Monday, February 1, 2010

Blog Assignment #3

Assignment: Post a paragraph long question using the comment feature attached to this blog post that addresses something in this weeks reading assignment.
Reading Assignment: Pages 1-103 of The Known World. Also, don't forget to bring your This I Believe essays to read in class tomorrow, since we didn't read them on Friday!


  1. I was most struck on page 15 by how freed slaves could be "brought back in to slavery" seemingly on a whim. That it would be so easy for anyone even in that period of history to essentially revoke human rights once granted is disturbing.

    How this might reflect contemporary issues of civil rights, social norms and stereotypes is what I would like to bring up. It seems that many groups of people operate under assumptions and stereotypes that generate modern debates and disagreements about civil rights and liberties, in a similar fashion that stereotypes and norms of the period in "The Known World" enabled people to whimsically allow or not allow free people their rights.

  2. The people's attachment to the land on which they live and their attachment to each other was amazing to me. Because of their suffering and oppression, these people were able to identify with each other on a level that is rarely felt by most. My question is this. Is it reasonable that this relationship with land and people is responsible for the complex and rich culture that is present among the African-american culture today? It seems to me that as a white person, I do not have ties to a distinct culture such as this. Is this because, since whites have in the past been the dominant race, my culture is all around me and I don't recognize it, or is it that there actually isn't anything that ties white people together in the same way as African-American culture? I am asking this question because I often struggle with identifying myself with a specific culture, and was curious of the reasoning behind this.

  3. Described as “a footnote to history” on the back cover, The Known World interrogates the relationship between history (understood as facts) and fiction (understood as imaginative writing). The narrative mentions repeatedly instances of census gathering gone wrong because of the murky boundaries of race categories, because of a census taker’s unreasonable belief that the “government could read between the lines” (22), because of a man’s quarrel with his wife. Historians, too, are revealed as unreliable due to their personal oddities and inability to understand a historical period in all its complexity (for example, there is the historian Roberta Murphy who is especially drawn to instances of two-headed chickens in Manchester, Virginia, in her 1979 study of it, but who fails to consider the slaves’ attitude towards a period she describes as one of “peace and prosperity” (43)).

    In his own writing—clearly designated as fiction—Jones doesn’t shy away from admitting his inability to be precise (for instance, the narratives gives two different numbers for the total number of slaves on Henry’s property), but he captures the messy complexity of slaves’ and slave owners’ lives in antebellum America. Though fiction, his narrative often reads as history: attentive to dates, figures, and historical details (such as the phenomenon of passing).

    My question, then, is this: does The Known World deliberately try to complicate our understanding of the relationship between fact and fiction, history and literature? (Does it succeed?)

  4. Some titles are more loaded than others. Few more than this one: The Known World. From the very beginning of this novel we are introduced to characters in ways that define how they, personally, understand their world. Moses, for example, connects himself with the earth both gastronomically and sexually in the first 3 pages. He expects this same kind of intimacy of Elias when he suggests that Elias follows "after the mule" and sleep, so that Elias can naturally wake with the mule in the morning.

    Beneath this development of individual characters lies more universally shared, and more universally disturbing, ways of defining a 'known world'. One year of an annual slave auction is described as something nearly intolerable because of the rain. Then when "God is generous with his blessings" upon the slave auction, the weather is good. There is simply no questioning the auction itself, the buying and selling of people. The only times, early in the text, where owning people is seriously questioned are when a) the owner is a black man, and b) the owner is a white woman. It is very hard to question something that defines the entirety of your 'known world,' in the way that slavery defines the entirety of the world known by most individuals early in this book.

    The question: The first two white women (removed both by race and gender from the authors point of view) introduced are introduced in ways that remove them from participation in the world known by the rest of the characters. Elizabeth Marson (p-11) is held prisoner for months after her husband dies. Former slaves make a slave of her. At the end of this, Elizabeth "did not remember that she was supposed to be the owner. It was a long time before she could be taught that again." The "white wife" of William Robbins is not even given a name when she is introduced. She is further distanced from the world known by all the other characters when she is described--by the author--as turning beastly sour. She turned sour because, unlike all the slaves (men, women, and children alike) she was unwilling to blindly and graciously accept the world that is built entirely to cater to her husband's pleasures. His black mistress (and mother to two of his children) gets a name with her introduction (Philomena) but the introduction lasts just one sentence. It is made to seem immediately acceptable and typical in the off-hand treatment. The sourness of Robbins' white wife gets half a page, as does Elizabeth Marson. How powerful an event must take place for an individual to realize the world that they have known (for their entire life) is not ideal? Why are the characters of white women crafted to suggest that they cannot exist comfortably within the world that nearly all other characters inhabit with what appears initially to be great comfort?

