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The Known World | Quotes


We are all worthy of one another.

Caldonia Townsend, Chapter 1

Caldonia says these words to Louis when he voices the fear that he is not worthy of her, though he has asked for her hand in marriage. Her statement suggests that all the people of Manchester County are bound to one another, their lives intertwined, for better or worse. Each person is potentially equal to another. While the stories they share express shifting perspectives on the core issue of slavery and its effects, all are equally worthy of being told.


Bad mother, good mother, it don't matter.

Augustus Townsend, Chapter 2

Augustus has purchased Henry's freedom and has come to take him home. Rita, who has been a surrogate mother to Henry, chases after the departing wagon, begging not to be left behind. Caring for Henry has given her bondage meaning, but that now is gone. She pleads with Augustus, saying she has been a good mother to Henry. Augustus raises his fist to heaven, telling her it doesn't matter. This is slavery. This is what it does to the enslaved. The laws and conditions dictate what happens—not behavior, not goodness, not justice.


We will be together in all of this. God stands with us.

Caldonia Townsend, Chapter 3

When Caldonia speaks to the slaves following Henry's death, she assures them that they will not be sold off but will stay with her, and God will grant them bright and joyful days. She means to comfort the slaves, but her words tell them that Henry's death will not free them, as they had hoped. It's an instance of situational irony, where reality contrasts with expectation; by stating that "God stands with us" Caldonia is suggesting that God condones their enslavement. This illustrates the corrupting influence of slavery even on a woman like Caldonia, who is essentially kind. She does not recognize how slavery has warped her humanity and sense of justice.


If you want a hard life, I will oblige.

Henry Townsend, Chapter 3

Henry says this to Elias, a runaway slave who has been caught and returned to him. As punishment Henry will order part of Elias's ear to be cut off, though Caldonia pleads with Henry to forgive Elias and "let him try one more time to do what's right." Though Henry has set out to be a "better master than any white man he [has] ever known," he doesn't understand the impossibility of creating a better world when it is still tainted by slavery. With this statement to Elias and the punishment that follows, Henry demonstrates that he is firmly invested in the institution, has restructured his values to fit, and has sacrificed his sense of justice and mercy in the process. He has forgotten what it is—what it feels like—to be enslaved.


All of us do only what the law and God tell us we can do.

Fern Elston, Chapter 4

With this statement Fern Elston tries to explain to a journalist how a black person could own slaves. Fern is a free-born black woman, educated, refined, and a teacher, yet she too participates in the institution of slavery. Though she lives as a free woman, she is not free of slavery. She lives within its social construct, which deems the practice legal and permitted by God. Her statement underscores the corrupting influence of ideas used to justify human bondage.


The law expects you to know what is master and what is slave.

William Robbins, Chapter 4

William Robbins comes upon Henry playfully wrestling with his slave, Moses. Robbins sees potential in Henry to do well as a free man but sees he does not understand the slave owner's code to which he must adhere. He sternly lectures Henry on these laws and conventions. It's a turning point for Henry, who takes the lesson to heart and forever sets himself apart from the slaves on his plantation. He knows on which side of the line between slave and master he wishes to stand.


Don't go back to Egypt after God done took you outa there.

Mildred Townsend, Chapter 4

Henry has just told his parents he has purchased his first slave. His mother, Mildred, cannot understand how this can be. Henry was born into slavery. How can he involve himself in the system that enslaved him? Her statement refers to the Bible story of Moses, who was chosen by God to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. Their exodus from Egypt eventually led the Israelites to the promised land of Canaan. Mildred equates Henry's purchase of a slave (named Moses in an instance of situational irony, where reality contrasts with expectation) to the Israelites returning to Egypt and putting themselves back into bondage.


I ain't done nothin that any white man wouldn't do. I ain't broke no law.

Henry Townsend, Chapter 4

When Henry tells his parents he has purchased a slave, they are horrified and ashamed. Henry cannot understand what he has done wrong. His statement illustrates the shift in his perspective away from the values of his parents toward those of Robbins, his mentor and former master. In his desire for wealth and status, Henry has adopted the values that will cause an irreversible break with his parents and will set him on the path to becoming a prominent slave master.


There are white men ... who ain't got nothin. ... might as well ... take what they ain't.

