In the old days before the Internet, local stories seldom got splashed around the country adding fuel to the fire like they do today. . .a white woman sees a black man walking his dog in the park and calls 911 (what the hell is that!) or a bank can’t verify the paycheck of a black man and calls 911 (that can hardly be bank policy).
I’m fed up with these kinds of incidents just as I’m fed up with sincere protesters getting a bad rap when outside agitators come in and start torching police cars and burning buildings.
I’m writing another anti-KKK novel set in Florida in the 1950s. Florida was a very active KKK world in those days. In my novel, the protagonist starts hassling families who are the local KKK’s movers and shakers with the hope that those people will leave town, weakening the local organization.
But after seeing the daily headlines, I think I’m sitting down at my PC more ticked off than normal. The resulting novel seems edgier and more noir than usual. I don’t know if that’s good or not. I am thankful that I can funnel some of my anger into the story rather than taking it out on family, friends, and co-workers.
How about you? How do you unwind after yet another day of bad news and keep it from turning you into a person you don’t want to be?
then you need to tour a slaughterhouse. Or, at least read a lot about slaughterhouses, what happened inside then and what became of the people who worked there. In his essay in “The Writers Chronicle,” Colson Whitehead suggests writing what you don’t know, otherwise, you’ll and up writing the same book over and cover. So, you probably don’t need a slaughterhouse career to craft a novel about them. Frankly, that’s the last place I want to work.
Many things fall into the category of research that makes writers sick. Researching the KKK for my novel in progress fits into that category. And yet, since I never belonged to the KKK, I need to find out what happened in their meetings or my scenes and descriptions won’t be correct. I could say, “who will know?” Well, I would know. So here’s a selection of KKK books you’ll find on Amazon if you go looking. Fortunately, I found what I needed on free sites and didn’t have to buy any of these.
In addition to those, older books have been captured by Google or reside in various libraries and archives. If you look on state-operated photo archives (such as Florida Memory), you’ll find photographs of KKK fliers, pamphlets, parades, and posters. I grew up in an area with an active KKK presence, so I have a sixth sense when it comes to tracking down the filth.
Looking at this shit is about like being forced to eat a food you detest, like turnips, for example. Do you eat the entire crock of turnips in one sitting, do you eat one bite every week smothered in something that disguises the taste, or do you say to hell with the turnips—or the KKK–and give up on your book? I think that historically accurate novels that mention the KKK are important to our understanding of the Jim Crow years of our past and (sadly) to the deluge of white supremacy groups we’re seeing around the country today.
When I was in high school, I got physically ill reading All Quiet on the Western Front. Later, I felt the same way when I read Hiroshima. I wondered how the authors were able to suffer through the facts and put words on the page. Such questions are a consideration, I think, for anyone writing a novel with horrifying sweeps or history and the bad guys responsible for them.
Anger is good motivation, and suffice it to say, I feel plenty of anger about the KKK. I researched the KKK when I wrote the Florida Folk Magic Series. My work-in-progress novel follows up on that trilogy, so that means reading more about the KKK than I want to know. You might find yourself in a similarly uncomfortable research situation. if you decide to write a novel about the prison at Guantanimo, the rape culture, terrorist attacks, or even a tour of duty in the House of Representatives.
When it comes down to it, you have to learn about it before you can write about it.
“The American population is moving toward a minority-majority future, a shift the Census Bureau predicts will occur sometime in the 2040s. Nativists, racists and our president are taking advantage of the browning of America, contrasting it with nostalgia for a perceived better, whiter past, and using that idea to activate citizens into white nationalist thinking.” – Heidi Beirich
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that monitors racially based and gender-based hate in the U.S., two statistics stand out: The number of monitored hate groups in 2018 was at an all-time high at 1,020 and hate-based murders conducted by members of the “Alt-Right” made last year the deadliest year ever (presumably, not counting the Jim Crow era when the KKK got rid of more people).
