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?
convict leasing in Mississippi, In the Name of Mississippi novel, my reparations journey, Reparations, reparations and convict leasing, reparations and creative writing, reparations in Mississippi, researching family history for reparations
I love the connection with your ancestor in using writing as a tool in this work. Words are powerful, whether for good or ill or some messy human combination of both.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
Thank you, Joanne. This has become one of my guiding reparations principles: it has to be specific to me & my family. To who they were, who I am. Which is why I need to understand my ancestors, their impact in the world. To see how it intersects mine, how the trajectory might need to shift, how it continues in my life. My “messy human combination” life. 🙂
Mary Margaret Hicks
You and Tom likely remember the statue of Nathon Bedford Forrest in the park by the Medical School here in Memphis. Thankfully, it has been removed and the remains of Forrest and his wife have been moved to another state. I forget which one. The park has also been renamed in relationship to the Medical School and the hospitals in the area. It was a great step forward. Now, is the hard part to make amends to the descendants of slaves.
Thanks for your honesty about your family and history. It takes courage and honor to delve into that past and shed light on those things that are embarressing and troubling to see and hear. We (I) need to have the same courage to search my family history.
Blessings to you, Ellen and Tom. You two continue to be a blessing to me.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
Good morning. So good to hear from you, MM. I knew of the statue’s removal. I didn’t know they had moved the remains. I don’t hear people talk much about his segueing to convict leasing; it was on President’s Island, I believe. You’re right: it’s hard looking backwards. My family didn’t spend much time bragging about our ancestors (more talk about close family connections), which makes me wonder now if they had an inkling that inside what was considered good was a lot of bad…TY so much for keeping in touch. love to you from both of us.
Hi, Ellen. Just checking in . . . I miss you! Congrats on IN THE NAME OF MISSISSIPPI’s being a semi-finalist, etc. . . . hoping to hear about a publishing deal soon! Fascinating reading about your family here. You’ve definitely got fodder for good stories!
Ellen Morris Prewitt
Hey, Susan. It’s been a month. I broke my elbow, had surgery, and now am gradually recovering. Healing in process is truly something to see.I had to pause the querying, but I’m back in the saddle, hoping I’ve finally got a query letter that correctly–and engagingly–describes the story. Hope you are well, and I miss seeing you too. And, yes,–I keep finding more “fodder” the more I look. 🙂