Cassandra Lane is an author, Editor-in-Chief of LA Parent Magazine, and a mother (something she vowed she would never be). She joins Janet to discuss her new book We Are Bridges in which her personal journey from a childhood of poverty and racism to motherhood is juxtaposed against the traumas and upheavals of her ancestors. Her artful storytelling, both memoir and historical imagining, reminds us that we are all inextricably linked to our ancestors, both genetically and experientially. “Not knowing one’s story is like being buried alive,” she says. It was by acknowledging and, ultimately, empathizing with the past that she became vulnerable enough to risk accepting love and eventually motherhood.
Transcript of “Race, Trauma, and Hope – A Mother’s Healing Journey (with Cassandra Lane)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Cassandra Lane. She’s an author, a mother, a current editor of LA Parent Magazine, and so much more. I recently read Cassandra’s amazing book, We Are Bridges and I was absolutely blown away. It’s a lyrical, personal memoir centered around the racist murder of her great grandfather, Burt, whom she never knew. Cassandra recognizes how transgenerational physical and emotional trauma is actually embedded in our DNA and how it has shaped her own life and the lives of her family.
I’ve discussed on this podcast before the challenges we all face understanding and breaking generational cycles and Cassandra’s story is a powerful example. She shares her journey as a woman and a mother, candidly and courageously. As I said, I was captivated by her book and I just had to have her on. So I’m looking forward to our conversation.
Hi and welcome, Cassandra. Thank you so much for being my guest today.
Cassandra Lane: Thank you so much for having me, Janet. I’m honored to be here.
Janet Lansbury: Well, I love your book. It’s so beautifully written. I couldn’t put it down and I would love for you to share a little bit with my listeners — share about your story, why you wrote the book and where you are with it today. Can you do that? Would you share a little bit about the story?
Cassandra Lane: Awesome. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for your beautiful words about the story. Did you want me to read a tiny bit and then go into the synopsis or?
Janet Lansbury: Yeah, that would be great.
Cassandra Lane: I’ll just read one page from the very beginning, from the prologue. I think it sets up for listeners who aren’t familiar with it, what the book is about. So this is from the prologue:
This story is a hybrid — a romance and a horror, a memoir, and a fiction — forged out of what is known and what is unknown. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” we sang as children of the South — as Black children of the South. It was a rhyming wall we erected to protect us from harsh words hurled at our bodies, their mission to shoot venom, to curl our brown frames.
he truth is that words, like sticks and stones, like ropes and whips, do injure. As we get older, we press to silence any and all language that elicits pain. But sometimes, buried in the suppressed language is an ancestor — the power in a name.
A different kind of hurt lingers in this stitched void.
I wanted a creation story for my family. Although what was lost (stolen) is long covered over by soil I will never be able to locate.
When I was young, that was okay with me — the freedom of not being bound to the past, to all that heaviness. But I am a mother now and freedom means something else to me entirely. I am pregnant with questions, laboring over the unanswered ones tucked in the bosoms of our nation, our ancestors, our living families, and even into my own heart.
Here, I gathered the sticks, picked up the stones, went searching for the rope. Like a bird building her nest there is filler — string, straw, scraps of paper. Anything to make it hold, make it stick.
So I think this beginning of the prologue captures what I was trying to do. I come from a Black Southern family — so many gaps in our history, as many African-Americans have shared that same story, although there are some families who can trace back several generations. The furthest back that we knew was where my great grandparents on my maternal side. And that story unfortunately was tragic.
My great grandfather, Burt Bridges was lynched circa 1904 in Mississippi. And my great-grandmother whom I remember very well was married off to a distant cousin and ended up migrating from Mississippi to Louisiana. She had one child and that was the child that she was pregnant with when Burt was lynched, my mother’s father. And after my mother’s divorce, I was only five years old, we moved back into her parents’ home. And I grew up in that intergenerational household with all those stories and all that history, the tragedies and the beauties. I remember being a girl and listening to my grandfather after he retired, he was a logger, after he retired from cutting down trees in the forest, he sat in his recliner. He didn’t have any hobbies. He didn’t know what to do with himself, he was in his eighties.
