Through the eyes of Richard Etheridge, we travel the precarious path of his life in David Wright Faladé’s novel, “Black Cloud Rising.” It’s a fictional tale, interwoven with true-life events.
Etheridge was a real person, a member of the African Brigade, fighting in the Civil War. His strength carries him and those like him on their journey to be free from bondage in a land where they know they are necessary, but not wanted; declared free, but not truly.
Etheridge, called “Dick” by all those who know him, was born a slave on Roanoke Island, the son of a slave mother and their owner. He is taught to read and write by his half-sister, his owner’s abolitionist daughter.
His memories of being an “almost” member of his white owner’s family compared to his Freedman status as a fighting man leave him torn in his feelings of being conditioned to feeling he is a nobody to becoming and believing he is a somebody.
Etheridge sees and feels this as he eventually attains the rank of sergeant. The validity of the brigade’s existence is a constant specter. Black men in Union blue, Black men fighting and killing white men, Black men free; juxtaposed against duty to country, family, and oneself. He was a naive 21-year-old when he joined the brigade, their mission — track down Confederate guerrillas in the fall 1863.
Many brigade members like Etheridge fight on the very land where they were once enslaved, battling not only their own conditioned questioning of place as they face off against their former owners, and their sons and brothers, but the morality of it. A morality he comes face to face with on the battlefield, eye to eye with his own half-brother, who once told him he was “just like family.”
“Just like family? We are family!” is Etheridge’s reply. He knows deep in his soul too, that freedom is the rallying cry at any cost.
The book’s title, “Black Cloud Rising,” derives from a song of the era, sung about Black Union troops like Etheridge and his brigade comrades. Their leader is a ginger bearded abolitionist named Edward Wild. “Wild” in his eyes and carriage, he’s a General and John Brown type, a force to be reckoned with, who frees all slaves he, Etheridge, and the African Brigade encounter as they fight their way to securing the North Carolina coastal region and its backwaters. Etheridge and the others in the brigade respect and love him for it.
The brigade is glorious to the enslaved who lay eyes upon them and despised by the white Southerners who loathe and fear them. “When this country is retaken, you ni**ers who’ve betrayed it will not fare well,” Etheridge is admonished by his general’s chastised brother.
“I suspect you are right. Still, I’ll take my chances on freedom,” is Etheridge’s reply.
Faladé brings Etheridge’s “chance on freedom” to life in an arduous, frightening, and bloody journey to freedom; a tale of long ago and seldom talked about.
Faladé is a featured panelist at the Mississippi Book Festival on Aug. 20.