top of page

White Woman from the North


I am a member of the Hard Conversations Book Club led by Patti Digh, and was delighted to witness the recent conversation between you and Patti. I am very grateful to have learned of Lillian Smith's work (I WILL read all of it) and of yours, The Family Tree, and wanted to share what I just posted on FB: "Today I finished reading Strange Fruit, a 1944 novel by Lillian Smith, also author of Killers of the Dream. Between those two books I read The Family Tree, Karen Branan's 2016 nonfiction work that resulted from her research of her own family's connection to a 1912 lynching in Harris County, Georgia. It was not lost on me that I completed Strange Fruit on Easter Sunday. I'm not quite sure how to express all the many thoughts I have about it. In these two authors I feel that I've found my people, in a way. Both Southern born and bred, both women who sang the song in church, you know the one about Jesus loving all the little children in the world, and questioned, who saw the dissonance between the preaching and the experience. In each author I found an elder who, speaking a language I well understand, explained what I could not comprehend and in ways I could not have imagined. I am grateful." The maternal side of my family is from north west Florida, not so far from Georgia. Thank you thank you thank you! Your work has made my life make sense.

White Man from New York


It took me a while, but I finally got around to reading the Family Tree and am just incredibly impressed with the story, and the landscape and history you describe, and how much work and effort you put into it. Thank you so much, it was really interesting to ride along with you as you investigated this. You give the reader so much to think about and reflect upon, about the long trajectory of institutionalized racism in our daily lives. So thank you for all you dug up and revealed in there, and sharing your thought process with the whole wide world, it was really amazing.

Black Woman from Washington State


I don't even have the words to describe what you have done for this country and the world, by telling your story, as a white person. You will go down in history!

White Woman from TX


I wanted to write to let you know how much I enjoyed your book. I’m a descendant of the Copeland’s from Georgia and the book was recommended to me by a cousin I met through DNA who is also a descendant of the Copeland’s and one of their slaves. I love to read anything historical and the book was amazingly heart felt. It tugged at my heart plenty as I read it. It will forever be at the top of my favorite reads. Thank you.

African American woman from DC 


Thank you Karen for "stepping up" ..even in the face of alienating your own family...and writing your book...I bought a copy from you at the UU church up by Andrews AFB about a month ago...I read it in a day and a half!..I couldn't put it down...I enjoyed hearing you and the other ladies share your stories....WE...Americans...need to hear more of OUR stories of what happened to ALL folks on both sides of the "race game"....

Goodreads reviewer


A harrowing read, but well worth the time spent enduring it.

For us Southerners, this ought to be mandatory reading, especially in this time of escalated racial tension, the resurgence of white supremacy (which has been one of the factors in the popularity of president-elect Donald Trump and the alt-right movement - and the spin from the extreme right, which sounds, as recounted in this book, eerily fresh and familiar in 2017), and in the whole discussion of white privilege (I actually understand this concept and how it applies personally to me, but the reality of us, the American population in general, is that genetically and racially, we are mutts, not a pure strain or line of anything, no matter what we claim in our religious organizations, our nation, and in our society).

This book shows the legacy of slavery first, racism second, and Southern hypocrisy third.

The bigger picture is that Branan's story weaves through the South and no Southerners can - although it seems that most do (my roots are Kansas and Oklahoma, but from the little I know about my biological background, although Irish is predominant, there is also a lot of other "stuff" mixed in so that it's impossible to know anything for certain, but the one truth is that I don't have any kind of "pure" bloodline - and, frankly, most of us Americans don't) - claim a bloodline that is purely Caucasian/European.

There are absolutes in the universe. I know that. I believe that. But racial superiority is not one of those. Racial purity - at least the way it is presented by the haters, the inciters, and the killers -doesn't exist.

We must grow up. Truly if God so loved the world (notice John didn't exclude a single human being - it is sin and evil we hate, whatever form it appears in and wherever it appears, not the people who were made in God's own image) that He gave His only Son to redeem them (John 3:16), then that must be the same mind and example we follow.

Anything other than that or that falls short of that is unacceptable.



Indiana woman:


As I entered this day, with increasing dread for what is to come at the end of the week, I turned to W.W's "Leaves of Grass" which I have been reading through.


The poem I've been reading from was the last part of "I Sing the Body Electric," in which he speaks of 'A man's...and a woman's body at auction.' He follows with his conclusion referring to his own body. 'O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you,/I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,)/I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and that they are my poems,' I couldn't but think of your book, its subject, and that your words have and will continue to realize body and soul in the history and individuality of your people, and to help us know you/them as 'us' as well. 