My grandmother used to beg him to pick up some sort of hobby, but basically he would sit there after breakfast and then he would get into one of his moods, just talking about the past mistakes that he’d made. And then it always inevitably ended with tears over the fact that he never met his biological father, Burt Bridges.
And as a kid, I just was so confused. Why is this 80-something-year-old man crying about something that happened so long ago? But as I came to realize, as I got older, is that the past continues to haunt us if we truly haven’t dealt with it.
And so in college is when I first heard recording of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” and it just haunted me. I couldn’t stop listening to it much to my roommates chagrin. I played it over and over and over again. And I started thinking about how it wasn’t just a song, it wasn’t just history, this is something that happened to the people in my family. My great-grandmother was a lynching survivor.
I didn’t start writing the story though, until I left Louisiana for the first time to move out West here in Los Angeles. And I think it was a way to tether me back to my past. I was doing a lot of self-work therapy. I was married, having issues in my marriage. I was just examining myself in terms of race and romance and marriage. And I know that I’m not an island and that part of the reason why I was the way I was had to do with family history. And so that’s how I first started writing about Burt Bridges. And since there weren’t many facts, I started imagining a story around him, not only to capture the lynching, but to capture the love that was lost between him and Mary.
Janet Lansbury: And you do that so poignantly in the book. Wow. How old were you when you first learned about your great-grandfather being lynched?
Cassandra Lane: So when I would hear my grandfather crying in his recliner, 9, 10, 11, but I didn’t really understand what lynching meant. I didn’t really ask any questions. I was just always lurking around the adults instead of playing with my siblings. So I knew that his father that he grew up with was his stepfather. And I think if that relationship had been a healthy one, that there wouldn’t have been so much sadness. But unfortunately, his stepfather was very abusive to him. And so I knew that that wasn’t his real dad and that his biological dad had been killed, but I didn’t understand it in a racial context until probably high school. Getting ready to go off to college is when I was told probably by my mom or my uncle Cricket, that it was a racial murder, domestic terrorism — that he had been lynched. And they didn’t know much because great-grandma Mary didn’t want to talk about it.
The only thing that she really told the family over the years after much badgering is that his name was Burt Bridges, that he was this beautiful, fine man, that she loved him so much. And that he was very proud, what the White people called “uppity.” And they didn’t like that, and they were scared of him and they lynched him. And then she would say, “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” And sometimes she would cry.
Even on her death bed in her nineties, she brought him up, and this is decades later after her second husband died in the 70s. And she’s still thinking about this young man and their love.
So yeah, I would say when I realized the context of it, the weight of it, I was probably in college or off to college.
Janet Lansbury: And then you felt like these wounds, this trauma had in many ways been passed down and was still coloring your life, effecting your outlook on the world and the way you saw yourself.
Cassandra Lane: Absolutely. And I do believe that, when we think about genetics and how they’re passed down. Traits. I mean, there are kids who didn’t grow up with their parents and yet they walk the way they did or speak or laugh the way another person in their family did. And so in the same way that those physical traits are passed down, I suspected that emotional traits, psychological wounds were also passed down. And of course, science has shown that that is true for a while now through epigenetics. So that was affirming to me to look at that science. Again, we already knew that we can’t escape our past no matter how hard we try, but I wanted to bring that out more in the book, through this one family story.
Janet Lansbury: And then did you find that this was a healing experience for you in the end? I know that one of the big thrusts in your story is that you did not want to have children. You decided that quite young and you told your mother that, and then you eventually did. How old is your child now by the way?
Cassandra Lane: He just turned 14 last week.
Janet Lansbury: Oh, I was thinking he’s still quite a young child. Wow.
