Cover To Cover is the anchor program for GPB’s literary coverage. Cover To Cover features a collection of distinctive Southern voices interviewing Georgia writers, Southern writers, and writers dealing with the South. The GPB Southern Lit Cadre will provide you with a varied, weekly glimpse at fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, and even the occasional ‘old school’ nod to Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

October's Cover to Cover: The Sacred Place

Anyone who listened to Sunday’s Cover to Cover on GPB Radio will know that the show was recorded earlier in the week before an audience at the historic Douglass Theatre in Macon, Georgia.

My guest was Clark Atlanta University professor and novelist Daniel Black and we talked and took audience questions about Black’s second novel, The Sacred Place (St. Martin’s Press, 2007).

Black first appeared on Cover to Cover in July 2006 when we took listener calls about his debut novel They Tell Me of a Home (St. Martin’s Press, 2005), the story of a young man's return to and reconciliation with his roots in rural Arkansas.

The Sacred Place tells a different kind of story, one that focuses on a community rather than an individual.

Set in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, the book is based on the murder of Emmett Till, an event that became one of the catalysts for the Civil Rights’ Movement.

The Cover to Cover taping at the Douglass Theatre was well attended by a diverse audience whose members were eager to ask questions. Given the nature of the subject matter, it was no surprise to me that the conversation that ensued between Daniel, myself and the audience was substantive and therefore refreshing; it was satisfying to hear race talked about with honesty and respect, something that Daniel commented is desperately needed in America.

The Sacred Place fictionalizes the Emmett Till murder and dramatizes its impact on the black community in Money. But don’t think that this book is a mere retelling of this tragic episode in American history.

What Black has given us in The Sacred Place is a text that is at once a powerful story told with conviction and nuance, and a sociological study of how attitudes within black communities all across the South toward their oppression began to change as society changed in the wake of the Second World War and events like the murder of Emmett Till.

Black weaves his story together by focusing on three different but equally important relationships; the delicately balanced status quo that exists between blacks and whites in Money; the sometimes fractured relations between members of the black community; and the relationship between black folks and God.

Jeremiah Johnson, patriarch of the family under siege by racist whites, is forced to consider closely what different courses of action might mean to himself and to his family as he strives to protect them. He knows violence will be visited upon them when members of the white community seek revenge for the perceived insult Jeremiah’s grandson, Clement, gave to a white store attendant.

Fourteen-year-old Clement was born and raised in Chicago. Visiting his grandparents in Money for the summer, he one day enters the general store to buy a soda. He makes the mistake of placing his money on the counter rather than in the woman attendant’s hand, and, when she insultingly demands he put the nickel in her hand, he walks out of the store, adding over his shoulder “Slavery been over.”

The Johnson’s know that white retribution is almost assured, and that Clement is in danger. In deliberating over what to do to protect his family from mob violence, Jeremiah visits a hidden glade in the nearby forest that had been the special place of his son older son Jerry.

Jerry had come across the glade by accident as a boy and had found in its lush green grass, wildflowers, butterflies, and scents something akin to the Garden of Eden. It came to be known as the “sacred place,” and had been a refuge, a source of inspiration and a place to commune with God for black folks.

It was also the place years before where Jerry had chosen to hang himself after seeking violent revenge on the white men who had raped and beaten his wife. He knew his violence would bring the white mob looking for him, and he took the preemptive strike of taking his own life before the mob could do it for him.

Now looking for guidance and answers in the sacred place, Jeremiah receives an epiphany that allows him to move forward and do what he needs to do.

He now understands that the only way the black residents of Money can overcome the oppression forced on them by the dominant white society is if the black community unites and acts together. That solidarity is the key to their freedom.

But perhaps more importantly, in the sacred place, Jeremiah also comes to see his relationship with God in a new way. The long-held belief that the Christian thing to do in the face of injustice is to turn the other cheek and pray, gives way to a faith embodied in action. He realizes that God can only act in the world through human agency and that the Lord is not calling his community to suffer in silence. They hold the key to their liberation: to rise up in the spirit of God and oppose those who seek to keep them down.

What Black dramatizes here is the changing zeitgeist within black communities that developed as a result of events such as the murder of Emmett Till. There was a theological transformation, think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that gave black folks the wherewithal to face their oppressors and demand civil rights.

It is precisely this aspect of The Sacred Place, that encapsulation in story of how the Civil Rights Movement began out of horrors such as the brutal beating of Emmett Till, that makes this such an important book.

The Publishers Weekly review of the book is not exactly glowing. The concluding comments state

Unfortunately, Black...stocks his novel with stereotypes—from the downtrodden
blacks to the dumb, bigoted rednecks—who speak in phonetically rendered
dialogue.... The clumsy, heavy dose of Christianity and rudimentary portrayal of
racism will also limit appeal.
I don't think the reviewer has seen the subtleties in Black's text nor fully understood the force behind the story.

Black is to be congratulated and thanked for telling these truths and engendering the kind of discussions that took place at the Douglass Theatre last week.

If you missed the program, don’t worry, it will be rebroadcast this Sunday, November 4 at 10AM on GPB Radio. Tune in to your local GPB station (except WUGA/91.7FM in Athens), or listen online at The program will also be archived on the Cover to Cover pages of the GPB site.

[As always, if you have comments or questions about this blog entry, please email me at Thank you for your feedback.]