Husband and Wife Authors Damani and Ife Keene

I’m delighted to welcome Damani and Ife Keene, the husband-wife authors of Clandestine: The Times and Secret Life of Mariah Otey Reddick. They have a fascinating story to tell. Perhaps next time, they’ll tell us about how they write together 🙂

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To say that challenges are enormous in African-American family heritage research is well beyond a clichéd understatement.

So, imagine my moist-eyed amazement when I discovered, after years of on-and-off amateur sleuthing, that my enslaved great-grandmother Mariah was a human wedding gift at ten-years-old. As an African history buff, that heartless circumstance was not a surprise, but my emotions were raw. After all, this is by no means ancient history. Mariah, my mother’s grandmother lived next door to my Mom’s family on Columbia Avenue in Franklin, TN.

Family lore portrayed Mariah (1838-1922) as a courageous woman who became a spy for the Union during the U.S. Civil War. The Census confirmed oral history that Mariah’s second husband Bolen, my great-grandfather, served time in jail for “killing a man over her.”

But it was the other voluminous confirmed information that inspired Ife, my wife of 53 years, and me to write a historical novel about Mariah and her family.

For example, we have seen an 1862 handwritten note from Colonel John McGavock of Franklin, TN — he was the husband of Mariah’s putative owner — to Confederate General Breckinridge. McGavock refers to “my negroes” being transported south under military escort. That relocation would reduce their chances of escape and prevent them from becoming confiscated as contraband by Union troops.

November 10th, 1862 note is signed:
‘Your Obt Servant, Jon McGavock’

Mariah was sent to Montgomery, AL, where it is verified that she worked in the household of Confederate President Jeff Davis before the South’s capital was relocated to Richmond. Unfortunately, Alan Pinkerton, espionage chief for President Abraham Lincoln destroyed all of his records to avoid violent retribution, and – so far – no documentary evidence of espionage by Mariah has emerged.  If it ever does, she will join the ranks of Mary Bowser – the African/Black spy in the Confederate White House in Richmond. Ms. Bowser’s role was preserved and documented because her “spy master” Elizabeth Van Lew wrote about it and Ms. Bowser lectured publicly later.

Nonetheless, the last thing we would have expected is that Mariah would have given a deposition about the “Franklin Riot” of 1867 – an armed and deadly confrontation between Conservatives/ex-Confederates and the Union League/Loyal League. She pinpointed which side (the Conservatives) fired first. Or, that she would be a key supporting character in a New York Times best-seller, Widow of the South, which focused on her owner, Carrie McGavock. We became friendly with the author Robert Hicks. After meeting him, other preservationists and historians in Franklin, we decided to write a novel to tell the story of Mariah’s forebears, her family and her descendants from the perspective of enslaved and free Africans/Blacks and their Native American and Euro-American allies.

And, so, CLANDESTINE: The Times and Secret Life of Mariah Otey Reddick has come to life as a self-published eBook in pdf format after five years of focused research and writing, interrupted by a term as an Alumni Trustee (2014-17) on the Board of our Alma Mater, Howard University in Washington, DC.

We – my wife and I – initially planned to tell a simple family story of an enslaved and emancipated twice-widowed mid-wife (to the “finest families”), seamstress, spy and freedom-fighter. It evolved into a saga of resistance and resilience covering historical events from 1739 and continuing through the years following the First World War, and including lookbacks from a Spanish character to his family’s experiences in Moorish Andalusia on the Iberian Peninsula.

CLANDESTINE draws on universal themes such as the unquenchable human thirst for freedom, while uplifting African culture and highlighting what are often-marginalized perspectives as well as little-known historical events.

CLANDESTINE relates an exciting, surprising and cascading tale of: resistance & espionage, freedom & terror, loyalty & betrayal, blackmail & death, guilt & dignity, valiant freedom fighters & cruel slavers. Captured within its 350 plus pages are grief & joy, faith & love, sacrifice & accomplishment, crime & impunity, vengeance & justice, battlefield bravery & principled desertion, treachery & unexpected allies, painful choices & flagrant hypocrisy, depravity & innocence as well as spirituality and devotion.

