Washington Black

The long arc of slavery

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

I had completely forgotten that Canadian author Esi Edugyan’s book Washington Black had been chosen as the next Whatcom READS selection until I was nearly halfway through the spellbinding saga about a young slave on the run and reread a press release on the topic that had been sent by the Whatcom County Library System in early March.

It was a missive from another time, delivered shortly before WCLS abruptly canceled all of its live events and the world screeched to a halt in an attempt to keep the novel coronavirus at bay. It was also a couple of months before a Black man named George Floyd was killed by a police officer on the streets of Minneapolis, a brutal act caught on camera that became a rallying cry for a nation sick and tired of systemic racism and the many ways in which the color of a person’s skin affects the quality of their life—or sometimes results in their untimely death.

The collective of libraries and community partners in Bellingham and throughout Whatcom County who selected Washington Black as the 2021 pick for the annual countywide book club may not have known about the high volume of civil unrest that was lurking just around the corner, but they were prescient in understanding that racism is a timely topic that needs to be addressed through both education and action, and that black lives matter.

It’s too early to tell what the next Whatcom READS lineup will look like, as author visits that take place in March are typically preceded by a number of associated gatherings in the winter and spring pertaining to the themes to be found within the chosen book, and nobody knows if in-person events will be allowed by then.

But however it plays out, it’s not too soon to order digital, audio and print versions of Washington Black from Whatcom County libraries or your favorite bookstore, and I’m here to tell you reading the title chosen by The New York Times as one of its 10 best books of 2018 is an enlightening experience you won’t soon forget.

That’s primarily because George Washington Black is a character who commands attention. When readers meet “Wash,” it’s 1830 and he’s a 12-year-old orphan living a brutal existence on a sugar plantation in Barbados. Conditions are so horrible and punishments for disobedience so severe that suicide becomes the only way out for some of his fellow slaves.

But that’s not Wash’s fate. When his new master’s brother—a covert abolitionist named Christopher “Titch” Wilde—comes to the plantation in order to build and test a flying machine, he chooses Wash to help him. While he first enlists the young man in his project it’s because he thinks Wash will provide the perfect ballast for his balloon, but he eventually comes to see him as a person capable of great intelligence and artistic talent, and the two form an alliance that sees them attempting and executing a daring escape from the plantation one dark and stormy night.

Although there’s a strong element of the fantastical to Wash’s narration as the fugitives end up in Virginia before proceeding to the Arctic in search of Titch’s missing father, Edugyan’s storytelling capabilities convince readers they’re necessary journeys on the way to Wash eventually understanding that although his surrogate father cares for him, he’ll never really understand what it means to live inside his skin.

“You took me on because I was helpful in your political cause. Because I could aid in your experiments,” Wash tells Titch years after the duo are reunited following a long absence, and the emotion of the realization has him struggling to catch his breath. “I was nothing to you. You never saw me as equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.”

The power of Washington Black is that Wash is allowed to be the hero of his own story, and to finally obtain true freedom in a world that fought to keep him subjugated and servile. He survives an accident that disfigures him, embraces the wonders of the natural world with scientific fervor even after the elements have made themselves his rival, finds himself to be deserving of romantic love, and discovers a modicum of hope through the often-painful telling of his own story.

“I thought of my existence before Titch’s arrival,” Wash says, “the brutal hours in the field under the crushing sun, the screams, the casual finality edging every slave’s life, as though each day could very easily be the last. And that, it seemed to me clearly, was the more obvious anguish—that life had never belonged to any of us, even when we’d sought to reclaim it by ending it. We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of everything our minds and bodies could accomplish.”

To find out more about Whatcom READS, go to http://www.whatcomreads.org

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