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tv   [untitled]    July 28, 2010 9:03pm-9:33pm PST

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born. >> before. >> [laughter]. >> thank you, scott. >> what did you hear about your great grand mother growing up? >> i heard everything was she was elegant and she was gorgeous and she was vivacious and she was beautiful and she was amazing. and i also knew that she was color struck. i knew that she had a little judgment of people by their skin tone. and so i really didn't want to like her very much but everyone had had these fabulous stories that she was generous, that she cooked for everyone. she made her own homemade wine and so gradualy i got really
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drawn in to try to figure out why she was held in such high regard by everyone else. even though she had southern attitudes that i personnelly didn't appreciate. >> you say she was elegant and beautiful and compared no less a person than jacqueline kennedy? >> my mother often said, this was actually a run on phrase for her where she would say, she was elegant just like jackie o. >> [laughter]. >> and it didn't make a lot of sense to me. because i had done enough research to know that she was a little buzzed on her homemade wine everyday and dipped snuff and she -- there was a story about her that she was a very
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small woman. she was under 5 feet. and she got on a cotton scale and weighed herself she was 95 pounds. and jumped off and it is if i known i was that close i wouldn't have spit out my tobacco. she always wanted to be a hundred pounds. she was a very, very lively wonderful woman that i came to appreciate more. >> your family is a mix of going way back of slaves and their children many cases the fathers were french farmers, french landowners. i want to talk about the relationships that they had because they were interesting and surprising in the book that the tenderness in a way that came out of the relationships. but when you say that your great
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grand mother had issues about skin color, what do you mean? >> i mean that she gave more weight to african-americans that were lighter in skin color than those that were darker. as i did so much of my research i came to see this as a sign of the times. and a sign of where she came from and a sign of the family and what the family had gone through. and very specifically, there were more opportunities that were open for children that were more fair then as they grew up and into adults. they had more of a chance to get a better job. to get a better education. and she gravitated towards that. that's what i mean by color
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struck. >> someone in the book described it as bleaching the line. having children with white men and ending up with >> getting more and more fair down through the generations. that i will not attribute to her i called it bleaching the line. i should have attributed you wouldn't have known. [laughter]. and that's sort of an interesting question about the book. it's based on in truth and fact and research that you did in louisiana and family lore and other things. and, yet, there are conversations which were not recorded in any way and motivations you had to construe and phrases like, bleach the line, how do you put yourself in the minds of the mostly women but men as well? >> that was a process that took
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quite a lot of time. the book actually took 3 years to write. that doesn't include the year and a half of research. so i had a lot of time to try to get it right but -- i became these women each in their turn and when i sat down to write the book having no experience in writing, other than business plans. but when i sat down to write the book i was teaching myself how to do it by becoming each of these women and writing in a e diary as if i was emily or suzet or as if i was elizabeth. and i did that talking about their daily lives and what i thought they would be thinking about. and as i got more familiar with
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each one of these characters who has a very specific personality and specific place, as they started to jell for me i through them in a room together and started to write dialogue between them. it was made up dialogue but i started to get more of a sense of who was in a power position and who was more articulate and who relied on emotion. in my head i became each one of the characters in the book. not only the women but the men as well. >> were there any characters who -- who gave you toughest times? >> no question, narsis. he was my great, great
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grandfather. i have a roots wall in my house where i have all the pictures that i have i have blown up and put them on the wall. all but his. i still to this day can't make myself do it. but he was a character that was a bit of a mystery to me because he was -- without him my family, the female part of the family would not have been able to get land. and that was incredibly important. and i have to -- i have to thank him for that. i'm not sure i can forgive him for the other things we did but he really was beneficial. for the family. i had a very tough time trying to reconcile his public views, his private views, the fact that
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he had another family. and he had this as a side family. the fact that he participated in some k k k activities. >> this was a very tough one. >> there are several scenes in the book where he's approaching fellamin and she's young 14, 15 or 16 and has interest in her. and she is a slave. and he is a french landowner. how did you sort of calibrate that relationship in terms of -- it was an alliance in a way. it was forcing himself on her. and yet, she saw opportunity. in that relationship. and took it. >> the "cane river" is a blend of fact and fiction i call
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faction. it is one of the hardest incidents, one of the hardest situations for me to reconcile was my great, great, great grand mother fellamin who had a child by narsis when she was young. he went to the civil war and she had more children by him. this was very difficult for me to understand because she was no longer a slave. she was then free and so that gave me a sense of what her character was in terms of exploiting opportunity and mapipulating situations the best that she could. and it gave me an indication of what he must have been like in order to be subjected to that.
