Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction

By Keith Byerman | Go to book overview
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Chapter Eight

Reinventions of History in
The Chaneysville Incident

The black family has been one of the most hotly debated subjects of the past forty years in both history and the social sciences. Since at least the Moynihan Report of 1964, contentions over its structure, its character, its effects, and its relationship to crime, poverty, welfare, and morality have been recurrent in both scholarship and public policy. Moynihan's initial characterization of the family as “pathological” has reappeared in many of the commentaries by neoconservatives. It has also been seen historically, especially by blacks, as a crucial institution in a nation that, for much of its existence, did not permit African American participation in the public sphere. Not surprisingly, then, family has been one of the key themes in black literature. Whether as saga in Roots or as dysfunctional patriarchy in Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor or as source of black identity and story in John Wideman, family has been central to contemporary narrative. In this and the following chapters, this theme is connected to the patterns of history, as family becomes the means of understanding the self's relationship to the past. In Wideman, David Bradley, and Leon Forrest, the complexities of blood are traced as family members are lost and found, as their stories are repressed and recovered, and as the authors and narrators attempt to construct a usable history out of the convolutions of a personal, familial, and national experience.

In The Chaneysville Incident (1981), David Bradley creates a professional writer as narrator in order to tell stories of the past. Through historian John Washington he can raise issues about contemporary intellectual activity while demonstrating the archaeological process of uncovering the hidden, suppressed, and forgotten material of African American history. In Divine Days (1992), Leon Forrest uses a fledgling playwright who collects the stories of local people as possible material for his writing. In the process, he discovers a


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Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction


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