[The major theme of The Chaneysville Incident], the reconstruction of black history, is large and powerful. Its scope is equally ambitious—it covers five generations in the lives of one family and that family's historical trajectory encompasses slavery, the Underground Railroad, slave rebellions, lynchings, the Negro convention movement, the political activity of free blacks and several wars. The implications and conclusions of the novel have the potential for such authority that one cannot ignore or minimize its treatment of women: for if black history reconstructs itself, and in the process re-enslaves black women—or any women—then none of its other virtues can matter very much. This problematic treatment of women is the dilemma at the heart of The Chaneysville Incident. (p. 3)
[Narrator John Washington] treats all the women of his past as wives and mothers and mistresses of his male ancestors, their main function being to bear these men's sons. Can we tolerate a history of black people in which the major event of each generation is the begetting of a first-born son, in which the women are only the hinges connecting one man to his male descendants, where we only know the women's lives as they contribute to the making of another man, in which all the proud, defiant, heroic gestures are accomplished by men?
If Washington's past is filled with shadowy women, his present is worse. The main women in the frame story, his mother Yvette and his white lover Judith, are two more exercises in depreciating women. His mother is a total despot; she manages to kill one son, John's brother Bill, by sending him off to the Vietnam War, and she tries to turn John into a "Goddammed sissy." There is nothing redeeming in her portrait. She performs the ultimate act of betrayal by trying to initiate John into a groveling submission to the white world….
Judith is an even worse character than John's treacherous mother. An inveterate whiner, she is constantly (for nearly 400 pages) trying to get John to tell her his problems, to confide in her, to trust her, to share his misery. She is engaged in her man's world so totally that we forget she is a practicing psychiatrist. In this novel she is so busy with John she hardly has time to go into the office—most of the time she is either in John's cabin or out traipsing through the woods with him in search of the answers to his life, saying things like "I'm not going to leave you alone. Unless you make me…. Unless you tell me you don't want me anymore." Then, in the manner of men, John sends Judith off so that he can be alone—and manlike—to finish taking care of the serious business of his life.
I do not know what this novel is finally trying to say about women, but it is a crucial question to be dealt with, because the people who have been trapped by fictions not of their own making must be very clear about the ones they engage in themselves. I do know that there is one moment in this 400-page novel which does reveal women honestly. When John's great-grandfather, C. K., is reunited with his lost lover Harriette, a fugitive slave, he feels the warmth flowing back into his body, draining his fatigue, easing the deep ache in his ribs. C. K. and Harriette are part of a small, desperate band of runaway slaves assembled at the end of the novel to knit together the last threads of John's history. In this portrait of black men and women sharing equally in bondage and in the resistance to bondage, sharing equally in suffering and in victory, in this community of people about to die together there is neither male nor female, there are no distinctions of class or caste, for they are all one. Perhaps this is the unity the novel is striving for, and perhaps its ultimate meaning is in that unity. For me, it simply comes much much too late. (p. 13)
Mary Helen Washington, "Black History: His Story or Hers?" in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), April 12, 1981, pp. 3, 13.