"Behind the scenes"
A Tangled Mercy
A Note from the Author
First, please let me say thank you for the chance to talk with you about how I came to write—and be obsessed for years by—the story of 1822 and present-day Charleston, South Carolina, and why this story, for me, is one that needs to be told: how the historical characters have changed the course of American history and why their message still matters today, particularly in a cultural moment in which people of common goodwill but different racial and ethnic backgrounds and perspectives are trying to hear and understand one another—and move forward together.
This is a work of fiction, which, contrary to what any reader paying attention to recent events might assume, I began writing more than twenty years before its publication. It has been a most unusual journey.
Before I tell—briefly—the story behind this novel and the remarkable people who inspired it, let me add that while this novel does feature some real people, places, and pivotal events, they are handled in a fictional manner.
My intent is not only to tell a story worth reading but equally—or, to be honest, more importantly—to honor the memory of those in nineteenth- and twenty-first-century Charleston who have set an example of courage, conviction, and a spirit of love far stronger than hate.
In the late 1990s, twenty years before this book was published, I was a young PhD student living in Boston, and though I’d grown up in the South and loved American history, I’d just learned for the first time of the Denmark Vesey slave revolt and of the white abolitionist Grimké sisters of South Carolina—and I was more than a little rattled that I’d never even heard of these people or these events before. I was supposed to be continuing research for my dissertation, but as I slogged through archives of writings by formerly enslaved and slaveholding women, I found myself taking more notes for a novel I’d like to write than for my dissertation.
So I packed up my eight-month-old daughter and my ever-up-for-adventure husband in our tiny Dodge Colt and drove to Charleston, where I fell hopelessly in love with a city: the way the past bleeds through the present at every corner—as one character in this novel says, like a camera shutter left open for two hundred years.
I was hooked by the Low Country’s beauty, its charm, its turbulent and often horrific history, and its complicated present that in many ways represented to me the racial landscape of America: painful, often raw, yet also living proof of real transformation and hope and a hard-fought, still-in-progress unity.
I should probably mention at this point that I am white and grew up in a nearly all-white small town in the East Tennessee mountains, so I ought not even to be a candidate to tell this story. But please let me add that my very first memory as a child is of my mother sitting on our living room floor rocking to and fro and sobbing in front of the television news: Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. Her reaction then and a hundred other such moments taught me early that the color of your own skin ought not to be the thing that determines what shatters your heart.
If you and I were sitting over coffee together, I’d like to tell a few stories, like another childhood memory: my family’s being stopped at a KKK roadblock on the backside of our mountain, and how one of the men wearing a bedsheet tapped with a rifle on the drivers-side window, poked its muzzle inside the car, thrust a KFC bucket at us, and asked if we’d “like to donate.” And how the Klan rocked the car back and forth so violently we were sure it would flip, and how, even though in my seven-year-old mind at the time we were clearly about to die, how comforted I’d been to know for certain what my father would say before he said it: No. We would not like to donate. And, no, we do not need to reconsider the answer.
I could go on and on, including the story of my teenage friend Shyama Haniffa, a Muslim from Sri Lanka who’d moved to our all-white town, and the cross burned in her yard, but let me skip ahead to my early twenties, not long before my first trip to Charleston. I’d come to share a friendship with a couple my husband had known since his first year at Harvard. Gloria and Ray, both medical doctors and both ordained African Methodist Episcopal ministers, had been mentors for him and quickly became that for me, as well. With multiple graduate degrees from the finest universities and a vast circle of influence, Gloria and Ray were (and still are) among the first people the Boston Globe called to find out “what African Americans thought” about any given issue—which they chuckle over, as if two people could speak for a diverse community of perspectives.
But one Saturday when we’d scheduled to get together on a rare morning off for all of us, Gloria showed up dressed immaculately from head to toe. In a ratty sweatshirt and jeans myself, I teased her about trying to show the rest of us up. She replied simply that she’d had to drop by the hospital to get a quick headshot made for an ID.
