The Old South in Black and White

Jones, Edward P. 2003. The Known World. New York: Amistad (HarperCollins).

This powerful novel, like a Brueghel painting, is a crowd scene of individual portraits where each character is engaged in some intense, private activity. The collective ritual in this case is slavery in the ante-bellum South of the U.S., and the characters include black slaves, black freemen and women some of whom are themselves slave owners, whites of various social statuses and backgrounds, and an Indian of ambiguous status – not quite enslavable, but not quite a white. Some of these characters, black and white, attempt to behave honorably without always succeeding; some do cruel things thoughtlessly or selfishly. All are trapped in a system that rewards whites for cruelty even when they want to be just, and servility from blacks no matter how hard they struggle to attain and retain dignity. The women – especially the black women -- are as vivid as the men. Though most of the action gets started in one county in Virginia in the 1840s, Jones wants to know what became of his creatures after they left the county, some as far as Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, and shows us the lives of the surviving blacks many decades later, after the Civil War and emancipation. Some of them do achieve dignity.