The ‘Racial Cleansing’ That Drove 1,100 Black Residents Out Of Forsyth County, Ga.
The ‘Racial Cleansing’ That Drove 1,100 Black Residents Out Of Forsyth County, Ga.
In 1912, white mobs set fire to black churches and black-owned businesses. Eventually the entire black population of Forsyth County was driven out, says Blood at the Root author Patrick Phillips.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. One of the nightmarish racist chapters of American history is documented in a new book by my guest Patrick Phillips. It’s about what happened in Forsyth County, Ga., in 1912 when white mobs terrorized and drove out the entire black population, about 1,100 people. This was the white response to two incidents - the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man and the rape and beating of a young white woman who died of her injuries. A lynch mob attacked and hanged one black suspect. Two teenagers were hanged in public executions following a short trial.
My guest Patrick Phillips is one of the white people who grew up in this county when it was still all white, and people of color were definitely not welcome. His parents were among the civil rights protesters who in the 1980s protested against the county’s continuing segregation. Phillips’ new book “Blood At The Root” is based on his archival research as well as his interviews with townspeople and with descendants of the black people who fled in 1912.
Patrick Phillips, welcome to FRESH AIR. When did you realize that you lived in a town that had driven out all the black people in an act that you now describe as racial cleansing?
PATRICK PHILLIPS: That’s a story that I first heard when I was 7 years old. My parents moved from suburban Atlanta to Forsyth County which is about 30 miles north. And so I was a new kid in a very rural county, and it was something that I heard on the school bus riding to school. You know, I had noticed that there were no black people in the county compared to my old neighborhood in Atlanta. And when I asked kids on the bus why that was, and, you know, I had heard lots of racist jokes and people referred to black folks with the N-word almost entirely.
And so I asked, you know, other kids on the bus how this - why this was. And, you know, they told me this story and in there, you know - in the kids version, it was very mythic and kind of legendary. And it just went that a long, long time ago, there was a white girl who was attacked by black men and all the white people in Forsyth banded together and ran out all the black people. So that’s really the first version of the story that I heard and that would have been in about 1977.
GROSS: And what did you make of that?
PHILLIPS: You know, I was horrified by it and sort of frightened by it, and, at the same time, my parents are fairly progressive and were activists. They’re both from Birmingham, Ala., so they were the rare liberal and progressive white southerners at the time. And, you know - so I was a little bit horrified by it, but I was also really fascinated by the story because it suggested this vanished world.
And so I always had the feeling that the place itself was kind of haunted. And I thought about these vanished black people, this whole community of black people and had always wondered, you know - as a child, I wondered where did they go? You know, how did this happen? What did they leave behind? Which of these, you know, places that I know in the county might have once belonged to them? So, you know, it was really a kind of long fascination, but it always seemed mythic and really unknowable to me when I was a kid.
GROSS: Then you kind of witnessed some of the aftermath of this story in January of 1987 when there was what was called a Brotherhood March. It was a civil rights march basically challenging the whiteness of the community. Would you describe the march and your family’s participation in it?
PHILLIPS: Yeah. That was really the first time that the situation in Forsyth gained national attention. There was - it was the second Martin Luther King national holiday, and a couple of white residents of Forsyth decided to finally protest publicly the ongoing segregation of the county, and they launched a march that was called the Brotherhood March to end intimidation and fear in Forsyth.
And this kind of led to a real outpouring of, you know, anger among the white community, and there were death threats made to the organizers. And eventually it was taken up by Hosea Williams who was one of Martin Luther King’s sort of right-hand man during the civil rights battles of the ’50s and ’60s. And so a group of about 75 activists, including mostly African-American activists from the King Center in Atlanta and a handful of local white people, including my mother, my father and my sister, really had a kind of modest plan which was a short march into the town the county seat of Cumming and the goal was simply to speak out against fear and intimidation and to celebrate the King holiday. And they were met by a real mob of rock throwing, bottle throwing, cursing, you know, kind of racist slurs spewing white people from the county and eventually the Georgia Bureau of Investigation started to arrest people in the crowd who they figured out were armed.
