I first met Cynthia Bond in 2014, just after Random House published her debut novel, Ruby. A mutual friend introduced us, saying, “Cynthia is the real deal.” We exchanged numbers. Bond is a single mom to Malia, and I have two sons, so we bonded over both writing and mothering. Soon after, the Oprah Book Club 2.0 selected Cynthia’s novel. That meant a paperback run of 250,000 copies of Ruby, which soon catapulted to a New York Times bestseller.
At the onset of the pandemic lockdown in 2020, Cynthia sent a Facebook message asking if I’d like to take part in an online class through her Blackbird Collective writing group. I’d log on every Friday afternoon for two hours with Cynthia and a small band of writers. Together, writing, we went through the worst of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter uprising, the election, the January 6 insurrection, and much more.
At some point, Cynthia’s mother, Zelema Harris, joined our group and brought nonfiction pages that would become her blog. Zelema is an octogenarian with a doctorate in education, who was chancellor of St. Louis Community College, and president of Parkland College in Illinois. She also served as president of the Kansas City Branch of the NAACP, one of the largest NAACP chapters. Cynthia says Ruby (and the sequel to Ruby she’s currently finishing) are inspired by family, including Zelema. Zelema also mines a trove of family stories in her writing, including her experience growing up with 20 siblings in rural Texas and her family’s complex racialized history. Her father was the offspring of a biracial mother who was enslaved and of her white slave owner. Some of Zelema’s family members decided to be known as white, while others—including her father—chose not to.
Here, I speak with Zelema (in Houston) and Cynthia (in L.A.) over Zoom to discuss their writing and family legacy of activism. We talk about racism, an all-Black community in Texas, and the unavenged murder of Zelema’s older sister, Carrie. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Victoria Clayton: Cynthia, I know your mother was a respected educator throughout your childhood. She was also a leader in the local NAACP. Can you speak about how that work influenced you?
Cynthia Bond: Watching her gave me a desire to achieve like her, but I also took on her pressing need for justice. So there was a desire to excel from my mom and my dad’s family, but my desire for justice was just as strong as that desire to achieve.
VC: There is definitely a very strong connection to activism and success on the Bond side of the family too. Can you tell us about that?
CB: Well, my dad’s family—the Bonds—had a very long history of being educators. The first Bond that left a plantation took a cow straight to Berea College in Kentucky. Education became very important. The civil rights leader Julian Bond, my cousin, came from that family of educators and made a decision to really fight for the rights of Black folks and to register Black people to vote. When we were children, Julian came to speak at the college campus where my parents worked, and that was inspirational. That whole side of the family was steeped in education and political activism, and that was also true with Mom. Mom was all about education and activism. I had that from both sides.
VC: Zelema, what was the process of going from educator and activist to writer like for you?
Zelema Harris: Cynthia badgered me for at least 20 years to write. When Malia was born, she bought me this little recorder, and I just put it in the drawer somewhere. She really got on my nerves, always saying, “Mom, write!”
Then I was doing a lot of community work after I retired, but at some point, I resigned from one of the organizations and I thought, “What do I do now?” I thought about Cynthia’s insistence that I write. Really, she is responsible for my blog. Otherwise, there is no way I would take the time. There are too many good television shows. So I’m blogging primarily because I don’t have anything else to keep my mind sharp and because I think it pleases Cynthia.
CB: It does make me really happy because Mom is a wonderful writer! I remember—and I wish we could find it or recreate it—a poem she wrote when I was in high school called “Oh Time Unwind.” It was about her father, and it was a beautiful, beautiful poem. It has stayed with me all these years.
ZH: “Oh Time Unwind, Play It Back Slowly.” I first wrote it when you were little. And then when you were in high school, I sort of recreated it and gave it to you.
CB: Mom wrote all the time. But, you know, we grew up hearing all of these amazing stories about Mom’s family growing their own food on their farm, building their house with their own hands, treating illnesses with homemade remedies, living in a tight-knit, all-Black community, and then moving to the city of Beaumont, pushing back against all sorts of racism and all kinds of interesting and complicated family drama. I just knew that she had so much to tell. So it’s really wonderful that she started her blog and that people are reading it, that she’s getting feedback and getting in touch with this network of people as a result.
