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A Journey on Cane River
"Success always leaves footprints."
- Booker T. Washington
Growing up, I knew for an absolute fact that no one on the planet was stronger than my mother. So when she told me stories of who she admired growing up, I paid attention. She was clearly in awe of her grandmother Emily. She described her grandmother as iron-willed and devilish, physically beautiful and demanding of beauty from others, determined to make her farmhouse in central Louisiana a fun place to be on Sundays when family gathered, and fanatical and unforgiving about the responsibilities generated from family ties.
My mother drew parallels between her grandmother Emily and Jacqueline Kennedy. "Emily was class," she would say, describing her physical attributes: her long, graceful neck, her tiny, tiny waist. "Emily was class, Emily was elegant, just like Jackie."
How my mother came by this first-name familiarity with the president's wife I couldn't begin to imagine, but as I grew older and listened carefully to other stories about my great-grandmother Emily that was the least of my bafflement. The pieces wouldn't fit. On the one hand, Emily, refined, graceful, elegant, soft-spoken, classy. On the other, Emily, a woman from the backwoods of Louisiana, possibly born a slave right before the Civil War, unapologetic about dipping snuff, buzzed on her homemade muscadine wine each and every day. Not exactly "just like Jackie."
Emily intrigued me, and, the puzzle of this woman simmered on the back burner of my conscious mind for decades, undoubtedly triggering questions about who I was as well. Not until 1995 did that the search really started to heat up, for the simple reason that I was no longer gainfully employed and suddenly had massive quantities of time on my hands. I had been a corporate executive, Vice President and General Manager of Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley, when I decided to change my life by stepping off into the great unknown. I quit my job. Not a sabbatical. No looking back or second guessing. Just walked away.
"When does your new job start?" asked my mother. Actually, what I heard was, "How could you possibly walk away from a good job you got only because I sacrificed to put you through school and by the way, I spent fourteen hours in labor to get you here in the first place." She didn't really say the last part, at least not out loud, but that is what it felt like she said.
"I refuse to take a job for at least a year," I replied, trying to sound confident. "I need to listen to the silence, find the inner me, reengineer myself outside of the confines of corporate America."
My mother had no patience with this drivel. "Who's
going to pay you to do that?"
"I've saved enough for a year or two."
"Can you get your old job back?"
"I don't want my old job. It's gone. There's something else I'm supposed to be doing," I said.
"I just don't know what it is yet."
"You're supposed to have a job."
I let the silence build. For some things, there is no
response. "So what are you going to do for the next year?" she
Here was the critical moment where a persuasive argument could win her to my side, put her mind to rest, reassure her of my ability to adapt.
"I don't know," I said, which unbeknownst to me would become my mantra of the next few years.
I couldn't explain it because I didn't understand it, but I felt compelled to leave my job and research my ancestry. Gradually, and then overwhelmingly, I slipped into the dark, shadowy, addictive parallel universe of genealogy. Entire days disappeared from my life when I entered the bowels of the National Archives to pore over census records. Secretive trips to Louisiana to chase down fragile leads in local courthouses, newspaper archives and libraries followed. I began to lie to my friends, telling them I was "just relaxing, taking it easy, enjoying my newfound free time."
Meanwhile, the relentless search for dead relatives consumed weeks and then months. I lost all sense of shame, carrying tape recorders into nursing homes to interview people who couldn't remember what they had for breakfast but could spin sharp tales of events from eighty years ago. I craved one more fact, one more connection, one more story, but one was never enough. I had to have more, to know more about the people in my family, dead for a hundred years. I was hooked.
So hooked, I traced my mother's line to a place in Louisiana called Cane River, a unique area that before the Civil War housed one of the largest and wealthiest collections of free people of color in the United States. I decided to hire a specialist on Cane River culture, a genealogist who could read the Creole French records that I could not. The task I assigned her was to find my great-grandmother Emily's grandmother.
"Let's get the facts we know on the table, starting with
her name," the genealogist said.
"I don't know." (The mantra echoed.)
"No first name or last name?"
"Okay. Was she from Cane River?"
"Maybe," I said encouragingly.
"Her daughter was."
"Okay. Was she slave or free?"
"I don't know. I can't find any trace of her in the free census records, but I'm not sure."
The genealogist seemed doubtful, but she took the job anyway. I was, after all, paying her by the hour just to look.
No job, no paycheck, so how long could this foolish obsession to find my unnamed great-great-great-great grandmother last? Turns out, for eighteen months, by the hour, until the genealogist recovered a document that banished any doubt I would write a historical novel based on the characters revealed. In a collection of ten-thousand unindexed local records written in badly preserved Creole French, she found the bill of sale for my great-great-greatgreat- grandmother Elisabeth, who was sold in 1850 in Cane River, Louisiana, for eight-hundred dollars.
I wondered whether my great-great-great-great-grandmother spent as much time envisioning her descendants as I had spent envisioning her life. I held the bill of sale in my hands, awed and humbled, curious what any one of the women who came before me, born slaves, would think of one of their own having the opportunity to become an executive at a Fortune 500 company. Could any of them have even dreamed of that possibility in 1850 as they changed hands at auction from one property owner to another? I wondered what they would think of the world we live in today. What would Elizabeth have thought of my quitting my job and spending far more than her selling price to find any evidence she had existed?
At this point, I had no choice. I had to write their story and document their lives - my history. They were, after all, real flesh-and-blood people. I pieced their lives the best I could from over a thousand documents uncovered in my years of research, re-creating what life must have been like for them during the 1800s and 1900s. The result was Cane River, a novelized account covering one-hundred years in America's history and following four generations of Creole slave women in Cane River, Louisiana, as they struggled to keep their families intact through the dark days of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the pre-civil rights era of Jim Crow South.
The rest - the dog-work of writing the novel, finding an agent, finding a publisher and doing the book tour - was as grueling and exciting as discovering my ancestry. Within days of being sent to several publishers, Warner Books purchased the novel. Once again, my family was on the auction block but this time in a more satisfying way, honoring instead of dishonoring. Things had certainly changed over the last hundred and fifty years. I wished I could show my great-great-great-great-grandmother Elisabeth the price our family commanded this time.
Three months after the publication of Cane River, the
phone rang as I was packing for yet another book-signing
"Hello, this is Oprah."
"Yeah, right!" I said, wondering which of my friends was playing this cruel practical joke. I waited for laughter that never came.
"This is Oprah," the distinct and ever-so-familiar voice said again.
As recognition registered, I mustered my most professional
corporate voice in the midst of my total embarrassment
and surprise. "Hello, Ms. Winfrey. What can I do for
you today?" My heart pounded so hard I could hardly
hear what followed.
She had called to tell me she selected my novel for her book club, which ultimately led to Cane River spending seventeen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and a readership broader than I dared dream. My mother has conceded once, and only once, that quitting my job wasn't as disastrous as she had feared. But she still thinks I should be out interviewing for a corporate position, as a backup. The women in my family are strong, and strength is a mother's legacy.
Worry, on the other hand, now that's a mother's prerogative.