I read Maria McKenzie’s book, THE GOVERNOR’S SONS, and it made me THINK. Wow! A book that makes you think! One of the things in the book that made me think was how she portrayed African Americans in the South in the 1930’s. Her characters were educated and well off. Not the way African Americans at that time are usually portrayed. So I asked her about her book and she agreed to an interview. And her next book sounds really good, too!
Yes, it did! About four years ago I read Essie Mae Washington Williams’s memoir, Dear Senator. She’s Thurmond’s love child by his family’s African American maid. Thurmond was twenty-two when he fathered Ms. Williams, and her mother, Carrie Butler, was sixteen. Ms. Williams’s story was sad, yet fascinating at the same time. Thurmond wanted to do the right thing by providing for his daughter and being a presence in her life (although a limited one). But if the truth about her had ever been discovered by the public, Thurmond’s political career would have been destroyed. Ms. Williams didn’t share her story until after his death.
2. How much of the book is based on your own life experiences?
I was very young in 1965, when the second half of the book takes place. I don’t remember the riots and all the civil rights unrest. I only remember superficial things like the pop culture and the clothes, so I can’t say much of the story is based on my own life experiences.
However, I did base the fictional town, Joy Hope, where the first half of the book takes place, on my mother’s hometown of Aiken, South Carolina. The book opens in the mid 1930’s. My mother grew up then, so she provided me with lots of information regarding the racial climate at the time.
Her father was the best mechanic in town and worked in a white owned shop. I put Kitty’s father in the same situation. Since that character was a dark-skinned man, this probably never would’ve happened in the real 1930’s South—but since my story is fiction, anything can happen! My grandfather was very fair-skinned with gray eyes and straight hair. Staff and customers knew he was a “Negro,” but because he “looked white,” I suppose it was easier to handle his presence in a white business during that time.
3. So many books and movies about Blacks in the South emphasize the down-trodden, poor, and uneducated. We get the idea that all Blacks in the South were that way. Yet your characters are college educated and well off. Of course there were Black lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc. then. DOCTOR Martin Luther King, Jr., the Tuskegee airmen, George Washington Carver, etc. Why did you decide to portray this other aspect of Black life in the 1930’s?
Because not enough of it is portrayed! There are several historically black colleges that were established after the Civil War, such as Tuskegee Institute (founded in 1881), Fisk (1866), Spellman (1881) Morehouse (1867), Howard University (1867) and Meharry Medical College (1876), just to name a few. These institutions produced (and are still producing) numerous African American doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists and businessmen.
Sometimes people don’t realize that one minority group doesn’t fit a particular stereotype. So, just as there are wealthy, middle class and poor whites, the same categories exist for blacks.
Society tends to believe the stereotypes most portrayed. When the T.V. show Good Times ran during the ‘70’s, television audiences (which are majority white) thought all blacks were poor, struggling, and living in the projects. When the Cosby Show came along in the ‘80s it was great to see a different social strata of blacks, that truly does exist, finally enacted in a TV series. For a long time, Hollywood chose not to show anything like that, because they didn’t think audiences would be accepting of it.
4. The governor in your book seems conflicted. At the beginning he seems very accepting of Black people, even to the point of wanting to marry a Black woman, but he becomes a segregationist. Why does this happen? Do you think very many White Southerners present two faces like this? Maybe a reversal of this in that they say they are for Civil Rights, but privately are not? etc.
There’s more than one reason why Ash is a segregationist. The majority of the South was pro-segregation. So to keep getting elected as governor in his state, that’s what he’d support.
However, the main reason (or at least this is how Ash saw it) was to protect his black son. The segregation issue caused a hot bed of violence throughout the South. Ash knew that integration would cause lots of bloodshed, and the Klan, a terrorist organization, made that very clear. So Ash pursued the separate but equal path, in order to maintain a safe environment.
Blacks growing up in the real South can testify that things were separate, but never equal. However, in my fictional state, Ash, as governor, really did strive for equality and had the best “colored schools” in the nation.
As for presenting two faces, I won’t narrow this question down to just white southerners. What can I say about human nature? A politician might say a lot of things he/she doesn’t mean in order to win a minority vote. However, someone else (who’s not a politician) might be very supportive of a minority group and their rights, yet they’re afraid to express their views openly for fear of what their friends (the non-supportive majority) might think.
5. Did you struggle with all these issues in writing this book? Was it hard to get it all in there? To say it in the way you wanted to? Did you feel it was important to write this book?
I didn’t really struggle with these issues. I based a lot of Ash’s emotions and reactions on what I’d read about Strom Thurmond. I also used my imagination. What would I do if? How would I feel if?
Also, I’m in an interracial marriage. My husband is white and grew up in North Carolina, so he was a great resource in helping me with the emotional race factors I was writing about. In addition, he guided me in better understanding the male thought process. I’d run situations by him to see how he’d feel and react. A woman can’t completely understand that unique father-son bond.
As far as all the race issues in the book, I think I put everything in it that I wanted to say. I told a story about love and the destructiveness of hate. I hope readers are entertained and educated by it. I can’t say I felt that it was important to write this book—it’s just a love story with some hard hitting facts about race—but I had a story to tell and I wanted to share it!
6. What is next from your “pen?”
Like you, I love writing historical fiction! My next novel is part one of a trilogy. It’s called Escape: Book One of the Unchained Trilogy. It’s due out in the next few weeks. Escape is an interracial love story that occurs in 1856. The next two installments, Masquerade and Revelation, deal with the controversial topic of blacks passing as white. A blurb from Escape follows below. To read an excerpt, visit my website at www.mariamckenziewrites.com.
Daniel and Lori love each other, yet to live as one in 1856, they must escape from the unyielding society that imprisons them.
Lori was born a slave in North Carolina, yet by chance was raised alongside Daniel in a wealthy abolitionist household. The sudden death of Daniel’s mother catapults Lori back into bondage.
After Daniel fails to convince his relatives to free Lori, he is compelled to devise a daring escape. Although a life threatening endeavor for both of them, Lori’s freedom is priceless to Daniel, and he’s willing to pay such a price for her love.
7. What else would you like to say that I haven’t asked?
Michele, you’ve provided me with some very thought provoking questions, so I don’t think I can add anything else! But I would like to say thank you for interviewing me and giving me a chance to meet your audience!
I’d love to have your readers visit me anytime at www.mariamckenziewrites.com! I’m always available for book clubs, in person or through Skype. And Michele, thanks again for the opportunity to discuss The Governor’s Sons!
During the summer of 1936, Ash Kroth, a young law student from a southern family of wealth and political prestige, falls in love with Kitty Wilkes, a beautiful “Negro” girl.
Nearly thirty years later, as a segregationist governor in the midst of civil rights turmoil, Ash is forced to confront the inevitable consequences of his love for her.
In 1965, Harland Hall, a black Civil Rights leader, moves to the capital city in an effort to quell the racial violence occurring not far from his mother’s home. But what mysterious link does this young man have to the Governor’s past?