Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Review: Middle Passage

I tried to describe Middle Passage by Charles Johnson, the current book I was listening to Shira, but got stuck. Finally I explained, it's the type of book we'd read in English class. That is the subtext of the book seems to be just as important, if not more so, then the actual story. Below are some ramblings on this novel, beware, there are spoilers.

Since I finished Middle Passage I've been trying wrap my head around what I just heard. Yes, the book is a coming of age story of the main character, Rutherford Calhoun. And it's clearly an opportunity to ask the question: who's truly free and who's truly a slave? But it does all of this in a fairly novel way.

As I've thought through the book, I noticed an interesting clue: the sailors on the ship that Calhoun stows away on are too nice. He's a stowaway who impersonated another sailor to get on board, and yet the crew fairly quickly welcomes him. Even the captain who's feared by all and openly declares he "doesn't like negros" befriends Calhoun. This got me thinking of another story where the sailors are too nice, the Book of Jonah. Recall that in the Book of Jonah the sailors do everything they can to avoid throwing Jonah overboard.

As I thought about it, there are other similarities about Calhoun and Jonah. In the midst of the storm that forces the sailors to throw Jonah overboard, Jonah can be initially found sleeping below. When Calhoun stows away on the Republic his first act: going to sleep. Both stories involve vivid scenes where the crew offers sacrifices on deck to try to persuade the power's that be to rescue them. Far less esoteric is the fact that both Calhoun and Jonah are running from responsibility, and both encounter forces that show how powerless they are to do so. And of course, both ultimately find themselves back at where they started, now prepared to complete their missions.

To me, these similarities underscore that Calhoun's journey is meant to be taken, like Jonah's, as an allegory. This isn't meant to be historic fiction, accurate down to the last detail. In this context, Middle Passage makes more sense to me.

With the latest attention given to racism in our country, there's a trend of being cautious of how minorities are represented. Aunt Jemima is out of a job, tech companies are revisiting the terms the use and Arlington County is reconsidering its logo. In this environment, I was curious how Middle Passage would handle its subject matter. The author isn't just writing about a slave ship, he's writing about a slave ship with an African American crew mate, who also happens to be a thief and philanderer.

And while I'm no expert on these matters, I think Johnson manages to cover the material in a racially intelligent way. I say this not because of how he describes the sailors, but because of how he describes the captured slaves. They aren't pitiful, faceless men. They are a proud tribe, named and elevated. This isn't merely the story of moving slaves across the Atlantic, but the kidnapping of a distinct people with distinct personalities.

Incidentally, there is one group that doesn't fair so well in the book: women. Put bluntly, the main female character is fat and therefore ugly. When Calhoun reunites with the leading female character he finds her beautiful. Is this because he's learn to see her for all her positive qualities? No, it's because she's lost weight. Sorry ladies, better lose some weight if you want to be pretty.

My Grandpa Irv used to say: why ruin a good story with the truth? I think that may be one of Johnson's strategies in the Middle Passage. This isn't just a story on a slave ship, this is a story on a slave ship post 1808 when the slave trade was technically outlawed. This is evil on top of evil. And yet, Johnson risks humanizing the crew and their endeavor to give us the space to appreciate Calhoun's journey and ultimate redemption. I think it works.

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