Review by Vickie Fang
Much has been written about the importance of using literature as a bridge between the world of the privileged majority and that other, often invisible world of the oppressed minority. The White reader should wish to learn. The Black, or Hispanic, or Asian writer should describe in painstaking detail the intricacies of his own or his ancestor’s day to day reality so that it can be experienced, at least to some extent, by people who otherwise would barely know that it existed.
It was with just such an education in mind that I began reading the re-release of The Middle Passage, a book that takes place almost entirely upon an American slave ship. I soon adjusted my expectations. Written by Charles Johnson, a philosophy professor and MacArthur Genius Grant awardee, The Middle Passage is a free spirited romp not through a single slice of human experience, but through the entire universe — our own universe and a few of the alternate ones as well. Johnson, fascinated by the nature of singularity and duality, has created a world that encompasses rogues, slaves, children, nefarious businessmen, a probably insane midget captain, and an African god.
He begins with Rutherford, a freed slave who functions as a clever send up of the classic adventure tale. Rutherford is a rapscallion who makes his living picking pockets in the back allies of New Orleans and has gone on the run to escape both his gambling debts and the entirely unappealing advances of a spinster who wants to make him settle down and marry her. He stows away on a slaving ship, but is soon discovered and taken to Captain Falcon, a man prone to quite a bit of philosophizing himself. Early on, Falcon rails against headmasters “giving illiterate Negroes degrees because they feel too guilty to fail them, then employers giving the same boy a place in the firm since he’s got the degree in hand and saying no will bring a gang of Abolitionists down on their necks.” (Really? This could be anybody’s argument in 1830? Johnson is not bound to the strict laws of historical realism when there’s good mockery to be had.)
Rutherford learns, however, that the ship poses dangers far great than a lack of affirmative action. He is soon treated to the following exchange with the captain:
“Now that I think of it, you remind me of a colored cabin boy named Fortunata who was aboard on my first trip to Madagascar.”
“He’s aboard now?”
“Hell no . . . Christ, no.” Falcon’s brows slammed together. “We ate him.”
Falcon goes on to explain that he is a civilized Christian and despises savages who practice man-eating on a regular basis. However, “‘there’s not a civilized law that holds water’ — Falcon’s smile flickered briefly — ‘once you’ve put out to sea.’”
And out to sea they put, as Rutherford watches things go from bad to worse, as slaves and crew alike desperately try to survive in a dangerous and unpredictable world, as the nature of reality itself is repeatedly questioned, and as the god of the captured Allmuseri tribesmen becomes a force to be reckoned with. This god “never sleeps. Night and day it works, like a weaver — like rust, or an Alabama field hand — to ensure that galaxies push outward and particles smaller than the eye dance their endless, pointless reel.” However, even this god has limitations. He is everything, “so the very knowing situation we mortals rely on — a separation between knower and known — never rises in its experience. You might say empirical knowledge is on man’s side, not God’s.” Yet on this ship, knowing isn’t much on man’s side either. Neither is power or white skin or, ultimately, even money.
Slaves, crew members, and officers all fight for control, and Rutherford, a Black stowaway who works in the galley and has gained the confidence of the captain, is by turns aligned with all of them and with none of them. Plots give way to more plots. Masters turn out to be chattel. Even dogs are cruelly tricked as to who their enemies really are. In the end, survival depends on a self-forgetting acceptance. How, and even whether, Rutherford reaches that state makes for a fascinating read. And the education — for all readers — is not about the “other” world, but about the entire world.