Washington Black – Esi Edugyan’s tale of a Barbados youth taken by an inventor/scientist to be his slave, only to find that the boy will learn more than to carry scientistic instruments.
When the elderly owner of Faith Plantation dies, his nephew inherits the Barbados property and the slaves who toil in its extensive sugar fields. Almost immediately the new owner’s brother claims one of these workers, an eleven-year-old boy by the name of George Washington Black (“Wash”). Christopher Wilde (“Titch”) is a scientist/inventor of sorts and he needs a servant/slave to tote his instruments and help with his calculations. Wash can neither read nor write, but he turns out to be a quick study. He also turns out to be a gifted artist who can replicate almost anything he sees.
Wash’s artistry serves as the philosophical linchpin of Esi Edugyan’s very provocative novel, Washington Black. When Titch discovers Wash’s gift, he tells the boy “Be faithful to what you see, and not what you are supposed to see.” Ostensibly he is warning Wash about the hazards of sketching the obvious, but by the end of the novel the reader understands that Titch is saying a great deal more. That single sentence encapsulates the scientific thrust of Washington Black, the inability of the characters to view one another clearly, the superficiality of early nineteenth-century society as it confounds/ignores the complexities of race. Edugyan has written a brilliant riff that confounds the reader while most definitely not ignoring the historic hazards of property and slaves.
She does so by adapting a narrative frame used by so many other gifted writers—Homer, Miguel de Cervantes, Mark Twain. Washington Black gallops through a series of unlikely adventures that take Wash from Barbados to Virginia to Hudson’s Bay to Nova Scotia to London to Amsterdam to Morocco and beyond. Caught up in a sprawling series of episodic encounters, Wash grows to manhood while learning to look behind and beyond the superficialities he sees. He also ponders the world pictured before him. Why can’t people see the talented young man instead of “the Black boy?” Complicating matters, Wash has been branded with an F on his chest and has been disfigured by an explosion of one of Titch’s experiments. So, it is almost impossible for others, especially whites but Blacks as well, to see him clearly. Some of the characters manage, however, and that is part of the magic of Washington Black.
There is much in this novel that reminded me of The Odyssey, Don Quixote, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn., and most particularly of Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller. Wash’s quest seems futile at times, overly romantic, often fabulistic, always entertaining and always sparking the reader’s imagination. I could never predict what might happen next, what new escapade might send the unlikely hero off in what new direction. Edi Edugyan reminded me of so many epic journeys taken in the past. Yet this one, set almost two hundred years ago, is timely today as well. What she suggests about race, and especially about how we view others, was subtle and provocative and smart. Packaging her book in a long-storied format was subtle and provocative and smart, too, while couching her observations in a visual guise enables her to accomplish something more. Washington Black, both figuratively and literally, teaches readers how to see. The pictorial passages are every bit as stunning as the philosophical ones.
The book cover tells me that Washington Black is one of Barack Obama’s favorite books. Rightly so! – Ann Ronald
Also available by Esi Edugyan: The Second Life of Samuel Tyne; Half-Blood Blues; Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home; Out of the Sun.
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