The Known World, like Parable of the Sower, takes me in a very different direction with this independent study. However, its uniqueness does not come so much from the images of white people within the book (most of whom, while complex, are familiar historical types of people), but from the juxtaposition of the white characters along side the black characters in the moral universe the novel creates. Set in the fictional Manchester County, Virginia, in the years leading up to the Civil War, this universe centers around Henry and Caldonia Townsend — a slave owning black couple. Whereas in many of the other books I’ve read as part of this study or thought about in a similar context earlier (The Bluest Eye, Black on White, Native Son, Autobiography of Malcolm X) there is a prominent moral difference between white and black, Jones condemns every aspect of the society so sick that it treated many of its members as chattel. The contrast in The Known World is not between black and white, but rather between those who benefitted from slavery and those who suffered from it. However, one of the book’s many impressive aspects is its incredibly rich moral complexity; identifying just about any character as one who benefits or suffers from slavery is a gross oversimplification (and a great challenge for writing about this book). I have decided to look at three different characters who represent the various economic relationships to slavery: William Robbins, owner of the most slaves in Manchester County; Winifred Skiffington, whose “middle class” standing is reliant on her husband John’s position as sheriff and its reliance on the planters’ approval; and Barnum Kinsey, the poorest white man in Manchester County. By no means is this analysis exhaustive of the white characters within the novel, nor the fullness of what they represent.
William Robbins is representative of many of the basic contradictions of slavery. As the county’s largest economic beneficiary of slavery, he seeks to do everything possible to insure his continued wealth. His (unsubstantiated) fear of slave escape is enough to get a sheriff fired, and additional slave patrols added. While still owning Henry Townsend, Robbins is infuriated when Henry’s recently freed father, Augustus, pushes his son for insubordination. Robbins yells at Augustus, “I won’t have you touching my boy, my property” (19), and bans Henry’s parents’ weekly visits for a month. Robbins capitalistic mind frame prohibits the consideration of humanity in relationship to slaves. However, as soon as economic considerations are lifted, Robbins shows the capability for humane actions. After Henry is freed, Robbins helps him to establish his own plantation (which is a contradiction in itself, as this involves the purchase of slaves for Henry). Robbins also develops a more loving relationship with one of his slaves, Philomena, than he has with his wife.
Winifred Skiffington, and her husband John, represent what can best be described as a “liberal” southern perspective. Winifred comes from Philadelphia and a soft abolitionist perspective. John does not seem particularly supportive of slavery, though also is not actively against it. When the Skiffingtons are given a young female slave, Minerva, as a wedding present, they decide to keep her and treat her as a “daughter” (31) because she “might be better off” (34) with them than under other owners. They do not free her because they are afraid of “what the neighbors might say” (34), revealing the shallow limits of their liberalism. Years later, Winifred and Minerva move to Philadelphia and Minerva leaves to live with a black family without notifying Winifred. Winifred, corrupted by her time in the South, reveals contradictory sentiments in the missing poster she commissions. While she claims that she “must have [her] daughter back” (166), she also adds the poster that Minerva “Will Answer To The Name Minnie” (381). This refers back to how Minverva’s initial introduction to Winifred as a slave (32). Despite her philosophical opposition to slavery, Winifred is unable to break free from her political-economic relationship to Minerva as chattel.
Barnum Kinsey is in many ways a literary embodiment of what David Roediger describes in The Wages of Whiteness. He is a poor white, “saved…from bein a ni**** only by the color of his skin” (42). However, despite his complete lack of wealth and his perpetual drunkenness, Kinsey receives some emotional benefit form his superior status to slaves. Though he is very aware of the moral horror of his fellow slave catchers’ sale of Augustus, a free man, he does not actively prevent the sale. Even when he informs John Skiffington some time later of what happened, he expresses concern that he will be seen as a “ni**** kisser” (303). Kinsey, despite being well aware of the moral horror that was chattel slavery, is unwilling to sacrifice the mild benefit that he receives from the system, even though it is this system that limits the value of his labor.
Works Cited: Jones, Edward P. The Known World. New York: Amistad, 2003.