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Trade Off 

It is perhaps, along with the treatment of the American Indian, the darkest chapter in U.S. history, and one that will forever stain with the blood of thousands. With its introduction in 1619 in Jamestown, Va., until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 (nearly 90 years after the republic's founding), people were bought and sold as property. Plantation owners, such as two of the country's forefathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, used the enslaved human labor as a more efficient method for farm production. In Edward P. Jones' new novel, The Known World (Amistad Press), Henry Townsend is one such plantation owner. He is a talented young man living in Manchester County, Virginia with a pretty wife, a large stately two-story house, more than fifty acres of land, and 33 slaves. He is also black.

That free African Americans owned members of their own race is a little-known but undisputable fact. In many instances, this was due to the laws requiring that emancipated blacks leave the state within a month of receiving their freedom. Parents, unable to afford uprooting their families, would buy their children, but keep their legal status as slaves. Sometimes, it was purely a financial decision, and a few black plantation owners, some of whom lived in Louisiana, kept many slaves. Such is the case with Henry Townsend.

Henry himself is a freed slave. His father, Augustus, purchases his wife Mildred's freedom, and then, many years later, Henry's. For a long period, Henry lives on William Robbins' plantation away from his parents until Augustus can afford to buy him. In the meantime, he lives with another slave, Rita, who becomes a second mother to the boy. He also finds a second father, Robbins, but he does so at the expense of his real father.

During a weekly visit with Henry at the Robbins' plantation, Augustus pushes the boy for being disrespectful. When Robbins hears of the incident, he questions the parents. Mildred responds to Robbins with, "We wouldn't hurt him for the world. He our son." Robbins doesn't put much stock into this as Jones relates, "Robbins looked at her as if she had told him the day was Wednesday. 'I won't have you touching my boy, my property.'" From here, Henry regards Robbins as his protectorate.

He becomes Robbins' groom, a position that takes him out of the field and closer to the master. Later, after he is free and known throughout Manchester for his skills as a shoemaker, Robbins sells Henry his first slave, Moses. When Augustus confronts him for this effrontery, Henry replies, "I ain't done nothin' that any white man wouldn't do. I ain't broke no law." This chapter, which includes Henry slapping Moses after encouragement from Robbins, is disturbingly and partially entitled, "The Education of Henry Townsend."

Manchester County, the novel's setting, is a fictitious locale, but Jones' writing has a journalistic quality that makes it very real. He cites census figures for the county, reports the sale of property including human beings, documents numerous characters' futures and their offspring, and even provides reference sources. This kind of detail affords Jones to give a remarkable plausibility to his story while maintaining a resolute objectivity.

He leaves the judging of his complex characters to the reader. Fern, a light-skinned free African American, is a dedicated teacher who considers hers to be a sacred vocation. Yet, she owns slaves and is not opposed to having them beaten. John Skiffington, the white sheriff, is an honorable man, who uses the Bible as his guide and solves disputes in a Solomon-like manner. Contrasting this is the lust he harbors for Minerva, a young woman he and his wife own, but are raising like a daughter. Jones even presents a human side to the despicable Robbins. He is in love with a black woman, who bears him two children, but they never call him "Father," only "Mr. William."

Like his characters, Jones, an African American, has an intriguing history. He was born in raised in Washington, D.C., by an illiterate mother, who struggled, sometimes unsuccessfully, to keep a roof over Jones and his siblings. He attained an undergraduate degree from Holy Cross University and earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia in 1981. However, due to the unpredictability of a writing career coupled with his economically unstable upbringing, Jones wouldn't leave steady employment and make the leap to writing fulltime. Not even after his collection of short stories, Lost in the City, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1992.

Thankfully, Jones was laid off from his job last year, collected unemployment, and spent the next few months writing his first novel. The result is a masterfully written book that will resonate with the reader long after is has been completed. The characters are complicated and cannot be easily dismissed as good or bad. Like our own world there are few certainties. About the only thing that is known is a pervasive and persuasive depravity that can either be fought or allowed to spread.

click to enlarge Edward P. Jones explores the world of free African - Americans owning slaves in his second work, - The Known World.
  • Edward P. Jones explores the world of free African Americans owning slaves in his second work, The Known World.
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