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Sidney Thompson



The Bass Reeves Trilogy is an award-winning trilogy of historical novels narrating the life of one of America's greatest heroes, and one of the most unique: a former slave who became the most legendary lawman of the Old West. The first two books serve as the inspiration for the upcoming Paramount miniseries "Lawmen: Bass Reeves," directed by Taylor Sheridan of "Yellowstone" fame and starring David Oyelowo, who starred as Martin Luther King, Jr., in "Selma."

When I heard Morgan Freeman declare in an interview on CNN that Bass Reeves was his dream role, I suspected, like a good deputy with a hunch, that I had just found my next project, my next obsession—even my next life, which is what a new perspective should inevitably give a writer, if it’s a worthy one. “You ain’t hear a lot of stuff about Bass Reeves,” said Freeman, appearing already to slip into character. “Nobody’s ever tackled him. He was one of the most well-known deputy marshals in the West in his time. I want to do Bass Reeves.” Freeman was right. I had not heard a lot of stuff about Bass Reeves; in fact, I had not heard the name once. How could I not automatically trust Freeman’s judgment of character, given that his filmography includes such wise choices as Street Smart, Glory, Driving Miss Daisy, Unforgiven, The Shawshank Redemption, Seven, and Amistad? Without much delay, I ordered the only two books I could find that existed on the subject of Bass Reeves—Art. T. Burton’s "Black Gun, Silver Star," a scholarly compilation of court documents, newspaper articles, interviews, and photographs, and Gary Paulsen’s "The Legend of Bass Reeves," a 137-page novel for young adults. I had never attempted or even considered writing an historical novel yet found myself surprisingly open to the challenge.

The prospect of writing about African Americans, however, has never left me feeling intimidated or uncomfortable, not enough to classify it as a challenge. Black characters have always populated my life and, as a consequence, my imagination. I have experienced white privilege in more ways than I can fathom, I’m afraid, but more relevant, I proudly assert, are the ways my parents privileged me: for one, by opting to ignore the “white flight” exodus of our neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s and instead raise me in the predominantly black city of Memphis, Tennessee, arguably the capital of American black culture. And they privileged me, beyond belief, by sending me to public schools with predominantly black student bodies. My good friends from my Memphis years continue to privilege me.

My father heard Martin Luther King, Jr. give his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple on April 3, 1968, the night before James Earl Ray assassinated him. Very few whites sat in attendance who were not reporters. In other words, I grew up in the shadows of my father’s monumental pride for his participation in the Civil Rights Movement, while casting my own for him. A professor at the University of Memphis, my father wrote articles and presented at conferences in the 1970s and 1980s on what was then termed Black English, some of which he co-authored with internationally renowned linguist Dr. Juanita V. Williamson; as I recall, their myth-busting articles about the distinctiveness of Black English always shared a theme: that Black dialect wasn’t even black. That it was Southern dialect heavily influenced by Elizabethan diction and syntax, which generational segregation had preserved. That, in effect, white and black Americans share much more than they can ever imagine, or will possibly want to concede. Hearing Freeman speak on June 2, 2010, was akin to hearing my father or Dr. Williamson share one of their little-known lessons on race and language. Ashamed that I found myself in the same place as so many others who knew nothing of Bass Reeves, I instantly craved the ability myself to slip into this mysterious character, who I would soon learn was every bit as legendary as King himself.

My latest novel is for children, and for adults who wish to reminisce: "Kudzu's Enormous New Life," nominated for the 2022 Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters Award for Youth Literature, is a magical tale about an unlikely friendship between a precocious chipmunk, a stray dog, and a three-year-old boy on the autistic spectrum as they learn to express themselves as a means of happiness and survival.



 

 
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