This book lives on in us. We refer to it often. It is it's time and there are many who seem to be rising to meet and join its challenge, its gift.


Again, thank you Karen for your years of devotion and struggle, suffering its birth. You have truly brought new life into our world.


White D.C. woman, non-profit director:


I read the book last weekend and was so impressed with the writing and depth of content in it.  It's hard to find a book that is both beautifully written with compelling description AND so chock full of information and facts. 



African American Georgia woman:


It was a pleasure to meet you and be a part of the discussion group. Your book is a catalyst fueling open and honest discussions about the relationships that existed in the past between Black and White Americans and the relationships that exist today. It's forcing all of us to evaluate the true impact of slavery and the resultant racism on the past generations, their descendants and our society today. There is an urgent need for a "coming to the table" in all parts of America - not just the South - to establish open lines of communication between the races within our country, otherwise I fear that the we may be taking many steps backward into a dangerous and horrific past. That is one of the many reasons that I am looking forward to the next opportunity for a meeting / workshop or discussion. 


White S.C. woman, writer:


Your family comes so alive and while you’re only about 15 years older than I (b 1957), I’m amazed at how different and yet how similar our young lives were In some ways your life shares a lot with my mother’s world (b 1931).  Coming of age in the 1960s as I did while living in Montgomery, Baton Rouge, and Orangeburg SC (where I am now, living with my dad, my life in New Orleans not sustainable  . . . maybe it was God’s way of saying, "Get to the work I intended for you to do!") the technological advances and the CRM, of course, which I watched on TV at the supper table every night (my dad, career military, insisted on that, which I’m certain is one of the sources for my high anxiety), and filled me with fright and more confusion than I was exposed to in my everyday world . . . It’s all so heavy and yet is also the source of my liberation.

You’ve also done a fine job of implicitly creating, rather than browbeating the reader with a diatribe, the cognitive dissonance that sensitive white children must attempt to sort out, alone, afraid to ask for clarification or rationale—this this was still true for me following in your footsteps—while loving one’s family and traditions.  I don’t think too many people outside the region have considered the burden for white people like you and me—which, of course, pales compared to the burden of our black brothers and sisters!—of finding a way to “be” and love, as I said, one’s family, traditions, etc.  It’s sort of like the difficulties that many black Southerners have in explaining to non-Southern black Americans that they love the South.  It looks non-sensical, or slightly deranged.



White Mn. educator:



Last night I decided to stop reading just before the chapter about the Lynching. I'll take a deep breath and read more today. Most intriguing to me is your exploration of possible motivations of all the players in this complex history. And the complexities of the transition from slavery to "freedom" is new learning for me. I've never read a book like yours before. Your years of research and writing have to have been a roller coaster for your spirit




African American woman:


I am the youngest granddaughter of Henry Peg Gilbert. My mother, Recie Gilbert Moss, is the second oldest of the 4 girls. I grew up never knowing the true story of my grandfather's journey because it was too painful for my mother, grandmother and aunts to talk about. I thank you so much for shining light on the injustice that my grandfather endured. I never had the opportunity to meet him because that was taken away from me. I applaud your courage to speak up and speak out. I welcome a conversation if that helps you with the cause. My mother is now 89 years old. She still has a difficult time talking about it.




A white Maryland man:


Wanted to let you know that I shared your book with a black friend of mine here at work who wrote an excellent book on slavery. He has a white girlfriend and they have bought multiple copies of your book to serve as a family discussion over race. Apparently, her mother, an elderly woman, is having a hard time dealing with it. So your book is part of a family discussion trying to bring some healing! Awesome! Hope to see you soon.




A reader in Florida, sex and race unknown:



I am currently reading your excellent book, and it reminded me some of Mr. Gilbert's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about a mid-century lynching in central Florida and Thurgood Marshall's involvement, and an event I witnessed might be of passing interest to you. Mr. Gilbert made an appearance at a town hall near the location where the lynching occurred which was packed. After his brief talk, the floor was opened for questions, and it quickly became obvious that many of those there had personal memories of both the event and the sheriff who was extremely powerful and remained in office until the 1970s or possibly later. It was as if they had to witness to this shameful event after decades of silence. Even people I sat next to who did not get up to speak related to me their memories of this event that occurred when they were very young. Unfortunately, and I suppose because the building had to close at a certain conservative hour, the Q & A session did not last nearly as long as it felt those in attendance needed, and the line formed for the book signing and purchase. I know your situation is different as no one alive at the time can be now, and you are also a close member of that community, unlike Mr. Gilbert. I was struck by the power an event like this has, and the mark it leaves on the communal memory and wanted to express that to you. I feel certain this is not news to you. Thank you for your excellent work.