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>> he, as you suggested, did horrible things. when the plantation that she and other family members suzet and elizabeth was dissolved they were sold. he saw to it that fillamin's boyfriend clement was sent in a different direction. he didn't have to compete with him. they had a very tight bond clement and fellamin. it's hard to understand how she could forgive him and have several more children with him. >> it's not clear to me she did forgive him. i think she saw hashe needed to do for her children and hashe was willing to sacrifice for herself. it was not clear there was love or forgiveness involved.
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there were moments in the book of joy that these families shared especially after the war. do you have a sense of whether people who are living as slaves could have lives in contentment? a version of contentment. >> i wouldn't use the word contentment because that implies some sustained state over time. i would say that you -- even the worst of circumstances you can grab some piece of joy from time to time. you can have solice, you can appreciate the fact that you have family. and want to preserve that at whatever the cost is. but i'm not sure that i would ever call that contentment. >> yeah. the relationship between narsis
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and fellamin's children were complicated. some of the kids called him papa. he had another family where he was the open father to them and lived as their father. i was surprised at the level of tenderness that was expressed between him and the kids and fellamin at times. it almost made him a more sympathetic character than one might imagine. how hard was that for you? >> very, very difficult. i believe that it's very -- it's living with those dualities is indicative of the self because you do have to live with contradictory notions. and that's what i believe that they were doing is living with
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those notions. >> before writing the book you went to "cane river" to louisiana, did a lot of research, what kind of reception did you get. what obstacles did you find? >> well. depends on which decade you are talking about. i did research starting where from the time i was very small and we went back every summer even though i was born here in berkeley, we went back every summer to louisiana and i was always interested and did a lot of both formal and informal research. starting in the 50's and the 60's. i will tell you that when i first started that research and a lot of the research i did in that time period was i was
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largely unaided by any official source. i would go to the courthouse and ask for records and they would not give them to me. it was very clearly. it was very clear they were not going to give them to me. >> what records were you asking for. >> i was looking for land records and looking for records of the fraydues. and the concept was that there were black fraydues and white fraydues. there was not going to be an acceptance of me setting out to prove that they were commingleded. even though everyone knew they were. very southern thing. as i went into the 70's, people started to begrudgingingly give me the records. the 80's, it was just, you know,
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sort of the fine, fine. fine. as i went to the 90's it was easier. after oprah, that was a whole different, people were chasing we down the street. i have a record i think you might be interested in. it was almost to that point. it wasn't really wasn't only that the people that were managing those records in libraries or courthouses had changed some were the same people. so interesting to me. it was fascinating to see that not only the times had changed but some of the people themselves had changed. >> no longer acceptable. >> no longer unacceptable. >> yeah. >> yes. >> one of the records you found in which you reprinted in the book is an 1850 bill of sale.
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from the plantation that fellamin and elizabeth and others were working on. and it's quite extraordinary. it lists them by name. their age and just as an example here a slave elizabeth age 48 not guaranteed sold to her. >> age 9 to joseph for 1400 dollars. what went through your mind as you first found this bill of sale and looked at it and read it through. >> that was a document and emotions got extended in the
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moment. it took 18 months to find that document. i didn't know i was looking for it i knew i was looking for something that would help me identify my great, great u great, grand mother. this document was the first time i pushed back and got a bonus grand mother out of it where suzet had a name. i knew emily and knew her mother by name even though i didn't have many stores about her. i didn't know fellamin's mother's name. when we found that and i say, we, i had to hire a professional geneiologist to help me find this. that document was in 10,000 unindexed records. that they had to go through page by page by page and the records
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a majority of those records were in very, very badly preserved creole french. which is why i couldn't go through them i would have missed something. i know english, the emotions of finded that were first, joy. i was so thrilled. i cannot tell you how happy i was to at last be delivered these ancestors in this way and had names and they had a place and then to go from that to just fury. real anger. that people were selling people. >> and different directions to different people. >> i'd like you to read a passage that describes some of what lead to the sale.