And it really kind of escalated into this violent scene, really ugly scene that was then broadcast all over the country. And at that same moment when they were on the march, I had actually arrived late. You know, I was 16, and I arrived - as I did often when I was 16 - I arrived late to meet my parents. And so I ended up on the town square and - at what I thought was the peace march.
And then at a certain point, you know, I heard a PA click on, and somebody screamed into a megaphone, you know, raise your hand if you love white power. And all of these young men around me, you know, raised their fist and started screaming white power. And I saw a guy go by with a noose on his, you know - on his shoulder, and, you know, it was this kind of horrifying moment where it - what had always been present in the county, but kind of suppressed was suddenly very visible. And those images went all over the country, really all over the world.
GROSS: Did you see neighbors who you recognized as part of this angry, violent, racist mob?
PHILLIPS: We did not see any of our close friends from there, but I certainly knew faces. I saw faces that I recognized, people who went to the Forsyth County High School where my brother went. So a lot of a lot of familiar faces, yes.
GROSS: In your acknowledgments, you think the poet Natasha Trethewey the way who urged you to write this book. She’s a woman of color and has written about blackness, but you - a white man from one of the most racist places in the country - never said a word about whiteness. So how did that inspire you to write the book?
PHILLIPS: That was the other really pivotal moment, I think, when I look back because I had had this fascination and this interest in the story. But, you know, I had always felt reluctant to really wade into the subject of race. And I’m not proud of that at this point, but I had been kind of on the fence about all of this and resistant to taking that risk. And, luckily, I have an old friendship with Natasha. She went to University of Georgia which is just, you know, down the road from Forsyth County, so she - unlike most of the people I know in the writing world and most of the people I know in my life now in New York, Natasha actually knows a little bit of the legend. So she had heard it, and she knew and as a woman of color, she had heard about Forsyth County.
So in about 2006, I believe it was, Natasha, you know, just turned to me kind of out of the blue. We were having a discussion about writing and what - you know, what really the mission was and what we could do as writers. And she just turned to me out of the blue and said, you know, I know about Forsyth County. I know about where you come from. And I was really taken aback, and she said why do you never write about that? Why have you been silent on this? And she said, you know, do you think you’re not involved?
And you know Natasha had this wonderful way of both giving me a challenge to write about it, and also, I think, really an invitation and gave me - helped me feel that I had permission to write about it. So, you know, so that’s why I thank her in the back of the book because I don’t know how much she remembers that moment, but for me it was really pivotal.
GROSS: Would you describe the incidents that led to the night rides driving out all the black people from Forsyth County?
PHILLIPS: Yeah. It’s a story that you can find in a lot. You know, this is - was not unique to Forsyth that there was an attempt at racial cleansing. What’s really unique to Forsyth is that it’s a place where it succeeded and that effort was successful for, you know, almost 100 years. It was still a, quote, unquote, “white county” when I was growing up there in the ’70s and ’80s. And it really in some ways - I mean, in the book, there’s a flashpoint in 1912.
But then in other ways, I find the origins of what happened in 1912 much, much earlier in the county going all the way back to the Cherokee removals in the 1830s because that also occurred in Forsyth County. But in 1912, a young, white woman, 18-year-old white woman named Mae Crow who lived really just a few miles from the house where I grew up in a little town called - a little village really called Oscarville was found in the woods. I believe it was September 9, 1912 and she was beaten and - she had been beaten over the head. And she was bloody and unconscious. And, you know, at least the newspaper accounts were that she had been raped. And she was taken to her house and, you know, was in a coma for two weeks. And after two weeks she died of the injury.
