Nicole Sealey on Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage

“Any book worth its ink will make a reader think beyond his or her comfort.”
Middle Passage by Charles JohnsonI first read Charles Johnson’s historical novel Middle Passage in undergrad, at the height of my wide-eyed idealism. I knew then, as I know now, Middle Passage is an extraordinary novel that not only examines the institution of slavery, but also those who the institution enslaves. Surprisingly, everyone is for sale. True to form, everyone is a slave.
After the Allmuseri’s mutiny aboard slaving vessel the Republic, Ebenezer Falcon, the ship’s captain, readily explains the depths of the Republic’s economic exploits to Rutherford Calhoun, a stowaway turned assistant cook. Calhoun is unaware of the extent to which the business of buying and selling human beings affects all those involved. “Was Ebenezer Falcon telling me that he, at bottom, was no freer than the Africans?” Was Johnson telling me, the reader, that white slavers were no freer than enslaved Africans?

This “game of property” is as relevant now as it was in the 1800s, the century in which the novel is set, as the value of human life continues to fluctuate according to the dividends it can yield.

—Nicole Sealey

While the captives know they’re captive, the captors wrongly presume they themselves are free. The crew is, in fact, free from the physical restraints of captivity, but are they free from the economic strongholds that bind them to the Republic? The ship’s pecuniary reach extends farther than its captain, crew, and cargo. Calhoun notes, “Suddenly the ship felt insubstantial: a pawn in a larger game of property.”
Any book worth its ink will make a reader think beyond his or her comfort. Middle Passage makes me uncomfortable because therein men make beasts of themselves and others for profit—white slavers devolve into beasts, while enslaved Africans are reduced to beasts to justify their enslavement. This “game of property” is as relevant now as it was in the 1800s, the century in which the novel is set, as the value of human life continues to fluctuate according to the dividends it can yield.
Born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Apopka, Florida, Nicole Sealey is a Cave Canem graduate fellow and the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. She is the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. Her other honors include an Emerge-Surface-Be Fellowship from the Poetry Project, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award and the Poetry International Prize. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Copper Nickel, Ploughshares, Third Coast and elsewhere. Nicole holds an MLA in Africana Studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. She is the Programs Director at Cave Canem Foundation.