Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
Penguin Books, New York, 1990
I own this one. It won the National Book Award in 1990.
Rutherford Calhoun is a rake, a bondsman newly freed. Having left his older brother in Illinois, he travels to New Orleans, the city just perfect for his love of excess and the exotic. He becomes a petty thief.
How I fell into this life of living off others, of being a social parisite, is a long sordid story best shortened for those who, like the Greeks, prefer to keep their violence offstage. Naturally I looked for honest work. But arriving in the city, checking the saloons and Negro bars, I found nothing. So I stole – it came as second nature to me. My master, Reverend Peleg Chandler, had noticed this stickiness of my fingers when I was a child, and a tendency I had to tell preposterous lies for the hell of it; he was convinced I was born to be hanged and did his damnedest to reeducate said fingers in finer pursuits such as good penmanship and playing the grand piano in his parlor. From pages 2/3.
In New Orleans Rutherford indulges his whims, observes the wealthy Creoles and eventually falls for a rather prim and proper school teacher from Boston. To escape marriage he stows away on the Republic, heading out into the Caribbean. At first he is not aware that this ship and her rowdy crew are on the way to Africa. The Republic is a slaver.
We learn all of this through entries in the ship’s log. The story of how Rutherford comes to write these entries is told in vivid, very funny and, at times, very disturbing language. Johnson mixes slave narrative with adventure and classic sea yarn. Middle Passage is filled with danger and humor, magic and the evil that man does. It grabbed me, and even though there are parts that made me want to stop reading I just couldn’t.
…Once the Allmuseri saw the great ship and the squalid pit that would house them sardined belly-to-buttocks in the orlop*, with its dead air and razor-teethed bilge rats, each slave forced to lie spoon-fashion on his left side to relieve the pressure against his heart – after seeing this, the Africans panicked. Believe it or not, a barker told us they thought we were barbarians shipping them to America to be eaten. They saw us as savages. In their mythology Europeans had once been members of their tribe – rulers, even, for a time – but fell into what was for these people the blackest of sins. The failure to experience the unity of all Being everywhere was the Alluseri version of Hell. And that was where we lived: purgatory. That was where we were taking them – into the madness of multiplicity- and the thought of it drove them wild. ..A women pitched her baby overboard into the waters below us. At least two men tried to follow, straining against their chains, and this sudden flurry of resistance brought out the worst in Falcon, if you can imagine that. He beat them until blood came. From pages 65/66.
Johnson is able to write scenes like this mixed with scenes of levity that make Middle Passage just bearable. The language dances, at times it is like reading jazz, all quite disturbing and quite beautiful, a American parable about how all of us came together, about a part of our history. It is well worth reading.
*Orlop – the lowest deck of a ship.