Where to buy it
“Children of Secrets” lists for $27.95.
■ all major bookstores and Amazon.
NAPLES — Families frequently keep private details from the world. What happens among loved ones is considered personal, and it’s fine to see that it stays so.
But as Naples resident Lander Duncan understands, there is privacy and there is secrecy. He has had enough of the latter.
Secrecy is what dogged him growing up as a mixed race child in the pre-Civil Rights Era, and followed him into adulthood. His African-American father, a WWII veteran who agitated for civil rights upon his return from the war, was lynched in Arkansas in 1948 by the Ku Klux Klan, leading his mother to steal away with a 7-year-old Duncan and his siblings to Pennsylvania and start a new life.
Duncan relates the events that led up to that journey as well as its aftermath, including his mother’s resolute decision to never speak again of his father’s death, in his new autobiographical novel “Children of Secrets.”
“I’ve tried to write this so it is not about race or another story about lynching,” he said. “It’s a story about tragedy and triumph. It’s an American story.”
Duncan has used a pen name for the self-published book, and also changed certain character names. Although he is estranged from his two brothers, he wanted to see that their privacy was maintained. But in all other regards, he has tried to make the book as honest as possible in the hope that it might bring some closure to his past.
“We all have these ghosts and demons that can keep us awake at night,” Duncan, 68, said.
Like his brothers, Duncan has spent his adult life living not as a mixed race man, but as a Caucasian. Professionally, he has been highly successful: He has advanced degrees in social psychology, human ecology and environmental psychology, health and medical sciences and mental health sciences. He was educated at Princeton University and several of the University of California campuses.
He acknowledges that his race may not have been an impediment to his advancement, but in addition to the harsh lessons of his early childhood, Duncan had other reasons to keep his family’s skeletons tucked neatly away.
He met “precious few” African-American colleagues during his 40-year research science career, he said. When he and his wife Nancy, who is white, wed more than four decades ago, their mixed-race marriage was considered a felony in many states. Also, the couple has two children.
“Race in this country is so emotionally-tinged,” he noted.
But “Children of Secrets” was never intended to be a treatise on race, Duncan said. When he began thinking of writing the book 13 years ago, it was as a way to work through some of his roiling emotions — especially guilt. He struggled to tell the tale of his family troubles, taking it up and putting it away again.
He used family memorabilia, but also his own memories and occasionally his imagination to fill in the gaps. His mother was mixed race, but her skin was so light she could easily pass for white and often did. She married Duncan’s father after a brief courtship, and went to live on his family’s farm in the Arkansas Delta.
When his father returned home from the war, he took a job working as a railroad Red Cap. His father found the job humiliating, and he frequently spoke out in favor of civil rights.
Duncan believes it was these appearances that drew the Klan’s attention. He remembers how his mother worried, and how his parents laid tentative plans for escape if anything should go wrong. When his father helped a white woman who stumbled as she departed a train and she accused him of wrongdoing, the Klan made their move: Duncan’s father was snatched from the family home and murdered.
Duncan’s mother was physically beautiful, but emotionally destroyed by her husband’s death. In Pennsylvania, she struggled to hold her family together. There was no discussion of what happened in Arkansas, and the new official racial line was that they were all white.
His mother was often depressed and institutionalized, Duncan recalled.
“It becomes a very surreal world that we live in,” he said of his youth.
Two things finally prompted him to complete his manuscript: The first was a 2006 United States Senate nonbinding resolution expressing regrets to the descendants of American lynching victims. For Duncan, this act was a “half-hearted attempt to apologize,” he said. But it revitalized his work on “Children of Secrets.”
“I said, I need to write this, if nothing else, but to remember him and my mother,” he said.
Also, Duncan and his wife currently work with area senior citizens, helping them relocate to assisted living centers. As part of that, he often hears their histories. He has been especially touched to hear the stories of Holocaust survivors, and was inspired by their efforts to endure and overcome.
“Children of Secrets” is the first of a planned trilogy. The other two books will be “Lessons in Learning to Fall from High Places” and “Penny Candy.” His father’s death changed the direction of Duncan’s life and is a central event of “Children of Secrets.” But Duncan believes readers of the work will discover a deeper message than what was wrought by that tragedy. Ultimately, he explained, the book is about overcoming suffering and shame — racial or otherwise.
“I choose not to let that be my defining moment,” he said. “I’ve always tried to live an exemplary life, and one that’s hopeful and one that’s grateful.”