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Although I have yet to meet Jonathan Odell in person, we have been friends for about three years, ever since we discovered that both of us were writing about Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones (click here for his views on that story). Jon’s first novel, The View From Delphi, is a great favorite of mine. His second novel, The Healing,  is forthcoming from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in February, 2012, and promises to be a blockbuster. My review of it follows.

Vikki

Jonathan Odell’s second novel, The Healing, introduces readers to Gran Gran, the lonely inhabitant of an ancient, decayed mansion located on a former slave plantation. The old black midwife and folk doctor, once a vital presence in the surrounding community of Shinetown, is now dismissed and feared as a witch by Shinetown’s younger generation.

The story opens on a damp winter day in 1933 shortly after Gran Gran finds herself in charge of a young girl, Violet, whose mother has died following an abortion attempt. Gran Gran’s efforts to comfort Violet within the confines of the rambling old mansion—where many years ago she lived as the petted slave child of her deranged mistress, Amanda Satterfield—prepares Odell’s readers for a journey back to when this household vibrated with the laughter, tears, and hustle of slaves alongside the commands, demands, and recriminations of its master and mistress. Back then, Gran Gran—or Granada, as she was called—considered the indulgences of her white mistress as proof that she was above the “swamp slaves” who worked the fields. No harm, she thought, could ever come to a dark-skinned girl allowed to wear a white girl’s ruffles and ribbons, even if that dark-skinned girl was a slave.

Granada’s assumptions are soon challenged by the arrival of Shinetown’s first true healer, the extraordinary Polly Shine. The woman for whom Shinetown will eventually be named is purchased by Master Ben Satterfield in a desperate effort to save his field slaves from the ravages of disease.  Polly, a slave doctor of African and Indian ancestry, immediately sets tongues wagging among free and enslaved alike.  Her healing gifts, combined with her audacious manner and appearance (highlighted by a head scarf festooned with shiny metal disks that fringe her forehead), signal that life will never again be the same for those who live at Satterfield Plantation, whether in its Great House or its most distant and dismal slave quarters.   

Day-by-day in serial fashion Gran Gran tells Violet her life’s story, transporting her—and readers—back to the world of slavery. The tedium of field work, the dangers of swamp life, and the horrors of epidemic disease mark the lives of slaves, as do the personal triumphs, defeats, sorrows, and joys of daily life. Odell effectively contrasts the perspectives of the free and the unfree, showing their lives to be inextricably entangled. Like so many slaveholders, Master Ben prides himself on understanding the mental and physical characteristics of Africans that he believes have destined them for slavery; yet the institution that has brought slaveholders such great wealth has also brought Ben and Amanda Satterfield an equal measure of personal misery.

The women of Satterfield Plantation are The Healing’s centerpiece. Moving between present and past, Odell creates parallel relationships between adolescent girls and wise old women (Polly and Granada, Gran Gran and Violet) in which motherhood—its joys and its sorrows—is a recurring theme. Whether addressing the slaveholding regime of the antebellum South or the hard-bitten segregated society of twentieth-century Mississippi, Odell places women’s reverence for motherhood alongside desperate acts of abortion driven by rape, coercive sexual liaisons, and economic impoverishment. 

Gran Gran’s efforts to revive Violet’s spirit by telling her the story of Shinetown forces her to confront painful events of her own life—the loss of her mother, her failure of nerve in the presence of so great a force for freedom as Polly Shine, her years as Shinetown’s doctor. Happily, Violet does not remain the passive recipient of Gran Gran’s hard-won wisdom. Readers will delight in the manner in which she becomes the vehicle for the remembrance and reconciliation of past hurts that allows Gran Gran’s own deadened spirit to soar, and which provides the book’s final message of hope.

Victoria Bynum

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Note from Moderator: Jonathan Odell has given me permission to reprint the following essay.  For more of Jon’s creative writings, visit him at http://jon-odell.com/




Rachel Knight: Slave, White Man’s Mistress and Mother to a Movement”

by Jonathan Odell


Rachel’s Children

I can’t help but think of the Old Testament Abraham when I hear stories about Newt Knight. Both men sired children by a wife and a slave. In Newt’s case it was Serena and Rachel. With Abraham, Sara and Hagar. According to religious texts, one of these women went on to become the matriarch of God’s chosen people. Exactly which one depends on what you happen to be reading, your Bible or your Koran. Jews and Christians claim the wife Sarah and Muslims claim the handmaiden Hagar. Several Crusades were launched trying to settle thatmatter.