As Beirich notes, the so-called browning of America is leading to a rise in white nationalist thinking. Often-criticized today, the movie “Gone With the Wind” painted the days of slavery with a sad and nostalgic brush for those who owned the plantations and participated in gracious living based on purportedly honorable and sacred traditions. Now there are a lot of people worrying about the fact that, according to the Census Bureau, the United States will become “minority white” by 2045, whith whites comprising 49.7% of the population. At that point, the demographics are expected to be 24.6% Hispanic, 13.1% blacks, and 7.9% Asian.
So it is that what will really be gone with the wind for frightened white people are the times when more whites lived in the U.S. than all other races combined. Hate groups are reacting as though whites will be less numerous than every other group rather than continuing to have nearly a majority. Nonetheless, the predicted demographics represent change and, on the surface, that scares people.
I’ve mentioned on this blog before that when my brothers and I were in junior high school, we used to build sandcastles on the beach during low tide and then make a game out of seeing how long they could hold out against the incoming high tide. This is what white supremacists are doing today–except it’s not a game. It’s a deadly and disgusting war against minority groups that’s being carried out by thugs who believe they will no longer be about to hold their own without relying on the traditionally high percentage of whites in the country.
That is, they fear that on a level playing field, their real or imagined inferiority will make them lose.
Lose what? Control, I suppose. An edge, probably. The luxury of never having to coexist with other races, cultures, and religions, no doubt. Walking down streets, walking into stores and churches and sporting events and backyard barbecues with the confident assurance that everyone one else there is exactly like them, good, bad, and ugly, but safe and understood without having to think.
Those with self-confidence in their own abilities, agility to adapt to changing times, a spirituality that embraces the totality of humankind, and minds that know how to think rather than reacting to every difference as a threat will have no problem with the demographics of 2045. Those who do not are, at best, dinosaurs in their death throes who are resorting to hate as a sand-castle bulwark against the incoming tide.
White supremacists are doomed, and in their heartless hearts, I think they know this. Rather than change or at least graciously step onto ice floes heading out to sea, they are attempting to justify their murder and terrorism as a reasonable response to their demise. They’re not innocent. They’re killing the innocent, though
Which prompts me to say, the country will be much better (more free, fair, exciting, and more creative) when they are gone.
Following up on yesterday’s post about authors posting material relating to their books, here’s a picture from Florida Memory of a KKK flyer that was similar to many I saw as a child. The Klan was always recruiting, holding rallies, and marching in parades.
Officially, the Klan purported to be a friendly organization. I doubt that anyone in Tallahassee and other Florida Panhandle towns was duped by this farce. We read the stories in the newspapers about fire bombings, black churches burnt, black men lynched, and crosses burnt in the yards of white people who spoke out against the Klan. I wonder if we will ever know what percentage of Florida law enforcement officers were members of the Klan. I suspected many of my neighbors were members, including some who went to my church. To paraphase the old Texas song:
“The Klan’s eyes are upon you, All the livelong day. The Klan’s eyes are upon you, You cannot get away.
One never knew who one was talking to. I hope the recent emergence of white supremacist groups isn’t returning the country to those times. Those times extended into the 1970s and 1980s. Here’s a photo of a 1970s march in Tallahassee:
KKK rally from the 1950s:
Here we have a crowd watching the KKK burn a cross:
The Klan was very strong in Florida in spite of the state’s pristine, playground image disseminated in magazines and vacation brochures.
The KKK as an enemy organization is a major focus of my Florida Folk Magic Stories novels. In all three novels, a conjure woman is fighting the Klan. That’s why I often call the books crime and conjure stories.
“The House overwhelmingly passed a resolution on Tuesday disapproving of racist remarks by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, amid a wave of bipartisan denunciation.” – NBC News
Representative King reportedly told the New York Times that he doesn’t understand why terms like white nationalist and white supremacist are offensive.
He has a history of such statements.
I grew up with people who felt that way in the 1950s in Florida, a state with a large number of lynchings, bombings, and other KKK activity. I learned to hate these people when I was in the first grade. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to come to terms with such hatred, an emotion that seems natural but that we are told is spiritually indefensible.
Hate, we are told, hurts us, keeps us from understanding those with whom we disagree, and while we are destroying ourselves with it, does nothing to harm those in our gunsights.