ZH: Whatever you grow up in is normal—to you. I didn’t think it was that unusual growing up with a father old enough to be my grandfather or great-grandfather. He was 73 when I was born, and my mother was 33. The only time I realized anything was perhaps abnormal was when a kid said to me, “Your daddy is an old white man.” And that’s when I came to realize that it was unusual. He was old. Nobody knew he was Black, except for the people who lived in Liberty Community, which is an all-Black community about seven miles east of the county seat of Newton. But at the time of the kid’s comment, we’d just moved to the city—Beaumont. And I just thought he was my dad. My mom had 4 kids previously and my dad had 15 who were all older than my mom except 2. It was a really good upbringing because you dealt with conflict all the time.
When my mom got mad, she’d say, “Oh, you’re just like your daddy’s people.” But when my mother’s four kids—my brothers and sisters—felt that my mom was not being treated well by my dad’s kids, they would come to me even as a little girl. My brother was six years older and he’d say, “You need to tell your sister not to talk to Mom like that.” And I’d think, “What can I do about it?” I never felt like I belonged to either group, but it helped me to become more independent or more aloof, as some would say. I don’t get involved when I can’t make a difference. It helped me create a shell to protect myself.
VC: Can you explain more about your dad?
ZH: My dad’s dad was a slave owner. His father was white and his mother was biracial, Black and white. She had a lot of Indian too. She was purchased from Tennessee or Louisiana. The slave owner only had four or five slaves, I understand. My dad was one of his children by the slaves, but my father took on all of the white characteristics as far as skin, eye, and hair color. There was no way you could identify him as anything other than white, except people knew in the rural area where we grew up who his father was, who his mother was. And that just passed down from generation to generation. I’m only one generation removed from slavery. My dad was first. He wasn’t born into slavery. He was born in 1866. Slavery in Texas ended in 1865. There were a lot of Black people who passed as white. Some of my dad’s kids went to New York and they passed as white.
CB: It’s important to understand that my grandfather could’ve passed, but he would tell people that he was Black. He would make sure people knew. He’d get on a bus and the driver would tell him he could sit up front. Because he’d start heading toward the back of the bus. And my grandfather would say, “No, sir, I’m colored.” And he’d go to the back of the bus.
But some of our relatives passed for white. And their children would then even think they were white. My uncle Emerson claimed to be Indigenous and white. He married a white woman, and all of his children believed they were white and Native American. They are only just now learning they are also Black!
VC: I’ve told you that something like this apparently happened in my family. According to the census, one of my great-great-grandmothers was also biracial. From her children on, though, the generations have identified as white. I think this is a true American story, and much more common than what many of us have been told.
ZH: I agree. My nephew—Emerson’s son—is white. My blog about my discoveries on 23andMe and the one on colorism have sort of set his family on fire. I haven’t heard from them anymore since that blog came out. I understand from his white wife that the children aren’t taking it well.
They grew up white. And the blog is telling the story about what happened to their father/grandfather. He left his three Black kids in Texas and went to New York and married a white woman intentionally. He married a white woman because he had a younger sister who was in New York passing, Iantha, and she encouraged him. He left his three kids with my dad and mom and went to New York. Within a year, he married a white woman and had a baby.
VC: Cynthia, you’ve said hearing stories from your mom—many of which are in her blog—inspired your fiction. Can you talk about that?
CB: Well, I think some of the earliest stories I heard were stories about my mother’s life. Every story she told me, from the youngest age, included a little preamble about Liberty Community, Texas. Also, we would point to a scar on mom’s body and ask her to tell us the story. We’d ask to hear about how she got into an argument with her older brother when she was young and ended up severely burning her hand on the family’s wood-burning stove (their only source of heat). My grandmother used a paste of honey and herbs on the burn because the closest doctors wouldn’t treat Black people. Listening to these sorts of stories, I felt that I was there. It really lived inside of me; my unconscious formed around those stories. When I sat down to write, that’s when they just sort of rose to the surface and surrounded me and that became the world of my story.
