Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573
Early on, Rutherford Calhoun says,
I have never been able to do things half-way, and I hungered—literally hungered—for life in all its shades and hues: I was hooked on sensation, you might say, a lecher for perception and the nerve-wracking thrill, like a shot of opium, of new "experiences."
Honestly, if there has ever been a perfect quotation to illustrate the idea that one must be careful what one wishes for, this is it! Rutherford longs to experience everything, and then he gets on board this ship where he experiences all manner of horrible, strange, gut-wrenching, frightening, life-altering, heart-breaking things, and it changes him so dramatically. Though one could argue that he changes for the better, it is certainly an incredibly painful process.
Rutherford also describes his childhood with his older brother, Jackson. He says,
If you have never been hungry, you cannot know the either/or agony created by a single sorghum biscuit—either your brother gets it or you do. And if you do eat it, you know in your bones you have stolen the food straight from his mouth, there being so little for either of you. This was the daily, debilitating side of poverty that no one speaks of, the perpetual scarcity that, at every turn, makes the simplest act a moral dilemma.
Charles R. Johnson presents a pretty unflinchingly honest view of slavery. Though we do not witness Rutherford's time as a slave directly—we get it through his memories and the stories he tells—stories like this one illustrate the kinds of cruelties we may not typically think of when we think of slavery. We might picture slaves sweating in the field, doing back-breaking labor, or being whipped for some infraction of the master's rules, but to consider the mere act of eating a biscuit as a moral dilemma because of one's awareness that a meal is a zero-sum proposition is to have one's eyes opened to a less familiar aspect of the slave narrative. If I eat, you don't, and if I love you but I am also desperate to eat, then how can I make a satisfying decision? I do not wish to deny you, but I also want to live. It's an incredibly humanizing problem that renders the institution of slavery quite personal and relatable.
In regards to the Allmuseri tribe members held captive on the ship, Rutherford says,
[...] a barker told us they thought we were barbarians shipping them to America to be eaten. They saw us as savages.
Civilization is all a matter of perspective, isn't it? The white men on board would surely have called the Africans barbarians—uneducated and superstitious and savage—and yet, the Allmuseri consider the crew to be barbarians, too. To the Allmuseri, the slavers and sailors are barbaric. It isn't difficult to agree with the Allmuseri in this estimation. To this end, Ebenezer Falcon tells Rutherford that
[...] the irrefragable truth is each person in his heart believes his beliefs is best. Fact is, down deep no man's democratic. We're closet anarchists, I'd wager.
While Falcon may be a violent criminal, he does seem to be on to something here. The Africans each have their own beliefs; they aren't homogeneous, any more than the whites on the ship agree or share feelings and experiences. Everyone believes something different, wants something different, and it seems important—really invaluable—to remember this truth when trying to survive.