White Readers Meet Black Authors – Friday, May 6, 2011

Time to Write: The Making of ‘If Sons, Then Heirs’

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.

But the story that stayed in me, as if it had been given to me to grow into, was of a young man lynched—and another young man who came up before the lynch mob to try to stop it. This was a story, to paraphrase historian Vincent Harding, to use as a text to teach and learn activism.

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For Harriet – Tuesday, April 26, 2011

These Cases Are Not Cold:  Forgotten History in the Deep South
by Lorene Cary

Two weeks ago, 60 Minutes presented the story of Louis Allen, whose murder is being investigated under the FBI’s Cold Case Initiative. Five years ago, when the Bureau began the project, I was beginning my book, If Sons, Then Heirs, with a long-hidden lynching at its emotional center. Like the great-grandfather in my book, Mr. Allen was a law-abiding owner of his land and various businesses.

Allen’s tragedy began when he witnessed the murder of another black man by a white state legislator and was pressured not to tell. Unable to stand the silence, Allen did, in fact, talk to federal authorities. Soon after, the sheriff in Liberty – real name, Liberty, MS – came to drag Allen out of his house at night. He beat him, smashed and broke his jawbone with a flashlight, and took him to jail as Allen’s young son watched. Allen was released, but later murdered at the cattle gate to his land. His son found him there, under his truck.

This case and the thousands others we’ll never bring to justice really did and still do reverberate as what some psychologists are calling “racial battle fatigue,” by violating, without recourse, so many boundaries: the body, mind, and spirit of individuals and families, family privacy, security, and memory, community sense of viability and power. And land.

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Philadelphia Inquirer – Monday, February 14, 2011

Vocational music to Phila. prisoners’ ears
By Lorene Cary

Lorene Cary is founder and director of the Art Sanctuary and a senior lecturer in the University of Pennsylvania English department. Her novel “The Price of a Child” inaugurated the One Book, One Philadelphia program. Atria Books will publish her new novel, “If Sons, Then Heirs,” in May.

I’d heard about the boys in Upper Darby who dragged a 13-year-old schoolmate through the snow, beat and kicked him, and hung him on a fence.
I hadn’t seen it on television, and when the video appeared on news sites, I did not watch. I recently finished a book in which a man is lynched. There’s too much violence in my head as it is. And as I could not help the boy, I could at least do him the favor of not making him an object of my interest: something to look at as I passed by virtually. I didn’t want to add another hit.

Then, a few days later, I turned on WURD’s Morning Show With Bill Anderson. Callers and people writing to him on Facebook, he reported, were saying that the kids were out of control and should be locked up. Then “throw away the key.”

“You can say, ‘Throw away the key,’ ” he said, “But these are kids. . . . These are our kids . . . and remember that people are going to come back out.”

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O, The Oprah Magazine – August 2008

Roll Up the Light of Love
By Lorene Cary

For years, my writing life draped itself around my children.  I used to love Toni Morrison’s story about finishing a piece for her writer’s group.  Her son was crawling on her and spit up some of his orange juice on her paper. Without time to stop, she simply wrote around the stain.

As a mother-writer, I wrote when they were asleep or at pre-school or school, or visiting a friend. I wrote when I was pregnant, then hurried to get the manuscript with all of its slavery-rage out of the house before the baby arrived. I wrote so hard that when I ran out of the house to collect the girls from school, sometimes the outside weather would be a shock.  Blam! Bright sunshine or rain or cold. Who knew?  The interior world has its own seasons.

Now, our older daughter is grown and living on her own. Our younger one is in high school, and when I write in the mornings I still stop at 7:45 to make her tea and toast.  Just enough so that she’ll light at the end of the counter before shooting out the back door with the backpack as big as an air-conditioner.  Mostly, though, I write around other work—Art Sanctuary, teaching, lectures, Sunday School—a trip to take our younger daughter to look at a college.  If Sons, Then Heirs required three takes: that’s three completely different novels revolving around the same family and the same land.

Publication calls up in me this certified, pre-owned disappointment: Once again! the work falls short of the vision.  Once again, I’ve managed to leave a map of my writing flaws. Memory fails. Wisdom, too.  Like that.  So, when a book is coming out, I have trained myself toward gratitude; trick the devil.  I remind myself, quite carefully, of the journey.In this case, I start from the emotional center of the book, the great-grandparents, King and Selma, back in the 1930s and 40s, born and raised in South Carolina, like so many people here in Philadelphia.  But I was able to pay them the attention they were due in Italy, on a fellowship at the artist’s “workplace,” a 15th Century castle called Civitella Ranieri, one of two times in my adult life where I was responsible for nothing—except writing.

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