What Slavery Does to Whites and Blacks in Edward P. Jones's "The Known World"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

32 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Introduction: Color-blind Slavery

1. What Slavery does to Whites
1.1. White Slave-owners
1.2. Non-slaveholding Whites
1.3. White Slaves
1.4. The Slave-Slaveholder Relationship

2. What Slavery does to Blacks
2.1. Black Slaveholders
2.2. Non-slaveholding Blacks p. 15
2.3. Black Slaves
2.3.1. Forms of Resistance
2.3.2. The Effects on the Family Structure

3. The Psychological Effects: Ruin for Anybody, Black or White

Conclusion: The Permeation of Every Part of Life


Introduction: Color-blind Slavery

The novel The Known World is only the second published fiction and the first novel of the author Edward P. Jones, and yet it is a tremendous success. A finalist for the National Book Award, winner of the Pulitzer Price 2004, it raised the public interest in the little-known fact of blacks owning slaves.

The question is raised if blacks owning black slaves in the highly racist slavery system in the American South of the 19th century create a different form of slavery. Or is slavery behind a thin surface in its effects colorblind, and the slave-master relationship remains the same? Why do blacks own black slaves? Is there something as the benevolent master who treats his slaves right and does them well, the kind of master Henry attempts to become? Are former slaves better masters, because they have been on both sides of the institution?

I will argue that in the Known World the system of slavery pervades all parts of life completely, for whites and blacks alike, and that it forms the blueprint and background for any personal development and social behavior. It is the only thing the members of such a society can relate to, so they play by its rules. I will depict the existence of black slave owners as a logical development and exemplify this on the constellation Henry Townsend, his parents and William Robbins form. Furthermore, I will show that slavery is highly racist but its effects colorblind.

My paper is divided in three parts. Firstly, I will discuss how slavery affects whites in the novel The Known World. In the second part I will investigate what slavery does to blacks, and in both parts I will discuss the groups of slave-owners, non-slaveholding people, and slaves. The concluding third part will show that slavery is depicted by Jones as the psychological and physical ruin of all people involved in it, black or white.

1. What Slavery does to Whites

1.1. White Slaveholders

The white slave-owners in The Known World are William Robbins, Robert Colfax, John and Winifred Skiffington, Clara Martin, the slave-speculator Darcy, and Counsel Skiffington. While Robbins, the most powerful man in the county, has 113 slaves to his name, and his neighbor Colfax also has a rather large plantation, John and Winifred Skiffington, Clara Martin, Winifred Skiffington’s cousin, and Darcy own only one single slave. Counsel Skiffington, John Skiffington’s cousin, used to own a large plantation before he lost his family and all his slaves due to smallpox.

With all these slave-owners, a very schizophrenic attitude towards their slaves and the institution of slavery can be viewed. Their whole life is dominated by the racist system of slavery: the choice of a spouse, social contacts, and friendships are restricted and regulated. Slavery and racism constitute the whole structure of their society. Although being the superior part, whites show a distorted attitude towards the slaves and free blacks in their environment: love, friendship, and the sense of family and community are highly disturbed. No healthy humanness can develop, because people owning people create fundamental confusion. Notions like friendship and love are suffused with and hindered by racist feelings and prejudices and come out wrong or distorted.

William Robbins gets to feel a kind of fatherly love for Henry Townsend, his former slave and finds it hard to sell him to his parents. Over time he grows to appreciate Henry’s intelligence and winning personality. So the price for him rises and rises, a heavy burden for Augustus and Mildred that postpones the family reunion further and further (Jones 17). After selling him into freedom, William Robbins stays in close contact with him, helps him, teaches him, and treats him like a son. Still, he had kept him as a slave and didn’t find anything wrong in it; neither while nor after does he feel any kind of regret or does he have second thoughts about the institution of slavery. He has a large plantation with many slaves of whom he doesn’t even remember the names he has given them (See Jones 16), and he participates actively in the racist system of slavery. He feels superior to the black race but loves a black woman more than his wife (so he says); he has black children and protects Henry like a father. But he is not able to keep these relationships free from hierarchical, patriarchic structures and habits. His lover Philomena only calls him by his first name after years being pregnant with his daughter, and he keeps falling back into treating her like a slave every time she wants something he doesn’t approve of. She is not allowed to leave the county and move to Richmond. When she does, he hauls her back, beating and threatening to take the children from her (Ibid 116ff). He also uses the racist framework of society to put pressure on his children and Henry and to keep them in subjection and on the path in a life he chooses for them.

