WHAT FORMS WILL misogyny take in the 1980s? We have already seen its most obvious examples in the increase of physical attacks on women, in the cutbacks of government programs which mainly aided women, especially women with children, in the cult of the 14-year-old girl models, in horror movies where the cheap thrills are intensivied by the brutalization of vulnerable women victims, in repressive social and political legislation to curb women's freedoms. And in a recent magazine article where a number of black men writers insinuated that black women writers are more marketable than black men because their writing is no threat to white men, implying, of course, that black male writers, whose writing is more "subversive" are now suffering for their greater militancy. It is chilling to think that such sleaziness as this is about to be granted a new currency. The view that black women are not as militant as black men, not as courageously struggling against racism, that they are a little too cozy with the white male establishment is so insidious, so contemptuous of woman that one wonders what new paths have been cleared to make its open expression possible.
The Chaneysville Incident, by a black male writer, has been selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate, certainly a rare publishing accomplishment for any black writer. It is a book that was 10 years in the making. Its major theme, 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 fo 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 for 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.
The historian-narrator of the novel is John Washington, a college history professor who returns to the hills, a black community in Pennsylvania, to minister to his dying friend and mentor, Old Jack. This journey home becomes for John a re-enactment of the historical process, for he knows that the formal lessons of history he has been trained in are false and can never tell a black man what he needs to live. He returns to his black place in order to re-enter his family's past, his ancestors' pasts, his own psychic past where he hopes he will re-learn history and life. Nothing he has learned in white institutions can help him here, for history is not told in mazes of statistics, nor in explanatory footnotes, nor in lists of causes and effects; black history, particularly, cannot be found in the paternalistic accounts of white historians who might be able to calculate the number of Africans killed in the Middle Passage but would still know less about Africa than those who sing the songs based on African patterns or tell the tales that echo African tales. So Washington, a man surrounded by a world of chilling white images threatening to envelop him, to freeze him into nonexistence, goes home to engage in the act of remembering (remember in the original sense of bringing something vividly into the present) a past that has the power of fire to ward off the cold and keep him alive. In this ritual, he discovers the meanings of the lives of all his forefathers -- from his great-great-grandfather, a slave named Lock who was killed in a rebellion, to his father Moses. What he discovers in this history of slaves is not slavery but a record of heroic resistance to slavery.
John's ability to read the signs and tracks of history is not cerebral. His is not an academic task, and so he draws upon the sources of knowledge that do not come from books or schools. He has to know the messages of water, wind, fire and earth, survival skills that he learns primarily from Old Jack, who prepares him for manhood. It is a preparation so steeped in woman-hating that its final lesson is the rock-hard belief that women are basically inimical to a man's development. There on the far side of the Hill, in Old Jack's isolated cabin young John is given the following instructions to defend himself against women and against the woman in him.
"There's a lotta panty-waisted fellas runnin' around these days, get into trouble an' all they know to do is to pray to Jesus or the government -- but women's the only ones that can afford it, on accounta they know that there's gonna be a man around somewheres to haul their wagon outa the mud, and that when the whistle blows they get first crack at the lifeboats. I ain't actually sayin' it's wrong for a man to believe that, but it's damn dangerous. On accounta he can't afford it. A man can't carry hisself, folks laugh at him. The women won't have nothin' to do with him. 'Cause what they want is a man that can haul their wagon outa the mud.'"
Old Jack teaches John how to get rid of the woman in him, and from that point on we get a man's story so separate from the women in his history that we must question its validity. John sets out to find out "what a man's dying really means" even though there are plenty of dead women in his past whose living and dying are crucial to his identity. John 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 woman are only the hinges connecting one man to his male descendants, where we only know the women's lives as the 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 woman. 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 tried 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:
"John, don't you forget, don't ever forget, that white people are the ones that say what happens to you. Maybe it isn't right, but that's exactly the way it is. And so long as you're going to their school, so long as they're teaching you what you need to learn, you have to be quiet, and careful, and respectful. Because you've got your head in the lion's mouth. You understand?"
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 makings 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 knot together the last threads of John's history. In this portrait of black men and woman 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 ultimately meaning is in that unity. For me, it simply comes much much too late.