  5. In comment to an incident that occurred on page 24 about Louis’ “traveling eye,” I wonder if his father’s sentiment about the child, as reflected in the passage, “Robbins was aware that a traveling eye in a boy he would have had with his white wife would have meant some kind of failing in the white boy, that he had a questionable future and could receive only so much fatherly love. But in the child whose mother was black and who had Robbins’s heart, the traveling eye served only to endear him even more to his father,” is a unique experience to Robbins’ due to the occasional “storms” he would experience, or if this was a common thinking among white men with mixed children. Given the attitudes Robbins seemed to have possessed, it seems ironic that a slave owner—one who technically owns his own child—would overlook in the mixed child of a beloved slave an imperfection that would prevent him from fully loving a white child he shared with his wife. I understand that love (or lack thereof) for the mother may complicate how the father receives the child. In the pre civil war ear, it seems likely that the imperfection of a traveling eye would be reduced to an unfortunate side effect of having a black mother, so does this imply that imperfection in a white child may be occurring without justification and therefore is less forgivable?
    I have found many of the passages of the novel dealing with Robbins and his children with Philomena interesting because this is a perspective of slavery that is not often discussed as historical fact. Though we often hear stories confirming that white men would take sexual advantage of the women they owned, we do not hear about instances of love and romance, the men caring for their racially mixed second-families, and so on. Should I be naïve enough to wonder if the sexual nature of these histories keeps them taboo or if has more to do with the stigma of racial “impurity.”

  6. So far i really like this book. I had no idea that someone could buy there own freedom or the fact that you could do reach freedom and then be sold back into slavery. I think what surprised me the most was the blacks could own slaves too. I would think some understanding between owner and slave would occur because of the same skin color. It took me off guard when I read this and I thought it was strange that this could occur but whites could not own other whites as slaves? why were the only slaves of color? and why did colored owners not sympathize with their slaves? they are of the same race, does that not create a bond between people?

  7. I was particularly struck by the bit concerning census takings on pages 22-23. The relative ease at which Travis goes about writing down inaccuracies bothered me. His "great belief that his government could read between the lines" was also rather disturbing(22). I have come to the conclusion that honesty and truth are not the same thing. Truth seems to concern facts, whereas honesty is more about emotional understandings. Is it possible for one to be honest but not truthful or truthful but not honest? How do the characters remain honest but not truthful and vice versa?

  8. “ A woman, especially a married one, is nothing without her personal servant.” (31)

    While this quote may seem clearly outdated, as if it would have no relevance to modern society, it is, in reality, an idea that has been carried to the present generation.

    Historically, domestic work and manual labor have always been considered tasks to be handled by the uneducated, or lower class. I will argue that no whether you believe it to be true or not, that idea is upheld in modern society.

    People always want to pass the “dirty work” on to others; and for the most part, people they consider less-powerful or less-human than themselves. This is apparent in so many relationships: master, slave. husband, wife. parent, child, teacher, student. Whoever has less power, is the one more likely to do the domestic or manual labor.

    Although it would be great to be able to say that the importation of human beings to do work for the “upper-class”, or the affluent, has ceased, there is proof opposing. American citizens have the ability of bringing people from other countries/ continents to be workers in their private homes. The women (or men, though rarely) are promised fare wages, and come to the country with the idea that they will be able to send money home to feed their hungry children and anoint their sick and dying parents.

    But often (most of the time) what happens is that they come to America, work endless hours taking care of others’ children, cooking, cleaning, etc. for far below minimum wage (40 cents/ hr), are often forbidden to leave the home, and are beaten regularly.

    As Americans imported Africans so many years ago, we still do the same thing today, but have simply changed the name.

    So I will ask this: when will people actually begin to learn from historical faux pas? And when will people take on the responsibilities (however basic they consider them to be) that are their own?

  9. The quote that struck me most thus far in the novel occurred after Louis, Robbins son, asked Caldonia Townsend to marry him, a girl he'd met at Fern's Elston's academy for free Negro children. He stated that although people saw him as an honest man, he'd never felt worthy of her love. "We are all worthy of one another," she replied.

    Although I have yet to finish the book, in the pages I have read thus far, I feel that this is the essence of the relationships between those in the novel. They are entangled by slavery and sexism and southern culture, but these knots between people can be untied if we realize our humanity. If we are all human, all individuals, all filled with purpose to live and love on earth, than we should all be worthy of each other. Of friendship, lovers, comradery, generosity - all that allows goodness to flow between individuals. Yet, I also question human nature at its source. If we are all essentially good, if we all deserve each other, when did the institution of slavery take root. What sort of malice or greed between people allowed us to exploit each other? Was it a misunderstanding of culture, miscommunication between languages, or the selfishness inherent in people that put American livelihood upon a pedestal and black slaves in mire?

    I guess this is a question I've been asking all year: are we more capable of good or more capable of bad? Life is a balance between joy and destruction, but is the destructive nature a part of us, to be conquered or subdued? Can people be good and violent? Can we be good and exploit each other? Can we acknowledge exploitation in our own culture and still deserve the goodness intrinsic in each other? Is their a boundary, or is their only humanity? If all we know is The Known World, should we find something within ourselves that says slavery is wrong, or do we blame it on our socialization?

    Sorry, tangent.