History Lessons

"I'm afraid 'Houston history' is an oxymoron." So says a Southern Methodist University history professor in Tracy Daugherty's fourth novel, Axeman's Jazz. And indeed, it does seem that Houston would rather charge ahead than dwell on where it's been. This is opportunity-minded Space City, after all, and the wide-open future always looks brighter than the past.

"Houston just wants to grow," says Daugherty, "but to completely lose a city's past seems crazy to me." Back in the '80s, when he was a student of Donald Barthelme's in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, Daugherty lived in Montrose. But he often slipped over into the western edge of downtown to explore the mostly black neighborhood formerly known as Freedmen's Town. Daugherty visited the cemeteries and looked at the shotgun houses that had been there "forever." He also read old sociology books, books on Houston economics and old articles from the Houston Chronicle. The author learned about a race riot that had occurred here in 1917; according to him, it's never discussed in Texas history classes.

"The race riot sparked the story for me," he says. "I grew up in West Texas, and all my life I was taught a sanitized version of Texas history. Living in Houston I discovered a history that wasn't being told."

But being just a student who hadn't grown up here, Daugherty still felt like an outsider. That piece of his personal history informed another major choice he made for the novel: to write from the perspective of a mixed-race woman.

"I wanted to talk about that neighborhood. I wanted to try to tell a closer story and get inside the neighborhood. That meant adopting the persona of someone very different from me. I made her of mixed race to give her an outsider edge, to make her perspective more authentic to my story. Besides," Daugherty adds, "an outsider perspective helps readers understand a place. They can be taken by the hand and led into it."

After many years away from home, the protagonist, Telisha Washington, returns to Freedmen's Town, the neighborhood where she was born. She hopes to figure out her family's connection to that race riot and the black soldiers who were hanged in its wake.

Axeman's Jazz draws a strong connection between personal history and the history of a place. Away from Freedmen's Town, Washington is unable to discover her family's past; she needs to return there in order to understand her own identity. And once a place is gone -- swept aside for new lofts, perhaps -- the histories of the people who lived there become scattered and mostly unavailable. Washington finds what she seeks by returning and inserting herself into the daily life of her old neighborhood.

"All writing is about homesickness," says Daugherty. "I've been away from Houston a long time, and I miss it. I think you have to be away from a place to feel that it is lost to you or being lost in order to generate the images. This book is an elegy, the story of a place that doesn't exist anymore."

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Lisa Simon