Black Historical Fiction: The Dynamic Power of Geography

Any cartographer will tell you that maps are decisions. How one draws a map reflects the cartographer’s priorities. Likewise, a series of maps can tell a story, the drawing and redrawing of boundaries suggesting a shift in political power. In historical novels, I am always struck by the geographical decisions of the author. Like a map drawn by the hand of a trained cartographer, a novel’s authorial map reveals much about the character and the story’s intentions.

When I began researching for my first novel Wench (HarperCollins, 2010), I was led into 1850s Ohio by an enigmatic footnote discovered while reading the biography of the late twentieth-century intellectual W.E.B. DuBois. It is not always clear where a curious mind will lead the historical novelist. Like historians, we enter the realm of primary sources with an open mind and a cautious optimism. I just wanted to find out a little more information about this resort where enslaved women vacationed with their owners. I was particularly fascinated by this detail because it was Ohio, a state well-known for its abolitionist views.

I’d always considered the rich terrain of Ohio to be Toni Morrison’s sacred territory. After all, the Nobel Laureate was born in Lorain, Ohio in 1939, and three of her novels are set there. I remember my first trip to Columbus to do research at the Ohio Historical Society. As I drove my rental car through vast swaths of flat land, the corn newly cut, I was filled with trepidation. Nevertheless, I entered the archive and attempted to make sense of the state’s complicated history.

Embracing the history of Ohio was not entirely foreign to me since I had always been fascinated by this period of American history — an era of national discord that led to one of the most tragic wars the nation has ever seen. Yet the scope of the transatlantic slave trade reaches far beyond North America. The massive movement of human cargo also touched South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. I marvel at the rich geographic terrain available to the historical novelist who wants to capture the stories of enslavement from around the world.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tale UK/Knopf US, 2018) imaginatively probes the vast geographies of slavery’s reach, stretching from Barbados to Virginia to the Arctic Basin to Canada to England to the Netherlands and, finally, to Morocco. Edugyan uses Wash’s movement through cities as a means of mapping the flows of power as it relates to slavery’s legacy. In the novel, Wash’s geographical location is intimately connected to his power over his own body. His move out of the Barbados and away from the plantation is the first step towards wresting control over his own life. Yet when he arrives in Norfolk, Virginia, he discovers that American laws present a different kind of danger. In the Arctic Basin, the weather is so brutal that enslavement becomes a distant concern. In Nova Scotia, even though Wash lives and moves about freely, he is haunted by his fear of capture. In England, he searches the written records of his former plantation to find what happened to the people he knew. He then travels to Amsterdam and Morocco in search of more answers.

A narrative informed by vast geographic flows such as Washington Black is filled with possibilities. For example, experiencing new places expands Wash’s intellect. He begins as a simple illustrator, but his scientific acumen develops as he travels. His artistic skill becomes shaped by the emotional depth he acquires in these new experiences. Each of his travel experiences leads to greater understanding.

Edugyan’s novel urged me to rethink how I view geography in the novel. Typically, when the writer thinks of location in a novel, we use words like “place” or “setting.” In some ways, these words are limiting. The word “place” connotes stasis — both as a singular noun or as a verb meaning to “put” something somewhere. The word “setting” suggests a similar kind of placement. It is certainly not uncommon for a historical novelist to move a character through various settings over the course of a novel. What I am suggesting is that Edugyan’s novel urges me to rethink these movements as something more kinetic and dynamic.

A character’s movement across vast distances entails encounters with histories, customs, and cultures. These encounters are inextricably linked to character development. When writers engage the power of geography, its ability to contain or propel, we understand place as a force acting upon a character or being acted upon by the character. If the protagonist does not move, perhaps geography is a kind of confinement. Or perhaps the narrative is capturing the character’s inability to move away from an emotional entanglement. If the protagonist does move, it could be interpreted as a rejection of a particular place, or as an acknowledgement that an emotional journey must occur outside of that locale.

