I could never understand how free blacks could own other blacks. How could they justify this? The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, sheds some light on the topic, while making the devastation and tragedy of slavery in our country all too real. The main characters in this novel, both black and white, help us to understand the impact of this institution and how it affects us to this day.
Henry is a slave until the age of 14. Although he witnesses the atrocities of slavery, he is never a recipient of his master's abuses. A few years after his parents purchase his freedom, Henry purchases his own slave, and is reluctant to tell his parents he has done so. The scene that ensues is heartbreaking. His parents' question is a simple one: How could he become a slave owner when he himself has witnessed its evilness? His decision creates a schism between him and his parents that is never repaired.
Both black and white slave owners believe that they are doing the slaves a favor. Of course, the slaves are better off than they would be in Africa, where they were just savages. The way that the black slave owners view the slaves is particularly disturbing. They seem to feel no kinship with any of them, even those who were former slaves themselves. And if they must beat or maim their slaves, it's because they deserve it. How else to keep them from doing wrong?
One of the least surprising parts of the novel occurs when some free blacks are sold back into slavery. While a common practice, the affects of this practice are hard to read. In this one instant, the story changes from tragedy to horror.
Jones' story, though fiction, is all too real in its portrayal of the relationships among whites, free blacks and slaves and really helps us understand how the history of slavery still affects our morals and beliefs.