PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Esi Edugyan's 'Washington Black' Fails to Problematize Critical Race Issues

In her latest revisionist history, Washington Black, Esi Edugyan points toward colonial theory without critically addressing affirmations of white power.

Washington Black
Esi Edugyan

Penguin Random House

Aug 2018


Washington Black's influence on contemporary literary culture is derived from Esi Edugyan's astute revisionist history. Her narrator, Washington Black, is a ten-year-old boy enslaved on the Faith Plantation in 1830s Barbados. Wash, as he is more commonly known, is smart. Through his relationship with Titch Wilde, Wash learns to redefine his identity beyond slavery. Instead of focusing on his misery, Washington Black envisions Wash's intellectual liberties and corporeal freedoms. Yet it is in his relationship with Titch that Washington Black fails to problematize critical race issues despite Edugyan's lively revisioning of historical narratives. (See also Misplaced Redemption and Bittersweetness in Esi Edugyan's 'Half-Blood Blues', by Zachary Houle, PopMatters 15 Apr 2012.)

As Washington Black opens, Faith's master passes away resulting in his cruel and masochistic son, Erasmus Wilde, inheriting control. Erasmus' fear-mongering and murderous bent affirms "the raw, violent injustice of it all" (23). Many slaves chose suicide instead of enduring Erasmus' terror. As explained by Wash's maternal figure, Big Kit, "death was a door...in that faith the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands" (7). Throughout Washington Black, Edugyan demonstrates a creative understanding of historical narratives. Rather than focus on slavery's cruel and dehumanizing practices, Edugyan gives Wash agency and mobility. The plot throughout finds Wash accessing informal education and cultivating his artistic abilities. He is a born artist, demonstrating a cunning ability to capture unspoken sensibilities. Wash represents a significant demographic of individuals, both historical and contemporary, who are prevented from developing their skills due to lack of privilege and systematic oppression. Here Edugyan revisions the historical narrative to showcase an existence where intellectual and corporeal freedom are not correlated with race.

Edugyan's ability to weave science and naturalistic observation through her writing is inspiring. Her understanding of the interconnection between science, society, and race is especially poignant. At one point, Wash captures an elusive octopus intending on "killing her to crate up as a specimen for exhibition. [Yet] a twist of nausea went through [him]" (219). The idea of displaying life is so repugnant to Wash that he briefly reconsiders releasing the octopus. Ultimately "it was impossible. The science was wanting" (220). Edugyan uses the octopus to define society's penchant for displaying black bodies as artifacts. Her analogy recollects Sara 'Saartjie' Baartman's legacy, Robert Mapplethorpe's hypersexualized photography, and the enduring objectification of blackness.

Wash's freedom can be problematized by Titch, the benevolent brother to Erasmus and a scientifically inclined abolitionist. Titch takes Wash on as his assistant then encourages Wash to learn and be inquisitive without fear of violence. Wash eventually rejects his identity as a field slave and his relationship with Big Kit. Due to Titch's influence, Wash believes he was "born for a higher purpose, to draw the earth's bounty, and invent" (133). Titch is an archetypical white savior, believing he is morally superior for lifting-up Wash but does so without rejecting institutionalized racism. Unquestionably, Titch's character arch is reflective of Teju Cole's White-Savior-Industrial-Complex theory. On Twitter, Cole said "the banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm." Titch's 'enthusiasm' for Wash's intellectual ability never overthrows slavery or even begins to unpack his own brother's cruelty. Hence, Titch is lauded for saving Wash from injustice while said injustice remains unchecked.

Titch's power and Wash's dependence, both derived from white privilege, are clear extensions of colonial discourses centralizing the recognition and disavowal of cultural and racial differences. After Titch's abandonment, Wash eventually becomes fixated on finding and reconnecting with Titch. Wash's emotional bondage to Titch impedes his relationship with Tanna Goff and renders art and science as secondary interests. In doing so, Wash's freedom is disavowed and Titch's power is recognized. Moreover, Tanna is identified as a mixed-race: her mother Polynesian and her father white. Again, Edugyan points toward colonial theory without critically addressing affirmations of white power. Edugyan misses the opportunity to dismantle whiteness while Wash's affective association with Titch verges on fetishism.

In the author's defense, she does attempt to problematize Titch at the novel's conclusion. Tanna is Washington Black's only critical voice as she develops Black's awareness of Titch's self-serving motives. After Titch abandons Wash during a blustery and snowy evening in upper Canada, Wash is left shook and bewildered. Due to Tanna, Wash realizes the abandonment was because Titch "lost value for me...[Titch] saw only those who were there to be saved, and who did the saving" (296). Yet, Wash's entire character motive is structured on his emotional connection to Titch. Wash searches across Europe and into Africa to find Titch all the while his emotional investment in Titch remains absolute. Washington Black relies too heavily on pathos and is inundated with an impalpable mawkishness.

Washington Black does provoke readers to question the idea of freedom, and whether Wash was ever free. He certainly feels free, given his mobility and the opportunity to draw, observe, and learn. His life with Titch and Tanna position Wash "to be my own free man" (185). Yet, Wash's freedom is contingent on dependency and he's never able to practice autonomy. He's only granted access to the dominant society through other characters. More so, Black is never emotionally free; rather, he benefits from the privilege siphoned from Titch and Tanna. Edugyan is purposeful here as she carefully illustrates the fragility of the free-man identity. Even though Wash lives independently, he was still subjugated by the "brutality of white men...beaten and urinated on by my laughing white colleagues" (185). Edugyan unequivocally exhibits the superficiality of freedom when inequity and violence are commonplace and unhindered. It's a cclear parable for contemporary society.

Despite Washington Black's beautiful and imaginative storytelling, its missteps are hard to avoid. Where the novel excels at revisioning a history where achievement is obtainable, it also fails to address critical race conversations.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.