My natural instincts are not to understand Steve King and all the others like him who are getting to much media attention these days. My natural instincts are to hate him, despise everything he stands for, and to question his intelligence.
Some people are trying to curtail our freedom of speech these days. I resent that. Mr. King has just as much right to say he loves white supremacists as I have to say that I dislike them. If you look up white supremacy on the Internet, you’ll find articles in which those who believe in it have used pseudo-science and mythology to try to justify their beliefs. Frankly, I think most white supremacists are thugs and have zero tolerance for them.
The media is giving them a lot of attention. I guess we have a right to know, but the skewed attention is giving these thugs a voice that (in my view) they do not deserve while giving the public the impression there are more racists per square mile in this country than there are.
I want to hate Mr. King but the gurus out there say that if I hate him I am really not doing him any harm while it destroys me. Scary thought. People like Mr. King ruled my world when I was a child and now, a half century or so later, I’m hearing that I should deplore the sin while loving the sinner. I’m not there yet.
I may never be there. That’s why I write novels that speak out against racism. They are my atonement for the times I remained silent years ago.
In 1954, the year in which most of my Florida Folk Magic Series is set, Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, Richard M. Nixon was Vice President, Earl Warren was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Elvis Presley issued his first single, “That’s All Right”, on Sun Records. It was the era of an unconstitutional Communist witch hunt conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was the era of Jim Crow and the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine.
It seemed natural to me then, even in grade school, that people were still talking about World War II and that when kids played army in their backyards, they were fighting the Japanese and the Germans. What seemed unnatural to me then was that people were still, one way or another, fighting and re-fighting the U. S. Civil War.
The words “terrorism” and “terrorist organization” weren’t part of national security debates in those days, but if they had been, the KKK should have born that label; permitting the group to march in parades was, as saw it then, as ludicrous as allowing the Mafia to march in parades and, as I see it now, made as much sense as allowing ISIS to march in a U. S. parade today.
My own childhood years were good ones, but Klan violence–which was heavy in Florida–and the mistreatment of African Americans as a group were, to me, an intolerable smear on our nation’s intentions and mission as written down in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The vestiges of that smear are still part of a polarized national debate today. We still have more problems to solve and attitudes to change in 2018 than we should. White supremacists, neo-Nazis, bigots, and misogynists, as I still see it, are people with an Attila the Hun mentality and, frankly, we’d be better off if we put them on a giant ice-flow and set them adrift during hurricane season.
Yes, I have strong feelings about these issues.
But in spite of those feelings, the three books in this series are not intended as a political statement. They are history. They are the culture of another era. And they are the everyday magic of another era, one that still has many devotees today. It has been said that in the South, Whites didn’t like Blacks as a race but liked many of them personally as individuals. From what I saw, there was at least some truth in this, for our moderate and liberal White friends did have Black friends and colleagues. Even so, the KKK prescribed how far we could go.
If a White went “too far,” s/he would run into trouble that could be fatal. If we broke one of the rules–such as allowing a Black to sit in the front seat of our car or walk through the front door of our house–the Blacks would say, “this isn’t done” because they were even more at risk should anyone see the infraction than we were.
Oddly enough, Scouting brought conjure to my attention. That is, we learned to respect the out of doors and how to live safely in forests and swamps. This led to discussions with Black friends who had additional ideas about what was out there and how to safely approach it. Needless to say, I didn’t take any hoodoo practices back to the Scout troop or overtly use them on our monthly camping trips. But those practices taught me a lot about humankind’s potential relationships with the environment, one that in later years ecopsychology would explore without deriding these relationships as superstition.
The bottom line for a novelist is telling stories set in specific time periods with characters with points of view that aren’t always mainstream. Yes, as a writer I also needed to make sense of what I saw as a child, but not in a political treatise. I’m drawn, as I was then, to the people themselves and how they fought against the dangers that came into their lives. Have I put tall my demons to rest? Probably not.
Nonetheless, writing these stories has brought me a sense of closure to the time when First Lady Mamie Eisenhower christened the Nautilus, our first nuclear-powered submarine, Vice President Richard Nixon said we might send troops Indochina (as we called it then) even if the allies didn’t like it, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and Blacks weren’t allowed at lunch counters where I had the blue plate special or in the front of the city bus I rode into town.
