Washington Black by Esi Edugyan


For a book that is a thoughtful rumination on a fraught relationship, it is surprisingly adventure-filled with a dramatic variety of locations. While visiting his brother who owns a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1830, Titch asks to use the help of an 11-year-old slave with his work to create a hot air balloon. It is the connection of Titch and George Washington Black that illustrates the effects of privilege even when the privileged man is working hard at his own peril to rescue Wash and on a bigger scale to aid abolitionists.

The story is told by Wash as an adult in a period-appropriate voice looking back on such adventures as escaping certain death with Titch in the first flight of the hot air balloon, which occurs during a storm, and landing them miraculously on a ship. Over the course of the next eight years he finds himself in Virginia, the frozen northland in Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam and Morocco. Titch left Wash in Nova Scotia and Wash matured and prospered enough to be able to search for Titch years later. When he finds him, he has curiosity and anger at Titch for abandoning him. Storms turn up in the story:  in the escape in the balloon, in Nova Scotia when Titch disappears into a snowstorm, and a sandstorm hits in Morocco after Wash finds Titch.

The talk between the two men when they meet again is the heart of the book. In answer to Wash’s questions about why Titch chose him, he said originally it was his size as he needed ballast for the balloon. Then he learned that Wash was exceptional and could help with complex equations; he called him a rare person. Wash says, “Not so rare that I could not be abandoned. Not be replaced.” And then “And so you took in a young black boy, and you educated him as if he were an English boy. For his benefit, though? Or so that you might write about it?” He said he was taken in to help in Titch’s political cause and his experiments but that he abandoned him in the end. And he said, “You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men. Even as I spoke these words, I could hear what a false picture they painted, and also how they were painfully true.”

The variety of locations and the descriptions of the scientific undertakings by the characters is impressive. Wash’s great life work was to create a means to display living sea creatures for the public. He worked with G.M. Goff, a celebrated marine zoologist. Because Wash was a black man (and not a well-known marine zoologist) the credit for this accomplishment was going to Goff. I learned from our friends at Wikipedia that the term “aquarium” was coined by a man named Philip Henry Gosse and that he created and stocked the first aquarium at the London Zoo in 1853.

One last note:  one of the characters tells about being on an expedition on the Deliverance to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus. In fact the transit was observed in 1769 in Tahiti on the ship Endeavour, commanded by Captain Cook and recorded by a Swedish naturalist named Daniel Solander. A character named Robert Solander plays a minor role in Wash’s efforts to find Titch.

Esi Edugyan, Washington Black, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, 333 pages  (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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