On Saturday, April 6, I joined a small group of people assembled by novelist Charlotte Watson Sherman. We heard about her new novel in progress and talked about healing and racism. Her novel is based on a true story, the possible murder of a Seattle man who traveled to Mississippi to rectify a property dispute involving family land. He was found hanging from a tree, a hood over his head, burned documents at his feet. The year: 2004. Authorities ruled his death a suicide.
On a recent research trip, Charlotte, whose mother is from Mississippi, drove alone through the area where the man was hanged. A thought ran through her mind, “Don’t let the sun go down on you here.” She was stopped by police three times within seven days.
“I’m faced with the dilemma of writing about subject matter most people of any ethnicity don’t want to think about, let alone discuss. And yet, I’m determined to write a transformational healing story about lynching/race/slavery,” she said, inviting me to become part of her “clearness committee.” Because her questions and concerns are central to my own novel, I felt compelled to participate.
Standing in front of a life-sized wall hanging by Jill Littlewood of a lynched figure, stark in black and white, Charlotte posed three questions:
- Given all we know about our country’s history, is racial healing possible?
- Slavery and racism are painful subjects. How do we approach people with the topic without them shutting down, without re-traumatizing?
- What is the nature of the trauma of white people around the legacy of slavery and white privilege?
Our pens scratched across the lined paper. Then we began to talk. Members of New Legacy Puget Sound shared some of the ways in which their group sets about healing the racial wounds of slavery. The organization “seeks to transform an old legacy of pain, injustice, denial and disconnection into a new legacy of healing, justice, honesty and connection, by acknowledging and addressing the truth about slavery in America’s history, and its continuing impact on our lives today.” You can learn more about their efforts at http://newlegacypugetsound.org/index.html
We discussed the notion that the wounds of racism rooted in slavery are akin to those of soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I became obsessed with the idea of how trauma gets handed down (through the generations). It doesn’t just disappear once the event is over,” she said.
“Hang one, scare the rest,” is a phrase she came across in her research in Mississippi.
As one wise woman at our table said, “Slavery caused our social fabric to get torn. We all stand in a different relationship to the tear in the fabric.” And another said, “We make a commitment to stay at the table (sharing stories and healing through authentic dialogue across “racial” lines). Uncomfortable feelings are just a sign of what’s broken.”
A writer’s work is mostly done in solitude. It can feel lonely. And hard, especially if we’re writing about disturbing topics like hate and slavery. I hope Saturday’s gathering of voices will lend Charlotte strength as she pursues a story filled with pain, one that she feels compelled to tell, one she’s bringing into the light of day for healing.