By Riziki Millanzi
“…she was a marvel, witness to a world I could not imagine, beyond the reach of the huts and the vicious fields of Faith.”
I am fascinated by the idea of reincarnation, how exactly it would work and what the outcome would be. Would we reborn somebody different? Would everything be new? Would my life be better? When the idea of reincarnation is raised in Washington Black, it is by the mysterious and powerful Big Kit, the only maternal figure that Edugyan’s protagonist Wash has, his protector and one of the most influential and empowering people that he ever meets. Through Big Kit, Esi Edugyan not only explores how death and reincarnation could result in freedom from slavery, but also how Big Kit herself represents a kind of reincarnation of motherhood and female power as well as its reclamation.
Big Kit is portrayed by Edugyan throughout the novel as a mysterious and tenacious figure. Wash describes her as “earthy and powerful” and as emanating a “dark, powerful presence.” He speculates that she must have been a witch in old Dahomey (Now Benin), or surely a member of the N’Nonmiton: The West African Kingdom of Dahomey’s elite force of Female warriors. Big Kit even reveals to Wash that her real name is Nawi, a nod to the last surviving member of the N’Nonmiton who died in 1979. Big Kit is a violent woman in violent times, only her violence is fuelled by love in a system and world fuelled by hate.
In Washington Black, Wash’s narrative creates a very physical portrayal of Big Kit. Edugyan pays great detail to her movements, her body and the way in which she interacts with the physical world around her. She is a ‘earthy’ woman, described as a force of nature, who uses her affinity for the world around her, the ground and nature to empower both herself and Wash. I would even argue that it is through Big Kit, and not Titch, that he learns to appreciate as well as draw power and inspiration from the world around him.
“She did not fear it. She was of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.”
When I first started to consider Big Kit’s plan to kill both herself and Wash, I became aware that I had experienced a similar moment of both hopelessness and selflessness in a novel once before. Edugyan ends the first chapter with Wash proclaiming that “It was then, I believe now, that Big Kit determined, calmly and with love, to kill herself and me,” and I was struck by how this was the same kind of selfless love which is shown by Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. What both women have in common is the staggering lengths that they are willing to go to in order to save the ones that they love from slavery and way in which both Edugyan and Morrison successfully portray their decisions to kill as a justifiable, motherly act of love, compassion and mercy.
Furthermore, both Sethe and Big Kit’s actions allow them to exercise the little agency that they have. In Washington Black, Big Kit views death as an escape; it is both freedom from slavery and a promise of rebirth. It is a chance for her to become the women she was before she was brought to Faith Plantation and to regain the power and strength that she once possessed.
“She had cared for me and cursed me and cracked my ribs and clutched me so tight in her love that I thought she might break them again.”
One of the things that I loved the most about Esi’s portrayal of Big Kit is her use of heat throughout the novel. The heat of Big Kit’s skin or the world around her becomes key in her characterisation and deciphering her complex emotions and feelings. Wash describes “feeling the heat pouring from her skin, the good living warmth of it,” and this is a warmth that we as readers come to associate with Big Kit’s motherly affections and love towards Wash. One of the only times that she is described as cold throughout the novel is after she injures his ribs and visits him in the night, riddled with regret and sadness.
Through Big Kit, Edugyan explores both the tragedy and complexity of motherhood in slavery. We never find out exactly why Big Kit was separated from Wash after his birth or why she keeps his parentage a secret. However, Big Kit is portrayed as trying to be as much of a mother to Wash as she can within the confines of slavery. Her love for Wash is vicious, forceful and unconventional, but he admires and adores her all the same. Despite not being society’s stereotypical representation of a mother, (gentle, feminine and doting) Big Kit embodies motherhood in her own unique way. Edugyan reclaims motherhood and portrays it through Big Kit as something strong, unyielding and able to surpass the separation, uncertainty and cruelty of slavery in the 19th century.
“What I knew was that a day would come when she would no longer stand to be enslaved, and on that day she would slaughter many before she carried me off to freedom.”
Washington Black provides us readers with a paradox in Big Kit. She is powerful yet powerless. She challenges traditional ideas of motherhood and common stereotypes of women within slavery. Edugyan does not shy away from the tragedy caused by slavery or the effects that it had on women such as Big Kit, who were ripped from their homelands and suffered the most horrible of journeys and fates. Instead, Esi Edugyan offers up reincarnation; a chance to explore the powerful woman that comes before oppression and tragedy, and that will despite everything, be there again after.