This novel is a Bildungsroman about a young slave named George Washington Black, or simply Wash. It is Wash’s recollection of the extraordinary events in his life during the 1830s, especially his relationship with Christopher Wilde, aka Titch, the brother of Wash’s master Erasmus Wilde. The story opens with Wash in servitude at Faith plantation on Barbados, but his travels will take him to many lands where the weather is different but people are often the same. Washington Black is the story of a young man transforming from a slave to a free man, but it is also the story of the long term damaging effects of colonialism, slavery, and the intentions and actions of “good white people.”
When the novel opens, it is 1830 on the Faith Plantation, Barbados, where the master has just died. Eleven-year-old Wash and the other slaves don’t mourn his passing but are in some ways envious as they watch “the dead go free.” For Wash’s friend and protector Big Kit, death is the opportunity to return home, to escape the pain and violence of slavery. When the new master Erasmus Wilde arrives, the slaves’ desire to gain freedom via death becomes more pronounced, as Erasmus is a vicious and cruel man. Big Kit, a formidable woman with thrilling stories of her life in Dahomey before slavery, is the closest thing to family that Wash has, and she does what she can to protect him from running afoul of Erasmus. Life changes dramatically for Wash when Christopher Wilde singles him out for assistance in scientific experiments. Wash’s size makes him the perfect ballast for Titch’s “cloud cutter,” a type of hot air balloon that Titch wants to test.
While this opportunity removes Wash from the protection of Big Kit and separates him from the life of other slaves on the plantation, it also affords him the opportunity to learn to read, write and draw, the latter being a skill at which he is marvelously talented. An unusual bond develops between Titch and Wash, and for Wash, understanding the nature of this relationship is the work of a lifetime. Titch is a quirky and eccentric man. He never stays in one place for long, he is curious about everything in the natural world, he is restless and has traveled the globe. Titch also seems to have troubled relationships with his mother, whom he avoids; his father, whom he is desperate to impress; and his brother Erasmus, whose ownership of slaves and cruelty leaves him cold. An unexpected death on the plantation is the catalyst for Titch to take Wash and flee in the cloud cutter. Both Wash and Titch become wanted men (though Wash is only 11), and a slave catcher named John Willard is in pursuit.
The novel covers the next 6 years of Wash’s life as he travels, both with and without Titch, in the US and Canada, the frozen north, England, Amsterdam and Morocco. In addition to standing out for his dark skin, Wash has also been horribly disfigured in an accident, making him an object of curiosity and fear. His academic abilities, his fascination with marine life and his passion for drawing will help him when he reaches the lowest points in his life, and they will connect him to a scientist whose work and whose daughter will inspire Wash to push onward.
In addition to being a story of Wash’s journey to adulthood and independence, Washington Black is a reflection on white power and its longterm effects on oppressed people. The Wilde family is wealthy and educated, some might even stay progressive. The patriarch is an explorer and scientist who abandons his family for his work; the matriarch lives comfortably and doesn’t rock the boat; the older brother ensures that the family stays wealthy by managing the estates and forcefully upholding order (i.e., slavery); and Titch, as the younger brother, lives off the family wealth while entertaining his scientific curiosity and supporting causes such as abolition. This is a fractured family — wealthy and prosperous, possessing many advantages, but quite dysfunctional. The true extent of that dysfunction is revealed near the end of the story and it clearly has had an impact on Titch’s other relationships.
Wash’s journeys can be quite thrilling. He experiences a crash into a sailing vessel, lives in an igloo for a while, gets to use diving equipment and see sea creatures that he could never have imagined, among other things. Yet it is his personal, internal journey that is more compelling. Even when living as a free man, he must constantly look over his shoulder for fear that slave catchers will grab him and send him back to slavery in the US if not Barbados. For a while, Wash is depressed and alone, giving up his studies and his drawing, until a chance encounter on the beach leads him toward professional opportunity and a chance at personal happiness. Still, Wash’s relationship with Titch and the way it ended always eat away at him. Wash’s sense of betrayal, his desire for answers, and his ultimate realization of the kind of man Titch is will finally lead Wash to a kind of internal emancipation.
Washington Black is an historical novel that provides more than just a view of slavery and society in the1830s. It challenges the reader, particularly white readers, to examine their own participation in systems that oppress minorities and to re-evaluate the way we see (or don’t) those who have been subjected to systemic oppression for generations.