Cane River Discussion
Lalita: This is a story about relationships. And mothers and daughters. About who you choose as a mate. It's a story about resilience and survival and independence and family.
Oprah: Well, this is the first time I've read a story where the white men who [had] initially taken the black women genuinely cared for them. That thought had never occurred to me.
Lalita: The thing that so inspired me when I was writing the book was that these women were victimized, but they had made a choice not to become victims. And they had taken whatever little they had and they turned it into something positive...something they could pass down to their children.
Oprah: When I announced the book, I said specially that it's about lots of different things, including the whole miscegenation and the light skin/dark skin [which] runs deeper than I think any of us consciously are aware of on a regular basis. Did you know that you were uncovering all of that?
Lalita: I knew that it resonated. I didn't know it was going to resonate. I've been getting a lot of feedback on that specifically. And it surprised even me how deep it was. People said that this explained to them for the first time what some of the origins of that might be. And it brought them a little closer to, if not forgiveness, at least understanding.
Oprah: Understanding that ... people felt safer, more protected, and that your life would be better based upon the lightness of your skin.
Lalita: And the possibility of more opportunity.
Lalita: Were you all aware of that [the hierarchy of lightness to blackness] before reading this, Stephanie?
Stephanie: I really wasn't aware of it. But I—as soon as I opened the book and began, it conjured up my own family history. Immediately .. I [realized] that it was important for survival, for protection, and for equality that you did have to bleach the line. It was almost vital for survival...it's very sad, though.
Tracey: I was very aware, intellectually, that there was this hierarchy of lightness to darkness. I had this beautiful student whose parents were from Africa. She had this dark, gleaming, dark wood-colored skin, and I complimented her one day by saying, 'you have such a gorgeous complexion.' [She responded, ] 'Oh, Mrs. Wood, I hate my skin. It's so dark.' And the emotional reality for me to see that this young 14-year-old girl hated her skin was a whole different experience.
Stephanie: I had that experience as a new employee at a hotel. If you were light, you could work in the "front" of the house. If you were dark, you worked in the "back" of the house.
Oprah: [Lalita] said that the real horror was the separation of families. And when I read Beloved, I thought the real horror, aside from the beatings, aside from everything else, is having no choice.
Lalita: Exactly. And it's not brutality of the physical sort. It's of the spiritual and emotional sort and it's dominance and it's what you do with that dominance and what you do to crush spirit.
Oprah: What's true and what's not? That's what we all want to know.
Lalita: The bones of the story are absolutely true. All of the things in the book that have captions are real documents and they are true. Most of the events—
Oprah: And may I say, that's one of the most fascinating things. You're reading along, and then there are pictures ... of people ... and slave papers. That's fantastic ... amazing!
Lalita: And a lot of the events are also true. What I have decided to do is to not clarify exactly where I fictionalized and where I didn't fill in the gaps.
Oprah: Was he in the river with the chair? Was the moonlight chair true?
Lalita: We're just going to have to wonder about that one.
Taking Your Ancestors With You
Oprah: Do you still hear the whispers of your ancestors telling you, 'Well done. Our story has been told?'
Lalita: I very much felt the spirit. But I felt it in a different way, and it was pushing me towards doing this. It was pushing me to not give up ... I believe that these women are a part of me now.
Oprah: That's interesting, because I've always felt that. I've always felt shored up by the ancestors, even though I don't know their names.
Lalita: Absolutely. And I'm more calm, I'm more peaceful, and I really have far more of a trust that things are going to happen the way that they're going to happen. ... Some of that is just symbolic of being able to forgive and letting go of some things that happened in history. I don't think we should ever forget them. But I do think that we have to use them to figure out how to go forward.
Adopting Strength Instead of Shame
Danielle: There are members in my family who were saying, 'we weren't from slaves.' Because if you look at them today, you would think that they were white.
Lalita: To me, coming from the slave roots has proven to be such a source of extreme strength. And to be able to come so far, I just—I'm in awe of that power.
Oprah: I think that is the legacy. ... I see a race of people, African-Americans particularly, who have not done a good enough job of passing [their history] on. We really have not. That's why I'm really grateful for your book and other books like it that allow us to see who we have been.
I think the reason why we have the world and young people with distorted beliefs is because nobody really knows who they really are ... that [they] come from such powerful, grand stock that were able to do almost the impossible.
Looking For Legacy
Jeanne: I read the book and looked at the strength that these women displayed and the legacy that they gave to their own by passing down their strength from generation to generation ... always doing better for your children. It shifted my thinking. It helped me through a really rough time.
Oprah: I think what [Lalita was] able to do with this story is open the door for a lot of people who want to trace their own roots or look at what their heritage, what that legacy has meant for them.