And the day of her funeral, in fact, there was - that night was the first reported night riding and bands of white men gather together and they started trying to punish the entire black community for what they believed was - it was reported as a kind of black insurrection was the phrase in the papers and they believe was this - a spree of rapes that was largely just a hysteria and borne out of fear. But their methods were arson. They burned black churches. They set fire to black-owned homes. They fired into cabins.
They posted notices, you know, warning people that they had 24 hours, sometimes a few days to get out. And over the course of September and October of 1912, this movement spread and ultimately succeeded. And 1,098 black residents are in the census of 1910, and virtually all of them were forced out of the county during that two-month period.
GROSS: You said that there was this belief that there was a spree of rapes of black people raping white women. Was there a spree of rapes?
PHILLIPS: This was another thing that I did not know about until the research. I had heard about Mae Crow. It turned out the week before, there was another woman - another young woman named Ellen Grice, who the papers said, quote, “awakened and found a negro man in her bed.”
And so this actually led to the whipping on the town square and the near lynching of a man named Grant Smith, who was an African-American minister and, you know, a prominent preacher in the black churches of the county. And he was nearly lynched the week before Mae Crow was found in the woods. So there’s no way to know exactly what happened with the Ellen Grice case, but I quote Ida B. Wells back in the 19th century, pointing out - she calls it “the old threadbare lie,” the idea that black men rape white women in the South. And she posits that, you know, often this was a case of white women having affairs with black men and being discovered and then there’s a rape accusation.
So there’s no way to know that for certain, but essentially there was a story from Ellen Grice that she had been attacked. And then a week later, Mae Crow is found. And all of that led to this kind of widespread belief that the whites of the town were in the midst of a black rebellion.
GROSS: There was this fear of a race war.
PHILLIPS: That’s right, yeah. That’s the phrase that’s used a lot. And only a few months earlier in a town called Plainville, Ga., there had been a shootout, again, stemming from really trivial stuff where two - a black boy and a white girl were picking peaches, you know, in the same peach orchard. And apparently there was some kind of dispute. And before you know it, there was an attempt to lynch some black men in Plainville.
And when they fought back and fired back, it led to a posse kind of cornering them. And there was a real shootout. And the sheriff of that town, the white sheriff, was killed in the gunfight. So all of this was, you know, part of this environment of fear and hysteria and a certainty among the white community that if they didn’t do something, then the black people of the county were going to rise up.
GROSS: How many black people were arrested for the rape and beating of Mae Crow?
PHILLIPS: So there were waves of arrests. And the way that the newspapers referred to it was very telling. They talked about the sheriff and his deputy going out and, quote, “rounding up suspects.”
And that’s really - when you follow the newspaper articles and trace this sort of hour by hour, day by day, which is what I tried to do, you just see that it’s a little bit haphazard in that they go out to Big Creek, the place where Ellen Grice lived, and simply arrest the first young black men they find. And then a similar thing happens after Mae Crow’s body is discovered. Eventually, really four people were arrested, a man named Rob Edwards, his wife Jane Daniel, her brother Oscar Daniel and their cousin, a 16-year-old boy named Ernest Knox.
And eventually, after he’s arrested, Rob Edwards is dragged from the county jail by a mob of whites. The deputy, a guy named Gaye Lummus (ph) tries very hard to stop it. It seems very clear that the sheriff really enabled this abduction from the jail. He went home at the key moment and said he had no idea that it was going on. But eventually Rob Edwards was dragged from the county jail. He was beaten with crowbars. Somebody put a noose around his neck.
The mob dragged him around the town square. And this is a town square, you know, where I marched in the Little League parade and where I, you know, bought my first baseball glove and stuff. They dragged him around the town square. And eventually he was hoisted up on - you know, to the yard arm of a telephone pole. And hundreds of people joined in and fired into his corpse.
So this was - you know, this lynching was really almost the immediate reaction to the jailing of Rob Edwards. And he was known as, quote, “Big Rob.” He was a very large man and, you know, seems to have been targeted because he lived out in Oscarville, where Mae Crow was from, and had been, you know, seen in the area on the day. It’s about as, you know, definitive as the evidence was. So he was lynched by a mob.