When I laughed that surely a headshot didn’t require this level of sleek and polished gorgeousness, she let me know, bluntly, matter-of-factly, that, yes, if I were to show up in a ratty sweatshirt and jeans, hospital personnel would assume I was a doctor on my day off. But if she showed up in the same clothes as an African American woman, the same people would assume she was a maid.
It was not the first or the last time I’ve been caught up short by my own shortsightedness, but it’s a moment I use to challenge my students when they push back at me or at another student that white privilege is just a term tossed around by liberals and academics.
Through the next several years, between finally finishing my dissertation and teaching classes and publishing other books, I returned—now hauling three children and a still-willing husband with me—for more research on the Charleston novel, which had come to include Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street, where Denmark Vesey and several of the slave-revolt strategists had been leaders.
Gloria and Ray Hammond
Emanuel AME Church
The church, I learned, had suffered incredible racial violence in the nineteenth century, including many of its members being hanged and its building being burned to the ground by an angry mob. From the beginning of this novel’s historical storyline, the church appeared in several chapters. Similarly, when about three years ago I began weaving a present-day thread into the novel, the now-rebuilt Emanuel AME Church appeared as a key element in the story, and as I chose from among prominent Charleston family names, I gave one of the main characters the last name Pinckney.
Not with any particular political strategy, the protagonists that emerged from the two storylines were a black male and a white female. The world of the white female doctoral student, floundering and confused, I could easily create, partly from recent memory. The world of an enslaved black male two hundred years ago was the work of imagination and research and compassion—like any writer, trying to see through a character’s eyes and feel what he feels.
When, early on the morning of June 18, 2015, as I was stepping out of my attic office, where I’d been working on final revisions of this dual-timeline Charleston novel to send to my agent, my older daughter hurtled down the stairs to tell me that “something terrible had happened in Charleston,” Emanuel AME felt like a part of my own life that had been attacked. The very date of the shooting, June 17, was the 193rd anniversary of Denmark Vesey’s 1822 slave revolt, moved up to begin at midnight of June 16, 1822 (so essentially the early morning hours of June 17), because an informant had leaked the original July 14 date.
With the rest of the world, I followed the unfolding news with horror, including that the church’s pastor, Clementa Pinckney, had been among the victims.
On that morning of June 18, the morning after the shooting, with tears streaming, and the New York Times in one hand and my cell phone in the other, I e-mailed my agent to say I didn’t know how I could not include these events somehow in this novel. But that I’d no idea how to do that in a way that honored the victims and that retained the hopeful note the novel had ended on before.
And then, over the next several days, the people of Charleston themselves provided the ending that to me is the true one: full of outrage and pain and horror but also of love and unity and of jaw-dropping forgiveness and strength.
In the 1822 storyline, characters based on actual historical figures include Denmark Vesey, the multilingual and charismatic leader of the planned revolt; Tom Russell, its weapon maker; Mayor James Hamilton, Governor Bennett, and Colonel Drayton; Vesey’s lieutenants, including Mingo Harth, Gullah Jack, and others; Penina Moise, a Jewish hymn writer and poet; and Angelina Grimké, who is only seventeen in the novel but who would grow to become a leading abolitionist and spokeswoman for women’s rights——and early on, demonstrated an intellectual and theological inquisitiveness that led her to reject her comfortable life in a culture based on slavery.
Ellen Craft with her husband, William
In early nineteenth-century Boston, the Haydens did run a clothing shop that distributed abolitionist propaganda by slipping pamphlets into the clothing they sold, as mentioned in the book. Dinah’s escape in the novel is based on that of Ellen Craft, who disguised herself as a wealthy Spaniard with a wounded neck and managed (along with her husband, playing the part of her slave) to reach freedom in the North.
