By JONATHAN TILOVE
February 9, 2006
c.2006 Newhouse News ServiceÆMDNMØ
(UNDATED) Thulani Davis is a New York journalist, novelist, poet, playwright, screenwriter and librettist for the operas “Amistad,” and “Malcolm X,” and most recently the author of “My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots,” about her search for her ancestors, both black and white. She is also a Buddhist priest.
Q: The main characters in your book are Chloe Curry, a former slave, and Will Campbell, a white planter. How are they related to you?
A: Chloe Curry was my great-grandmother and Will Campbell was my great-grandfather. Those are two facts I knew most of my life. But I didn’t know how they came to meet. Chloe was in slavery in Alabama. About 10 years after the Civil War she went to Mississippi and she worked for Will Campbell’s older brother and then sometime later became a housekeeper for Will Campbell. So they met at a place called Silver Creek in Yazoo County, Miss.
Q: At what point did they become a couple?
A: Sometime in the last 1870s that relationship became intimate. Chloe indicated to my grandmother that it was a romantic relationship. That was certainly my grandmother’s take on it. My great-grandmother had married (another former slave) coming out of bondage and they had children and came to Mississippi, both of them, and he really hated it and left. She got divorced. Will Campbell didn’t marry and so it does seem to have been a lifetime relationship for him. I don’t really know whether they fell in love or whether Chloe was exploited by the proximity her job gave her to Will Campbell and whether it turned into something more like companionship or what, but the two of them lived together at Silver Creek until he died, about 26 years.
Q: At the time their relationship would have been against the law. Did your grandmother feel she grew up a pariah?
A: My grandmother was fairly unconventional and did whatever she wanted. She didn’t reflect on the fact that it was illegal for them to be together. She actually thought that blacks and whites in Mississippi at the time understood each other pretty well and got along much better than they did in the 1960s.
Q: How did what you learned about your great-grandparents’ relationship differ from what you had expected to find?
A: I thought theirs was going to be a story about the coercion of a household worker _ Strom Thurmond, or whatever. I just assumed that and, in fact, I didn’t look for a long time because I thought I knew the story, and most of us kind of make that assumption.
Q: On the other hand, what you found out about Will’s brother may have confirmed your worst fears.
A: Will’s brother Leonidas was someone at first I related to purely superficially because I saw a picture of him and he looked like my nephew, and in some of his photographs he looks sort of like Rock Hudson. The first thing I researched about him were military reports which repeatedly said he was courageous in battle, which is great, even though he was fighting for the wrong side for me. He did participate in a massacre of freedman who were among the first black soldiers in the war, and he later allowed, or was complicit in a lynching that happened on the Campbell farm. I was kind of startled by the lynching. You think of lynching as being at least rare enough and you wouldn’t find it in your own backyard.
Q: The black man who was lynched was a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, who was succeeded in office by Leonidas Campbell in the election of 1875, which signaled the end of Reconstruction there.
A: That whole election in Mississippi ties to my own time frame in the ’60s when I was young and people went to Mississippi to assist in getting African-Americans registered to vote. That was a necessary outgrowth of what happened in 1875 when people like Leonidas Campbell succeeded in restoring the old order in the South. What they did lasted 90 years.
Q: Did writing this book change your own sense of racial identity?
A: I grew up starting in segregation and the breakdown of segregation so I have a pretty solid African-American racial identity. I guess the way it changed me is I feel as if I have ties to more people, more places and more events in American history than I did before. I knew my mother was from Mississippi but I had never been there, and had this sudden intense feeling of connection in Mississippi that’s been quite strange to me. When I was young I never wanted to even go to Mississippi. It sounded terrifying. Now it’s the most compelling place. I find the people in Mississippi are very different from the people I meet here in New York City. They are very open people, black and white. People in the North tend to be very hidebound about their political views and not really listening to the other side.
Q: Katrina hit the Gulf Coast as you were finishing your book. How did that affect you?
A: When Katrina happened, the most recent stretch of my book I had written was about the Great Flood of 1927, which displaced a million people throughout the Mississippi Delta. What really got me was that the people outside the Superdome were probably the great-grandchildren of the people who went through it in 1927 because New Orleans is kind of unique in that people born there tend to stay there. Whereas the people affected by 9-11 in New York came from all over the world and all over the United States, the incidents in Southern life that affected African-Americans, that dislocated them and caused them to be poor, those are in the immediate past of the families dislocated by Katrina, and it just overwhelmed me.
Q: What is your take on Black History Month?
A: I think it should be extinct. I got one review that said at the end, “affinity required.” Black History Month has come to symbolize “affinity required” and there are plenty of Americans who may tune out once they get the feeling that affinity is required to appreciate the many PBS programs and the black book roundups that happen in the media during Black History Month.
Q: On the home page of the Sons of Confederate Veterans there is an Amazon.com ad for the Tony Horwitz book “Confederates in the Attic.” How about your book?
A: Let’s hope they review it. I found my book listed on a site called, Missouri Bushwhacker. The top of the site says, “Confederate, Conservative, Constitutional.” I just have to assume that he hasn’t looked at the book. I knew when I did the title that there would be some confusion and cross-over, and I thought that’s probably good for discourse. The more the merrier. If you look at my book on Amazon at the bottom there’s an ad for “Rebelstore.com.” Maybe that’s good to break down that sort of signal that the word “Confederate” means stay away if you’re not sympathetic.
Q: Does being a Buddhist affect how you wrote this book?
A: As a writer you have to approach everybody with a certain degree of love and Buddhism encourages that, and I think it allowed me to keep a sort of a fairly evenhanded approach.