Is Another America Possible?

By Grace Lee Boggs

Michigan Citizen, Jan. 10-16, 2010

Over the holidays I re-read The Middle Passage, the award-winning novel by Charles Johnson, the African American English professor and MacArthur genius who describes himself as "first and foremost, a writer of philosophic fiction."

I first read The Middle Passage shortly after its publication in 1990. But I got a lot more out of it this time because we are at the end of a decade during which the United States, beginning with a fraudulent presidential election in 2000, soon followed by 911, has been coming apart at the seams, raising the question of whether "Another America is possible."

The novel is the story of the apocalyptic voyage of the Republic, a slave ship carrying 40 Allmuseri tribespeople from Africa to be sold in New Orleans. Just as some of the crew members are preparing a mutiny against the mad Captain, the slaves themselves revolt and take control of the ship. Conditions worsen; the ship runs out of food and water, diseases run rampant, survivors resort to cannibalism. Then there is a terrible storm and the ship falls apart, spilling everyone into the ocean.

Fortunately a few survivors are picked up by Juno, a nearby floating casino. They include Rutherford, the young newly-emancipated African American who had stowed away on the Republic to avoid marrying the schoolteacher, Isadora; a few Allmuseri children; and Squibb, the alcoholic who has been transformed both by his work as the ship's cook and by the disaster.

On board the Juno, fortuitously, is Papa Zeringue, a black man who is one of the slave ship's owners and is intent on marrying Isadora who is also on board. However, he is thwarted by Rutherford, who, having been transformed by the catastrophe, has adopted one of the Allmuseri children, and has decided that he is ready to settle down and create a family with Isadora.

The novel thus ends in the creation of family and community, and what had been a tragedy is transformed into a comedy.

The Middle Passage was obviously inspired by Herman Melville's Moby Dick which was first published in 1851. Countless studies of Moby Dick over the years are evidence that a sea voyage is the perfect locale for imaginative writers to project their view of our society's contradictions and prospects.

The Middle Passage illuminates the profound changes that have taken place in American society in the century and a half since Moby Dick. Melville's Pequod, the whaler which was the symbol of industry in 19th America, has become the Republic, a slave ship which is only a money maker. Ahab, the one-legged captain who was obsessed with pursuing the white whale, has become Captain Falcon, a dwarf who dreams of becoming an emperor. Ishmael, the white intellectual, is now Rutherford, a newly-emancipated African American. The revolt of the Allmuseri slaves is now the catalyst which leads to catastrophe. One of the slave ship's owners is a black man, Papa Zeringue.

Moreover, even though the Republic falls apart, a few survive decide to build family and community. They are the ones, Johnson has explained, "who are capable of change."

Thus, a century and a half after Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Charles Johnson, an African American philosophic novelist, is using the story of a sea voyage to portray the United States as both Apocalypse and Creation, both the end of one epoch and the beginning of another.

The Middle Passage is an instructive example of what Johnson has described as "The End of the Black American Narrative" in his landmark 2008 American Scholar article. With the emergence of Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Barach Obama, Johnson insists, we can no longer remain stuck in the portrayal of blacks as victims which has for so long dominated the work of black novelists and historians. Our reality has become much more complex.