Q: You’ve said that you not only needed to tell your story, but that you felt a responsibility to tell it and get it right. Why a responsibility?
A: I had this odd perspective. I came along at this intersection in American history that spanned a couple hundred years in either direction. My aunt Daisy was nearly a half-century older than me, and she had married Robert Ball Anderson, a civil war veteran who was 69 years her senior. I was able to catch a glimpse of slavery, the Civil War and the settling of the West through her haunted eyes. At the same time, as a child of the ’60s, everything seemed to be blossoming for a person like me—black, female. But Daisy told me those doors wouldn’t stay open and, in any event, it was very unlikely I’d come to anything. So my life seemed to be about sprinting down this corridor of opportunity through doors that were closing behind me just as I slipped through.
And my Aunt, in the grip of this isometric insanity, was torn between requiring me to shrink to fit because “uppity n_ _ _ _ rs” get lynched, and insisting I excel perfectly because black people have to be three times as good to get half as far as whites. The most inane behaviors were filtered through this tedious lens of race. I have never met anyone with a more profound hunger for greatness, and faith in the American dream, but it was the fear that she would never manifest this greatness that panicked her. My responsibility, I feel, is to point out these errors in judgment so that anyone who reads this book might benefit from the legacy of this family.
Q: Your Aunt told you she was trying to make you stronger, but it must have seemed to you that her idea of helping might kill you instead. Do you think she succeeded in making you a stronger woman? What did you learn from her?
A: No, I don’t think she made me strong. I think she taught me to be tolerant of assaults on my person and psyche—and I only gained strength when I started to listen to myself as in “Hey that hurts.” Luckily I came from the same sturdy stock as she and survived her “good” ideas. In the end, what I learned from her was to be careful with my anger and to be very wary of do-gooders and gun nuts.
Q: What illusions did Aunt Daisy suffer?
A: Daisy’s most pernicious illusion was that people were thinking about her. And that if she “proved” herself to be “good” then the racists would change. I have found that all those
‘-isms’— whether it’s racism or sexism—are essentially parasitic illnesses that have very little to do with the supposed inferior.
Q: It didn’t seem like you had anyone you could talk to about what was going on at home. Was there anyone you could confide in?
A: Not really other than my dog. But then it didn’t occur to me that there was anything to confide. I was so ashamed to be the only black orphan in this lush and exquisite valley where even beaver families cherished their biddies. All my energy went to creating a personality that would further conceal what I perceived was my complete worthlessness.
Q: You write in the book about a woman at summer camp who taught you the difference between poverty and simplicity. What is it and what did she teach you?
A: Her name was America Marshall, a cook at the camp, and a black woman who came along during the same era as my Aunt Daisy, although they couldn’t have been less alike. She was a real lady who only wore dresses. Daisy always felt that was impractical. America was not afraid of anybody and could be quite assertive and emphatic when she had a point to make. Daisy always cooked her books when she was dealing with white people, having seen the might and majesty of the force they could bring to bear. America traveled with these very powerful founders of this Arts camp, yet she seemed completely unaffected. And every room she inhabited had this ordered peace to it. In her room, there was always a small flower. Nothing fancy, but you could see she took deliberate care with small things. It was as if she knew what was sufficient—shelter, her spiritual foundation, light, love. And no matter how small her room was, I knew she would never be poor.
Q: What would Daisy think of your writing this book?
A: It would be the same as always. She’d be thrilled and infuriated. “How could you talk about these things?” On the one hand, one of the last things she said to me was, “Well, you finally made something of yourself, didn’t you.” Always that ambivalence, that longing, confusion and jealousy and fury that because of her sacrifices I would go places she would never see.