“Whose baby child are you?” In conversation with Breena Clarke
Russell’s Knob, the village he brought her to, was secreted. It was a hide, a hush-up, a keep-quiet-about spot, a conceal-and-bottle-up sanctuary, a curtain, a disguise, a dissemble place. The homesteads that formed it were laid so that they were encountered singly—knots along a string. If one homestead was set upon, folk could fall back and escape uphill to the next house and make a stand with their neighbor. Together they could push a flaming barrel down the cliff to discourage the interloper and, if they were overrun, they could retreat to the next place on the string. This arrangement resisted the possibility of a complete burnout as had happened once or twice in the early times at Russell’s Knob.
The first building in the village was a small stone house that sat like a muddy brown bird hiding herself in dense foliage. Outsiders and casual climbers were meant to miss seeing the cleverly disguised house and the cut that led to the town. If you knew the cuts you could find the town.
–Excerpt from Angels Make Their Hope Here (Little, Brown and Company)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that the fictional community of Russell’s Knob is based partly on actual communities living in New Jersey’s Ramapo mountains during the 18th and 19th centuries. Russell’s Knob is an interracial haven of sorts—a hidden enclave of so-called “jumble” folk—mixed-race families who are viewed with a combination of distaste and grudging respect by both whites and blacks of nearby Paterson. How much did you know about the Ramapo Mountain people prior to beginning your research for this book? What details of their lives did you find most compelling in terms of the story you wanted to tell about this particular place and time?
BREENA CLARKE: Angels Make Their Hope Here is set in a fictional, but plausible, mixed race community – or as I prefer to describe it: a tri-racial community. Thus far in talks, I’ve gotten a tick of surprise at the tri-racial. Well, what are we talking about when we say that an individual is “mixed race”? The phrase itself is actually two shorthand ideas cobbled together to create a picture about racial heritage that is not white. Mostly the meaning includes a presumption that the other part is “not fully black” (or “brown” or “red” or “yellow.”) Russell’s Knob is a community of people with a harmonious soup of European, African and Native American heritage.
I knew absolutely nothing about the Ramapo Mountain people before I picked up a book, The Ramapo Mountain People by David Cohen. I was intrigued because these people seemed to have done what, up to then, I’d thought it was not possible to do. As far I knew, White and Black and Native American people did not live together in settlements in which all of the inhabitants contributed to close, substantial, successful families. The Ramapo Mountain people were “outsiders” of course, but they had succeeded in living together harmoniously. I was intrigued at finding people who had bucked the status quo in favor of maintaining their own lifestyle. The more research I did, I found more about lesser known people and towns.
I am used to the characters I’ve created in Angels Make Their Hope Here. I’ve lived with them for a good while now and their complex racial heritage does not confound me. But they do surprise some people who have never considered that there were people who lived outside of mainstream white American culture, who may have rejected social segregation based on perceivable race, and who, to some degree, may have thrived. Haven is the right word for Russell’s Knob because the founders were committed to being sanctuary for people unwelcome and uncomfortable in the majority white towns.
AR: The denizens of Russell’s Knob are by and large a skilled and literate group. Young Dossie is entrusted to the women for lessons not only in beading, candlemaking, and other fine handicraft skills, but reading and writing as well. What feels sort of magical to me is the way in which these traditions are normalized, allowed to “breathe,” to simply exist in the background rather than forcing a plot point or leading to a crisis. While literacy is a skill that many persons of color are punished for/compelled to conceal during this time period, in Russell’s Knob the tradition of the written word is a given. Can you talk a little bit about the choice to present a culture of literacy without making it a focus of the story?
BC: Perhaps I begin in a different place than some writers who are writing about people of color and the world in which they live. I begin with the principle that each character is capable of doing/feeling whatever is possible for human beings to do, feel or accomplish. Part of my process is to test for probability, but I don’t use automatic limitations based on racial identity. The better part of my research is in ferreting out the historical accounts of individuals who had intriguing, complex historical lives. My particular interest is in the lives and perspectives of those people considered to be African American – especially those who experienced enslavement – with special focus on those who self-emancipated. However, my curiosity is focused widely.