In the 2015 storyline, the majority of the protagonists are purely works of fiction. Included in the storyline, however, and handled in fictional form, are those involved in the Emanuel AME shooting:
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a minister, high school track coach, and speech therapist; Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, a manager for the Charleston County Public Library; Susie Jackson, a church choir member; Ethel Lee Lance, the church’s sexton; DePayne Middleton-Doctor, an ordained minister who was also a school administrator and admissions coordinator at a local university; Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s pastor as well as a South Carolina state senator, and the youngest African American elected to his state’s legislature; Tywanza Sanders, a recent college graduate who tried to reason with the killer and died attempting to save the life of his great-aunt, Susie Jackson; Daniel Simmons, an elderly but still-practicing minister who, in addition to Emanuel, served at another nearby congregation and who died attempting to save Clem Pinckney; Myra Thompson, a Bible study teacher and an AME minister who had renewed her pastoral license only a few hours earlier.
Outside Emanuel AME Church
The survivors of the shooting, victims in their own right who must now deal with the harrowing memories of June 17, 2015, include Polly Sheppard, Felicia Sanders, and Sanders’s granddaughter, who was eleven years old at the time of the atrocity, the age of my youngest child.
I have been humbled and inspired—and am still regularly brought to tears—by how these people, together with their loved ones and the wider population of Charleston, including its police force, have set an example for our nation and for the world of a community drawing together in grief and horror after an atrocity, with renewed efforts to connect peacefully and authentically across lines of race and income and religion and to seek justice and fairness and safety for all. Out of respect and admiration, a portion of the proceeds of this novel will go to a foundation set up and administered by Mother Emanuel to serve the families of the victims.
I’m grateful to have gotten to explain at least a part of this novel’s peculiar journey. I’m a writer because stories have shaped who I am and continue to challenge and change me. In a cultural climate all too prone to shouting and insults and refusing to hear one another, and a climate in which talking about race is risky, I believe not talking about race is far more dangerous still. It’s my hope that this story of tragedy, brutality, beauty, and courage across two hundred years might be at least a small part of that conversation.
I also hope that if the reader takes anything away from spending time in the pages of this novel, it would be a sense of awe for the kind of courage that is willing, in the words of the Honorable Reverend Clem Pinckney, to “make some noise” on behalf of those whose voices aren’t being heard, and a sense of hope that there is, in fact, despite all the evidence to the contrary, a way to live out a kind of love that annihilates hate and that always, in the end, gets the last word.
A Tangled Mercy
Book Club Kit
Warning: This book club kit contains spoilers.
Explore Charleston. Questions for Discussion. Recipes from the Book
Meet the Characters. The Sounds of the South. Shop
A Note from Joy Jordan-Lake.
Explore A Tangled Mercy's Charleston
Follow the map to explore the real places that inspired the locations mentioned in the book. For the best results, click on the icon in the top right corner to view the map in full-screen mode.
Questions for Discussion
Ice-Breaker Questions: Start your meeting off with some fun, interesting questions to get the discussion started.
Starter Questions: The following questions are made to start the discussion of the book and get readers thinking.
Deeper Questions: These questions are for book clubs looking to delve deeper into A Tangled Mercy and its themes.
Experience the tastes of the Low Country. By following the page numbers provided with each recipe, your book club can experience the best foods and flavors Charleston has to offer, right alongside the characters of
A Tangled Mercy. Click HERE or on IMAGE below to download recipes.
The following are the real people who inspired the fictional characters in A Tangled Mercy. Their role in the story is purely fictitious, but their impact on history is not forgotten.
(1767-1822) Denmark Vesey spent his youth with his slaver captain master, who took him on voyages until they settled in Charleston in 1783. In 1800, Vesey was allowed to buy his freedom with the money he had won in a street lottery. With the leftover money from the lottery, Vesey set up a successful carpentry business. Vesey married a slave woman, and because of laws in South Carolina concerning the children of slaves, Vesey’s children were born slaves because their mother was not free. Vesey was self-educated, and spoke French, Danish, English, and Spanish. Inspired by the slave uprisings in Haiti and the Biblical story of Moses, Vesey masterminded the Charleston Slave Revolt of 1822, which was uncovered before it could begin. As many as 9,000 slaves may have been involved in the revolt, but historians still dispute this figure. In the aftermath, Vesey defended himself in his “trial”--which took place only before a closed committee of white men--and was executed on July 2, 1822. He has since been immortalized as a hero and martyr.
