One of my 19th-century ancestors from the US South was a Native American woman, or so my white family has long preferred to believe.
My mom’s left-leaning cousin from Berkeley would argue with her mother about this. Our relative had kinky hair in a photo, she’d say, and was probably African-American.
My Texan great-aunt preferred to believe otherwise. Why? She’s not with us anymore to ask. But journalist Karen Branan, a Georgia native, understands why this kind of denial might exist. “I’d been taught,” she says, “that the worst thing that could happen to a white person was to learn they have black blood.”
Through a deeply wrenching personal voyage, Branan delved into the roots of this prejudice amid the shame lurking in Southern life. Now, she is the author of the extraordinary and shocking new memoir The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth.
As she discovered, Branan has multiple personal connections to the 1912 lynching of four black people in Hamilton, a town of 1,000 people on the western edge of Georgia. They were murdered by a mob amid a scandal involving interracial lust: a white young man and his not-uncommon desire for a black woman.
In an interview, Branan talks about her journey through this horrific history and the release she’s experienced by facing the past. “Redemption,” she says, “comes in finding the truth.”
Q: How did you come across this story?
The seed was planted when I was about 11. My father told me about my great-grandfather, the sheriff, and how he’d have some men in jail. Other men would come to him and say, “You’d better get on the train, sheriff. We’ve got some business to do here.”
I was 11, and I just kind of forgot about it. I went on to be an investigative reporter, reporting on all kinds of crimes, and didn’t think much about this one way or another until 1984 when my grandmother thought she was dying. I decided I’d better rush down and conduct an oral history with her.
We talked for an hour, full of silly, funny, and sweet things. And then I asked: “What is your most unforgettable moment?” She said: “The hanging.”
Q: What was she remembering?
Those who were lynched were moonshiners who’d been found guilty. She was young, and her father told her not to go to the hanging, but everyone was going, and she went anyway.
It sounded like a judicial hanging. But she said a woman was hanged outdoors, and I thought that was odd. It was another 10 years before I realized this was something I needed to look into. That’s when I started going to Georgia and asking questions.
Q: What did you find out?
My aunt who’d lived next door to my grandmother for most of her life said it was about race and sex, a bunch of white men fighting over a colored girl. This was something very different from what I thought it was.
In the South, there was a lot of sex between white men and black women, and a trial would have been a show trial for this lifestyle.
Q: What did this revelation mean to you?
I’d been taught the worst thing that could happen to a white person was to learn they have black blood. I should have known that if there so much anxiety there had to be a reason for it.
Q: Without giving away any spoilers, you discovered that members of your family played major roles in this story. Did you have a sense of shame about this?
Absolutely I felt shame. I felt accountable for my family, and I felt I had to tell this story about family members who were the wrong race, who were killed and rejected.
There’s a whole history in the South of our darkest sisters and brothers being sold down the river or thrown into the river, a whole history of turning our backs on our own flesh and blood.
While it’s been horrifying, it’s very freeing to do this. I get a lot of affirmation from African-Americans for talking about this since it’s not been something they’ve seen in their lifetimes, and they want to see more of it.
And a lot of people, not just Southerners, are coming to me with their stories.
Q: What was the hardest thing for you about writing the book?
Finding the right voice. I ended up paying a good writer to read my book for anger and sarcasm, two of my favorite emotions.
I did not want to tell the reader how to feel about things. I had spent 20 years reading and writing about anger and people being politicized in a certain way. I wanted to write as honest and dispassionate a book as I could.
Q: How did people react to the book?
I expected the worst: People calling me a liar and a race traitor, which I know has happened to others in the past. But so far, that has not happened. I’ve had a few surly remarks, but people are mostly very generous and loving and supportive.
Q: You ultimately honored the memory of the four victims on Jan. 22 of this year. What happened?
I wanted to have a memorial service for the four who had been lynched. They were dumped in the dirt and covered up, and their lives had never been honored.
I made efforts around Jan. 22 over the past five years, especially at the 100th anniversary four years ago. But I could not get a response from any of the white or black ministers I contacted.
This last time, I got in touch with the white mayor of Hamilton, a former high school history teacher, and she was excited about doing this. She called her Methodist minister, and he was happy to quite enthusiastic about it.
Everybody was ready to go. But four days before the memorial, the minister called and left a message saying he’d have to shut it down because his congregation was too upset about the book. Some of the bad guys were ancestors of members of his congregation.
But the local librarian stepped in and offered the library, and we held the service.
Q: Have you found redemption by writing this book?
In a strange kind of way, I think I have.
Redemption comes in finding the truth. We are burdened in ways that we can’t quite define whenever we’re operating with a false notion of ourselves and our backgrounds. To get to a truth, even if it’s a horrible truth, has a strangely redemptive result.
They say the truth shall set you free. That’s what redemption is, right? Being set free.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.