‘Lynched’, my 18-year old fiction story, was published in the Center for Black Literature’s Killens Review of Arts & Letters, October 2018.
Following is the backstory to a work that as a teenager, is off to conquer the globe with they/she/he’s badass, unapologetic self.
Forty years removed from childhood, I pluck Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing off a library shelf. It is the summer of 2000. In the chapter ‘Essays on Creativity’, Bradbury challenges writers to write of their loves, fears, and hates.
As a child I was traumatized and terrified by pictures of black Americans—men, women, and children, hanging from trees, poles; some bodies charred. That some of those images became picture postcards and mailable, with white onlookers (men, women, children) celebrating with smiles, thumbs up, and frozen cheers, only deepened the wonder of how perverted and mentally ill a people would have to be to find glee in the violation of a body, in witnessing the end of a human’s life as if it were a high stakes All-American baseball tournament.
I took Bradbury’s challenge and wrote In-Between, a fictional story, in a few hours. In this early version the ghost of a white man who while alive, lynched six blacks, is trapped between levels of “In-Between”, neither heaven nor hell. Willie Joe Two’s spirit restlessly roams this void for a hundred years. Then he shows up in Madame’s presence, a ninety-six year old elder, a seer and diviner of spirits.
Madame is two generations removed from Emancipation with a smooth dark face that belies the etched inner traumas growing up and surviving existence in Mississippi.
Incredibly, when Willie Joe Two disappears from his link with Madame, he journeys back to “life” and winds up getting lynched, albeit supernaturally. A new level for him: Eternally Lynched. It was the best redemption my frightened child-self could conjure.
Between 2000 and 2006, I revised the piece for voice and setting but the story arc remained the same. With every revision and re-read, a palpable release of fear inched up and flew out of the trauma trapped in my bones.
In 2007 I submitted In-Between to an editor. She was a black female author and MFA writing instructor I met at the Loving Day Conference in Chicago. Her edits were straightforward about voice (first person narrative, omit 3rd person narrator), suggesting I omit Madame as narrator.
In ensuing years, my husband, a few friends and family read Lynched, which I had retitled (from the initial In-Between title). When I joined the Twin Cities Black Women Writing Group in 2015, I submitted it for review and critique. The multigenerational women in TCBBW, founded by Dr. Carolyn Holbrook, are generous literary sister-mavens. They write across varying genres invoking voices of African ancestors and from gifted, richly complicated, and busy activist lives. Feedback from them centered on being clearer about Willie Joe’s presence, consistency in voice, and more narrative to explain the levels of In-Between. Were the levels contained between heaven and hell or was there another after-life system lurking to be named, discovered?
Some pointed out I needed a female narrator, a seer. I told them about earlier drafts where Madame meets Willie Joe but that I’d edited it out per the professional editor’s comments. Relieved, because I had always thought Madame’s presence was vital to the story, I invited her back, this time fleshing her character and first-person voice so there would be no denying her narration.
Madame became a great-great-grandmother interacting with her great-great-grandson. With glimpses into her life, still living in Mississippi, Madame represents the generational trauma within Black Americans, the inherited resiliency of survivors, both woven into the land and the nation’s psyche, alongside the trauma and rising up of indigenous North Americans.
Madame’s great-great grandson, Kedar, represents the unapologetic and insightful Black youth millennials Gen X and Z’ers who give old-school heads like me courage to swag and engage truth without the 1960s conditioning of fronting a ‘respectable’ persona in the presence of whites. The story was evolving as a portal to remember and deepen my connection to black bodies suffering, then and now.
That same year, in 2015, I began research for my solo pilgrimage to honor America’s Middle Passage Africans, at the historic transatlantic slave trade ports where they were imported (along the east and southeast Gulf coasts). I came across Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and his plans to erect a vast lynching memorial by 2018, in Alabama. I expanded Kedar’s character as an EJI intern, helping communities gather dirt at lynching locales for storage in gallon glass jars labelled with the victim’s name, to be put on view within the memorial.
As a child, lynching pictures were an unprocessed introduction to hatred based upon skin color. Today, fictional Lynched is therapeutic beyond its seemingly eye-for-an-eye theme. Willie Joe Two’s damnation of being eternally lynched is equivalent to having my father take care of the boogey man lurking under my childhood bed, of me growing up and squashing childhood fears.
Stories emerge in the world when and where they’re supposed to engage. Lynched provides an energy of justice for black victims whose white vigilante murderers were rarely, if ever, held accountable by any manmade law or court decision. With this story in my arsenal I’m not sure how much more the Equal Justice Initiative’s memorial will help heal. However, when I stand before EJI’s sacred remembrance of thousands of Black victims in America’s racist and terroristic lynching past, I will open my heart, feel what it wants to take in.
I’m haunted by images and imaginations that must be transformed by scribbling in journals and striking the alphabet on a keyboard. Writing well is no joke. Beyond the redemptive angle, this 18-year journey with Lynched has led me deeper into the territory of craft.
So it is. My 18-year offspring of 3,946 words, 82 paragraphs, and 14 manuscript pages found a home in Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Gathering at the Waters: II, Vol. 9, No. 1&2, Fall/Winter 2018.
Much gratitude to all the visionaries: Clarence V. Reynolds, Killens Review Editor, Peer Reviewers, The Center for Black Literature, and Bryan Stevenson.