Flight as metaphor in Ross's "Blackbird Rising"
No single episode in Buffalo's 186 year history has inspired more speculative prose than the Pan American Exposition of 1901, the city's quixotic six month gambit on the world's stage that was intended to showcase Buffalo--then the nation's 8th largest city--as a rising 20th century industrial metropolis. What should have been the city's most triumphant moment will always be remembered instead for the national tragedy that eclipsed it, the assassination of President William McKinley by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz during the President's visit to the exposition in early September of that year.
The exposition, which utterly transformed development of the city but left behind only a single permanent architectural structure--today's Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society Museum on Nottingham Terrace--has been the subject of numerous historical and pictorial studies and served as the backdrop of one previous novel--Lauren Belfer's City of Light (1999).
Now with last month's release of Buffalo native Gary Earl Ross's Blackbird Rising: A Novel of the American Spirit (Full Court Press), we have an estimable work of historical fiction that aims not only to depict the sights and events of the exposition's spectacle from perspective of the city's African-American citizens of that era, but also to imagine its convergence with one of the central themes of African-American literature: the fugitive slave narrative of flight, liberation, and ultimate recognition as a proud and free people who've contributed mightily to America's story of idealism and redemption.
Ross--a widely published short story writer, Edgar Award winning playwright, and professor of language arts at the University at Buffalo's Educational Opportunity Center--opens his debut novel with a suspenseful prologue set exactly a half century earlier in May of 1851 in what is now called Broderick Park at the foot of Ferry St. on the southernmost tip of Squaw Island. At the point from which the Buffalo branch of The Underground Railroad conveyed escaped slaves across the Niagara River to freedom in Canada following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (signed into law by President Millard Fillmore, a native of East Aurora), an escaped slave named William MacAtley--a remarkable physical specimen from the Carolinas who has also acquired the ability to read--is about to embark on his passage across the river on an undersized craft with his escort Joseph Lockhart, a free black man working as an apprentice to an abolitionist blacksmith in Buffalo. Suddenly the figure of Deputy U.S. Marshall Cobb Sparks--a paid slave catcher--emerges from the brush with a long-barreled pistol.
MacAtley has been caught up in a ruse. Lockhart, jealous of his employer's daughter's attraction to the fugitive, is an informant. In the ensuing violent close quarters conflict, only the fugitive slave survives. Though badly wounded in the violent struggle, MacAtley acquires his betrayer's documents of free birth, as is reborn to the world as Joseph (later "Papa Joe") Lockhart.
Flash forward a half century and Papa Joe is the proprietor of one of Buffalo's leading blacksmith shops on lower Broadway, and thanks to his erudition and resilience in the face of many family tragedies, one of the pillars of the African-American community. He has raised his two orphaned grandsons into young adulthood. William is a self taught polymath with a genius for engineering and passion for the fledgling science of aeronautics, while Augustus (aka "Gus"), a less robust figure owing to childhood illnesses, is something of poet in the tradition of Paul Laurence Dunbar or prototype for Ralph Ellison's socially Invisible Man.
With Papa Joe's encouragement and the backing of Civil War veteran Captain Heyward Driscoll and his son Daniel--major Buffalo landholders of undeveloped property immediately north of the Exposition grounds (near today's Hertel Avenue)--the Lockhart grandsons concoct a plan to provide the Exhibition (whose organizers undervalue the contributions of African-Americans) with one the greatest demonstrations of human ingenuity ever conceived: the flight of a heavier-than-air craft (named "The Blackbird") designed by an African-American aeronautical engineer and piloted by African American visionary over the grounds of the Pan-American Exposition as President McKinley tours the grounds.
How the Lockhart brothers overcome numerous obstacles (including sabotage) to succeed beyond their wildest dreams, yet (like the Black Icarus) still fall prey to twin tragedies that undermine their rendezvous with destiny is a riveting and fast paced tale that reflects Ross's skill as a traditional storyteller and master of the narrative arc of dramatic scene writing.
Ross's digressions on the early history of heavier-than-air flight, the decision-making and political intrigue behind Pan American Exposition of 1901, and the history of Buffalo's African-American community are seamlessly (and sometimes ingeniously) woven into the plot. Who knew, for instance, that the great African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who Gus idolizes and comes to meet, was a high-school classmate and life long friend of the Wright brothers (Wilbur and Orville) of Dayton, Ohio, who are also pioneers in heavier-than-air craft flight?
At 300 pages, the novel is tightly plotted, meticulously researched, and well thought out dramatically. It would need little restructuring to adapt it into a screenplay, albeit a rather expensive one to film. Perhaps one criticism that could be made of the novel is that Ross's attempt to tie the ill fated plans of 1901 to the present day descendants of the Lockhart family is valiant but unconvincing. The idea of a written "secret history" (i.e., Gus Lockhart's journal) passing from generation to generation as they make their way through various careers in aviation and aeronautics seems more like an extended postscript than a dramatic resolution to a spectacularly ambitious novel.
That said, trying to tie the grandiose visions of Buffalo the planners of The Pan American Exhibition of 1901 had for their city to the impoverished, post-industrial city we live in today would be a daunting task for any writer. Ross gives us a glimpse of early 20th century Buffalo from a perspective we've never seen before, even as he reminds us that the African-American dream of freedom rides on the same trajectory as the American Dream.