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A poet pieces together an uncertain past in 'Memoir of a Kidnapping'

Simon & Schuster

Poet and author Shane McCrae says he was almost 4 years old when he was kidnapped from his Black father in Oregon by his maternal grandparents, who were white supremacists.

"They took me to Round Rock, Texas, which is a suburb of Austin," McCrae says. "And they told my mother that if she ever tried to get custody of me — and, I also think, if she ever tried to tell my father where I was — that she would never see me again, they would disappear to Mexico."

McCrae remembers his grandparents taught him to "heil" Hitler, and told him that Black people were inferior to white people. They claimed that his dad had moved on and had started a new family in Brazil — stories designed to keep McCrae from asking too many questions about his background.

But over the years, McCrae's curiosity grew. He was 16 and living in Salem, Ore., when he searched the local phone book and saw his father's name listed.

"He was in the town that I was in," McCrae says of his father. "When we talked [on the phone], I think it was a feeling of shock. And I don't think that that feeling ever really went away."

No charges were ever brought against McCrae's grandparents, who are now both dead. He reflects on what he calls "the big injury" at the beginning of his life in the new memoir, Pulling the Chariot of the Sun. He says that although his grandparents tried to teach him to hate Blackness, their lessons didn't stick.

"Maybe my good memories with my father were sort of protecting me, even if I wasn't aware of them," he says. "Black was who I was [and] what I was — even if I didn't really understand that as a small child."

Interview highlights

On what he's pieced together of his childhood

As I understand it, my father's father had died, and this was the beginning of June in 1979. And so I was three months away from turning 4. And my father wanted to take me to Phoenix, Ariz., for the funeral. I was with him in Salem, Ore., at the time, and my grandparents asked him if before he took me to Phoenix, they could have me for the night or for a weekend. I'm not entirely sure. And he said, Yes, that would be fine. ...

My grandmother was the one who asked. I went with her to my grandparents' house. My father thought that they were still living in Salem, Ore. He wasn't really in touch with them very much, I think largely to do with the racism. He was obviously in touch with my mother, but not her parents. But they no longer lived in Salem, Ore. They lived in Portland, Ore. And so when they took me, they took me to Portland, Ore.

When the time came for them to bring me back, they didn't bring me back. My father couldn't get in touch with him. He couldn't get in touch with my mother. He went to the last house that they had been at, which is, as he understood, the last place that they had lived, that they were still living there. He went there and there the house was for sale. It was empty. And ... he had no idea where I was, as I said, and he couldn't reach my mother.

On why his memories aren't stated as facts in the book

There's a couple of reasons. I distrust memoirs that state memories as perfectly, clearly remembered facts. But also I don't remember things clearly at all. I feel I have zero confidence about any of my childhood memories, with a few exceptions. And that's partly to do with [the fact that] I started erasing my own memories, blocking painful memories when I was very, very little, probably when I was kidnapped. And I did that throughout my childhood and my practice of it was very, very severe and so that I ended up blocking all kinds of memories. ... So I just can't feel confident about any of them.

On what it was like as a kid to witness his grandfather's racism

When I was younger and when I was a small child, I did sort of recognize Blackness as who I was, and so I couldn't internalize completely things that my grandfather would say, like I didn't convert them into sort of fuel for self-loathing. I think even as a small child, I was aware that he was wrong to feel the way that he felt. It's just that I wasn't really in a position to defend myself against the things that he said.

On meeting his father as a teen after finding out they lived in the same city

I guess the best way I could describe it was a little bewildering. He took me around to see a lot of members of my family, and it turns out, that town that we were both living, in Salem, Ore., was just filled with people to whom I was related. Having a strange feeling of how many of these people [maybe] have I seen on the street and not known. ... I'm almost certain that I saw [my father] and didn't know it. ... It was strange to think of that, sort of disorienting, but generally just sort of bewildered and a little bit in shock. That's how I felt.

On what he loves about poetry

One of the things I love about poetry most now ... is that a poem never exhausts itself. It's not like a newspaper article or something like that where you kind of extract the information and you've got what the thing was trying to do. A poem, you can interpret it for the rest of your life. If it's a successful poem, you have a lifetime relationship with it. There's always this irreducible core of a poem. And I think that something about that, even though I wouldn't have been able to articulate this ... when I was younger, something about this irreducible core of mystery would have appealed to this sort of irreducible core of woundedness. This idea that at the center of myself is a mystery that I can't ever fully unravel, can't ever fully understand, I can't ever fully glimpse, just like you can't really fully glimpse a poem.

Lauren Krenzel and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.