“Papa, just cause you didn’t, that don’t mean…” Augustus took down a stick, one with an array of squirrels chasing one another, head to tail, tail to head, a line of sleek creatures going around and around the stick all the way to the top where a perfect acorn was waiting, stem and all. Augustus slammed the stick down across Henry’s shoulder and Henry crumpled to the floor. “Augustus, stop now!” Mildred shouted and knelt to her son. “Thas how a slave feel!” Augustus called down to him. “Thas just how every slave every day be feelin.”
Henry squirmed out of his mother’s arms and managed to get to his feet. He took the stick from his father. “Henry, no!” Mildred said. Henry, with two tries, broke the stick over his knee. “Thas how a master feels,” he said and went out the door.
Edward P. Jones, The Known World p. 138
I don’t usually mark up the books that I read. A passage has to be particularly striking for me to highlight it or write a note in the margins. This was one of those. I was overcome by the truth and the violence in this scene, and it’s haunted me ever since.
The Known World tells the story, in a roundabout way, of what happens to the plantation of black slave-owner Henry Townsend after he dies. It’s an incredible book, not least because the places and people are entirely fictional but feel so real I kept trying to look up miscellaneous facts and personalities. I told a cousin that my favourite thing about The Known World is probably the way it’s so destabilising. There are lots of characters involved, but Jones doesn’t tell their stories in chronological order, so it took a while to get my bearings and even then I felt like the ground was ever-shifting beneath my feet. There’s a little magical realism sprinkled throughout the story too, just enough so that you’re mostly on solid rock, but every now and again puddles of water creep through so slowly and ordinarily you wonder whether some fantastical event that you wouldn’t otherwise be taken in by could actually be possible.
Then of course the whole subject of the novel is unfamiliar territory – who really talks about black slave owners? Even though they were an extreme minority, the fact that there were free black people who owned slaves adds a fascinating complexity to the fabric of society during this period. One aspect of this complexity is played out in the relational dynamics of this scene, and dwelling on what’s happened for a little bit shows us why it’s important to think about these complexities at all.
Augustus and Mildred are Henry’s parents. All of them began their lives as slaves, and Augustus worked to free first himself, then his wife and finally his son. While he was still enslaved Henry developed a relationship with his master, which continued after he was freed. His former master mentored him and helped him develop his own plantation. This scene is the aftermath of Henry revealing to his parents that he has bought his first slave.
Augustus and Mildred are, understandably, bewildered – how could a son of theirs ever think to buy another human being? Did they somehow go wrong in assuming that he would implicitly understand the evils of owning another person? That it was tantamount to returning to Egypt “after God done took you outa there”? (137). They have to ask him, explicitly, whether or not he knows it’s wrong, and Henry replies that no one ever taught him so. Then he becomes defensive – owning slaves isn’t illegal; he’s not doing anything a white man wouldn’t do. It’s clear that parents and child are at odds, and Augustus, having vowed to himself never to suffer a slaveowner on his property, kicks Henry out. As he’s ushering his son out the door, he tries, one last time, to convey to Henry the implications of his purchase.
When Augustus brought the walking stick crashing down onto Henry’s shoulders, I felt as though I too was receiving the blow. It’s one thing to be moved by accounts of the mistreatment of slaves, to be appalled at how plantations were run and to be disgusted by Jim Crow laws. It’s quite another to imagine myself buckling to the floor every day under the force of a solid wooden stick slamming down onto my shoulders. I felt as though the wind was knocked out of me. I felt beaten down. The analogy was so very real. I cheered for Augustus for making his point so clearly, for definitively proving the moral high ground, even as I was still reeling from the blow he dealt his son. Then, before I could catch my breath, Henry comes back for the last word, demonstrating his immense power by actually breaking the stick over his knee. He is totally free from that subservient position, and, strangely, I felt myself rooting for him too. Yes! Go Henry! You’re not gonna take that! Sock it to ’em!
Therein lies the tension that makes this passage so illuminating and compelling. On the one hand, Augustus, standing up against the oppression of a system and refusing any part in it, even if it means ejecting his son from his house. On the other hand, Henry, who has found a way to extract himself from the system and will soon benefit from it. Who can blame him? In the moment his father chooses to represent him as a slave, Henry appears the underdog. Then he pulls himself up off of the floor, takes the white man’s chains and shows himself capable of destroying them. The memory of him beaten down is still so fresh in my mind, it’s easy to understand the delicious temptation for the power that a master wields, and the desire never to be on the ground that way again.
In this exchange we have two black men on opposite sides of the slavery debate, and both of them appear to be winning; well, winning in the sense that we can empathise with either side. It’s brilliant, and one example of the way The Known World constantly plays on our perceptions of absolutes, of truth and fiction. To the very end, I found myself wondering about my beliefs of the known and the unknown, what’s fixed and mutable in the world. What about decisions that some (black) people make today to look out for their best interests, deceiving themselves about the effects they have on the wider community? If they have personal experiences with these consequences, is it worthwhile illustrating these to try and convince them to pursue a less selfish course of action? How far does empathy for that individual’s experience with this pain go in our conversations with them? And let’s make this more personal – what about me? If there’s anything I learned from this novel, it’s that I can think I’m totally within my rights to act in some way or hold a particular belief that is in truth abhorrent.
The power dynamics described in The Known World – between slaves and slave owners; black, white and Native American people; civilians and the law; men and women – make this far away 19th century world more real to me, and make the unseen forces which operate in our world seem realer to me too. And I wonder about all the ways of being that I – we – have inherited: absolute, fluid and somewhere in that spectrum, from the world that Augustus and Henry lived in.