Friday, October 30, 2009

Middle Passage

Most “atrocity” writing—the literature of slavery, the literature of the Holocaust—makes for grim reading. The aim is to excite ideas of pain and suffering, to leave the reader with memories that, like Huck Finn thinking back on the ambush of boys in a Southern feud, he is never going to get shut of. In his National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage (1990), Charles Johnson has a different aim altogether. He intends to show how experience is transfigured by writing, how peace with the past is made “by turning it into Word.” He also wants to tell a rousing good tale, because literature should not be merely sublime but also vastly entertaining.

Although a proudly black writer who holds that educated Americans should know Jean Toomer along with Sherwood Anderson, Johnson renounces the extra-literary responsibility of the black writer. “Traditionally, since the time of Richard Wright, black writers have been expected to be spokesmen for the race,” he told the Washington Post. Publishing a novel that, three years after Beloved, would invite comparisons with it, Johnson observed: “Toni Morrison didn’t really mind adopting that role either, speaking for the concerns of the race.” For his own part, though, Johnson said he finds it “very difficult to swallow the idea that one individual black or white, can speak for the experience of 30 million people”—or even Sixty Million and more. The idea, he said, is “repulsive.”[1] Indeed, he defends Ralph Ellison—the writer he admires most—against the charge of being “privativistic.” The narrow demands of collective ideology are at odds with the novel, which, according to Ellison, “at its best demands a sort of complexity of vision which politics doesn’t like.”[2]

If Johnson can be said to have anything like an ideological purpose in his third novel, it is to thwart the movement that would reduce the black experience in American to a single collective image. What is needed in African American literature, as he quotes Ellison elsewhere, is to expand the images. And whatever else it is, then, Middle Passage is a novel that achieves, in the compact space of about two hundred pages, an astonishingly complex vision of the black experience.

Rutherford Calhoun, a 22-year-old freedman in 1830 as the novel opens, shares something of his author’s feelings. The constant refrain Be a credit to the Race makes his “insides clench.” Raised by a white slaveholder, a Protestant minister who, “out of Christian guilt,” taught him more than most white men know (“Neoplatonism, the evils of nominalism, the genius of Aquinas, and the work of such seers as Jakob Böhme”), Calhoun abandons Illinois soon after he is freed and heads straight for New Orleans, “a town devoted to an almost religious pursuit of Sin.” Despite his religious background, Calhoun has a tendency “to tell preposterous lies for the hell of it” and has “always been drawn by nature to extremes.” Falling into debt, he is given a choice by the “nice girl” with whom he has become acquainted, a twenty-year-old schoolteacher from Boston who is “positively ill with eastern culture.” The choice: marriage or debtor’s prison.

Calhoun becomes a fugitive instead, signing on as a cook aboard the Republic, a slave ship bound for the Guinea coast, a “wooden sepulcher whose timbers moaned with the memory of too many runs of black gold between the New World and the Old.” (The temptation to quote Johnson’s vivid phrasing, as you can see, is nearly irresistible.) Among the ship’s investors, it will turn out, is a prominent New Orleans black. For Johnson, not even the narrative of slavery can be reduced to a single unbroken coherent paradigm.

The first mate warns Calhoun that prison is better than life aboard the Republic. The “ragtag crew” of forty men are failures on dry land, “all refugees from responsibility,” uncivilized and grunting. Only a slaver would have them, because it is the lowest of the low. The Republic’s captain is Ebenezer Falcon, a powerfully muscled dwarf whose “burning passion was the manifest destiny of the United States to Americanize the entire planet.” His mission is not merely to bring back slaves, but “whatever of value was not nailed down in the nations he visited.” He is also a philosophical apologist for slavery, which he attributes to the necessary dualism of human experience:

“Conflict,” says he, “is what it means to be conscious. Dualism is a bloody structure of the mind. Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other—these ancient twins are built into the mind like the steam-piece of a merchantman. We cannot think without them, sir. And what, pray, kin such a thing mean? Only this, Mr. Calhoun: They are signs of a transcendental Fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself. Mind was made for murder. Slavery, if you think this through, forcing yourself not to flinch, is the social correlate of a deeper, ontic wound.”[3]In time, Calhoun decides that Falcon is “more than just evil.” He is the Devil incarnate. For on this voyage, the Republic returns not merely with the pillage and booty of “war-shocked cultures,” but with an African god, a “dangerous, shape-shifting god,” who is packed in a “crate big enough to carry a bull elephant,” and stowed in the hold. “Who else,” Calhoun ponders, “could enslave gods and men alike?”

