Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black: Slavery’s Paradigms, A Bildungsroman Frustrated

I took myself far off from my own presence, far indeed, and made myself and object. What else could it mean for me but an amputation, an excision, a haemorrhage, that spattered my body with black blood? But I did not want this revision, this thematisation. All I wanted was to be a man amongst other men. I wanted to come lithe and young into a world and build it together.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask

Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, written in a crisp, yet melodic and metaphoric prose, follows the story of a young man, Washington Black from his days as a field slave upwards.

The story begins with his first master dying, and his new one, Erasmus Wilde, arriving, when Black is just a young boy of about 12. When Erasmus’ brother Titch visits, Black’s life as a field slave is upturned for good. Titch introduces him to the world of the White man—to literacy, science and a treatment almost reaching equality. When the Wilde’s cousin, Peter, commits suicide in front of Black, Titch attempts to rescue him: the both of them escape in Titch’s invention, the Cloud Cutter (a sort of hot air balloon). This catalyses a series of adventures: Titch brings Black to the North Pole to seek out the Wilde patriarch, eventually ditching Black there. Black moves to Newfoundland, Canada, where he meets and falls in love with Tanna Goff, the daughter of a celebrated marine biologist. The trio eventually move to London, where they build Ocean House, a first-of-its-kind marine biology center.

The novel reads like a bildungsroman: a young boy being gifted an identity, a salvation, then slowly learning to find his way in the world. Yet, because of his colour that he cannot escape, he is always unable to fully access and own, his story.

Coming-of-age narratives should read easily enough: the protagonist progresses slowly upwards, taking more ownership of themselves and their lives as they find their place in the world. On the contrary, Black’s coming-of-age story is constantly being frustrated. Whenever he tries to reach his next step, the world drags him back down. Because of the colour of his skin, he is seen as inherently less-than. In fact, many Whites express discomfort at the fact Black even owns himself—there are times Black and Titch must pretend Titch is his master so as to avoid conflict. Edugyan suggests that ownership goes beyond just legalities: even as a free man, Black is still subject to the paradigms of slavery which pervade every sector of society. He is still object.

Clearly, freedom is a matter of the mind as much as it is a body.

Furthermore, Black is more accomplished than the average man, colour aside. He has an astounding natural talent for drawing that even the toughest white men admire. His intellectual capacity for science, especially marine biology, is much higher than most.

This gives him incredible frustration: even at the peak of his accomplishments, a White man takes the credit.

However, the novel suggests that as much as he seeks ownership of himself and his life, he is unable to internalise that ownership. He constantly goes back to the people he believes ‘own’ his life in some way—to Big Kit, whom he later discovers is his mother, and to Titch.

Even with Ocean House and his relationship with Tanna flourishing, he cannot shake off his obsession with finding Titch, whom he believes is the source of his freedom, identity and answers.

He spends months tracking Titch down, and when he does, finally poses the question that has been haunting him for years: why Titch chose him. As it turns out, Black just so happened to be the right size for the Cloud Cutter.

What Black doesn’t quite explicitly state, though, is why the question?

To me, Black seeks validation: even as a free man, he can’t seem to find himself. He needs to know that he possesses some internal qualifier that makes him special, exceptional. Which of course, he obviously does. Yet, without White man’s tick of approval, he isn’t able to recognise that, isn’t able to validate himself.

This disappointing climax takes its toll. As the book ends, he seems to lose touch with reality, with Tanna. He moves towards the horizon, as if towards Dahomey, where Big Kit promised him years ago he would reawaken in if he dies. Without the affirmation he so desperately sought from Titch, Black is incapable of embodying himself, and attempts a rebirth, as if it would save him.

Like the surname ‘Black’, mockingly tagged to his first name, his colour, his body, is a weight he cannot shed, staining everything he attempts to accomplish; holding him back from life itself.

Aside from the novel’s content itself, I must indulge myself: the prose is brilliant, peppered with the most startling metaphors. It begins crisp and semi-hardboiled, it’s melody unfurling as it progresses. At times, Edugyan treats her readers, the prose bursting into song.

And just because I love the book so much, here are my two favourite quotes from it:

A silver band in the distance began to widen, to glisten. An artificial pond. Crystalline pins winked across its pale blue surface, so that it seemed to have some alarming sentience, like the eye of a blind man.

A simple, yet stark and delightful metaphor.

He too had been a boy once, desirous of understanding the world. And how he had wasted all his talents, all his obvious facility for learning, twisting every new fact into senselessness and cruelty. He had spent years trying to cultivate an ethos, and despite possessing a clear intelligence, he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery.

How easy it is, to waste a life.

In which Black describes the slave hunter he spent the better part of his youth living in fear of.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my post. If you have your a different take on Washington Black, do share it in the comments below as I’d love to read it.

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