Long after the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Jim Crow South enforced segregation through lynching. In Tara McPherson’s book, Reconstructing Dixie, she writes that even minor sidewalk infractions could result in public lynching for black citizens. It is this inglorious past that haunts many of us in the South, especially those who were born into a family on the wrong side of history.
As a senior at the University of Florida, Janis Owens researched her family’s genealogy as it related to a well-known spectacle lynching that took place in her hometown of Mariana, Florida in 1934. It was 1983 then, and Janis discovered that a few eyewitnesses to Claude Neal’s lynching were still alive–including a few of her family members. Ironically, when Janis delved deeper into her family’s racial makeup, she learned that her father’s family had such a mix of ethnic backgrounds that were two different lines emerged–those that produced a dark-complected or black skin color and the other line producing skin color that passed for white. In her great-grandmother’s day, the darker family members camouflaged their Native or African American heritage by referring to themselves at “Little Black Dutch.”
Janis revisited her research and explored the complicated family and geographic legacies when writing her novel, American Ghost. The fictional representation of the Claude Neal spectacle lynching and its present-day ripple effects spotlight the extremes of stark violence and fake ethnicity. American Ghost is available in paperback next week. Here she answers some questions for Southern Spines.
SS: Why was it important to you to write in the dialect of the people in the Florida Panhandle?
JO: I don’t think I did it intentionally – I think dialect can easily hinder a story, but in this case, the lure of capturing the Real Flavor won out. It’s always a bit of a challenge as so much of rural southern communication is non-verbal: grunts, evil-eyes, crossed arms, tossed heads (in women and men), not to mention the ever popular turn-and-spit in answer to a particularly annoying question. Authentic southern novels are all novels of manners, because so much of southern communication is understood, not necessarily spoken. I guess in answer to your question: because I was aiming for authenticity.
SS: Like Jolie Hoyt, some of the history of your homeplace and your family–and not the most flattering historical events–formed part of the story of American Ghost. How did your family respond to the novel?
JO: Not so enthusiastically, though there are exceptions. Mostly I’ve gotten a long cold silence, which is another nonverbal way of saying everything without saying anything at all. Of course I lost Mama last summer and as family matriarch she played dual-role as Family Pot-stirrer and Peace-maker. If she were alive, the chill would have lasted for two minutes before she started holding court and bringing everyone around.
SS: You came across the seed for this story when you were in school, and in the acknowledgements you thank a lot of your writing mentors and professors for encouraging you to turn your research into this book. When did you realize this was a story that you needed to tell and who was instrumental in helping you tell the story?
JO: I understood immediately, when I first came upon the complexity of spectacle lynching that it was a story that needed to be told, but lacked the confidence and objectivity to write it, or so I thought. What I didn’t lack was the tenacity, and over time and study and digging the real history, the incomprehensible elements became a little clearer, then a little more, and gradually came into focus. Aside from my early professors, I’d say the Truth Tellers in my family and community – vulnerable people, often poor and old, who were raised to be silent, but went out on limb and talked to me – they were the most instrumental. It’s easy for anyone to be brave and outspoken at a distance, but at ground zero in these small communities, when speaking of loved ones, and beloved towns, enmeshed in these horrible deeds, usually with no rhyme or reason or happy ending in sight, yet to be truthful enough to speak of it still – that’s when the heroes arise.