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Theme Of Racism And Slavery In The Known World

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

In the novel, The Known World, Edward P. Jones sheds light on slavery as a social system and the type of culture it produces. Through various stories from the perspectives of different characters, Jones paints a picture of how the practice of slavery transformed into a lifestyle focused on capitalistic gains. Economic profit alone would not be enough for people to turn to the most extreme system of stratification, slavery. Slave owners people in inherent superiority, that they have a right to enslave those who they believe are inherently inferior to them. In many of the cases described in the novel, white characters like Counsel lived by these blashphemous standards, causing them to believe it is acceptable to own and reduce people to property. “Counsel wondered if the authorities knew about all these people. There was something wrong here and the government of Texas should be doing something about it”. Seeing a wagon train with people of many races from his distorted and deeply racist perspective, the bewildering mix convinces Counsel that something must be wrong in Texas. In simpler terms, he thinks all other races are inferior to his own race, white, and views them basically as trash. Counsel has this unshakeable sense of superiority when he is the one who has lost everything. He, a slave master, abandons his property and creditors and becomes a thief and adulterer, yet he somehow still feels superior to the “filth” in the wagon. He has learned nothing from his sorrows as he continues to loathe and judge people who are different and still does not understand tolerance and humility. While the novel primarily explores slavery as an issue beyond racism, this factor cannot be ignored. Counsel’s level of racism is shocking even in the society of The Known World that accepts the dehumanizing system of slavery as a way of life. This false sense of superiority is just one of the many toxic elements that poison society and the people in it.

One of the most frequently discussed factors of slavery is racism; however, Jones transcends beyond racial boundaries and uncovers the bigger truth. The struggle in power dynamic and desire for assertion of power rooted within the slave community are one of the many reasons why free blacks end up reinforcing the cage that once held them captive. Oftentimes, slaves who are given a sense of superiority and more authority over other slaves experience degradation of the human heart. This can be seen in Moses, the overseer of all the slaves on Henry’s plantation. Because of his frequent reports of the plantation to Caldonia, Moses and Caldonia begin forming a close relationship, which eventually leads him into delusionally thinking she will free and marry him. Just like Henry Townsend, Moses now embraces the slavery system and desires to become the next Henry of the plantation. This false sense of hope and ambition drives Moses to view his family as an inconvenient obstacle to what he wants, causing him to plot to get rid of Priscilla and Jamie. “Heading to the fields, he remembered the slave man and woman in his office, the man being sold that day to William Robbins and the woman being sold days later to someone else. We are together, the slave man kept saying. We are one…”. As Skiffington suspects Moses for the disappearance of Priscilla and Jamie, he recalls how, years ago, Moses was once filled with compassion and had tearfully begged Robbins to keep him and a fellow slave, Bessie, together. Contrasting the past to now, Moses shows no signs of remorse for causing Priscilla and Jamie to disappear even though he and Priscilla have been married for a long time. His once warm heart has turned stone cold because of the callousness of slavery. This extreme comparison underscores the degrading effects of slavery on the human heart, thus, making slaves like Moses more susceptible to embracing the slavery institution.

Jones depicts the culture slavery produces through the eyes of various characters like Henry Townsend, a free black who ends up owning his own kind. The fact that it was not that uncommon for free blacks to become slave masters, assuming the role whites predominantly occupied, there seems to be underlying reasons other than racism that has brought upon this ironic situation. In these cases, the insuppressible desire for control and superiority perverts free blacks’ notions of justice and humanity, which in turn results in them supporting the slavery system. “Moses had thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business anymore”. In a society where slaves earn their freedom to become slave owners and perpetuate the vicious cycle of the reduction of humanity, slavery is physical institution as well as a mental one. Jones shows that on top of racism, the mindset of a group of people who value to be viewed as superior over others is what also drives slavery. Despite the numerous justification of slavery with religion and the law, The Known World reminds us that an institution that reduces human beings to a mode of production is unconditionally immoral and is fueled by the desire for control and dominance. Slavery as a system of absolute domination over individuals is depicted when “It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made”.

