By Silvia Ramirez
“Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root” by Allan Lewis is the epigraph from Patrick Phillips’ first nonfiction book “Blood at the Root: Racial Cleansing in America.” As part of the Writers@Drew series, funded by the Casement Fund and the English Department, Phillips presented his new nonfiction book and talked about the research and writing behind such project to a group of about 70 Drew students and faculty.
“Blood at the Root” explores the history of Phillips’ hometown, Forsyth County, Ga., which has been described as the most racist place in America. He started the lecture by recounting the history of the 1980s Civil Rights demonstrations in Forsyth County, which were met with counter-demonstrations from white supremacist groups and local inhabitants. Although he was about 16 years old at the time of the demonstrations, Phillips remarked that as a young child he wondered why there were no people of color in his hometown. He added that he remembers his childhood schoolmates telling him the story of Forsyth County one day at the back of the school bus.
The story goes that in September 1912, three young black men were accused and convicted of raping and murdering a white girl. From there, “knight riders” as people described members of the Ku Klux Klan, drove the 1,098 black citizens away through the use of terror and fear. Phillips remarks, however, that the story is not as simple as it was told. The interactions between black and white citizens in Forsyth county were more complex and the assumptions were simply wrong.
After the lecture, Phillips discussed his motivation to undertake such project and people’s reactions to it. He mentioned that during his Graduate school years, when discussing his hometown and the attention it had gotten from the media in the 1980s, his friend, who was African American, asked him why race was only a subject for black writers. From that moment, Phillips added, he felt he had an obligation to tell the story of his hometown as it had actually happened. Phillips ended the lecture by encouraging everyone to question and be curious about the places we live and the history behind them.
When talking about the difference between writing non-fiction and poetry, Phillips said “It’s too many words.” However, he added that having a background in poetry and writing was helpful. He said “Writing non-fiction was different from poetry. But I felt that poetry and other writing I had done in the past were really good prep for this. A big part of my grad school work included archival research which is what most of this project was about. In terms of the skills when working with archives, I think I was prepared for that.”
Students had overall positive comments about the event. Ian Anderson (’18) said, “I thought the event was really good. I never knew about his [Phillips] upbringing and it was jaw dropping to learn about the backstory of where he came from. The segregation between black and white people in Georgia was very interesting to learn about.”
Maria Ruiz (’20) added, “I personally don’t know anything about the deep south and even though I’m Hispanic I am not nearly as involved with race as Americans. Race is currently a big issue here and it separates us so much, it’s really sad. Seeing at how uninvolved white people are with race, listening to a white man speak about it as if it was his problem really humbled me. I hope we can all reach that kind of compassion and empathy someday.”
The next Writers@Drew event will be Nov. 17 at 4:30 p.m. and will feature fiction writer Kirsten Valdez Quade and poet Jennifer Grotz.