Cassandra Lane: This book has just been a long project in the making.
Janet Lansbury: Amazing.
Cassandra Lane: Yeah. Several people have thought that, that, oh, he’s young. And so, no.
First I was super obsessed with Burt and what had happened to Burt. But once I became pregnant, which was in 2006, that’s when I started thinking about the women in the family and thinking more about grandma Mary, wondering what was that day of lynching like for her? Did she see the body? How far along was she in her pregnancy? How did she survive? How do you go on after experiencing that kind of racial violence? How do you have hope?
She was a farmer. She went on in Louisiana to farm acres and acres of land with her husband, John Buckley. She fed people who were poorer than she was. She could cook like nobody’s business. I remember her teacakes and just regret so much that none of us have the recipe.
But yeah, I think when I was pregnant and way out here in LA, so far away from any blood relatives and needing that connection to the women in my family is when the story took on this other layer of telling the stories of the women and how they survive, the strength that it takes, but also showing their vulnerability. So yeah, this story has taken a while because it’s just been so many life stages that I’ve gone through.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. The way that you imagined those details, and the scenes with your great grandmother and Burt, the part after he was hung and there she was expecting a baby, it almost seemed like you were really tapping into your DNA there because it was so vivid and seemed so real and true. And I know you weren’t writing it for this reason, but the service that you perform with that recapturing and all the details that you share about your story, it helps something that’s so important I think, for me, being a white person in the white community, wanting to be an ally in anti-racism, feeling strongly about this cause. But seeing also that we feel the momentum and then we forget as white people and then we’re reminded again and then we’re back in it wanting to help — those of us that do want to help — wanting to use our power however we can to help this cause. And what you provide is an injection of empathy that is long lasting. It’s like we need this kind of sustained empathy, I feel, to be able to make the societal, deeply embedded changes that we need to make.
And that’s why, although you’re not a typical fit as a guest on my podcast, mostly everybody is giving advice to parents or they have an expert view on an aspect of raising children that can really help parents, but you are providing this empathy. To me it’s really everything right now. We need this. And you provide it in a way that’s just so interesting and devastating, but wonderful to read. And just so full of just all the sensory aspects of your life. I mean, I’ve been reading a ton of books lately about racism and the Black experience and yours is quite different in that it really brings life to the feelings and the pain and the fear, the trauma. Anyway, that’s why I wanted you here so badly and was so glad that I found you and discovered your book. And then to hear that you work now for… you’re a managing editor for LA Parent?
Cassandra Lane: Yeah. Well, I became editor in chief this year.
Janet Lansbury: Wow.
Cassandra Lane: Well, that’s my parenting hat in terms of my career, my day job. And this is my lunch hour from doing that. But yeah, that’s what I do. I started off as a newspaper journalist and my career has taken different turns, but writing is always at the center. And since 2017, I’ve been at this magazine, which I love. And it gives me a chance to work with families, bring information and news and entertainment to families, work with so many tons of writers. I already had a huge writing community because of my creative writing community and many of those writers are parents. And we write about anything that impacts parents and families.
Janet Lansbury: LA Parent was the magazine that actually serendipitously started me on the journey that I’m on professionally. A lot of my listeners have heard me tell this story in different ways. So I was a new mom thinking that it was all going to be natural and instinct and was going to know just what to do. And I totally didn’t. I had a very strong, intense daughter, who’s wonderful, she’s 28 now. And I was just totally thrown, overwhelmed, having panic attacks, really having a hard time. And somehow, because I live in LA, I picked up LA Parent Magazine and there was an article about creativity in children or something like that. So this is back in 1992, 1993. And in this article, was just one sentence from the person that ended up being my mentor, who I trained with and totally changed my life and opened up my eyes to a way of seeing infants and all children as whole people that we should treat them that way.
