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Saturday, November 6, 2010

November 6, 2010: A Terribly Singular Event (and a Terrific Novel)

I don’t know about you, but when I think of a coup d’etat, I think of a banana republic somewhere, a junta of generals rising up to overthrow a dictator, that kind of thing. Or I did before about a decade ago, when I first learned that we have our very own, entirely and very unfortunately forgotten home-grown coup here in America. It happened in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898; local white supremacists decided they had had enough of that whole equality for African Americans thing (such as it was, although it was at least slightly more present in Wilmington than most anywhere else in the South in those awful 1890s), and staged a political coup, overthrowing the town’s (white) mayor and leadership, expelling numerous other officials, and killing or wounding a significant percentage of the town’s large African American community in the process.
For a variety of complicated and significant reasons—the supremacists controlled the main local newspaper; most Northern papers and federal officials were a horrible combination of sympathetic to the cause of Southern white supremacy and just tired of complaints about anti-black abuses (esp. the lynching epidemic, but also Jim Crow and all its attendant effects, the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan earlier in the century, etc); very few local African Americans had any way to voice their own version of what had happened and when they did (as per the first link below) they were ignored—the event came to be known almost immediately as a race riot, and the white supremacist actions as thus a tragic but perhaps necessary response to it. But it was a coup d’etat first, and then, secondarily but even more awfully, a massacre. It’s one of the lowest moments in our nation’s history, and our ability to entirely erase it from our collective memories and narratives is both unsurprising and deeply frustrating.
That ability, after all, is why I—a Southerner by birth, a history buff from a young age, and an undergraduate American History and Literature major—hadn’t heard about the event at all until about 2002. But the reason I was able to learn about it is also the one terrific thing that came out of the massacre—Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 historical novel The Marrow of Tradition. Chesnutt, a mixed-race writer with deep roots in North Carolina (as well as Ohio—his geographical heritage as complex as his racial one), had relatives who lived through the massacre and told him about it, and it became the starting point for (and ultimately the concluding act, although by no means the only focus, of) his best novel, and one of the greatest and most important works of American literature I’ve ever read. I can’t possibly do justice to Marrow here, so I’ll just say that it is at once one of the most complex, realistic, dark, and sensitive attempts to grapple with the issues of race, history, heritage, community, and family that are at the core of much of Southern and American life and, ultimately, one of the most inspiring and moving and hopeful works I know.
We should all know a hell of a lot more about the Wilmington Massacre. And if that means we should all read Chesnutt’s novel—well, that works for me. More tomorrow, on a much more recent and yet still largely unknown moment, and the pair of complementary films that engage with it.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      A heart-wrenching, unanswered (in every sense) letter from an anonymous African American citizen of Wilmington to President McKinley:
2)      The e-text of Chesnutt’s novel (Chapter 1 includes a lot of a particular dialect voice, but if you get started and get discouraged, don’t freak out, she isn’t a constant narrator or anything, and her story in Chapter 1 is actually pretty interesting):

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