Sunday, April 17, 2016
[Article] A Profile of Cyrus Colter by Tony Lindsay
Cyrus Colter’s ‘A Chocolate Soldier’ was published in 1988; during a period in African American literature when some critiqued that Black males were being bashed, portrayed in a negative light, by Black female fiction writers. What Colter did during the controversy was write a Black male protagonist, Meshach Barry, who had a Black male hero, Rollo Ezekiel Lee – called Cager throughout the text. By creating two Black male characters, with flaws, that took the lead in the text, Colter writes Black males with human frailties that were not demonized due to their defects of character. The reader meets Meshach, a complicated character indeed, at a reflective phase of his life; he was contemplating his memoir.
The storyline of the novel is Meshach, an educated minister, college professor, former convict, and recurrent mental patient arguing with his beloved daughter over writing his memoir. The daughter is afraid that Meshach revisiting his past will lead to him having yet another mental breakdown. The proposed memoir would center on him remembering and recollecting the events and facts of the murder his college friend, Cager, committed. There was no mystery in the work regarding Cager committing the murder; the story centered on why he murdered. Why would a once stellar student commit such a brutal murder? And Meshach tries to estimate the part he played in Cager committing the crime; this reckoning of events and facts unraveled into the plot of Colter’s ‘A Chocolate Soldier.’
The childhoods of both Meshach and Cager was presented in the work and added the necessary depth to understanding the many whys that occur to the reader while engaged in the novel. Colter not only juxtaposed the life of Cager against Meshach but Cager against several support characters including: a university president, college professor, barkeep, female lovers, and the eventual murder victim - a rich white donor to the school. Through these conflicts it became apparent who the chocolate soldier was, and the war he fought was with an old and experienced adversary, racism in America.
During Meshach’s accounting of the past the reader experiences the preacher, professor, convict, and mental patient lives that he lived. The growth, development, doubt, and frustrations of each life was witnessed, and this added literary weight to novel. The craft employed to demonstrate how racism along with the personal demons yielded such a complicated character, as Meshach, required a writer of exceptional skill.
Both Meshach and Cager were faced with the obstacles that Black men living within a predominately white society of their era faced: Jim Crow restrictions, overt racism, Uncle Toms, and the plaguing desire to be treated as an equal by those who saw them as less. This was the war Colter had them both fighting – against racism and self, but the question the novel raises is how much of self is shaped by living in a racist society, how many of one’s character defects are caused by living in a hostile society.
A reader leaves Colter’s expertly crafted ‘A Chocolate Soldier’ with the stark reality that a racist society affects those targeted by unjust prejudice policies, and to survive in the system one may develop character defects that may harm others. With all of its well-crafted prose ‘A Chocolate Soldier’ serves as a simple warning against the damaging effects of racism.
Tony Lindsay is an award-winning author and adjunct professor at Chicago State University. He can be reached on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tony.linssay2.