Middle Passage was not at all what I expected it to be. I expected a historical novel about, well, the Middle Passage. Which Middle Passage is, in the most basic sense. But it’s also an adventure story, and a short-but-dense philosophical musing on race, identity and America. In the end, the best description I can think of is this: if you combined Moby-Dick with the Amistad, you would get something approximately like Middle Passage. And oh yeah, there’s an actual god too. On board ship.
This would all make more sense if I started at the beginning.
Rutherford Calhoun is a recently freed black man in 1830. (Huh, why would a formerly enslaved protagonist be named Calhoun…) He grew up in Illinois but moves to New Orleans after his manumission, to escape interpersonal issues with his brother (more on that later). He generally lives, shall we say, adventurously in New Orleans, which gets him in massive amounts of debt. Along the way he meets Isadora Bailey, and opposites attract: Isadora is proper, quite Christian, and the stereotypical spinster-in-the-making with lots of rescued cats. Rutherford loves her but just can’t stomach the thought of being “tied down.”
As they always will, Rutherford’s debts come back to bite him. He owes, unwittingly, none other than Philippe Zeringue, a black crime boss and a big fish in the New Orleans underworld. Isadora and Zeringue blackmail him: Isadora will pay off Rutherford’s debts if he marries her. So Rutherford stows away on the Republic, a slaver, and misses his own wedding. Except the Republic is far worse than what he left behind. Her captain, Ebenezer Falcon, is a paranoid narcissist. The ship is constantly on the verge of falling apart. And once they leave Africa with a cargo of slaves – and something else that Falcon is keeping secret, something that drives the cabin boy mad when he sneaks a look at it – things go from bad to worse.
As I already said, Middle Passage reminds me of Moby-Dick for a lot of reasons. These go beyond the fact that it’s a sea story with a drifting protagonist. Captain Falcon is aloof, paranoid, and maybe a bit insane. The cabin boy loses his mind. The ship has a multiracial crew, though for a very different reason.
Most like Moby-Dick, however, are the shifts in tone and long philosophical musings. You may not know this, but Moby-Dick starts out like an adventure story. You wake up with a cannibal in your bed; there’s even a chowder recipe. Once Ishmael is at sea, however, it turns into the (in)famous philosophical tome we’ve all been warned about. Middle Passage isn’t nearly that extreme – or that long – and Rutherford’s thoughts are much more focused than Ishmael’s. But we still go from a cute but awkward love story on land, to musings and horrific violence at sea (and then abruptly back to the awkward love story at the end). Also like Moby-Dick, Johnson’s prose is dense – though again, not as dense as Melville’s. It takes a bit of getting used to and can be fairly abstract at times.
So what exactly is Rutherford musing about all that time? Race. America. And what we would now refer to as “identity politics.” Much like the real thing, these are all entwined, often in contradictory and weird ways.
First some background on Johnson. While researching for this review, I came across an old article of Johnson’s in The American Scholar, “The End of the Black American Narrative.” The essence of Johnson’s argument in this piece is that black Americans need “new stories” to replace, or at least expand upon, the traditional “story” of enslavement and discrimination:
No matter which angle we use to view black people in America today, we find them to be a complex and multifaceted people who defy easy categorization. We challenge, culturally and politically, an old group narrative that fails at the beginning of this new century to capture even a fraction of our diversity and heterogeneity. My point is not that black Americans don’t have social and cultural problems in 2008. We have several nagging problems, among them poor schools and far too many black men in prison and too few in college. But these are problems based more on the inequities of class, and they appear in other groups as well. It simply is no longer the case that the essence of black American life is racial victimization and disenfranchisement, a curse and a condemnation, a destiny based on color in which the meaning of one’s life is thinghood, created even before one is born. This is not something we can assume. The specific conflict of this narrative reached its dramatic climax in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, and at the breathtaking March on Washington; its resolution arrived in 1965, the year before I graduated high school, with the Voting Rights Act. Everything since then has been a coda for almost half a century. We call this long-extended and still-ongoing anticlimax the post-civil-rights period. If the NAACP is struggling these days to recruit members of the younger generation and to redefine its mission in the 21st century – and it is struggling to do that – I think it is a good sign that the organization Du Bois led for so long is now a casualty of its own successes in the 1960s.
Yet, despite being an antique, the old black American narrative of pervasive victimization persists, denying the overwhelming evidence of change since the time of my parents and grandparents, refusing to die as doggedly as the Ptolemaic vision before Copernicus or the notion of phlogiston in the 19th century, or the deductive reasoning of the medieval schoolmen. It has become ahistorical. For a time it served us well and powerfully, yes, reminding each generation of black Americans of the historic obligations and duties and dangers they inherited and faced, but the problem with any story or idea or interpretation is that it can soon fail to fit the facts and becomes an ideology, even kitsch.