And then the two boys, Ernest Knox, 16, and Oscar Daniel, 18, were arrested and eventually tried in a one-day trial. Both trials happened on a single day. And then they were hung just outside of town at a hanging that became a kind of - almost like a country fair. It became a big celebration day. And 5,000 people came out and watched the execution of these two boys.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Patrick Phillips. He’s the author of the new book “Blood At The Root: A Racial Cleansing In America.” We’ll talk more about what happened in Forsyth County, Ga., after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest Patrick Phillips is the author of the new book “Blood At The Root: A Racial Cleansing In America.” It’s about how the people of his hometown, Forsyth County, drove out the entire black population in 1912 after a young white woman was raped and beaten to death. All of the suspects arrested were black. Two were convicted and executed by hanging. Another suspect, Rob Edwards, was abducted from the jail beaten to death by a white mob then lynched.
Was anybody prosecuted for the lynching of Rob Edwards who was not tried?
PHILLIPS: Yeah. There’s no evidence of any arrest indictment, prosecution of any of the crimes committed in the entire, you know - entire history of this racial cleansing from the Lynch - from the whipping of Grant Smith the week earlier to the lynching of Rob Edwards to eventually the burning of churches, burning of sharecropper’s cabins. I found no records of any arrests or prosecution the entire time, and another of the myths that I grew up with was the notion that, well, that was just those days. That was just the way it was back then. It was the Jim Crow South. It was a racist time, and that was often - I was often told that as a way of kind of excusing the whole thing.
But then I did some research on the neighboring county, Hall County, which was just across the Chattahoochee River and at the same period they had similar waves of white terrorism and similar attempts to drive out the black community. But there was a key difference which is in the first week of the violence, arrests were made. The newspapers printed the names of the night riders, and those, you know - group of about six men were tried, convicted and sentenced to jail time in Hall County.
And later the sheriff said, you know, we managed to, quote, “crush this thing in its infancy.” So for me it became a very interesting experiment in that on one side of the river you had a county where white terrorism went unpunished and then spread and lasted almost 100 years. On the other side of the river in the very earliest days, you know, the enforcement of existing laws managed to stop it.
GROSS: You describe a festival-like atmosphere at this public execution, but public executions were illegal at the time in Forsyth County. They were supposed to be doing these hangings in an enclosed space, so that the public wouldn’t see. So what happened there?
PHILLIPS: So yeah, that was the judge’s order. When the judge - the judge’s name was Newt Morris, and he’s also an interesting figure in that he later emerges in 1915 leading a lynch mob himself in the lynching of a guy named Leo Frank in Atlanta. That’s another story told in the book. But, yeah, the judge ordered that the hanging happen behind a blind that there should be a 30-foot high fence - or no, 15-foot high fence raised around the gallows to shield them from view and to keep any spectators from seeing what was going on.
And, you know, the short version is that the night before the hanging, a group of whites came to the area where that had been erected and burned the fence down. But very tellingly they left the gallows completely untouched, so there was a real conspiracy to - for everyone to see this. And, you know, in a lot of ways, it had the atmosphere of a lynching as well. People took souvenirs after the hanging.
They took pieces of the noose, and, in fact, the - one of the pieces of the noose ended up in the minute book of the court records that were in the county courthouse, and it vanished not long after Forsyth got a lot of attention in ‘87. But up until the mid-1980s when you went to look at the minute book for the records of these two trials of Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel, the page was marked with a piece of the rope from the hanging.
GROSS: We were able to find photographs of the hangings or of the crowds witnessing the execution?
PHILLIPS: You know, I did not find any photographs. I found lots of descriptions. You know, my search for photographs was interesting in that one of the places where I think I might have found such a photograph was in the Forsyth County newspaper. I relied on a lot of newspapers from Atlanta, from places as far away as The New York Times and especially Gainesville, the town next door.