In most cases the ticket to freedom and remaining free was the acquisition of literacy. Because they’re survivalists, I imagined that the people of Russell’s Knob would consider education in the dominant European language, English, to be an important tool for survival. I don’t see it that the African and Native American ancestors of these people were blank slates before European contact, either in Africa or in the Americas. They were fluent in the languages of trade amongst themselves – yes, even the Africans – so they would have considered it vital to teach their children the European languages. They educate and train their children in systematic ways because it is the best way to insure survival. Even in some patriarchal societies there is respect for the courage and intelligence of women. I chose to structure the people of Russell’s Knob in a matrilineal society so I could imagine a system that draws strength from the women of the community. It’s also fair to say that the Smoot family and Noelle Beaulieu benefit from Noelle’s grandfather’s purloined library. They acquired an elite education by the standards of the day.
AR: Dossie, your protagonist is not a native of Russell’s Knob. A child born into slavery, her first attempt to reach freedom is thwarted when the Underground Railroad conductor accompanying her is caught and punished. What surprised and fascinated me about Dossie’s story was how very young she is at the start of her northward journey—too young to fully understand where her parents are sending her, but old enough to know that she must depend on strangers for survival as she is passed from conductor to conductor along the way. I found contemporary echoes of her story in recent accounts of the surge of unaccompanied migrant children traveling across the U.S.-Mexico border. Was it common during slavery for children as young as Dossie to attempt the journey without their families? What sort of life awaited those who reached their destination?
BC: Most of what is known about enslavement by most contemporary Americans is based on the somewhat romantic notions of films like “Gone With The Wind.” Most depictions are of large-scale plantations with slave agricultural workers languidly harvesting rows upon rows of beautiful cotton. Needless to say the reality is grossly different. In my opinion the most damaging aspect of the institution of slavery is destruction of familial relationships through separation and the inability of enslaved parents to protect their children. It is in the interest of preserving families that the people of Russell’s Knob built a community-–preferring to live apart from the mainstream in order to stay together with loved ones.
Parenting in the time of slavery is necessarily fraught with peril. Dossie’s parents did the most difficult thing imaginable. They sent their child off to uncertainty rather than have her suffer as an enslaved person on the Kenworthy plantation. They embrace a hope that, with the help of others, she can become free and live a better life (even if they don’t actually know what that better life would be). For them, the “knowable horror” of the Kenworthy plantation is worth risking this child’s life and separating from her forever. It was important that Dossie was able to escape before she was considered for possible sale in the south, but mature enough to have a good chance of making it to free territory. The life of an enslaved child held no guarantee that she would not be involuntarily separated from her mother and father. She might be sold, she might be put to work on another plantation, she may be beaten, she may be raped, she may die of disease or malnutrition. The only certainty in her life is that the people who love her cannot protect her. They can only facilitate her escape. Fear, uncertainty and a certain certainty motivate Dossie’s parents to make a plan and implement it.
It was very important to me that the enslaved people not be passive actors in the emancipation of Dossie. I’ve read many autobiographical escape accounts and narratives and realized that the people who succeeded in escaping slavery – self-emancipating — were bold, cunning, clever and lucky. It’s also important to gauge a child’s maturity and survival skills on the standards of the 19th century when Angels Make Their Hope Here is set. At the time that Dossie escapes, she is old enough to have performed some work tasks and certainly acted as an assistant to her mother in maintaining their living space. Her mother has become ill though Dossie is still somewhat healthy. Even after her initial escape, Dossie’s survival is threatened by innumerable outside forces and would likely always have been if not for the miraculous intervention of Duncan Smoot.
The typical image we have cultivated of the slave mother is involuntary separation — arms outstretched, pleading, crying, helpless, collapsed in the dust. But evidently there were those who made the preemptive decision. As the Jews who sent their children to England and the United States during World War II in the interest of survival, an enslaved mother could have and often did choose to part from a child in the hope the child would survive and thrive. Likewise the Irish mother who urged/pushed a daughter onto a ship bound for the Americas with all she could spare and with prayers that her daughter would survive and perhaps thrive. This pattern has continued throughout African American history. Native American children have historically suffered forced separation (often traveling long distances on foot) from their families as well. Certainly the children who are emigrating to the U.S. without their parents are doing so in the interests of survival and are continuing a very long American tradition.