From a white Minnesota woman:



waking again

to breathe the morning air---

feeling the thick pull

of summer sweat


thinking of those who are


for lifetimes

and those who somehow find

the courage, the way, the claim

of story

and tell the truth to

the whole






From a white Georgia librarian:


Last Sat. was profoundly moving for me and I can't stop talking about it. Several people (including our Friends of the Library) have asked if you might come back to LaGrange. I think for your Harris Co trip you had talked about a "coming to the table" - an opportunity to acknowledge wounds and move toward understanding and healing. I could envision a program like that here, if you would consider it. I hate to admit this because I loved what you wrote in your email. But I had nothing to do with the Gilbert family being here. It actually makes Sat. all the more amazing! It's more than serendipity, you are somehow a conduit for these families. It is a spiritual quest that you may not have volunteered for, but are meant to do. The old black woman from your dream is still with you and guiding families here who need to hear your story, which is their story.I am a walking, talking recommendation for your book and would be honored to write a letter of recommendation. It really was one of the most powerful experiences in my life.




From a white Harris County, Ga., woman:



I can certainly understand the reaction you get to your book.  It is a difficult read, especially for someone closely connected to the events.  I have read it three times and find something new each time.


I just listened to the little bit of audio on your book coming to the library in Hamilton Ga soon. It brought tears to my eyes and heart. I look forward to reading your book indeed. I am white, married to a black man, and we have a beautiful son together. I've been with him 15 years an been married to him almost 11 and I tell you it has been a whirlwind of emotions from day 1. Most all good, some bad, some indifferent. Well long story short, I love learning about history and so on. We live not too far from Hamilton in a lil town called Waverly Hall. So you can imagine how excited I am to learn of the history of Harris Co. Not being from here originally, it will be nice to learn all I can to teach my son. Thank you. Maybe one day if you don't mind I'll send you a poem my mother wrote for us. It is about how we would get, "the looks" from people. Again thank you so much.





From a black Denver man:



I just wanted to say thank you for tonight's meeting. I apologize for having to step out early - I couldn't compose myself any longer, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I can't recall being so uncomfortable in my life, although I've watched Roots, Passion of the Christ, etc. and been exposed to much truth, this impacted me in a deeply saddening and visceral way. I felt so close to our past that I could taste the tears and blood of our three brothers and sister. What saddens me most is that the same fear and hate are what plagues us today and I know not what to do.




From a white Sacramento woman:



Here’s a sentence from page 41 that made me stop reading on ... just stop, and read this same sentence over and over:  “It was the ladies who’d raised the $1,360 to pay for the statue and the ladies and their servants who had put this occasion together, rising at dawn to barbecue pigs and possum and make potato salad.”  This story of the unveiling of a Confederate soldier statue in Hamilton in 1910 -- and all the white supremacy politics behind it -- is breathtaking.  And somehow the juxtaposition of it with that detail of rising at dawn to make potato salad jolted me out of reading mode.  I had to put the book down for a while and think about that.





From a black Minnesota man:



The experience of the female slave is hardly explored. I often shudder at the possibilities and have a problem even going there in my mind. If sexual abuse and trauma are so rife in our democratic, egalitarian community of laws, how precarious was the life of a slave female and what were the unspeakable experiences? Shame kills as much history as pride.




A white Georgia cousin:



I can certainly understand the reaction you get to your book.  It is a difficult read, especially for someone closely connected to the events.  I have read it three times and find something new each time.



This cousin sent me this charcoal drawing made by Miss Lula Mobley, a character in my book.


He writes,

“I am not sure who the boy is. He is obviously a descendant of a slave.  JMM (James Monroe Mobley) was a lawyer so if he had any slaves at all it was only a few house servants. It is more likely that the boy is a descendant of a Williams slave.  She was teaching him to read and write and the writing on the slate says "A goose."This is one of her earlier paintings, you can tell that the proportions of the arms and legs are not quite right.  An interesting thing is that there is a smaller replica of that painting in the bedroom of Joel Chandler Harris's house, The Wren's Nest.  I know that Quida (the name family called Miss Lula) spent a lot of time with friends in Atlanta and that she knew JCH.  I do not know the extent of that friendship.





