Susan Campbell Bartoletti is rightfully acknowledged as a truly great nonfiction author, most notably for HITLER YOUTH: GROWING UP IN HITLER'S SHADOW for which she was awarded a Newbery Honor in 2006. It is her latest book however, THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK, which really blew me away. This is not a standard text for a well worn history topic but rather an indepth look into just how the KKK came to be, who it targeted and why. The answers to these questions are not easy or trite and provide all sorts of thought provoking moments about what it means to be brave. In fact, there is so much courage in this book that I wanted to stand on the street corner and demand it be read by everyone who passed me by. It is the real deal about what America is supposed to be and sadly, about how the ideal of America can pass us by when we are too afraid to believe in it.
Oddly enough, considering the subject matter, THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK made me want to cheer more than once.
Susan kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about what it was like to research this difficult subject and immerse herself in a truly ugly aspect of America's past. I strongly urge everyone to read her blog posts on attending a weekend long K.K.K. rally. Talk about bravery. Go. Read. And learn about what one corner of our country still, sad to say, looks like. Now onto the interview....
CM: You've written about the difficulty in researching THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK and the hours of reading slave narratives and testimony, etc. What unique perspective were you trying to bring to this subject?
SCB: Colleen, thank you for inviting me to participate in this interview. As someone who has searches for ordinary voices to give us new perspectives and understandings in history, I love the power of the "ordinary" â€“ the bloggers!
For this book, my "unique perspective" is found, I believe, in divergent voices. From the very beginning, I knew that I wanted all sides and all walks of life to be heard.
I love the haunting nature of research, the way the people I'm researching begin to stalk me. As I ferret out the bits and fragments of their lives, as I put their lives together, I feel as though I'm breathing them back to life. Pretty soon, these people are up and about, walking and talking and telling me their stories.
I think about them, worry about them, puzzle over them, and argue with them even when I'm not working, even as I'm driving the car or doing dishes or hanging out laundry to dry. They are not always easy to get along with, and some are very ungrateful that you've been poking around, turning up secrets. Others, I think, are very grateful.
In this book, you'll hear Klan supporters and non-supporters; Klansmen and victims; Republicans and Democrats; planters, farmers, and poor whites; the educated and uneducated; preachers and teachers; blacks and whites; males and females; adults, children and teenagers, wherever their testimony could be found.
Why the divergent voices? As a writer, I also know this: for the strongest narrative possible, I have to develop the antagonist(s) as well as the protagonist(s). The stronger my antagonist, the stronger my protagonist will ultimately be.
It wasn't easy to do. One of the hardest things for any historian is deciding what information to include in order to construct a reasoned narrative of the past. Every time I turned the page, I found another heartrending story.
Talk about heavy research! This is one of the most complicated subjects I've ever tackled. Writing Hitler Youth prepared me emotionally for this subject. It's one thing to look at the history of another country and say, Look what you did! It's another to look at our own history, and say, Look what we've done. (*sigh)
That said, I am deeply interested in the many contradictions that can be found in our nation's history. Think about it. Our nation is built upon a creed of equality and justice, and yet our history is replete with stories that show the actions of our leaders and ordinary citizens not living up to the words of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
CM: What kept you going through all that heavy research?
SCB: The short answer is family and friends.
At NCTE last week, Tonya Bolden said that I must have had people praying over me to keep me from losing my mind over the research. That's a lovely thought, isn't it? I found myself turning that notion over in my head, and doing what all writers do, saying what if? What if the spirits of the people we're researching and writing about do watch over us?
For a full-length nonfiction book such as this one, I know it's going to be a long haul â€“ at least two to three years once the deep work begins -- and so I know I need to hunker down. I know it's going to be frustrating and physically and emotionally exhausting but I also know there is going to be a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure.
I happen to like the chase, the hunt of looking for the sources, both primary and secondary. I enjoy the intellectual process and the physical process. I like fitting the pieces together, thinking in new ways.
Another thing that keeps me going is, of course, my own stubbornness and belief in the necessity of such a book. I don't know how to quit. I used to run, and I remember the feeling of finding my wind. That's how it is with such books that require this sort of research: I love the feeling of finding my wind.
Also, and here's something many people don't know: in the midst of researching this book, I found myself looking for outlets. I tend to write about dark, depressing things, but I really do have a good sense of humor, honest I do! (It's probably a defense mechanism developed as a result of teaching 8th grade for 18 years.)
I found the best outlet ever! I tried out at an Improv Comedy audition taught by a Second City Chicago trained actor and made the master class and then took weekly classes and performed off and on for nearly two years. (No, I had no prior stage training, unless you count the lead role I won in 5th grade. But friends and complete strangers often told me I was funny. My family never did, and I think my husband worried that Improv would mame me THINK I was funnier . . . )
It took a lot of courage to get up on stage. Nervous! How my stomach twisted before each show! But I loved the laughter and the feeling of surprise and the hard-won applause from the audience. I loved my Improv troupe. It was a great release. And it taught me a great deal.
CM: Jim Williams, Jim Williams, Jim Williams. I fell so hard for Jim Williams when I read chapter 9 - I was afraid to keep reading because I was worried that things would not end well for him. (Sigh.) How did you find Williams and do you know if his story has been told in any other modern histories?
