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March 17, 2003

Laura Wexler, Author of Fire in a Canebrake, Speaks at UMBC

"What they didn't consider, however, was that the men who'd killed Roger and Dorothy Malcom, and George and Mae Murray Dorsey, had committed a murder so extreme that it would become an icon of postwar violence, a symbol of the chasm between the promise of democracy and the reality of life for black people in America, in 1946."

Laura Wexler
-Fire in a Canebrake

The 1950s saw the birth of New Journalism, a literary genre where writers took real events and produced works that had a distinctly fiction feel. Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion were the early pioneers of the Wild West that was New Journalism, creating works that revolutionized literature. Capote's masterpiece In Cold Blood told the tale of the Clutters, a Kansas family that was brutally murdered by two recently released convicts. Its incredible detail, colorful dialogue and vivid imagery are a hallmark of this form of writing, used by College of Notre Dame of Maryland professor and Style Magazine Senior Editor Laura Wexler, author of the acclaimed non-fiction work Fire in a Canebrake, the story of the last mass lynching in America.

Canebrake tells the story of four young African-Americans who were shot to death in the late 1940s at the now infamous Moore's Ford Bridge in Walton County, Georgia. After being released on bond for the attempted murder of his landlord, Roger Malcom and three close family members were returning with farmer Loy Harrison, who paid for Malcom's release in exchange for working as a farmhand. A mob of white men met them at the bridge, dragged them from Harrison's vehicle and murdered them, shooting the four with rifles and shotguns approximately sixty times. Bodies obliterated by the force of the shots, families shattered, a race's sense of safety destroyed, this is the carnage that lay in the grass and gravel of Moore's Ford.

This mass murder occurred in 1946, in rural Georgia, in a place where the Ku Klux Klan instilled fear in the lives of African-Americans, haunting them like ghosts in the night. Extensive inquiries were conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), evidence was collected, autopsies were done -- but, in 1998 when Wexler started what would turn into two years of research, all of the evidence had over 50 years of dust settled firmly on them. Many of those who lived in Hestertown and were linked with the case were dead, with those who were alive young children when the lynching took place. These were just a few of the obstacles Wexler had to deal with in order to tell the story of the four victims - Roger Malcom, his common-law wife Dorothy Malcom, her brother George Dorsey and his common-law wife Mae Murray Dorsey.

"It was a very challenging first book," Wexler says. "There was no blueprint on how to write this." What Wexler had to do was give these victims life and breath to tell a story, people who left no written word about themselves, no means to convey any aspect of their personality. This meant that the Cockeysville native had to go up against a degree of reluctance with members of the community in order to accurately portray the situation and those involved, the same reluctance that hindered the investigation by the FBI and GBI more than fifty years ago.

Another challenging aspect to the writing of this novel was that because there was no way to interview the majority of those involved, Wexler had to rely on the plot, not people, to move the story along. "This is action driven, not character driven," she states. "There is no hero in this book, no one that the reader can root for."

Beyond the theme of race relations, the underlying ideas of truth and accountability are key in the understanding of the reasons why this book was written. "I think that something this book touches on is the impermanence of truth, what is true, what someone tells you is true." Wexler is referring to Clinton Adams, who was a child when the lynching occurred, and his statement about what he saw at the bridge. Adams claimed to have witnessed the lynching and came forward in 1991 because he did not want to live in fear of the KKK anymore. Over the course of the next several years, Adams continuously contradicted himself, his story changing slightly with each telling.

Wexler interviewed Roy Jackson, now dying of cancer, but in 1946 claimed to be witness to the lynching. Jackson claimed that he saw certain people at the event, but when questioned by FBI agents, these people denied being at Moore's Ford Bridge. Throughout Canebrake, stories, alibis, accounts are all given, but pages later recanted, retracted, taken back. "I used that as a metaphor to show that racism destroys truth," she reflects.

The descendents of those linked with the lynching also destroyed the truth. Wexler describes a wall of silence that surrounded the town. Some people would answer questions, while others were irate that she was retelling a story that they considered finished. But it was not finished. This is the point this talented writer is trying to make. "There is no real ending because the case wasn't solved," Wexler says. "There is no closure."

Laura Wexler will discuss Fire in a Canebrake on Wednesday, March 19 at 1 p.m. in The Commons Cabaret.

This article was originally printed in The Retriever Weekly.

- Jennifer Leigh Gibson

Posted by dwinds1 at March 17, 2003 12:00 AM