Feel dated much? Notice the year: 2008. Specifically, June 2008. This is not only pre-Obama, but pre-crash (which hit minorities harder than whites). The American Scholar spoke to Johnson again in 2016 – August 2016, so pre-election – and asked him if he still stood by the original article. With a few caveats, he essentially said yes. (And to be clear: Johnson explicitly says that, despite his desire for new narratives, he didn’t think even in 2008 that America was “post-racial,” as many white commentators claimed at the time.) I couldn’t find anything on his current thoughts, post-Trump and post-Charlottesville.
Before 2016, I would have agreed with Johnson on this. I would have 100% agreed maybe five or six years ago; by 2015 it might have been more tentative. But in any case, I can’t anymore (whatever my opinion as a white person is worth on this, which may be nothing). Many black people would never have agreed with him, before or now. Johnson clearly desperately wanted for his story to be true, and I get that. We all did. And given how intensely painful the aftermath has been even for many white people, I’m sure it’s been doubly painful for Johnson.
So how does this relate to Middle Passage? Rutherford, as a black American on a slave ship, finds himself caught between multiple identities: he has things in common with both the slaves and the white crew members. He and the Allmuseri (Johnson’s fictional African tribe) share the same skin color, and Rutherford was until recently a slave himself. But though he is attracted to certain aspects of Allmuseri culture, he is not African – as many of the slaves themselves remind him if they perceive him to be “siding” with the crew. Ironically, of course, back in America, he would be seen as radically different from those very same crew members, because he is black rather than white.
“Whose side are you on?” becomes a burning question as tensions on the Republic build. In the end, however, no “side” will fully accept Rutherford no matter what he does. Falcon, knowing the crew is on the verge of mutiny, enlists him as a spy – even as Falcon’s allies in the crew are training the ship’s dogs to attack at Rutherford’s scent. The would-be mutineers want him to sabotage Falcon, regardless of his safety. When the slaves mutiny first and take over the ship, Rutherford is nearly killed himself for trying to save the only white navigator left alive (despite the fact that killing the man would certainly doom everyone).
In the end, these conflicting identities tear the Republic apart. The whites’ slave-trading, obviously, is identity-based. But when the Allmuseri take command of the ship, they become the very thing they hated – slaughtering the crew and, in some cases, attempting to impose their culture just as oppressively as the whites imposed theirs. Falcon, meanwhile, now deposed from his position at the top, kills himself rather than help the Africans, even though it dooms his fellow whites as well. Given the ship’s name – Republic – you can guess that there is a metaphor lurking here for destructive ways America could deal (or rather, not deal) with its racial divisions. Rather than cooperate to save the ship, identity overtakes everything and the whole project, literally, sinks to the bottom. (Johnson’s short story, Menagerie, a Child’s Fable, constructs a similar thought experiment in an abandoned pet store.)
If I had read Middle Passage five or six years ago, I might have seen this metaphor – assuming I even understood it at all, which I question, given how much of a sheltered conservative evangelical I was – as a clear-cut denunciation of “liberals” and “identity politics.” See? This is what happens when you harp on grievances. That stuff was a long time ago, black people should just move on. I mean, civil rights happened!
Needless to say, I now recognize the problems with that argument. It’s true Johnson identifies a problem with identity taken too far. That’s a far cry, however, from invalidating any mention of identity whatsoever, or saying we shouldn’t address real injustice (which is what I see driving the vast majority of our current “identity politics”). More importantly, my past self’s possible reading would have completely missed one side of the equation – namely, that the Africans in Middle Passage aren’t the only people focused entirely on identity. The whites are just as guilty – and in fact caused the entire problem by dealing in slaves in the first place.
I see the same phenomenon many popular arguments against “identity politics.” There seems to be this pervasive notion that only marginalized groups (blacks, women, gays, etc.) talk about identity and use it as a political club. Well, as a former evangelical, please excuse me while I laugh my ass off. Do we really believe that, say, white American Christians never talk about identity? Because they do. All the time. Take white evangelicals, for instance. White evangelicals are absolutely obsessed with their identity. They have, in fact, gone to great lengths to create their own private identity bubble, with its own white evangelical schools, white evangelical colleges, white evangelical publishing houses, white evangelical music, and white evangelical celebrities. (This is basically what Mark Noll, a white evangelical himself, was criticizing in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.) Even white evangelicals’ language can be reasonably classified as a unique religious dialect of English. And yes, this identity is explicitly cast as a deliberate alternative to “secular culture” – meaning everyone who’s not evangelical – and yes, evangelicals self-consciously weaponize it in American politics. If this is not “identity politics,” what is it?
