Adventure, Edugyan, Esi

Review of Washington Black

Image result for washington black esi edugyanWashington Black by Esi Edugyan follows the title character from the plantations of Barbados to the Arctic circle and finally to the Moroccan desert. At the start of the novel, the 11-year-old Washington Black witnesses untold horrors at the hands of his tyrannical slave-owner Erasmus Wilde. His only real friend is Big Kit, an elderly enslaved woman who protects Washington from abuse and offers the boy guidance.

One day, Erasmus’s brother Christopher (“Titch”) Wilder asks Washington to help him build a cloud-cutter. Titch chooses Washington because the boy is a talented artist, with an eye for detail. Yet, the building of this airship is no smooth sailing. Washington suffers severe facial burns in a work accident, prompting Erasmus to take the boy back from his brother. Titch almost destroyed his “property”. But before Washington can be returned to his slave-owner, Erasmus’s cousin Philip takes his own life. Because Washington witnessed the event, he knows that he will be blamed for the man’s death. That night, Titch – realizing that the boy is in danger – helps Washington escape Barbados. The two take to the sky in their newly built cloud-cutter.

Yet, Washington’s escape is not his ticket to freedom. He lives in the shadow of  several inventors, who, though critical of slavery, nevertheless use Washington for their personal gain.

If you have been following my blog for any length of time you know that I absolutely love travel stories. Washington Black is not only entertaining but also highly original in its perspective. Travel adventures are traditionally told from the perspective of the lead-explorer (almost always a white man). The servant (or slave, as the case might be) is taken for granted. They might be the butt of some jokes, but they are otherwise face-less characters. Esi Edugyan turns the narrative on its head by centering the anonymous slaves who made technological advancement possible. Washington’s story is punctuated by extreme suffering and neglect. The plantation scenes are some of the most brutal I have encountered in fiction. Yet, Washington is not entirely a victim of his circumstances. Edugyan gives her protagonist agency and a voice. He is neither a victim to pity nor a hero to admire.

This work is a fantastic contribution to the travel fiction genre. It deserves all of the literary prizes it has received and been nominated for. I will definitely be reading Edugyan’s earlier two novels.

Favorite Quote

“But human faces are so interesting,” said I. “Yes, to be sure. But when you are looking at one face, you are not looking at another. You are privileging that face. You are deciding who is worthy of observation and who is not. You are choosing who is worth preserving.”

Literary Fiction, Wright, Richard

Review of Native Son

Image result for native son richard wrightOnly two pages into Native Son, I knew that I would love this book. The lush prose and dynamic dialogue sucked me in.

Published in 1940, Native Son by Richard Wright follows Bigger Thomas from the poverty-stricken Black Belt of Chicago’s South Side to the Cook County courthouse where he awaits his sentence for the killing of a white woman named Mary Dalton. The Daltons are an upper middle class white family who hire Bigger as a chauffeur because of their pity for African Americans. Bigger has a history of delinquency. At the start of the novel, he organizes a bank robbery with his friends. But despite his background, or maybe because of it, Mr. Dalton hires Bigger to drive Mary to the university. Unfortunately, Mary is not interested in school. Instead, she introduces Bigger to her Communist boyfriend Jan. Mary and Jan even invite Bigger to eat with them at a restaurant in the Black Belt. But as Bigger drives Mary home alone, he begins to feel uncomfortable in her presence. That very night, Bigger commits the fateful crime at the center of Native Son.

The death of Mary Dalton is only the first of many crimes Bigger commits during his escape. Bigger Thomas is a true-to-life criminal. Most novels I’ve read that address racial injustice center on an unjustly-accused, innocent black character. But Bigger is highly unlikeable. Even when it is clear that race played a central role in shaping Bigger’s character, Wright does not attempt to exonerate Bigger from guilt. Instead, he interrogates the nature of this guilt, exposing the myriad ways in which White America contributed to the creation of Bigger Thomas.

Native Son is a classic of African American fiction. Its analysis of racism in the criminal justice system is as relevant as ever. The last fourth of the book is, admittedly, a bit preachy, but Wright’s novel doubles as a manifesto. I expected the preachiness. My only criticism has to do with the novel’s treatment of women – particularly black women. There is a black woman in the novel who does not receive the attention she deserves. While I understand that the story is told from Bigger’s perspective, I cannot excuse the way Wright handled Bessie’s story. Her story was almost made out to be less important than Bigger’s. Considering the circumstances, I find that unacceptable. Consequently, I gave the book 4.5 instead of 5 stars.

If you’ve read Native Son, let me know what you thought.

Nonfiction by Genre, Social Justice

The New Jim Crow on MLK Day

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is a reminder to white Americans that racial injustice is alive and well in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr Day should not simply be a day when Americans remember and celebrate the life of a civil rights activist – as if the Civil Rights Act fixed everything. It should also be a time when we reflect on how far we have yet to go. Martin Luther King’s dream has not yet been realized. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, but racism still exists in America.

But most of it is more subtle and more structural. Certainly, there are Americans who still hate blacks (ex. the Charleston massacre), but most would like to think that they are colorblind. Michelle Alexander argues convincingly in her book that our criminal justice system is not colorblind. The War on Drugs has perpetuated racial discrimination in this country, but non-black Americans have no problem with a prison system almost entirely made up of blacks. Whites do drugs at the same rate or at a higher rate as blacks, but police do not patrol their neighborhoods. Whites are not stopped and frisked for drugs, so whites are not found with drugs. Black men are shot down by the police who have been trained to associate blacks with violence. Unfortunately, because the Supreme Court assumes that our country is colorblind, claims of racism are dismissed. Our unjust structures are not considered unjust by our courts, so the system continues unchallenged. This is the new Jim Crow because like the old Jim Crow, black men with a prison history lose their voting privileges (often, for life), cannot get employment, are disqualified for food stamps, and may not even be able to get housing. Our country found the perfect way to strip blacks of their rights without overtly discriminating against them.

On this MLK Day, consider purchasing or borrowing from the library The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. We are not colorblind. Unfortunately, I don’t have much hope things will get better under Trump.

“Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death than the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling. People charged with drug offenses, though, are disproportionately poor people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison.”

“When black youth find it difficult or impossible to live up to these standards – or when they fail, stumble, and make mistakes, as all humans do – shame and blame is heaped upon them. If only they had made different choices, they’re told sternly, they wouldn’t be sitting in a jail cell; they’d be graduating from college. Never mind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices – often for less compelling reasons – are in fact going to college.”