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EWL 335 01
Slavery in the American Imaginary
17 December 2015
Black Slaveholders in Edward P. Jones’ The Known World
It almost goes without saying how extensively themes and ideas have shifted over periods and eras to influence the American Imaginary with regards to slavery. The representation (or misrepresentation) of both the enslaver and the enslaved bears great significance in the influence on the collective consciousness of racial identity; so much so that a slight deviation from the truth can actually sustain the status quo that deems one race to be superior over the other. It is for this reason that truth has become a quality most praised and sought after in the criticism of slave narratives. This search for truth involves the full exposure of what is usually left hidden; and within this unveiling, a somewhat inconvenient truth emerges that details how the traditionally enslaved blacks had actually owned slaves of their own as well. I call it an inconvenient truth because of the complication that arises through the discourse over the ultimate implications of such an ironic circumstance where a community, after centuries and decades of yearning for freedom, ends up denying members of their own the very same liberties they had longed for. Some might argue that such a development actually empowers the African American community because it sees their own on the same level of the traditionally higher-ranking whites, but this would be a fallacious takeaway especially since black slaveholders still seem unequal to white slave holders. In his novel The Known World and particularly with the depiction of black slaveholders, Edward P. Jones seeks to deconstruct social hierarchies and undermine the economic system of capitalism to be the root cause of the various forms of discrimination that include, and are not limited to race and gender.
12 Years An Explanation — The Marxist Approach
So it won’t exactly take twelve years but I beg of my reader’s indulgence as I go at considerable length to explain the merits of having a Marxist reading of The Known World in the effort to unearth Jones’ statement on capitalism with regards to its effect on social relations. This section will also be in the best interests of clarity when the succeeding paragraphs eventually reach the central argument of this essay. Much of the reason for the Marxist approach to The Known World stems from: (a) Slavery’s relationship with Capitalism, and (b) The Genre and Structure of the novel.
The central goal for the capitalist is to maximize revenue, and this is achieved through increasing output and minimizing expenditure. It is for this reason that slave labor becomes a logical human resource strategy. Baptist documents that, “Between the arrival of the first Africans in 1619 and the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775, slavery had been one of the engines of colonial economic growth … after 1670 or so, the number of enslaved Africans brought to North America surged” (3). With slaves, the capitalist can maximize profits as a result of increased outputs from a large workforce that requires zero wages. In this regard, the general purpose for slave owning is purely economical. Furthermore, in addition to slavery becoming rationalized and naturalized as a strategy for commercial survival and prosperity, the economic success as a result of the system of slavery actually sustained and concretized capitalism to be the only economic system worth considering.
In The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Baptist theorizes how contemporary capitalism was built on and shaped by slavery. Whether this theory can achieve full acceptance or not, it is definitely agreeable that the one obvious consistency between slavery and post-slavery eras (or between historical and contemporary conditions) is the prevalence of the capitalist economic system. It is then completely reasonable that, in the critical discourse on the discriminatory effects of slavery, one should also challenge the continuing existence of the very economic system that actually motivated the genesis of the system of slavery. Economic power being the predominant concern in the slave trade is very much in line with Marxist theory that recognizes that:
Economics is the base on which the superstructure of social/political/ideological realities is built; and getting and keeping economic power is the motive behind all social and political activities … Therefore, Marxist analysis of human events and productions focuses on relationships among socioeconomic classes, both within a society and among societies, and it explains all human activities in terms of the distribution and dynamics of economic power” (Tyson 51-52).
More specifically, the Marxist approach exposes the true economical motives of African Americans in their ownership of slaves in The Known World and reveals how their pursuit of economic power and exercise of individual liberties actually solidifies the socioeconomic class divide. The reason why the black slaveholders can continue being unwitting agents of this phenomenon is the same for how the oppressed can continue to remain oppressed. Marxist theory recognizes that any possible threat to the power structure has been culturally conditioned to accept existing circumstances to be real as a result of repressive ideologies. In other words, perceptions of reality are skewed through the naturalization of false ideals. “By posing as natural ways of seeing the world, repressive ideologies prevent us from understanding the material/historical conditions in which we live because they refuse to acknowledge that those conditions have any bearing on the way we see the world” (54). Jones hints at this in the genre of his novel. The failure to appreciate the material beyond its surface is emphasized when historical fiction gets mistaken for and accepted as historical fact. And this inadequate interpretation of the material mirrors that of the characters’ when their realities are constructed based on their possessions and statuses. Furthermore, the acceptance of falseness explains how untruths get naturalized:
Jones has an important point to make about historical continuity in society’s narrative of race, gender and power that begins, he suggests, in antebellum times … Thus, the “known world” Jones dismantles is as much our present as our past, inasmuch as our present notions of power stem from our received notions about race, gender and the institution of slavery (Bassard 408).
To loosely paraphrase Berman, we are limited only by the worlds we know (or think we know). And in combination with structure:
The Known World bridges fictional and “real” worlds, bends time to its will, and demonstrates a productive, honest way to tell a lite with an arrangement of space, whether literal or literary. The novel’s plot traffics in all varieties of the invisible ideologies disguised beneath spaces, but the novel itself celebrates the spaces that make intent and purpose visible, thereby remaining open to future inscription (Ardoin 640).
The narrative time in The Known World is expansive enough to convey the inception and perpetuation of false ideals and is “open to future inscription” to suggest that such ideologies are destructible for more favorable ones (productive ideals) to take their place. While Jones’ use of historical fiction and narrative structure establish the preserved effects of the pyramidal structure of societal power, “Jones’ choice to focus on the issue of the black slaveholder, then is a fitting one for a study in open contradiction and the possible ways to put contradiction to productive work” because “it exposes the constructed nature of systems and structure”(641).
Ardoin, Paul. “Space, Aesthetic Power, and True Falsity in The Known World.” Studies in the Novel 45.5 (2013): 638+. Literature Resource Center. Web.
Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York, NY: Basic, 2014. Print.
Bassard, Katherine Clay. “Imagining Other Worlds: Race, Gender, and the “Power Line” in Edward P. Jones’ “The Known World”” African American Review 42.3/4 (2008): 407-19. JSTOR. Web.
Berman, Carolyn Vellenga. “The Known World in World Literature: Bakhtin, Glissant, and Edward P. Jones.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 42.2, Theories of the Novel Now, Part I (2009): 231-38. JSTOR. Web.
Donaldson, Susan V. “Telling Forgotten Stories of Slavery in the Postmodern South.” The Southern Literary Journal 40.2, Special Issue: History, Memory, and Mourning (2008): 267-83. JSTOR. Web.
Jones, Edward P. The Known World. New York: Amistad, 2003. Print.
Koger, Larry. Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 1985. Print.
Ikard, David. “White Supremacy under Fire: The Unrewarded Perspective in Edward P. Jones’ “The Known World”” MELUS 36.3, White and Not-Quite-White (2011): 63-85. JSTOR. Web.
Mutter, Sarah Mahurin. ““Such a Poor Word for a Wondrous Thing”: Thingness and the Recovery of the Human in “The Known World”” The Southern Literary Journal 43.2 (2011): 125-46. JSTOR. Web.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide. 3rd ed. Routledge, 2014. Print.
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