Rejoining the Parts: A Conversation with Jane Lazarre About Race, Fiction, American History and Her New Novel, Inheritance

November 15, 2011, 3:47 pm

Jane Lazarre is a writer of fiction, memoir and poetry who has published many books, beginning with her memoir, The Mother Knot (1976; reissued in 1997 by Duke University Press) and most recently, Inheritance, A Novel (Hamilton Stone Editions, 2011). She has taught writing and literature at New York’s City College and at Yale University; and for many years directed and taught in the undergraduate writing program at Eugene Lang College at the New School.

Tenured Radical: The title of the book — Inheritance — asks the reader to think about what is passed down, generation to generation.  But in the first chapter we are confronted with Sam’s frustration and anger that, as a young woman with a white and a black parent, she knows so little of her family history. We come to understand that our historical “inheritance” not only can’t be taken for granted and but also sometimes requires active recovery. How did you come to understand that this was the story you wanted to tell about America’s racial past?

Jane Lazarre: From my early experiences in the late 1960s as a new member, by marriage, of an African American family, and throughout the years of raising two Black sons, I became deeply aware of how much I, as an American and as a white American, did not know about African American history — which is a central, defining part of American history. At the same time, of course, I began to understand all I was unaware of about race, despite a deeply anti-racist upbringing. As a mother, a writer and teacher, I began to study the subject. I saw that I was part of a great majority of white Americans of all ethnic backgrounds, in my ignorance of the complex forces of American racism.

TR: Can you describe your response to this new knowledge?

JL: I was stunned by all that had been written, all that I could learn, and what, as a writer myself, I might teach others. I learned that so many stories about African American people had been lost, but some had been recovered. Writing testimonial narratives, as well as fiction and poetry on this theme, was a crucial, life saving rescue mission, as my friend, the late poet Sekou Sundiata, once put it. Like the Holocaust museums in various cities of the world, the need to remember the history and continuing impact of American slavery is essential to our understanding of who we are as a nation, and who we might become.

TR: I’m interested in the book’s structure, which takes the reader backwards in time to tell the story of intertwined families, white and black.  Can you talk a little bit about how you made that decision?

JL: Originally, the novel was structured chronologically. I realized, though, after a time, that I wanted to replicate the process of learning about Black life and history in the form of the novel itself. The section that takes place during slavery, therefore, is in some ways the most dramatic and disturbing episode in, and the center of, the book.  But in the early chapters it is hinted at, known and unknown, waited for, its pieces remembered and forgotten, and then, it is there in Part Four of a five part novel. Even this story, when it is revealed, is not remembered completely; some of it is forgotten, or lost, some of it is recovered, and some is imagined by the narrator, Sam, a young woman of “mixed” racial heritage who is determined to try to piece together the stories as best she can.

TR: The pace of the novel is driven by the African American characters, but the white characters — like Ami, Sam’s grandmother, who tries to help her find the story; or Louisa, the white mother of a black child who is sold away into slavery, play a crucial role too, particularly when they learn to explore their own racism.

JL: The white characters have to learn what happened in this nation with steady commitment, as so many aspects of African American history are intentionally and unintentionally hidden or distorted. One of the central and most cruel distortions is the reversal of sexual history across racial lines. Black men like Samuel, Louisa’s enslaved lover, are “remembered” and “defined” by whites as potential attackers and predatory threats, while in historical reality, white men, slave owners, for over 200 years, used Black women as breeders through rape, threat and forced seduction in order to expand their property: the children of these unions were often sold away once they were past infancy. This is one of the stories told in Inheritance. The dis/memberment of bodies reflects the dis/remembering of families and stories. The five parts of the novel suggest, among other purposes, an effort to rejoin some of the parts and retell some of the stories that can still be saved.

TR: The ocean, water, the beach and oystering are such a strong theme of the book, and I am struck that two of the three white women in Inheritance are descended from Italian and Jewish immigrants whose ancestors crossed the water, and who themselves would not have been considered “white” in the 19th century.

JL: I did not think of the Jews and Italians crossing the water, as you say — but it is an interesting reading. I use the water, ocean, bay, rivers, in almost all my work because I am very deeply affected by water, its teeming life and its classic allusions to our unconscious life.

TR: I think I noticed it because Ami and Hannah, Sam’s white grandmothers, both fall in love with African American men.  Their ongoing witness to the legacy of the Middle Passage transforms women whose own family passage was voluntary. As interracial couples, they also serve as an ongoing reminder to the white reader the difficulty of living anti-racist commitments.

In choosing to write about a Jewish woman and an Italian American woman – two cultures I am deeply familiar with – I wanted to add to the story of a more typical white American woman in order to question our self-serving assumptions about our own tolerance, when skin color racism is actually widely shared by Americans who are called white. It is true that Jews and Italians and others were not considered white at first, and this is well documented in historical texts. Ami Reed, the Italian woman who married a Black man and is the mother of a Black man and the grandmother of his “mixed” daughter, has a discussion about this in the last section of the book, trying to understand her own place in this complex history. Immigrants from southern Europe, discriminated against themselves in the United States for many years, tend to be self-righteous and self-congratulatory when it comes to racial history. I wanted to counter this illusion with characters who are essentially sympathetic, “good” people, but who are in different ways affected by the pervasive racisms of their times. Even Louisa, the daughter of a slave holder, living in the very midst of the horrific system, has to educate herself with discipline and effort, to understand what is right in front of her eyes. Hannah Sokolov, a Jewish woman, finds safety in her own “whiteness” as an escape from a deeper and more personal sense of loss and rage. Ami Reed, a writer who has been an activist and rebel against overt racial prejudice, nevertheless has to go through a searing set of experiences before she truly comprehends what it means to be an American who must share the inheritance.