And anyway, that was Magda Gerber, but it all happened because of LA Parent Magazine. And sometimes I think, wow, what if I hadn’t read that? Because it was really just one sentence from her quote in this article that caught my attention and just felt so different from other things I’d heard. It was, “Take the mobile off of their bed, take care of their needs and leave them alone.” And I won’t explain in this podcast what all of that meant, but there was a lot of stimulation stuff going on at that time where parents were supposed to stimulate and make your child into a super baby, a genius, by doing all this stuff. It was so confusing and just such a work for parents, that we’re supposed to figure out and we’re never doing enough, and we’re going to miss all these windows. And so her perspective about no, actually they don’t even need a mobile in front of their face was so different that it drew me to it. So anyway, that’s my little story about LA Parent Magazine.
Cassandra Lane: I love that story because parenting advice has changed so much through the years, it’s so confusing. And to find a gem like that is just invaluable. So I’m so glad.
Janet Lansbury: Thank you. Well, yeah, LA Parent changed my life. It definitely has that feel of a very supportive community paper. It’s not pressure inducing. It’s not shame inducing. It felt like we’re all in this together.
Cassandra Lane: Exactly. Most of us on staff and that’s probably been the case maybe through the years, we’re parents. So when I write an article or a column, it’s as a parent and it’s like, hey, we’re in this together. We are struggling together. We’re celebrating our joys together.
Janet Lansbury: I haven’t read it for a while, but I’m sure you’ve kept that spirit going and more. Has the magazine done anything about anti-racism for children?
Cassandra Lane: We have. One of my first, I think my first feature article when I jumped on staff, I came from the Dodgers at that point, and the first feature article I did was about how to talk, and this is 2017, how to talk to your kids, for different age group, about race. And I told them, I don’t want it to just stop here this is an ongoing conversation. I talked to so many people and had so many resources and the story was so big. I had to pare it down. But as editors we did say, let’s make sure that this isn’t the one story for 10 years or five years or whatever, I constantly get pitches and also solicit guest columns about race. So yeah, I just think we can do more. And I try to make sure that I’m hiring freelance writers from a diverse background of ethnicities, cultures. I just think that’s so important.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. Is LA Parent online?
Cassandra Lane: It is, we have grown.
Janet Lansbury: Oh, it is. Okay, good. I’m going to link like crazy to this. So have you had people come on and do… I mean, not that they could do what you’ve done in this book, but do they share their personal stories? Because I feel that is so important.
Cassandra Lane: Yes. I asked people, please write from your first person personal experience. And there was everything from wrangling shame to a retired Black police officer who himself was profiled and arrested because he was mistaken for someone else. I mean, just heartbreaking, heartrending stories from a variety of voices. And for me, I love that personal piece.
I love what you were saying earlier, too, about empathy in terms of what We Are Bridges meant for you. It reminded me of a friend, who’s very open, very liberal, she’s an attorney and a novelist. And I would say she’s very activist in the work that she’s done, but she was an early reader of the book. And she said for her, it was so revelatory, which I thought was interesting because I see her as someone who’s very well read. Who’s very anti-racist. And I think what she meant was that here it is, we’re friends, she knows me or feels like she knows me, but there were all these deep layers, things that she hadn’t thought about.
And I think that empathy piece is so important, whether it’s in the stories in the magazine or news articles that we read in the newspaper or a book, because that’s the only way we really can truly try to bridge our seemingly different backgrounds and stories. And I would just encourage, in terms of anything that deals with race, to me, it’s so important to look at our intimate lives and our intimate lives are so connected to the intimate lives of our ancestors. So if I were white, I think reading We Are Bridges, that I would want to, even if it’s just in my journal, it doesn’t have to be public. Look into my own blind spots and also my parents and grandparents. There are some minor characters in this book who are white and I try to for a moment, get inside their heads as they were dealing with Burt.
