Saturday, December 6, 2008

Henry Townsend and Rabbi Akiva

Henry Townsend is a black slave turned slave master in Edward Jones' novel - The Known World. It's unusual for a black man to be free in America in the 1800's, let alone be an owner of slaves. In his penultimate moment, Henry is disappointed to find himself deceived, renting, uncomfortable and denied an opportunity to share feelings with his wife. It is a moment of realization - a final reckoning of sorts: His idealization of ownership of land and slaves have led him to an unexpected place.

What is one to make of Edward Jones' description of Henry's death? With Henry's life accounted for in a single disturbing moment, I am reminded of Rabbi Akiva's teaching in Pirkei Avot, 3:20 -

"...the judgment is a judgment of truth. And everything is prepared for the BANQUET."

What 'banquet' was Rabbi Akiva reffering to? I have always understood it as referring to a final reckoning, a moment where the forces that dominated a person's life are examined by truth itself. A moment, much like Henry Townsend's, where falsehood, if it is there, is exposed.

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