(1805-1879) Angelina Grimke was raised in a wealthy, slave-owning family in Charleston. Despite her upbringing, she and her sister Sarah Grimke became convinced of two things: that slavery was horrifically wrong and also that women should have equal rights. Joining her sister in the North, Angelina became a Quaker, a teacher, and a writer of abolitionist literature. Her letter to William Lloyd Garrison launched her influence when he published her piece in his newspaper, The Liberator. She then began writing and speaking to encourage Southern women to join the anti-slavery movement, and even became the first woman to speak before a United States legislative body.
Pictured here is Philip Simmons, the modern-day inspiration behind Tom Russell. Tom Russell was a real person, but little is known about him, save his role as the weapon maker in the 1822 Slave Revolt. Originally, sources say that Russell turned down this role, but eventually changed his mind, though no historical document tells us why. Tom Russell's modern-day inspiration, Philip Simmons, was an ironworker from Charleston. He created more than 500 ornamental pieces of ironwork that can be seen all around the city today.
(1797-1880) Penina Moise was a Jewish poet and hymn-writer. Moise also dedicated much of her life to teaching. At the start of the Civil War, Moise left Charleston for Sumter, South Carolina. During this time, her eyesight deteriorated into blindness. She returned to Charleston after the war, and became the first Jewish-American woman to contribute to the worship service at Beth Elohim, for which she wrote 190 hymns.
(1973-2015) Reverend Clem Pinckney was the pastor of the Emanuel AME Church in 2015, where Denmark Vesey had been a leader 200 years before. Pinckney was also a South Carolina state senator. This video is of Clementa Pinckney speaking prophetically in 2013 about freedom and equality, what it means to be an American, the role of the African-American church, what it means to be a beacon to the community, including what it means to have the kind of courage to "make some noise" and—like Denmark Vesey, Rev. Pinckney says—to even be willing to die for what one believes.
Reverend Clem Pinckney
Meet the Characters
Sounds of the South
Experience the music of coastal Carolina
While writing the novel, Joy listened to a great deal of period and coastal Carolina regional music, from early 19th-century spirituals to 20th-century Carolina Beach Music. Here is the haunting "Deep River," which figures into both an 1822 and a 2015 scene in the novel, followed by a sampling of Beach Music, which plays on the radio in one contemporary scene as two characters dance...on the hood of a truck.
"Deep River" is also the song that plays during the book trailer for A Tangled Mercy.
This version of the song is by the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir.
Video Trailer: Enslaved with Samuel L Jackson Series 1
Episode 1 "A People Stolen" (a six-part series)
Oct 12, 2020
The Slave Trade
Led by icon, and activist Samuel L. Jackson—ENSLAVED sheds new light on 400 years of human trafficking from Africa to the new world.
Samuel L Jackson traces his ancestry to Gabon, visiting the coastal area of Loango National Park to see from where his enslaved ancestors were shipped in their millions to the Americas. But he wants to do more than tell the story of the enslaved who survived. The trans-Atlantic slave trade existed for well over 400 years, involving more than 45,000 voyages from dozens of outposts along the African coast. Over 2 million Africans died en route, and up to 1,000 slave ships ended up as wrecks, with only a handful ever having been identified.
Jackson teams up with a group of underwater investigators who view the ocean floor as a graveyard and a crime scene. They dive the English Channel to find the 350-year-old wreck of an unidentified slave ship and discover its secrets. This is the oldest slave ship ever discovered, and deep on the dark ocean floor, the divers make a remarkable find.
