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Middle Passage (Charles Johnson)

March 23, 2010

This novel reminded me a lot of the kind of sea tales that were popular in the 1800’s (like Melville’s Benito Cereno) as well as of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In other words, I liked it a lot even though it read like a story from a different time…which is appropriate, I suppose, since Johnson set it in the 1830’s.

One of the things the novel really asks the reader to think about is the transformative nature of the Middle Passage. Throughout Rutherford’s journal entries, it becomes increasingly clear that he is not the same person. At times, he mentions this explicitly, but at other times he observes it in others or simply says things that he wouldn’t have when he was in New Orleans. While the cruelty of the slavers and the suffering of the Africans is obvious, Johnson doesn’t choose to focus on it as much as he focuses on the ways that suffering alters the core of everyone’s being. When we see the way that (plot spoiler!!) Rutherford has changed at the end of the novel, when he’s with Isadora and aboard a gambling ship, Johnson’s message becomes clear: the Middle Passage altered the world. Everyone was changed by it. Everyone was affected, nobody walked away without feeling at least some of its impact. I think Johnson’s working really hard to make a huge statement about humanity with regards to slavery.

Throughout the entire novel, different characters are in bondage to other characters in a variety of ways, and this is part of how Johnson approaches the issue of slavery — by showing the many ways people keep others under their power. There’s Papa and his underworld of crime (and Rutherford is indebted to him with his life), there’s Isadora and her money (Rutherford is also indebted to her), there’s Falcon and his ship (he’s bound to Papa while his crew is bound to him), Santos and Jackson (both of whom have bound themselves to their masters — Falcon and Reverend Chandler, respectively), there’s Belaka (whose mother has bound her to Rutherford, and who Rutherford has bound himself to), and of course there’s the Allmuseri (who are literally enslaved by Falcon and his crew). By creating a world in which everyone is connected to everyone else, and (more importantly) everyone is somehow indebted to, bound to, or held captive by someone else, Johnson complicates the historical outlook on slavery. There’s a moment that reminds me of what Butler was doing in Kindred in this novel:

“During a storm, you could never relax, be overconfident, or let fear show upon your face. You developed what Cringle called a ‘flood mentality’–that is, you were always prepared to have water high as your waist. During each crisis, every action had to be aimed at helping your fellow crewmen. You cold not afford to tire. Your duty was always to insinew your ship; if you hoped to see shore, you must devote yourself to the welfare of everyone, and never complain, and constantly guard against showing weakness. Looking back at the asceticism of the Middle Passage, I saw how the frame of mind I had adopted left me unattached, like the slaves who, not knowing what awaited them in the New World, put a high premium on living from moment to moment, and this, I realized, was why they did not commit suicide.” (186-7)

Just as Butler used her strong female protagonist to address the question of why there weren’t more uprisings during slavery (not that there weren’t any, or weren’t many), Johnson uses his African American protagonist to explore a similar issue with newly enslaved Africans traveling to America under horrible conditions. In many ways, Johnson’s work is preoccupied with issues like this, most of them relating back to moral codes…but that’s for another day.

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