I am a native of rural West Florida, a genealogist of many years, and a student of the American South, informally since birth; formally since I was a student at the University of Florida in 1983, under the instruction of folklorist Jim Haskins, historian Richard Scher, and the father of modern Florida oral history, Sam Proctor. In ’83, my senior year, I did an independent study on my family’s ethnicity, with focus on the well-known Claude Neale lynching – a crime so intricate it wasn’t vigilante action as much as human sacrifice. It took place in my hometown of Marianna, Florida, in October, 1934, and in ’83, many first-hand witnesses were still alive, including several members of my family. I heard many stories both heroic and bestial. The project earned me the praise of my professors and a reputation for nosiness among my extended family, who considered my curiosity about the old lynching vulgar, at best. The reputation lasted far longer than the project itself, and long after I graduated, odd cousins and uncles and friends-of-the-family, who’d heard I was the “Expert” would corner me at family gatherings and offer their own history concerning the lynching.
I studied the lynching in the broader context of my family’s racial identity, specifically my father’s people, who aren’t of the typical Anglo-southerner stock, but tri-racial Southerners of a sort that are most only studied in rare corners of anthropological literature. Theories of their origins abound, and thanks to modern DNA, they have proven to be an ethnic mix of European and Native American heritage, along with some other small mix of Mediterranean, Jewish or African-American. They were physically too dark to pass freely in the rigid race restrictions in the antebellum South and were forced to become “birds of a feather” so to speak, living in isolated groups outside the mainstream, on the river bottoms and forests, where they were described by many names, such as Black Irish, Melungeon, Mestee, Turks; Black Dutch, Brass Ankles.
According to location, they’re sometimes more ethnically identified as Native American or African-American, or, as in the case of my father’s family, some lines go black and some white, so that you have “white Ammons” and “black Ammons” – all distant cousins, springing from the same Colonial source. In my great-grandmother’s day in South Alabama, they referred to themselves as Little Black Dutch – a well-known catchword in American anthropology that was often used as ethnic camouflage in Colonial America.
My father was a good example of their legacy and I sought to write a story that would go outside the usual black-and-white, cut-and-dried theories of race relations in the South, and delve into the complexities of a culture that even today is touched by the long shadow of slavery. Only such a brutal instruction could produce this sort of extreme accommodation – a wide-spread, faux-race of Americans who were a study in contradiction; so fierce and loyal; so devout in their spirituality and so unthinkingly racist, with such particular longing to be (as the old turn-of-the-century Croatian literature describes it) “pure white.”
The story is set in contemporary Florida, in the framework of a romance between Jolie Hoyt, a modern small town American girl of her day, with a church, a best friend, a closet full of secrets, and a submerged racial history. Jolie is ambitious, lonely, and all too aware of the cultural rules that still hold sway on the daughters of her family, the distrust of outsiders foremost. But she tosses them aside when she falls for a crusading anthropologist, Sam Lense, a Jewish grad student from Miami, who is in town to study the local Muskogee Creek and has a few secrets of his own up his sleeve.
Sam and Jolie’s brief affair is cut short when Sam is shot in the back, and severed completely by their families’ fear of further violence along the racial divide. They are living separate lives fourteen years later, when a black businessman in Memphis named Hollis Frazier happens upon Sam’s old study online, and is compelled to set aright a niggling family injustice of his own. He persuades his brother to accompany him to Florida, where they confront Jolie, who is now an up and coming politician, long removed from the poverty of her childhood.
She has never reconciled herself to either Sam’s shooting or her own family history, and when confronted by both Sam and the Brothers Frazier, must decide to either abide by the ancient rules of engagement, or return to the complexity of race and origin and acknowledge her complex identity at last.