I'd like to say thank you to everyone who has supported me on my journey to completing my first novel. To those of you who don't know me or my work and are visiting this page for the first time, welcome.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to share with you a little of my progress as I begin research on my new book -- a yet-to-be titled historical novel, set in the 1920s and involving the founding and establishment of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the predominently African-American labor union, led by A. Philip Randolph. Sleeping car porters worked on the railroads, cleaning and preparing sleeping cars and acting as valets and waiters for passengers. The union struggled for more than a decade before they received recognition and equity from the Pullman Company.

As part of my research, I'll be traveling by train from Oakland to New York City, following the path of those porters from years ago. This trip will include a visit to the A. Philip Randolph Museum in Chicago. Along the way, I'll be sharing with you what I learn and experience. Thank you for coming along.

Monday, July 16, 2007

What am I Hoping to Learn?

I don’t know what I need to know yet. Well, that’s not exactly true. I want to learn what I can’t learn from a book. Researching a time you never lived in and then trying to recreate it in fiction is an imprecise endeavor because you can know all the facts and still not understand the time. A reader will know that you don’t know. It’s not about slathering a lot of historic details into the narrative just to show off; it’s the re-creation, to the best of your imagination, of a time.

What I can learn from books is the facts, the tasks, the expectations, and the problems of their daily work life. From the oral histories and the documentaries, I can learn their voice, cadences, jargon, as well as what made them laugh. But what about the bonds they formed? What about the feel of the rails beneath their feet? What about seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time or the Rockies from the foot of Glenwood Canyon as I am right now? What about being just one generation out of slavery?

So far, I’ve read a few oral accounts of these men and all but one enjoyed his life as a porter, in spite of the racism; it was more than the money. There had to be something else that kept them out here and sustained them while they were miles away from their families. What was that?

I want to understand this character. I know a few things about him. (What I do know, I’m keeping to myself for now). I don’t know yet where he was born or how he became a porter or where he lives, Chicago or New York. Research has always helped me to answer these questions and lead to other more interesting questions. Research on the BSCP leads me to labor movements and other political movements, like the anti-lynching campaigns, desegregation of the military. What about jazz and art? How can I approach anything happening with black folks in the 1920s without looking at the Harlem Renaissance?

I have read Zora Neal Hurston’s Colored Me and Alain Locke’s The New Negro and other Harlem Renaissance writers and they are so optimistic, it seems naïve to me. But what do I know? I am one generation after the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, assassinations and political scandals. I am cynical. How do I recreate that hope and confidence? Where the hell did it come from? They didn’t know; they had no idea the battle it would take and the whole time, they knew that they had right on their side.

I don’t have their faith, so a part of me doesn’t understand it. I want to. Maybe I really need to. How will this all of this come together? I have no idea. I'm not sure how I did it before, but that I did once allows me to believe that I will again.

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