It is no secret that hierarchy has been essential in the advancement of the human race. From the Romans to the Mongolians to the Ottomans, the largest and most organized societies in history have used this class separation to surpass their disorganized inferiors.
That being said, the appointment of power to some individuals over others is bound to create competition. Thus, individuals will inevitably put others down to preserve their status when given the opportunity. Through the many interactions between her unique gamut of characters in Washington Black, Esi Edugyan provides a plethora of examples of this constant struggle between classes of a hierarchy.
Erasmus Wilde is a quintessential specimen of the ruthless slave owner archetype. His drive for financial gain at the brutal expense of the working class is bourgeoisie incarnate. Under his rule, brutal maimings take place (8). “[One slave] had his tongue cut out for backtalk [and another] was forced to eat from a full chamber pot for not clearing the previous day’s thoroughly” (ibid.). Perhaps worst of all, a slave who had attempted to run away was immolated as both a punishment to him and as an example to others, the flames of the pyre later used to heat the iron that branded those who remained (ibid.).
Erasmus utilizes these draconian punishments to maintain the workers’ obedience. It is perhaps the simplest and most literal form of oppression, but that does not take away from its effectiveness in putting others down for one’s benefit. So long as the slaves feel that they cannot escape their situation, they will not and will ultimately find themselves under the inevitable dominion of their oppressor as a result.
While these instances give an idea of Erasmus’s—and therefore the bourgeoisie’s—cruelty, his reaction when slaves commit suicide out of fear of him is even less humane. Erasmus asserts that they were thieves for having “stolen from him” and personally assures that those who follow will have their heads hacked off, thus preventing them from ever being reborn in their homelands (11).
He treats the loss of human life not as a tragedy but as if it were a loss of assets, going as far as to restrict the last liberty that the slaves have left: the notion of an afterlife. By manipulating the workers’ beliefs to serve the ruling elite’s interests, it is ensured that the workers are constantly oppressed, with the proletariat made to believe that the condition in which they exist is to their benefit. Titch and Washington have many conversations on the subject of his manumission throughout their relationship.
On multiple occasions does Titch offer him the chance to be free, and on numerous occasions does Washington deny him, in one instance going as far as saying, “‘Oh, no, Titch, I would rather be your property,’” (104). Washington appears to be so far consumed by the ideologies of nineteenth-century English society that he does not realize the serendipity of his situation. Those of the lower class may dream of freedom.
Still, when the time comes that they are finally presented with it, the desire to pursue it has already been stripped from their minds, thereby pushing the proletariat into submission to the end of the upper class’s advancement.
Through Titch’s abolitionism and disregard for the cultural norm, Washington eventually does see freedom, though it is not without its dangers. Erasmus has bounty hunter John Willard track Washington down and return him, dead or alive (162). However, when Willard finally stumbles across Washington after years of searching, he imparts to the now freeman that he had been put out of business by his failure to deliver (293).
Existing below the upper class, Willard is unable to resist the social demotion that has been forced upon him. Thus, he redirects his anger towards Washington, culminating in his attempted murder. During the bloody melee, he hisses: “‘Audacious n*gger […] You will not humiliate me. You will not embarrass me’” (298), the insults he cites implying a sense of reciprocated contempt.
Although the middle class is also oppressed by the ruling elite—albeit to a much lesser extent—they do not choose to consolidate with the proletariat to remove power from the bourgeoisie. While together they possess the means to do so, the middle class would rather maintain their current status by suppressing others than associate with the lower class and risk being relegated further.
These social constructs are so ubiquitous that even those who become Washington’s closest allies are complicit. When Washington initially meets the Goffs, they treat him as a black man first and as a person second. So ingrained in their minds are British superstructural prejudices that they fail to see the contradiction between their beliefs and actions.
Tanna assumes that he is illiterate, and despite being told otherwise, she offers to teach him (266). Mr. Goff initially disapproves of her relationship with Washington out of fear of social rejection and the risk of harm that it presents to the couple (279). Whomever Washington encounters, it appears that he will always be a slave because of societal expectations.
A feminist, Tanna was never accepted into English high society as she refused to conform to prejudicial standards (278). Considering her history, one might assume that she, of all people, would not make such uneducated, condescending assumptions. Yet, such is the way of ideologies, reaching even those to which one would least expect them.
Perhaps the most confounding example of this thirst for social power in Washington Black is how the slaves discriminate amongst themselves. Indeed, even within the lowest of the classes exist subclasses. In this case, they are the house slaves and the field slaves. The porter Gaius is portrayed to be unfriendly through Washington’s descriptions of him, frowning in the presence of Big Kit and Washington and studying them as if they were animals (16-17).
Washington himself admits that he feared the man, a slave “with the speech and breeding of a white man” that was in his eyes “a kind of surrogate master,” (16). The cook Maria catches sight of Washington eyeing the pastries and immediately scolds the boy in saying “don’t you even do it, n*gger,” (18). Later on in the novel, another kitchen slave by the name of Esther finds service in Titch’s house, glaring at Washington “with a hard kind of pity” and speaking to him “curtly and in evident disgust,” (93).
The house slaves put themselves above their field-working counterparts due to their privileged positions. This rather futile repression merely shows how there is no limit to a person’s desire to be better than others, no matter the social class in which that person may find themself.
Washington Black follows a slave boy’s journey to freedom and pursuing his dreams, but it is more than just abolitionist versus slaver, good versus bad. The interactions between Esi Edugyan’s range of distinctive characters demonstrate how individuals, no matter their social standing, will always put others down in the interest of their status.
From Erasmus, the vile and abominable slavemaster, to Tanna, Washington’s own lover, this assertion rings true. While hierarchy may have been essential to the furtherance of great civilizations over the eras, there comes a time when one must ask oneself, to what extent must it define mankind’s existence?