A Lesson in Anti-Racism: Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black

Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

In recently reading Esi Edugyan’s majestic 2018 novel, Washington Black, I noticed a thematic similarity with Paul’s New Testament letter to Philemon, which I have studied for the past few years as I’ve been writing a novel telling a backstory of the letter. Both works suggest an important distinction between two possible motives for helping someone.

In this post I’ll spell out the distinction in both works, then draw from it what I think is an important lesson for white allies hoping to support their black and brown neighbors in the swelling anti-racism movement. Spoiler alert: What follows will divulge plot information you may not want to know if you plan to read Washington Black (which I highly recommend doing).

Paul’s letter has the aim of reconciling Philemon, a Christian slaveholder, to his estranged slave, Onesimus, who has become a Christian under Paul’s influence. Paul’s request in the letter is that Philemon “welcome” Onesimus back as he would welcome Paul. Since Onesimus has apparently fled Philemon’s household on questionable terms, Paul’s request amounts to a call for Philemon to forgive Onesimus.

Early in the letter, Paul suggests two ways Philemon could forgive Onesimus. He writes, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” As I’ve written before, I understand the “duty” Paul is referring to, here, as Jesus’s teaching to forgive and be reconciled to one another.

If Philemon were to forgive Onesimus because Paul commanded him to do so, Philemon would be responding to an ethical imperative for Christians, namely, the imperative to obey Jesus’s teaching. This motive to forgive would have very little to do with Onesimus; rather, Philemon would be doing it merely because it is the right thing to do. Immanuel Kant famously called this kind of motive the “motive of duty.”

On the other hand, Philemon could forgive Onesimus because he loves him as a Christian brother, because he cares about their relationship, and because doing so would be a kindness to Onesimus.

While both motives would produce the same action, forgiveness, they would feel very different, especially to Onesimus. In the passage I quoted from “Philemon”, Paul clearly privileges the motive of love over that of duty, likely in response to the further teaching of Jesus that we ought to love our neighbors as ourselves.

A key moment in Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black turns on a similar distinction between possible motives. In the novel, a white, scientifically-minded, abolitionist Englishman nicknamed “Titch” takes as his apprentice a young plantation slave in 1830 Barbados named Washington Black. Because of his relationship with Titch, Black is sheltered from much of the violence to which plantation slaves are typically exposed, and, eventually, Titch helps Black escape to freedom. Titch becomes a kind of father figure to Black. Black later refers to Titch as a man who “had once been my entire world” (p. 374).

However, after escaping Barbados, Titch ends up abandoning Black. Titch first tries to leave him in Virginia with two other escaped slaves, who are heading for freedom in Canada. But, Black refuses to go with them and clings to Titch. Then, later, Titch ditches Black in the Arctic, leaving him with Titch’s father and his father’s assistant. Soon thereafter, Black strikes out on his own.

As Black tries to carve out a new free life for himself, he is haunted by the question of why Titch apprenticed him and helped him escape slavery. As he reflects back on his relationship with Titch, aided by his whip-smart lover, Tanna, he comes to see Titch’s motives for helping him as less-than-admirable. Near the end of the novel, Black confronts Titch after many years apart and says, “I was nothing to you. You never saw me as equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men” (p. 373).

Here, Black is essentially accusing Titch of helping him in order to avoid moral compromise. This motive is something like what I’ve called the motive of duty. According to his statement, Black thinks Titch should have helped him not because it was his moral duty to do so, but because Black “was something” to him, i.e., because Titch should have cared about Black as an individual, as an equal, and as someone who had borne much suffering as a slave. To put it another way, it seems Black wishes Titch would have helped him because he’d loved him.

The problem with helping someone from the motive of duty is that it can leave the person feeling uncared for as a human being; it can come off as impersonal, cold, and unconnected to the beneficiary’s concerns. As Black points out, it can even be selfish, since the duty-motivated agent may be more interested in preserving her own moral purity than in what her action might mean for the beneficiary.

Black’s complaint against Titch at this key moment in the book is an important reminder for white allies in the struggle against racism: it is not enough to resist racism because doing so is morally right. If white ally-ship is to be received as warm, vital, and loving–what I would understand as true ally-ship–whites must resist racism out of genuine personal concern for the well-being of their black and brown neighbors, who continue to suffer its wrongs.

What do you think?

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