But one of the really gaping holes in the record is the Forsyth County News which was publishing Incoming, the closest newspaper, you know, right in the middle of all of this, and the issues from the relevant months are nowhere to be found. There - I actually went to the University of Georgia library and where there’s a place called the Georgia Newspaper Project and they have microfilms of all of these.
And literally I opened the drawer and the two boxes that would contain September and October of the Forsyth County news from 1912 there’s just a space there. You know, hard to say exactly what to make of that, but it certainly seems there’s been some effort to deflect attention away from all of this.
GROSS: My guest is Patrick Phillips, author of the new book “Blood At The Root.” The title is taken from the lyric of a song about lynching that Billie Holiday made famous called “Strange Fruit.” After a break, we’ll talk more about the racial cleansing of Forsyth County and Phillips, who is also a poet and English professor, will read a poem about his father in the ICU after heart bypass surgery. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “STRANGE FRUIT”)
BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant South, the bulging eyes…
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross with my guest Patrick Phillips, author of the new book “Blood At The Root: A Racial Cleansing In America.” It’s a nonfiction book about how white people of Forsyth County, Ga., drove out the entire black population in 1912 after a young, white woman was raped and another was raped and beaten to death. Phillips grew up in Forsyth County.
So we’re talking about 1,100 African-Americans who were driven out of Forsyth County, Ga., right?
PHILLIPS: That’s right. That’s right.
GROSS: So what happened to the things they left behind which included homes, belongings, animals, crops?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, and especially land. You know, there are a lot of reports of people’s belongings just simply being burned. You know, there’s a guy named A.J. Julian (ph) who was a good friend - a personal friend of the governor and lived in north Georgia, and he wrote a letter to the governor describing how the mobs visited one family. And they first went up to the house, made sure there were no young men present. And when they figured out it was only the women and children, they went up and drove them out, apparently into a rainstorm. And A.J. Julian’s letter says that after they were gone, they burned their household, quote, “dogs and all.” You know, they shot the dogs. They’ve dragged all the furniture out into the yard and set fire to it. So I think that was very common.
There’s another report in the crisis which was the magazine that W.E.B. Du Bois edited for the NAACP, and they sent a reporter down who was one of the only - really one of the only points of view on all of this from outside the South, a guy named Royal Freeman Nash, and he also reported on them burning everyone’s belongings afterwards. You know, the more complicated issue is the land. And, you know, it seems that there were people who managed to sell their land.
I think, you know, according to Royal Freeman Nash, a lot of times at very depressed prices given their situation, you know, they were completely vulnerable to very low-ball offers and often just would get whatever they possibly could for their land. And there are few people who who sold for a third of what they had paid for the land just a few months before.
And then even more troubling is this issue of adverse possession which was - is common law in a lot of places in America and in Georgia, adverse possession states - it’s a law meant to make - help people make use of abandoned land. And so over the years that followed, a lot of white citizens simply went down to the county courthouse, started paying taxes on a lot that abutted their own which had previously been owned by a black property owner. And after seven years, they could apply for title to the land. So yeah…
GROSS: So the white people not only drove out the black people, they also took the land that the black people owned.
PHILLIPS: You know, this is something that was hotly disputed in 1987. So after the marches, there was a commission created by the governor Joe Frank Harris. And, you know, the state’s attorney general at the time, a guy named Michael Bowers looked into this land question, and, you know, he concluded at a time that there was not enough evidence to support the theft of land.
In the years since, there’s a journalist named Elliot Jaspin who’s also looked into this, and I looked into all of the same records that Jaspin looked at. And, you know, I think there’s plenty of evidence that there were black property owners who never sold and whose land eventually just appears in another transaction.
So in a way, the - I had always imagined that the land thefts happened at gunpoint. You know, in a kind of Hollywood way. In reality, it looks like it happened with a wink and a nod, you know, with a county clerk who probably noticed a gap in the title history and simply approved the sale anyway. So it was something that happened very, very, you know - I say in the book - it happened very quietly and one fencepost at a time, and one transaction across a counter at the county courthouse at a time.
