How do you make art out of slavery? Creative acts and imaginative efforts that bring forth art and innovation represent the pinnacle of the human condition, the bleeding edge of individual freedom. To create is to will into being, to make things from nothing. How do you put that endeavour in service to the human stain of slavery—to subjugation, to physical and psychological constraint, to the negation of will? The question becomes even more urgent for the contemporary black artist, who may, if determined and ambitious, aim to contend with the dire modern-day legacies of slavery—ongoing police brutality; chronic mass incarceration of black people; the dearth of black representation in the upper echelons of power and income; the growing racial wealth gap—to help us better understand how we can and should live now.
Over the past few years, a few works by writers of extraordinary talent and ambition have grappled creatively with the challenge: Colson Whitehead’s widely acclaimed 2016 novel The Underground Railroad; Zora Neale Hurston’s previously unreleased nonfiction work Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” based on a manuscript of interviews Hurston conducted in 1927 with the last known living survivor of the transatlantic slave trade; and Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man.
Whitehead takes a fabulist approach and turns The Underground Railroad from a metaphor into a literal subterranean infrastructure complete with tracks and conductors. Hurston took an innovative anthropological and journalistic approach that brings the voice and unique linguistic cadences of Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the Middle Passage slave trade, to the fore. Her book is an insightful and valuable act of preservation of the last remaining voice of an era that must never be forgotten. And, in Slave Old Man, Chamoiseau fuses action and intense lyricism, combining dialect and classical expression to create a fever dream of violence and fear. These varied approaches give each writer opportunities to explore a reality—a state of being—that boggles the modern mind. Their experiments broaden our appreciation of what slavery means and bring us as close to its visceral core as we may experience in any medium (although, ultimately, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone’s renditions of the song “Strange Fruit” may be the great ballads of our heart of darkness).
In her new novel, Washington Black, the enormously talented Esi Edugyan brings her ingenuity to the subject. The novel, which has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is an epic tale of adventure centred on the eponymous hero and narrator, George Washington Black, nicknamed Wash, a young boy who escapes from slavery on a Barbadian plantation in the early 1830s. His fugitive travels take him to Norfolk, Virginia, the Canadian Arctic, Nova Scotia’s Bedford Basin region, London, Amsterdam, and finally to the deserts of Morocco, over the span of about six years. On the first legs of his voyages, to Norfolk and the Arctic, he is essentially bundled up and conveyed by a sympathetic ally, seeking to ensure his safety after a bounty has been placed on his head. But on his voyages to Nova Scotia and onward he is his own free yet grindingly solitary soul, seeking to create a meaningful and purposeful life while also searching for elusive elements of his past that can help him define who he is. Such a wide-ranging story skirts close to a tall tale or flight of fancy—but Edugyan sustains plausibility masterfully. Wash seems to have been spontaneously generated by the plantation on which the story starts. He has no idea who his parents are or were. Apart from the brand on his flesh that marks him as the property of the plantation, he is a blank slate. His self-conception is spurred by the way others see him: “…he had looked upon me with his calm eyes and seen something there, a curiosity for the world, an intelligence, a talent with images I had until then been unaware of.” His innocence and yearning for human contact make him vivid. We feel empathy for Wash from the start. We root for him throughout.
Wash’s wide-eyed experience of the world and his desire to be part of it, all while navigating the attempts of others to exploit, ignore, or destroy him. He is a boy at the story’s start, but by its end, when he is in his late teens, Edugyan has established not just his rich and complex humanity, but also his embattled engagement with the world. He is a black man navigating societies that disdain him. He is spiritually traumatized by a childhood spent in bondage. And he is physically scarred by a terrible accident. The reader comes not just to observe Wash, but to inhabit a body that evokes immediate and visceral reactions from everyone with whom its occupant comes in contact. Through all this, Edugyan convincingly depicts young Washington’s extraordinary natural talents. He proves to be a fine illustrator and becomes an accomplished marine biologist and engineer of aquatic habitats, collaborating with leading scientists of the era to design and build one of the world’s first aquariums in London.
The story starts in 1830 when Washington is ten or eleven years old—“I cannot say for certain,” he says. He lives among the slaves of the Faith Plantation in a state of such unrelenting brutality and terror that many of the slaves kill themselves. His main protector and primary human bond is another slave, Big Kit, a strong-willed woman from “old Dahomey” who “towered over everyone, huge, fierce.”
Events are set in motion by the death of the plantation master and then the arrival of a new one, the breezily sadistic Erasmus Wilde. Erasmus comes on the scene along with his younger, eccentric brother Christopher, who rivets Wash’s attention with his talk of science and flying machines. Washington is assigned to serve as Christopher’s manservant and is soon enlisted to assist with Christopher’s scientific experiments. Thereafter begins an unusual friendship, as Washington helps Christopher—or Titch as Wash calls him—in his work on an experimental aircraft, as well as in the close observation and cataloguing of the plantation’s flora and fauna. After seeing the extraordinary skill and facility with which Washington draws the natural specimens they find, Christopher encourages the young boy to cultivate his exceptional abilities.
A mysterious and violent death on the plantation compels Washington to flee with Christopher on an expedition in order to avoid certain execution. A bounty hunter is set after him as they embark on their perilous journey, first to Norfolk, Virginia, and then to the Arctic in search of Christopher’s father, who was last seen alive there while on his own scientific expedition. Wash eventually loses contact with Christopher, and a period of wandering solo takes him to Nova Scotia, where he meets a young woman named Tanna, who also happens to be the daughter of a famous marine biologist whose work Washington admires.
Throughout all of these adventures, we have a sustained and compelling insight into Washington’s thoughts. He is a talented and wounded man, literally and figuratively. His quest to remain alive and to live fully feels earnest and real, rounded off by the reversals that make life life. Washington’s talents serve as a reminder of the author’s own abundant and exceptional creative gifts, and as a metaphor for human potential, lost and realized. Although he struggles with crushing solitude and loneliness, Washington’s glimpses of extraordinary things, and his growing skills as an artist and scientist, serve to highlight how terribly close he has been to never seeing or witnessing anything beyond the borders of Faith Plantation.
Washington is not only talented but persistent. He doggedly pursues his destiny and his self-identity. He wants more than anything to find out what happened to Titch, to determine once and for all his own place in the world. Others help Washington learn most about himself: Titch loves him in his way, but he is a man of his time and is limited by his own prejudices. When Washington confronts him about why he was pulled from the fields and given the opportunity to learn and create, Christopher’s response is telling:
“You were a rare thing.”
“Person. A rare person.”
Even his beloved Tanna, who has also suffered rejection in English society because she is half Polynesian, projects her own slightly warped view on his identity: “Washington Black would never be a slave, even if he was born in chains,” she says. Washington responds angrily: “You speak of slavery as though it is a choice. Or rather, as though it were a question of temperament. Of mettle. As if there are those who are naturally slaves, and those who are not. As if it is not a senseless outrage. A savagery.”
Washington Black is a captivating read. It is a lyrical and epic novel that reminds us of the enormous waste in human talent wrought by barbarity, while reveling in the supremely redemptive power of art to help us move on, to help us define who we are, and to determine who we can ultimately be.