an interesting story about a free black slave owner—and the impact that choices have on the world around us

by Edward P. Jones – Armistad Press, 2004
adult / fiction

I’ve become fascinated with the history of race relations in the USA. (Actually everywhere, but you’ve got to start somewhere.) So I went hunting for fiction that would make good airplane/road trip reading but still taught me something. And this is what I found. 

The story revolves around Henry Townsend who is a free black farmer and slave owner. (There were actually quite a few free black slave owners but Henry is not an historical figure.)

Henry, his former master, his family and slaves have lives that are mingled and intertwined. That mingling is the essence of the story. It’s an exploration of how lives were touched, and of the very limited world they all lived in. I spent a lot of my reading time thinking about how deeply connected we are now—and how much clearer those connections must have felt during Henry’s time.

The Known World is about being connected and making choices that impact others as much as it is about slavery. Henry’s choices are not what his parents would have hoped and they didn’t sit easily with me as I read. But they are his choices and their consequences are far reaching—as individual choices often are.

Here’s one small passage to give you a taste for it:

Augustus Townsend [Henry’s father] would have preferred that his son have nothing to do with the past, aside from visiting his slave friends at the Robbins plantation, and he certainly would have preferred that he have nothing to do with the white man who had once owned him. But Mildred [his wife and Henry’s mother] made him see that the bigger Henry could make the world he lived in, the freer he would be. “Them free papers he carry with him all over the place don’t carry anough freedom,” she said to her husband. With slavery behind him, she wanted her son to go about and see what had always been denied him. That it was often Robbins who took him about was a small price for them, and, besides, he was the one who had limited his world in the first place. “All this takin him about is just redeemin hisself in God’s eyes,” Mildred said.

(Italics are ours)

I very much enjoyed my time with this book—the story was just enough to give me pause, there were characters I cared about, and history I didn’t know. A perfect combination. I'm really glad I bought and read it.

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