The simply named Washington Black (2018) by Canadian Esi Edugyan , though expansive in its reach, takes place over a mere four-year period. In that short period of time young Washington, or Wash as he is called by Christopher (Titch) Wilde, the brother of Wash’s sadistic master, Erasmus Wilde, undergoes a tragically prolonged rites of passage.
Of course, as an enslaved child Wash’s early years are characterized by hardship, some of which are conveyed to the reader. Nonetheless, he has a kind of family in the form of his caretaker, Big Kit, a formidable woman who originated from Dahomey and who at once frightens and nurtures the boy.
Wash’s movement into exile begins when he and Big Kit are summoned to the big house to serve the newly arrived master, Erasmus, and his brother, Titch, dinner.
At that dinner, with no recognition of the bond that Big Kit has with young Wash, Titch chooses to have him come live with him for, without a doubt, the noblest of reasons: the young boy is the perfect weight to act as a kind of human ballast for his “Cloud-cutter” (a kind of hot air balloon).
But while the traumatic ripping away of this child from the only family he has ever known may seem like the start of his exile period, if the reader plays close attention, she/he notes that Washington repeatedly fails to accept several opportunities afforded him to come into his manhood. Rather, he has not other hope than to remain in the service of his new master who parades as a friend and an ally, Titch.
Even though in the beginning he remains on the island of Barbados he is so cut off from his former life that when, months later, he spots Big Kit with a young boy serving at dinner in much the same way that he had, he does not even recognize her!
This could also, of course, be a consequence of the ravages of slavery, which consumes the enslaved person like a disease and then discards her or him when their usefulness is gone. (see, for example Frederick Douglass’ discussion in his narrative of the fate of his grandmother when she becomes too old to serve).
Big Kit’s body has been so torn down by the demands of field labor that she is unrecognizable to her former charge.
Nonetheless, it should be noted that despite the efforts of the slave institution to turn her into a mere beast of burden Big Kit continues to express her humanity in that she has taken on caring for yet another child and tries for just a millisecond in all of the stress of serving the ornery Erasmus, Titch, and their gluttonous and misanthropic cousin Philip, to honor her relationship with Wash with the slightest of nods and a smile.
Wash, like countless others before and after him, proves himself invaluable to his new owner, not simply as a weight to balance a balloon, but also as an exceedingly talented artist with an eye for detail. Unfortunately, it is his work with the Cloud-cutter that thrusts him further into further bodily exile when an accident during its testing at the hands of Titch and Philip deforms him for life.
Yet, even after his sacrifice he still looks to this strange white man for his salvation, seeking out Titch’s assistance when Philip dies and Wash is the only witness.
Why Titch decides to flee the island with Wash, rather than leave him to be punished for Philip’s death is unclear, especially since he abandons him later with no satisfactory explanation. In any case, their escape and Wash’s subsequent travels and adventures–which reminded me for some reason of Olaudo Equiano’s adventures (perhaps because they’re written in the first person)–mark the start of the young initiate’s deep exile.
When Wash finally finds Titch in northern Africa I got the sense that the manhood that this man-boy had been in pursuit of, was eminent. But while yes, Wash is finally able to recognize Titch for the dreamer who fancies himself apart from and above the very system that allows him to follow his dreams to the ends of the earth, it is not clear from the novel’s ending how much Wash truly understands about how much this man has stolen from him and how he is the source of his pain. There seems to be no accountability, in fact.
And that is the lesson for us all, isn’t it? African and African diasporic people have a tendency to look outside of ourselves for our salvation, and as such, are trapped in a perpetual state of adolescence, blaming the other for our failures because we have been too afraid to step into our power, claim it for ourselves, and use it for our own benefit.
We should not be the ones who balance out those who are imbalanced so much so that we get thrown overbroad or burned beyond recognition.
We should not provide the outline and intricate details of a problem that others cannot reason or create their way out of while the outlines and intricacies of our own lives go unnoticed and neglected.
We do not need to seek closure from those who have abandoned us, but must rather invest our time, our energy, and our love into those who have proven themselves worthy.
We must decide for ourselves who those beings are.
If you’d like to hear a beautifully read narration of the novel here’s a link, provided to me by my beloved tonton Patrick:
Washington Black – Episode One – @bbcradio4: