Ousmane K. Power-Greene: History at the Heart of Fiction

(photo: Maurice Power-Greene)

Ousmane K. Power-Greene is program director of Africana Studies and associate professor of History, with a specialty in African American social and political movements, at Clark University in Massachusetts. He is the author of Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement. In his fiction debut, The Confessions of Matthew Strong (Other Press, October 11, 2022), Power-Greene marries plot and pacing with decades of historical research, creating a thriller involving identity and family, power and tradition, kidnapping and survival, and triumph over evil.

How do you feel about The Confessions of Matthew Strong being described as "provocative"?

When I think about provocative work, I think about what forces people to have conversations that might make them feel uncomfortable. In my life, I've been a person who, on one hand, has been good at building community; but on the other hand, I've always sought to provoke people to think critically about things they take for granted.

What kind of response do you hope to provoke in readers?

I hope it will provoke people to think about the consequences of sitting by as others are being recruited into radical movements. The novel deals with the white power movement, which is something that some might think doesn't affect them. My goal in the whole project was to help people think critically about things they may think are "not that big of a deal," particularly around kids, as they might get sucked into the orbit of what I see as predatory white supremacy. The Confessions of Matthew Strong is an effort to recover African American history, to make the links between now and over 100 years ago, the time of Reconstruction and slavery, and hopefully people will be more interested in learning about that history.

Personal faith plays a significant role in this story, including Bible verses at the start of each section, as well as Allie's struggle to fuse the religion she grew up with and her intellectual life. Why was it important to include that?

As a Black American writer, steeped in the tradition, I recognize that there are many who might not be aware how central religion is to African Americans in the Deep South. That framework of religion is how they think about much of their lives. Allie Douglass has this troubled relationship with religion, and it was important to showcase moments in her trajectory that depict her movement: from having no sense of the importance of religion to, at the end, her recognition that it's something of value to that community and might be something she needs to take seriously as a framework for her life as well.

You've written for your academic career, but this is your fiction debut. How does creating differ between the two forms? What remains the same?

In both forms, what inspires the work is Black social and political movements, which is what I've been studying since graduate school and what I teach. I started this novel in my last year of graduate school, finishing my Ph.D. in African Studies, so it contains much of how I think about African life and history and politics and ideology but also art.

But from a technical standpoint, fiction writing and writing historical work are opposites. In one, a historian is given a bunch of materials, and they're forced to make sense of them. There might be 25 boxes of documents, and the person's family member says, "Alright, that was my grandad. Make sense of these disparate pieces of a person's life!" So much has to be connected and synthesized, and when you're finished, it's your effort to make sense of something that's happened and all the evidence we have.

On the fiction side of things, it's the opposite. I have an idea in my head, I imagine Allie Douglass, and see images in my head. I'm going within myself, to begin to bring out the stories that exist in my mind and imagination and bring them together. I have to figure out what exactly is important that these voices or images are trying to convey, and how to tell it in a way that has a sense of coherence.

Your author's note explains that the William Shields character is drawn from your decades of research on racial violence. With so much to work from, how did you decide what to include?

When I was originally conceiving of The Confessions of Matthew Strong, the idea of this contemporary person's desire to re-create the South was my focus. My dissertation deals with the same population of people that Matthew Strong romanticizes. But I started by thinking about location, and Jefferson County and Birmingham with such a rich tradition, which brought me into thinking about the history of slaveholders in that area and this legacy of those that had wealth and watching what happened after the Civil War ends--there's a real transformation in terms of the New South. Today there's an engagement with the past and with the slaveholding population from that area, somewhat of a new Lost Cause ideology. It dissipated in the '60s and '70s but, as we see, the idea of these "noble planters" really has resonated with some people in the last decade.

It's difficult not to shudder at some of the overlaps between The Confessions of Matthew Strong and present-day culture and politics. But there is a fairly graphic, very difficult scene depicting a kind of violence many would like to think we've put behind us. How did you decide to include that scene?

Violence is an important way in which contemporary white supremacist movements attempt to galvanize people. For me to not include any violence, and stick with suspense or other conventions, wouldn't be authentic. My hope is that readers will not be intimidated, or think they're going to be traumatized because there's so much violence; instead, they will realize that Allie is put into situations where she has to witness this violence by her captor, a man who wants to use any tactic he can to get what he wants. My hope always is that the violence in the novel is in service to the story and not gratuitous.

Matthew Strong argues that "man-made institutions are just a façade. They can't protect people from predators." What makes this kind of rhetoric so dangerous?

What Matthew Strong has built is grounded in the belief that his mission supersedes the institutions people have created. You might think of the Constitution, for example, or the rule of law, or the ceremony for bringing and approving ballots. These traditions are essential to us in the United States in giving people a sense of collective identity, and a respect for processes that guide our understanding of ourselves as a nation. For a person like Matthew Strong, like those involved in the Confederate movement, they see themselves in the image of the founders during the American Revolution--they're saying, "If these institutions that are supposed to protect the rights of the citizens aren't doing what they should, we have the right to revolt." It is a scary thought, especially in a novel, which might provoke us to think about those who are committed to changing things that might be at the very heart of democracy. --Sara Beth West

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