VC: Did you always think that you were going to be a writer?
CB: I wrote when I was in grade school and in high school, but I was going to be an actress. Mom was the one who predicted I was going to be a writer. She said I was going to be a writer from the beginning, so of course I tried to reject that. I wanted to study acting in college, but to appease her, I studied journalism.
VC: But then you became a social worker?
CB: After college, I actually ended up going to an acting school in New York. I was an actress for many years. I worked in New York with the Negro Ensemble Company. I worked off-Broadway, and I was reviewed in The New York Times. I did some Shakespeare and a few different television shows out here in Los Angeles too. But at some point, in the middle of acting, I started getting pulled into doing a writing workshop for youth, and then that sort of took over. I became more and more interested in that. I was dealing with my own internal healing from things in the past and that just seemed like a really good fit. I became a social worker in 1993, and continued for about 15 years. I worked with the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center for seven years in their youth services department. I ran arts and writing programs.
VC: When you began working on your first novel, did you plan for it to incorporate your mother’s stories? The murder of one of your aunts has ended up playing a central role in your fiction, correct?
CB: Yes, the story of my murdered aunt was very important. It was in Ruby, and there’s more about it in the second book as well. As children, we kind of overheard that story because that story wasn’t directly told to us. But I can’t say all of it was a plan. I really believe that all of our experiences are sort of thrown into this pot of our consciousness. And I was just in a writing class writing from a writing prompt, and these two characters came out of nowhere: Ruby and Ephram. I just started writing about Ephram taking this cake to this woman, Ruby. It happened to be set in this place that I had heard about so much as a child. I had been steeped in those stories. So, of course, when I started writing, they came to the forefront and presented themselves.
Once I started writing, then yes, I did make a decision that the story of my Aunt Carrie was going to be a part of the book. I’m surrounded even now by Aunt Carrie and other family members. I keep family photos in my workspace for daily reminders.
VC: Is there anything either of you hesitate to write when it comes to family?
ZH: There are many things I would never write about because they might hurt or embarrass my kids.
CB: Really!? You can write about them, Mom.
ZH: No. I wouldn’t. Your telling me that won’t help.
CB: I don’t know what we’d think was off limits! The only things that I hesitate to write about have less to do with family and more about specifics around abuse and that sort of thing. I think sometimes I hesitate to write about that, but I don’t feel that there’s anything that I censor myself around that has to do with family.
VC: You don’t worry about consequences—like family members disowning you or anything like that?
CB: The good news about writing fiction is that it’s fiction. In Leslie Feinberg’s introduction to Stone Butch Blues, she said, “I write fiction so I can tell the truth” and that’s always resonated with me. I can say anything with fiction. I can have my characters doing whatever I want them to do. I’ve often talked about how Ruby was lost wandering in this small town for 11 years. I wasn’t wandering down dirt roads for 11 years, but I was dealing with my own trauma and my own mental health issues that were linked to abuse for a long time. I was in therapy getting help and feeling very lost, so the emotional truth is that I was lost for 11 years. Ruby’s emotional truth and mine mirror one another. Ruby is purely fiction, but reminiscent of the truth. I do that again and again and again with my characters.
VC: Do you believe that in some spiritual or metaphysical way, your ancestors are kind of visiting you or guiding your writing?
CB: I believe that we’re not alone. Before I write, I light a candle, and sometimes I meditate or just ask for guidance. Who knows if they guide me, but I can say that my characters become real for me. They are walking around the room. They are sitting in the corner while I write about them. They are very, very present. I do believe that we writers stand upon the shoulders of those who came before us. I believe that whatever strength I have comes straight from my ancestors. Whether they are with me, I can’t say, but their resilience and courage inspire me.
VC: Zelema, what about you? In your writing, do you feel the presence of your father or the other family members you write about?
ZH: I just know that when I write, I do immerse myself and I’m right back there in small-town Texas. My biggest inspiration is that I know it’s good to leave this writing as a sort of legacy, something my kids will have and my granddaughter will have too.
