11.04.2006

what i'm reading

I just finished reading The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (among other awards), this is an unusual and extraordinary novel. It's about slavery in the American South, but with a twist: some of the slave owners are black.

I never knew there were black slave owners. They were African-Americans who were able to secure their own freedom, and then bought slaves. Think about it.

Although I had never realized it, I was accustomed to thinking of slavery in simplistic terms of racism. The white slave owners were oppressors, the slaves were victims, and they wanted to be free. Here, good and evil line up neatly with race.

But is life ever so simple?

By exploring slavery across and within colour lines, Jones lets us think about it in terms other than racism: he brings us the power dynamic behind the arrangement. And as I thought about it, it made all the sense in the world. Of course there were free blacks who risked their lives to help others reach freedom. And of course there were slaves who got more for themselves at the expense of others. Isn't that how life is? Weren't the enslaved African-Americans people, with all the good and bad and complexity that that implies?

By way of analogy, I can't stand the reverse sexism that labels everything good in the world as feminine and everything bad, masculine. You know, the "if women ran the world, it would be a better place" way of thinking? Sure, as long as the woman wasn't Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton or Ann Coulter. Women are people, and that means we are as capable of evil as men. And men are as capable of compassion as women.

Reading The Known World, I also realized that black overseers, and even black slave owners, were logical cogs in the slavery machinery. Don't many abused people turn around and become abusers themselves?

One central character in The Known World, having obtained his freedom, sees very clearly that it's better to be a master than a slave. So why not become a master himself? His father-figure and mentor becomes the plantation owner from whom his parents won their freedom, whom he seeks to emulate more than his own parents.

The plantation owner, as was common, has white children from his wife, and black children from his mistress. He loves his black children and their mother very deeply. He provides for and protects these black people, while he has these other black people enslaved and tortured. How does he live with that cognitive dissonance?

In The Known World, Jones explores the complex power and race dynamics that kept the whole system going, and the rationalizations and self-deceptions people might use to live in such a world.

It's not the easiest book to get into - a large number of characters from different time periods are introduced all at once, and I found it a little difficult to keep track of them at first. But I gave it a chance, and was soon mesmerized.

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I recently tried to read several novels, all highly recommended by good readers - and I didn't really like any of them. Each was all right, way better than I could write, but not compelling enough for me to spend time with. I was starting to wonder if I still liked novels, which would really be something for this former English major. I think the last novel I greatly enjoyed was Zadie Smith's On Beauty. The Known World reminds me that I've gotten increasingly discriminating, but I still love the form.

Now it's back to history, specifically my ongoing exploration of Canadian history. Part of my birthday present (back in June) from Allan was Pierre Berton's Klondike. Last fall I read both Berton's books about the building of the Canadian railroad: The National Dream and The Last Spike. The next books, chronologically, are the two about the gold rush: Klondike and The Promised Land. I'm going to read them both. Eventually, I'm going to read all three of his books that cover 1812-1815. There's nothing I love reading more than well-written history, and Berton is among the best there is.

And yes, I've seen Pierre Berton rolling a joint with Rick Mercer! At least a dozen people have left mentioned that in comments at various times.

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Note for new readers: all book-related posts on wmtc are titled "what i'm reading", in case you want to search for anything. After the re-design, I hope to have posts sortable by categories, and that will be one of them.

10 comments:

M@ said...

I volunteered at a War of 1812 site when I was in high school. It was really good -- I learned a lot, and it led me to read Berton's books too.

The site is Stoney Creek, the location of a battle that was absolutely the turning point of the war for the British. Had they lost this battle -- a midnight raid with 700 troops attacking an American encampment of 3500 -- they were going to retreat to Kingston and concede the entire Niagara peninsula -- including York, aka Toronto -- to the USA.

Sorry, I get a little excited about the whole War of 1812 subject. But if you're interested, make Stoney Creek a stop on your next trip down the QEW. The museum is quite nice.

L-girl said...

Never any reason to apologize for history lessons here. :)

I saw Stoney Creek on the wine map, but didn't know about this. I wouldn't be surprised if the Niagara region was an annual pilgrimage for us, at least for a while, so we're sure to get there. Thanks for the info!

L-girl said...

Also, how cool that you volunteered at a historical site like that. I have often thought I missed my calling by not being a US National Park Ranger.

James said...

I never knew there were black slave owners. They were African-Americans who were able to secure their own freedom, and then bought slaves. Think about it.

For that matter, a lot of the black slaves brought to the US were enslaved by Africans in Africa, then sold to American traders.

In North America, there's a tendency to think "white owns black" when one hears the word "slave", but of course through much of history slavery was more of a "winner owns loser"/"rich owns poor" thing. The US race-based model is actually fairly rare historically.

L-girl said...

a lot of the black slaves brought to the US were enslaved by Africans in Africa, then sold to American traders.

It's funny - I knew that, and that there were African slave traders, but I didn't know that freed African-Americans in the US owned slaves.

through much of history slavery was more of a "winner owns loser"/"rich owns poor" thing.

Right. Being taken into slavery was often the price of the losing end of war or conquest. Slavery was not always as brutal as it was in the American South, either. Not that it was ever a good thing, of course, but the degradations and bruality of American slavery was a thing apart.

Wrye said...

Note for new readers: all book-related posts on wmtc are titled "what i'm reading", in case you want to search for anything.

Everybody knows how to use google to search within a site, right?

M@ said...

Also, how cool that you volunteered at a historical site like that. I have often thought I missed my calling by not being a US National Park Ranger.

I know what you mean. I actually started there as a high school co-op, but I kept on for weekends and special events for a year or two afterwards. I liked the war stuff most, but I tended to be assigned demonstrations of household chores.

After I finished high school, I thought briefly about becoming a re-enactor, but I found out that the uniform was a couple hundred dollars and the musket was another two or three hundred. That kind of ended my history career.

Anyhow, drop me a line for directions any time. Back to the very interesting slavery discussion.

L-girl said...

I thought briefly about becoming a re-enactor,

Reenacting is probably less creepy here than in the US. Reenacting there, as you may know, is all Civil War era. (Those are the only ones I've ever heard of, anyway.) A propos to this post, you can imagine that people waving the Confederate flag has a certain overtone...

M@ said...

Oh, god yeah. These reenactors are typically just tragically nerdy. I don't know if there's any way to politically slant playing a redcoat, unless the United Empire Loyalists have some kind of political weight I'm unaware of.

I think the real motivation for these guys is that (a) you get to fight the Americans in reenactments, and (b) the USA lost the War of 1812. That combination has the underdog appeal in spades.

L-girl said...

These reenactors are typically just tragically nerdy

I believe that's a requirement, yes. :)