2016 American Book Award – Acceptance Words of Thanks

2016 American Book Award – Acceptance Words of Thanks

Thank you, Justin Desmangles.   I didn’t expect this.

To be in the company of writers of such beautiful and powerful words is a gift; to be chosen and celebrated by the founders and board members of the Before Columbus Foundation on its 40th anniversary is a gift. Thank you.

I come from a family that was silent and silenced. It wasn’t until decades after my father’s death that I learned he was a writer whose novel on racial hatred and “passing,” titled Alien Land, was published to some fanfare by E.P. Dutton. But Dutton cancelled his contract on reading a draft of the would-be second novel – about a “Negro” artist fighting against segregation in the nation’s capital, his home, and exploring the possibility of Communism. My father found himself blacklisted. That was the 1950s. Many years later, when I came along, this bitter, angry man did not write and often did not speak.

Silence was easy to learn.

I’ve wondered how much the deep, unspoken hunger or need of a parent can touch a child, even marking a path for her to follow.

Trace began in my struggle reach beyond silence to answer questions that long haunted me. Questions like these:

If each of our lives is an instant, like a camera shutter opening then closing, what can we make of our place in the world, of the latent image, for that instant? What do accumulated instants mean over generations?

The book grew to become a mosaic of personal journeys and historical inquiry that crossed a continent and time, exploring how this country’s still unfolding history has marked this land, this society, and a person.

From twisted terrain within the San Andreas Fault zone to a South Carolina plantation, from an island in Lake Superior to “Indian Territory” & Black towns in OK, from national parks to burial grounds—and to the origin of names on the land—and from the U.S.-Mexico Border to the U.S. capital, Trace counters some of our oldest and most damaging public silences by revealing often-unrecognized ties, such as the siting of Washington, DC, and the economic motives of slavery. None of these links is coincidental. Few appear in public history. Yet all touch us.

I’d like to read a small excerpt, an early reflection on a journey that brought me back to CA & a place called the Devil’s Punchbowl, a journey that led me to this work:

From what do we take our origin? From blood?

I am the child of a woman with deep brown skin and dark eyes who married a fair-skinned man with blue-gray eyes. Yet as a little girl in California I never knew race. Skin and eye color, hair color and texture, body height and shape varied greatly among relatives. Like the land, we appeared in many forms. That some differences held significance was beyond me. Instead I devised a self-theory that golden light and deep blue sky made me. Sun filled my body as it seemed to fill dry California hills, and sky flowed in my veins. Colored could only mean these things.

On that drive east from the Punchbowl I realized how little I knew of my family as an organic unit held together by shared blood, experience, or story. I was born to parents already in middle age. They had come into the world before moving pictures talked, before teamsters drove only horseless trucks, before the iceman had to find a new profession. And they’d lived with elders who could recall life before the Civil War, memories lit by lantern light. Though nearly palpable, their pasts never spoke to me. Dad died before I had the questions. In response to them, Momma said she couldn’t remember. She wondered why I wanted to know.

From what do we take our origin? From incised memories?

One memory: Home, many a workweek night. My father sits in his easy chair, alone in the back room, a glass of gin or scotch in one hand, cigar or cigarette in the other. The only light the inhaling burn. What he sees or thinks, I don’t know. What I remember? Smoke. Silence.

Another: A lesson in fifth-grade social studies, Dunblane Catholic School.  Our textbook describes the unsuitability of Indians, who wasted away, and the preference for Africans, who thrived as slaves and by nature want to serve. I ask my teacher, Mrs. Devlin, if I might become a slave.

Imagine searching for self-meaning in such lessons. Will I be a slave? The history taught wasn’t the history that made me, but I didn’t know this. Any language to voice who I was, any knowledge of how land and time touched my family, remained elusive.

Once we moved to Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s, I came to learn how “race” cut our lives. Black, Negro, nigger! came loud and hard after the 1968 riots. Words full of spit showed that I could be hated for being “colored.” By the age of eight I wondered if I should hate in return.

My heartfelt thanks go to family and friends, whose generosity, candor, and encouragement kept me from throwing this work away yet again.

I give thanks go to those, like my father, who’ve struggled to negotiate the indeterminate, liminal terrain of “mixed” heritage and write toward understanding and survival.

I give thanks to my editor Jack Shoemaker and other colleagues at Counterpoint Press.

And my deep gratitude goes to the Before Columbus Foundation. You’ve honored me, my struggle, and my voice. You’ve helped me realize that I am learning how to speak.

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