When Lena, the third book in my 1950s-era Florida Folk Magic trilogy was released several weeks ago by Thomas-Jacob Publishing, I said, “Okay guys, the series is a trilogy, so y’all quit pestering me about another book.”
The series addresses the racism of the Black/White culture in the Florida Panhandle at a time when the state had a lot more Klan activity, lynchings, and firebombings than most people outside the area knew about. Snowbirds came down from the northern states and eastern Canadian provinces in droves for the sunshine state’s beaches and other attractions in the peninsula. For the most part, they didn’t know that the peninsula had its nasty problems and so did the panhandle.
I grew up in this culture and was very much aware of the KKK because they visited my minister’s house, the houses of my friends, and put on rallies and parades. I had liberal parents and went to a relatively liberal church, the first white church in Tallahassee that invited African Americans to its worship services. In those days, whites poked fun at hoodoo–I guess they still do–but I had a good teacher named Flora who worked as a maid at a friend’s house around the corner. She introduced me to great food, the ways and means of the other side of our two cultures thrown together, and many truths.
The result is my trilogy of three novels. In Conjure Woman’s Cat, Eulalie–who is modeled after Flora–seeks justice for an assaulted Black girl when the police take no action. In Eulalie and Washerwoman, Eulalie battles against an evil conjure man who’s in league with the police and the town’s movers and shakers. In Lena, Eulalie goes missing and is presumed dead, leaving her family and her cat Lena in a state of confusion as the KKK threatens the town.
Lena is available in paperback and e-book from multiple online sites. Eulalie and Washerwoman and Conjure Woman’s Cat are also available as audiobooks via Audible and Amazon. All three books can be ordered by bookstores from their Ingram catalogs under traditional store purchasing options.
The audiobook edition of Conjure Woman’s Cat received the prestigious Red Earphones Award from AudioFile magazine. Click on the earphones graphic to see the review. Click here to see AudioFile’s review of Eulalie and Washerwoman.
Progressives in Florida registered 100,000 new African American voters in 1951 and branches of the NAACP challenged Jim Crow laws at swimming pools, libraries, golf courses and libraries. The legislature passed an anti-mask ordinance.
As PBS notes, “The Klan responded with a rash of cross burnings and floggings from the Florida Panhandle to Miami; Hendrix [who chartered the latest iteration of the Klan] declared war on ‘hate groups,’ including the NAACP, B’nai B’rith, the Catholic church, and the Federal Council of Churches of Christ; and then declared himself a candidate for governor. By the summer, the Klan began trying to roll back progress with sticks of 60 percent dynamite, with so many bombings, or attempted bombings, that the northern press dubbed it ‘The Florida Terror.'”
In many communities, the sheriffs, police chiefs and city fathers were members of the Klan. Meanwhile, the same people associated with themselves with policy gambling operations aimed at African Americans because–in exchange for protection and looking the other way–they got rich from their cut of the action.
The KKK was a fact of life in the Florida Panhandle as well as the peninsula when I was growing up. I saw burning crosses, knew people who were threatened, and sat in my car in down town Tallahassee waiting for their disgusting parades to get off the streets. And, unfortunately, I knew influential people whom I strongly believed were members of the Klan.
The state advertised itself as a paradise, but that reality didn’t extend to everyone. “The Ku Klux Klan was at least as violent in Florida as anywhere else in the nation, and the sheriffs, juries, judges, politicians, press, and citizens, for the most part, as culpable in its murderous history,” Michael Newton wrote in his 2001 book The Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Florida.”
“The bed sheet brigade is bad enough, but the real threat to Americans and human rights today is the plain clothes Klux in the halls of government and certain black-robed Klux on court benches.” ― Stetson Kennedy, author of “The Klan Unmasked.”
My novels Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman focus on the dark era of the 1950s. The first novel tells the story of a white-on-black crime that the small town police force refused to investigate. In the second, the police turn a blind eye toward policy gambling and the threats against those who couldn’t pay their gambling debts. In my fiction, I have a powerful conjure woman named Eulalie with a very helpful cat named Lena.
