Monday, February 27, 2012

How Strom Thurmond Influenced Me

Ol' Strom
I know what you're thinking! How could a dead segregationist governor influence some black woman? Well, let me explain.

About four years ago I read Dear Senator, a memoir by Essie Mae Washington-Williams.  Ms. Williams is the African American love child of the South Carolina Senator (and former Governor) and his family's African American maid, Carrie Washington.

My mother is from South Carolina, so all my life I've had ties to the South, and for many years I've known about this "secret child." My mother even knew someone who went to college with her.  So when I'd heard that Ms. Williams had "come out" and written a memoir, I couldn't wait to read it!

The story of Ms. Williams's mother and her relationship with Thurmond was heartbreaking and touching, as well as fascinating.  I couldn't stop reading.  And after I'd finished, I couldn't get the story out of my head.

I kept thinking, what would have happened if Ms. Williams had been born a boy who grew up to become a Civil Rights leader at the same time his father was a segregationist governor.  And another thought was, what if Thurmond, a young law student at the time, had been willing to give up everything to be Carrie Washington?

If you're familiar with my blog, you know that Dear Senator inspired my novel The Governor's Sons.  Ms. Williams's memoir, however, is quite sad.  Her mother was all of sixteen when she became pregnant by the then twenty three year old Thurmond.

Thurmond did care for Carrie, but not to the point of giving up everything for her, and their affair lasted over several years, off and on.  But when she died, Thurmond didn't know until Essie told him.

Thurmond provided financially for his love child and stayed in contact with her all of his life.  Ms. Williams still maintains contact with his family--which is her family too!  I couldn't help but feel for both of them (Essie Mae and Strom) as I read her story.

Thurmond wanted to do the right thing by providing for his daughter and being a presence in her life. But if the truth about her had ever been discovered by the public, his career would have been destroyed.  And Ms. Williams had to settle for what little of himself her father could give her, while he shared the limelight with his wife and their children.

If you're at all interested in race matters and love stories, I highly recommend Dear Senator!

Had you ever heard of Essie Mae Washington-Williams's story before the news broke about it a few years back?

Thanks for visiting!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Jack Johnson's Tragic Love Story

Jack Johnson and Etta Duryea
If you're familiar with the movie The Great White Hope, you probably know that the Jack Jefferson character portrayed by James Earl Jones is based on the real life American boxer Jack Johnson.  During the Jim Crow era, Johnson became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915).

Geoffrey C. Ward wrote an excellent biography of Johnson entitled Unforgivable Blackness, which was made into a PBS documentary by Ken Burns. 

Johnson's success brought fame and riches, and to the dismay of most of white America at the time, he disregarded the social and economic standard set for blacks in American society.  He flaunted his wealth in fine clothes and fast cars, and broke the taboo of a black man consorting with white women.

The charismatic Johnson was married three times, and all his wives were white. In January  of 1911, Johnson married Etta Duryea, a glamorous Brooklyn socialite who was well educated, played the piano and sang.  She was also the former wife of businessman Charles Duryea, the engineer of the first ever working American gasoline powered car.

Etta was prone to depression, and after news of her marriage to Johnson made it back to Brooklyn, the isolation she suffered from being cut off from family friends, along with Jack's raucous lifestyle, contributed to her suicide in 1912.

In Unforgivable Blackness, Ward recounts how appalled Etta's relatives were that she had married such a man as Jack. At her funeral, one of Etta's family members accused Jack of never having loved her, and to this he said something like, "I have eyes and I have a heart, and they told me I loved her."  (I must confess, I was so touched by that line, I used it myself in my novel The Governor's Sons.

If you'd like to learn more about the real life Great White Hope, be sure to read Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson or check out the PBS Documentary. Johnson's story is truly a fascinating one! 

Had you ever heard of Jack Johnson?

Thanks for visiting!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Love, Love, Love The Lovings!

