“Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which current rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment.
For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” – Walter Benjamin trans. Harry Zohn, Theses on the Philosophy of History
Warning, plot details ahead.
When I looked at the cover of Washington Black, it wasn’t immediately clear to me whether that was the title, or the name of the author.
That turned out to have been a prescient thought, as the book is narrated in first person by the eponymous Wash Black in the mode of a retrospective autobiography. The story begins in 1830 at Faith Plantation, Barbados, with the arrival of a new master. Wash is a field slave aged ten or eleven, and as he watches this man step down from his carriage he immediately has a premonition of fresh cruelty.
“I had already seen many deaths: I knew the nature of evil. It was white like a duppy, it drifted down out of a carriage one morning and into the heat of a frightened plantation with nothing in its eyes.”
This is the tone of the novel’s beginning; an ever-present simmering atmosphere of suffering and violence. We are also introduced to Big Kit, Wash’s carer, who tells him stories about what it feels like to be free. She’s a fierce, larger-than-life figure connected to the old world of African kingdoms and witch women. Wash both fears and loves her, and she tells him that she intends to kill them both to escape the pain and cruelty of life on the plantation which has got even worse since the arrival of the new master, in the faith that once dead they will be reborn in her homeland of Dahomey. There’s an immediate juxtaposition of intense sensations; hatred and love, danger and protection.
After this prelude, Wash self-consciously begins the narrative again, this time starting chronologically from the beginning of his life and recounting his early history “for the record.” The style invites comparisons with the factual ‘I was born’ openings of slave narratives, autobiographies written by former slaves usually published by abolitionists, but soon dramatically diverges. By the end of the chapter Wash is making references to sailing a vessel into the night skies while fleeing from the plantation, which sounds more like the stuff of science fiction.
This abrupt left turn in Wash’s life comes at the hands of Titch, the new overseer’s brother who mysteriously requests that Wash is given to him.
Titch is a strange, slippery creature. Wash’s first impression of him is coloured by fear, as he’s been told by Kit the worst that he can expect from a white master requesting a slave in the night. He’s a gentleman scientist, totally focused on his work – in this case constructing the Cloud-cutter, a steampunk-esque flying machine – with the privilege of being able to shut out the outside world. Working with him awakens in Wash a curiosity about the world as well as a notion of its beauty, and leads him to discover his talent for drawing.
However, this awakened sensibility clashes with what he knows is the ugly truth of slavery still being enacted on the plantation, even though he has to a degree escaped. Even Titch, though he does not agree with slavery and in fact turns out to be an abolitionist, uses the system to his advantage, borrowing slaves from his brother to help carry heavy materials up a hill to construct his flying machine.
“I realized I was troubled by the enormous beauty of that place, of the jewel-like fields below us, littered as I knew them to be with broken teeth.”
Soon something terrible happens, and Wash must flee or be killed. For reasons of his own, Titch decides to leave with him, and they make their escape on the Cloud-cutter. Wash is afraid to leave Titch’s side when he gets the opportunity to travel via the Underground Railroad to Canada, and so goes with to look for Titch’s father who is carrying out research in the Arctic.
There follows a strange, dream-like interlude. Whenever I imagine people traveling to the North or South Pole, I’ve always got the same impression as when they travel into space, particularly when they make this journey without modern technology. Sailing into the Arctic Circle on a wooden boat wrapped up in thick coats seems as crazy to me as going on a spacewalk wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
During the late 19th century, the polar regions were one of few places of mystery left in the world (from a European standpoint), as most of it had already been explored, mapped, and colonised. They occupied a similar space in people’s imaginations as the Moon during the 1950s and 60s; the final frontier, a place of opportunity and potential untapped resources, as well as a kind of status symbol for countries who succeeded in getting people there and back.
In the Arctic, we meet Titch’s father and we start to see more of the flaws beneath Titch’s surface. From child Wash’s perspective he is everything, his saviour, quite literally all he has. Adult Wash has a more complex view of him, but neither vilifies nor exalts him.
Titch has a mixed relationship with his father; he loves him and wants to impress him, but is also angered by his refusal – even more so than his – to refuse to live in the real world; not acknowledge that his research is funded by the plantation and that he could help people by returning and ousting Titch’s brother. During all this Wash remains fascinated with Titch and the details of his life in England, but then Titch commits the ultimate betrayal and abandons him by walking out into a snowstorm.
“And so it was that he walked calmly out of his life, and was lost.”
To me the use of the pronoun ‘his’ is particularly striking in its selfishness; Titch can walk out of his life but he has left Wash stranded inside it. It suggests that up to this point Wash has been living in Titch’s life, in his story, and from this point Wash gains more agency in inhabiting his own story, becoming the protagonist rather than the sidekick.
