Tademy, Lalita 1948–
Lalita Tademy 1948–
In the past several years, there has been an explosion of interest in genealogy. In part, this interest has been sparked by the proliferation of the Internet. The ease with which an amateur genealogist can locate information among the many available databases has led many to search for the answers to questions such as: “Who am I?” and “Where did I come from?” Lalita Tad-emy’s novel, Cain River, is one author’s response to questions of family origin. Tademy has identified and explored her maternal past. She has woven family, history, and fiction into her first novel and, by doing so, she has created a whole story from the pieces of her past.
Lalita Tademy was born in Berkeley, California, in 1948, the youngest of four children born to Nathan Green Tademy Jr. and Willie Dee Billes. Initially Tademy attended Longfellow Elementary School in Berkeley, but in 1956 her family moved to Castro Valley, California. After this move, Tademy attended Parsons Elementary School, A.B. Morris Junior High School, and Castro Valley High School. While still in high school, Tademy earned college credits for participating in a special science and math program. As a high school student, she was also selected to attend the University of North Dakota for a summer semester. In an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), Joan Lothery, Tademy’s sister and spokesperson, said that Tademy “has always been extremely gifted.”
Tademy was also a National Merit Scholar. After completing high school, she moved to Washington D.C., where she attended Howard University for two years, taking classes in the Howard University honors program and pursuing studies in the humanities department. Even though she was offered a full academic scholarship at Howard, Tademy chose to transfer to a program that she found more challenging back on the West Coast. She spent the next four years at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where she earned an undergraduate degree in psychology in 1970 and a master’s degree in business administration in 1972. After graduation Tademy held management positions at several companies, including BART, Memorex, and ITT/Qume. In 1992 Tademy was recruited by Sun Microsystems in Palo Alto, where she became a vice president and general manager. But after three years, Tademy left her corporate career in Silicon Valley to pursue a very different interest—genealogy.
Born Laltta Tademy m 1948, in Berkeley, California; daughter of Nathan Green Tademy Jr, (a contractor) and Willie Dee Billes. Education: Univeristy of California at Los Angeles, B.S., 1970, MBA, 1972.
Career: Sun Microsystems, vice president and general manager, 1992-1992; author.
Address: c/o joan Lothery, 45 Overlook Circle, Ber-wyn, PA 19312.
To understand the significance of Tademy’s choice to leave her corporate position, it is necessary to understand something about her past in Berkeley and in the Castro Valley. When her family lived in Berkeley, Tademy’s light-skinned mother would rent a place for the family to live, but after they moved in, the neighbors would realize the family was black and force them to move. In an effort to have a home that would be their own, and one they could not be forced to leave, the Tademy family moved to the Castro Valley. Tademy’s father, a contractor, used a white buyer to purchase a large parcel of land, which he intended to use for his own home and as home sites for several other black families. The largely white community was not pleased and tried to repurchase the land. When those efforts failed, hate calls and death threats began to be a regular part of the family’s life. Young Lalita was spit upon as she walked to school, and was often so frightened that she did not believe she would survive the threats and live to grow up. She thought she would be murdered for being black in a white neighborhood.
In an interview with the Almanac, the local paper that serves Menlo Park, California, Tademy explained that “I decided very early on that I was going to be independent; I didn’t want to depend on the kindness of others…. My life choices, and everything I did [were] going to ensure that I’d be financially, emotionally and every other kind of independent.” Those words indicate just how difficult it must have been for Tademy to make the choice to leave her position at Sun Microsystems. She was not only leaving a job with obvious financial rewards; she was also leaving a position where she was valued for her contributions. It was a long way from being spit upon in Castro Valley.
The lure of a corporate income and the prestige of accomplishing something that few other African-American women have accomplished might keep many black female executives in their offices. Tademy, however, felt that there was something else she was supposed to do with her life. In the introduction to her book, Tademy described herself as “driven by a hunger that I could not name.” Although she had been used to working more than eighty hours a week, after quitting her job at Sun Microsystems, Tademy quickly found ways to fill the time. Genealogy had been a hobby for many years, but now it became much more.
Initially she began spending a couple of days each week in research, but, as many amateur genealogists have discovered, the research quickly became an obsession. Soon Tademy was spending every day searching for more information. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Tademy explained the source of her obsession: “As I began to uncover the story after story of my ancestors, I just couldn’t keep away from them.” At first she spent long days in the National Archives and Records Building in San Bruno, but soon she had used up all that this resource had to offer. Next, Tademy traveled to Louisiana, to the area in which her family had lived and where they had been slaves. In her many trips to Louisiana, Tademy searched libraries and court records, and read through old deeds, letters, newspapers, diaries, and wills—each time hoping for another small piece of the puzzle. Tademy interviewed the people who still lived in the Cain River area, and she interviewed anyone with any possible knowledge of the area’s history.
