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“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones

1. Introduction

In this paper I will analyze and investigate the book “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones and provide the research regarding slave ownership as the social status. I will discuss moral and legal issues of this topic, as well as present benefits of owning slaves and evidences that blacks also owned slaves. I will compare point of views of whites who owned slaves and blacks who owned slaves and their explanation of the situation.

2. Brief overview of “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones

From the very beginning I would like to say that this book is very hard to read not only because it present an absolutely different, but rather realistic, picture upon the slavery issue, but also because of the writing style. Before the book was written, the most important novel that touched the similar problems was “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, which discussed issues of race and effects that slavery can have. This novel is dedicated to the lives of people who were slaves and their experiences. It describes the difference between man and animal and how this issue is treated in the novel. It depicts all desires and troubles of Negro community and emphasizes that colored men are like other man and skin is just the external form and people should see what is inside, in their hearts and souls. The question about whether to endure injustice or fight it is also risen. Author shows that slavery was not just the institution, but the philosophy of life. Good attitude to slaves does not abolish the fact of slavery. It is on the edge of moral values and ethical behavior.

On the other hand Edward P. Jones in his novel showed people another side of slavery that turned historical and literal conceptions of it. He showed that slavery was not only the matter of race and the relationships between whites and blacks. It had more broad meaning, which involved social status issues.

The story goes about Henry Townsend who was born being a slave, but his father bought him from slavery at the end. It was rather bizarre to me to read that the person who experienced all horrors of being a slave decided to become a slave owner himself. But this guy appeared ambitious enough to learn from his master that “once you own even one, you will never be alone”. Was he afraid to be alone? Does possession of someone can fill the emptiness in one’s sole? Possession cannot serve as the remedy for loneliness. And person cannot be justified by the fact that he treated his slaves well. Slave remains the slave and this cannot be improved by good attitude, only by abolition.

Depending on other person is not natural for a human being. We are all created equal and we have our hearts that we have to listen to and follow our own ways of lives. And with the slavery the situation changed in the dimension when there is one soul of the master, to whom all slaves are obeying and listening to. If blacks after experiencing how it is to live without fulfilling divine tasks and literally living without souls continue to consider this situation normal and even continue dreaming about power of owning, then it appears to be the game with no end. Probably they are not broad minded enough to see enough opportunities in life and just another ways to live. Or they think that is it the only possible way to exist and they just choose the side of the powerful owners. Even Moses, the first slave of Townsend envisioned his master’s death as the opportunity to take his place. He was not even thinking about the struggle for the freedom. He possibly even didn’t imagine that there can be another life where each person is taking responsibility to his own actions. When Henry’s died, his wife, Caldonia, tried to hide her true motives and action behind good intentions. The death of the child made her upset, but seems only from the standpoint that she lost her property and didn’t buy the insurance for such a case.

Society that people lived in dictated them its own rules and regulations. Many aspects of our lives are connected with society- people want to be as all other people are, they want to be accepted by the society. At that period of time, it seems that they have lost an ability to think critically and analyze what is going on around them. Social status and owning slaves appeared more important then Biblical testaments and common moral aspects of life. People began to adjust to the circumstances that were artificially created and forget that they are primarily thinking individuals. Fern, Caledonia’a teacher expressed her opinion regarding owning slaves in the following way: “All of us do only what the law and God tell us we can do…We owned slaves. It was what was done, and so that is what we did”. She is absolutely confident in her conclusions and feels that she is absolutely right. But she had an opportunity would she have changed something? I think- no. It is very convenient to hide behind the will of God, law and experience of past.

3. Black slave-owners

Slavery is political and moral evil. People who have experienced slavery should never do the same mistakes. But the fact is that the big amount of free blacks owned slaves. Generally their number was disproportional to their representation in the society. In 1860 a small part of white people owned slaves, even though before the civil war eight millions of twenty seven million population lived in the states where slaveholding was not prohibited.

In the history we rarely can find any data regarding Afro-Americans owning slaves, but this appears to be the misrepresentation of factual data. In historical books, Black slave masters are presented not as slave owners, but as people who purchased freedom for children and women from the white slave owner and were simply unable legally to give freedom for them. It is showed the way that it was law that obliged those to own people and in reality it not that way. Among black slave owners are Justus Angel and Mistress L. Horry from South California, who owned about 80 slaves each. According to facts, in South California one forth of all free blacks owned 10 or more slaves.

Statistical data says that in common the number of slaves was not more then five. But there were some occurrences when Negroes owned about 150 slaves- widow C. Richards and her son P.C. Richards- owners of a large sugar cane plantation. And there were about 6 blacks in Louisiana who owned more then 65 slaves. Antoine Dubuclet from the same state owned over 100 slaves. Authors Johnson and Roak wrote the book named “In Black Masters. A Free Family of Color in the Old South” in which they described life of the largest slave owner in 1860s from South California- William Ellison, who was born as a slave. Authors attempted to describe his life from birth to death and from being a slave to becoming a slave owner and investigate in his motives and behavior. William Ellison was born at the very beginning of the 19th century and was given the name April, as giving a name for the month of the birth was a common tradition among slaves. Later he was bought by the white slave owner named William Ellison (whose name he took after). When April was 26 years old, his master decided to free him. At that time the procedure of manumission presumed that the slave should prove that he is able to live a life and to earn in an honest way. By the way, many slaves were not allowed to be freed at that time for the reason that they were not able to support themselves. So, after April received his freedom, he moved to Stateburg where he initially hired some slaves. Later he already bought two males for the work in his shop. So, only after four years after manumission, April showed his approval of the institution he suffered from and was released of. Few years after that he asked court to change his name to William Ellison to show respect and honor to his previous master.

Step by step he created a small empire of slaves and become as rich as wealthy white families in that region were. When he became very rich, his race began to loose its primary importance. He literally purchased needed respect and even “changed” his skin color. He was so much involved with increase of his capital and “breeding” slaves that almost forgot that he could easily stay in that status.

4. Conclusion

In the conclusion I would like to summarize presented fact can differ from reality and use of other people’s lives and labor caring for the personal status only is meaningless. Social status is nothing as well as money when we speak about people’s souls and eternal values. Slave-master relationships are just a game, in which one side can’t live without power and the other is ready to endure the superiority. It seems to be ideal from the standpoint that everyone does what he wants. But if we just think for a second that all people were created not only equal, but unique, we will see that it was the evil of that time, which was not adequately treated by the authorities.