The novel ricochets around the globe, from Barbados to America, to the Arctic, and then to Canada, London, Amsterdam, back to London, and finally ending up in Morocco. In this way it reverses the trajectory of traditional adventure tales like Treasure Island and Around the World in 80 Days; as Wash begins in the ‘exotic’, a place far removed from white European experience, before journeying into the ‘ordinary’ world of England, which becomes the locus of his interior trials.
In Orientalism, Edward Said writes about the marginal presence of the British Empire in 19th century fiction, calling it “very much like the servants in grand households and in novels, whose work is taken for granted but scarcely ever more than named”. The inhabitants are “are profitable without being fully there”, they are people “whose reality has not historically or culturally required attention”. They are the slaves at Faith plantation, such as Big Kit or Wash’s childhood friend Émilie, whose story is told in a few brief flashes – a maid at the house, pregnant, and then gone as if she was never there.
Generally when non-white people appear in 18th and 19th century fiction, they are stereotypical ‘savages’, and even in more nuanced portrayals there is so much that is debatable and up to interpretation, and at risk of being shaped by our desire of finding a multi-layered black or brown character who is portrayed as a person rather than an object. Gayatri Spivak warns of the dangers of pinning too much on a character when talking about Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, of “forgetting that he is a name in a play, an inaccessible blankness circumscribed by an interpretable text”. We cannot forget who was writing these characters, and the context in which they were written.
However, the creation of Wash “brushe(s) history against the grain”, as Walter Benjamin put it; his voice provides a different perspective, a 21st century black female perspective (I don’t like to dwell too much on the author but sometimes it is important) on the life of a disfigured black boy born a slave in the early 19th century.
He is a brilliant scientist, a talented artist, and a lover, friend, and person in search of his identity. He’s the hero of this story. One of my favourite moments comes early in the second half of the book, when Wash comes to a crossroads and recognises the path of anger and violence he could go down, and he turns away, instead returning to his drawing and rekindling his curiosity about the world and science.
“In those seconds a sense of wholeness came over me: I felt the broadness of my shoulders, the force of my height, my blunt, low voice. I was pieced together, suddenly, a man intact.”
During the second half of the book, Wash gravitates towards some measure of stability. He finds a surrogate family in Tanna and her father, and Tanna especially cares for him as an equal and partner. There’s a tenderness between them which I adore and which feels very real. Tanna criticises Titch for his actions, because she has no motivation for excusing him, and she sometimes comes across as a very clear-headed reader of the book. I found it a very moving development, to give Wash someone who is unquestionably on his side and will not leave him, as it gives the story a much more hopeful direction that’s significant not just for his character but as a wider cultural message.
“I understood. He meant that I had been a slave, and that the savagery of the past left me a ruined being, like some wretched thing pulled smoking from a fire.”
Certain slave narratives were about the writer’s spiritual journeys towards finding Christianity. In one sense, this narrative is also a spiritual journey, about finding purpose in life and the meaning of a legacy, especially in the absence of religion. Wash is resigned to the idea that he would not receive credit for his work on the Ocean House, the aquarium he sets up with Tanna and her father, but after encountering Titch again he is resolved on getting his name on it.
It reflects the erasure of black accomplishments from history, like African-American arctic explorer Matthew Henson who was integral to Robert Peary’s famous expedition, but whose achievements remained largely ignored until decades later.
This erasure also occurs at a meta level within the narrative. At several points Wash experiences dream visions of Kit, which give him pangs of guilt at forgetting all she means to him, and later discovers she is his biological mother. Even then, this is not enough and he needs to find Titch to get a sense of closure, in this sense mirroring the reader who is looking for a satisfying conclusion to the novel.
Wash’s search for Titch is like the search for an anchoring force in his life, or some kind of answer to the question of his existence, but I think he realises at the end that there is nothing to find and if he keeps searching it will destroy him. He might end up like Titch, who is trying to recreate their days on the plantation in Morocco, with the circumstances of Wash and Titch’s final encounter bookending their first meeting. Titch’s fruitless quest for flight might be a metaphor for his need for an escape but it’s a false escape.
I struggled for a long time with the ending, trying to figure out what it means. Wash is about to walk out into a desert storm, a parallel of Titch walking out into the ice earlier on after a confrontation with his father, and his inner voice in this moment is silent. Perhaps Wash is affirming control over his own body, proving his own agency with this one action. Or maybe it’s just an act of instinct like that which occurs in real life and for which there is no explanation, as there are no clear endings.