Synopsis:   A WOUNDED SNAKE   

In 1898, 19-year-old “colored” Noah Webster works as an assistant, type-setter and occasional writer for Robert O’Hara Benjamin on his black newspaper, The Lexington Standard, in Lexington, Kentucky. The Standard is a beacon of racial defiance in an era when bigotry and reaction are overwhelming the deep South and threatening even relative bastions of racial harmony such as Kentucky. “Mr. Benjamin” fights back—in the courts as a lawyer, in the precincts registering black voters, and in his newspaper. As the novel opens, he has just written a column extolling the bravery of a black Alabamian who had shot the sheriff and two of his deputies who had come to drive the family off their farm.
“Hurray for William Littlefield!” he writes. Noah wonders how Mr. Benjamin doesn’t get shot. Noah’s mamma worries that Noah will be shot in the crossfire. Be careful, she warns him. But you can “careful” yourself out of a life, Mr. Benjamin tells Noah.

Noah also works as a bartender in Yellmantown, a black section of Lexington.  Though the paying patrons are all black, George Thomas, the white owner, gathers with a few other whites in the corner Politics in its rawest form is present both in how George Thomas directs events from his corner and through his “colored” surrogates:  his bartender, Jake, and a local man called the “Mayor” of Yellmantown who delivers votes in exchange for control of some patronage.
The politics of the town is also seen in Judge Frank Bullock’s courtroom. The judge, a Bluegrass patrician, maintains his position and his power through his association with Billy Klair, the local Democratic boss. Both men need each other. And both need to unite against the threat Benjamin poses as Benjamin seeks to empower the large black community in Fayette County—especially his efforts to enfranchise more black voters.  The South resists the black man’s liberty with Jim Crow laws, vote stealing, and “challenges” to any black voter. The patrician Judge Bullock is above violence; his ally, Billy Klair, is not.

This effort to empower black voters coincides with the suffragettes’ efforts for women. Led by Madeline McDowell Breckenridge, a prominent Bluegrass aristocrat and suffragette, women are struggling both to keep the limited voting franchise for school board elections, and to expand that franchise to all voting. In this fight, Madeline McDowell Breckenridge---a great granddaughter of Henry Clay—reaches out to black women---in particular to Maria Lulu Benjamin, Benjamin’s much younger wife.

This struggle by blacks and by women to keep and protect their newly- acquired rights is illustrated throughout the novel as various narrators take turns telling the story. The struggle is shown in the violent oppression by the police, in the driving out of black jockeys from the race track, in the efforts to get women and blacks to register.  The struggle for power in the “colored” schools is not just for the job patronage but is also fought out in the philosophical struggle between Booker T. Washington and W.E. Dubois about what the black child should be taught.  It is another fight about boundaries.

We follow Noah in his various jobs as he struggles against those boundaries:  newspaper man and barkeeper; assistant bookmaker at the track and summer teacher in a one-room colored school out in the county.  Finally we see him begin his training as a lawyer--breaking free from the oppressive white borders and the safe boundaries of his loving mamma.  We see Maria Lulu Benjamin’s struggle against the constraints put upon a “genteel” black woman.
Mr. Benjamin finally does get shot as he tries to register four black men to vote in the 32nd precinct in Lexington—Irish Town. Judge Bullock rules the shooting self-defense though  Benjamin had been shot in the back running from his assailant, a thug employed by the city.  The novel ends with Noah, who’s come back to the fight after a season of despair, confronting Madeline McDowell Breckenridge---urging her to not abandon the black women she had help recruit to the cause.  Two-thirds of the women who voted in the 1901 election were black but Billy Klair has labeled those women as illiterate and immoral. The white suffragettes shy away though it does no good. Billy Klair gets even their limited franchise repealed in the 1902 legislature. Only expensive, large-scale fraud had kept the machine in power.

Noah is arrested for his troubles.

 The novel’s coda—almost twenty years later in 1920— takes place in Judge Bullock’s office above the courthouse square where thousands of white Lexingtonians are trying to break through the line of troops the governor has placed between them and a black man they want to lynch. The troops, even the mob, are a sign of progress , Judge Bullock suggests to Noah. The judge has been struggling for decades with a troubled conscience –had even taken Noah in as his law clerk after Benjamin’s death as a kind of atonement.   

Noah thinks it a strange sign of progress. The snake of racism is still present in the courthouse plaza just as it was sixty years earlier when slaves were sold in the same square.  Are we friends, the judge asks Noah, but Noah remembers that ruling of self-defense when Mr. Benjamin was killed.  The judge reaches out his hand and Noah takes it finally but tells him no,  they’re not friends yet.  Too much life in the snake, Judge. Not friends yet.
But maybe someday.