GROSS: Your parents moved to Forsyth County when you were in grade school, and they moved there to escape the suburbs and suburban sprawl and got to like small town life which seemed very appealing to them. They apparently didn’t know how racist this county was, but after marching against the racism in 1987 and seeing these, you know, racist mobs screaming white power, did your family stay in Forsyth County?
PHILLIPS: You know, our move there is complicated, and I think that it’s not that my parents didn’t know that Forsyth County was racist. It was that it was so common in 1977 in Georgia, and I think an important part of their background is my parents are both from Birmingham. And they were, you know, my father graduated from high school in 1955. So they were young people on one side of a real generational split in their families. And they, you know, my father was in seminary at Emory and had met Martin Luther King in the really, you know, sort of vital early days of the Civil Rights movement.
And so coming from Birmingham, they had grown up in the Birmingham of Bull Connor. And I think what we found in Forsyth was no shocker to them. I think it was less that they were taken aback or surprised by it and more that they felt this was everywhere. This was all around us. And so you couldn’t actually choose a place to live where it wouldn’t be a part of living in Georgia. Both my father my mother were really fearless about this stuff, so they moved there exactly as I say in the book because they were commuting to Atlanta. Forsyth County was just becoming a kind of bedroom community of Atlanta because the expansion of the interstate system.
And so they wanted to live there for all sorts of just personal reasons. But I think the racism of the county was something they knew about, and then certainly it turned out to be more virulent than we could have known when the marches happened in 1987.
GROSS: How did you feel continuing to live in Forsyth County after you witnessed mobs of angry, racist, white people screaming white power?
PHILLIPS: You know, there was a lot of fear in the week - maybe the month after the march in ‘87. Oprah Winfrey came to Georgia, came to Forsyth County and she was in, I think, her sixth month as a talk show. She had this new “Oprah Winfrey Show,” brand new show at the time. And, you know, she cites her visit to Forsyth as one of her, you know, proudest moments of the entire history of the show. She came to Forsyth, filmed an episode on the town square at which she invited white residents of Forsyth to come and talk to her about what had happened. And when she left, you know, she gave an interview, and one of her takeaways where she said there are a lot of white people in this community who are very afraid.
And I really thought she had put her finger on it because that was my overwhelming experience both before and after was it was a place where if you disagreed with the status quo, you had to keep quiet. And there was, you know, the notion of getting burned out that somebody might set fire to your house, somebody might shoot your dogs, you know, that there would be some kind of violent retaliation for crossing these people. And so we were afraid a fair amount, and after the march, the first march, especially, my parents were among the very small handful of people - and my sister was on the march - the very small handful of people who actually lived in the county.
So when that - when the march was disbanded, the vast majority of the marchers got on these chartered buses and drove down the freeway back to Atlanta and my parents had marched a long way from their car so their car was back up the road and between them and the car were the members of the mob whose violence had stopped the march. So, you know, they ended up being kind of bundled into the back of a police cruiser, and, you know, the sheriff of the county Wesley Walraven helped, you know - he and his men helped get them to safety, but then, you know, there was no choice but to drive home and we lived down a quiet country road kind of in the middle of nowhere.
So I think, you know, I’m sure we - I’m sure my parents double checked the locks that night. And, you know, we had a certain amount of fear nothing - we never faced any overt retaliation or anything. So - but that was the overwhelming experience was fear.
GROSS: What’s the racial and ethnic makeup of Forsyth County now?
PHILLIPS: So today, Forsyth has seen unbelievable changes. The population is over 200,000 now. It has swelled incredibly. I think it’s about 10 percent Latino, 8 percent Asian. And I think the African-American population is approaching 4 percent now. So the place changed incredibly. And really the old guard of the county were eventually outnumbered.
