Mary Helen Washington
[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...
(The entire section is 695 words.)