TR: The section of the book that takes place on a plantation on the western shore of Maryland, and where Louisa falls in love with Samuel, are powerful and violent.  They remind me of portions of Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness:  Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons (1997) about your visit to an emotionally powerful exhibit on American slavery at the Richmond Museum of the Confederacy.  Can you talk a little bit about the historical research you did for the book, and if there are other threads drawn from earlier projects?

I visited the Richmond Museum of the Confederacy in the early 90s, and heard tapes of former American slaves, interviewed by WPA workers in the 1930s. One man was the son of a slaveholder’s daughter. Her name was Jane, like mine. After his birth he was sold away and never saw his mother again. I wrote about this story briefly in Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness, but I knew that I wanted to try to imagine that story more fully in fiction. I could think of no more horrible fate than having one of my children ripped from my home and my body, never to be seen again. I renamed the mother Louisa because I knew her story would be the hardest for me to write, and I have a close friend and mentor named Louis, whose spirit I was trying to invoke as a talisman of courage.

Another piece of the story, in this case Hannah’s story, comes from a previous novel, and from my own life. Norwalk, Connecticut, is in fact the town where my immigrant grandmother raised her family after moving there from the Lower East Side. For my partly autobiographical novel, Some Place Quite Unknown (2008), in which ocean and water also play a crucial part, I went to Norwalk, did research about my family but also about the early years when it was a central stop on the Underground Railroad. I visited the Sound, the docks and the streets that Hannah, and later Ami, would visit in Inheritance. I found the old graveyard where I imagined Samuel and his wife Belle were buried. I discovered hints of what might have happened to a young Black woman like Belle, escaping the South a generation after the Civil War and coming north to a place like Norwalk. So the short scene taken from my actual visit in Some Place Quite Unknown became a longer section in Inheritance.

As far as threads from former projects in general, since The Mother Knot, my first memoir about giving birth to my first child, I have been writing about race and racial complexities, in families and in the United States. These feelings and ideas were born with my first son, as I became ever more keenly aware of racism and racial separations within our society. By now, they have found their way into all my books, either explicitly, as in Worlds Beyond My Control (1991) a novel, or Wet Earth and Dreams (1998) a memoir about recovering from breast cancer.

TR: We’ve heard so much since 2008, and the election of Black president with a white mother, about the United States finally being “post-racial,” and a new kind of fantasy about the beneficial effects of race-mixing, or multiracialism, seems to play a big role in this. But several multiracial characters in Inheritance make the point strongly that they are not immune from racism and that not to be recognized as Black is to deprive them of an inheritance of struggle.  Can you elaborate on this theme a bit?

I wrote extensively about this subject in my memoir, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness, a title that is a take on Ralph Ellison’s famous exploration, in Invisible Man (1952) of “the blackness of blackness.” I disagree strongly with the idea that the election of President Obama is the signal and sign of our “post-racialism.”  I know that people of color, including people with one white parent, experience racism every day, even if there have been significant changes in our legal, and even social, attitudes. I believe that all of us, as Americans, are inheritors of the struggle of African Americans to both liberate and recreate themselves, and we deny this connection at our peril and to our great loss. Samantha Reed, the daughter of a (half) black father and a (Jewish) white mother, knows at a very early age that her identity, her history, her future, and even her unconscious (shown in the “white dream” she inherits in the Prologue of the novel,) are profoundly affected by, laced with, absorbed in, her heritage and her life as a Black woman in America. That does not mean she rejects or dismisses her other ethnic histories, nor that she does not love “the three white women whose histories flow into [her] own,” as she says in the early pages of the book. But I am saying, in this novel, as in other works, the lessons I have learned from my life as a mother, now a grandmother, as a teacher of African American literature and a writer about race: that so-called mixedness means little in American history. As I said above, many enslaved Americans, including the great Frederick Douglass, were “mixed” due to rape or forced sexual unions, and nevertheless remained enslaved. Racism in this country is not unchanged from previous centuries, or even previous decades, but as many cultural theorists have written, our educational and prison systems are evidence to the ongoing racism still permeating much of our lives.

TR: That’s a great point, and I want to end with the theme of transformation:  the chapters that take place after Louisa gives birth to Samuel’s son are a great moment in that regard when, in order to have what time she can have with her son, she must reconfigure and relearn her relationships with enslaved people through language, etiquette and habits of deference. Throughout the book, white characters reach moments of connection to the truths of racism only to have them slip away, forcing them to work harder to reach that state of consciousness and connection with the African American family and friends that they love. Can you talk about that a bit?

JL: The desire and impulse to think that “all people are alike” is deep in the liberal consciousness of many white Americans of good will. It is, however, a historical simplification, a half-truth, and therefore a lie. It takes Ami Reed until she is well into her 60s to understand the intricate patterns of difference and sameness between herself and her beloved family. Hannah Sokolov struggles with the ideas as she is powerfully drawn, both sexually and emotionally, to a Black man, and a Black woman who seem to her “kin” in a way she does not understand; yet in the end she betrays her own feelings and identifies with the pervasive cultural racism of her time. Louisa Summers, the lover of an enslaved man, the mother of an enslaved child, and related in other ways to enslaved people on her father’s plantation, has to create a highly disciplined study for herself, over the course of years, in order to see clearly the truths of the life, and lies, she is living. My account of her struggle was, in part, inspired by the struggles of the Grimke sisters, who became abolitionists though they were the children of a powerful slave holding family. It is both terribly sad and sobering to recognize that it takes more than good will and a generous heart for a white American to fully comprehend what Black children learn in their earliest years – the ways that skin color differences stratify our world, and segregate most of our lives.

In this novel, and in other work, I am trying to explore, represent, learn about and speak out against this ongoing American reality.

TR: Thank you Jane.

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