Eventually she was forced to hire a French-speaking genealogist to help with her research. Many of the people who lived in nineteenth-century Cain River, Louisiana, spoke French, and Tademy needed someone who could delve into the private documents written during the mid-and late-nineteenth century, many of which had been written in French, in order to find the necessary records. After 18 months, Tademy’s genealogist found the document that Tademy has often cited as being crucial to her family’s story. It was a bill of sale for three of her family members.
The February 2, 1850, bill of sale recorded the transfer of property from one slave owner to the several slaveholders who purchased Tademy’s ancestors. In many of the interviews that she has given since the publication of Cain River, Tademy has described the array of emotions that she felt when she first held this paper. It was a pivotal moment in her family search. This transfer of property confirmed that her family members had been slaves, and it made clear that the family had been separated, with different members of the family going to different owners. In an author essay that she provided the Oprah Book Club website, Tademy described the bill of sale as “a life-changing event.” Tademy described the two years spent in research before locating the Bill of Sale as both “obsessively researching my family” and as “an absorbing and interesting project.” However, after finding the document, the search for information became more personal, until eventually she no longer questioned whether she would write a book, but only how she would accomplish the task.
When Tademy was growing up, it was the stories about her great-grandmother, Emily, that intrigued her and that sparked her interest in her family’s history. Tademy has said that the mistake she made in trying to understand Emily was in approaching her from a twentieth-century perspective. What Tademy discovered was that, to be understood, Emily’s past had to be uncovered. The search for a family’s past often poses questions for which there are no ready answers. Without such answers, the solution is to create the most probable scenario. This is why Tademy’s family history became a novel and not a non-fiction work.
In an interview with Brenda Weeaks for Behind the Fiction, Tademy explained that her choice to use fiction allowed her to explore the characters’ lives, rather than just relate the events of their lives. She stated that using the fictional format allowed her to “[imagine] the personal life strategies [that] each of the four women in my lineage chose to guide them through very tough times.” Tademy prepared for writing her family’s story in several ways. She wrote two short pieces, one of which became an op-ed piece for the San Francisco Chronicle; the second piece won a third prize in a short story contest. Tademy also took writing classes at Stanford University and at the University of California at Berkeley. Tademy’s creative writing instructor asked her own literary agent to look at Tademy’s novel and, after 13 rejections from other agents, Tademy finally found an agent who believed in her work. It took many more months of rewrites, including reducing the 800-page novel to just over 400 pages, before Cain River was ready for publication.
In many of her interviews and in several reviews of Cain River, Tademy has been introduced as the executive who left a high-paying job to become a novelist. But Tademy is clearly more than a former corporate executive or a writer of fiction. She is also a cultural historian. To reconstruct the history of Cain River, Louisiana, she spent many months walking the area around Cain River, and she was careful to try and capture the essence of the land in her novel. Reviews of Cain River also noted the author’s careful depiction of history, culture, and atmosphere. In a review for the Washington Post, Jabari Asim cited Tademy’s years of research, which “show in the careful descriptions of the slaves’ endless tasks … [she] succeeds at describing the physical environment … especially the natural elements.” In the Boston Globe, Tademy’s novel was cited for its authenticity, which is provided by “the many black-and-white photographs, yellowed wills, and family letters captured between the pages.” The book was chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection.
Although Cain River is a book about mothers and daughters, Tademy plans to honor her father in her next book. Spokesperson Lothery explained that although her father died 13 years ago, he had been a tremendous influence in Tademy’s life. Lothery suggested that “Lalita will be every bit as effusive about him when she comes out with her book about the very impressive Tademy side.”
Tademy covered more than 100 years of her family’s life in her fictionalized history, and has brought her family’s past into the present. In an interview on the Behind the Fiction website, Tademy said that she was “pleased to be able to pass this work on to my niece and nephews.” In taking the bits and pieces of her family’s genealogy and turning them into a cohesive story, Tademy, the former corporate executive, has accomplished what few other amateur genealogists would even attempt.
Cain River, Warner Books, 2001.
Tademy, Lalita, Cain River, Warner Books, 2001.
Almanac, March 28, 2001.
Boston Globe, August 1, 2001.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 1, 2001.
Times (London), April 16, 2001.
Washington Post, June 12, 2001.
Behind the Fiction, http://www.myshelf.com/behindthefiction/01/tademy.html
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Joan Lotherry on May 31, 2002.
—Sheri Elaine Metzger
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