by Esi Edugyan
“How could he have treated me so, he who congratulated himself on his belief that I was his equal? I had never been his equal. To him, perhaps, any deep acceptance of equality was impossible. He saw only those who were there to be saved, and those did the saving.”
Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith Plantation are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse.
I first came to love the work of Esi Edugyan with Half-Blood Blues, which was championed by Olympian Donovan Bailey on the 2014 edition of Canada Reads. In Washington Black, Edugyan brings her trademark exquisite prose to the story of a slave who gains his freedom under complicated circumstances. Wash goes on to lead a big, improbable life as a result of Titch’s intervention, but a life that is not without difficulty and costs. The novel reflects some of the harder realities of the abolition movement, such as white men who were more concerned about the moral stain of slavery than about the actual harm suffered by Black people as a result. Titch’s intervention also cuts Wash off from his own people on the plantation, costing him his relationship with his foster mother, and setting him apart from field and house slaves alike. Wash learns to read, and draw, and calculate, but once he finds himself out in the world, he discovers he is an anomaly wherever he goes, not least because of the horrible physical scars he bears as a result of his enslavement. Tellingly, it is a result of Titch’s careless actions, rather than Erasmus’ more standard cruelty, that Wash goes through life thus marked.
Present or absent, Titch’s hand is always irrevocably shaping Wash’s life. Though Titch does not wish to accept responsibility for this fact, it is true nevertheless. While in the beginning Titch is a character that the reader can admire for rebelling against his family’s immoral expectations, in the end he throws off other expectations and responsibilities as well, calling into question whether it was the immorality or the expectations he was resisting in the first place. Although Wash is the protagonist and the narrator, it is Titch who haunts the story, his choices echoing through Wash’s life even after their unequal partnership has unraveled, and Wash has built a new life for himself among the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia. These echoes will eventually take Wash to Europe and Africa, in search of understanding Titch’s decisions and their far-reaching consequences. But some questions have no satisfactory answers, and Edugyan’s open-ended conclusion reflects that.
Washington Black was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by Olympian Mark Tewksbury. Tewksbury emerged early as a strong debater on this year’s panel, with powerful, well-articulated opening statements, and the ability to find the strengths of the other books in the title he was championing. He emphasized the strong writing in his selection, and the way Edugyan’s descriptions transport the reader to a different time and place. On Day Three, host Ali Hassan asked the remaining champions to open with a statement about why they chose their books. Mark Tewksbury spoke to the relationship he felt to the character of Washington Black, drawing parallels between accepting his own gay identity and Wash’s struggles as a to find his place in the world as a freed slave with visible facial scars.
Throughout the week, Washington Black was often called out alongside What Strange Paradise as the book on this year’s table with the most beautiful writing. Suzanne Simard described it as cinematic, and as a fellow writer Christian Allaire praised its craft. The debates thus far however have focused more on theme and character than on prose or craft. This very much echoed the fate Edugyan’s first book Half-Blood Blues faced when Cameron Bailey defended it on Canada Reads 2014. However, Washington Black also came up against criticism, particularly regarding the ending, and the centrality of Titch’s character to Wash’s journey. Wash’s quest for closure comes to an unsatisfying conclusion, because it is not ultimately something he can find in an external source.
After a day of rapid-fire debate, when the time came to vote both Suzanne Simard and Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black, while Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury voted against Five Little Indians. The outlying vote belonged to Christian Allaire, who voted against Scarborough for the third day in a row. Per the Canada Reads rules, in the event of a tie the panelist who did not vote against one of the two books up for elimination is required to cast the tiebreaking voting. Since Christian Allaire was defending Five Little Indians, which also had two strikes, he naturally voted against Washington Black, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.
Just tuning in to Canada Reads 2022? Start here with Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller.
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