Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 21, 2010

A new angle on an old evil

The Known World, Edward P. Jones (2003), Amistad, 388pp.

Is it shocking to learn that freed slaves sometimes became slave owners? There are, of course, plenty of instances of freedmen buying their wives, children, and others out of slavery (did they then sign statements legally freeing these people?). But in Jones’ book we watch the consequences of Henry Townsend’s decision to acquire human property after his own father had bought him out of slavery.

Townsend, of course, has good intentions–to be different from his master, to be kind to his slaves. The irony, of course, is that it’s impossible to be a “good master”–the institution of slavery drags down master along with slave.

On the first page, Jones drops us in at the point of Townsend’s death, then leads us back and forth across time and geography and along plot lines that join in a showdown. Family relationships are skewed from the beginning:

The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins. The young ones, his son among them, had been sent out of the fields an hour or so before the adults, to prepare the late supper and, if there was time enough, to play in the few minutes of sun that were left.

“He” is Moses, Townsend’s overseer and Jones’ hero, and impossible to summarize here. Through Moses, Jones shows us the moral and psychological complications and compromises that arise from an economic system based in human chattel. No one comes out on top in that world.

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