by: Padraic C O’Neill
“This story will come out. That’s what I tell myself. Won’t be till after we’re dead and gone but we won’t really be gone cause it don’t work like that.” --Wash
It’s the early 19th century in Tennessee. One Sunday evening, a wagon returns to Richardson’s plantation in the late summer heat, carrying a young enslaved man named Wash who has been sent off to a distant place for the weekend to create a new source of income, which takes nine months to realize. Wash works as what was then called a “traveling negro.” Richardson is engaged in the process of breeding enslaved people.
Margaret Wrinkle’s debut novel, WASH, holds nothing back in its unsettling depiction of the harsh realities of American slavery. Personal narratives drive the story forward with honest accounting from both sides of the cultural divide. Tenderness arises from the depths of human brutality and the reader is left with the opportunity to call into question not only the history of slavery, but also its lingering effect on the integrity of present day American race relations.
Wrinkle was born in Birmingham, Alabama, at the height of the Civil Rights movement. She grew up in a community that struggled with race relations. Like many white children of that era, some of her earliest bonds were with the black people who were working either for her family or for the families around her. Two people in particular had a significant influence on the author’s life. Wrinkle referred to Mrs. Ida Mae Washington and Mr. Tot Goodwin as “the aristocrats of my childhood” and said, “They were incredibly psychologically sophisticated and lived with enormous integrity and grace in the face of challenging circumstances.” Reflecting on her childhood helped her realize that “the surreal thing is being in a segregated situation where you have those bonds across racial lines that aren’t supposed to be acknowledged by either side.”
While Wrinkle was enrolled in a PhD program at Yale University, Mrs. Washington died suddenly. “When she…passed away, I realized that I hadn’t really dealt with the racial landscape of my childhood, so I moved home and proceeded to cross every boundary I’d been schooled to respect.” Instead of returning to Yale, she started gathering oral histories of women who had done domestic work. “I also started spending lots of time with the Washington family in their neighborhood and came to know so many really smart children who were having trouble in school.”
Her place, she now knew, was Birmingham. “I realized that the kids I was trying to work with weren’t making it to college.” She earned a teaching certificate and began teaching middle-school students in Birmingham’s inner-city. Moving back and forth between the white and black communities in Birmingham gave Wrinkle more insight and she became interested in trying to integrate these two worlds.
“That’s where the film came in,” Wrinkle says, referring to her documentary film, broken\ground, which explores the tenor of contemporary race relations in Birmingham in the mid-1990’s. “Filmmaking allows you to edit people together into a conversation who may not normally find themselves in a conversation together…and this was a conversation that I wanted to see more of.”
The documentary features dozens of interviews with black and white men and women of all ages who speak openly and honestly about their perceptions of race relations. The film also references the history of Birmingham and the Civil Rights movement through archival footage of decades past. The editing process offered through film, Wrinkle says, “allows you to place people from very different realities on equal footing, and this can be a transformative process.”
As a seventh-generation southerner and a descendant of slaveholding ancestors, Wrinkle knew there was more to explore. Eventually a rumor cropped up suggesting that one of Wrinkle’s ancestors may have bred enslaved people. The possibility inspired her to renew her research into the history of slavery in the American South. “I think at first I needed to know whether this ancestor had participated in this practice” and, if so, “what that connection might mean to me.” Though she never found proof of this allegation, she learned that slave breeding was quite real and she “felt that it needed to be explored.”
“So many white southerners feel conflicted about their ancestors’ involvement in slavery. They tend to either demonize them, lionize them, or try to forget all about them.” Nevertheless, it’s a conversation that ought to take place. “I feel that it’s much more unnatural not to talk about it than to talk about it,” Wrinkle says, adding, “It’s just what happened.”
At its core, “WASH” is an attempt to reckon with a past that pitted two cultures against each other. The novel aims to express what existed then, but also drives towards what is still happening today. “Many of the dynamics that were operative in slavery are still operative,” Wrinkle says, adding, “Much of what’s happening now has its roots in what happened then.”
So, in a sense, the novel is about the history of slavery during a particular period, but also about the present day. It is an effort to understand the differences between the two cultures, which have perhaps blurred in the past 150 years, but still exist in the depths of tradition.
“Many of us tend to underestimate the fact of how different traditional African culture was from the modernizing West, when they came together in the crucible of slavery.” Wrinkle suspects that “these differences are still alive and contribute to our misunderstandings of each other today.”
Indeed, one of the most interesting insights the book offers is a candid look into West African spiritual traditions. Wrinkle describes this paradigm as “a non-linear way of being that tends to be more mystical” and contrasts it with the modern European viewpoint, which “tends to be more linear and secular, with an emphasis on chronological time.”
“In the traditional African view, as I understand it,” Wrinkle says, “the dead and the living are in a reciprocal relationship, the ancestors remain available to the living, and they want to be involved with the living.” But the practice of calling upon one’s ancestors is an intentional one. “They have to be asked.”
In the novel, one moment of spirituality is portrayed with startling detail. A West African metal smith named Rufus is described as putting his whole mind into his prayers. “He calls up his spirits and they come to him. Swirling up through his feet and legs, running along his spine to spread across his shoulders like a mantle, shimmering warm at the crown of his head before pouring down his arms and out through his hands,” (WASH, 133). While in the midst of this potent ceremony, Rufus is captured by slave traders. The scene is an amalgamation of visceral and intellectual energies that leaves the reader wanting more insight into the spirituality of indigenous cultures.
Wrinkle learned about West African spirituality through anthropological research and through participation in ceremony. She realized in the process of writing the book that when one calls upon one’s ancestral spirits that “it’s not just the good things that the ancestors want to share. It’s their mistakes and their failings and their sins that they want give us as well.” The heart-wrenching honesty of the personal narratives throughout the novel takes sure aim at the mistakes and failings of the characters. The importance, Wrinkle says, is that “if we can’t learn from [our ancestors’ past failures] then their suffering is wasted…and so we need to really reckon with what they went through and what they did.”
Creating the voice of Richardson to present the complete picture of a man who owned slaves and who used Wash as his breeding sire was no easy task for Wrinkle. But “amputating parts of the story is not the answer,” she says. “It was challenging to write as Richardson because I felt like there had to be some of the harsh truth of that life and that viewpoint.” Accepting the bitter parts of life and then working to integrate one’s personal struggles is a step that precedes that same process on the larger societal scale. The poignant look into Richardson, for instance, lends the novel a powerful commentary on larger, contemporary cultural issues. “It’s important that we all deal with our capacity to abuse our power and I think a lot of people are not as up front as they could be about how easy that is for all of us to do.”