Ottawa Writers Festival: Wrestling with identity with Wayne Grady

Wayne Grady.

Wayne Grady’s new novel, he says, is a conversation between his black side and his white side.

Grady, a respected writer of non-fiction, has turned to fiction lately and his two novels, first Emancipation Day and now Up From Freedom, are very much explorations of a unique part of his family history. That it is a history that he discovered in his mid-40s, makes that dialogue even more intriguing.

Grady’s father was an African American man who denied his race and “passed” as white for his entire life.

“I didn’t learn that I did have an African American background until I was 46 or 47,” Grady said.

When he found out, it literally “pulled the rug out from under me. While I was spinning around, I was trying to figure out who I was and where I came from.”

Out of that inquiry came Emancipation Day which tells the story of Grady’s father and mother in the 1940s.

For that book, “I did a lot of reading about passing. A lot of that research was in memoirs and non-fiction. There wasn’t a lot of fiction written about passing. My father was dead, so I couldn’t ask him details about things.

“I thought it was obvious why he passed, but why he never told his wife” is a mystery.

“You would think that over time he would have slipped but he never did. He didn’t admit it even when I came to him with the evidence that I had discovered. He said it was a surprise to him.”

Then he went deeper into the story in search of from where he came.

“I knew that we came from the (U.S.) south.”

He started tracing the lines back in time and discovered the woman who was his great-great grandmother in Virginia in 1790.

“It was unusual to find her because there aren’t a lot of records going back that far. I knew that she left Virginia but I don’t know why. Either she ran to freedom or she bought her freedom. These were the possibilities.

“I did know that she ended up in Indiana in 1835. That’s where I set the second half of this book in the town of Freedom, Indiana.”

In the novel Up From Freedom, Grady’s great-great grandmother is represented by the character Tamsey.

Freedom is an ironic name for a town in Indiana, a state known for the power of Ku Klux Klan in the early part of the 20th century.

For Grady, “the idea of arriving in Indiana, which was ostensibly a free state, and finding out that you are in even more danger there than in Virginia, must have been a terrible realization.”

In this journey of personal discovery, Grady says he found his own feelings toward an issue that “I hadn’t given a lot of thought to until it became personal and that is racism, the persistence of racism. How could slavery end but the spirit of slavery persist after the American Civil War?”

Up From Freedom is set in the 1830s and ’40s in the U.S. It is a time of transition.

“As a writer I am interested in those periods between paradigms if you like.”

The novel begins in Texas then a place in transition. The book starts just at the end of Mexican-American War which, after the Americans won, reinstated slavery in Texas.

More broadly, the U.S. was also moving from a rural society to a more industrialized society. People believed then that machines like the Cotton Gin would make slavery unnecessary.

“I have written a book about technology and I’m fairly clear that technology is not the boon to mankind that people think it is. Nothing really ended slavery even the so-called end of slavery failed to do that.” The debate about the minimum wage in Ontario is proof, Grady says, that the spirit of slavery is still with us.

In the novel, a white man named Virgil Moody has settled with a black woman Annie and her son Lucas in Texas. Annie was a slave on Moody’s father’s plantation and in his mind Moody believes he has rescued her and that she loves him. He is mistaken.

What then does one make of Virgil? Is he a well-meaning idiot?

“I think he thinks of himself as trying to be a good man. He has convinced himself that, by taking Annie away from his father’s plantation and by raising Lucas as if he is his son, he is doing good thing. But he keeps doing exactly the wrong thing.

“I think that is not unusual and not confined to Virgil. We like to think of ourselves as good. He is my white side,” Grady said. “On one level the novel is a conversation between my black side and my white side.”

Virgil meets Tamsey in Freedom, Indiana and the two try to come to some kind of understanding and agreement.

Another question Virgil prompts is: How can you be a good man in a bad system?

The answer, Grady says, is not in any effective way.

“Every decision he makes is informed by the system he lives in.”

Grady has spent a lot of time pondering what the discovery of his heritage means and ultimately he decided it didn’t mean very much. It clarified some questions, but “was I a different person? No.”

The question of identity gets debated during a trial that is described in the novel. In that trial, the court was asked to determine a person’s race.

Grady believes that trial shows that “if the difference between black and white can be decided in a court of law, it doesn’t mean anything.”

In our society, the members of the dominant culture rarely question what colour they are, he said.

“Before I found out about my father I didn’t think of myself as a white person. I just was a white person. But black people have to think about their race all the time.”

And for those fleeing slavery for freedom almost 200 years ago, that feeling was magnified 100 times, he said.

Grady is not done exploring his history and a third novel is almost completed.

“It brings the story up to contemporary times. It’s not a trilogy in the sense that the same characters continue, but the same themes are explored. This time I’m dealing with how discovery of being half black and half white has affected me and what I think about it and my children. It’s more directly personal.

Esi Edugyan once asked how I self-identify. I had no answer.

“The only thing I can say now is that Up From Freedom is written from Virgil Moody’s point of view. I could have written it from Tamsey’s point of view, but it was natural for me to write from white guy’s point pf view. I was raised white and I thought of myself as white for a long time. It’s now hard to think of myself as mixed or even technically black.

“I am still working through those Who Am I questions.”

That’s hard enough at the best of times.

Up From Freedom (Doubleday Canada)
Wayne Grady
In town: The author is on a panel called Living History at the Ottawa International Writers Festival with Natalie Morrill and Alix Hawley. For information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.