SCB: I happened upon Jim Williams's story in the testimony collected during the KKK trials in South Carolina. I was moved by his courage and determination to protect his community. I was moved, too, about the obvious hopes and dreams that he had in the days that followed the war. These hopes and dreams are revealed in the details of his life.
I was also moved by his wife's testimony. I can't imagine how it must have felt for her, to have her husband murdered by the Klan and then have much of her testimony dismissed as hearsay.
It's the stories of people like Jim Williams, Hannah Tutson, William Luke, Cornelius McBride â€“ just to name a few â€“ that serve to remind us that the lives of these people are greater than the pain and humiliation that they suffered, that they are more than casualties of history, that they each played a pivotal role in our country's history.
CM: Is his gravesite known? How did you feel upon discovering him?
SCB: I don't believe anyone knows where he's buried. When I discovered Jim's story, I felt the way I often feel: honored to be able to tell it -- and incredibly humbled.
CM: One of the surprises for me was the existence of people who were intimidated into joining the Klan. Where did you find their histories and did you know of their existence before researching the book?
Most of their stories I found in the KKK reports. I wasn't surprised by such stories, since I found many similar-but-different stories when I researched Hitler Youth. Wherever individuals bully and commit terrible injustices, there will always be those individuals who conform and obey and exhibit a lack of conscience.
CM: They make the KKK more sympathetic then I would have thought possible - or at least more human. Were there any other surprises for you in researching the book?
SCB: Hmm. Do they humanize the Klan? What does that mean, to humanize? The testimony of these so-called reluctant Klansmen do offer the perspective of a follower, of someone easily led, someone who lacks the courage to stand up, to speak out, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of a lack of conscience. I can understand their fear, but I have a hard time accepting it.
It makes me think of another period in history, of Kristallnacht in Germany, in November 1938, the year before war broke out, when the Nazis organized a nation-wide attack on Jews and so many Germans stood by as their Jewish neighbors were terrorized and attacked. That night could have been a turning point, a time when ordinary Germans rallied in support of their Jewish neighbors. If they had, how would world events have changed? We'll never know.
So let's consider those whites who were intimidated into joining the Klan. Our nation is a nation of laws. What would have happened if these whites had organized against this vigilante group that was making a mockery out of our country's Constitution? If they had insisted that local authorities honor the laws of their state and nation? If they had stood up for their neighbors?
I find it infuriating that so many guilty were never tried at all and those that were got off with light sentences and small fines. What does this say about the value of a person's life? About justice?
CM: Why do you think we have no memorials to lynching victims? Where I grew up (in FL) there was actually a street named Lynching Tree Drive where someone was supposedly lynched in the early 20th century. (I have never researched it deeply enough to find out what really happened.)
SCB: Wow. But I'm not surprised.
CM: About twenty years or so ago the city changed the street name because of complaints. There are, I'm sure, thousands of similar stories throughout the south and yet the victims stubbornly remain largely unrecognized. Did you come to any conclusions about this in all your reading? The easy answer is racism but I don't think the easy answer is the complete (or even true) answer anymore. (There are Civil Rights memorials after all.) Do we just want to forget? Is it considered too old to matter anymore?
SCB: Isn't it interesting what a nation chooses to memorialize and commemorate and what it does not? The seeds for the existing Civil Rights memorials were sown in the Reconstruction years by men and women like Jim Williams, Elias Hill, William Luke, Cornelius McBride, Hannah and Samuel Tutson, and others.
CM: Writing on this subject for teens presents its own challenges but I love that you did not shy away from any of the horror that accompanied the KKK. Were there any parameters going into it - was there anything you wanted to write about but couldn't?
SCB: It always hard to make decisions, what to include and what to leave out. Every time I turned the page, I found another heartrending story or story of immense courage.
But historians need to make decisions, hard decisions. It's our job. So my mantra became: Do justice to the victims and tell the whole story, no matter how troubling or painful.
CM: The KKK are such an epic lesson in the consequences of unchecked fear and conversely, the power of individual courage. "Terrorist" has so many other connotations today but still - you can not deny the fact that they are (as your subtitle describes) "an American terrorist group". How can the lessons learned in combating the KKK help us today against other terrorists? What do they tell us about the right and wrong thing to do?
SCB: I need to think about this one some more. The easy answer is this: when we shine a light on the dark side, we release its power.
CM: And finally, as my friend Gwenda at Shaken & Stirred puts it, this is my "process porn" question. Anything you can tell us about the subject you are working on next and/or your writing process.
SCB: I am looking forward to a picture book called Naamah and the Ark at Night, illustrated by the amazing Holly Meade, and published by Candlewick in August 2011. And of course, I'm hard at work on other full-length projects.
CM: Do you schedule time to write? Lean more towards morning or evenings?
SCB: I start very early in the morning and work most of the day.
CM: Anything you are reading or listening to (or watching) that is really inspiring you? This is the fun question - so answer whatever bits of it that you wish!
SCB: This isn't an answer to your question, but for some weird reason, for the past month or so, I keep waking up with different 80s pop songs in my head. Am I dreaming about the 80s?
I'll give you a real answer soon!
WBBT INTERVIEWS TO CHECK OUT: Be sure to see the Master Schedule for direct urls and sample quotes from all the day's interviews plus every interview from Monday & Tuesday. The Master Schedule is a beautiful thing. You will not be disappointed, promise.