Washington Black Earns its Praise

Washington Black
By Esi Edugyan
Knopf, 352 pages
* * * * *

This fascinating novel from Canadian Ghanian writer Esi Edugyan is up for consideration for the Man Booker Prize. Although my vote would go Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, it certainly wouldn’t make me upset were Ms. Edugyan to win.

Washington Black is about searching, dreaming, and the elusiveness of freedom. Its namesake narrator is a slave on a sugar plantation in British Barbados in the 1830s. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself was illegal after August of 1834, though such ‘technicalities’ took a bit longer to go into effect. In 1830, the year this novel opens, young Washington Black has no thoughts of freedom other than those put into his head by Big Kit, a slave who teaches Washington the ins and outs of getting by and plants the idea that if worst comes to worst, they could commit suicide and allow their souls to fly back to Dahomey,
where she claims to be of royal blood. All of this is so much gibberish to Washington, who is uneducated, without known parents, and has never been off  Faith Plantation.

Several things disrupt Washington’s life, the first of which occurs when Faith Plantation’s laissez-faire master dies and his son Erasmus Wilde takes over. Erasmus vows to take a Simon Legree-like iron-fisted approach toward slaves, a regimen built upon equal parts drive system and humiliation. There were few places on earth where it was worse to be a slave than in the Caribbean, where most in bondage died within 7-9 years. That might have been Washington’s fate, had it not been for the arrival of Christopher “Titch” Wilde, Erasmus’ eccentric younger brother.

Titch is equal parts scientist and mad inventor and he chooses Washington as his personal assistant. Edugyan pulls a page or two from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to show the myriad cultural disconnections between black slaves and whites, even those with good intentions. Put simply, they lived in different worlds in both a literal and symbolic sense. One of the many virtues of Edugyan’s work is that she does not sermonize. If anything, Washington is the most distrustful character in the book and he’s not always right in ascribing motives. He proves a not-very-good student when it comes to book learning, but displays an innate talent for drawing precise renderings of the specimens in Titch’s makeshift lab. When Wilde cousin Peter arrives, Washington will also come to learn that Titch’s family dynamics are no more enviable than his own.

But what adventures Washington is destined to have. Let me tantalize you by saying that plots and subplots revolve around an unstable hot air balloon, a ship bound for the Arctic, the capture of an octopus, flight from slave catcher, dwelling among the Inuit people, life Nova Scotia, and then London with side trips to the Midlands, Amsterdam, Paris, and Morocco. Washington will grow up, meet famed marine zoologist Geoffrey Michael Goff, and have an affair with his mixed race daughter Tanna. Can Washington trust any of them? What happened when Titch disappeared in the Arctic? What did Titch mean when he told Washington that he treated him “like family?” Is that a compliment, a delusion, or an insult? Is Titch even sane?

Several things make Washington Black more than another novel about the horrors of slavery. First, it is beautifully written. It’s not just the elegance of the prose; Edugyan also embeds metaphors throughout the book that lend gravitas to her words. Nearly everything in this novel has a double meaning: family, flight, captivity, scars, illustrations…. Second, Edugyan has little time for pat answers. Uppercase Truth is in short supply in Washington Black. Instead there are real deceptions, apparent deceptions, half-truths, gross misunderstandings, deserved skepticism, and flat-out wrongheadedness. This means that Washington Black is ultimately a book that’s about more than how one “sees” the world; on a deeper level it’s about how we “see” and fail to “see” others. To introduce still another of the book’s metaphors, it’s a work about the differences between surface and depth.

As I implied earlier, Washington Black is a flawed hero. His vision is often clouded and don’t assume for a moment that Edugyan intends an Arctic whiteout or a dessert windstorm to mean just snow or sand. Washington’s troubled soul is often the source of chaos. At one point Tanna says to him, “You are like an interruption in a novel, Wash. The agent that sets things off course. Like a hailstorm. Or a wedding.”

This is a smart book that goes beyond simplistic right/wrong scenarios. If you think you’ve read enough about slavery to skip this book, you’re just wrong. Washington Black has something so many other novels lack: nuance.

Rob Weir


THAD, Welty, More, Ramsey: The Mysteries of Indie Rock

Welcome to the "Indie Rock" edition of Off-Center Views. Indie rock used to mean that a performer was unsigned. These days it's a label that bleeds into Americana and is just as ambiguous. For sake of discussion, let's acknowledge that the borders are porous but that Americana tends to be encompass music from the folk, blues, and roots spectrum whereas indie music borrows more from rock, pop, and other electric-based sounds. Its trademarks are to start soft, and cut to a moment where a bunch of instruments jump in suddenly. Often there is also a lot of "whoa-oooo-ahh-ah" vocal filler.

