Interpolating Harriet Tubman: Representation of Gender and Heroism in David Bradley's The Chaneysville IncidentMaha Marouan
Here, Bradley deals with complex models of black masculinity and creates characters who are a combination of positive and negative qualities expressing both strength and weakness. Moses and Old Jack also represent strong social values and work for the well being of the deprived black community of the Hill. Linda Jameson, one of the Hill's residents, recounts how Old Jack helped her watch over her children. She reports that: "every time one of my girls was sick he found out some way, and he come and brought whatever he thought they needed" (220). Bradley's engagement with the complexity of his black heroes is a reaction to the image associated with African Americans as angry victims who are unable to relate to each other. Bradley is aware of this perception of blackness that prevailed in the 1960s—the time he began working on The Chaneysville Incident. He points out in an interview that:The rhetoric of the time [the 1960s] was that the horrible experience of being black in America, of being poor, of being oppressed had irrevocably damaged black people to the point where they were dehumanized, incapable of love, only capable of anger, and directing it towards each other. I didn't feel that way. 
John's model of masculinity further expresses Bradley's complex representation of black masculinity. John moves beyond Old Jack's and Moses' ideas of masculinity, and forges an identity beyond the strict parameters of the "natural" man. John challenges Old Jack's and Moses' racial antagonism and misogynistic views when he gets involved with Judith. This does not mean that John dismisses Old Jack's and Moses' models of masculinity. John's experiences are inevitably informed by the experiences of his father and Old Jack. Both Moses and Old Jack allow John to explore his cultural and personal identity by presenting the necessary tools and guidance in his historical quest. Moses leaves his memoirs and historical documents for John. He becomes the link through which John becomes connected to his past and his ancestors, whereas Old Jack with his stories provides the imaginative skills and inspiration necessary for John to re-imagine his family's past and construct it into a coherent narrative. Significantly, John continues the fight against white oppression and domination, not through physical force, but by defying dominant narratives of history that attempt to suppress minority voices. Bradley also proposes the necessity of historical inquiry for John's sense of cultural and personal identity. John begins to reconstruct his past critically in a creative interaction with his family's history. He maintains that the study of history is "trying to find out where the lies are" (186), which indicates attempts to question the hierarchical divisions imposed by it, and examine the degree to which African American reality has been constructed and shaped by dominant historical narratives.
Bradley's text thus expresses an awareness of the nature of history as politically conditioned. John's imaginative construction of his past remains highly significant to African Americans' historical engagement with their unrecorded past. By questioning traditional versions of history, Bradley seeks to record the experience of slavery, but also to depict the new forms of oppression that continued to exist after the abolition of slavery, and shed light on truths that have been either suppressed or misrepresented within the mainstream history. John contends:The gaps in the stories of the famous are filled eventually; overfilled. Funeral eulogies become laudatory biography, which becomes critical biography, which becomes history, which means everyone will know the facts even if no one knows the truth. But the gaps in the stories of the unknown are never filled, never can be filled, for they are larger than data, larger than deduction, larger than induction. (48)
Here John refers to the unrecorded experiences of African Americans that have been silenced by the dominant white discourse. Thus, while these words question the authority of mainstream American history that failed to record the experiences of its black population, it also offers an alternate version through John's personal construction of his family's past. It is clear in John's last tale that Moses and Old Jack play a major part in John's historical search. He symbolically reunites with them when he evokes them in the story he tells about C.K. and the runaway slaves at the close of the narrative. This complex presentation of male heroism through Old Jack, Moses and John is an attempt to simultaneously evoke and undercut the rigidity with which black masculinity has been constructed in literary discourses.
Despite all that Bradley accomplishes in The Chaneysville Incident's powerful meditation on male heroism, his complex engagement with black men and their experiences allows women only a limited space in his narrative. Bradley's attempt to celebrate female heroism through Judith and Harriette Brewer, who Bradley models on Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, remains limited, as women exist in the novel merely as vehicles to further develop the qualities of the male heroes. While Bradley's representation of racial politics shows a subversive approach to white and black relations, in the process of creating a space for an honest interrogation of racial antagonism, gender division becomes reinforced. The reclamation of the past is mediated through a male-centered world. Even more, women become obstacles to the men's process of constructing an African American identity. Bradley's narrative allows for a suppression of female heroic figures, as the voices of all women, black and white, are given a limited space in the novel.
Women are generally defined in negative terms in the novel. There is a prevalent fear of them or any emotional dependence on them. John's mother Yvette, for instance, is described as cold, emotionless and subservient to the requirements of white society. At Moses' funeral, John describes her behavior: "she remained brisk, efficient, and dry-eyed throughout" (22). John holds her responsible for the death of his brother Bill in the Vietnam War, because she was behind his enlisting in the army. John also recalls how she tried to instill in him how to be submissive to white authority from early childhood. She tells him: "so long as you go to their [white people] schools, so long as they're teaching you what you need to learn, you have to be quiet, and careful, and respectful. Because you've got your head in the lion's mouth" (119); as she delivers this advice, John describes the look in her face as "cold, determined, almost murderous" (119). John's mother here becomes the counter-image to Old Jack. Opposite to Old Jack's "orneriness," John's mother is the epitome of acceptance of accommodation to white power.
Maha Marouan is an assistant professor in the department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.