(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A Chocolate Soldier is a story within a story that reveals the obsession and loneliness of Meshach Barry’s life. He narrates the history of his hero, a classmate at Gladstone College thirty-five years earlier. The novel is a nonlinear direct address narrative, flashing from the present, in which Meshach attempts to make emotional contact with his estranged daughter Carol through the act of sharing his story, to the past, in which closely alternating segments in the lives of Meshach and Cager establish the contrast between them. The tragedy of the novel is that Carol is unable to understand that her father needs to retell this story in order to come to terms with the meaning of his life. To Carol, Meshach’s interest in Cager’s life is nothing but a useless compulsion. Because Carol, Meshach’s only human connection, refuses to listen to her father’s story, he is forced to turn and speak directly to the audience.

Meshach and Cager, both from rural southern families, meet at Gladstone College, an all-black school in Valhalla, Tennessee, in the midst of World War II. Meshach has been forced by his mother to study to be a preacher. Cager is determined to escape the fate of his sharecropper father by becoming a militant black leader.

Eventually Cager’s belief that education is useless without force to support it leads him to neglect his studies in favor of training the small, all-black militia he has mustered among the townspeople. Cager is a visionary leader, but before long the other members of the group come to believe that their effort is useless, and they leave him. Disheartened by this failure and hurt by his girlfriend Flo’s brutal honesty concerning the misshapenness of his sexual organ,...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Colter, Cyrus. Interviews by Gilton Cross et al. “Fought for It and Paid Taxes, Too: Four Interviews with Cyrus Colter.” Callaloo 14 (Fall, 1991): 855-897. Four writers interview Colter on a range of topics, from his political and personal relationship with his work to the influences that have shaped his writing. Colter, a lawyer for most of his life, lists Jean-Paul Sartre, Herman Melville, James Joyce, and William Shakespeare among the literary figures who made impressions on his way of addressing literature.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Collected in Three Negro Classics. New York: Avon Books, 1965. Du Bois’s famous ideas on the education that African Americans needed to succeed. Written largely as a rebuttal to the program proposed by Booker T. Washington.

Gibbons, Reginald. “Colter’s Novelistic Contradictions.” Callaloo 14 (Fall, 1991): 898-905. Survey of Colter’s four previous works of fiction as well as A Chocolate Soldier. Gibbons traces the growing trend toward open-endedness in Colter’s short stories and novels, with a special emphasis on Colter’s use of characterization throughout his literary career.

Graham, Maryemma, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Collection of essays that together provide a comprehensive overview of the history of the African American novel; places Colter’s work in the context of thematic and formal developments of the late 1980’s.

Horvath, Brooke K. Review of A Chocolate Soldier, by Cyrus Colter. Review of Contemporary Fiction 10 (Spring, 1990): 325. Notes the many subthemes that run through Colter’s text, including the idea of the pervasiveness of pseudo-scientific social Darwinist beliefs and the interplay between self-determination and literacy.

Murray, Albert. The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture. New York: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1970. Examines issues of twentieth century African American culture, ranging from the aims of black education to the role of blues and jazz in American society to the politics and myths of the African American middle class.

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. Collected in Three Negro Classics. New York: Avon Books, 1965. The famous autobiography of the founder of the Tuskegee Institute whose ideal of autonomy through technical vocation influenced generations of African Americans.