You know, I tried to get to the bottom of how things changed and how this ban was lifted. And I found a sociologist at the University of Georgia, a guy named Doug Bachtel, wrote a piece saying that he thought it had died a natural death, that eventually the demographic change and Forsyth being kind of enveloped by the suburban sprawl of Atlanta had just led so many newcomers to enter the county that some of these old ways just kind of faded away as the old folks were outnumbered.
You know, right now, there’s an African-American candidate for the state Senate from Forsyth, a guy named Daniel Blackman, who - you know, his run and the very idea that he’s, you know, on the ballot for an elected seat from Forsyth County really kind of amazes me. And there’s no question that’s a sign of incredible progress.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Patrick Phillips. His new book is called “Blood At The Root: A Racial Cleansing In America.” We’re going to take a short break, then we’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is Patrick Phillips, author of “Blood At The Root: A Racial Cleansing In America.” You know, after reading your book and reading what you had to say about your parents and about how they - although they lived in this white county, Forsyth County, they were active in the civil rights movement. And then I started reading some of your poetry. And one of your poems is about your father right after having open heart surgery.
And I feel like I made this jump in, like, you know, five minutes between your parents, you know, in the 1980s being active in the civil rights movement and him being, you know, an older man having older - having open heart surgery and you visiting him in the hospital. So I’m going to jump ahead to that poem because it’s a beautiful poem. It’s called “Elegy Outside The ICU” and it’s from your collection of poems “Elegy For A Broken Machine.” Would you tell us about what you had witnessed that led to the poem?
PHILLIPS: Sure. You know, this is a poem that I wrote in the wake of my father having open heart surgery, bypass surgery. And I guess what I was grappling with that led me to write the poem was this disconnect between what I had always imagined when you hear that phrase because it - of course, a lot of people undergo this. And open heart surgery, you know, sounds like any other procedure. And then what I actually witnessed was my father looking like someone who was struggling to come back from the dead. When I saw him in the hospital, I was astonished at how weak he was and how changed he was and, you know, realized that that phrase that I’d heard, you know, so many times and probably dismissed, you know, when it was someone I didn’t know just how much was packed into that and what a harrowing experience it was.
GROSS: Would you read the poem for us?
PHILLIPS: Sure. “Elegy Outside The ICU.” (Reading) They came into this cold white room and shaved his chest, then made a little purple line of dashes down his sternum, which the surgeon, when she came in, cut along as students took turns cranking a shiny metal jig that split his ribs just enough for them to fish the heart out - lungs inflating and the dark blood circulating through these hulking beige machines. As for the second time since dawn they skirted the ruined arteries with a long blue length of vein that someone had unlaced from his leg so that by almost every definition, my father died there on the table and came back in the body of his own father or his mother at the end. Or whoever it was the morphine summoned up out of the grave into his dreams. Like that figure in the floor-length mirror he kept talking to as we inched a fluid-hung telemetry pole past the endless open doors, until he was finally close enough to recognize a flicker in those bloodshot eyes and a quiver in the mumbling lips. So slack and thin, he leaned a little closer to catch their ghostly whisper before he even realized it was him.
GROSS: Is that a reference to you actually walking with your father in the hospital while he was beginning to recover and he didn’t recognize…
PHILLIPS: Yeah, they…
GROSS: …Himself in the mirror?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, they have you do this - the nurses called it laps. You know, they have you get up, which is a shocker when someone is that unwell. You know, my dad described the feeling as having a - you know, an axe planted in your chest. And yet the nurses are really eager in order to get your circulation going. And I think they found that it helps with recovery to get the patient up and moving as soon as possible.
So we had this really difficult and unexpected task of walking with him. That is drawn from life that when we were doing that, at one point there was a mirror somewhere. And I remember my father, you know, in his Johnny - you know, looking very, very frail seeing his own reflection and not realizing that it was him. He was also, you know, doped up on morphine and in a very altered state. But there was this crazy thing of him not recognizing his own face in the mirror.