I didn’t have the grit to tell these stories years ago, but I’m hoping that the better-late-than-never axiom is true.
“The Other Florida’s pines will survive too, I think. Often among them I remember the person I was before I came to them and what I thought was important then, and the landscapes I have since known, and the history I have since learned, and the friends I have since made. Whatever the fates may take me in the years to come, I shall not be the same again.” – Glorida Jahoda in “The Other Florida” (1967)
The Other Florida, as viewed by anthropologist Gloria Jahoda, was raw and wild and distinctly different than the peninsular part of the state which was being taken over by developers and snow birds and the others who indulged in the kinds of vandalism that destroyed the natural beauty of the state in order to present a man-made, safe and sanitized version of sunshine, flowers and paradise.
In folklore, fantasy and magical realism, other denotes that which is not only different from ourselves and our kin, but is also dangerous, potentially malevolent and probably beyond our comprehension. In the hero’s journey motif made famous by Joseph Campbell, other is the unknown world outside the city gates. Other, in the Harry Potter books and movies, was the forbidden forest next to the school. In psychology, other is the part of ourselves–often called the shadow–that we do not know and do not want to know. Other can also be used to dismiss and/or subjugate peoples, places and ideas that we see as inferior to our comfortable way of thinking.
The Apalachicola River Watershed
I chose Liberty County and the world adjoining the Apalachicola River in Florida for the setting of my novella Conjure Woman’s Cat because historically–and psychologically–it was highly other to everyone, including most of the population of Tallahassee fifty miles away, but more so to those who lived outside the state and/or in the peninsula.
This world felt other to me when I first saw it, the family having moved to north Florida from Oregon when I started the first grade. I was used to mountains and the Pacific coast, all of which formed what I knew of the world. The pine forests, blackwater rivers, basin swamps, savannahs, sheepshead ravines, cypress trees and sweetbay magnolias, Spanish moss and saw palmetto, and white sand beaches seemed fictional. I grew to love them though it’s taken me a lifetime to wrap my consciousness around a place where Southern Gothic was a way of life.
The Other Florida
My bible was a book written by family friend Gloria Jahoda, another outsider who described in detail the world between Jacksonville and Pensacola with the detailed and poetic accuracy alien eyes often bring to new experiences. She called this world the “Deep South with a difference, worlds from homogeneous Alabama and Mississippi and even rural Georgia. Though you can never realize it as you speed through the pinewoods to get somewhere else, 20 miles in any direction may bring changes in the country’s life and essence that are dazzling in their variety. Oystermen, cotton planters, millionaire quail hunters, moonshine-makers, vocal conservatives, doctrinaire liberals, scientists, game wardens, fortune tellers and hermits inhabit a land that is above all things deceptive because it looks as if it offered hardly any variety at all.”
En route from Tallahassee to the “forgotten coast” we drove through, economically speaking, the poorest county in the country with miles of pines tapped for turpentine, miles of unpaved sandy roads through scrub oak, sink holes with seemingly no bottom beneath the cold clear water, and that sign that said it all: “Impeach Earl Warren.” I don’t remember who coined the phrase or when, but Southerners were said in those days to like individual Negroes (the terms Blacks and African Americans hadn’t yet been invented) but dislike them as a group while Northerners were said to dislike them as individuals but like them as a group.
Suffice it to say, Sunshine State tourism brochures did not highlight the active and volatile KKK presence nor the fact that Florida had more lynchings, torture, fires and explosions than just about anywhere else. Proper people knew better than to talk about the Klan even though the group was as integral to the state’s politics and culture as Tupelo honey and grits were to meals cooked and served by Negro maids. The brochures also didn’t say that turpentine camps and orange groves used Negro convict labor, conscripted under false and fanciful charges, to bring us paint thinner and orange juice.
The maids who–as we said–“pert near” raised white children weren’t allowed to eat in our restaurants, attend our churches, use our restrooms or drink out of our water fountains. Negroes were in every possible way, other. Since I wasn’t born in the South and didn’t have a Southern accent, I was called a Yankee and a “N”-lover.
