Reparations: Why Creative Writing
This is the 6th installment in my reparations series. Click to read the introduction. Continue with background facts about me and the salacious real me facts. I’ve included some warnings, plus the joy of reparative work.
Today, we turn to what led me to take up reparations.
Fiction Leads to Fact
Twice, I’ve delved into my family history.
First, early in my writing career, I wrote a memoir about my young family’s time out west. Mother and Daddy Joe and my sister Marcee. This very Mississippi family fell in love with the snows of North Dakota and Colorado. To show that contrast, I interviewed aunts and uncles for family stories. I learned my maternal grandmother’s father—Big Poppa—was a bigwig in Mississippi politics. So I researched to confirm or explode the stories.
Squatting in the aisles of the history section of the Memphis library, I found Big Poppa. The family pride in his outlawing convict leasing in Mississippi was true. Big Poppa was President Pro-Temp of the Mississippi Senate. He was the legislator in charge of abolishing convict leasing. In this horrible practice, the state leased imprisoned men to private parties for profit. Corporations, railroads, and politically-connected farmers often proceeded to work convicts to death. (Slavery by Another Name is a good book on the practice.)
But every good thing in family (and national) history has a counterbalancing bad thing. So guess what replaced convict leasing as the state’s preferred form of punishment? Parchman Farm. Modeled on deadly plantations, site of the Freedom Riders’ imprisonment. Destination in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. You can read its history in Worse than Slavery.
2nd Period of Research
Second, I wrote The Bone Trench. In this fantasy, Jesus goes missing from heaven and lands in Memphis. The backbone of the novel is the South’s history of labor exploitation, including convict leasing. For this novel, I returned to family research. I discovered convict leasing entangled my family like barbed wire.
Specifically, Big Poppa’s dad—whom I call the Scoundrel—leased the Mississippi state prison. Prison leasing/management was an earlier version of capitalism’s convict leasing. After the Civil War, the Scoundrel quickly pivoted from enslavement to profiting from prisoners. The notorious Nathan Bedford Forrest did the same. I can’t say why, in one generation, my family went from profiting from convict leasing under the Scoundrel to Big Poppa’s outlawing it. But I suspect it had to do with economics. Whose ox was being gored, who had their fingers in the pie. Whose bread was being buttered—I could go on forever.
Now, I’m working on the novel, In the Name of Mississippi. The plot revolves around a lawsuit against the Federal Government for its role in Mississippi’s 1960s violence. The suit seeks reparations for harm done to living Mississippians, as well as harm to the state itself.
This novel made me uncomfortable with my “kinda know/kinda don’t” stance on family history. How could I write a novel about reparations and not know what in my own family might need repairing? Sure, I had researched Big Poppa and a bit about the Scoundrel. But further back—well, it got foggy. The time had come to research my family story with more intent.
Reparation Truth vs Excuses
My family always talked about a peach plantation in Warren County. The fruit farm was pre-Civil War, when enslavement was used for labor. The Scoundrel’s dad (Big Poppa’s grandad, whom I call the Peach Farmer) started the farm. A fruit farm, I told myself, not as bad as a cotton plantation. Not as many men, women, and children enslaved. A minor operation.
I found the Peach Farmer’s name on a website that lists the largest enslavers in Southern counties. According to their numbers, the Peach Farmer enslaved 61 people. Let me put this in context. Oak Alley, the Louisiana plantation whose double row of giant live oaks are the iconic image of enslaved labor farms, held 110-120 people in bondage. When the Peach Farmer died, he held 91 people against their will for unpaid labor. The enormity of it.
Once you start looking, you find.
For example, Big Poppa’s mother, whom I call the Writer, lived on the fruit farm. She was married to the Peach Farmer’s son, the Scoundrel. “Was” is the operative word here.
Looking back, I see where family stories meandered from the Peach Farmer to his daughter-in-law and not his son. Odd, if you think about it. I learned why.
The Scoundrel divorced the Writer. He married an 18-year-old and left for Arkansas where he started a new family.
Who knows? Maybe the Writer divorced the Scoundrel. My family never discussed the divorce. (So, yeah, my family was okay with owning people but hid the fact of divorce.) Whatever, divorce in the late 1880s/1890s was something. The Scoundrel, who has never appeared in family stories, disappears from historical connection as well.
The Winding Reparations Path Leads to…
Big Poppa’s mother, the Writer, is the ancestor who continues as part of the family story. In 1875 and again in 1890, she published thick books of poetry. The books are available on the internet. She was a loud supporter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU was a helluva racist organization.
My ancestor and Ida B. Wells wrote in the same general time period. At that time, Ms. Wells was fleeing angry mobs determined to punish her for crusading against lynching. In contrast, my ancestor was writing about the grief of the Civil War, alcohol, and God. In recognition of my ancestor’s extensive publication in newspapers, the Mississippi Press Association made her an honorary member. No Mississippi organization so honored Ida B. Wells.
I’m a writer. She was a writer. For my first reparations project, I’ve chosen writing and the power it can unleash into the world.
Next: what reparative work am I doing with writing?
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