Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Chaneysville Incident is an attempt by David Bradley to claim as an area of vital importance the lost histories of the black people whose story is an integral part of the cultural continuity of the United States. Much of the long African American struggle for equality has been recorded and recounted primarily in songs, tales, and fugitive journals, the only means available for people denied the opportunity for formal education. Bradley demonstrates and celebrates the vitality of this method of cultural preservation and transmission by capturing the enduring power of the storyteller as a crucial figure in the African American community. He also examines the ways in which such works might serve as models for writers who seek to create an imaginative account of events that pursues historical truth through the fusion of fiction and actual history. As Bradley observes, “the truth of the matter is that I don’t even know anymore” how to separate the two realms.

At the center of The Chaneysville Incident are three men in the Washington family, high points of a Homeric lineage running through an epic of black experience. The quest that John Washington undertakes is designed to help him to locate himself in terms of the accomplishments of his illustrious ancestors, to learn and understand their roles (and his) in a chain of historical continuity, and to set the direction of his life so that he can follow their examples. Like that of the...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Chaneysville Incident is David Bradley’s attempt to compose an epic of black American male experience, in which the hero, as in traditional epic conception, is the epitome of a struggle to define, preserve, and extoll the values and virtues of a culture. In a bold diversion from classic epic form, however, his “hero” is twofold: twice born as father and then as son, eventually becoming unified in the hero’s quest. To combat and vanquish the murderous stereotype of the ignorant black man, Bradley has composed a book whose gripping narrative is intertwined, as in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), with a kind of lore and expertise that dazzles the mind and expands the scope of the action to cosmic proportions. To challenge the slander of the black man as a figure of violence and impulsive action, his hero is a man of contemplation, reflection, and philosophical invention. To reinvigorate the powerful black myth of “soul,” his hero is akin to a figure from ballads, chants, and blues, whose humanity is universal and nonracial while his experience is specifically grounded in the customs, rituals, and patterns of the black community.

The structure of the book is controlled by language, location, and a search for knowledge which will reveal a greater or more complete self. The author’s perspective is that of the trained historian, just as the mind of the epic poem is a concentration of the voices of history; his method of composition resembles the historian’s painstaking sifting of evidence. His goal is a test of his training. Can he go beyond all he has been taught, employing the imagination to carry him to a conclusion unreachable by even the most careful and painstaking marshaling of the facts? Can he combine the accumulated technology of refined culture with an intuitive knowledge of the natural world? Can he combine two ways of knowing, or unite two separate societies, or reconcile two warring races? The meaning of Bradley’s book is that antinomies are not necessarily always polar opposites.