Local writer, journalist, and chronicler of Oakland’s political scene and beyond, J. Douglas Allen Taylor, has written a novel set in South Carolina in the late 1930’s. Mr. Taylor known to most of us as Jesse is a native Oaklander whose family has deep roots in the Bay Area. I asked him why the book was set in South Carolina.
“Half of my adult life was spent in the South,” he replied. He began traveling South in the mid-1960’s and moved to South Carolina in 1969. He was a full time Freedom Worker and community organizer in the Movement, working for such organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the American Friends Service Committee while writing for an African-American newspaper. During this period he heard the stories of African-Americans who had survived generations of oppression and upheaval in the South.
One day he asked an elderly man where he was from and the man pointed to a nearby lake, “over there,” he said. Mr. Taylor asked him what he meant, “was there an island in that lake once upon a time?” The man told him that his home, his neighbors, his town had once existed in the lake’s depths before the area had been flooded. It had taken place during the Works Progress Administration as a rural electrification program, the Santee-Cooper Power Project.
This happened in Berkeley County which had a majority African-American population until the late 1960’s. At least 6,000 people were evacuated including churches, homes, and graves. Still, many buildings were submerged; the communities changed forever. Berkeley County remains a special place-Mr.Taylor told me that it is the only county in the South he has ever visited that is without a confederate statue.
According to Mr. Taylor these close-knit but isolated communities have been dispersed, not just by projects like this but also as a result of the unintentional forces of modernization such as “air conditioning, bridges, and the cure for malaria”. The Oakland author developed this story out of a deep appreciation of the long history of southern Black America, its culture and values, and its continuing influence on African-Americans and all Americans reaching as far as Oakland. For him the history of these communities deserved to be recreated. As he said, these are “the stories you have to tell.”
He began by writing a short story about a funeral that takes place in a small town loosely based on the Santee-Cooper River basin-the Sugaree River in the novel-that later became Lake Moultrie. Everyone at a funeral in a small town knew the woman who died, or thought they knew her, but no one knew the man who turned up at her funeral or what part he played in her life. But the short story kept growing, the characters kept developing, and they “wanted” their stories told.
When people ask him what the book is about, he tells them it’s a female coming-of-age story. When asked why he wrote it from a woman’s point-of-view, he replies, “Because I raised four daughters.”
Since this is a book preview rather than a more traditional review, it is only possible to get a taste, but a tantalizing one of the story by going to the website www.SugareeRising.com for video “readings” of the novel which is subtitled, “A Book of Dark Spirits” and “A Story of the Black South”.
I asked the author about the spirituality which infuses the work (from the readings), seemingly very different from his political writing, though there is more than a hint of poetry in his descriptions of life in East Oakland. He told me that the ancient African religions which fused with Christianity early on and then deepened in the slave experience are always an important part of every story of the Black American experience.
If you look up the terms Vodoun, Voodou, or Voodoo, which are often denigrated and trivialized by European culture, including White America, you find they are “traceable to an African word for ‘spirit’” according to the site www.Hermetics.org. It refers to “the manifestation of the spirit world through the channel of a human being,” possibly Yoruba in origin.
These African traditions in which the natural world is the nexus to the spirit world in everyday life is practiced openly throughout Latin America as Santeria in Cuba, Candomble in Brazil, Shango in Trinidad, and Vodou in Haiti. Mr. Taylor asserts that it is at work in the Black Churches of America but is less visible than it is in Latin America; however, he states, “it is pervasive in Oakland.”
As Mr. Taylor pointed out to me, any religion can be snickered at when separated from its traditions and cultural context. Drinking the blood of god or coloring eggs might seem ridiculous if described to an alien from outer space. What may be called superstition in one religious context is called faith in another.
The significance of this theme was explicated in Mr. Taylor’s analysis of the movie, “Ray”, and its importance to Black audiences which can be found in his article, “Race and ‘Ray’” (Alternet.org, “Race and Ray”, 2/025/05).
“There is something clearly both old African and non-Christian in the bottle tree images in the movie, even for those who don’t know the details of its symbolism.” Expanding on the film’s honest representations of Black spirituality, he writes, “But an unstated theme of the movie is bridging the often-overlooked split between African-American Christian spiritualism and the older African spiritualism many thought was permanently discarded in the holds of the slave ships in the Middle Passage.”
It was Mr. Taylor’s desire to faithfully recreate the spirit of these vanquished communities that even in Diaspora carry their traditions and values with them that has led him to spend years expanding these stories into this first novel. When asked if the story could grow into a series, he answers enigmatically, “It’s possible.”
If you’re wondering when you will get to see the full novel in print, there is no set publication date as yet; but negotiations are in the works with a publisher and the final editing is taking place.
This is good news to Oaklanders who have grown accustomed to following Mr. Taylor’s columns and reporting over the years-first for The Metro, then Urbanview, The Daily Planet, the East Bay Express, Alternet.org, in other on-line and print journals, and, last but not least, the “Anybody but Perata” website from the recent mayoral election where he also honed his video skills.
Since the election last fall he has dedicated himself almost exclusively to finishing this novel and getting it published. A book about the South by one of Oakland’s homegrown talents is being awaited, not anxiously but with great anticipation. In the meantime, please visit Sugaree Rising at www.sugareerising.com for a preview.