Cape Fear Rising
By: Phillip Gerard
John F. Blair Publisher
All encore book club reads are available at Pomegranate Books and Two Sisters Bookery for 15 percent off when mentioning the encore book club.
I admit: Upon arriving to NC, within 48 hours I faced racism in ways I thought I would not. To celebrate my new arrival, my husband took a group of us to dinner and a movie. In the theatre, a few young obnoxious men sat behind us and insisted on not only critiquing the film but carrying on rhetorical conversation with its characters. I was prepared to turn around and ask them to be quiet, but the woman next to me uttered something that stopped me in my tracks. “God—black people. They‘re all the same.” To me it didn’t matter if they were black, white or pink. I only cared that they were annoying.
It’s this idea of inequality and ignorance that author and UNCW professor Phillip Gerard underlines within his vital and critical work, “Cape Fear Rising.” Based on actual events, “Cape Fear Rising” depicts a southern city’s racial nightmare at the bend of the century. More than just a tale of racism and freedom of expression, “Cape Fear Rising” brings to the forefront an embarrassing moment in United States history when the building blocks of democracy utterly collapsed.
The climax centers around The Daily Record, known as the first “Afro-American” daily newspaper in the country. Its editor, Alex Manly, was banished from the city under a death sentence and his newspaper office burned to the ground simply because of an editorial he had written.
Not over written, the balance of character and factual events in “Cape Fear Rising” remain divine. Phillip smartly paints a dark picture of history without loosing sight of economic, societal and visceral essentials. “Cape Fear Rising” is not a mere time-stamp of events. It is a performance of art and education. It puts readers inside the angry, twisted society of 1898.
I braced myself to face criticism for picking this novel for our book club, but not a disparate voice arrived in my inbox. This in its own way prevented me from pondering how intense the process of writing “Cape Fear Rising” and the backlash for its publication must have been for Gerard. That is, until multiple club members like Jessica Staruck and Ryan Mauro demanded to know.
“This book-club pick blew my mind!” new club member D. Lacroix wrote in. “It opened a door to history so many would rather leave shut. I wondered while reading the events, if it impacted me in such an intense manner how did it influence the author while writing?”
Gerard answers: “As I researched the events. I felt sick to my stomach, overwhelmed and after three days submersed in the Wilson Library, I had to take a breather. There was anger by those who felt I had done a disservice to the town and who felt I put families around here on the spot. So many believed to let sleeping dogs lie. Speaking engagements were withdrawn, and a lot of late-night phone calls came to my house. At every reading there was someone who defended the actions of those in the book, but you know, throughout all that, no one has ever said I got the facts wrong.”
Speaking about the impact of his work and the worth of differing philosophies, he proposes a question that still haunts me. “What would Boston be like without the Adams family or the Revere family? What would Boston be like today if the same injustice occurred?”
Without a doubt, several generations of ideas would have been lost. Boston, like other major cities, would have suffered a huge injury in the way of city parks, educational systems and a collective legacy would have vanished just as it has in Wilmington. As Gerard pointed out, America is not built about ethnicity or race. It’s built upon ideas. The “empire” idea and the all important “revolution” idea. The American idea.
“This book clarifies for me what it means to be a citizen,” Gerard goes on to say. “It made me think about how powerful an individual with convictions can be against an unprincipled mob. One person can stand up and prevail. When you start to become afraid of what you say or because of violence, you have already lost. We’ve lost our sense of public courage. They censored you without lifting a finger. Its not up to everyone else, its up to you. It‘s up to you to say, this is my community and I live here!”
In the end, encore readers agree “Cape Fear Rising” reveals the importance of reaching out. It’s about latching on to equal representation and egalitarianism. The idea to brutalize someone for an unpopular or different opinion is un-American, and it‘s still happening. Being in a democracy truly is about being offended and getting disgusted, but it’s also about defeating bad ideas with a better one. “Cape Fear Rising” does have a real happy ending, and this ending is achieved through us. America is supposed to be amazingly inclusive. If we learn from our mistakes, drain our insecurities and open our doors to those unlike ourselves we can all move forward to form a more perfect union.