This is the woman I call Mrs. Dossie Smoot. The photo depicts a so-called, unidentified slave woman – from a discovery at the Virginia Historical Society. I hope you can see in her face the woman who so enthralled Duncan Smoot.
AR: That’s a beautiful image! What a find. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that complex relationship between Duncan and Dossie. Dossie is a child when Duncan rescues her from slavery and for the first few years he is a sort of surrogate father to her. But as she matures he takes her as his wife, and his original protectiveness takes on a possessive edge. One reviewer has characterized their marriage as “improbable,” but to me it seemed entirely plausible (though not entirely comfortable) given Dossie’s dependence on and loyalty to Duncan (she owes him her freedom and probably her life). Duncan’s initial rescue of Dossie was an attempt to fix the earlier, botched escape. Does his desire to protect her become its own form of ownership?
BC: There is a question on the first page that Duncan poses to himself: Was the slavery of one little girl enough to justify his actions? That turns out to be my authorial question, too. What is the value/importance of this young enslaved woman’s life? This is where that picture comes in. First, I consider that the young woman depicted has likely spent her entire life to the point in that photograph as an enslaved person. So, sometimes I want to cry when I look at the photo. But she comes to meet the camera seemingly happily. Her face is composed, of course, but like the best of the earliest photos, her face is alive. There is nuance in her expression. She appears to open a corridor between what she knows of the past and what she wants for the future. My fiction comes to meet her there.
Duncan is compelled to rescue Dossie because he understands her to be vulnerable and he cares about her survival. He cares the way Elizabeth Smart’s parents cared. It’s an important distinction because historical and contemporary images of vulnerable women and girls often do not include the picture of African, Asian, Native American and Latino women and girls (of course, this is a bigger discussion forgive me for the tangent). In order to see this as Duncan sees it you have to see the small, shivering, dark brown bird cowering beneath the whip of a large white man. It bothers him that harm has come to her and he wasn’t able to prevent it. He feels he’s got to do what he can to save her.
Of course, it becomes clear later in the novel that he has personal reasons to feel so strongly. He rescues her; he facilitates her education; he makes a home for her. Because he has power in his community and feels as though he has a right to exploit the innocence he preserved and protected, he initiates her sexually and marries her. This is pretty typical 19th century male behavior. Dossie is, of course, fascinated by Duncan Smoot in the very truest sense of the word, i.e. draw irresistibly the attention and interest of (someone) I wanted her to want him, too. I think it was important to give her some agency – a bit of choice – perhaps a lot of choice by the standards of the day. Also – the important part of your question: Yes, his love, lust and appropriation through marriage become a form of ownership of Dossie that Jan had tried to warn her against.
AR: Although Angels Make Their Hope Here adheres closely to the perspectives of Duncan Smoot and Dossie, I was also drawn to the characters of Jan and Petrus, Duncan’s young nephews. As Pet and Jan enter adolescence and manhood and venture beyond the protected enclave of Russell’s Knob, the risks and privileges their respective skin colors bring them are brought into sharp, painful contrast. Can you talk a little bit about how you envisioned these two characters as you began writing the book?
BC: I think Angels Make Their Hope Here is a novel about parenthood. I’d like to think that my large topic theme centers on the question: Whose baby child are you? Who are the progenitors of our United States? The parents in Angels make bold decisions. One of the boldest decisions is Ernst Wilhelm’s decision to take his pregnant mistress to Canada rather than see mother and child sold south. Through this decision, he forfeits his privileges not only as a white man, but he loses most of his wealth and comfort in Russell’s Knob. Once again the parent is forced to decide between uncertainty and a knowable horror. Duncan Smoot asserts parental authority in raising Jan after Jan’s mother’s death and also as a surrogate father for Pet when Ernst goes into hiding. Noelle Beaulieu becomes a surrogate mother for Jan as an extension of her friendship with his late mother. Dossie becomes obsessed with the notion of social security through parenthood. Hat asserts her authority to determine when she will be a mother.