These days, on the site of my granddad’s home on Columbia Avenue, a proud Franklin, TN displays mural panels depicting Mariah, her husband Bolen and her last child, my granddad John W. Reddick, his wife and my mother Thelma as a child. Two housing developments and a street in Franklin are named after John W. Reddick (1880-1941), who rose to prominence as a community and state-wide leader and a proponent of education for “Negro” children. We strive to keep the legacy alive.

 

One panel of the mural;
another focuses on my Papa, John W. Reddick

Ife, a twice-published fiction author, and I hope we have written a book that is a memorable gift to its readers – and as valuable as it was a labor of love for us.

Thank you, Damani and Ife. What a remarkable and rewarding story. I wish you both every success with your novel.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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4 Responses

  1. Mariah already lived an amazing life in reality, surviving enslavement and going on to work as a nurse and a midwife after returning to Franklin after the Civil War. The claims that she was a spy for the Union are completely unfounded and plainly fiction. This book does a disservice to her actual life with such amazingly fraudulent claims. Just like Widow of the South, the vast majority of this book is fiction. Unfortunately, much like Robert Hicks did, these authors are not being honest about the life and times of an already amazing, resilient and strong woman. Shameful.

    1. Alexander H., many thanks for your comment and for reading our book. It is an honor and a great compliment to be mentioned in the same paragraph with our friend, the recently deceased best-selling author Robert Hicks. We, like countless others, will miss him tremendously.

      There’s a reason that Allan Pinkerton, self-proclaimed chief of espionage for President Lincoln, destroyed all his records. Primarily, he feared his operatives would be subject to retribution, including murder. During the post-war period, there was rampant violence directed at white female teachers who traveled south to teach the Freedmen as well as at Black folks determined to exercise their newly minted rights, to seek a fair wage, or to serve in public office.

      When my mother told me decades ago that her grandmother Mariah had spied for the Union, I was a teenager unaware of any of history. However, any person vaguely familiar with the era would instantly comprehend why a “trusted servant,” who had spied for the Union – and remained in the South – would not admit it publicly.

      History recorded more than a few enslaved and free African/Black Civil War spies, including Mary Bowser and William A, Jackson, both of whom worked in the Richmond “White House” of Jeff Davis, just as Mariah worked in Jeff Davis’ household in Montgomery. So, it would be shameful to dismiss out of the hand the possible presence of a spy in the Montgomery home of the Confederacy’s president – particularly given Gen. Robert E. Lee’s warning to his staff that, “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes.”

      A CIA document highlights these (perhaps little-known) facts in “Black Dispatches: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence.” [https://www.cia.gov/static/6f73b7277dc7315abd223891b8fa585d/Black-Dispatches.pdf ]

      So,… instead of being “an amazingly fraudulent claim,” family lore that Mariah was a Union spy is grounded in the mainstream of historical reality. After the war, Mrs. Varina Davis, the CSA’s 1st Lady went to her grave “in denial” that her servants had been covert agents, and, of course, others are free to doubt the possibility that Mariah served in a similar role. Not a problem. Thankfully, my freedom-fighting Ancestors efforts were not limited by the constraints of what others imagined was possible for such an “amazing, resilient and strong woman.” Because she certainly was all of that, and she wasn’t alone.

      By definition, espionage is a covert and dangerous pursuit. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that even decades later, it would be passed down in whispers to Mariah’s youngest granddaughter Thelma, who – when it was safe in the mid-twentieth century – shared the secret with her son, co-author of CLANDESTINE. It would be shameful indeed to dismiss oral history as invalid or even implausible when writing it down contemporaneously could have resulted in severe physical punishment, economic penalties, or banishment.

      The ”American history” that many know and love was not written to truthfully reflect African/Black lives. That is beyond dispute. That one-sided story was never complete and was never fully accurate, with Black folks most often depicted as “objects” peripheral to the lives of others. Consequently, it is understandable that some who embraced that incomplete narrative might become upset upon “discovering” that enslaved Africans exercised “agency” – acting, often clandestinely, on their own to advance their best interests.

      So, my wife and I are proud to have woven Mariah’s priceless oral legacy into the fabric of CLANDESTINE, a work of historical fiction, that includes the golden thread of Mariah’s covert heroism.

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