wash arrives in London, where the three of them begin building Europe’s first aquarium, to be filled with wonders from the ocean.

Wash is desperate to finish this “Ocean House,” to make a marvel Britain has never seen, “a strange, exquisite place where people could come to view creatures they believed nightmarish to understand these animals were in fact beautiful and nothing to fear.” It is the most poignant moment in the book, for Wash is both the inventor of the aquarium, and himself a “nightmarish creature.”

And though he accomplishes all this, as a black man in England his name will never appear on his own work, so he is not certain his labors will help white Britons see an exquisite place, built by a creature they believe is nightmarish — but who, for all his scars, is in fact beautiful and nothing to fear.

They might not see it. But Wash, finally, does. And so is free.




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