Forgotten Histories

I started off the week talking about allegory and Ralph Ellison, so it's only right that I spend a little time talking about a work that got pegged as a successor to Invisible Man. Written by David Bradley, The Chaneysville Incident hit bookshelves in 1981. At least one review compared it favorably to Ellison's signature work and the two of them share a feverish quality that comes from wrestling with the long-term historical effects of racism.

The book focuses on historian/college professor John Washington coming to grips with the way his family's lineage intertwines with the rural Pennsylvania town where he grew up. Coming back to tend to Old Jack Crawley, his father's ailing best friend and the man who raised him, he finds out just how much legacy he's run away from. In Old Jack's deathbed stories, John learns that his father Moses is something of a mythical trickster: a skilled woodsman, distiller of the best moonshine for miles and ladies' man extraordinaire.

Bradley shows us that the memories are always there, lying in wait for us, only waiting for us to listen for them on the wind, or to actively go hunting for them. In different time periods, John and Moses literally take off hunting after those memories, and they both come to tragic ends because of it. In the end, neither John's icy academic rigor or Moses' trickster qualities can stave off the chilling eventualities that await them. The book's unsparing in its portrayal of racial violence and shows how the behaviors we commonly associate with the Deep South weren't confined to the Mason/Dixon line.

Chaneysville channels the necromantic power of unrecovered history. It's something that Ta-Nehisi's been touching on a lot as he writes about slavery, the Civil War and the way the conflicts were remembered. It's not just the fact that the history we don't know can hurt us; there's the added danger of how we learn it and who we learn it from. The irony here is that Chaneysville's been out of print for more about 20 years and has become itself to a lost record of how black people have understood themselves.

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