Friday, 11 September 2015

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

To be honest, when I picked up this book and read the back cover (knowing absolutely nothing about it other than it had appeared on a list of best books of the century so far), my first reaction was "Oh, hell, no." When the first sentences of the blurb were about Black slaveowners, I don't think I'm wrong to have the reaction of "What the hell?" and "no," because that just seems like it could far too easily be a book about how "Black people were responsible for slavery too!" and Just no.

Which is not to say that there were never any Black slaveowners. But when the door feels open for someone to make a ridiculous moral equivalency, my skin crawls. But then, it won a Pulitzer. It was on this list of best books of the century so far. The author is Black, and is presumably not trying to blame Black people for slavery. So let's try it.

And it took me a while, but then I figured out what I think he was doing, and started to appreciate it more. There are so many books, mostly written by white authors, that try to write about, say Civil Rights, through the lens of a young white woman. As though we needed that conduit of whiteness to try to understand, or to even want to try to understand. (I'm looking at you, The Help. Or The Secret Life of Bees.) You decentre Black people in their own goddamn struggle, and it becomes a bestseller. Ugh.

So this, oddly, becomes a book about slavery, and the evils of slavery, while only rarely letting a white person enter the scene. It's not that white power and hegemony and racism is absent - far from it - but by having so many of your characters be Black, it keeps them out of the centre. It's also about the ways that slavery scars everyone, slave and slaveowner, (not equally, goodness knows not equally), but that it does twist and distort people. It does this while not making the book be about how slavery is bad for white people too, don't you know!

This book is about a young Black man, Henry, whose parents buy themselves and him out of slavery, and he is shown by his former owner how to skirt the letter of the law to own slaves himself. Then he dies, and his young widow, with the help of his Black overseer, must figure out how to maintain her small plantation. It's about where all these people, owner and slave alike, are, and where they will be. Jones weaves in and out of time, telling us repeatedly where these people will end up, and how that has resonance with where they are now.

Interestingly, the book is also about the softer violences of slavery, as though Jones was trying to strip away the voyeurism of brutality, and show that even without the brutal violence, slavery is a vile, grotesque act that alters everyone who comes in touch with it. Even when slave and master will end up living together after the Civil War. Even when there is affection. Even when there are no whippings, few beatings, few examples of sexual coercion. Even when. Even when none of these are present, it is horrific. And the system that must exist to prop up such acts? Well, he's got interesting things to say about that too.

There was a part about two-thirds through, where I started to think, wow, this is a little disturbing in that nothing really bad has happened in a while. Are we really getting close to an argument that slavery wasn't necessarily that bad, that sometimes it was practiced with benevolence? (We never were, but there was such a lull for a while that I started to wonder.)

At about precisely that moment, an act of such staggering violence and dehumanization occurs that it took my breath away. At that moment, it becomes apparent that lulls don't matter. That occasional "good" slaveowners don't matter. The mere fact of living under a system like the one that would bolster slavery and the legal owning of Black people means that acts of violence like these could happen anytime someone who holds power decides that the law means nothing. Or that the law means what they think it means, that it is obviously there to protect white people, and not those Black people over there, free or enslaved.

It raises, in a fashion I wish was no longer timely, the issue of who the law works for, and when, and how. How it binds those it also refuses to protect, those who it can even actively hurt. And that when it is wielded by those who relish their power, it makes any good intentions of others entirely moot. When the law is capricious about your personhood, this type of violence is inevitable.

This book is about complete, complex people in an impossible system. It distorts everyone, those wielding power, and those powerless. This is not a book with saintly slaves - they too are products of their histories, some good, some bad, some abusive, some wounded.

It all comes down to the fundamental violence of owning other human beings, something Henry never understood, but his parents did far too well.

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