David Wright Faladé has been thinking about Richard Etheridge, the protagonist of his debut adult novel, Black Cloud Rising (Atlantic Monthly, Feb.), for the better part of his life. He first learned about him in the early 1990s, when he was enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University’s MFA program, as he and a fellow student, David Zoby, began researching the Pea Island station of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, a precursor to the Coast Guard.
The Pea Island station, commissioned in 1878 and located on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, was notable for being all Black, with Etheridge, a Union Army veteran, as its captain from 1880 until his death in 1900. Born into slavery on Roanoke Island in 1842, Etheridge was the first Black person to hold that position in the service.
The story of Pea Island immediately captured Faladé’s attention, both as an accidental historian and aspiring fiction writer. “It was all about family,” he says from his apartment in New York City. “Slavery comes into it. It was all these interesting pieces that, to me, resonated.”
Faladé, 57, is currently a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library, as well as a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He and Zoby published a nonfiction book about the Pea Island station, Fire on the Beach, in 2001. The book was a critical success—it was named a New Yorker Notable Selection, ranked by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as one of the best books of the year, and was made into a documentary—but Faladé hadn’t come to the end of his interest in Etheridge.
In his research, Faladé determined that Etheridge’s biological father had likely been his enslaver and that, even after the end of the Civil War, Etheridge had remained close to his former enslaver’s family. The question of Etheridge’s complex loyalties and motivations—of his interior life—was one that Faladé felt was answerable only in fiction.
“I had all this history, all these documents, for the context,” he says. “Fiction was a way to locate the personal story in that.”
Black Cloud Rising focuses on Etheridge’s time as a soldier in the Union Army’s so-called African Brigade, an outfit composed largely of recently freed enslaved men who fought under Gen. Edward Augustus Wild. Set mainly in the winter of 1863, the book chronicles the brigade’s raid through coastal North Carolina, where it works to rescue those who remained enslaved, susses out the loyalties of white citizens with respect to the Union, and wages an increasingly bloody campaign against unaffiliated rebels.
Richard, owing to his literacy and leadership abilities, earns the rank of sergeant and eventually becomes an aide-de-camp to a colonel. Though he takes pride in his growing military prestige and pursues the cause of emancipation with passion, he’s dogged by a puzzling residual attachment to his former enslaver’s family, and to the Confederate order they represent.
Early on in the book, Richard describes the Etheridge homestead as a “place that I found myself loath to see disappear—and one I’d enlisted to help destroy.” He also exchanges letters with his former enslaver’s daughter (his half sister) and worries after Patrick, a white cousin who Richard learns has joined the rebel cause.
Richard develops a similarly conflicted attitude toward the Union Army. While he admires General Wild (a real-life abolitionist zealot who calls to mind Captain Ahab, with a missing arm to match Ahab’s whalebone leg), he resents Wild’s implicit, and occasionally overt, racism. In one scene, Wild asks Richard to spell the word guerilla for a group of white locals, as if Richard’s literacy were a party trick.
Richard’s comrades also draw attention to the parallels between their former bondage and their new lives in the military. Both, after all, entail grueling labor under the direction of often patronizing and mistrustful white men.
“As a boy,” Richard’s friend Fields remarks, “I thought that freedom would be getting to rove about as I saw fit.” A sympathetic white character puts the matter more damningly: “Soldiers and slaves, their daily surrender to authority is similar.”
Faladé writes about military life from experience. Because his stepfather was in the Army, he spent some of his childhood on military bases, and for a time he considered enlisting. Instead, he pursued athletics. He played football at Carleton College and, after graduation, played and coached for various teams in London and Paris. (Faladé coauthored a young adult novel, Away Running, about a Black American football player in France, in 2016.) But football life isn’t wholly dissimilar from military life, and Faladé’s feelings about the sport are almost as complicated as Richard’s feelings about the Union Army.
“Football culture... Even at its best, it’s kind of terrible,” Faladé says. “It’s misogynist, very small-minded; it’s jingoistic.” But, he adds, the sport gave him—as soldiering gives Richard—“a certain sort of discipline and rigor.”
It was while in France, in the late 1980s, that Faladé began seriously pursuing writing, and that he took a deeper interest in Americanness and race. He briefly attended the famed École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where he studied with sociologist William Julius Wilson, whose work focuses on race and class. He also put himself on a literary diet of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Ishmael Reed.
Faladé’s reading, he says, raised “questions about American identity, about which I was getting more clarity, that I knew I wanted to explore.” For him, those questions mainly have to do with mixedness and hybridity. In Black Cloud Rising, Richard’s mixed-race heritage gives him a particular, and particularly vexing, perspective on race relations.
As fascinated by Richard’s conflict as Faladé is, he felt compelled to create a counterpoint to him—a character who is not conflicted, who understands Blackness as central to American life, and who harbors none of Richard’s perverse attraction to whiteness. That character, Revere, is the only the major figure in the book whom Faladé created out of whole cloth. Faladé understands him as a kind of double: a mirror image of Richard (Revere is also of mixed heritage) who is at the same time his political obverse. Midway through the book, Revere sums up his attitude toward Richard succinctly: “How much you hate your own black skin,” he says.
“Revere is able to reduce it to early Malcolm X–speak: the white man is the devil,” Faladé says. “Richard can’t.”
For Faladé, imagining the mind of Richard Etheridge also means exploring his limitations, his potentially self-defeating ambiguity. It also means invoking characters who possess more certainty than he does, who are willing to take a harder stance against their oppressors, and who lack his sense of contradiction.
As Revere says, “Sometimes, in order to be right, one must be infernal.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York City.