Interpolating Harriet Tubman: Representation of Gender and Heroism in David Bradley's The Chaneysville IncidentMaha Marouan
Moses and Old Jack are depicted in the novel as patriarchal heroes who are primarily concerned with power. They are suspicious of whites, and they view women as a threat to their masculinity. Their male-centered world is defined by fighting, hunting, fishing and drinking. But most importantly, it is defined by their ability to challenge white violence, or in Old Jack's words by being "ornery", which he defines as "how you act 'roun' white folks" (78). Old Jack instructs John on how to be "ornery," and refers to himself as "one a the orneriest bastards alive" (78). He tells John: "I'd been knowed to make fun a white folks right to their faces, which was ornery. I'd been knowed to come right out an' tell 'em to buy their butt a ticket on the express train to hell, which was surely ornery" (79). Given this framework, John's recent involvement with a white woman, Judith, sets off an alarm in Old Jack's mind. To discourage John, he tells him a long story about Josh, his close friend, who almost got lynched once by the Ku Klux Klan for courting a white woman. Old Jack's role as a storyteller positions him in the novel as a folk hero and carrier of folk wisdom. The story of Josh's near lynching, which refers to the painful realities of early 20th century America and the taboo associated with cross-racial relationships, is told by Old Jack to emphasize to John a specific image of black heroism which is defined by physical power and outwitting white men. This story covers more than twenty-five pages of the novel, and explains in extensive details the way Moses and Old Jack outwit the KKK members. Old Jack recounts to John:Those bastards was stupid. Farmers can't do nothin' in the woods at night, an' them sheets was even worse— they was all the time getting' their hems caught. I backed away real fast, an' soon as I was in the woods I left off the other three shots in the pistol to slow' em down, an' then I lit out. I coulda got shed of' em in two or three minutes, but I pulled 'em along for a good ten, lettin' em catch sight a me—they couldn't read a sign worth a damn—takin' em uphill all the damn time so they'd wind themselves good. (107)
Not only that, Old Jack also informs John that Moses "didn't leave it be" (111), he made sure afterwards that he took revenge on the men involved in the attempted lynching one by one: "Somethin' got every one of 'em. An' inside a 'bout three years wasn't none of 'em around here no more. Some moved on. 'bout half was dead" (111-2). This example shows that to Moses and Old Jack black heroism implies the ability to challenge white oppression through trickery and force when needed. Whiteness is seen as a source of violence that needs to be fought and resisted in the struggle for black male dignity. Moses Washington tells Old Jack before his death "if anything happens to me, you take that boy [John] an' teach him to hunt, an' teach him to fish, an' drink whiskey an' cuss. Teach him to track" (36).  When John returns to the Hill, his hometown, after years of absence, Old Jack tells him:Your blood's got thin from livin' inside a houses all the time, with no time in the woods. You walk funny; that's on acccounta your feet is all flattened out from standin' around on cement all the time . . . Maybe you ain't been eatin' enough fresh-kilt meat, or you been drinkin' watered whiskey, or you been messin' with the wrong kind of women. (68)
This stress on the image of the "natural" man conveys a specific notion of black masculinity that is contemptuous of the urban, intellectual male. Old Jack feels betrayed by John's choice to pursue an education and an intellectual profession as a historian, but also of his romantic involvement with Judith.
Old Jack and Moses represent a narrow example of black masculinity that is defined primarily by challenging white power. In this sense, the novel's celebration of their heroism is highly significant as it attempts to counter the image of the victim associated historically with African Americans, and subvert the power relations that have been maintained through white oppression. The standards of heroism that these black men set for themselves, is an indication that they live in a world where racial prejudice and oppression are dominant. Moses and Old Jack's racial antagonism can be understood in the light of their historical legacies and direct experiences with white oppression. However, Bradley wants the reader to question these models of masculinity and be cognizant of the fact that Moses and Old Jack act the way they do perhaps because they have no other alternatives. Indeed, Old Jack and Moses are multifaceted characters who are fully human in their contradictions and inconsistencies. While on the surface they seem to represent the ultimate heroes, ironically they are also weighed down by their historical and cultural legacy (slavery, segregation, racial crimes, racism). Their veil of power and control paradoxically hides under it a deep insecurity and fear of white oppression. Old Jack's angry reaction when John offers to take him to the hospital is a telling example:
Old Jack's extreme reaction can be understood in the light of his experiences with white violence. Moses Washington, the legendary figure and the war hero, seems cut from a similar cloth. In John's recollection, "The only time he (Moses) backed off from anything was in order to get speed. Laws local, state, federal, military, and possibly international had not stopped him, threats of incarceration and/or bodily harm had not stopped him; the weather was not about to" (18). But Moses is also the tragic hero. He shoots himself in the same spot as his grandfather C.K and the runaway slaves because he believes he will be reunited with them. His death poignantly captures the cultural and spiritual displacement experienced by African Americans in terms of their historical legacy.
Maha Marouan is an assistant professor in the department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.