The Known World

Racial tensions in America have not gone away 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement (, and there is much talk in the media and among pundits about the enduring legacy of slavery. The 2013 film 12 Years a Slave ( was an adaptation of the 1853 slave narrative memoir by Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free African-American man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery. Northup worked on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before his escape. The global reaction to the film, which took $56,667,870 at the box office in the US, showed that sensitivities about the entire transatlantic slave trade are very much alive. Many of us will also remember Roots (, an 8 episode TV mini-series adaptation from 1977 of Alex Haley’s family history research.

In August 2016 we are on the run up to the American Presidential election. The two candidates, Donald Trump for The Republican Party, and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats are setting out separate visions for America. It is unlikely many African-Americans will be voting for Donald Trump.

To get a sense of the complexities of this whole legacy, many choices are available. From the many treatments of slavery in fiction, I’d recommend the 2003 novel The Known World by Edward P. Jones. The novel opens with the death of the owner of 33 slaves in antebellum Virginia. None of his ‘property’ mourns the death of Henry Townsend. They surely don’t know that when he obtained his first slave he wanted to be ”the kind of shepherd master God had intended,” someone who would provide ”good food for his slaves, no whippings, short and happy days in the fields.” By his death, though, he had learned his lesson. He had no choice but to chain a runaway slave in his barn and pay a Cherokee patroller to slice a third of his ear off. A familiar story, perhaps, so far. The difference is that Henry Townsend is black.

It’s 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia (a fictional place standing in for an actual historical landscape), we learn that ”there were 34 free black families . . . and eight of those free families owned slaves.” Henry Townsend’s freedom had been purchased by his father, Augustus, a carpenter who bought his own freedom with money earned from his carvings and furniture, then over time bought his wife and son out of slavery. Henry himself financed his first slaves by making boots and shoes. But why would a former slave himself buy slaves, especially against the wishes of his father? Though the novel never explicitly addresses this question, readers get the message. Slavery was legal and believed to be sanctioned by God, because wealth and status consisted in owning human flesh, and because Henry ”wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known.”

Among the many triumphs of The Known World  is Jones’s transformation of this little-known footnote in history into a story that goes right to the heart of slavery. There are few certified villains in this novel, white or black, because slavery poisons moral judgements at the root. As Jones shows, slavery corrupts good intentions and underwrites bad ones. The freshness of his story lies in its very incongruity and strangeness. Henry’s first slave, Moses, takes more than two weeks to process the news ”that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made. . . . Moses had thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business anymore?” A ‘known world’ is one seen and understood by God and therefore fixed and ordained. Jones’s world, by contrast, is one that could come to pieces at any moment. After Henry’s death, his wife grows dreamy and passive while her slaves betray one another or run off. Jones writes with a sense of narrative foreboding undercut by the erratic nature of events, and the result is a portrait of a society that is seemingly immutable but as tentative and fragile as the map of the Americas for which the novel is titled, hung on the local sheriff’s wall. This map finds its echoes in the book’s final chapter, when, by 1861, the known worlds of Manchester County and of Henry’s plantation have themselves become huge wall hangings in a hotel in Washington, the folk-art creations of one of the story’s runaway slaves.

Jones’s carefully paced inter-weaving of lives back and forth through time embodies the great fact that there are truths in fiction, and that great fiction came bring forth truth. This novel offers a deep understanding of the enduring multidimensional world which was created by the institution of slavery, the legacy of which remains with us to this day.

Enquire at your local library or consult for further bibliographic detail.

400 pages in Amistad Press

First published 2003

ISBN  978-0060557546

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Edward P. Jones

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