In Jones County, there’s always been a fierce crusade of competing stories about Rachel, the white account versus the black account. Like most stories, the white interpretation gets written down and called history, while the black story gets handed down by word-of-mouth and called folklore.

Growing up as a white boy, I swore by Ethel Knight’s written-down version. According to her, Rachel was a light-skinned temptress with blue-green eyes and flowing chestnut hair. But evil as the day is long. Ethel alternately calls her a vixen, a witch, a conjure woman, a murderer and a strumpet.

Serena, Newt’s white wife, is but an innocent captive, forced a gunpoint to live in this den of iniquity, and like Newt, powerless as Rachel’s sorcery wrecked and degraded their family.

As a child of Jim Crow, this narrative satisfied my budding sensibilities about race. In my white-bubble world, there could never be any possibility of true love or affection between a white man and a black woman. Nor would any white man sire children by a black woman and then choose to live amongst his mixed-race offspring. Unless of course, the black woman had either seduced him unmercifully or mysteriously conjured him, or both. It just wasn’t possible that he actually loved her, or her children.

Imagine my surprise when I heard, as they say, “the rest of the story.” It was as shocking as sitting down in church and listening to the preacher get up and declare from the pulpit that Abraham’s birthright went to Hagar’s kid Ishmael, instead of Sarah’s son, Isaac, and it was we Christians who were the infidels!  Boy would that turn some peoples world upside down!

I felt something akin to this when I listened to a gathering of Rachel’s descendents tell me their side of things.  First of all Rachel wasn’t some immoral viper. To Pat and Flo and Peggy, Rachel was a role model—a strong black woman with no legitimate authority in a racist society, doing what needed to be done for her children, regardless of the cost to herself. Somebody you would like your daughter to grow up like.

“Was she the green-eyed slave with long flowing hair like Ethel said?” I asked.

“She was what we called a Guinea Negro,” answered Yvonne, another of Rachael’s great-grandchildren. “That means she was dark, not light-skinned like Ethel writes. She had course hair and she was short. Similar to Australian aborigines. She was mixed, but not white-looking.”

It was beginning to sound like a white conspiracy against Rachel, but then Yvonne let me in on a little secret. Whites weren’t the only ones who liked the story of Rachel appearing white. “That’s the way some of my cousins who pass for white want her to be depicted. They deny that they had any black in them so they don’t want Rachel to be black, either.”

“That was partially Newt’s fault,” Yvonne continued. “My mother said that Newt was trying to cleanse the black out of Rachel’s children. Because of the one-drop rule, he wanted to get rid of that drop of black blood. That’s why he married his white children to each other black children.” Yvonne grins at her relatives around the table. “As for me, I proudly claim my one drop!”

There is a burst of laughter. All these women agree on that point.

“And how about the part about being Rachel being a vixen and a witch?” I asked.

“It was always assumed that the slave was to blame for the husband’s indiscretions,” Yvonne explained. “She had to have some special power over him. It couldn’t be that he cared for her.”

Yvonne was right. That’s what I was always told. Slave owners were mostly noble men and succumbed only when mightily tempted. Why else would Newt isolate himself from his community and willingly be labeled as a deviate if he weren’t bewitched?

“In my family we believe that Newt really loved Rachel,” Pat said.

“It was not a casual relationship,” Yvonne added. “And he loved all of his children. My understanding is that they were all raised up on the same land. They all lived together, played together, ate together. My grandmother was Newt’s granddaughter, said she didn’t know she had a drop of black blood until she was all raised up.”

“I guess you can’t believe everything you read,” I said. “How do the black Knights feel about Ethel’s book?”

“My grandfather was Warren Smith,” Yvonne said, “He was Rachel’s grandson and he said that Ethel’s book was a pack of lies.  Said she was smart enough to create an entertaining account of Newt and Rachel’s relationship. But unfortunately,” Yvonne concluded, “white people tend to believe every word.”

