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DISPEL YOUR OWN IGNORANCE: Philip Gerard speaks about the 25th anniversary of writing about the 1898 riots in ‘Cape Fear Rising’

Philip Gerard’s powerful book, ‘Cape Fear Rising,’ is getting re-released for the 25th anniversary. He will read from it and sign books at the Hannah Block USO/Community Arts Center on Monday, April 29.

Philip Gerard

There are some books intrinsically linked to certain places: “Confederacy of Dunces” with New Orleans, “Tales of the City” with San Francisco, “Devil in the White City” with Chicago, and for Wilmington, NC, Philip Gerard’s “Cape Fear Rising.” Released in 1994, it blew the lid off the city with a brave retelling of the events of 1898—the only successful coup on American soil since the Revolution and a massacre of the African-American community.

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Gerard uses the real names and real locations from the event. Though many people were still living here—whose grandparents and great-grandparents remembered and participated—many were not thrilled to have the veil lifted in this moment in North Carolina history.

I recommend this book frequently as the best starting point to teach newcomers or folks unfamiliar with  1898. It showcases the sequence of events, the players and the locations clearly. Invariably, someone asks when the book came out.

“1994,” I say. “Gerard was trying to get it out of the 100-year mark—to get people talking about the events.”

I would argue it is because of his book, we discuss 1898 openly at all in our city.

Gerard’s powerful book is getting re-released for the 25th anniversary. He will read from it and sign books at the Hannah Block USO/Community Arts Center on Monday, April 29, 5:30 p.m. – 7 p.m.

Gerard was kind enough to answer encore’s questions about “Cape Fear Rising,” his experiences writing it and the impact it has since its release.

encore (e): When and how did you first learn about the events of 1898?

Philip Gerard (PG): When I moved to Wilmington from Chicago in 1989. I was appalled by the level of segregation I discovered. An African-American colleague mentioned the “riots” as a kind of underlying backstory, but nobody seemed to know much about what the term meant. So I took it upon myself to find out.

What I discovered in various archives amazed and outraged me; it was not a riot but a carefully orchestrated political coup and racial massacre. I couldn’t believe no one had written a novel about it since Charles Chesnutt. I thought the story deserved to be told in a way that examined the interior lives and motives of the white supremacist conspirators, and captured the courage and dignity of other participants, black and white.

e: Were you prepared for the reaction you got when the book came out?

PG: Not at first; I was naive. While the book was in galleys, after a member of the UNCW Board of Trustees summoned me to breakfast, to rake me over the coals about it and ask I change the names of real characters in the novel, it started to dawn on me I might be ripping a scab off a painful wound—one many did not want to talk about or even acknowledge. In the new afterword, I talk about the fact, which I learned only recently, that the trustees tried to deny me tenure and thereby effectively fire me over the book.

e: Did you expect it to get a 25th anniversary re-release?

PG: I expected by now the events of 1898 would be dusty history, interesting but not urgently relevant anymore. Then came the Klan rally in North Carolina celebrating Trump’s election … and the church massacre in Charleston … and the torchlight Nazi march in Charlottesville, which ended in murder. Suddenly, those gun-toting white supremacists of 1898 were back—better armed but spewing the same vile rhetoric, intimidating and terrorizing, cheered on by a demonstrably racist president and a ruling political party that uses the same tactics their forebearers used in the 1890s to deny the vote to black people, to win at all costs, even at the expense of democracy itself. So I asked the publisher if we could launch the book again.

It has remained in print all this time, but I felt the story needed to be foregrounded a bit, made available to a new generation of readers. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when a group of powerful white men subvert democracy.

e: What do you hope people take away from reading it? What actions would you like to see as a result of it?

PG: I want people to understand just how ugly and violent the white supremacist movement was and remains—one of the reasons the book contains two very graphic scenes of lynching. The white supremacist doctrine is cynical in its disregard for democratic and civil norms. The White Supremacist 1898 Coup is, in many ways, the foundational story of modern-day Wilmington. Yet, it seems most schoolkids and their parents have never heard of it. We largely conduct our civic business as if it never happened, yet, it set the stage for all the current challenges we face: poverty, segregated housing, school-district fights, voting rights suppression, crime. It certainly set the stage for the violence of the early 1970s, triggered by the order to desegregate schools.

In addition to the significant number of black citizens who were killed outright in the coup, 1,000 or so people, including some whites, were driven out of the city at gunpoint. This was the African-American political and cultural leadership of the city, the business people who could have created legacy wealth for their descendants. Some number came back over time, but it’s hard to even assess the damage—economic, moral, cultural, social and personal—the coup left in its wake.

I’d like us to own up to it front and center, then come up with a civic plan to redress some of the damage. Rather than hiding the events of 1898, we should make our collective response a matter of civic pride, an example to other communities in this fraught political era. We have many good people in leadership positions in the city, county and state. There’s never been a more important time to make a public, united stand against the resurgent forces of white supremacy.

e: Any advice to others considering a creative work that requires this kind of courage?

PG: This is my credo as a writer:

“I believe in the writer as a witness to evil, as a reporter of injustice, as a chronicler of human compassion, even on occasion of greatness, as one whose skills illuminate the ‘Truth’ with a capital T, without irony. I believe it is the job of the writer to put into words what is worst—and also what is best —about us. To light up our possibilities, discover the finest lives to which we can aspire, and to inspire our readers to greatness of soul and heart.”

So my advice is to be curious about things that matter. Research relentlessly to dispel your own ignorance, find out the truth as best you can, then write to discover what you have learned. Write what is in your heart. If you can, find someone who believes in you to stand by you—a loved one, a friend, an editor. Remember, if you’re not possessed by the story, if you’re not losing sleep over it, if you can’t feel the heat of the fire in your pen, you’re not doing it right.

Details:
Cape Fear Rising
Book reading and signing with Philip Gerard
Monday, April 29, 5:30 p.m.
Hannah Block USO/Community Arts Center, 120 S 2nd St.
wilmingtoncommunityarts.org

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