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  • White Supremacy under Fire: The Unrewarded Perspective in Edward P. Jones's The Known World
  • David Ikard (bio)

The sexually charged relationship that Clara Martin, a white widow, has with her lone slave Ralph in Edward P. Jones's The Known World (2003) will strike most readers as schizophrenic. Though she is intensely attracted to Ralph, she goes to mental and social extremes to resist acknowledging her feelings even as she continues to actively pursue him. The event that throws her into this chaotic state of resistance occurs on the first night of a three-day-long storm when, after struggling to comb her wet thick unruly hair, she consents to Ralph's compliment-laced offer to do it for her. Finding the experience both emotionally comforting and intensely erotic, Clara allows him to groom her hair again over the next two nights. When the storm ends she discontinues the grooming without explanation. Shortly thereafter, she conjures up the notion that Ralph is secretly plotting to rape and murder her. At one point, after reading a local newspaper account of a slave, out of spite, putting finely ground glass in her master's food, Clara becomes so suspicious of Ralph, who has been her cook for twenty-four years, that she abruptly stops eating the food he prepares and loses weight in the process. In addition to declining to eat his food, she has Ralph interrogated, albeit with pointed directives not to "hurt his feelings" or "say anything mean" (153), by first the slave patrollers and then John Skiffington, the sheriff of Manchester County, neither of whom finds evidence of wrongdoing. Eclipsing the unfounded need to investigate Ralph's behavior, Clara begins a nightly ritual of nailing shut her bedroom door and sleeping with two knives—one by her bedside and the other under her pillow "as close as a lover" (162). Despite her expressed fears about Ralph's motives, Clara collapses into an emotional state of panic after slavery is abolished and Ralph announces that he plans to leave Virginia and go live with his extended family in Washington, DC. The narrator reports that Clara "cried and cried" when Ralph informed her of his plans to move, entreating him like a desperate lover to remain with her in Virginia (163). [End Page 63]

Clara's white crisis is hardly unique in The Known World; it is emblematic of a salient pattern of white identity crises in the novel, afflicting white-identified groups from across class, caste, and gender lines. Neither Barnum Kinsey, the poorest white man in Manchester County, nor William Robbins, the richest, escapes this fate. White supremacist ideology—the root cause of these white identity crises—penetrates the ethnical and cultural fabric of antebellum society like secondhand smoke, contaminating the best of intentions by whites to treat African Americans humanely and even igniting white-on-white dehumanization and lethal action. Though the high stakes of legalized freedom complicate the ways that African Americans—slave and free—negotiate their agency as othered subjects within white supremacist ideology, those who seek status and economic gain within its strictures suffer similar crises and fates as their white counterparts.

Even as it is illuminating and rich, the existing scholarship on The Known World does not directly engage white supremacist ideology or the various identity crises across race, gender, and class lines it engenders. Most scholars focus on how the novel corrects, challenges, and/or rewrites the master narratives of slavery and African American struggle at large. Katherine Clay Bassard's and Susan V. Donaldson's foundational analyses reflect this trend in focus. Bassard maps the history of black slave ownership with an eye toward debunking various raced and gendered myths about African American slave owners. She uses her framework to explain why even benevolent participation in the system, such as buying relatives and loved ones out of slavery, reinforced rather than challenged status quo power relations. More specifically, she argues that former slave Augustus Townsend's acts of buying his wife Mildred and son Henry out of slavery are neither redemptive nor threatening to the white male power structure. This reality is born out in what she calls Augustus's tragic...


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pp. 63-85
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