Continuing with the race issues, Johnson’s black characters show a full spectrum of differing reactions to their oppression. Rutherford’s reaction, since childhood, is to act out against the system by misbehavior – both at home in Illinois, and later in New Orleans by almost compulsive stealing. Rutherford’s brother Jackson is the polar opposite:
I know Jackson pondered long this dilemma: Stay in slavery to serve those closest to you or flee. Run or do your best in a bad situation. To his credit, he stayed, thereby assuring me of having some family. Other bondmen, though, saw his choice as obsequious. On occasion, I saw it that way myself. Rightly or wrongly, he thought it possible to serve his people by humbly being there when they needed him – whites too, if they weren’t too evil, and he was incapable of locking anything out of his heart. There can be, as I see it, no other way to unriddle why my brother, more than any other bondman, was generally faithful to Reverend Chandler, laying out his clothes each morning, combing his dry, brittle hair, fetching his nightly footbaths, and just as regular in the performance of his appointed tasks for the other servants, standing there by everyone’s side through family death and sickness; Jackson was a Sunday preacher in the slave quarters, the model of propriety, and had twice the patience of St. Francis. As you might guess, I was his shadow-self, the social parasite, the black picklock and worldling – in whom he saw, or said he saw, our runaway father. He was ashamed of Riley Calhoun. And of me. …
Some part of me loved my brother. Yes. But we couldn’t get along or see things the same way. If you are born on the bottom – in bondage – there are only two ways you can go: outright sedition or plodding reform. I chose the first, expressing my childhood hatred of colonization in boyish foul-ups and “accidents” (setting Peleg’s barn on fire once, breaking things, petty theft, lies, swearing, keeping bad company, forgetting to bathe, fighting, all the things “problem children” normally do), but in the context of the Old South, for a colored boy in Makanda, they were really small acts of revolt – blows against the Empire – though I was too young at the time to know them by their proper name. These things Master Chandler dismissed as youthful folly, then, later, as irredeemable parts of the “Negro character.” But Jackson went the other way: a proper Negro, he was, a churchgoing boy who matched every irresponsibility with a selfless deed as if he wanted to shame me, or subvert each bigot’s lie about blacks by providing a countertext, saying to the slaveholding world, “Not even this can make me miss a step.” If that was what being a “gentleman of color” amounted to, then I decided I wanted none of it.
Rutherford, while he never becomes Jackson, grows out of the worst of his irresponsible tendencies at sea. (And plenty of his activities at the beginning of the book do go beyond defying the system into actual irresponsibility.) The trauma of the voyage changes him completely, as he is forced to place the survival of the group – and the ship – above his personal desires and hangups. He also all but adopts an Allmuseri girl, Baleka, who loses her mother at sea. By the time he gets back to normal life, the prospect of marrying Isadora and settling down, which felt like a prison before, looks like the best thing in the world. Johnson also does an excellent job portraying the effects of trauma and Rutherford’s survivor’s guilt in the closing chapters.
Finally Zeringue, black part-owner of the Republic who has been dealing in slaves on the sly, responds to oppression by becoming part of the system – a corrupt oppressor himself. But publicly he casts his shady business as service to “the race” – and many people, in ignorance, believe him.
For some blacks back home, those who did not know the full extent of his crimes, Papa was, if not a hero, then a Race Man to be admired. His holdings were diverse (including a controlling share in the Juno, according to Isadora), and he carefully watched political changes in the country, even the smallest shifts in local government, so he could profit from them, sink a little cash into land here, a house there, which in twenty years would return his investment tenfold. Once he bought a business, he never – absolutely never – sold it back to white men, because he feared if it left black hands it might never return. Aye, for many he was a patron of the race, a man who lent money to other blacks, and sometimes backed stage plays written by Negro playwrights in New Orleans. Could evil such as his actually produce good? Could money earned from murder, lies, and slave trading be used for civic service? … Oh, Papa’s heir might occasionally complain like Peter Cringle (surely Papa would nudge him toward politics) but, like those blacks in awe of the giant Philistine, he would feel that freedom was property. Power was property. Love of race and kin was property, and if the capital in question was the lives of other colored men…well, mightn’t a few have to perish, in the progress of the race, for the good of the many?
I stated before that the ship itself is a metaphor for America. It’s made most obvious when Rutherford, homesick near the end of the Republic’s voyage, talks about America. He describes the ship itself in much the same terms earlier on.
If this weird, upside-down country called America, if this land of refugees and former indentured servants, religious heretics and half-breeds, whoresons and fugitives – this cauldron of mongrels from all points on the compass – was all I could rightly call home, then aye: I was of it.
