Behind the Book

Though it is a work of fiction, River, Cross My Heart was inspired by the recollections of both of my parents. James S. Clarke and Edna Mae Higgins Payne Clarke grew up in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. in the early part of the 20th century. The Old Georgetown Act of 1950 forced most of the African American community to move away. Faced with the requirements of historic renovation and redlined by banks, most African-American homeowners relocated to other Washngton neighborhoods. The many families living in rental housing were simply displaced and were unable to rent the renovated properties. So a neighborhood that had been atypical of Washington in its racial and economic diversity became nearly all white and all wealthy. My father's family who owned a house on the fringe of the neighborhod remained on a street that became the center for African American Georgetowners. Also, the churches stayed and remain today though their members travel from other areas to attend services.

My mother was an outstanding swimmer as a youngster growing up in racially segregated Washington, D.C. One of her most searingly painful recollections was of the "whites only" pool on Volta Place in Georgetown. While listening to an oral history that I begged her to record, I was stunned by the abrupt change to her voice when recalling this swimming pool. Some fifty years after these incidents, the injustice and feelings of humiliation still burned in her voice though she tried to remain dispassionate. The exploration of these feeings -- born so long ago and never resolved -- are the impetus for River, Cross My Heart. How had these events affected/shaped the woman that my mother had become and in what ways had they affected my own life?

Also, as the mother of a child who died accidently, I explored the emotions of this particular type of grief and loss in River, Cross My Heart. How does a parent continue with their own life when a child predeceases? What happens to the individuals -- to the family?

Since I didn't grow up in Georgetown I didn't feel the visceral attachment to the neighborhood -- the streets -- that my parents did. As we were growing up our folks would take us on drives through that part of Washington and point out all the places that they had lived and played and worked while growing up. At first we were skeptical. Georgetown seemed nothing like a place they could have known. But as I undertook research I found that they'd been right about everything. I realized that they carried and cultivated a cherished identity as Georgetowners. And I realized that they were not alone. In the 1980s a group of relocated African-American Georgetowners began holding an annual reunion dinner and interest bloomed in the history of the area.

See the book Black Georgetown Remembered by Kathleen M. Lesko and Valerie Babb, published by Georgetown University Press. Ironically, most of the old Georgetowners never set foot on the university's campus unless they worked there.

Timid at first when walking the streets of Georgetown in my research, I overcame these feelings as the novel took its shape. I truly felt I'd become a true Georgetowner when a neighbor of my grandmother, Mrs. Eva Calloway, embraced me, shared her recollections of my family and of the neighborhood and declared that I did "favor" my paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Harris Clarke, known as Bessie Clarke.

My hope is that River, Cross My Heart illuminates the lives of the African-American community of Georgetown and contributes to the understanding and appreciation of the neighborhood and the city of Washington as a whole.