Black Cloud Rising follows Sergeant Richard Etheridge of the African Brigade on their mission liberating Plantations in coastal North Carolina, as well as flushing out remaining Confederates and partisan guerillas. The story takes place in 1863, in a time and place where many enslaved men had fled their masters to join up with the Union Army on its peninsula campaign. Richard “Dick” Etheridge is one such man, along with a few childhood friends. Other refugees escape to a free encampment under the protection of the Union Army, including Dick’s sweetheart Fanny.
While Black Cloud Rising focuses on a specific historical backdrop and series of events, I felt the narrative to be more about Dick’s internal struggle with identity (although of course his identify is also shaped by the context of the time.) Sgt. Etheridge anchors the story, while other characters seem to come and go with few lingering moments. I felt I didn’t really get to know many of the other characters in detail.
Dick is the son of an enslaved women and her master; that is, his master is his biological father. Such entanglements were unfortunately common in that a master could literally grow his “wealth” and “property” by creating new humans to enslave (regardless of blood ties) with unwilling women who had no choice in the matter. Understandably, Dick struggles with this aspect of his heritage. While he knows his mother is right in her views of keeping self worth and respect, and the way in which she raises him to be his own man, at times there is still a part of him that seeks to please and have the approval of his “white family.” I use “family” loosely here, since blood does not always mean everything and/or anything. In the way a narcissist gaslights his victims, the Etheridges by their actions and words do the same with Dick by teaching him to read and write, praising his cleverness, and telling him that he is essentially “one of the good ones.” Sarah Etheridge teaches him to read, while Patrick Etheridge acts as a childhood playmate and brother. At the same time, Dick is also keenly aware that to them, he will only ever just be at the top of a group they view to be sub-human–i.e., he will never be viewed by them with true equality and respect.
While Dick struggles with these issues of identity and internalized racism, he participates in the liberating of near-abandoned plantations. Enslaved folk join the African Brigade column as they march through the swampy areas of coastal North Carolina. Witnessing the hardship these people have gone through, his self-doubt returns in comparing their experiences to his own. Dick often comes up against fellow soldier Revere, who is unapologetically himself and calls out Dick on his tendency to please and seek the approval of their white officers (the brigade was led by General Wild.) Under the command of General Wild, the newly liberated are given the opportunity to exact justice upon their former masters–one such incident that was particularly stand out in its turning of tables was when an elderly woman, bent and broken from a lifetime of slavery, is given a whip to lash her former master.
While on campaign, Dick finds out that Patrick Etheridge has joined the rebel guerillas and briefly reunites with him, however, I found the meeting to be somewhat anticlimactic. Patrick is let go and seemingly never faces the consequences to his previous actions. This situation mirrors that of even Union soldiers and Union supporting civilians who treat Dick and the rest of the African Brigade with disdain.
Overall I felt Black Cloud Rising excelled most in depicting Dick’s internal struggles with his identity, but the rest of the narrative and side characters seemed not as fleshed out and detailed as they could have been. What’s more, I felt the plot moved too fast (not necessarily in a good way) and rushed past events that could have been dug into deeper. However, I appreciated Dick’s story (as it was and is no doubt a common theme in the study of racism in America,) as well as learning about the African Brigade’s feats in North Carolina in 1863.
Black Cloud Rising will be released on Feb. 22, 2022