Tademy plumbs family history for glimpses of a violent past Lalita Tademy’s journey to Red River began long before she left the corporate world and her prestigious job as vice president of Sun Microsystems. It began before she wrote her much acclaimed debut novel Cane River, which became a bestseller and an Oprah Book Club selection in 2001. It began when she was born a Tademy, a name that carried with it responsibility and inspired respect, a name that originated in the Nile Delta and was reclaimed by her ancestors.
To say that Lalita Tademy’s family history is rich and complex would be an understatement. As anyone who read her first novel Cane River knows, the author comes from a long line of strong women. In her debut, Tademy traced her family history on her mother’s side. Now, in Red River she turns her attention to the Tademy men and relates a disturbing, and until now, obscure chapter of American history. On one of her research trips to Louisiana, Tademy stumbled upon something that would alter the course of her genealogical research, and her life. She found herself in the small town of Colfax, near the center of the state, standing before a monument dedicated to three white men, Heroes, who died in the Colfax Riot of 1873. There is no mention on the monument of the 100-plus black men and boys who were slaughtered or their families who were terrorized and displaced afterward. No mention of how, on that Easter Sunday, white supremacists massacred blacks as they tried to protect their hard-won voting rights by taking a stand in the courthouse.
During a phone call to her California home, Tademy talked about making this shocking discovery. She says that initially, she was angry and perplexed; it was far removed from any way of living that she knew from her life in California. This is some anomaly, a wrinkle in the fabric of American life, Tademy recalls telling herself. She says, I did not want to be disrupted from my own life . . . [it was] something I would have preferred not to have happened. She felt strongly, however, that the task had fallen to her to tell this story and offer a different perspective on what took place on that fateful day and during the weeks that followed.
I could imagine the time, and that is what I try to do when I write. I try to transport both myself and a reader into the time . . . not as if you are looking backward but really as if you are there. With her powerful writing and attention to detail, Tademy accomplishes this, which makes Red River both a hard book to read and a hard book to put down. It is, at turns, heart-wrenching and transcendent.
Trying to get myself into that space was difficult, it still rankled, Tademy says, but as painful as the process was, she felt it was imperative for her to write about this episode in Reconstruction history. As Jackson Tademy, one of the heroes of Red River , tells his grandson from his deathbed, Names of men you never gonna know lay buried in the ground for you. . . . No matter how much time pass . . . you not allowed to turn your face to the wall, throw up your hands, forget. We need reminding, says Tademy. Younger generations don’t know that there was a time when we couldn’t vote. Getting information about what happened during and after the battle turned out to be more problematic than Tademy expected. She thought it would be as simple as asking people, but no one wanted to talk about it. She did, however, have a wealth of family stories to draw upon which were lovingly shared by surviving relatives. Tademy also did a lot of research in the public sphere, drawing on newspaper accounts and official documents, which, of course, were written by segregationists. She says it was a challenge trying to recreate a story, events, where there were certain things that you knew, and filling in all of the shading. Asked if she came across any surprises during her research, Tademy says that she made a jarring revelation. Late in the process, too late to include it in the book, the author discovered that her maternal great-great-grandfather was at the siege of the courthouse, fighting on the white side. Narcisse, who appeared in Cane River, is one of Tademy’s white ancestors who was a slave holder and a complicated figure. It was a challenge to try to write this and keep multiple points of view, she says. Narcisse did such harm and good at the same time. Though Red River focuses on the men in the Tademy and Smith families, the story begins with the voice of Polly, Sam Tademy’s wife. Tademy says Polly’s voice came easily to her. It was there, it was very strong, she was a strong young woman, and she was a strong old woman. She stresses that though women occupy a less central role in this book than in the last, they are there, they are the rock. When Tademy left the corporate world and began work on her genealogy just over 10 years ago, she assumed it was a singular personal attachment to finding out these stories. She was gratified to discover that so many readers would be drawn to her stories. I do think this is American history, and I am very proud to be able to offer American history with a different point of view, she says.
Though the characters in the book endure great suffering, Tademy was determined not to portray them as victims. One of the things I was mindful of was that I did not want there to be a victim mentality in this book, because these were people who went through unbelievable hardship and obstacles and they kept going. And they not only survived, they thrived. Her novel reveals the horror of racial violence, but also the strength of the human spirit. Particularly when it’s family pulling family and community pulling community, you get beyond, you move forward, and you get to the point where you can rise. It’s a book about a tough period of time, but it’s very redemptive to me, and I draw an enormous amount of strength from these people. Tademy’s readers will undoubtedly draw strength from them, too. Katherine Wyrick lives in Little Rock.