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Unknown 19th Century African American Portrait

“The Known World”: The Paradox of Life

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The Known World is a book I’ve been familiar with for a long time but for various reasons never read. 

I don’t like to think about the people I see everyday as the “descendants of formerly enslaved people.” We are all just people.  There are many things that are wrong with this world, but I just try to act right to the people I see everyday and let it go at that. 

I have known that there were some Black slaveholders.  I knew there were Black slaveholders in Virginia.  Why?  Because I watched the comedy “A Different World”, a spinoff of “The Cosby Show” when I was young, and there is a whole episode about it, and “A Different World” was set at a fictional HBC (Historically Black College) in Virginia. 

I get why there were Black slaveholders too: if the economy of Virginia was based on slave labor at that time, how else could you run a large farm?  Slavery existed because of labor shortages, and how in the heck were you going to hire people if there were none to hire? 

That conundrum is what A Known World is about.  It is about people’s doing the best they can in the world they are put into.  It is about how people are shaped by their world, whether for good or evil.  Usually both at the same time.

Edward Rutherford (check)has mostly published short stories.  The ones I have read are very good, it goes without saying, but they can be quite dense…which is likely another reason I subliminally avoided The Known World.

The Known World is not, to my surprise, a book that you need to work hard to read.  It is engaging right from the beginning, and the character developed is subtle and nuance, yet pulls you in.  There’s a surprising amount of action too although there is relatively little attention paid to the physical atrocities of slavery.  They are there, no question, but they are not dwelt upon. 

What is the focus, however, are the emotional toll of slavery. Was it inherently an atrocity for everyone involved, whether “master” or “slave”? Is it every possible to fully answer that question? 

If past experience is any indicator, after this post goes live there will be numerous people who will take the time to bring up rationalizations of the slave system.  I doubt many of those people will actually read this article, but I will say it here anyway: The slave system was always going to fail.  It was always a question of time.

Some people understood that and found a way to get out. Some understood it and didn’t get out.  Some bought into the whole thing. I want to say that unjust systems are always doomed to fail eventually, but maybe I’m just naïve.

Regardless, A Known World is a stunning work of fiction that also had me sitting up late (and fixing dinner late) because I had to get to the end.  Sheer genius and highly recommended.

To find out more about this wonderful book and its background, check out The Lois Level Book Club Kit for The Known World.

For other must read books on this topic, check out our reading list here!

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