Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350
In presenting a narrative from the perspective of Andrew Hawkins, who was born into slavery, Charles Johnson draws heavily on the nineteenth-century American slave narrative tradition. At the same time, in having Hawkins himself recount his many adventures using a wry, humorous tone, Johnson places the work within the picaresque tradition. As Hawkins looks back on his younger, naïve self, he calls to mind not only Voltaire’s Candide but Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, but his mature perspective also enables him to offer a sober evaluation of the insoluble dilemmas that African Americans faced during the centuries before slavery was abolished. The fact that Andrew had one white, free parent but was raised as a black slave locates him on the cusp of two of those racial dilemmas.
Johnson also locates his protagonist on numerous moral and ethical divides. In that Hawkins perhaps embodies more of these problems than any individual biracial, enslaved man might have faced, he becomes a representative of others in those multiple categories. The challenge that Johnson posed for himself was to create a character who seemed plausible enough to engage the reader’s concern, trust, and even empathy, not merely a cardboard symbol. Johnson, in fact, goes out of his way to assure the reader that he has deliberately manipulated fictional and other literary traditional approaches to representation. The title itself refers to the revised assignment that George Hawkins is given as punishment for his transgression of multiple boundaries in raping Anna Polkinghome, from house servant to herder of animals including oxen. However, as Johnson has pointed out in a set of essays on Buddhism and writing, his novel “serves as the vehicle for exploring Eastern philosophy . . .” Kakuan Shien’s twelfth-century Zen document, “Ten Oxherding Pictures,” follows a man taming an ox (which represents the ego) and in doing so, releasing his own attachment to ego. Andrew, cycling through racial and master-slave identities, arrives at a point of self-understanding that includes compassion for one’s enemy. Andrew thus can be seen to embody a Buddhist teaching, “letting go of the false, fabricated sense of self . . .”