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Excerpted from: Teri A. McMurtry-Chubb, The Rhetoric of Race, Redemption, and Will Contests: Inheritance as Reparations in John Grisham's Sycamore Row, 48 University of Memphis Law Review 889 (Spring, 2018)(325 Footnotes Omitted ) (Full Document)


TeriMcMurtryChubbWhen Henry "Seth" Hubbard renounced his formally drawn wills and created a new holographic will on the day of his suicide, one that excluded his children, grandchildren, and ex-wives, and gave the bulk of his estate to his housekeeper and caretaker, a will contest was imminent. That Seth Hubbard was a white man living in rural Mississippi, and his housekeeper, a Black woman, made the will contest illustrative of our ongoing national discomfort with slavery, the Confederacy, and the respective obligations of and responsibilities to the descendants of both. This is John Grisham's Sycamore Row, a novel in which the reader journeys to discover the mysteries behind Seth Hubbard's will, his intentions, his burden as a witness to a lynching over his ancestor's land, and the fate of the descendants of the formerly enslaved who worked and settled that land known as Sycamore Row only to see its destruction when they asserted their right to it. Seth's act of bequeathing the bulk of his estate to a stranger made family through blood spilled over stolen land and stolen, broken Black bodies is an important start to an important discussion: Who bears responsibility to the survivors of domestic terrorism, white supremacy, and for the benefits that white privilege bestows? The will contest encapsulates the rhetoric of race and redemption; in Sycamore Row, Hubbard's estate acts as reparations.

Key opponents of reparations for the descendants of African slaves in the Americas argue that they were not responsible for the ills of their ancestors just because they bear the same color skin, and therefore the law should not hold them accountable. They further argue that they bear no legal responsibility for slavery and its aftermath because (1) slavery was legal until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; and (2) the same Amendment divested their ancestors of slave labor, which worked a hardship on their ancestors and the U.S. economy as a whole. Proponents of reparations argue that the law should hold accountable those who are the descendants of slave holders and who otherwise benefitted from the slave economy by virtue of their white skin through monetary payment (1) to the descendants of African slaves directly; and (2) to those descendants through funding programs that address structural discrimination in government and private entities.

Grisham's public will contest in Sycamore Row is the societal discussion about reparations in small scale. Each main character represents an argument in the debate and its nuances. Jake Brigance, the protagonist in Grisham's first novel A Time to Kill, appears again as Seth Hubbard's attorney. His character symbolizes the very worst of what can happen when non-marginalized people help the marginalized. We find him three years later in a rented house, passing the empty lot to his house firebombed by the Klan in A Time to Kill on his way to work, and struggling to make ends meet as an attorney. It seems that Jake is beloved by Clanton, Mississippi's Black population, but hated by Whites who would rather have seen Carl Lee Hailey (Jake's client in A Time to Kill) sentenced to death for killing the White men who raped his adolescent daughter.

Seth Hubbard asks Jake to make the sacrifice again, as the attorney who will represent his estate in the will contest. Hubbard's voice as gleaned through his holographic will is the rhetoric of white accountability for white supremacy and the ongoing harm of white privilege. He excludes his children, grandchildren, and ex-wives in his holographic will, leaving 90% of his estate to a Black woman, Letetia "Lettie" Tabor Lang, who has served as his housekeeper and caretaker for the past three years. Hubbard's children are incensed because his will constitutes their material loss. Their anger, though, is not solely over their father acting upon their neglect of him in old age and infirmity. Rather, it is because they see Lettie in particular, and Black people in general, as lesser than, meant to serve, not deserving of their (White) wealth at all, even to redress the lynching that their ancestors perpetrated on the Rinds family of which Lettie is a descendant. The children's characters are stand-ins for White Americans who oppose reparations, angered over the suggestion that white privilege is an ongoing harm that must be checked on a daily basis and redressed through concrete action exchanged for benign inaction.

Ancil Hubbard, Seth Hubbard's brother, is the scourge of white privilege, the beneficiaries of which witness the harms that Black people suffer but who run from those harms, fail to confront them, and through their inaction, prevent redress of witnessed wrongs. He is also emblematic of redemption, which he finds by finally confronting the past and reconciling with it. Lastly, Lettie Lang represents the descendants of African slaves and the Black survivors of Jim Crow in a racialized gendered form--a Black woman. She is a caretaker and servant, ever accommodating and respectful to White people, deferential and equivocal about receiving a portion of Hubbard's estate over his family. She is constantly devalued as both a Black person and as a woman, reduced to her value as a laborer and demonized as a sexual trickster. Lettie is the complexity of Black America writ large, a community occupying a conflicted space in America's promise of "We the People," aware that the danger of white supremacy is ever present and therefore willing to give up its inheritance as bastard children to a neglectful father for safety and peace.

This Article explores the rhetoric of race, redemption, and reparations in Sycamore Row and as it plays out in American jurisprudence in three parts.

Part II explores how the will contest in Sycamore Row illustrates arguments for and against reparations. Specifically, it evaluates how Aristotle's Persuasive Appeals logos (using evidence and epistemology to persuade), pathos (using emotions to persuade), and ethos (using character to persuade) become racialized in the nomos (the normative universe where they function), both in Seth Hubbard's will and the will contest that follows, and as used as appeals in reparations litigation.

Part III uses interdisciplinary narrative theory to interrogate the language of Seth Hubbard's will as his cultural narrative of race, racism, and redemption. It also considers how Seth's story is a story of American racism that ends differently from our current American story. Seth's story is a doorway to hope and a different way of viewing obligations and responsibilities to redress racial wrongs.

In the final section, Part IV, the Article turns to the concept and practice of reconciliation, specifically how Seth Hubbard's actions through his will, the backlash from his family, and the reverberations throughout Clanton, Mississippi provide a glimpse of racial reconciliation in practice. Hubbard's will and the context for its creation demonstrate that racial reconciliation begins with acknowledgment of harm done, presents a plan to address the harm, and contains an action or actions to implement the plan. While Hubbard's is one will, his will is a roadmap for the nation, as comprised of individual actors, to acknowledge and address racial harms and for racial reconciliation.

The Article concludes with a call to disrupt the dangerous racial rhetoric that renders our country brittle and prone to shattering, threatening America with irreparable brokenness.

Professor of Law, Mercer University Walter F. George School of Law.