We will revisit the what-do-you-want-to-call-it question many more times on this blog, but for now here are four for thought.

Let's start with THAD and his West Coast EP. THAD is Thad Cockerell, who used to front a Nashville rock band called League. If you want to know how that's worked out so far, listen to "Fill My Cup": I've been walking to the city/ I cannot see… I am tired/And I am lonely/It's hard to keep on doing thisI am you child in need. He sings it with earnestness, smoothness, and the soft to loud format mentioned above. I can't even imagine how many musicians can relate to that sentiment! "All I Want" has the rapid beats per minute urgency of 80s' New Wave music. This one is about self-examination, a different kind of urgency. "Susie From the West Coast" is a love song that is his answer to the previous song's longing of All I want is you. It's a tender and quieter counterpoint to the other two pieces and perhaps a lesson that indie performers do best when they mix things up.     

San Diego-based Steve Welty views indie rock from a perspective occasionally spiced with hints of reggae. He has two EPs recorded in 2018 on offer–26 Black and Fly With Me–that are tantalizing come-ons for several new singles and an LP I've heard is in progress. You can definitely hear the reggae influence on "Done Drinkin'." These come through in both solo and studio versions. In case you don't get it, there are references to "kick drums" and "reggae grooves" in the lyrics, some "ba-ba-ba-ba" riffs, and accents that skirt the edge of cultural appropriation. Good song, though, if you can leave your PC on the shelf. The reggae influences are more subtle in the wonderfully named "I Never Dreamed to Be Employed." 26 Black also sports folk/folk rock offerings. In fact,  "Floating in Space" has a few New Age ameliorative adornments. It's a love song, but one in which the main point–I need you in my life–comes about through the enlightenment that comes from floating in space in ways that are only partially metaphorical. Things get a bit confusing as this song is also the title track on Fly With Me. Welty's hardly the first musician to rename a song, but I wanted to warn you so you don't think you're having a senior moment. Staying in the celestial mood, you'll hear more reggae-influenced grooves on "Falling Star."  Reverberating electric guitar also spice "Little Steps" with interstellar suggestiveness. Then it's back to acoustic reggae for "Stronger As One." Welty's light tenor voice and a repertoire that plays well with or without a band begs the question as to whether he's a folk or an indie rock artist but like I said, these days boundaries are in the eyes of the beholder.

Peter More takes a Tex-Mex approach to indie rock. This EP has smoother production, as one might expect given that Donald Fagen (Steely Dan's producer) is at the helm. The EP is several songs left off of his recent album Beautiful Disrepair and is thus titled Shoulder, wordplay on the definition of shoulder that means to push something out of the way. (The EP also has a few songs from the album.) More has a high tenor voice that he shouts out when he goes electric. You can hear that when he goes big on the title track. These days, though, he's been working with Spanish flamenco guitarist Jose Juan Poyato and More's music has gotten quieter and more introspective. A fine example of this is "Caddis Moon," which is a searching-for-wisdom song tinged with an ambience of melancholy. "What We Used to Be" is plenty energetic, but it has a shinier bluegrass/honky tonk/rock vibe. Pay attention to the small echoes of horn (trombone?) in the background. I actually like More's music best when he lowers the noise level. If that's also your taste, try "Marlene," his sweet find-you-someday song backed by Amy Helm.

Tyler Ramsey is a performer who gets tagged with just about everything: folk, folk rock, Southern, indie.... If his name sounds familiar to you, that's because he was for years the lead guitarist for Band of Horses. His Candler Sessions EP is named for the woodsy town 20 minutes outside of Asheville where he and his family now live. The EP is a sampler of songs from his new album For the Morning. You need listen to approximately 20 seconds of "A Dream of Home" to both feel his nostalgic rootedness and think, "Neil Young," especially Young's early days with Crazy Horse. Replace Young's lyrics of "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" (Everybody seems to wonder/What It's like down there/I gotta get away/From this day-to-day/Running around…) with Ramsey's There's a dream of home/For those that work out on the road/And there's a vision of the road for all the others… There'll be a time you wish you could trade your life for another and you know you're on homage turf. "Your Whole Life" has a few more mountain inflections in Ramsey's voice, but you will also hear plaintive vocal colorings that characterize Young. Mind, I am not saying that Ramsey is in any sense derivative. Call it a fortunate evocation. I enjoyed every song on this EP, especially "The Valley Wind." You can also find the title track of his new album on YouTube. It, like all of Ramsey's songs, begs our central question. Is it indie rock, Americana, folk, or something else? How 'bout we just call it good music?