This is my late son (Najeeb W. Harb 1974 – 1989). He is the wraith in all of my novels.
To be perfectly honest my feelings about the characters of Jan Smoot and Petrus Wilhelm changed over the course of writing the novel. I continue to be surprised at the ways these characters are seen and described. Both of these young men are what might be described as mixed-race, if what we mean is an individual whose parents belong to two different races according to our accepted ideas about race in this country. Jan’s skin color appears dark relative to the paler European skin colors. Pet has the same pale white skin as his father and, outside of the context of his homestead, he appears to be of entirely European heritage. In Russell’s Knob the advantages that white skin can afford are mitigated by a deep tradition of inclusiveness, respect and appreciation for African and Native American culture.
When I began, Pet was of less interest to me. At first I used him mostly to explore his mother’s story. Then as Hat’s feelings and motives developed so did he. It became important that Pet Wilhelm understand fully the circumstances of his birth – how his mother came to be his mother, because in our society the child follows the circumstance of his mother. Pet’s father’s whiteness can’t make him white if it is known that his mother is black. Jan on the other hand was my main protagonist for a while. I began with him as a fictionalized character similar to the historical figure William Henry Lane or “Master Juba.” [See link below for more information.] Jan initially took shape as an idealized, handsome, enormously beautiful and talented young man. He became a personification of someone who is deeply personal to me.
AR: Jan doesn’t seem to fully realize that his confidence may make him a target for attack outside of Russell’s Knob, while Pet doesn’t want to acknowledge the relative privilege his pale skin affords him or the truth behind his parents’ mixed-race union. These characters felt so relevant to painful conversations we are still having as a society about how black and white males are perceived differently by those in power (from teachers and administrators to law enforcement), and how behaviors that are written off as adolescent hijinks for one might be criminalized (or worse) for another…
BC: Well, Jan had to die. You see — I began with wanting to put name and identity to one of the people who was killed and maimed during the New York City Draft Riots of July 1863. (Note: William Henry Lane DID NOT die in the Draft Riots.) So I started smashing together a number of elements and Jan, too, developed with the story. Jan Smoot became the one who was sufficiently motivated to travel to NYC – to be willing to risk leaving home to be part of a larger more exciting world. I chose him to be compelling and beguiling so that losing him would hurt all of the others. His self-confidence in the wider world is in direct relation to his self-confidence and charm in his own community of Russell’s Knob.
As you can see, Pet Wilhelm would likely not have died during the Draft Riots. He did not “look” black/African. And Pet did not want to leave his home and engage the white world though his mother feared that he might. If he chose to leave Russell’s Knob and blend with other white-looking people, he might never see his family again. He didn’t want to have to choose between his worlds. Pet was the only one who could have rejected his blackness successfully. Pet’s decision even surprised me. I didn’t know at the outset that he would make this choice. I think I surprised even my editor. To me this was the most important decision of the novel.
AR: Your debut novel, River, Cross My Heart is set in Washington DC in the 1920s. Stand the Storm and Angels Make Their Hope Here are both set during slavery. What are the biggest challenges and rewards of re-creating a particular era and place in fiction? How has your approach to historical research evolved since your first novel?
BC: I began my career as a novelist with River, Cross My Heart. Because it was based on recollections of parents’ of growing up in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., I felt confident to create the narrative. It was a received story in that sense.
Curiosity about the Civil War era in Washington led me to write about the 19th century time period in Stand The Storm. This period is catnip–doing research in 19th century America is very exciting. There are many books and films about the period, but when it comes to African American (also Native American) narratives, there are great holes. I’ve come to realize that my interest is primarily in the narratives of African Americans in the mid-Atlantic region.