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and we can talk about it after. to set it up this is after the rose due the plantation was being dissolved and these ladies were being sold. >> this is before the sale itself. where the assessors come in and they put a price on everything. and they line the slaves up. all of the men went first. oldest to youngest. then it was the women's turn. only mothers with babies were allowed to come before the assessor's table. the process went smoothly witness everyone understood was that expected. a dollar figure was suggested and debated. they marked it down in the book. a special note was made for defect physical or mental. on auction day it was honorable to provide full disclosure among
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gentlemen of damaged merchandise. elizabeth heard her children assessed the over seer winked and smiled proud to display his knowledge. a strong healthy buck. prime, no defects. no less than 1500 dollars. he has the hernia pulled up now and again past prime. with the siblings he should bring 12-1300. auntie's getting slow good for the house and cooking. 800 would be fair. deaf and dumb the lash gets her attention. bidding should start at 900. the up one is set aside. the assessors kept steadly until each slave was accounted for. they finished as the sun
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disapeered through a dense thicket of pine trees to the west. the slaves avoided looking at one another. they trujed to the quarter against the silence shauleders hunched even the children did not speak. they made fires and prepared the evening meals. some hardliate. wanting to go to bed and close their eyeing until the morning light. elizabeth lay down on their palette. we have dollars on us now. we always had dollars on us elizabeth said. this is different the sale is certain. they lay on the palette without speaking. his chest to elizabeth's back. his knees tucked under hers. elizabeth thought he had fallen asleep until she heard his voice. you have been a good wife.
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if we don't end up on the same place i don't want another. i'm through, too. we made fine children, wife. we did, husband. >> when the plantation bell rang out the next morning they were still folded together in the same position. >> and they were sold to different owners. and you are right in the book that mothers and fathers were most likely to be deliberately separated, why? >> there was coming about the talent pool and or the labor pool in where labor was needed. but also there was safety in instability. and instability and familiarity and so things were often shaken up. children were sold where parents were sold and they were sold
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away from one another. in this case in "cane river," which is about a 19 mile stretch they were sold up and down the river. they didn't totally drift out of one another's lives but was not easy to stay in touch. >> yeah. the character fellamin your great, great, great grand mother you gave her the power to see visions and the visions were true in terms of predicting the future. then she began to see glimsings as a way to manipult narsis by telling him i see this in your future and it was things we wanted to see in hers and her children's future. how did you come up with that?
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was that was that based in fact at all? >> i'm still not going to tell you. [laughter]. >> a lot of what's in the book are based on family stories, a lot are based on research and some are made up. one of the things that anything that is in the book with a caption a figure there's a photo there's a document all of those things i will share with you are absolutely real. anything that doesn't have a caption i'm not going there. [laughter]. the fact that you chose to give her this power, what did it say about her in terms of how you viewed her? >> i actually believe she had to be very manipulative to get
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what she got when she had so little to bargain with. and she did end up in a position of power. which was amazing because she was a former first slave and a former slave was amazing because she was a woman and because she was poor. yet, she really had a lot of control over her environment. far more than you would think. to me the only way to do that she had to be very smart, determined, creative and i believe she was manipulative. >> yeah. after the war ends, the family is reunited which is fellamin's glims. what did it take to pull those
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people back together into the same area. >> on the same piece of land. they all came back and reunited on her land. which is just beyond amazing. now one of the system lended itself to that. it's all about labor and to have a piece of land you need people to work it. if they are family that makes sense. and there are people you can trust and you understand who they are. but even so, everyone in the family had been just scattered from hitherto yawn through sales, through movement. and for them to all come back together had to be just a tremendous desire to keep that family unit in tact. and it wasn't direct family it was siblings and you know it was
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extended family. i think it was tough to do. did that -- has that had an impact on your current day family. the fact that emily was so part of your family lore and that reuniting that occurred did that pull your family closer together in later generations after her? >> yeah. i also think that's -- it's a way of thinking. this is a different line of family but the thought process is the same. when my father left louisiana to come to california he came by himself. he had he was married and had 2 children i was not yet born. he came. got a job. sent money back. when he had enough, then my mother came with the 2 children. and then when he saved enough money he sent money back and brought his brother over. when he it more money he brought
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his other brother. that's a concept that's not louisiana or the south it is a concept around the family unit and the importance of that unit. >> as you have been out over the past years touring and talking about this book what reaction have you had, particularly in places like louisiana and alabama and georgia? >> it's really been gratifying. now, i have to assume those people that would be upset don't turn out. [laughter] >> good thing. but those people that turn out have just really they have been interested in genealogy and interested in their own family tree and interested in the concepts. what surprised me the most without question is i was doing
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my initial touring with this were the number of people who would come up to me after everything was over and they would say, you told my story. this is my story. and i would be very gratified about that especially if i understood. if i looked up and it was an african-american woman and from louisiana who said, you told my story. i would look up sometimes and it would be a man or it would be a vietnamese woman. an immigrant. the details were different but being marginalized and deciding whether you would a simulate and what our children would do and what you are willing to