Yvonne was right. I sure did. But now I’m not sure what to think. Rachel’s people have got me thoroughly confused. That’s what happens when folks start messing with the stories you were raised on.

So it comes down to that old, nagging question once more—which story is true? The truth is…I don’t know. I think they all might be. The way a story shapes a person is the truest thing there is.

The Italians say it better: All stories are true. Some even happened.

Gregory “Butch” Knight

There is probably no sadder task in the world than trying to get to know your father after he has died. Yet Butch Knight told me that was something he was determined to do.

I first met Butch at a gathering of the Knights who proudly trace their roots back to the ex-slave Rachel and the infamous Newt. Some of their descendants are called “black Knights”. Some are called “white black Knights”, because of their Caucasian features. Their history is complex. They are caught right in the crosshairs of our absurd national obsession with color.

For instance, Butch’s father, Hayston Knight, was the great-grandson of Newt and Rachel Knight. Butch showed me a photo of his father. There was nothing in the picture that would cause me to think this man black. His features were of a light-skinned, fine-boned white man. Butch said many of the Knights with his father’s appearance were encouraged to leave the area so they could pass for white, and raise their children as white. Of course they could never return home, lest their children discover their ancestry. The break had to be complete. Those who stayed were pressured into choosing marriage partners with their shade of pigmentation or lighter. Never darker.

“Not my father,” Butch recalled. “He said that foolishness was going to stop with him. He said he wanted to marry the blackest woman he could find. He was going to break the cycle.”

Butch said his father never denied who he was. On his first day in the army, Hayston’s sergeant ordered all the whites in one line and all the blacks in another. When Hayston placed himself with the other black soldiers, the sergeant shouted, “Didn’t you hear me? I said, only the n______’s over there!”

Hayston said defiantly, “Well, I guess I’m in the right place because I’m a n______!”

In the 1950’s Hayston got a job with a local grocery wholesaler and because of his intelligence and his white appearance was given significant responsibility in managing the operation. He was also put in charge of breaking in the new white trainees, who were inevitably promoted over Hayston. The family believed that the stress and the humiliation sent him to an early grave.

“My daddy wasn’t proud. He could have passed,” Butch says. “I wanted to write about my father. How he had to live in the black world and work in the white world.”

Butch admits being ashamed of his father while he was alive, seeing one white man after the other promoted over him. And his father never talked back.

“I admire him now,” Butch admits, with tears in his eyes. “He did it for us, his children. So he could support his family.”

“I’m starting to understand the struggle he had to go through,” Butch continued, “Not white enough to be accepted by whites. And too white to be accepted by blacks.”

I encouraged Butch to write about his father, as I’m doing with my dad after losing him last year to cancer. Sometimes it’s a lonely undertaking, with many ghosts, especially those missed moments when feelings went forever unspoken. But writing it down seems to help soothe the grief.

I didn’t need to encourage him. Butch had already begun the research. He even went so far as to sit down with Ethel Knight, the author of Echo of the Black Horn, to see what he could learn from her about his father.

“What did you think about her book?” I asked.

“Lies,” he said, referring to the way she denied the black descendants of Newt Knight in her book. “But when I went to see her, she treated me like long lost kin. It was very strange.”

I offered to work with Butch on his father’s biography. I could tell he was feeling some sense of urgency. Then he explained. Butch’s father died when he was 58. “An aneurism. Runs in family,” Butch said. “Comes from both sides.” Butch went on to say that this year, he had turned 58.  “I’m shaking in my boots.” His sisters who were present that day assured Butch that wouldn’t be the case for him. Butch didn’t appear comforted. I got the sense that he thought he might have waited until it was too late to discover the truth about his father.

Butch and I agreed to meet the next time I was in Mississippi and continue our discussion about his dad.  I put together a list of questions for Butch and was excited about dedicating a chapter in my upcoming book about his search for his father. When I called from Minnesota to arrange a meeting, his sister answered the phone.

“Butch died last month,” she said. “He collapsed while he was out mowing his yard.”

I wasn’t sure why that hit me so hard. In a way, it was like losing my father all over again. Perhaps I had hoped that by helping Butch discover his dad, in the process, I could also become closer to mine.
But that’s not to be. Perhaps, in the end, that is something a person can do only for himself. And maybe, looking for our fathers is like looking for our reflection in a mirror that has gone dim. We can never get close enough to make it out.

