"Racism Was Much Harsher Than I Understood": Beth Macy on "Truevine"

TruevineAt the center of Beth Macy’s exhaustively researched and fascinating Truevine are two brothers, either abducted or bartered to a circus where the African American albinos were forced to present themselves as “Ambassadors from Mars,” or “White Ecuadorian Cannibals,” or “Sheep-Headed Men” (no matter the iteration, they could play mandolin and guitar, too!). George and Willie Muse traveled the world, even performing for the Queen of England, while their mother remained in the Jim Crow South, not knowing where and how they were. She never gave up hope, however, and nearly three decades later they were reunited, setting off a protracted legal battle, the result of which ensured that her sons would be paid their due. Now think about that for a second. It’s almost easier to believe that her children were, in fact, from Mars than to accept that a black woman was able to utilize and benefit from a legal system during a time when lynchings were still horrifyingly common. And yet that’s how determined and fearless she was. Macy deftly, and with palpable reverence, captures the extraordinary bond between the three of them—a bond unscrupulous scouting agents, greedy circus owners, a perfidious father, and 28 years of separation couldn’t break. She recently took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for us about this Best of the Month selection.

E.K.: The key to unlocking the mystery of what happened with the Muse brothers was Nancy Saunders, and it took 25 years to earn her trust. What so compelled you that you were willing to take such time, and patience, and care in the writing of Truevine?
B.M.: That’s hard to answer because there’s almost no time in my career when I haven’t been thinking about this story. Like others who’d asked before me to do the story, I’m sure I was initially attracted to the great yarn that it was. But once I really got to know Nancy and understood deeply what she’d gone through to protect her uncles — a process that took a couple decades — I saw the Muse brothers’ story not as a great yarn but also as a way to reflect society at large. Were the brothers better off, ultimately, traveling in the circus than they would have been at home in Jim Crow Virginia? That question led me to explore sharecropping and life during segregation; all the untold micro-aggressions black Virginians faced, including the Muse family, as well as how the general circus-going public, whose fascination with sideshows said more about the audiences, truly, than the freaks.
There were a lot of layers of meaning and universality tucked within this one outlier story. The longer I worked on it, the more interesting and multi-layered it became to me. This book could not have been written by an outsider; it could not have been produced in a hurry. It had to be pieced at by a local, on a slow simmer. I’m not generally the world’s most patient person, but this one was worth the wait.
E.K.: One of the most fascinating moral dilemmas in Truevine is whether or not the Muse brothers were better off being exploited as freaks in a circus than with their mother, working the tobacco fields. In the circus they had community, purpose--they traveled the world…Where do you think home was to George and Willie Muse?
B.M.: In the decades following the family reunion in 1927, when Harriett Muse fought legally to get her sons compensated and restore to visit their family —to know, without question, that their mother was alive — I think George and Willie Muse’s feelings about the circus shifted. Circus was home in the early years because it was all they had access to; a kind of Stockholm Syndrome had taken over where they were as dependent on their captors as they were held hostage by them.  

Home is such an important theme throughout this story. I love that, by the end of the book, they are finally able to settle into a home bought and paid for by their circus wages — but only because of their mother’s clever machinations. Harriett’s brave persistence was the gift that kept on giving, to generations of her family, and it’s why, even at the age of 108, thoughts of her bravery still occupied Willie Muse’s mind. Home is wherever your mother is; I feel that way about my own mother. It’s a universal truth.  
E.K.: A central question in Truevine is whether or not the Muse brothers were kidnapped and forced to work in the circus, or if their mother made some sort of deal with a recruiter. Your research turned up evidence of the latter, but Nancy Saunders and the Muse brothers themselves dispute this. What do you think really happened?
B.M.: I think I can say with almost-certainty that the truth, at this point, is unknowable. The evidence and documentation that suggests she may have initially let them go is so flawed, recorded only by systems and publications that refused to let black people have a voice. I don’t want to be one more white person trying to stifle their story. Willie Muse said he was “stolen.” He named his captor. And we have proof that their captor did exploit the brothers for many years, decades even. That said, I had to lay out the imperfect and inconsistent facts as I found them, putting the pieces in context and letting readers make their own call.
E.K.: Do you still stay in touch with Nancy Saunders?

B.M.: Yes, and it still takes her days, sometimes weeks, to return my calls. She did come to my recent book launch party, and my husband said he even saw her signing a few books! After the party, she finally agreed to give me the “Sit Down and Shut Up” sign from her soul-food restaurant (closed since she retired). I’d asked her to will it to me, and she said she would — but only after I delivered her eulogy. I think she’s proud of the book, especially of her great-grandmother, Harriett.
E.K.: What was the most surprising or pivotal piece of research that you uncovered while writing Truevine?
B.M.: To me, the most astonishing things didn’t revolve around the sideshow spectacle but rather around what ordinary African-Americans faced during Jim Crow. The daily cruelties didn’t seem to shift so much between the end of slavery and civil rights.
E.K.: There are many, many layers to this story. What is the one thing you hope readers come away with after reading Truevine?
B.M.: Current events don’t happen in a vacuum. The Baltimore riots, the biases inherent in police shootings of unarmed black men, growing inequality in America — I hope this family’s story helps readers understand that, as the great James Baldwin put it, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it...History is literally present in all that we do.”

Racism was so much more insidious and ingrained than separate water fountains. And even though I’ve spent three decades writing largely about marginalized people, it was much harsher than I understood. Newspapers across the country ran racist syndicated cartoons, including “Hambone’s Meditations.” Blacks were considered sub-human beings by most whites, including most of our own white ancestors, many of whom benefitted from the systemic exploitation of a black underclass. I think we all need to own a little piece of that inheritance. And to own it, we need first to acknowledge it.

Personally, I like to think this book is partial payback for my own journalistic predecessors’ refusal to tell the stories of ordinary African-American families. I hope it leads to some tough conversations in our communities, and, ultimately, to greater understanding, empathy, and respect.

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