On June 17th 2015, nine people were shot dead in a church in Charleston, S.C.. The shooter was a young man who claimed that he was motivated by ethnic prejudice.
Though it was first published six years ago, my reading of Gary Earl Ross’ BLACKBIRD RISING: A Novel of the American Spirit bracketed that tragic incident.
The book opens in dramatic fashion before it settles down to relate an American story of family, entrepreneurship, inventiveness, courage, and yes, racism. Set in the early years of the last century, it is the story of two brothers, the descendants of African slaves, who invent and fly an airplane before the Wright brothers.
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a work of fiction. The author does a splendid job of recreating the zeitgeist and of weaving fact into his fiction. Characters stand out in bold relief against the rich, tragic tapestry of life in the American city of Buffalo New York, in the early 1900s.
Race is destiny, trumping love, intelligence and humanity. But in spite of the bitterness, this is a determinedly hopeful novel.
Then between June 22nd and June 29th 2015, seven Southern black churches were burned. The seventh was the same church that had been burned to the ground by KKK members in 1995. According to several official reports, the fires may have been accidental, although at least three have been confirmed arsons.
So in the end, this book acquaints present reality with the historic lessons we haven’t learned.
We live in interesting times and this novel suggests that our only hope lies in the humanity of our response to the brutality we must confront.