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Interpolating Harriet Tubman: Representation of Gender and Heroism in David Bradley's The Chaneysville IncidentMaha Marouan

"A white man will scheme and plot and make plans, and expects his plans to work out, and if they don't he'll say it was God's will. But a colored man, he said, believes that this isn't the kind of world in which a colored man's plans have any kind of chance of working, and so he just does, and if it works out, then it's God's will, and if not, at least he's saved himself all the planning." [1]
—David Bradley, The Chaneysville Incident

The Chaneysville Incident (1981) is a historical novel based on a legend of thirteen runaway slaves who killed themselves to avoid being caught and returned to slavery. [2] The novel is a historical reconstruction in which David Bradley tries to provide an insight into the system of slavery and its legacy. It tells the story of John Washington, a successful African American historian and his attempt to resolve the mystery of his father's death, which is linked to the death of a group of runaway slaves who were led by his great grandfather, C.K. with the help of a woman named Harriette Brewer. C.K., who worked for the Underground Railroad, ended his life with a group of runaway slaves whom he was trying to liberate when caught by slave catchers. This discovery allows John to piece together the story of the fugitive slaves and its connection to his own family's history, and unfold the mystery of his father's death, who deliberately killed himself in the same spot as C.K. and the runaway slaves in order to reunite with them. The novel fashions a continuous dialogue with the past that is informed by the present, constantly moving between the two time frames. The present is rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s where John is currently investigating the death of his father, Moses Washington, and the past is nineteenth century America in which John traces his family's history. John's multifaceted quest allows Bradley to shed light on the African American past as well as interrogate official versions of history.

The novel starts with John, the novel's main protagonist and narrator, going back to his hometown in Pennsylvania to see his surrogate father, Old Jack, who is dying. John's return to his hometown puts him in touch with his past through memories of his talks with Old Jack, and through the notes and documents left to him by his father, Moses. The narrative's fragmented stories gradually merge into a more coherent narrative as John attempts to resolve the mystery around his father's death, its connection with the runaway slaves' death, and the significance of his findings in relation to his personal and cultural identity.

The novel's engagement with African American historical and cultural experiences is mainly mediated through a male-centered world. The voices of the novel's male heroes dominate the narrative. The exploration of black masculinity becomes equated with a marginalization of women's experiences, as they threaten the novel's celebration of male heroism. Women, black and white, are seen as obstacles to the men's process of constructing an African American identity. Judith, John's white girlfriend, and Harriette Brewer, the black woman C.K. falls in love with, and who was involved with the Underground Railroad, exist mainly to enhance the qualities of the male heroes. Harriette Brewer, who Bradley claims was inspired in his narrative by historical female figures such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, reflects the novel's sole attempt to celebrate black female heroism. No critic has commented upon the significance of Bradley's model for the character of Harriette Brewer. Tubman's heroic qualities—her physical strength, her mental resolve, her determination, the tales of her legendary trips to the South to liberate slaves and her association with the biblical Moses—all of these attributes are, disappointingly, exclusively granted to the male heroes in Bradley's novel. Although Brewer does indeed bear some affinity with Tubman in her rendering of aid to the fugitive slaves, ultimately, Bradley moves her to the background, while the male heroes entertain heroic qualities that are clearly inspired by the historical Tubman and her heroic achievements. In spite of Bradley's rather conservative approach to female heroism, the book contains a highly fluid and dialectic engagement with racial politics. Through John's relationship with Judith, the novel explores the dynamics of white and black relations in America. John's approach to his relationship to Judith is complicated, signifying an ambiguous relationship to whiteness. The novel does not offer a solution to racial antagonism, but allows for a dynamic exploration of both the limits as well as possibilities for racial reconciliation.

Bradley's celebration of black masculinity happens through the novel's four central male heroes: John, the narrator; Moses, John's father; Old Jack, John's surrogate father; and C.K., John's great grandfather. Bradley's engagement with black heroism is multifaceted, allowing for a penetrating approach to black masculinity in relation to violence, white oppression, racial antagonism and misogyny. The Chaneysville Incident is an interrogation of America's racial politics, and an investigation of the way African American males negotiate their historical, cultural and personal identities in relation to these politics.

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Maha Marouan is an assistant professor in the department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

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