Hell, as a six year old from Oregon, I had never heard of the Civil War and then when my parents told me it happened one hundred before, I didn’t know why folks talked about it as thought it were yesterday. Seeing the war as yesterday was a way of life and the KKK made sure nobody forgot that segregation as by no means gone with the wind. My parents were very liberal and we went to a liberal church, one of the first in town to allow Negroes to attend. The pastor had a cross burnt on his front yard for opening our sacred place to the others and a fair part of our congregation left in a snit and started their own church which was kept Ivory Snow white. My best friend was among those who left. So were my grandparents. I still haven’t forgiven them for that.
I tell you all of this because it’s the impetus behind Conjure Woman’s Cat, a novella set in a Jim Crow era in a violent state that tells the story of a granny and her kitty using folk magic to fight the Klan. Hoodoo was, of course, about as other as you could get and the bond between it and the congregations of Negro churches (praise churches, the were often called) could not be comprehended. The blues told the stories because the blues and Negroes and hoodoo and praise churches and troubles were all wrapped up together. Perhaps I loved the blues because I was an outsider, that is to say, other.
I was other watching other. My childhood had little innocence in it. Eulalie, my ancient conjure woman in the novella is modeled after the maid who worked for years at my best friend’s house, and I expect I learned more from her than my grade school teachers. Eulalie’s friend Willie Tate is modeled after an elderly Black gentleman who (like many) used a mule-drawn farm wagon for transportation. His family brought their produce to our door every week. Stopped by my best friend’s house around the corner as well. They didn’t come to the front door because that just wasn’t done. Lena, the cat in the novella who travels between words is, of course, me.
Magical realism thrives on people, places and things considered other. Readers believe magic is possible wherever the other is and less likely in the worlds they know. Perhaps so. Perhaps I found magic in the other Florida because I went there as an outsider like the writer of my bible. Like her, I was changed by the pines, landscapes, experiences and friends. Inevitably, writers write about what changes them, what impacts them–what they find, so to speak, on location.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Cora’s Crossing,” set in Marianna, Florida, “Moonlight and Ghosts,” set in Tallahassee, the “Garden of Heaven” trilogy set, in part, in Tallahassee, Carrabelle, Tate’s Hell and Florida’s “Garden of Eden” near Bristol, “Emily’s Stories,” set in Tallahassee and St. Marks, and “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” set in Liberty County, Florida.
Thomas-Jacob Publishing has released Conjure Woman’s Cat, a novella by Malcolm R. Campbell (“The Sun Singer”), set in the 1950s Florida Panhandle world of blues, turpentine camps, root doctors, the KKK and a region of the state so far away from everywhere else that it’s often called “the other Florida” and “the forgotten coast.”
Lena, a shamanistic cat, and her conjure woman Eulalie live in a small town near the Apalachicola River in Florida’s lightly populated Liberty County where longleaf pines own the world. Black women look after white children in the homes of white families and are respected, even loved as individuals, but distrusted and kept separated and other as a group.
A palpable gloss, sweeter than the state’s prized tupelo honey, holds the spiritual and temporal components of the Blacks’ and Whites’ worlds firmly in the stasis of their separate places. When that gloss fails, the Klan restores the unnatural disorder of ideas and people that have fallen out of favor.
Lena and Eulalie know the Klan. When the same white boys who once treated Eulalie as a surrogate parent rape and murder a black girl named Mattie near the saw mill, the police have no suspects and don’t intend to find any. Eulalie, who sees conjure as a way of helping the good Lord work His will, intends to set things right by “laying tricks.”
Eulalie believes that when you do a thing, you don’t look back to check on it because that shows the good Lord one’s not certain about what she did. It’s hard, though, not to look back on her own life and ponder how the decisions she made while drinking and singing at the local juke were, perhaps, the beginning of Mattie’s ending.
All that’s too broke to fix, but beneath the sweet sugar that covers crimes against Blacks, Eulalie’s pragmatic, no-nonsense otherness is the best mojo for righting wrongs against both the world and the heart.