Walter White’s novel, Fire in the Flint was originally published in 1924. While White hoped “that sales of the book would show white publishers that colored people would buy books if publishers dared to bring out those which tell the truth (Waldren, 74)”, the book’s primary purpose appears to be an appeal to reason to white America that the “new Negro”, educated, battle tested, and aware of the egalitarian world outside of the South, should not and would no longer quietly bear the indignities of race prejudice. White accomplishes this by giving the reader an intimate view of the mind and personality of the new Negro, by an exposition of the political climate in the South, and by revealing the brutal and shocking details of lynching.
The protagonist, Kenneth Harper, is a surgeon, educated in New York, and Paris. He has returned to his hometown, Central City, to set up a practice exclusively serving the Negro. He hopes, like his father before him, to live a worry free life substantially apart from white society. His younger brother, Bob, warns him that this is no longer possible. The story ends in a whirlwind of violence as Ku Klux Klan members lynch both of the brothers, after Bob avenges the rape of their sister.
Throughout the book, White goes to great lengths to portray Kenneth Harper as being as deeply sensitive and thoughtful as a man can be, the antithesis of the stereotypical Negro male imagined by many white Americans. In the opening scene, Dr. Harper inspects the accoutrements of his office with an almost effete attention to detail. This demonstrates his meticulousness and the realization of a well-visualized dream, capable only of a person of high intellect and self-discipline. He is exceptionally well read, the author presenting a long list of celebrated writers who have had a major impact on Harper, several of them Nobel Prize winners. The list includes social activist Romain Rolland (Seymour-Smith), Bernard Shaw, Theodore Driser, popular novelist Joseph Hergeshiemer (American Heritage® Dictionary), poetess Willa Cather, poet and novelist D.H. Lawrence, Knute Hamsun, Joseph Conrad, Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant, Zane Grey, Jack London, and W.E.B DuBois. Obviously Dr. Harper is wont to consider matters more deeply than most of his fellow men, white or black, and he has wide ranging intellectual interests, even for a doctor. His painful recollections of the horror of his experiences while serving in the Great War, and his abhorrence at the lack of morality and vulgarity in the poor neighborhoods that make up a large part of his clientele reveal a man of refinement, fastidious tastes, and gentle disposition. Dr. Harper’s courtship of his sister Mamie’s friend, Jane Phillips, reveals his good manners, sensitivity and sexual self-control, at times to Miss Phillips great frustration. Even after the rape of his sister and the murder of his brother, Kenneth Harper finds himself unable to act upon his desire to exact revenge on the white race, unable to stand by and allow a white girl in need of medical attention to expire. In this manner, the author has created a picture not of a superman, but certainly of a noble man worthy of admiration and acceptance by the reader.
By the exposition of the political climate in the South at that time, the author reveals to the white reader the untenable situation that Dr. Harper and other members of his race must contend with. Negroes are shown constantly being swindled in their dealings with white men. Bob Harper experiences this directly when settling the estate of his late father. Poor sharecroppers are unable to get accurate accountings of their earnings or debts from their landlords and therefore remain constantly in debt. Harper’s sister, Mamie, also a college graduate, must teach seventh graders in a school building that is little more than a slum. She and the other Negro women are in constant danger from the unwanted sexual advances of white gang members. The “liberal” white southerner, Roy Ewing, advises Harper that no white man dare take a stand against such conditions for fear of losing their customers, their pulpits, their positions, or their very lives. As for Dr. Harper himself, “He must of necessity be constantly on his guard when talking with his white neighbors, or with any white men in the South, to keep from uttering some word, some phrase which, like a seed dropped and forgotten, lies fallow for a time in the brain of the one to who he talks, but later blossoms forth into that noxious death-dealing plant which is the mob (White 73).” Harper is unable to follow this plan of action when he witnesses the death of a black man shot by the sheriff’s brother. When Dr. Harper reports the death to the county Commissioner of Health who is white, he is told to keep his mouth shut whenever he hears about “a white man having trouble with a nigger”. The commissioner promptly reports the exchange to the sheriff and Harper is now a marked man. Clearly beginning to understand that he is unable to remain neutral in the silent conflict that is taking place around him, Harper seeks out the advice of other educated Negroes in his community and begins to lay plans with them to relieve the suffering and injustice imposed upon their fellows. Against these scenarios the author describes the underworld machinations of the Ku Klux Klan, both in private conversations in the sheriff’s office and at mass meetings held in the woods.
With the rapidity that so often accompanies tragedy in real life, this story is brought to a horrible close. While Dr. Harper is away on a short trip, Marnie is raped by two white thugs. Bob Harper, in a fit of rage, shoots the two perpetrators on the street in broad daylight. He immediately becomes the hunted and is cornered in a barn by men and dogs. He shoots to death several of his pursuers, saving the last bullet for himself. The author then graphically describes the repeated shooting into Bob Harper’s body, which is then dragged behind a car into town, and then burned. Children play with the charred broken bones and skull as in Anne Spenser’s poem, “White Things”. Then finally and chillingly they all go “home to breakfast”. Soon after, Dr. Harper returns. Emotionally devastated by what he finds, he swears vengeance upon all white people, but his character prevents him from refusing to help treat the daughter of a white man who needs his aid. Ironically, he is caught by a group of Klansman as he leaves his patient’s house, then shot and lynched. His reputation is besmirched at the last page of the book. The reason for his lynching is reported in a newspaper clipping as the penalty for his having criminally assaulted a white woman.
Kenneth and Bill Harper have been brutally murdered, their sister and mother left physically and emotionally devastated. The poor and less educated Negro inhabitants of the town of Central City are once again left to the mercy of their cruel and evil white neighbors. The town has lost the resources of two good men, one of them a brilliant physician. Who is left to come to their aid? Why the reader, of course. Walter White was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Because of his ability to pass as a white person, he served as a lynching investigator and researcher. His findings provided the material from which he created Fire in the Flint. The book was reviled and condemned in the southern and racist press while receiving wide acknowledgement in both the Negro and liberal northern press. While not a literary masterpiece, especially in view of the single sidedness of its characters, this expository narrative has the ring of authority because of White’s investigation of over thirty-six lynchings and interviews with hundreds of witnesses both black and white (Waldron 52). This novel must certainly be recognized for impact that it had on the consciousness of white people of good will in America, as an encouragement for them to stand up and speak out against racial injustice.
American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Seymour-Smith, Martin and Kimmens, Andrew C. Eds. World Authors, 1900-1950 Vol. 3. New York : H.W. Wilson, 1996.
Waldron, Edward E.. Walter White and the Harlem Renaissance. Kennikat Press Corporation, Port Washington, N.Y., 1978
White, Walter. The Fire in the Flint. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, N.Y., 1924