William Robbins, Chapter 4

This is William Robbins's advice to Henry, who is now free and has purchased land and a slave. Henry visits Robbins on the evening Augustus beats him with a walking stick for daring to own another human. Unaware of the break between father and son, Robbins confirms the course that Henry has begun to follow. This reveals a great deal about Robbins. Though a slave master, he has no animus toward people of color. He is simply working within the system, using it to achieve wealth and power—just as Henry wishes to do. Recognizing and respecting Henry's ambition and capabilities to succeed, Robbins is happy to mentor his former slave.


Only the receiver of the blow can tell you how hard it was.

Fern Elston, Chapter 6

Following Henry's death, Caldonia wonders what his slaves will have to say about him when standing before God on Judgment Day. Will they be generous? She recalls a day at school when she was 10 and her twin brother hit another child—"a baby lick," as he termed it. Fern, their teacher, gives him a slap and shakes him until he cries, and then asks, "Why are you crying, Calvin? I just gave you a baby lick." She then gently explains that only the person receiving a blow can judge how hard it is. The juxtaposition of this memory with Caldonia's musing suggests she understands that she and Henry cannot judge how cruel or kind his treatment of slaves has been. The master cannot judge this; only the slave.


You ain't free less me and the law say you free.

Harvey Travis, Chapter 6

Harvey Travis and two other patrollers have stopped Augustus as he returns home one evening. Travis demands to see the man's free papers. Augustus reminds Travis that he has been free for many years. Travis's response illustrates the vulnerability of that claim. Within the system of slavery, the master-slave relationship can be reinstated at any moment, as Travis proves when he eats Augustus's free papers—the only proof Augustus has that he is a free man. Travis then sells Augustus to Darcy, a slave trader.


My hands, my body, they fear the dirt of the field.

Fern Elston, Chapter 9

Fern has been receiving pamphlets from abolitionists, which she discusses during dinner with Caldonia and several former students. She is responding to the question of which side she would choose—master or slave—should a slave uprising occur. Fern has previously expressed sympathy for the plight of the slaves, though she herself is an owner. However, conditioned to depend on a system of human bondage, Fern fears she would have to side with the masters. This illustrates how slavery traps those it touches—distorting their sense of justice and corrupting their humanity.


My husband has built something here. ... I can't abandon that for a foreign land.

Caldonia Townsend, Chapter 9

Caldonia is speaking to her twin brother, Calvin, who has suggested that she give up the plantation with all its responsibilities and difficulties and move to the North. Caldonia might once have seen the wisdom in this as well as the righteousness of freeing all of Henry's slaves. She is, after all, a well-educated, free-born black woman. In fact Henry's father, Augustus, had once seen "a light in her that had failed in his own son born in slavery." This response reveals how completely she has lost that light over the years. She cannot imagine the people she now owns living free, and equates the idea with abandoning what Henry worked hard to build. She cannot see the inhumanity of perpetuating the system of slavery.


A body should be able to ... declare what he knows without retribution.

Barnum Kinsey, Chapter 9

Barnum Kinsey is a white patroller who witnesses the kidnapping and selling of Augustus Townsend. He has come to Sheriff Skiffington to confess what he knows. It's a move that takes courage, highlighting the injustice of a system where standing up for the rights of a slave can put a white man's life in jeopardy. Kinsey is deeply troubled by what happened to Augustus, "a free and clear man." However, fear of retribution by other whites—another toxic aspect of the system of slavery—dominates his moral sense of justice until it's too late for the sheriff to track down and save Augustus.


What I still fear ... [is] that they [will] remember ... I ... owned people of our Race.

Calvin Newman, Chapter 12

Calvin has left Manchester County to live in Washington, D.C. There he discovers a hotel run by Alice Night, Priscilla, and other runaway slaves and views two magnificent works of art made by Alice. In a letter to his twin sister, Caldonia, Calvin explains how he felt upon viewing the wall hangings that depict Manchester County and Henry Townsend's plantation. He has always been ashamed that his family owned slaves and now fears that Alice and the others will remember and shun him for his history. This suggests that the consequences of slavery are far-reaching and do not end with freedom. For slave and master alike—no matter their color or race—time and distance do not erase their scars or relieve them of guilt.

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