A white Minnesota woman:



All of the people coming to the workshop are deeply committed to racial justice and reaching for ways to make that commitment stronger, fuller, more rooted.  I think what has captured our imagination is the necessity of facing our history, our ancestry, our legacy as we continue to take apart intersecting systems of oppression, creating fresh spaces where the new can be built---in solidarity with others.  Only to the extent we face our own truths---will these new structures be able to be conceived, built, and sturdily stand.



A white DC woman:



This is so great! Congratulations on how you are bringing this to the public and making reconciliation a game-changer.




A white Minnesota woman:



Harper Lee’s death and all the articles about her the last 2-3 days, including comparisons of her 2 books as to the “the South” and race issues, are amazingly complementary to my experience of you coming here and presenting us whole new territories (step back, widen out), new roots to explore (go deeper, imagine, get the historical contexts) and new heights (from the north, from the present, through the centuries) with which to know that black lives matter.


I wish Harper Lee could have read this before she died. Maybe she’d have revealed how autobiographical herstory originally was.




White man from Missouri:



I am reading your book, The Family Tree, and it has set me wondering; how many thousands of family stories are out there like yours. I am glad you wrote this book, it is pushing family history stories out of the dark where they have resided for generations. I have no history of slavery in my family's past and the thought of how close it came causes me fright. I was born in northern Missouri (1937) and I know from census records that slaves existed in that area as late as 1860. The racial hatred that seems to underscore so much of this year's political ranting is scary. Thank you for writing a very thought-provoking book.





White N.C. woman who grew up in Georgia:



I'm so amazed that you withstood so many barriers -- time- and create this story.  Congratulations on doing something that will change so many people's lives. 

There were a hundred times that I thought, "Oh, I know that feeling"... vis-a-vis never discussing uncomfortable truths, being a polite and quiet girl, etc.  You did a beautiful job of explaining how you felt in that era, but also of describing what many women were going through in their own time.  It must have been shocking to keep peeling the layers of this onion.




Black man from Germany:



I graduated with a master's in sociology from the University of Frankfurt, Germany this year and I am thinking about going for a Ph.D. My main interests are subjectivity and ideology through a psychoanalytic lens and I saw your narrative as (alluding to) the necessary process of transcending one's allegedly coherent white subjectivity in order to engage in an anti-racist effort. Even though you probably do not want your art to be compared to other stuff, I want to tell you that that process I saw in it structurally reminded me of the movie "Labyrinth of Lies".



White DC Man:



I finished reading your book yesterday. Loved it. I'm in awe at the vast amount of research you did–digging up all those buried archives and winkling faded memories from the minds of the Ancient Mariners in Harris County. It really brought the story to life.  I feel like I actually know Buddie Hadley and Judge Gilbert, not to mention that moonshine crowd around Mountain Hill.


Your chronicle is a fine history lesson in both the post-civil war south and the human race. You paint a vivid picture showing some of the "freed" slaves remaining under the dominion of their masters, and the rest of them going from being individually owned by individuals, to being collectively owned by all the whites. When one cohort of people have free rein to so utterly dominate, exploit and suppress another, the poison to both groups is so virulent that a century is not long enough to purge it. It was venom that lynched the innocent, but the toxin also took down the lynch mob one by one, all of whom "died with their boots on. "And still the poison lingers on, in the form of denial, equivocation and distorted memories. 




White man from Michigan:


   Although as Jews, my family was really aware of issues of discrimination and prejudice, I never really knew many black people until I went to high school in the mid-60s, and then only superficially.  It was educational when I started riding an ambulance and saw what neighborhoods on the east side of Ft Wayne were like and how people lived there.  So there was a lot in your book that was enlightening.  I suspect that may be true for many others who read it. 





Black man from Georgia:




It's very moving to read of the reception to your book. All of your hard work, soul-searching, blood, sweat, and tears, it's all coming to fruition and making a difference. Like Ed Ball did with Slaves in the Family, you are, among other things, showing whites with this family history that there is a way to deal with it honestly and with integrity. You are blazing a really important trail that others will follow, in some form or another, bringing us closer to Truth, and hopefully Reconciliation and Repair.




White DC woman who lived many years in Georgia:



On another note, I found your book very illuminating and sad. I was glad I read it, and I think I will re-read again later. There was a lot of information in it, and I hated to see how the press, specifically the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was such an accessory to the racism. I hope this accomplishment is sowing the seeds of peace and acceptance in your life.



bottom of page