GROSS: Are your parents still alive?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, they are. They are.
GROSS: What does your father think of the poem?
PHILLIPS: You know, I think my father - I think my father liked it. My joke is always that my dad likes anything in which he’s the star.
PHILLIPS: And for him no press is bad press. So, you know, I think he liked it. You know, it’s - people are often a little bit uncomfortable having someone else tell their own story. But I think the people - I’ve been writing about my family now for a long time, so I’m afraid that people in my family are used to to me trying to tell parts of their story.
GROSS: There’s another poem I’d like you to read that’s called “Heaven.” Would you introduce it for us?
PHILLIPS: Sure. Yeah. This is a poem. It’s very short. So when I read it at a podium, I always say, you know, get ready because it’ll go by really fast.
PHILLIPS: You’ll miss it if you blink. It’s a short poem, and, you know, this - I was - my father’s a Methodist minister and so I was raised going to church and among my early memories are seeing my father in a robe at the front of a congregation, you know, and doing that kind of really powerful call-and-response thing between a minister and the people in the pews.
So that was one of my earliest memories and one of my earliest senses of the power of language was kind of having the hair on the back of my neck stand up when - and I think the fact that it was my father who was leading it made a real impression. I don’t go to church anymore, and I don’t have faith, so I miss it in some ways. So this is a poem that I wrote in the wake of my father-in-law’s death who was someone who I loved very much and losing him made me very aware of what a solace faith is. And so I wanted to recover some of that. And I have realized that maybe the thing I miss the most was the idea of heaven and the notion of a reunion.
(Reading) Heaven it will be the past, and we’ll live there together, not as it was to live but as it is remembered. It will be the past. We’ll all go back together. Everyone we ever loved and lost and must remember. It will be the past, and it will last forever.
GROSS: It’s a beautiful poem, and it makes me wonder if you think of the afterlife now as living in other people’s memory?
PHILLIPS: Yeah. I think that’s really well-put. Yeah, I think that’s certainly the idea I was trying to articulate. You know, and I - this poem also grew a little bit out of my study of 17th-century poetry at people like Ben Johnson and George Herbert. And those poems come out of a culture where everyone believed this, I think, where the idea of a Christian resurrection was so universal that it’s kind of mind-boggling to think of walking around - at least to me - I know there are still people who have this, but to walk around with the certainty that you would see the people you’ve lost again. And that struck me as a really beautiful idea and maybe the only consolation left at least to me.
GROSS: Which you don’t have anymore.
PHILLIPS: No, not really (laughter) so yeah it’s wishful praying, I guess.
GROSS: But if the afterlife is living in other people’s memory is that one of the reasons why you want to write elegies?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, and I think the older you get, the more people you lose. And so - and I don’t think this is unrelated to “Blood At The Root” in a nonfiction. You know, I had as a primary goal to try to honor some of those people who were gone and try to speak - since they can’t speak for themselves, I felt in a position to maybe try to help bring them back into memory.
GROSS: When you stopped going to church and decided you no longer had faith, what was your father’s reaction since he’s a minister?
PHILLIPS: You know, that’s a complicated one because my father began as a Methodist minister but he’s now a Universalist Unitarian. He’s no longer in a church, but for a long time in his 60s and 70s, he led a Unitarian congregation. And the central tenet of the Unitarian group that he led was social justice, and it included people who were kind of refugees from the - you know, gay people who were from the Catholic Church and non-observant Jews who had stopped going to temple and a whole range of different people who came together under this idea that maybe the most holy thing they could do was to work for social justice. So in some ways, my father also had a rift with the organized church, and I think that is not unrelated to the Civil Rights movement and some real disappointment and disillusionment about the response of white churches during some of those darkest days.
GROSS: Patrick Phillips, I really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you so much, and thank you for writing this book.
PHILLIPS: I enjoyed it so much, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Patrick Phillips is the author of the new book “Blood At The Root: A Racial Cleansing In America.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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