Scenes & Music
Behind the novel A TANGLED MERCY
Why I never learned about Denmark Vesey growing up, I don't know— that is, I suspect I do know, but that's part of the conversation on race in America. Or maybe the mention of a multi-lingual, brilliant free black who preached freedom from slavery to anyone who would listen in the city that would become the birthplace of the Confederacy was there in the high school history books and I was just too busy staring out the windows to notice. I've stared out my share of windows, so it's possible. At any rate, I was in grad school in New England when I stumbled on the intricate plan of Vesey, a leader in his African Methodist Episcopal Church, for a massive uprising of slaves in the Carolina Low Country.
After some digging, I turned up a few obscure mentions of a Charleston blacksmith Tom Russell who, after initially resisting any involvement with the revolt's planning, finally agreed to make the weapons. I also became intrigued with two sisters of a Charleston slaveholding family, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, both of whom later became abolitionists. Tom Russell, Denmark Vesey and to a lesser extent Angelina Grimké would become key characters in the 1822 storyline of A Tangled Mercy
In April 2015, the shooting of a black man by a white police shooter in North Charleston galvanized the country—particularly because the victim was running away and was shot in the back numerous times. And particularly because the officer's initial testimony did not match the video of the incident captured on the cell phone of a bystander. South Carolina Representative Clemente Pinckney--and pastor of Emanuel AME Church, phrased it vividly, noting to the South Carolina House of Representatives that Walter Scott had been "shot down like game." In an eloquent speech to the House, Rev. Pinckney called for the use of body cameras by the police, both for the sake of the officers and of the public.
My husband and I were celebrating our anniversary in Charleston just after the shooting and made our way to the North Charleston location, where this memorial and many others marked the spot—and our need for mourning.
Two months later, the Rev. Clem Pinckney, a South Carolina state senator and the pastor of the very church where Denmark Vesey had been a leader, would also be the victim of a tragedy that raised questions of where we are as a culture on race relations—clearly not as far along as we'd hoped and dared to believe. But Rev. Clem Pinckney and the others of Mother Emanuel AME would also become powerful symbols of hope, strength, and the long arc of the universe that does, we believe with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., bend toward justice.
Because of Vesey, Mother Emanuel Church was already a setting for several chapters in the historic and contemporary plots of the dual timeline novel A Tangled Mercy several years before the tragedy there in 2015. In early June of that year, the novel was about to go on submission to editors--just a few more revisions that my agent suggested before she would send it out. Then, on June 17, 2015, the world learned of the horrific shooting of Mother Emanuel's pastor and eight parishioners in a heart-rending, history-altering event that connected directly with the story of the Vesey revolt.
Along with millions of others, I wept and prayed--and then wept again on reading every article I could find on what had occurred and how and why, the search for the killer, his chilling explanations...and then the aftermath: the reaction of the victims' families and the church and Charleston as a whole that, despite every reason for rage and revenge, was rooted in unity, love, peace, forgiveness, along with a ferocious commitment to an America that fulfills its own promise of equality and justice for all.
Clearly, the novel now had to be either shelved permanently, or the contemporary storyline had to include--and, more significantly, honor the victims at the landmark church--as well as its power and perseverance over the centuries.
The novel's Author's Note gives a longer version of this journey, and the cultural leaders who generously gave their time and wisdom in talking with me about this book, and my hope that it could memorialize not only the Tom Russells and Denmark Veseys and Angelina Grimkes's of the nineteenth century, but now also the heroes of the twenty-first. Below is Rev. Clementa Pinckney speaking prophetically in 2013 about freedom and equality, what it means to be an American, the role of the African-American church, what it means to be a beacon to the community, including what it means to have the kind of courage to "make some noise" and--like Denmark Vesey, Rev. Pinckney says--to even be willing to die for what one believes.
Thank you for caring about the real people and real events, behind this story especially –Joy