Between the Lines: A Lynching in Georgia
Most of us shy away from looking into that dark closet that contains our family skeletons. Journalist Karen Branan did, too. Until she could no longer look away. Branan is the author of The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth (Simon & Schuster, 2016).
Branan has written for newspapers, magazines, the stage, and television for almost fifty years. Her work has appeared in Life, Mother Jones, Ms., Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Today’s Health, Learning, Parents, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as well as PBS, CBS, ABC, the CBC, the BBC, and CNN. But Branan says this nonfiction book may have been the most difficult assignment she has ever taken on. It began with a question to her grandmother.
“I had done an early history with my maternal grandmother,” Branan says. “I did a long interview with her and taped it, and at the end of the talk I asked her, what’s your most unforgettable memory. Without batting an eye, she said, "The hanging.'”
At first Branan thought her grandmother was referring to a legal execution of a criminal. But as she dug deeper into the story, she began to realize that the memory was of a lynching, and that it involved family members — both among those who were behind the lynching as well as those who were killed. The story unfolded in Harris County, Georgia, in 1912.
Before that interview, Branan says, “I had had no knowledge of the lynching. I’d never heard it mentioned in my family. There were hints of things, looking back on that, that pointed to it, but at the time I had no idea that this had happened.”
Branan did not jump into her research right away. It was a process that took two decades of work in library archives, reading letters and diaries, and interviewing older members of the Harris County community. She learned about the four people who had been murdered — one woman and three men, all African- American, all innocent. In the process, she found herself confronting her own views on family and race.
“When I got into the research, if you had asked me if I was a racist, I would have said, not in any way,” Branan says. “By the time I was done, I would have said, 'Yes, I am.'”
Branan says she learned that racism often expresses itself in the most subtle nuances of how we think and treat others. It's often subconscious. In learning about her family's history, Branan found she was not innocent of some of these subtleties and nuances either but now she was ready to confront them in herself and others.(P) “It really is not possible to live in this country, a country based entirely on white supremacy, and not see things through white eyes or with a white frame of reference,” Branan says.
But Branan hopes for healing of the nation's racial divide. She says communicating openly with those different from us is a step in that direction. In facing our own darkest secrets and family histories, we begin the healing process Branan says is necessary to reach harmony and understanding.
Listen to WMUK's Between the Lines every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m.