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Cassandra Jackson on her memoir 'The Wreck'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When Cassandra Jackson was a little girl growing up in Alabama, her father would take her around to visit elderly relatives. She'd get a slice of cake, maybe, some Kool-Aid to wash it down. Then she'd hear the old folks say how much she looked exactly like her grandmother, someone they missed. These were strange visits to Cassandra, as were the occasional trips to the cemetery.

CASSANDRA JACKSON: I'm 6 years old and standing next to a gravestone with my name on it. The little girl with my name is buried here, along with her mom, who was my father's sister, and her dad. I do not ask what happened to the girl because I already know what my father will say, the same thing he said when I asked why I have just one grandmother - the wreck.

RASCOE: That car wreck killed five members of her father's family, including his mother, sister and his first wife, a terrible loss that her family did not really talk about for decades. Cassandra Jackson is an English professor at the College of New Jersey and joins us now to talk about her memoir, "The Wreck." Welcome to the program.

JACKSON: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so happy to be here.

RASCOE: That's a heavy experience for a little girl, to be kind of a living memorial. I mean, I could relate to it because my father died when I was very young. And when I was little, people would always say that I looked a lot like him. I think I felt like I was carrying a part of him, and that was nice. Did you feel that way? Or because you didn't know them, you didn't even know what to carry?

JACKSON: Yeah - because they died before I was born. I knew that there were times when I felt loved by strangers, though. There were definitely moments when I would encounter someone who would say, oh, I used to do this with your grandmother. Or I remember a particular woman who mentioned my aunt, and she said to me, I used to have these sleepovers with her. We used to spend the night at each other's homes. And she looked at me with such tenderness and love that it felt like coming home. And I had never met her before.

RASCOE: The way that you set up the book, you had these parallel stories, right? There's a story of you and your husband undergoing fertility treatments. And then you also started asking for details of this 1960 car accident. Why did it become important to you to figure out what had happened that was so damaging to your birth family?

JACKSON: It was really infertility that triggered these questions about legacy. I was really someone who would have said to just about anyone, I'd be OK with not having a child. It wasn't until I couldn't have one that I began to think deeply about, like, the meaning of reproduction and the meaning of reproduction in my family and what that has to do with these legacies of survival for Black people. I found myself very fixated on the idea of a connection between me and these, you know, dead ancestors that I had never met, in part because it was a connection that I was able to assume for so much of my life just because people reminded me of it all the time.

RASCOE: Tell me about what your dad was like when you were young. Did you think that there was something off or that something had happened that affected him?

JACKSON: I think that it wasn't until I heard my older sister say something about the way my father appeared often to be depressed. And it was around the holidays. And she said, you know, he's missing his family. And you could see the ways grief kind of took him over. And when you think about the lack of resources at that time for Black people who were experiencing something like that, like, your options are not what they would be now. Like, you would tell someone in that situation now, maybe seek grief counseling. That was not an option in Alabama in 1960, when that accident happened, and it still wasn't an option when I was a kid. Like, it never would have occurred to anyone in my family.

And so talking to my father about that was incredibly hard. I shook through a lot of those phone calls. And in every conversation, he did have a point that he couldn't go past. You know, and he would say, it was in the newspapers. You need to read about it in the newspaper. And I did need to look at those newspapers, but I also needed to hear his story. I needed to understand how he survived this terrible thing.

RASCOE: Yeah. When you did go and look at the articles in the library, can you tell us - we don't want to give away the book, but can you tell me about what you learned? And were you surprised by his reaction at the time?

JACKSON: I was surprised. These articles are published in 1960 - so before I was born. And you begin to recognize how much segregation impacted journalism. And what are the ways in which that story would be reported? Who would be considered at fault in an accident in 1960 if there's an accident between Black and white people? When you talk about it, you begin to think, well, of course, the Black people would be considered at fault, no matter what happened. But I had never placed it in time in a moment. And so those moments in the library for me were painful and eye-opening.

You know, there's a moment where we're looking for these obituaries, and we can't find them. And my father is so certain that he's got these dates right. And, you know, the kind of person who lives in the library turns to us and says, if we're looking for the obituaries of Black people from that time, they would not have been printed in the regular obituary section. They could only be in a section called News About Negroes, which was published once a week, which is why we couldn't find anything. And so it's really - it was powerful to sit down with him and do that. And I never expected him to go with me. It was my intention to go alone. I get ready to go, and he's like, oh, I'm coming with you. I want to help you.

RASCOE: Now, knowing what you've learned, the journey that you had to go through, how do you approach this idea of the stories that you pass down? Because, I mean - and I should say, you do get pregnant - because we talked about the infertility, but you do get pregnant. You had two babies. How do you approach the stories that you tell about the family? Does it make you feel like, I'm going to be more open and transparent? Is that part of the legacy of this?

JACKSON: I think that's essential for me. You know, it's interesting, though, because, you know, when you write a memoir, you've already put it all out there at that point, right? There's a kind of transparency that comes with that. And my kids haven't read this book yet. They're too young to read it, even though my oldest has been sneaking around and reading pieces of it, I think. I think that is what I want. I want more transparency. I want more openness. I think that there's more space for love when you can have that kind of intimacy. So that's really meaningful to me to be able to do that, right? I wanted to be able to say, this is what happened, and it had many meanings for many people but that, you know, you are the legacy of this.

RASCOE: That's Cassandra Jackson. Her new book is "The Wreck: A Daughter's Memoir Of Becoming A Mother. Thanks. Happy Mother's Day to you, too.

JACKSON: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.

(SOUNDBITE OF GREY REVEREND'S "LITTLE ELI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.