This past August, I spent nearly all my reading time and attention on Edward P. Jones’ The Known World. It was more than worth it. It is a work of fiction inspired by the fact of there having been black slaveowners in the United States before emancipation.
Henry Townsend is the former slave and spiritual son of white slaveowner William Robbins. Henry’s parents buy his freedom from Robbins, but it is too late: Henry has already decided to follow in Robbins’ footsteps and become a farmer with slaves of his own. The book opens on Henry’s death and the ensuing upheaval. It meanders in and out of moments in each character’s life, sometimes leaping forward to tell you the end of someone’s story, and sometimes looking back to tell you how he or she got there.
Though I’ve read books about American slavery that powerfully illustrate the atrocities visited on slaves, I don’t know if I’ve read a book that shows so well how owning slaves changes a person, the transformation that occurs when we allow ourselves to think of human beings as property. Jones’ pacing is slow and measured. The book is made occasionally surreal by the strange and sometimes supernatural events of the book, and creeps by like the worst kind of anxiety nightmare, only there is no moment of relief. There’s no moment of waking up and saying, “Oh, it was only a dream. Thank God.” This happened, and there’s no taking it back or making it any less real.
I can’t review a book like this. I can only tell you what the experience of reading it was like. One scene that will stay with me forever is the image of Augustus Townsend, Henry’s father, being captured to be sold back into slavery after he was freed. He tells his captors that he is free. He produces legal documentation of his freedom. And his captor literally eats the papers before putting Augustus in chains. Telling someone he’s free doesn’t mean anything if he can’t actually be free. There’s a lot in that for us to think about in our world right now.