Thursday, July 14, 2005
The Known World
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, The Known World, by Edward P Jones is a beautifully written book. It is the story of a black family living in a fictional county of Virginia in pre-Civil War times. It presents slavery in America in a personal way, sweeping away misconceptions and simplistic views and digging deep into the effects of slavery on individuals, both black and white. It also deals with the various results of white slave owners begetting children on female slaves, creating "Negroes" that are of mixed race.
Slavery is both a physical reality and a state of mind. It has been practiced for so long on this planet that I believe it has created a slavery state of mind in some people, not to mention a slave-holder state of mind in others. In my opinion, that is the theme of The Known World.
Jones uses a little known and infrequent practice from those times to play out this theme. Before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves could buy their freedom after years of additional slaving. Then they could buy other family members, either out of slavery or as slaves from white plantation owners. So you have a situation of a free black man owning slaves.
Such is the case with Henry Townsend, the book's main character. He was purchased out of slavery by his father, married a free black woman and owned more than a dozen slaves and a fair amount of land. You might ask why a freed slave would turn around and own slaves. This is only one of the questions I found myself asking as I read this story. Henry dies early in the book and as his wife tries to take over, the whole place begins to fall apart and slaves begin to disappear. Many just walk away to freedom, but some face a darker future.
In one of the reading groups which I attend, we read and discussed The Known World. I like reading groups because it is fascinating to me to hear the different reactions to the same book. Some readers objected to Jones giving the impression that blacks owning slaves was a common occurrence. Others were bothered by the story moving back and forth between past, present and future. One reader said the book left her feeling depressed. Yes, it is not an uplifting subject, but I feel the story could lift people out of their "known world" and create a higher level of understanding among people of all races. This is not an angry anti-White book, but it is an anti-slavery book.
"They say, 'Sing while you slave,' and I just get bored." Bob Dylan
"Who's gonna do the dirty work, when all the slaves are free?" Joni Mitchell