Slavery is able to have such a strong hold on society because of the constant justifications made by slaveowners and bystanders. While Henry associates the ownership of slaves with prosperity and influence, other characters utilize religion to justify their roles as master and for their continued practice of slavery. Henry Townsend’s wife, Caldonia, truly believes that she can help and protect the slaves under her care and guidance more than they could manage alone. Caldonia laments, ‘“Please do not worry yourselves. I am here and I will not be going anywhere. And you will be with me. We will be together in all of this. God stands with us god will give us many days, good and bright days, good and joyful days…’”. As a result, this encourages people like Caldonia to continue their practice of slavery as they are given a false sense of peace as they believe what they are doing is morally correct. Augustus had faith in Caldonia to have greater moral decency than Henry and hoped that she would free the slaves upon Henry’s death. However, continued involved with slavery has changed her as she now accepts it and does not propose freeing the slaves. Caldonia’s well-meaning assurances that the slaves will not be sold off but will stay with her implies with dramatic situational irony that she believes God condones their enslavement. This illustrates the corrupting influence of slavery on seemingly kind and gentle people like Caldonia who have not recognized how slavery has warmped her humanity. Similarly to Caldonia, Fern Elston, an educated free-born black, justifies her involvement in the slavery system with God and the Bible.

Christianity has a significant influence in the mindset of people during the antebellum era in America. In fact, the first instance of slavery is depicted in the Old Testament of the Bible. As a result, people who read and lived in accordance with the Bible thought it was not morally wrong to possess slaves. When trying to explain to a journalist how a black person could possibly own slaves, Fern declares, “All of us do only what the law and God tell us we can do. No one of us who believes in the law and God does more than that”. Although Fern Elston is an educated, refined free-born black and a teacher, she too participates in the slavery institution. Fern justifies her entangelement with slavery by explaining that they do only what God permits. She lives as a free woman, but she is not free of slavery. Fern lives within its social construct, which deems the practice legal and ethical by the word of God. Her assertion highlights the corrupting influence of beliefs used to justify human subjugation.

In addition to how many justify slavery with religion, some use the law and the economy to support the immoral institution. When William Robbins comes upon Henry playfully wrestling with his slave, Moses, Robbins rebukes, ‘“…But the law expects you to know what is master and what is slave. And it does not matter if you are not much more dark than your slave. The law is blind to that. You are the master and that is all the law wants to know. The law will come to you and stand behind you. But if you roll around be a playmate to your property, and your property turns around and bites you, the law will come to you still, but it will not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed that you will need…’”. Robbins sees that Henry, though full of potential, he does not comprehend the conventions that slave owners must adhere to. He has to internalize the legally defined position of master as a feed black and the owner of human property. To be a “proper” slave master and maximize efficiency and profits, Henry embraces the social system of slavery and enforces the distinction between master and slave. It is Henry’s duty to enforce this distinction if the law is to shield him. Henry’s belief is based on the idea of maintaining order and stability, fearing that if anyone were to go against the law, the economy and society they live in will fall apart, leading to chaos and violence. This perspective of his fails to take into consideration the violence that is already taking place to maintain the system – the form of abusing and killing slaves.

Throughout the novel, Jones utilizes this unique approach to inspecting slavery in order to facilitate our consideration of the effects of slavery on individuals and the community as a whole. One of the most frequently discussed impact of slavery on the human mind is the illusion of freedom. Henry realizes his illusioned freedom through a metaphorical dream as he dies when “He thought he knew the one they were talking about but as he formed some words to join the conversation, death stepped into the room and came to him: Henry walked up the steps and into the tiniest of homes, knowing with each step that he did not own it, that he was only renting. He was ever so disappointed; he heard footsteps behind him and death told him it was Caldonia, coming to register her own disappointment. Whoever was renting the house to him had promised a thousand rooms, but as he traveled through the house he found less than four rooms, and all the rooms were identical and his head touched their ceilings”. Although Henry believes himself to be free, he is technically not free as Augustus purchased Henry from Robbins and owns his son. 

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