The novel maintains a strong focus on dynamics of racial oppression in historical contexts as a means of highlighting how institutionalized racial oppression created a lasting legacy of racial tension and violence. The novel begins the development of this theme by highlighting the extreme violence that often took place under the institution of slavery. Erasmus is empowered by this intuition to treat the slaves of Faith Plantation in brutal ways that the novel illustrates in detail. For example, Wash states in narration, “the maimings began…[a slave] tried to run away, and to make an example of him, the master had an overseer burn him alive as we watched” (6). Thus, not only did the institution of slavery cause an extreme diaspora among the African peoples, but it caused widespread death and destruction among those oppressed peoples. These descriptions emphasize the historical precedent of extreme hatred and violence towards oppressed racial demographics.
The novel goes on to highlight the fact that the technical dismantlement of such institutions does not erase racial tensions, and thus racial oppression is necessarily a social dynamic embedded within a long, persistent legacy. For example, while in Nova Scotia, Wash notes the violent oppression of free black people, even after the British Empire abolishes slavery. Wash states in narration, “There was a quiet lawlessness to it all that was often grotesque. The viciousness between the races was bracing” (190). Moreover, Wash is the victim and firsthand witness of such instances of violence. In this way, the novel emphasizes the fact that racial oppression exists even outside of legally codified institutions, and thus the dismantlement of oppressive institutions is only one step towards peace and equality in the wake of a long history of direct violence and racial oppression.
The novel also frames the destructive effects of oppression as deleterious to personal dignity and identity, in addition to personal safety. Throughout the novel, Wash must not only struggle against the physical endangerments caused by oppression, but he must also suffer the erasure of identity and agency caused by such oppression. One strong example of this dynamic is the fact that Wash receives no credit for his idea of a live marine animal exhibit. Mr. Goff essentially presents the idea as his own to scientific committees, as such committees would likely not take Wash seriously due to his race. In reference to the aquarium, Wash states, “My name, I understood, would never be known in the history of the place. It would be Goff, not a slight, disfigured black man” (253). Thus, the novel showcases the erasure of identity inherently caused by such oppression and prejudice.
Washington Black, BookRags