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

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While the critics mentioned focus on the significance of John's act of burning, it is important to note that the ritual of burning takes place outside Old Jack's cabin, when the natural setting for John's possible suicide would have been Chaneysville's graveyard where his father and great grandfather ended their lives. After all, Moses blindly followed up on C.K's steps and imitated everything C.K did, including ending his life in the same spot. John's refusal to follow his father's steps is symbolic of his rupture with his father's deterministic attitude towards his family's history. By allowing the ritual to happen in Old Jack's cabin, Bradley is—as Egan suggests—celebrating John's new identity as a storyteller. [11] John is following the tradition of his surrogate father, and marking a rupture with his biological father's rigid historical methods and approach to his historical legacy. While C.K.'s death was an act of defiance and resistance to the institution of slavery, Moses' death remains questionable and hard to comprehend in terms of it being an act of resistance. John's ability to break from his father's determinism also shows his desire to move beyond his biological family's tradition and link his personal history to the history of all African Americans. In this regard, it is important to remember that John's act of storytelling is inspired by Old Jack's folk tradition; Yet, John goes one step further than Old Jack by also using his knowledge of archival and factual history to inform his understanding and reconstruction of his past. Indeed he may be moving towards a healthier relationship with his legacy precisely through his synthesis of folk and academic modes of historical knowledge.

John's last tale also expresses an openness and acceptance of female heroism. At the close of the narrative Harriette Brewer turns into a figure of liberation who stands hand in hand with the male heroes in their struggle and resistance to slavery. [12] As John recreates the scene in his mind, she gives C.K the courage to lead the fugitive slaves' mass suicide. John tells Judith:

For a moment he [C.K] was not sure that he could lead them (the runaway slaves), was not sure that they would follow, but then he saw Harriette Brewer take her knife from beneath her shawl and hold it high, and then he heard her, heard her singing softly, then louder, heard the others join in. (430)

Harriette becomes in John's story a source of inspiration to C.K. However, while this shows Bradley's attempt to celebrate womanhood, the role of female figures again remains essentially peripheral. Like Judith, Harriette exists primarily to advance a male character's identity change and development.

The representation of Harriette also illustrates Bradley's limited representation of female heroism in yet another crucial way. Harriette Brewer, who works for the Underground Railroad, bears a close affinity with the historical Harriet Tubman, the famous Underground Railroad conductor who was known as "Moses." [13] The significance of Bradley's model for the character of Harriette impacts upon the representation of African American history in this complex text, particularly in relation to models of male and female heroism. Bradley is evoking Tubman as an African American female liberator in his construction of Harriette by self-consciously interweaving historical reality with literary imagination. [14] He reports in an interview that he intended to create a strong female character through Harriette Brewer who was inspired by strong female historical figures like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. He contends that "Harriette Brewer leads a group of people a thousand miles across slave territory. I consider that pretty strong. She's the one who gives C.K. Washington the courage to do what has to be done." [15]

To understand Bradley's construction of female heroism it is instructive to explore the way Harriette Brewer is presented in the novel. She is depicted in feminine and exotic terms. Bradley introduces her as a mulatto; John tells Judith: "When C.K met her (Harriette) she was . . . as beautiful as her mother must have been" (355), which stands in high contrast with the historical figure of Tubman who was very dark, and usually depicted in masculine terms. [16] Nies comments that "there seemed to be no way to describe her (Tubman) except to compare her to a man" due to her exceptional courage that challenges the traditional definition of womanhood. [17] John Brown, with whom Tubman worked, referred to her as "he." In a letter to his son he writes: "He (Harriet) is the most of a man naturally that I ever met with." [18] In this light, Bradley's feminine portrayal of Harriette Brewer can be seen as a reaction to the masculine representation of Tubman.

It is possible that Bradley wanted to celebrate female heroism in feminine terms, thus defying the stereotypical association of female heroes with men. Nevertheless, the celebration of Harriette's heroism through parallels with Tubman remains questionable. Paradoxically, one can sense the powerful presence of Tubman in Bradley's portrayal of his male heroes more than in the character of Harriette Brewer. Tubman's heroism surely inspires Bradley's construction of his male characters, especially the accounts of C.K.'s trips to the South to free slaves, which echoes the historical Harriet Tubman's own successful missions. [19] Bradley writes that C.K. freed 200 slaves (358), where Harriet Tubman rescued approximately 300. He also states that by "1852 rewards were posted for C.K. in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi" (358), and, similarly, by the 1850s rewards were being posted for Tubman. [20] Tubman's unconventional approach to religion also mirrors that of Moses Washington who does not believe in institutionalized religion, and remains critical of the church. Most importantly, in Bradley's novel C.K.'s attitude towards slavery, and his choice to die rather than live under bondage echoes Harriet Tubman's radical opposition to slavery: "There was one of two things I had a right to, Liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have de oder; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when de time came for me to go, de Lord would let dem take me." [21] The spirit of Tubman's words lie at the core of Bradley's novel, a text that is fundamentally concerned with subverting the myth of slave passivity, and rewriting a narrative of resistance to slavery.

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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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