A Conversation with D. László Conhaim
Why, after publication in 2017 of Comanche Captive, would you reach back nearly 30 years to publish a novella you wrote as a college student?
When Comanche Captive came out, I started receiving mail inquiring when I’d be publishing again. This followed ESPN’s sports and culture website, The Undefeated, sadly omitting Paul Robeson from a long list of influential African Americans. It got me to thinking I should finally get All Man’s Land out there—and in a way that called attention to Robeson.
After 30 years, surely you haven’t published it as is.
I’ve thrown a fresh coat of paint on this one every five years or so, but I’ve always remained faithful to its original voice and structure. In preparing it for publication, I felt as if I was working as an editor to my younger self.
What inspired you to write All Man’s Land?
The work that it came to be sort of fell under Robeson’s spell. That story is told in the Introduction. I owe my admiration of him to my grandparents, who emigrated to the States from Eastern Europe where he was popular and where he found that his color wasn’t a barrier.
Like Paul Robeson, your hero Benjamin Neill is a crusader for racial and social justice. But he is also a decorated Civil War hero. Is there any historical basis for such a character? And how specifically did you channel Robeson?
Benjamin Neill is a composite formed from several historical people, including one of 17 African Americans to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for service in the Civil War. I should add that Robeson’s own father served in the Union army, as did two of Frederick Douglass’ sons. Robeson came along later than Douglass, of course, but set in 1904, All Man’s Land takes place in his lifetime, and I found myself drawn principally to his story and to his spirit for inspiration.
Part of Benjamin Neill’s backstory seems to closely resemble Robeson’s fight against McCarthyism. But we also learn about a host of other figures apparently lost to history, including President Lincoln’s first bodyguard, an African American.
I first learned about Ferdinand Schavers from Paul Stewart, the founder of Denver’s Black American West Museum. It’s astonishing that 30 years later nobody else seems to have written about him or put him on screen despite obvious opportunities to do so. There’s so much yet to be told.
How did African Americans in the U.S. Army come to be called “buffalo soldiers”?
The commonly accepted explanation is that Native Americans compared the hair of the black troops serving in the Indian wars to that of the American bison. The image of a buffalo appeared on the 10th Cavalry’s emblem until its deactivation in 1944.
All Man’s Land follows Comanche Captive chronologically. Are there any through lines?
By 2021, when I publish Comanche’s sequel, All Man’s Land will fall at the end of a trilogy chronologically. Though certainly not by any master plan, all of my American histories deal to some extent with the U.S. Cavalry’s reliance on black regiments to do the dirty work of manifest destiny, including Indian removal.
I wanted to ask you about that. A conflict in the book emerges between Benjamin Neill and a black sergeant over that issue, and whether a black soldier should participate in the white man’s scheme. Any comments?
The basis for that scene was Robeson’s questioning whether a black man, oppressed by his country, should bear arms for it and against the Soviets. His position was later echoed by Muhammad Ali’s famous Vietnam era protest, “No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.” Matters of race, of belonging, and with whom or with what we identify, and under what circumstances, and with what caveats are front and center in All Man’s Land. For these patriots—I mean the buffalo soldiers—citizenship, recognition, and loyalty came with compromise and sacrifice for the Christian white man’s mission—manifest destiny.
You use the n-word unabashedly in the text. Any comment regarding the offense it could cause?
Its use is realistic. Benjamin’s fight is against racism. Those who use it get what’s coming to them.
What would you say to critics who might suggest that All Man’s Land appropriates a great man’s legacy?
I didn’t write it for them. I wrote it for him. The young man behind this novel wrote it with nothing short of reverence for Paul Robeson. Sadly, Robeson is only great to those who know him, and they are now shockingly few. It’s troubling that three decades on, he has faded even further from public consciousness.
Why might this be?
Perhaps because [air quotes] “It’s Complicated” with Paul Robeson. To try to explain him—which is a form of excusing him—gets you stuck in a quagmire. Nevertheless, the absence of this giant of the twentieth century from The Undefeated’s list of “African Americans Who Shook Up the World” should leave us asking why. Was it his politics? Was it some of the songs he sang, some of the films he appeared in? Or was he simply overlooked? Nobody else shook up the world in quite the way Paul Robeson did. But his complicated story is best left to his biographers.
And yet you think this—a novel—could help bring the public closer to Robeson.
Something should. When [the movie] 12 Years a Slave came out, its director announced his intention to shoot a Paul Robeson biopic next. Well, six years later, where is it? Its nonexistence speaks volumes.
But what would you say to the reader who questions why their introduction to him should come in the form of what could fairly be called a highly fictionalized tribute, rather than from a straightforward biography?
Paul Robeson should make his first impression through his music, that great voice and soul. But if All Man’s Land is a person’s point of discovery of this monumental American, then exploration of his music and life should follow. That was my hope for the book in 1990 when I completed the first draft, and it remains so today.