The Known World

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Historical fiction so realistic it seemed painstakingly catalogued, but Jones did little research for the book, instead relying on what he’d gathered through life on this topic. A small segment of the Southern population was comprised of blacks who owned other blacks, and Jones explores characters on both sides of the ownership line. The central figures are Henry and Caldonia, free blacks who have slaves to tend their plantation. Henry’s father, Augustus, was a talented woodworker who earned enough money to buy his own freedom, then his wife Mildred, then son Henry, who had to be wrested from Master Robbins’ side after years of being a dutiful valet. Much to his parents’ dismay, Henry begins to purchase slaves once he has a leg up in the world. Moses, the overseer on Henry’s plantation, leads us through the book from start to finish, bits of his story sprinkled throughout as foreshadowing to his ultimate hobbling, cut down a notch (literally). He orchestrates the fleeing of Alice (woman who pretends to be crazy in order to wander wildly around the countryside), with his wife Priscilla and son, in order to chase a harebrained scheme to turn his affair with the master’s widow into her purchasing his freedom and marrying him. (Caldonia marries Louis, the black son of Master Robbins instead). Throughout, there are both good and evil characters, black and white. Augustus is ultimately snatched up by a patrol that eats his free papers, then sells him into slavery in Florida. The racist cousin of the county sheriff turns up on his doorstep, bedraggled from a failed attempt to flee to California after he lost his plantation to smallpox and creditors (Counsel, the cousin, has a bizarre experience in the Texas wilderness where hoards of nonwhites march past him, vaguely threatening.) Caldonia’s twin brother Calvin has a complicated unrequited love for Louis.
Jones seeds the story with fictitious historians like the Canadian, Anderson Frazier, who interviews Fern Elston for a 1880s pamphlet (Curiosities and Oddities About Our Southern Neighbors), which talks about black slaveholders. Fake census data is referenced, to give the characters a sense of weight, of reality. I enjoyed this method of inventing sources that seem real; the challenges would be incredible to get an accurate primary source from this time (the challenge of time and also subject matter, no one was going around recording freed blacks’ thoughts).
*** Update ***
After digging into some research, I found some actual statistics that are pretty mindboggling. 20% of free black households in Georgia owned slaves in 1830… Source: “The Known World” of Free Black Slaveholders: A Research Note on the Scholarship of Carter G. Woodson
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