AR: There are so many yet-untold stories, and others–like the NYC Draft Riots–that have been overlooked in favor of more simplified dichotomies of North vs. South, Slavery vs. Freedom. The textbooks I grew up with glossed over or ignored the legacy of slavery and race relations in the northern states, especially in terms of how vital slaves were to the success of the northern industrial economy. With so many perspectives and stories to choose from in this period and region– what sorts of historical details call out to you as a writer?
BC: Frankly the most exciting part of writing and researching historical fiction is the pleasure of immersion in a particular period or place. I find the nineteenth century breathtakingly exciting because of the crucial importance of the century in the history of African American people. I also simply admire a number of people who lived in the 19th century. This interest has everything to do with the significant number of autobiographies and biographies of formerly enslaved people that cover the horrific events of the enslavement institutions.
I do make this important distinction, though I don’t insist that other people do: I prefer to think that women, men, children, people are or were “enslaved.” I prefer to use this term so that it denotes a condition rather than becomes the way a person is described — a kind of shorthand. This use also puts the onus on the person who enslaved the person. Yes, people were born into enslavement, but no person is born a slave in the conventional meaning of the word.
AR: Do you think you’ll continue to focus on the nineteenth century in future novels? Do you see yourself filling in some of the narrative gaps-of African American life from other eras as well?
BC: I tend to imagine the Civil War – the actual fixed events of the war – as a big thick chunk of stuff that happened and people fought and died and got free and gained hope and lost hope and lost legs and arms and lost all their stuff. Events and people that come before – that lead up to– the war are one story; the war is a huge story that has been imagined many, many times though not as much from the African American perspective; the aftermath of the war as time marches toward the next century is the follow-up story.
I’m setting up a few challenges in my next novel. I’m looking at cultural chronology a little differently – not as linear. I am working to achieve a contemporary narrator who’ll tell a suspenseful, historically based, complex story that references the events of the Civil War era, but which can also run forward and backward.
AR: Your website bio mentions that you studied theater in college and have written for the stage. How has your background in performing arts influenced and enhanced your creative process as a novelist?
Because of my theater background, I tend to think of what my characters/people do. Also, I think that editing and critique are essential for a successful novel. A novel is not a “quick and dirty” “one and done” project. It is a project that must undergo editing and improvement. Unlike some writers, I’m not threatened by critique. A rigorous edit improves the work. Also, I enjoy reading my work aloud and don’t have trouble engaging an audience.
Also, I believe that I tend to think of my novel’s structure and characters in theatrical terms. I consider the ways I bring a character onto the stage, how they are shown/revealed. I pay close attention to whether they are upstaged by events or are downstage center in all scenes. I work hard to give “agency” to characters that may not have it in the mainstream “white” novel. In other, clearer terms, I create the stage, the set, the costumes, the props and give my characters the opportunity to act — to be visible and knowable.
In my previous novels, I’ve made a specific point to keep my so-called white characters in the background and have given all the foreground to the African American characters. In Angels Make Their Hope Here, though no privilege is given to the white characters, several are more foregrounded. It was important to me to make the point that they, too, are capable of development. I believe Angels Make Their Hope Here has much to say about whiteness. I hope I’ve confounded some preconceptions/misconceptions.
Find a copy of Angels Make Their Hope Here on IndieBound
Learn more about William Henry Lane (Master Juba) here
Breena is blogging the writing, editing and promoting process here
Author Photo: Ann E. Chapman
Breena Clarke, currently a resident of Jersey City, has written three historical novels. She has recently completed, Angels Make Their Hope Here, set in an imagined mixed-race community in 19th century New Jersey. Breena’s debut novel, River, Cross My Heart (1999) was an Oprah Book Club selection and her critically reviewed second novel, Stand The Storm, set in mid-19th century Washington, D.C., was chosen by the Washington Post Book Review as one of 100 best for 2008. Breena Clarke is an advisor to the board of A Room Of Her Own Foundation, is a member of the fiction faculty of The Stonecoast MFA Creative Writing program at The University of Southern Maine and is an organizer of The Hobart Book Village Festival of Women Writers.
Link to www.BreenaClarke.com to read reviews and to keep up to date on events and appearances.