“I had never been his equal. To him, perhaps, any deep acceptance of equality was impossible. He saw only those were there to be saved, and those who did the saving.”
In “Washington Black,” by Esi Edugyan, George Washington Black was born into slavery on a Barbados sugar plantation. “Wash’s” days were filled with backbreaking work and cruelty, with his only savior an old woman called Big Kit, a fellow slave. Everything changes for Wash when he and Big Kit are called to serve at their master’s table and he is unceremoniously handed over to Christopher Wilde, the master’s brother. Fear for his future is replaced by wonder as Christopher, called “Titch,” sees himself as an abolitionist. His ultimate goal is to save Wash from the harsh realities of slavery.
Titch is a restless man, an explorer, inventor and naturalist. He builds a balloon flying machine in order to impress his father and has Wash help with the construction. During their time together, Titch discovers that Wash is an incredibly talented artist. He conscripts Wash to draw the flora and fauna they encounter, along with detailed drawings of the flying machine. It doesn’t take Titch long to recognize that Wash’s talents don’t lie solely in artistry; Wash also has a scientific mind. Soon the two are collaborating on the balloon and a whole new world opens up for Wash, a world where he matters. Yet in the shadow of Titch’s tutelage are the rest of the plantation slaves, a harsh reminder to Wash that he will never be Titch’s equal. Just when it seems that Wash and Titch will enjoy a long collaboration in science, two monumental things happen to change the trajectory of Wash’s life. Titch recognizes that Wash’s life is forfeit so he takes the boy into the flying machine and they escape.
What started as a story on slavery now morphs into period adventure. Titch and Wash make their way up the Atlantic to a remote outpost in the Arctic. Wash starts believing he can have a life where he can contribute and be a part of society. When he discovers that a bounty has been put on his head, any advancement he makes comes at the cost of continually looking over his shoulder.
“It had happened all so gradually, but these months with Titch had schooled me to believe I could leave all misery behind, I could cast off all violence, outrun a vicious death. I had even begun thinking I’d been born for a higher purpose, to draw the earth’s bounty, and to invent; I had imagined my existence a true and rightful part of the natural order. How wrong-headed it had all been. I was a black boy, only – I had no future before me, and a little grace or mercy behind me. I was nothing, I would die nothing, hunted hastily down and slaughtered”.
Wash gets his chance for a future and life when he and Titch are separated. There is no one left to save him, and no-one to guide him. He embarks on a journey that takes him to Canada, England, Amsterdam and Morocco. He meets a fellow naturalist and falls in love with his daughter. Through it all, Wash learns to respect himself, yet he still cannot abandon his slave roots. And he yearns to understand why Titch saved him, with his most fervent wish being that Titch could recognize him as a man of intellect and not a saved slave.
Edugyan’s writing is lovely. By allowing Wash to narrate his own story, we become more involved in it. Wash is a sympathetic character and not just because he was a slave. The yearning for a life, any life, makes him a great hero. “Washington Black” also provides evocative details on life in the early 1800’s, but from an entirely new perspective. (And I do enjoy reading about those days of exploration and invention). Did “Washington Black” astound me with revelations on slavery and morality? No and I don’t believe that is the intent. In the end, “Washington Black” is a story about family, real and imagined. And like Titch, I wanted to save Wash and give him the life he deserved. Given what he battled, he certainly deserves it!
Thank you for your time!
Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.