Twelve-year-old Moses Jackson is pushed hurriedly onto the porch of his Wilmington, North Carolina, home by his stooped old grandmother. It’s 1898, she grew up a slave and has clear insight into the omens and augurs of the spirit world, and sure doesn’t want the shadow of a crow to cross her grandson. As she feared, she doesn’t handle the job quite in time, and bad things happen to Moses and to the other black citizens of Wilmington.
In a little-known and little-appreciated chapter in American history, the duly-elected government of Wilmington, North Carolina, was overthrown by the white minority in the fall of 1898, at considerable loss of life. Democrats had just won county and statewide elections that reinforced white supremacy that November, but in the city election wasn’t to take place until the following spring. Some white citizens of Wilmington, angered by an editorial in the Record, the only black-owned newspaper in the South, took matters into their own hands.
Barbara Wright’s “Crow,” a fictionalized account of these unfortunate events, comes to us from the point of view of Moses, whose father is a reporter for the Record and an elected alderman. The point of view seems to have made the publisher Random House consider this young adult fiction, but certainly it resonates with any adult fortunate enough to take it up. The point of view also gives us a little distance from the deadly menace and hatred that find vent here, but Moses can’t stay a child for this whole story. In fact, the language, the opinions, and concerns of this boy ring so very true, and Ms. Wright’s handling of them is resounding, flawless. It’s one of the reasons to pick up this fine book.
Another reason: the fictional subtleties have to be presented by a narrator who cannot be aware of them. As the shadow of a crow passes over the Jacksons’ back yard, pointing to trouble, so does the shadow of Jim Crow stretch its pernicious darkness in the wake of the riot. Two boys from opposite sides of the racial divide, explore together in the pitch black of a tunnel after their lantern breaks. Color is invisible, trust is necessary, and friendship is possible. As with any fiction worthy of the name, the human element is here, even if its violent outlet is too ugly and threatening to countenance.
For me this book a remarkably serendipitous find. Its background events a matter of public record, Ms. Wright gives us a perfectly clear and convincing glimpse into its human cost. Don’t be fooled by the publisher’s arbitrary categorization; its readership should be wide and encompass all ages. An important story in our history, told clearly, and with a commendable and subtle intelligence.