The Other Side of the Ship: Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage

[By Alysha Griffin]
In 1997, the film Amistad was released. The film retold the story of the 1839 ship rebellion in which freshly captured slaves took over the ship and the ensuing legal battle in the United States. Despite historical inaccuracies and harsh critiques of the film’s representations of black men, I credit the film for providing an accessible image of the Middle Passage. This image forces audiences to revisit the often forgotten spot in our memories.

I revisit the film with images of Charles Johnson’s novel Middle Passage fresh in mind. Though published in 1990, the images in Johnson’s novel provide an interesting alternative to images in the film by addressing slavery through humor. Middle Passage is infused with rich language, intense with imagery, and packed with provocative wit.

The use of humor as a medium through which to address slavery or “Struggles for Freedom,” the novel indirectly tells the story of the crewmembers rather than the slaves. In doing so, it forced me to reevaluate my ideas about the people who brought my ancestors from Africa to America, to reassess the “liberation struggle” of the past, and think about the ways in which writers of the present are using literature to (re)envision black history.

Middle Passage is about a free black man, Rutherford Calhoun, living in the 1830s who stows away on the slave ship, The Republic, to avoid marriage and bill collectors. In many ways, Rutherford is the traditional trickster found throughout African American literature such as the Monkey in the oral tale “Signifying Monkey,” the racially ambiguous couple in Langston Hughes short story “Who’s Passing for Who?,” and the grandfather of the unnamed narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Rutherford constantly steals and “plays the fool” to get what he wants.

One of the most provocative moments in the novel is when Rutherford finds himself caught between his shipmates’ secret plan to mutiny and an unexpected rebellion of the captive Africans, the Allmuseri tribe. Before the crew can enact their plan, however, Calhoun tells the despised Captain Falcon of his shipmates’ scheme to which he responds:

“Conflict. . .  is what it means to be conscious. Dualism is a bloody structure of the mind. Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other—there ancient twins are built into mind like the stem-piece of a merchantman. We cannot think without them, sir. . . .  They are signs of a transcendental Fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself. Mind was made for murder. Slavery, if you think this through, forcing yourself not to flinch, is the social correlate of a deeper, ontic wound.” (97)

As I read this passage, I was compelled to consider the perspective of those who participated in the subjugation of Black people. The novel raises questions as to whether or not the motives for slavery were solely and simply for monetary gain and social power.  It questions the circumstances that leads people to the subjugation of others, and consequently, illustrates the humanity of that which can easily deemed barbaric. Like the Allmuseri tribe captive aboard the ship, the crewmembers were moved to mobilize and fight. Unlike the Allmuseri, the primary struggle takes place amongst internal forces. For both groups, their struggles are battled out on the Republic
By introducing this new perspective to the system of domination, Charles Johnson uses humor to tell the story of the oppressed and also recognize the multiple struggles for liberation happening concurrently. The novel does not attempts to justify the actions of any of those involved in the institution of slavery. Instead, Middle Passage seeks to illustrate the interconnectedness amongst people and their experiences. Beyond the most superficial layer, then, it is possible, that the motivation for carrying people across the sea for a life of bondage is the result of a subjugation deep in the minds of the oppressors and the human race as a whole.

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