Mildred and Richard Loving
Tomorrow is Valentines Day and HBO is airing The Loving Story.  This documentary film tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, and also examines the current state of interracial marriage and its tolerance in the United States.
When I first read about the Lovings several years ago, I thought what a fitting (and ironic) name for them!
Richard Loving was white, and his wife, Mildred, black. In 1958, since they couldn’t marry in their home state of Virginia where interracial marriage was banned, they went to Washington, D.C. where they could legally wed.  However, upon returning home as a married couple, they were arrested, jailed and banished from the state for 25 years for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act.
The Lovings agreed to leave Virginia and relocated to Washington. By doing this they avoided jail time. But after living there for five years and having three children, they missed family and friends and wanted to return home to Caroline County, Virginia. 
Around this time they contacted Bernard Cohen, an attorney volunteering at the ACLU, to request that he ask the Caroline County judge to reconsider his decision.
Cohen and another lawyer challenged the Lovings' conviction, but the original judge in the case, Leon Bazile, upheld his ruling claiming: "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. ... The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
The case moved all the way up to the Supreme Court where Cohen made this argument:
"The Lovings have the right to go to sleep at night knowing that if should they not wake in the morning, their children would have the right to inherit from them. They have the right to be secure in knowing that, if they go to sleep and do not wake in the morning, that one of them, a survivor of them, has the right to Social Security benefits. All of these are denied to them, and they will not be denied to them if the whole anti-miscegenistic scheme of Virginia... [is] found unconstitutional." 
After the ruling, in their favor (now known as the "Loving Decision") they returned home to Caroline County.
A happy ending to now what seems an unbelievable story—and believe it or not, they were arrested in the privacy of their bedroom during the middle of the night!
Had you ever heard of the Lovings' story? 
Thanks for visiting, and Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 6, 2012

How Did You Meet the Love of Your Life?

It’s February, the month of love, and I enjoy reading about how people met and fell in love.  My story sounds like fiction, but it really happened!  I’ll share in a moment, but it wasn’t until after I got married that I became an author, and my marriage is what inspired me to begin writing in the first place.

I create tales of forbidden love, and my next book, Escape, due out this spring, is a story about a slave girl who is helped to escape from bondage by a young abolitionist who falls in love with her.  I came up with the story idea when I began thinking about how sad it would have been if my husband and I  had fallen in love 200 years earlier.  Then, we wouldn’t have been able to marry, because he’s white, and I’m black.

Interracial love isn’t forbidden nowadays, but sometimes it still tends to be a sticky topic, so let me tell you how I met my husband. 

I started running in 1993.  It was a little hard at first, but I finally built up my endurance.  After a few months I was running 5-7 miles every day after work.  About a year later, my future husband Richard, noticed me.

But he’d only see me one day a week, and that was Thursday mornings, when my work schedule (as a librarian) was 12 noon to 9 p.m.  On those days I’d run at 7 a.m.  He couldn’t figure out where I’d come from, and he’d only see me sporadically.

Then one Friday evening during the summer, Richard was on his way to meet friend.  He saw me running and took that opportunity to pull over his car and talk to me. “Excuse me,” he said.

I assumed he needed directions, but instead Richard said, “I’ve seen you running.”  Well at that remark, I figured he was some know it all jock who wanted to tell me my technique was all wrong.  I was prepared to thank him and be on my way.  I’d read Jim Fixx’s book on running, and I knew all I needed to know about running (Jim Fixx died while running, so we won’t go there).  The next thing Richard said caught me completely off guard.  “I just want to tell you that I think you’re extremely attractive, and I want to ask you to lunch.”

The eyes are the mirror to the soul.  Richard has beautiful green eyes and they look honest, plus he’s handsome (okay, he's hot) and having just met him, he seemed like a genuinely nice person (and he is).  But despite all this I joked, “Okay, as long as you’re not a rapist or an ax murderer."  He adamantly assured me that he wasn’t.

After two dates, we really liked each other.  His mother, who lived three hours away, asked what I looked like.  To this Richard replied, “She’s an—extreme brunette,” and left it at that.

We met in July, and by September we were talking about getting married.  Now, around this time, he’d gotten information about his 10th high school reunion and he’d invited me to go. This meant I’d get to meet his parents.  However, he still hadn’t told them everything about me, like that I’m black, for instance.

So, unbeknown to me, the day before we were to arrive, Richard called his parents. “By the way,” he said, “More than just Maria’s hair is extreme brunette—she’s black.”  I’m sure there were a few long moments of stunned silence, but whatever else he said must have put their minds at ease, because our first meeting was a very pleasant one!

Richard and I met in July of 1994 and married in July of 1995.  In addition to a wonderful husband and two amazing kids, my interracial marriage has given me a brand new career as a writer!

How did you meet the love of your life?

If you enjoy forbidden love stories--and want to participate in the Brother Can You Spare Sequel Contest--be sure to purchase a copy of The Governor’s Sons:

Twenty-three year old Ash Kroth comes from an old southern family of wealth and prestige. It is 1936, but despite this, and his driven political ambition to one day become governor, Ash recklessly pursues beautiful "Negro" college student Kitty Wilkes. Ash's life is forever changed because of Kitty, and 30 years later, as a segregationist governor, he must confront the consequences of his love for her.

Thanks for visiting!