Rob Weir


Christians Supporting Trump are Blasphemers

If you are irreligious, maybe you don't need to read this. Then again, maybe you do!

Nothing much seems to faze Trump zealots, so here's a call to those who call themselves Christians. If you support Trump, you are a blasphemer. I don't mean this metaphorically; I mean it literally. If you are pro-Trump, you mock the very foundations of your purported faith.   

I will not delve into Trump's politics, his appalling personal immorality, his incivility, and the daily doses of mean-spirited nastiness he doles out. Instead I call attention to a remark he made at the end of August. In the midst of defending his trade war with China Trump suddenly declared, "I am the chosen one." It was an unprompted comment from which he backpedaled days later. He claimed it was just a "joke," and resorted to his usual script of claiming it was "fake news" cooked up by the media. But then again, he has also said that any Jew voting against him is "disloyal." He hasn't repudiated that.

Whoa! If you are the slightest bit Christian, these are not joking matters. Check out the first three Commandments! What I'm about to say is Biblical, not political. I dislike Trump intensely, but I'm going to cite chapter and verse. Not many people know this, but I once contemplated going to seminary. I had no interest in being a minister; I simply wanted to study theology. I was working on an M.A. in medieval history and grew fascinated with how Christianity evolved as both a spiritual and philosophical system. I didn't go to seminary, but I did read a lot of theological and philosophical treatises, and the Bible twice. I may be rusty, but I know my way around Scriptures and theological discourse well enough to say that Trump's words and behaviors are suggestive of those of Satan and the Antichrist.

It bears noting that it's likely that the images you hold of Satan are probably those that came from the Middle Ages. They are more out of paintings by Albrecht Durer and Hieronymus Bosch than Biblical text. The word Satan translates "adversary," though the Old Testament uses Lucifer more often, which means, "light bringer." In Hebrew it translates "shining one" or "morning star." In other words, the Devil isn't a burnt, behorned, pitchfork carrier; he's an attractive deceiver. Generally, Satan is viewed as the "ruler of this world." (John 12:31, II Corinthians 4:4)*

Check out some of the things the New Testament has to say. Bear in mind that Trump has uttered more than 12,000 falsehoods since taking office. John 8:44 relates that Satan "has nothing to do with the truth because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, for he is the father of lies." As the "ruler of this world," Satan tempted Jesus with riches and control of over worldly things: "To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me." (Luke 4:6) Contrast Trump's "I am the chosen one" to Luke 9:35, when Jesus is anointed: "And a voice came out the cloud, saying, 'This is my son, my chosen one.'" In the Middle Ages Trump could have been burned at the stake for his remark. Again, I mean this literally.

Now a dose of Matthew 24:4-5: Jesus remarked, "Take heed no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will lead many astray. In verse 24 Jesus is more explicit: "For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show many signs and wonder, so as to lead astray…." II Corinthians  11:13-15 reemphasizes this: "For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness."

II Thessalonians takes it to the next level. For those Christians thinking of the end times, Trump should be an alarm: "… for that day will not come, unless rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God." (2:1-2) Later there is a passage  ascribed to the doings of the Antichrist: "The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be all power and with pretended signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish…." (2:9-10)

The Book of Revelations rather graphically yet cryptically discusses two beasts that herald the Apocalypse. The first has been interpreted as Satan, the second as the Antichrist. The second "makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast." (13:1-10) The writer–generally thought to be the Apostle John–goes on to speak of the blasphemy and the war against the saints that the second beast will foment.

This is the time to note that one of the dominant characteristics of the Antichrist is that he attempts to place himself in Christ's place. Is it merely a "joke" when Trump utters, "I am the chosen one." If you call yourself a Christian, it cannot be. He has also said, "I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can get excited by those who do…. People want to believe something is the biggest, greatest and most spectacular." Maybe that's good psychology, or maybe it sounds a lot like the temptation of Christ. Trump now says he's not the Messiah, but isn't that what you'd expect from a false apostle?

* Some theologians see Satan, Lucifer, and Beelzebub as separate demons; some see them as different expressions of the same evil, fallen angel.