Patrick Phillips discussed America’s living history of racial violence and exile in Russell House on Wednesday, Nov. 3. The talk was part of the Russell House Prose and Poetry Series, this portion featuring Phillips and his nonfiction book “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America.” Phillips gave a brief overview of his work, which tells a history of brutal racism and black expulsion in his hometown of Forsyth, Ga. before opening up the crowded room for questions.
Phillips’ overview began with a talk about where the work began: a taxi ride in Manhattan. Until this point, Phillips had only written as a poet, seldom dealing with race. He happened to mention Forsyth to a black friend with whom he was sharing a taxi, and the friend questioned why he had never written about his town’s violent enforcement of white purity.
“Do you think race is only a subject for black writers?” his friend asked, according to Phillips.
Phillips describes how this moment incited his reexamination of his hometown and how it came to such a sequestered racial state. In doing so, Phillips discussed how black expulsion is treated as almost a ghost story among the people of Forsyth, as something disconnected from the past.
The story is that in 1912, after a white woman, Mae Crow, was found raped and dead in the woods, the white villagers charged three young black men with the crime. Two were hanged after a trial by the state, and one was lynched by an angry mob immediately following the incident. The rest of Forsyth’s black population was soon forced out of the county.
“Blood at the Root” dismantles this facile and remote tale that has permitted the town of Forsyth to ignore its racial history. Phillips accomplishes this by meticulously examining the case of Mae Crow and its effect upon the families forced into an exodus from the region. In the talk, Phillips highlighted some of the most poignant stories of this brutal period, including one about the first attempted Civil Rights march in Forsyth.
This march, Phillips described, was intended to take place on the second anniversary of Martin Luther King Day in 1987. Twenty-two years after the Selma march, civil rights activists came from all over the nation to march against a still-flagrant racism. Forsyth’s population reacted so violently against the protest that the attempted march had to be shut down due to reports of armed counter-protestors in the forest. Phillips described walking through the town’s central square after the march, at age 16, watching his neighbors shout the n-word, dangle nooses, and celebrate what they saw as a victory in preserving the white town.
Phillips also mentioned his methods of tracking the more antiquated histories of Forsyth’s expelled families. These methods involved scrupulous attention to archives, old letters, interviews with living family members, and his most modern tool, Ancestry.com.
Phillips discussed how one of these histories traced the story of Joseph and Eliza Kellogg. In 1865, Joseph was emancipated at the age of 20. Beginning from almost nothing, Joseph and Eliza went on to accumulate 200 acres of land in Forsyth. They had to sell this land at a severely low price to escape Forsyth’s racial violence in the early 20th century.
The discussion portion of the evening began with a question asking how Phillips felt about the movement to change the titles of buildings named after figures of racism. Phillips responded by specifically referring to the controversy surrounding Woodrow Wilson’s namesake at Princeton University. He cited Wilson’s segregation of the federal government and other racist policies as proper reasons to strip his name from the buildings.
Phillips was also asked about why he decided to write the piece as nonfiction as opposed to a novel. The author’s response was that he felt it necessary to give the readers a real story of racism in America. He said that he wanted to write a nonfiction piece with 35 pages of notes in the back. Phillips also mentioned the benefits of his poetic career in constructing a readable text with such a high volume of information.
When asked for his thoughts after the program, Associate Professor of English and of American Studies Matthew Garrett discussed how Phillips’ work draws on real-world connections to the historical narrative of race in America, and how it reminds the readers how very much alive this history is today.
“It gives some further detail and texture to a larger story that social historians have told in other ways,” he said. “Maybe Phillips’ first-person and biographical account of the history of Forsyth, and his connections to those who were expelled, might help raise questions about what it would really mean for justice to be done for crimes of the past.”
The meaning of this justice was briefly touched upon in the discussion. Phillips referred to the animosity his book has incited among some members of his hometown. Phillips discussed that when he receives comments insisting that this book is merely dredging up a nasty and distant past, he always considers the necessity for truth in order to heal. Arguing that anger is the response of those who are not willing to commit to a painful healing process, and that forgiveness and forgetting are not actions to be taken immediately so much as goals that must be achieved through the endeavor of truth, Phillips pointed out that not bringing past issues to the surface allows them to corrode society through their denial.