Everything You Need to Lead the Best Book Club discussion ever of “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
African Americans as slaveholders
Not all antebellum Black Americans were slaves. The first Africans imported to North America as forced labor were actually indentured servants: people who were contracted to work without pay for a certain period of time in order to reimburse their contract holder for their passage. The Africans differed from European indentured servants in that they were all brought against their will, when Europeans frequently (not always) volunteered to come.
It was too easy for Europeans to run away from their positions because they shared a language and a culture with society at large, and it was easy for them to blend in. Over time, the practice of indentured servitude faded away and full slavery of Africans took its place.
Even after full-on slavery evolved, there were always African Americans who were born free for various reasons or who had been able to buy their freedom. Free African Americans could and did “buy” their family members, which for various reasons might be legally freed or might retain legal status of slaves.
While many free African Americans were in the skilled trades, some bought land and started their own farms and plantations. This option makes sense if you think about it: agriculture might be the trade that they knew.
Eventually, African Americans who chose this route might need to purchase slaves because that was the labor pools. The only other option would be to hire enslaved people from other slaveholders, and of course they would not be available when the majority of work needed to be done on the farm.
Enslaved people would have found their way to freedom through a variety of means. As depicted in the novel, some enslaved people were freed because they were actually the biological offspring of their owners or because of personal relationships that they had with their owners. Men having relationships with female slaves was generally socially acceptable, (although the reverse was not), and some of these women managed to use the situation to negotiate their freedom. In other cases, enslaved people were given the means to earn money on their own, in addition to the unpaid labor they had to do for their “owners”, and were allowed to apply it toward purchasing freedom.
As depicted in the novel, KEEPING ones freedom could be another challenge, especially with the laws that required freed slaves to leave Virginia because they wouldn’t be there to support friends and relatives coming out of slavery.
2. Is Manchester County real?
In The Known World, Edward P. Jones tightly interweaves the real and the imaginary to make a believable story. Readers familiar with Virginia, particularly the counties near Richmond, will recognize many of the place names. This part of Virginia is a good choice for the setting because Richmond consistently had a large free Black community, which means the slaves would possibly be less isolated and ignorant of what was available in the outside world.
At one time, there was a town called Manchester outside of Richmond that has been overtaken by the city of Richmond. Manchester was once the county seat of Chesterfield County, which continues to be a suburban county of Richmond. At the end of The Known World, all of the counties Rutherford mentions are real counties in the area. Encyclopedia Virginia maintains a list of all of the cities, towns, and counties that ever existed in Virginia. According to its records, there has never been a Manchester County, but there is an extinct Manchester City.
Jones clearly did his research well. Having lived in Virginia is not necessary for doing good research, but Jones is from Washington D.C., which is about 90 minutes by car (in decent traffic), and he studied at the University of Virginia, which is located about 60 minutes away and due to founder Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to Virginia, is even more vested in state history than is usual for a flagship state university such as UVA.
3. Were there really African Americans who owned African American enslaved people?
Yes, absolutely there were. The most famous example is William Ellison, who died owning 60 enslaved people. In 1830 there were 3,775 black (including, mixed race) slaveholders in the South who owned a total of 12,760 slaves.
Those of you who are old enough might remember the episode of the television show A Different World (S5 E11) in which “Whitley” finds out that her ancestors owned people.
Who is Edward P. Jones?
Edward P. Jones has published three works of fiction, two short story collections and his only novel, The Known World, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.
He is from Washington D.C. and was educated in Massachusetts and at The University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which is located about halfway between Washington D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, (a two hour drive by car) the setting of The Known World. Jones’ two short story collections, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, are both set in Washington D.C.
Lost in the City is Jones’ first book, and All Aunt Hagar’s Children his third, with The Known World published in the middle. Interestingly, Jones’ two short story collections are a matched set, with each story in the former continuing a story in the latter.
Jones is currently on the faculty of George Washington University, also in Washington D.C.
More by Edward P. Jones
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Opening Questions for The Known World
Note: If the discussion falters, ask the group what they didn’t understand or what they “wondered” about. You will find out what the group is interested in.
Don’t rush the group through the questions or try to hit every single question, but don’t allow members to “take over” the discussion either. If time starts to run short, give the group a choice.
Finish on the agreed upon time so there is time for socialization after.
- Opening questions for discussion of The Known World
(Group Leader: elicit as many responses as possible)
- What do you think you would do if you were in the position of the freed persons in this novel: would you stay or would you go?
- What do you think you would have to do mentally and emotionally to handle the situation of this novel, where people interact on so many conflicting, and absurd, levels with regard to race, gender, social class, and even blood ties? The Known World depicts a society in which owners fall in love with chattel, parents literally own their children, people who look white are black, and Black people “own” other Black people.
Discussion Questions for The Known World
1. What are some of the things you find paradoxical or confusing about the situation in this story?
2. What different choices could some, or any of the characters have made to change their circumstances? Would these choices ultimately have made a difference?
3. In a tragic story, there is supposed to be a tragic hero who is “larger than life”. This character needs to have a “tragic flaw” that leads to his or her demise. In other words, there needs to be enough good there to make the audience/reader root for the here and care when the end does come. The “tragic flaw” somehow causes the death but also makes it justifiable. Do any of the characters in The Known World fit this framework? Do you care about any of them at the end, and if so, in what ways?
Closing Questions for The Known World
1. After reading this book, what does author Christina Baker Kline want you to remember?
2. What will you remember?
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