I feel like I’ve done a lot of interviews, and sometimes I worry about saying the same thing over and over again. Well, when Francine Thomas Howard asked me these ten questions, I really had to stop and think for a while…if you’re around on 2/24, tune in to WNYC because I’ll be on The Brian Lehrer Show from 10:40-11am. For now, swing by Francine’s blog to read the rest of our interview…
5. Nannie is portrayed as “taking it” when she is beaten by Mrs. Brant, something modern day Genna would never do. Later Nannie explains her reasons for submission are based upon survival in her world of 1863. How important do you think it is for modern day Americans to assess the actions of those who came before us–both black and white–within the context of their time and not our own?
Well, I have to say that it drives me nuts when people excuse bigotry by saying, “That’s just how things were back then,” or “So-and-so was just a product of her time.” People make choices and they’re accountable for those choices—for me, that’s the bottom line. Nannie’s choice was to endure lesser hurts in order to prevent major ones; she’s had her children sold away from her and she has witnessed extreme violence against blacks, so she knows how far some whites will go to maintain control. Genna likes to think she’d never take that kind of abuse, and she does fight back against Mrs. Brant, but Genna also came into the past in a battered body. She has no recollection of the beating, but it’s clear that even if she tried, resistance was futile. We all like to think we would fight for freedom and defend those we love, but enslavement had profound psychological effects—it forced you to behave in a way that ran counter to your instincts. I hope contemporary readers try to put themselves in Nannie’s or Genna’s or Mattie’s shoes. The sequel, Judah’s Tale, will reveal more of Judah’s experiences as a slave in the deep South. Our ancestors had to make a lot of sacrifices and I think we should honor the hard choices they made just to survive in such a hostile, inhumane world.
6. In her “a man’s just a man . . .don’t let no man fill your head up with all kinds of crazy notions” speech, Nannie disparages books other than the bible. Has she bought into the general conviction of her time and era that black people actually were inferior to whites in their capacity to master complex subjects?
In that speech, Nannie is actually trying to warn Genna about Dr. Brant’s potential attempts to “seduce” her. The previous “girl” left under unclear circumstances, and earlier in the book Nannie gives Genna cryptic advice on what to do if she hears someone coming down the hall at night. Nannie knows from experience that white men feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to the black women who work in their households, but because she genuinely likes Dr. Brant, she can’t come right out and call him a sexual predator. When he starts making promises to help Genna fulfill her dream of going to college, Nannie gets worried and finds a roundabout way to keep Genna away from Dr. Brant (don’t be alone with him). On the other hand, Nannie is a devout Christian, and she wants to become literate so that she can read “the Good Book.” This is another contradiction that black women had to navigate—how to be “pious and pure” as the Bible commands when they’re vulnerable to sexual assault almost all the time (and by men who call themselves Christian). Slave women often remarked that beauty was a curse; if a white man took an interest in you, you better watch out because that could lead to rape and/or the jealous rage of his white wife.