Bradley Seeks The Why Of Racism

October 07, 1990|By M. Dion Thompson

David Bradley has one burning question on his mind: Why? For the author of the 1982 PEN/Faulkner Award winner, "The Chaneysville Incident," that question is the starting point for his writing.

Lately, Mr. Bradley, 40, who was in town last week to read selections from "Chaneysville" at Goucher College, has been concentrating on the problem of that old American evil, racism. It's the subject of his current work in progress, "The Bondage Hypothesis." And his examination begins with a question.

"Why haven't we solved this problem, this racism thing?" he asked last week, sitting in a Towson tavern after his reading. "If you've created it intentionally, why can't you dismantle it? I mean, they've got guys already trying to figure out how to take down the Empire State Building when it gets too old. That's a problem that they figure they can solve. So, why can't we solve this one? The tragedy is that what [W. E. B.] DuBois said would be the problem of the 20th century is going to be the problem of the 21st. That's a certainty because we ain't going to fix it in 10 years."

The new book will be Mr. Bradley's first appearance on the book-writing scene since "The Chaneysville Incident" came out nine years ago. That novel, in which a historian searches out the truth behind the deaths of 13 runaway slaves, was published to wildly favorable reviews. It was called "a book to be reckoned with" and "a book which will have a remarkable effect on generations to come." What was remarkable, Mr. Bradley said, is that the book didn't make him rich and famous. He thought it would.

Though it survives mainly by being required reading in college courses, its publication changed the world for Mr. Bradley. Before "Chaneysville," he was an untenured writing professor, laboring in relative obscurity, writing in New York City, taking the train to Philadelphia to teach at Temple University. After the publication, the reviews, the auction of

paperback publishing rights, there was tenure at Temple University, where he teaches creative writing, as well as extensive travel, screenplays and non-fiction. But no novels.

"I'm not particularly concerned about that," he said. "It's not like I haven't been writing or I haven't been doing things that interest me."

Right now, though, he's been concentrating on the seemingly insoluble problem of racism -- the solution to which he thinks lies in changing our basic assumptions about racism.

"Let us look at this as a problem. What can we change about our approach? Throwing money at it don't work. Marching and singing don't work, gets you somewhere, don't get you all the way. What are the mechanisms of this thing? Why do we still have it? Why do we cling to it, even when it costs us money? It's interesting. I'm having a good time examining it, maybe too good a time," he said. "It's just bizarre. It's truly bizarre. It's more bizarre than class in England."

In "Bondage Hypothesis," Mr. Bradley, who looks the part of a creative writing instructor, with his full beard, balding head and wire-rimmed glasses, is approaching the subject through non-fiction, a change from "Chaneysville," which was published when he was 30 years old. Then he was primarily a novelist, comfortably plowing the fields of fiction, as he had always done. His first novel, "South Street," was published in 1975 when he was fresh out of graduate school.

"I never didn't [write], so I never thought about [why]," he said. "To me, it's like why breathe. It's what I do."

Growing up in Bedford, Pa., his childhood influences were varied, stretching from the Bible, to juvenile fiction, wanderings through the adult section of the library. But his earliest memories are of reading Robert Heinlein's science fiction.

"He had this quirky, oddball way of looking at things," said Mr. Bradley. "He would take things that everybody had sort of accepted and say: 'So? Why do we do it that way? Why do we have to do it that way, if it makes you unhappy? Why?' "

Mr. Bradley sees that impulse to question as a writer's prime responsibility, "to think things through and stay with them until you have thought them through." And in thinking things through, he finds himself puncturing a lot of myths and cherished assumptions. In "Chaneysville," he said one notion he wanted to destroy was the idea that slaves didn't fight back during slavery, that they accepted their fates without protest. In his novel, the 13 runaway slaves ask to be killed rather than be captured and returned to their masters.

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