I guess I also feel that I owe my father, knowing that the world did not treat him well. He had no recourse when his daughter was murdered, when her remains were dumped on his front porch in a croker sack (a burlap-style bag). He could do nothing about that. My writing about his life and what happened . . . to me I feel I’m doing the right thing by him.
VC: Your father’s daughter, Carrie— your older sister—was killed by local racists who didn’t like that she allegedly had a white lover?
ZH: Yes. And absolutely nothing came of it. No justice.
CB: I have this really strong belief that in writing things down and putting the truth on a piece of paper or a flickering screen, that in itself is an act of bringing justice. You’re stating the truth. You’re putting the truth somewhere where people can read it and see it. Every single person who reads it, there’s a shift. They see that injustice took place, and there is that pulsing need for justice. I really believe that. I believe that writing about injustice creates a form of justice because people recognize what should have happened or what should not have happened.
VC: Do you see your writing as a way to avenge past wrongs?
CB: Listening to those stories about my grandfather and what he endured, his pride in being a Black man, his need for justice, the lack of justice—those things inspire me to tell the truth, to tell what actually happened. But also, this courage that my grandfather showed in claiming his Blackness at a time when being Black was so dangerous, is powerful. And my mom’s courage too. I mean, really a big part of my story has to do with Mom’s spirit to fight and overcome any obstacle. You know there’s a little bit of Mom throughout Ruby. Any character who’s really brave or has a lot of bravado, Mom is in that character. Any characters who can kind of claim their space, Mom is in those characters. She is that glimmer that sparked the fire that helps my characters do battle against injustice.
VC: Some writers want to flee from family. But it sounds like you’re advocating for using your family, no matter what.
CB: I think that, as writers, we have this palette of watercolors. Our lives inform those colors we have. All those colors come from our experience. If we reject family, then we have to ignore a large swath of colors that we can use in painting our stories. I believe being rooted in where you come from is an important part of being a writer. You gotta use what you have and you have to use what you’ve experienced. You gotta pull from the strength of your ancestors.
VC: I’ve worked with both of you in Cynthia’s workshop and a lot of my writing is about family. But I have to say, talking with you, Zelema, inspired me to look even more into certain aspects of my family. I think your blog will inspire other writers too.
ZH: I’m glad to hear that!
VC: I’ll also mention that when Zelema joined the workshop, I was surprised. I don’t think most writers want their mother in their workshop. Can you talk about your mom’s influence on your work, Cynthia?
CB: For my first book, Mom read every draft of the book and gave me really good feedback. I always call or text Mom to ask her little questions about Liberty Community or anything else.
VC: It must be extraordinary to have that kind of support.
CB: It is. I know that Mom is a hard worker. She’s an amazing student and has been her whole life. As far as having her in workshop, though, I just really wanted her to write. I knew that if she joined, she would write. We’ve had a couple of little things come up, but by and large, I think that we work together really well. I have a level of detachment when I’m teaching too. Of course, Mom is my mom, but she’s also part of this wonderful group of students. Mom’s a part of that community now. I can work with her as a member of the community. After class, we stay on Zoom and she’s my mom again. We usually talk and catch up and all of that, but while class is going on, she’s a member of the community.
VC: And she’s not faint of heart. She doesn’t mind boundary-pushing topics?
CB: Mom isn’t precious about any of that. She’s read things in my book that were way out there.
ZH: I read everything. I like historical fiction, but I read anything. I read junky stuff too. My airport reading is always something where you want to hide the cover. I remember when Fifty Shades of Grey came out. I got it and I read it. It was popular and I wanted to know why. It didn’t make a lot of sense, but it was interesting.
CB: You read Fifty Shades of Grey!?
ZH: Sure. People were reading it, and I wanted to see what it was all about.
VC: Do you see a day where Malia or future generations are also retelling your family stories?
CB: Malia is an artist. The best gift would be that she would draw us, but I do hope that she retells the stories I told her. And my hope is that she will continue telling the stories of our family. She’s interested. Sometimes she’ll go up to all these family photos and show one of her friends a photo of Aunt Iantha and say, “See, I look just like my aunt.” So, yes, my hope is that she will pass the stories along.