At the end of my first book, Black Ice, a memoir, I wrote that I’d “been given my stories…” Since then, I’ve felt as if I were driven internally to grow into them, from the Underground Railroad stories that I understood better once I myself had children, and now the lynching stories that sound rumbling depth charges underneath the present action of my new novel, If Sons, Then Heirs. Understand, actually, is the wrong word. Rather, it feels as if the stories force their way into books. They wait, like tiny shelled creatures, until marriage and children, business, grief, failure, and love soften me into a suitable environment for their expression. Then it’s time to write.
I remember hearing about lynching first when I was a very little girl. It had no name, and no certainty, so that for years, I doubted that I’d heard it at all, or that I’d heard correctly, or that what I’d heard was true. My grandmother and mother and aunts were talking about my great-grandmother’s first husband. His family lived near Chadds Ford, PA; Grandmom, who was from Buffalo, married him at 16. Three years later he went to a state or county fair, ran into “some trouble” with young white men, and never came home. Grandmom was left a 19-year-old pregnant widow.
In high school and again in college I read Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, and A Red Record. I was conscious of using the anti-lynching activist, journalist, and newspaper owner Ida B. Wells-Barnett as a model and adopted ancestor. I thought it brilliant of her to use only those cases that were already documented in the mainstream press, so that no one in power could deny or refute the God-awful facts and narratives she presented.
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I saw it in a terrible loop video that demanded expression. Finally, now that my stepson’s children are their own wonderful young characters, our older daughter has grown up and moved out, now that I’ve run a business for twelve years, cared for elderly relatives, watched dear young men go to jail and die, inherited property, as well as emotional debt, and written my own will, I can finally write a fictional version of this story that wouldn’t leave me. My characters hear it, tell it, and argue about telling it to their grandchildren:
Over the years the story had cooked inside Rayne’s head, helped by the comments of the few people he’d ever told. You don’t bring it out too often.
But, wait. Here come the miracle. My Lord!
Jones held in his voice the exact hopeful reverence of sharecroppers who’d shared the news with him. They’d get to this part of the story and shake their heads—and this is what I want you to know, too, Jones says, referring to Selma’s silence, because if Rayne didn’t know the first part, then he couldn’t know the miracle: that when the mob had done as much as you can do to a human being and him still be alive, a man pushed his way through the crowd, crazy as they were by now, crazy-mad with liquor and the terrible intoxication of blood—a colored man elbowed his way to the front and begged for the boy’s life.
That was the part everyone repeated: And then, do Jesus, a black man come up in front of them.
And it didn’t matter whether the listeners had heard the story before. They told it again, just as Jones told Rayne, and Rayne told his construction partner and later Lillie, because it remained a mystery. And because everyone wanted to know this and to learn, as Jones learned, what was possible.
Jones’s words, present tense, because heroism exists outside of time: “He stands beside the boy’s body, tied by now so that it won’t fall flat. This black man says—listen what he say standing in front of all these crazy, drunk-up white people—he says: ‘For God’s sake, don’t finish this, please. Whatever you meant to teach him this boy has surely learnt. And he’ll never be good for nothin now anyway. Please, for pity’s sake, just lemme take’im down. Lemme take’im home.’”
Where had he come from, this man who appeared like the black face of God speaking mercy?
The outrageousness of it would not be suppressed. It leached from between the rocks, seeped into the streams, soaked into the swamps. Finally, it ran in the papers, so they couldn’t say it didn’t happen. Jones was sure that Rayne could find it in the records, and one day, sure enough, he looked it up on the Internet.
From Ida B. Wells’s turn-of-the last century writings to the mind of a 21st century fictional character: these stories are as tough as those fairy shrimp whose eggs wait until heavy rains flood their pond. Then they come out, reproduce—and lay new eggs for the next generation.
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