New Book by Drew Professor, National Book Award Finalist
Blood at the Root, supported by a Mellon grant, is poet Patrick Phillips’ first work of nonfiction.
September 2016 – Patrick Phillips is a poet, National Book Award finalist, Drew University professor and now—with the publication of a new book of nonfiction—a historian.
Blood at the Root tells the story of how African-Americans were chased from Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912 and remarkably, how they didn’t return until the 1990s. It’s a personal story, as Philips grew up in the county and reexamines it, likening his upbringing there to living in South Africa during Apartheid. In an interview with Drew.edu, the associate professor of English—who is speaking at Drew in October—explains the impetus for the book and what he learned while writing it.
You’re a poet. What led you in this direction?
I knew the story. It was a story I grew up with. But I knew it in like mythic ways, like the kind of stories that kids tell in the backseat of a school bus. And I had always heard that but I assumed that the truth about it was kind of unknowable or it was too far back to really understand.
When did your research begin?
I really started looking into it seriously in 2008. It was easier to learn in 2008 then it had been in the 90s because so much information had come on line as so many archives had been digitized.
What else inspired you?
Another poet, Natasha Trethewey. She’s an African-American woman from Mississippi and we had some conversations where she essentially challenged me. She knew a little bit about the story and she challenged me to tell it and argued that I was uniquely positioned to tell it as someone from the white community there who had a certain skill set from academia and a certain amount of research experience.
When was this?
2008. I had been researching the story and I had been trying to find out everything that I could but there was one major obstacle: I live in Brooklyn and teach in Madison, New Jersey, and everything that I needed to find out about was a thousand miles south. So, the sabbatical time I got from Drew and the Mellon Foundation Arts and the Common Good grants were a big help.
How did the sabbatical and grants help?
When I got down there, I started talking to descendants of some of the African-American families who were forced out. And that was a huge missing piece of the story because most of the black families did not leave a lot of written records.
Was there a turning point in the interviews?
Well, it made some things that I knew about in the abstract suddenly vivid and real. I talked to some descendants of a guy named Bryan Oliver and they told a story of him walking out in the middle of the night riding when the place was really teaming with what we would really now call terrorists: people who had been burning down churches, setting fire to homes, shooting into sharecroppers’ cabins. And they told the story of him walking out of the county and getting across Brown’s Bridge. And that was to get to safety. The stories that they had heard from their grandfather about all this just made it incredibly vivid.
How did your skills as a poet help?
I did a lot of scholarly work as a literary critic on 17th century London and the bubonic plague outbreaks in Elizabethan and Jacobean London. So, I did a lot of time in the library, a lot of time in the rare book room. I love searching through old documents, which was good preparation. And then the work as a poet helped when I got down to turning all this into a story and turning it into good sentences.
How else did you apply those skills?
Some of the book did involve trying very hard to imagine things—not the imagination that we often mean in terms of poetry of invention—but historical imagination. To try to imagine these things from the point of view of someone living through these events and to think of them not as newspaper headlines and not as census figures and land lots, but to really use one’s imagination to go back and imagine all this in a three-dimensional complex society.
What’s your personal connection to this story?
I grew up there. And my family was part of the civil rights march of 1987—one of the first open protests of all of this. My mother, father and my sister were in the march and had rocks and bottles and things thrown at them and slurs screamed at them in a line of marchers, including a lot of activists from the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta.
Where were you at the time?
I had come to the march separate from everybody and I was late to meet them. It was kind of chaotic. So, I ended up on the town square, where the march as supposed to end. And there were supposed to be speeches. It was the second ever Martin Luther King national holiday. So, it was supposed to be a day of speeches calling for brotherhood in the county, calling for an end to the violence and intimation.
What did you find instead?
I saw a guy walk by with a noose. I thought this was imaginary and in the course of writing the book, I tracked down someone who had a photograph of this guy—and my jaw dropped. I wondered if I had only imagined that.
How old were you then?
Sixteeen. Then a megaphone clicked on and I guy who I now know was Frank Shirley, who was a Klan leader, screamed into the megaphone, “Raise your hand if you love white power!” And all of these people around me—who I thought were waiting for the Martin Luther King speeches—started screaming, “White power!” So, that was a difficult chapter for me to write because in contrast to the objectivity that rules most of the rest of the work, I had to actually enter the story. I found that difficult. Also, this is actually home, and some of the people I was writing about in the white community there have bought into a real culture of bigotry and fear and hatred. And I knew them in other realms—as my neighbors and kids I played Little League baseball with.
What history writers do you admire?
I was very influenced by Eric Foner, who has written a monumental study of Reconstruction. Douglas Blackmon wrote a book called, Slavery by Another Name, which is about how a lot of American corporations essentially continued the enslavement of African-Americans via convict labor.
Michelle Alexander—The New Jim Crow. Just Mercy is a book by Bryan Stevenson. I can’t recommend his book strongly enough. He’s a death row attorney in Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama and he spent 20 years trying to defend people he believes were wrongly sentenced to die.
What did being a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry mean to you?
It was great. It was a lot of fun. My mom went to the award show party at Cipriani, which was my favorite part. These things—there’s a lot of chance involved and there’s a lot of luck. So, it was a great thing and I’m super-grateful to the National Book Foundation for doing it. It meant that some people read the poems I’d written—and that was a very lovely reward.
Do you have a favorite moment from the show?
Yeah, I got to hang out with Phil Klay. He won the year before. He’s an Iraq vet, a former Marine and he wrote a book of short stories called Redeployment that I actually use in my lit of war class. So, I reached out to him because I loved the book and I was teaching that book in lit of war. I asked him to come to Drew, and by total happenstance, the date that we picked was also the day after the announcement of the National Book Awards. And in the time between when we scheduled the reading and when it happened, he was long-listed, then short-listed and then won. He was on the talk shows and on TV and I knew that the day after that he was going to be all over. So, I texted him the night that I saw he won and said, “Phil, it’s okay. We can take a rain check on the reading.” And he said, “I’ll be there.” And the next day, he showed up, gave a terrific reading and only at the very end did he admit to me that he hadn’t been asleep! [laughs].
That’s endurance for you.
Yeah, and that’s a Marine, right? He’s like, “I’ll be there.” So, I really struck up a nice friendship with him. Then, the following year, I was in the middle of that crazy crowd, and there was Phil. And he gave me a pat on the back.