But if I were white, I would want to really try to get inside my ancestors heads as well, even if it’s scary, even if I learned that one of my ancestors did something that was horrendous, I would still try to bring that sense of understanding, empathy and raw truth to those stories, because this is all of our stories.
Janet Lansbury: And also it’s all of our children’s future that we really want to be, we need to be truly just, and it’s not going to happen until we correct this. I know what your friend meant, because no matter what, when our backgrounds have been so different, I can understand so much, but I can never quite grasp it. I can’t be in your skin. I can’t be in your story, but that’s what your book allows me to do. Yeah.
I did a podcast with Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, who’s one of the world’s leading researchers on bias. And it was so fascinating, because she talked about how bias affected her and her child. It’s not just about white people being biased against Black people. We all have biases, it’s something that’s naturally developed.
Cassandra Lane: And how do we start talking to our kids early on about that so that it’s not some shock later? I think about one scene in the book where I was best friends with this little girl, we’re in third grade. I mean, just every day we were playing together. And then one day my world is shattered because, and I’m sure maybe her world was shattered too… She came to school and said, “My mom says, I can’t play with you anymore.” Race was not the topic or even racism, this just wasn’t the topic at home, but I knew even with those unspoken words, that she couldn’t play with me any longer because I was Black. And I said, “It’s because I’m Black, isn’t it?” And she just hung her head. And I write in that scene that it was just a burden too heavy for her young neck.
I’ve often thought about her over the years. We never spoke again, we never hung out again. She became this popular cheerleader at that school, even though we were integrated at that time, we were still segregated in our little pods by race. It was heartbreaking for me. But again, what did that do to her psyche? And as a parent now, even if she doesn’t hold those same views as her mother did, did she talk to her children about race and about their grandmother? And I just think we have to open those lines. Our children understand so much more than we give them credit for even at early ages.
Janet Lansbury: Absolutely. And you both were actually disrupting bias right there by having a friendship. That’s one of the ways to disrupt bias, according to Dr. Eberhardt and her research, is that you have a personal relationship with someone of the other race. And that’s also the thing with empathy and your story is that when we can see each other as-
Cassandra Lane: As human-
Janet Lansbury: As human, with reasons for why we do certain things or behave certain way. Then that is a bridge, as you said, to each other. So there’s a lot.
I was raised more colorblind and I raised my children that way too. Now I know that that’s not enough — that we need them to know about racism so that they can be ready to stick up for children and be aware that this is an issue. But in my family, it was so much to the extent… and in a way we thought my mother was really cool for this… At the end of her life, she got into selling real estate, in her retirement age, or when we were all grown up, and she had a partner. But then that partner had to retire and couldn’t do it anymore. Well, my mother was ill with cancer and she still had clients that loved her and wanted her to help them sell their house or find them a house. And she started working with this partner who we knew was much younger than her called Greg. And for years, she talked about Greg, Greg, Greg, Greg. And we never met him until after she had died and we were at her memorial and there was Greg and he was a Black man, and she never mentioned it. In her generation, that was kind of cool, but now we know that we need to do more.
Cassandra Lane: I mean, think about how empowering and just interesting that would have been to you guys as kids to see this example of your mother in this interracial relationship friendship, and how that just could have gotten trickled down, not saying that you didn’t have interracial friendships. But I think when we model for our kids, in our day-to-day lives, that’s just so empowering.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah.
And this is another part of your story, though, just getting back to that. So you didn’t want to have a child, and then that shifted for you and you decided that you did. There is so much hope in that. Like, well, okay I do want to continue my line, even though we’ve suffered and had trauma. And there’s always hope that we can keep going and do better and that the world will do better by us. I don’t know. There’s just something so tender about that. What was that process like for you? Did you think about it or did you just-
Cassandra Lane: Oh yes, absolutely. Because I’m the oldest of five, living in poverty, my mom struggled, she worked really hard. I had a lot of responsibilities and I associated child-rearing with poverty in my adolescent brain. And I knew that I didn’t want to be poor. I wanted to somehow get out of that town and just get out of poverty. I saw my mom struggle so much and I thought going to college would help me get out of that cycle and that not becoming a mom would also help me get out of that cycle. I ended up marrying a man who also staunchly was against becoming a father. He grew up in New York, also with a single mom, five kids. Had a lot of emotional and psychological stuff that he hadn’t worked through either. We were just both very ambitious, both storytellers. He was a photographer, I was a writer and that was going to be our babies, our creative projects.
