Robert Charles: Portrait of Fury

From June 24 to 27, 1900, New Orleans experienced an incredibly violent race riot, with whites randomly attacking blacks after the news spread that a black man had killed two New Orleans police officers, both white. At the center of this event was a remarkable man, perhaps one of the most neglected historical figures in American race relations and possibly the first fully self-conscious black militant in the United States. At the end of the riot, 28 people were dead and 60 wounded, and the vast majority of both deceased and injured were black. This screenplay explores the riot and its historical context from several perspectives but attempts to present a more accurate and complete picture of what it was like to be black at the height of America’s most radical racism, glimpses of which are beginning to illustrate our current political landscape. It is my goal that "Robert Charles: Portrait of Future" truthfully portrays the beautiful diversity that is the United States and is enjoyed by individuals traversing the many different paths that crisscross our nation.

  • Janet Harvey Clark
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Writer Biography - Janet Harvey Clark

Janet was born in Lumberton, NC, and lived throughout the South while growing up. She now makes her home in Michigan, the state where her husband of over 30 years grew up. They raised their 28-year-old kid, who now lives and works in Wisconsin, in North Carolina and Michigan.

Janet was influenced greatly by her parents’ cultural diversity. Her father was born in Mississippi to a white farmer, his wife, and their seven sons. They were poor, and Janet’s dad, Willis, grew up in a racially diverse community where both blacks and whites depended on each other economically. Janet’s mom was born in Mexico to a British dad who immigrated to Mexico after WWI and a mom born in Mexico to British missionaries. Through her parents, Janet learned that all humans are equal, with each individual having a unique story to tell from his/her/their own perspective.

Willis was a practicing Southern Baptist minister when Janet was born in 1959. When Janet was almost ten, her dad was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for inviting African Americans to join the all-white Central Baptist Church in Lexington, KY. His vocal support of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Civil Rights Movement contributed to his ouster. This change in their lives influenced Janet to seek perspectives outside religion as well as want to advocate equality for all.

Janet is a creative writer specializing in communications research; Southern history, folklore, and race relations; American history from a variety of cultural, racial, and ethnic perspectives, including that of North American indigenous peoples; and advocacy for people with depression and other illnesses that affect mental health as well as the LGBTQ community, especially teens, since suicide is the #1 cause of death for teens. Since 2007 Janet has been on disability due to severe chronic depression, which is now managed through a balance of daily medications, weekly therapy, monthly ECT treatments, exercise, good nutrition, and a healthy dose of humor. Since there has been no hospitalization for this illness since 2017, Janet has been able to pursue her writing again.

From 1986 to 2007, Janet worked as a director of marketing and communications at six colleges and universities over 30 years. At each of the schools where Janet worked, she and her communications teams increased the racial, ethnic, gender, and economic diversity of enrolled students through progressive and creative marketing programs.

Janet’s educational background includes a Master’s in Communication Arts from Cornell University and a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies: Southern/African American Folklore, Literature, History & Race Relations and Film Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also lived and studied in England for a year after high school.

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Writer Statement

While exploring an antebellum house in Vicksburg, Mississippi, over forty years ago, I came upon a ‘crazy quilt’ covering a four-poster bed. The quilt was pieced together with many-colored triangles, rectangles, and no-name angles. From the seemingly random union of the various shapes, held together by a common thread, came the beauty of the whole cloth. Knowing the folklore of crazy quilts, my imagination began to create the quilt’s story. I gave faces and voices to the many hands that stitched lovingly at the present for a friend. Each woman brought cloth cut in her own design to the quilting circle, where the group shuffled and shifted the many pieces to find the perfect fit. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, that begins with the picture, is divided, and then rejoined, this creation found form in the process.

Later that same afternoon I saw a crazy quilt displayed in slaves’ living quarters. The sign accompanying the quilt indicated that this quilt most likely was sewn by slave women. Seeing this quilt in contrast to the one in the slave owner’s home, my imagination took off in a completely different direction, trying to picture and empathize with the lives of human beings originally torn from their homes an ocean away, held in captivity and denied human rights, and dehumanized by the people in power who were of a different race, ethnicity, and culture.
My imagination didn’t stop, and I began wondering how a quilt would appear if it was made by both American blacks — most of whose stories were born from American slavery — and whites, who automatically have privilege over their black sisters and brothers based solely on their skin color. The story of the people who made the quilt given to a member of the slave-owner’s family began with slavery as well, since the first blacks were brought forcibly to our “new world” in 1619 to serve America’s oldest colony. I asked myself, “How can blacks and whites in our nation tell their own stories without knowing — and understanding — the stories of other people with whom their own lives intertwine?” The same applies to every other culture that has helped and is helping to create the United States of America.

“Robert Charles: Portrait of Fury” is my first crazy quilt. The research and interviews I conducted while writing this screenplay represent my knowledge, experiences, perspectives, and self awareness — as well as those of others — joined together by the thread of my language. I brought together seemingly incompatible ideas and disciplines into a pattern that is unique to me. Much of what I learned about what it is like to be black in America came from literature. With the help of writers such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison I gained a deeper understanding of the personal issues involved with black identity. What I learned from these men and women was enhanced by the history I have studied. I could put their tales in the proper context, that of both the story’s historical context and that of the writer as well. I spiced up my experience with a personal study of African American folklore, both reading what scholars had written and introducing myself to African Americans born in the late 1800s and interviewing them. Finally, I have learned from both scientific information, where truth is discovered through non-biased methodology, as well as knowledge acquired through life experience. Just as I consider both black and white perspectives to be expressions of humanity, I see the apparent opposites of science and personal stories as necessary to gain a universal truth of our shared reality.

I do want to make clear that I will never fully understand what it is to be black in the United States. I was born with white skin, which automatically provides every white, non-Hispanic person a privilege that people of color have never had in our nation. I have not lived through what blacks have experienced; therefore, our perspectives will differ. Just as a man cannot really know what it is to be a woman, a non-LGBTQ individual cannot fully understand the incredible challenges an LGBTQ person goes through in developing self identity, a family that has never had to worry about a roof over their heads or food on their tables cannot speak to the fear and shame homelessness and hunger can bring, or a person who has never been diagnosed with depression or another mental illness cannot feel what it’s like to be in the dark, deep pit of despair where hope, light, and self love do not reside, as a white person I can only hope to gain greater understanding of blacks’ experiences, feelings, and perspectives by reading, researching, observing, and talking to the people who have been through these experiences.
As historian Wendell Berry wrote in his book, “The Hidden Wound,”: “…in an effort to live meaningfully and decently in America, white [people] simply cannot learn all that [they need] to know from other American [whites]. …It may be the most significant irony in our history that racism, by dividing the two races, has made them not separate but in a fundamental way inseparable, not independent but dependent on each other, incomplete without each other, each needing desperately to understand and make use of the experience of the other.”

As I approached my 60s, I began to realize that in order to feel complete as a writer, I am “…needing desperately to understand and make use of the experience of the other.” I continue to try understanding love and hate, whites and people of color, all gender identities and sexual orientations, young and old, healthy and unwell, poor and rich, and my list continues. Each new experience I have, bit of knowledge I gain, question I ask, challenge I resolve, and person I meet is interwoven in the fabric of my life. It is my hope that this fabric, through my writing, will represent truthfully the beautiful diversity of the USA and be enjoyed by individuals walking down the many different paths that is our nation.