The Republic, however, is not the only picture of America in the book. Captain Falcon is another. If the Republic, in its diversity, can speak to America’s potential, Falcon represents all its worst qualities: imperialism, might-makes-right militarism, arrogance and bigotry.
I mentioned before that Falcon is paranoid. He has good reason to be, as he’s a narcissist who treats his crew poorly. I kid you not, the first time we meet him, he is literally raping the Republic’s cabin boy. Talk about a character introduction that tells you everything you need to know. And Falcon is exploitative in plenty of other ways as well: his cabin is full of treasures from other countries, plunder (shadily obtained, of course) from his many voyages all over the world. He has disciplined himself to be almost superhumanly “self-reliant.” Most of all, he has something to prove and has never met a boundary he hasn’t pushed. He’s also almost a dwarf, so yes, there are definitely some hangups due to his stature.
More remarkable, I’d seen drawings of this gnarled little man’s face before in newspapers in New Orleans, though I never paid them much attention, or noted the name. He was famous. In point of fact, infamous. That special breed of empire builder, explorer, and imperialist that sculptors loved to elongate, El Greco-like, in city park statues until they achieved Brobdingnagian proportions. He carried, I read portraits of Pizarro and Magellan on every expedition he made.
Now…yes, I remembered those stories well. Falcon, the papers said, knew seven African coastal dialects and, in fact, could learn any new tongue in two weeks’ time. More, even, he’d proven it with Hottentot, and lived among their tribe for a month, plundering their most sacred religious shrines. He’d gone hunting for the source of the Nile, failed, but even his miscarried exploits made him raw material for myths spun in brandy and cavendish smoke in clubs along the eastern seaboard. He’d translated like Bardo Thodol – this, after stealing the only scroll from a remote temple in Tibet – and if the papers can be believed, he was a patriot whose burning passion was the manifest destiny of the United States to Americanize the entire planet. Really, I wanted to take off my hat in his presence, but I hadn’t worn one. Never mind that his sins were scarlet. He was living history. Of course, he stood only as high as my hips, and I had to fight the urge to pat him on his head, but I was, as I say, impressed.
Falcon is also a bigot, of course (he announces to Rutherford at their first meeting that he “doesn’t like Negroes” and opines that blacks only get degrees and jobs because their headmasters feel sorry for them and fear abolitionists). He also believes that slavery and war are necessities of the human condition, and truth is determined only by power:
Man is the problem, Mr. Calhoun. Not just gents, but women as well, anythin’ capable of thought. Now, why do I say such a curious thing? Study it for a spell. You’re a boy with some schoolin’, I can tell. Did it include the teaching of Ancillon, de Maistre, or Portalis? You recall each says war is divine, as much a child of the soul as music and poetry. For a self to act, it must have somethin’ to act on. A nonself – some call this Nature – that resists, thwarts the will, and vetoes the actor. May I proceed? Well, suppose that nonself is another self? What then? As long as each sees a situation differently there will be slaughter and slavery and the subordination of one to another ‘cause two notions of things never exist side by side as equals. Why not – I put it to you – if both are true? Books live together in a library, don’t they, Teresa of Avila beside Aristippus, Bacon beside Berkeley? The reason – the irrefragable truth is each person in his heart believes his beliefs is best. Fact is, down deep no man’s democratic. We’re closet anarchists, I wager. … We believe what we believe. And the final test of truth is war on foreign soil. War in your front yard. War in your bedroom. War in your own heart, if you listen too much to other people. And in each battle ‘tis the winning belief what’s true and the conqueror whose vision is veritable.
Later, after the slaves mutiny and Falcon is mortally wounded, he has a nightmare about the end of the world – which to him means the blurring of sex and race, “Hegel spewing from the mouths of Hottentots,” and, as he imagines it, the resulting chaos. As I said before, Falcon’s last act is to kill himself rather than help the slaves navigate.
Finally, about that god I mentioned at the beginning of the post. When the Republic lands in Africa, Falcon has a sealed crate, with secret contents, loaded into the hold. Later, however, he reveals to Rutherford that the crate contains the Allmuseri’s god – an omniscient shapeshifter that creates and then feeds off insanity. Capturing it is Falcon’s greatest achievement yet – and with an actual god on his hands, he could literally rule the world. Of course, Falcon dies before he can realize this plan (thank God), and the Republic sinks to the bottom. What happens to the god after that, Johnson never explains.
I’m honestly not sure if Johnson intended the god to represent anything, or if it’s just a fantastical element typical of the “sea yarn” genre. If I had to guess at a possible meaning, I would go with nuclear weapons. I don’t think that actually works all that well, though – there’s no particular reason to introduce shapeshifting and mind-reading if you just wanted to talk about nukes. So go read the book, and judge for yourself.