The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade is a particularly fertile ground for these kinds of fictional explorations. In her novel-in-stories Homegoing (Knopf, 2016), Yaa Gyasi produces a rich cartography that is generational, associating geography with time. The story’s scope of more than two centuries suggests that time and space are inextricably linked. Beginning with the enslavement of an Asante woman in West Africa, the novel traces her descendants through the Middle Passage to plantations in Alabama to Harlem to California and back to Ghana. This generational movement necessarily traces multiple characters rather than the single protagonist of Edugyan’s novel. As the story moves through the branches of seven generations of Africa’s descendants, and as memories are lost and familial ties broken, the story suggests that the connective tissue for these descendants is their connection to place.

Another transatlantic slavery novel that illustrates this concept of dynamic geography is Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (HarperCollins, 2007). The story follows its main character from her village in Mali to South Carolina to New York to Nova Scotia to London. In this novel, the character’s development is both personal and political, and like Washington Black, her movement across space is a catalyst for her emotional and intellectual development. Her ability to read and write plays a significant role in her increased mobility, yet her movement is circumscribed by racial hierarchies and her desperate search to find her husband.

While traveling across vast distances does provide an opportunity for the novelist to explore the sweep of geography’s power, the transatlantic trade of human cargo is not the only literary area where one might observe the significance of geography for people of African descent. For enslaved people in the United States, maps were very difficult to come by, and possessing one could spell the difference between enslavement and freedom. Many autobiographical slave narratives tell the story of following “the North Star,” a crude method of finding one’s way north.

The title of Edward P. Jones’ prize-winning historical novel The Known World (Amistad, 2003) comes from a sixteenth-century map, and suggests from the outset that place will be central to the story. The enslaved people of this novel know very little beyond their Virginia plantation, but when Alice Night escapes to freedom in Washington DC, she creates an artistic map made from cloth, paint, and clay that represents the entire county where her former plantation was located in Virginia. Jones’ description of this “map” at the end anchors the novel’s themes about madness, freedom, and oppression. It is a powerful symbolic representation of the tyranny of place over the lives of African Americans.

Twentieth-century historical narratives featuring African Americans usually involve the policing of physical spaces. The legal system of segregation in the United States used housing laws to create neighborhoods specifically intended to keep people separated by race. Public spaces were policed by race-specific signs. Even the narrative of a 1950s road trip by African Americans in a car was circumscribed by racial hierarchies, compelling drivers to travel with The Negro Motorist Green Book. In some ways, an American highway in the 1950s could be as long of an emotional journey as the sea voyages of Edugyan’s Washington Black.

Maps have political consequences, and this has been particularly true in the West. When I was in high school in the 1980s, I remember one of my friends pointing to the map on our World History classroom wall and saying, “Africa is actually much bigger than that.” I did not understand what she meant at the time, but later, in college, I learned that it was true. Geert de Kremer, a sixteenth-century European cartographer, produced a world map that dramatically distorted Africa’s size and made it look smaller. European countries, on the other hand, looked much larger than their actual size. It is believed that his intention was not political, as his map was originally intended to be used by ship captains exploring the globe. Unfortunately, his world map became standard in classrooms in the United States in the early 1900s, and some of the map’s distortions went unacknowledged.

Novel maps also have consequences. Whether characters are moving between nations or within cities, in ships or on horseback, or even if they are remaining in one place, the cartographic decisions of the author are intimately connected to story. Sometimes historical novelists include renderings of visual maps at the beginning of the book. I used to think those maps were included merely to orient the reader to the proximity of locations mentioned within the story. Now I understand that such maps are more than that. They are an illustration of the story itself, an essential outline of the story’s contours.

About the contributor: Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a 2019 nominee for a United States Artists Fellowship. She serves on the board of the PEN Faulkner Foundation and is currently Assistant Professor in the Literature Department at American University. She will be guest of honour at HNS 2019.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 87 (February 2019)

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