The “infernal creature” in the hold is the god of the Allmuseri, a people so old “they might have been the Ur-tribe of humanity itself.” If Falcon is the representative of philosophical dualism, they are his opposite number: “The failure to experience the unity of Being everywhere was the Allmuseri vision of Hell.” They are driven to panic at the thought of where the Republic was taking them, “into the madness of multiplicity.” The males are double-ironed and lowered by ropes, where they “lay in a foot of salt water in a hold blacker than the belly of Jonah’s whale.” They are tightly packed, because Falconhad learned ten years ago from a one-handed French slaver named Captain Ledoux that if you arranged the Africans in two parallel rows, their backs against the lining of the ship’s belly, this left a free space at their rusty feet, and that, given the flexibility of bone and skin, could be squeezed with even more slaves if you made them squat at ninety-degree angles to one another. Flesh could conform to anything. So when they came half-dead from the depths, these eyeless contortionists emerging from a shadowy Platonic cave, they were stiff and sore and stank of their own vomit and feces. (p. 120)[4]The middle passage changes them, “subtly reshaping their souls as thoroughly as Falcon’s tight-packing had contorted their flesh.” Soon they are not Africans any longer, “yet not Americans either.” They are sufficiently Americanized, however, to come over to Falcon’s philosophical side. They learn conflict. They successfully rebel, and take over the Republic.

Johnson consciously places himself in a line with Melville, even citing Amasa Delano by name at one point. He seeks to reclaim Benito Cereno for African American fiction. Where the rebellions slaves of the San Dominick force Captain Cereno and his crew to reenact their role as enslavers in order to blunt Delano’s suspicions, the rebellious slaves of the Republic force Captain Falcon and his crew to to adopt their culture as proof of subservience:The master’s house must be dismantled. Only Allmuseri was to be spoken by the crew when in contact with the newly empowered bondmen. [The first mate] was to use maps [an Allmuseri] was preparing; he did not trust the ones Falcon had left. In addition to this, he forbade us to sing songs in English, his oppressor’s tongue, whilst we worked. He said we must learn their stories. Nurture their god. Allmuseri medicine was to be used to treat sickness and injuries. We were not, of course, to touch their women; in fact, we were to lower our eyes when they passed to show proper respect for a folk we did not understand, had abused because of that, and now must come to for a wisdom we’d ignored. (pp. 154–55)Thus Johnson parodies the “black aesthetic,” which insists that black writing must place itself in a unique black tradition with exclusive black predecessors, renouncing a literature and language that is contaminated by racism. On board the Republic what follows is a system of horrors, a “savage world,” nearly as bad as Captain Falcon’s. The evil is not destroyed; it merely shifts its shape. Cultural nationalism is not the exorcism of cultural domination, he implies, but merely its reversal.

Although the Allmuseri spare him the torments of the crew because he is black, Calhoun is repulsed by what they become. He longs for home:Nay, the States were hardly the sort of place a Negro would pine for, but pine for them I did. Even for that I was ready now after months at sea, for the strangeness and mystery of black life, even for the endless round of social obstacles and challenges and trials colored men faced every blessed day of their lives, for there were indeed triumphs, I remembered, that balanced the suffering on shore, small yet enduring things, very deep. . . . If this weird, upside-down-caricature of a country called America, if this land of refugees and former indentured servants, religious heretics and half-breeds, whoresons and fugitives—this cauldron of mongrels from all points on the compass—was all I could rightly call home, then aye: I was of it. (p. 179)The middle passage, slavery, segregation, and the daily indignities of second-class citizenship lead Calhoun, against all expectation, to affirm black experience in America. His first-person narrative—the log of the Republic—shows how it is done. Writing transmutes horror into acceptance. Calhoun returns to New Orleans, marries the schoolteacher, and raises a family. The memories of the middle passage reduce the velocity of his desires, and makes him yearn for the “vast stillness” of a remarkably full and ordinary life.

Middle Passage is both a ripping good sea yarn and a philosophical novel that must be read repeatedly to plumb its depths. It is also, not accidentally, a demonstration of how a modern novel about slavery might be done. Johnson includes exacting details of the slave trade, because he is deeply read in its primary sources, but the tradition into which he seeks to insert Middle Passage is the tradition of the American novel, which encompasses Sherwood Anderson along with Jean Toomer, Herman Melville along with Ralph Ellison.

[1] Marjorie Williams, “The Author’s Solo Passage,” Washington Post (Dec. 4, 1990): D1.

[2] Charles Johnson, “Race, Politics and Ralph Ellison,” New York Times Book Review (Feb. 5, 1995): 15.

[3] Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (New York: Atheneum, 1990), pp. 97–98. Subsequent references in parentheses.

[4] Captain Ledoux is the slave-trader in Prosper Mérimée’s Tamango (1829), a story—enormously popular in its time—about a slave revolt; reprinted in “Carmen” and Other Stories, ed. and trans. Nicholas Jotcham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 72–92. In his ship the Espérance, “[t]he blacks were arranged in two parallel lines, their backs to the vessel’s sheathing, leaving a space between the rows of feet which on other slave ships serves only as a passageway,” Mérimée writes. “Ledoux had the idea of fitting more negroes into this space, lying at right angles to the rest. In this way, his ship could hold ten more negroes than others of the same tonnage” (p. 73).


patient reader said...

I'm so glad to see someone writing about Charles Johnson, and this novel in particular. I first read it many years ago and was astonished by it. In the mean time, I've often recommended it and wished that it were better known.
Johnson's own comments about the novel express his feeling that it doesn't fit into any one category, and that's one reason it's stylistically so rich.
Thanks for drawing attention to it!