John and Winifred Skiffington, the sheriff and his wife, always didn’t want slavery to be a part of their lives. (Winifred is from the North and John’s father had sworn off slavery when his wife died. God had told him to keep out of the slavery business and to leave North Carolina with his son (Ibid 33)). The couple proved to be completely helpless, and didn’t know how to handle the situation when John’s cousin Counsel gave them the little slave girl Minerva for their wedding. They couldn’t refuse the present, they didn’t want to offend Counsel and his wife, and they couldn’t sell or give her away, being afraid of her ending up with a bad master. Convinced that their home would be the best place Minerva could live, they kept her (Ibid 31f). Over time they came to view her as a kind of daughter, but still unintentionally they treated her like a slave. A very ambivalent situation emerges: when Minerva runs away years later, Winifred thinks of her as her lost daughter, but she also writes on the missing notes “will answer to the name of Minnie”. Thinking of her like a daughter but using a term fit rather for a runaway dog, Winifred exemplifies in this situation the dilemma slavery creates. The couple loves Minerva as a daughter, but ultimately do not refrain from using the master-slave power relation for their purposes. They really much rather hold her as a pet, without being aware of it. On their wedding she is presented to them like a puppy, “festooned with a blue ribbon” (Jones 31), and they continue treating her in this manner. They decide what Minerva does, where she lives, they control her whole daily life. They want her to be with them for the rest of their lives. This completely denies Minerva the development of an independent personality and a self-determined life. Minerva doesn’t feel like a daughter at all and much like a slave or prisoner, both sides of the relationship perceive the situation entirely different. One day she leaves for an errand and just never comes back and never wants to speak to Winifred again (John is already dead by this time). The Skiffingtons’s personal vow of never wanting to own any slaves seems not to be connected to a general disapproval of the whole institution or the Southern society. Being so against slavery John Skiffington still has no trouble doing his job as a deputy and later as the sheriff keeping the institution going. He almost likes to own a slave, just to prove to the community that he is a Southerner like they all are. He doesn’t want to make the impression he would be “siding with the outsiders, northern ones at that” (Ibid 34).

The list of this two-sided behavior goes on: Ralph seems to be Clara Martin’s closest companion: he is physically and personally very close to her and he is the person she spends most of her time with. But still she feels threatened by him and thinks it possible for him to betray or even kill her any minute. A rather similar situation can be viewed with the slave speculator Darcy: he treats black people disgustingly and inhumanely, but again his only companion seems to be his slave Stennis, whom he consults on a lot of issues and trusts very much.

Two “parallel societies” have developed in Manchester County, with one being disproportionately powerful, the other held artificially child- or even beastlike. Hatred, inhumanness, misconception and misunderstanding mark the relationship of the two and disable it from the start.

1.2. Non-slaveholding Whites

The non-slaveholding whites in the Known World are Anderson Frazier, a Canadian pamphlet publisher, and the nocturnal slave patrollers Barnum Kinsey and Harvey Travis, who work with the Cherokee Oden Peoples. These slave patrollers do the dirty work for an institution they seem not to benefit from or participate in. They are in a very low social position, they are “in the eyes of that world little more than a nigger” (Ibid 76). But slavery and its racial connotation keeps them from being in the lowest social position. Their skin color alone upgrades them. They are unscrupulous and dissolute, and they use the system shamelessly for financial benefits and personal satisfaction. Harvey Travis and Oden Peoples humiliate and degrade the black people they meet on their patrols, just because they can. They enjoy being in a powerful position. Oden also has an ear cutting business; he is hired by masters who don’t want to cut their slave’s ears themselves. Barnum Kinsey is different from the other two patrollers, but he is a drunk and not able to do anything about their behavior. Even when Harvey and Oden sell free Augustus Townsend unscrupulous to a slave speculator while on duty,[1] he does not stop them and reports it only weeks later.


[1] This was a common threat to free blacks (See Genovese 1976: 400)

Excerpt out of 32 pages


What Slavery Does to Whites and Blacks in Edward P. Jones's "The Known World"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (England- und Amerikastudien)
Discourses of Slavery
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ISBN (Book)
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What, Slavery, Does, Whites, Blacks, Edward, Jones, Known, World, Discourses, Slavery
Quote paper
Julia Merkel (Author), 2006, What Slavery Does to Whites and Blacks in Edward P. Jones's "The Known World", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/63381


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