I’ll miss my friend, and I hope that where he is now, the reflection he gazes upon is bright and true, and he has found the answers was searching for.

For more columns on the Knights, white and black, see:

Newt Knight: Emperor Of The Free State Of Jones

White Negro Communities: Too White To Be Black And Too Black To Be White

By Jon Odell

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UPDATE, Sept. 26, 2009: Please note below that I have corrected the time of Jon’s presentation from 1:30 pm to 2:30 pm. 

One of my favorite writers, Jonathan Odell, will give a presentation on his various works of fiction and nonfiction on October 5, 2:30 p.m., at Provision Living, 217 Methodist Blvd (across the street from Turtle Creek Mall) in Hattiesburg, MS.

Jonathan Odell

Jonathan Odell

Jon will read from his novel, The View From Delphi, something you won’t want to miss. As I wrote last December in my review of this book, “Odell writes the kind of fiction that makes history come alive. He is a master of dialogue, revealing a keen understanding of human character.” Here’s what others have said:
From an anonymous reviewer: “As an African American. . . . rarely have I read a book by a white author in which there is a black main character who is not rescued by benevolent white characters. . . . Jon Odell has invited us all into an honest dialogue about our race stories, our relationships across race, and ultimately our shared history and future as Americans.” From Randi Madden: “It was truly a ‘slice of life’– something that happens to others, the joy of finding friends in places you didn’t imagine, the harsh reality of what is the South.” From J. Gilbert: “As a native Mississippian, I appreciated the honesty of Odell’s story and the artful way he developed the characters.”
The View From Delphi

The View From Delphi

Jon will also discuss what he has learned about Jones County’s controversial history after interviewing over 100 folks on topics as varied as the legends surrounding Newt Knight, the 1951 execution of Willie McGee, and the life story of Laurel, Mississippi’s own Leontyne Price.

Intrigued? Then head on over to Provision Living on October 5.  Refreshments will be served, and Jon will be happy to sign your books. If you don’t already have a copy of The View From Delphi, you’ll find it at Main Street Books, 210 N Main St., in Hattiesburg. The event is free of charge.

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[Jonathan Odell has written extensively about his native state of Mississippi and is the author of the novel, The View From Delphi.  This post was adapted from comments Jon made on Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory blog.]

 

After interviewing many of the “Black Knight” descendants, one thing I’ve learned that concerns them is how easily whites are convinced to idealize the “romantic” relationship between Newt Knight and the ex-slave Rachel. I don’t think they would agree with a commenter who, as quoted on Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog, wrote that “it’s less problematic” that Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, authors of State of Jones,  “sexed up a romantic relationship for the sake of a film” then if they generally misread the meaning of Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones.

Black women in the days following the Civil War were at the bottom of the heap power-wise. Whether Knight’s assumed romantic feelings for Rachel were reciprocated is missing the point. We will never know, because in the context of that era, it was irrelevant. Good for her if she did, but for black mothers in those days, romantic love was not the driving motivation. Who they loved was immaterial to surviving. She had to find the least worst choice that would keep her and her children alive. Sexing up the relationship for a more satisfying (and modern) ending, further obscures the wrenching sacrifices made and amazing courage displayed by black women of that era.

Just another thought. I was raised in Jones County and have been fascinated to find that the Knights were not the only family line that diverged down two paths after the Civil War. Several former slave owners sired black offspring, and in this part of the country, many thought that even your black children were to be cared for. Many acres of land are still owned by descendants of slaves who were bequeathed the parcel by a white father. But in none of these incidents do the direct black descendants assume that anything like romantic love played a part. According to them black women after the War were as much sexual slaves to white men as they were before the war. And interestingly enough, neither do they call it rape. “Taking somebody to the barn,” as they commonly refer to the occurrence, was just the nature of things. I guess that’s why context is everything. Projecting 21st century notions of romantic love onto 19th century southern interracial relations, as Jenkins and Stauffer have done, won’t take us far toward understanding the lives of black, multiracial, or for that matter white women.

Jonathan Odell

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