For me, the first act of writing historical fiction is resistance. There are tropes within the American imagination that pop up readily; it takes a slapping of your own hand to not reach for these tropes and recycle them.
When I began working on Jam on the Vine, I did not want to write about a dysfunctional black family. Nor would I put a black woman protagonist into a role I have seen too often—maid, prostitute, junkie . . . unloved, uneducated, uninspired. Luckily, mining black history, which I have done scholastically and creatively for 20 years, brings you face-to-face with so many wonderful characters that it is easy to resist the tropes.
I wanted to attempt what I believe the best historical writing—both scholarly and fictive—can do: shed light on the seed of a social problem that cripples its current society. I had no idea what the “problem” might be when I set out to write; however, I knew that any articulation of said problem would be found in the newspaper.
More than any institution in black America, including the black church, African-American newspapers have held the government accountable: demanding rights for its black citizenry and disseminating life-sustaining information. I knew my protagonist was an editor and journalist who, realistically, would not find employment at a white newspaper and therefore would have to launch her own.
Two trailblazing black women journalists inspired Ivoe Williams, the heroine of Jam on the Vine: Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) and Charlotta Bass (1874-1969). Driven by the murder by lynching of black male friends, Wells, who wrote for the New York Age newspaper, began to document lynchings and their causes, most notably in her monographs Southern Horrors (1892) and The Red Record (1895). Bass was a suffragist and the first black woman to own and operate a newspaper, the California Eagle.
Like both women, Ivoe is a bookish girl who goes to college. (Ninety-four black colleges and universities thrived in the first decade of the 20th century, yet we don’t encounter their stories in Progressive-era narratives. Ever.) Like Bass, I wanted Ivoe to launch her own newspaper. Like Wells, I wanted Ivoe’s journalism to have purpose, but felt I could not write about lynching for my own mental health.
Drawing on the early 20th-century history of Texas, one cannot help but notice the birth and proliferation of prison farms—the roots of the incarceration crisis we now face. The moment I stumbled across this fact, I knew that Ivoe’s newspaper would call attention to shady police procedures involving the racist arrest and (often erroneous) imprisonment of black men. This crisis continues to plague America.
The last value I brought to Jam on the Vine hinged on sexual orientation. Much damage has been done to disconnect the social and political—not just artistic—contributions of homosexuals from the American narrative. Placing a black lesbian activist at the center of an early 20th-century story was a natural choice and also a political one.
In writing Jam on the Vine, my valentine to the black press, I’ve exercised my strong belief that historical fiction can go a long way in restoring marginalized groups to their rightful places within a society’s past, present and future. Today, black newspapers continue to trumpet the age-old call for justice.
Missouri-born author LaShonda Katrice Barnett is also a playwright and editor. She now lives in Manhattan.