Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black is a voyage narrative that sees the protagonist—for whom the narrative is named—work towards attaining the status of freeman both physically and mentally. Having been born a slave on a plantation in the West Indies, the idea of individuality or agency is a luxury not afforded by Washington Black. The irony of his name1 speaks to the twisted cruelty of his plantation owner who is stated as having named all his “property.” Despite initially being chosen to serve his master's eclectic brother because of his small, unassuming size, it is Black’s discovered skill as an artist that sees him become a trained assistant, changing the course of his life.
I approached this novel with some apprehension; wary of delving into a story that would undoubtedly explore black pain. This anxiety was in part due to the constant exposure to black pain, courtesy of social media, and the emotional weariness comes with being exposed, repeatedly, to trauma inflicted on bodies that look like mine. While the pain exists—making the novel an emotionally difficult read—it is not the sum of the story. The focal point of Edugyan's story, instead, explores the complexity of defining self post-bondage. Washington Black is thus also a coming of age story. The protagonist, raised in slavery characterised by abandonment and fear, comes into manhood having escaped enslavement.
The novel is told from a retrospective perspective, and follows periods in the protagonist's life. Black narrates his own life story, beginning from age ten up to adulthood. The point of view used in this story allows for an added reflectiveness, as Black tries to deduce how certain experiences shaped the man he had become. There is, however no certainty that his ending is good; that he attains either complete mental or physical freedom. In masterfully keeping the reader in suspense, Edugyan’s genius as a writer is evident.
Black In Science
One of the more fascinating aspects of Washington Black is the multi-faceted scientific discourse. Edugyan’s novel looks at aeronautical discourse, marine biology, the science of paint development, amongst other developing scientific fields of study in the 1800s. The language of discourse is very much rooted in the period in which the novel is set. This authenticity of language means that the reader is never yanked from the novel’s setting. Yet, the reader gets a glimpse into the early stages of discoveries which, today, is taken for granted. It was humorous to come across past theories that have been debunked by further research, particularly around understanding of sea creatures.
Having a black man who was born into slavery at the centre of so much scientific discovery adds a beauty to this story and also serves as a reminder as to the historic erasure of black people. Black learns, contributes and engages with scientific work, and scientists in capacities that affirm his humanity—something life at the plantation aimed to strip from him. There is, at times, wonder in the retrospective voice, as he recounts and relives the ingenuity with which he crafted experiments borne from scientific curiosity. This awe, still evident in the older voice, illustrates the lasting damage of slavery on the psyche of black people.
Washington Black is a beautifully layered tale. The flow of Edugyan's writing makes it - despite being written to reflect speech in the 19th century - an easy read. However, it has an emotional weight that stems from the pain of existing as a black man in a very cruel period, the fear that comes with seeking freedom and the mixed emotions that come with the discovery of self. Edugyan’s novel, currently shortlisted for the 2018 Manbooker Prize is rightfully deserving of the nomination.
1 Washington is named after the first president of the Americas - George Washington. The irony of naming a slave after a leader is dark humour at its finest especially given that slaves were seen as property rather than people with any agency or ability to think for themselves.