And he also felt like he just didn’t trust that he would have the love that would be needed to raise a child, because of the broken parts of him. And mine wasn’t that, it’s just that I did not want to be held back from my ambitions. I loved kids, but I just thought, I just didn’t think that that was the route for me until I started doing that work and examining why I had made that decision.
Then I took… after I graduated from my MFA program, I took a job as a high school teacher at this school for kids who had gotten in trouble, kids who were struggling, they were on probation or had been on probation. And I just got so close to those kids. And I don’t know, the maternal parts of me started coming alive. I felt so much empathy for those kids, despite whatever they were in there for. Because I started going to their counseling sessions as an assistant teacher at the time and learning their backstories and just felt, wow, what can we do?
And then I started dreaming about this little girl, like repeat dreams. And I remember talking to my ex-husband and I said, “What if…? Why did we make the decision? And why did you make your decision? What if I’m meant to have a child?” And he was like, no, we absolutely are not having kids.
Then we went through our own stuff as described in the book. We ended up going our separate ways. And I met a man shortly after and wasn’t trying to become pregnant, but also wasn’t trying not to, apparently, and ended up pregnant. And at that time again, I had done some work. I wasn’t staunchly against pregnancy. I remember writing in that journal that I probably would never become a mom, but I would open the door to that being a possibility because I didn’t want to continue to make decisions in my life that were based in resentment and hatred. That opened that mental gate and then the physical gate was open. I discovered that I was pregnant. My boyfriend, now husband, second husband and I.
Janet Lansbury: Well, that’s lovely. So you have enjoyed your journey so far as a parent?
Cassandra Lane: I have.
Janet Lansbury: Well, it’s been lovely to speak with you. I can’t thank you enough for your book and for you and for sharing with us here today. Really appreciate it.
Cassandra Lane: Oh, it’s been so wonderful Janet. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
Janet Lansbury: Thank you, Cassandra.
Cassandra’s book is We Are Bridges.
And if you would like to take action against racism, here are a few steps that I’ve had the privilege to take:
One is educating myself with books like Cassandra’s, being willing to look at my own racial biases. We all have them. And I will share other resources in the transcript here, including a few articles Cassandra recommends from LA Parent Magazine. You might also be interested in a couple of my podcasts, “The Power of Bias and How to Disrupt it in our Children (with Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt)” and “Raising Anti-Racist Children — A Holistic Approach (with Kristen Coggins).”
Two, I’ve donated to racial justice and anti-racism education organizations.
Three, I’ve looked at my workplace and other places where I have power to ensure that Black, indigenous, and people of color are represented.
Four, including people of color in my social circle and in the media and toys, et cetera, that I’ve exposed my children to.
And five, something that I didn’t do as I mentioned, which is teaching your children to see color, not be color blind, and teaching them about racism in an age appropriate manner. Exposing them to books is a good way to start and always answering any questions that they have.
Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.
We Are Bridges by Cassandra Lane
“Having the Race Talk With Kids: Parenting Resources by Age” by Cassandra Lane, LA Parent Magazine
“L.A. Parents Weigh In on Racism” edited by Christina Elston for LA Parent Magazine (This is amazing! Very informative.)
“Advice for Parents about Anti-Asian Hate” by Dr. Dagny Zhu, M.D., LA Parent Magazine
(I was planning to share additional resources, but these are such a treasure trove that I want to keep the focus on them. Thank you again, Cassandra!)