Forgiveness is a major theme in my latest novel, Under the Tulip Tree. I appreciate the way Publishers Weekly put it in their review of the book: the grace of forgiveness.
Forgiveness isn't an easy subject to write about, mainly because the act of forgiving isn't always easy. It's especially hard when the person who needs forgiveness extended to them has done the unspeakable to you or to someone you love.
Such is the case with the character of Frankie in Under the Tulip Tree. In the book, she is a 101-year old woman who was a slave before the Civil War. It's now 1936 and she's been asked to tell her story to a young white woman who works for the Federal Writers' Project, a real government program that sent out-of-work writers across 17 states to collect first-hand stories from former slaves. Those stories--more than 2,300 of them plus over 500 photographs--are now archived in the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
In my research for the book, I read well over one hundred narratives (and listened to a handful of unforgettable recordings), captured by the raw honesty of the stories these former slaves told. It was that kind of honesty I hoped to portray through the character of Frankie. One of the things that struck me as I read through the first-hand accounts of life in bondage was the lack of wallowing in the pain. They simply told their life's story, with poignant details that left me brokenhearted.
So, as I set out to write the book, one question demanded an answer.
Was it possible for a former slave to truly forgive the people who'd abused them?
Yet despite Frederick Douglass' vehement words against slavery, he did an astonishing thing.
"How can I claim to love Jesus Christ and still reserve for myself the right to continue to hate?" he told a crowd at the Metropolitan AME Zion Church in Washington DC. At the time, he was speaking of his hatred for Thomas Jefferson, whose words about freedom in the Declaration of Independence rang false to him. But his forgiveness didn't end with Jefferson. In his later years, Douglass sought out Thomas Auld, his former owner, and forgave him for the mistreatment he'd endured during his time of bondage. "I entertain no malice toward you personally,” Douglass wrote in a letter to Auld some years before their meeting. “There is no roof under which you would be more safe than mine, and there is nothing in my house which you might need for your comfort, which I would not readily grant…I am your fellow-man, but not your slave.” History.com has a good write-up about their meeting if you'd like to read more.
As I studied Douglass' life and words, I wondered how many of the millions of unknown slaves came to the same place of forgiveness as he did. The person who'd endured slavery until the very moment it was abolished. Who'd had unspeakable things done to them by another human being, simply because their skin color was different. Were they ever able to forgive their former masters and those who'd abused them?
There is no possible way for me to fully appreciate or understand what it meant to live in bondage. To grasp how utterly helpless enslaved people were against the legal ownership of a human being. To watch their children and loved ones brutally abused, sold away, and used in the most heinous ways. In writing Frankie's story, I in no way cast any judgment on an individual who might have taken their hatred to the grave with them. The truth is, I wouldn't blame them one bit.
Yet forgiveness must play a role in the story, because forgiveness is part of the human story. The story between God and man. Forgiveness isn't something any of us deserve, yet it was granted to us freely when Jesus went to the cross, carrying every sin known to man. All my sins were forgiven before I was ever born. Yours too. Forgiveness isn't something we can ever earn. It has to be freely given by the one who's been wronged, no matter if the person who wronged you ever admits it or seeks forgiveness.
Frankie's journey to forgiveness is inspired by Frederick Douglass and others who chose not to let hatred consume them despite being completely justified in that hatred. If you'd like to read Frankie's story in Under the Tulip Tree, visit my website for buying options or click the cover on the right of this page.
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