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Identity has always been a driving force in my writing. Nowhere is that more at issue than when working on family history. Many years of research, interviews, writing, DNA testing and heartache finally found shape in Writing Floyd. I'm not sure if what I've written constitutes a memoir or something entirely different. Exploring family's decisions to cross the color line and identify as white was represented both as memoir and narrative. To me, it seemed the only way to live their perspective and simultaneously recognize the family dynamics which continue to play out as a result of their decisions.
In the past few years, besides Writing Floyd, I’ve been working on novels: Reaching for Havoc and Kicking the Firebird; screenplay: Inner Harbor; two poetry collections: Standing on a Pipeline and Foreplay & Revolution and a YA series about a 15 year-old time-bender from Wyoming out to save the world.
I grew up in my grandfather Floyd's house and on the family farm situated between Noblesville and Fishers in central Indiana. I had no idea how revisiting family history in this memoir would change how I looked upon seemingly innocent details of my childhood. Since leaving the family farm, I've lived in many places around the country, often while attending college. I've attended Indiana University, the University of California, Berkeley, and New York University, and have taught at Long Island University and Sheridan College. Some awards include the NISOD Excellence in Education Medal, NEA Wyoming Arts Council Creative Nonfiction Writing Fellowship, and being named a Wildacres Artist Fellow.
Writing Floyd is a memoir about becoming white. It is also a book of stories which are inextricably linked to my family history. At its inception, I saw my grandfather, Floyd, as one of the central characters. Despite the fact that he had black and Native American ancestry, in 1922, he joined the Ku Klux Klan. Floyd became a symbol of how white my family had become.
Family, even family who knew about our mixed ancestry, identified with this whiteness because they correlated it with success or being American, something that was seen as off-limits to those with a darker skin tone. Even as I increasingly saw their whiteness as a fiction, it’s a fiction that had turned into reality. That’s one of the toughest parts to deal with. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a critique of “Americans who believe they are white.” Coates is not referring to folks who crossed the color line, but a way of claiming an identity based on power and privilege. The mechanism is especially apt for those who have crossed the color line and, by defending American values and institutions, claim a power once denied to them.
When membership records for the Ku Klux Klan were discovered in my little town of Noblesville, Indiana, it made headlines in the New York Times and L.A. Times. My father clearly didn’t want me meddling with the memory of his father; although after I found my grandfather’s Klan membership card in these records, he admitted that when he was a boy his father dressed him in the white hood and robes.
Noblesville was important for another reason. The most powerful figure in the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, D.C. Stephenson, was charged with murder in 1925 and tried in Noblesville. His conviction was credited with bringing about the downfall of the Klan’s most powerful movement (when 5 million men were members). This is a different version of the 1920s than you’ll find in most history books. Writing Floyd is The Great Gatsby’s alternative history which Tom Buchanan only hints at.
This is a project I’ve been working on for quite some time; however, it wasn’t until returning to it earlier this year that it assumed its final shape. An excerpt from this book won a National Endowment for the Arts/Wyoming Arts Council Creative Nonfiction Writing Fellowship (2007) judged by Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Flynn feels this story needs to be told and published. Writes Flynn, this is “an extraordinary story about family relationships…a compelling saga…[Sutton’s] future is in memoir” (2008). I also developed a presentation to go with this research and writing. For this presentation, I received a Distinguished Lecturer award from Sheridan College (2008). It has been well-received at numerous organizations.
Writing Floyd is The Great Gatsby’s alternative history which Tom Buchanan only hints at.
Presentations & Workshops Available
Identity, Cultural Memory & DNA
This is a 4-session workshop based around DNA testing and exploring/challenging identity. Are we in a crisis of identity? Participants are required to take a DNA test 6 weeks prior to this workshop.
Writing and activities will focus on how we claim identity and the ways in which experiences reinforce this sense of identity. Participants will be challenged to connect any new identity discovered from DNA testing to previous identities. Does adding new identity invalidate or weaken identity or culture? Drawing on his own work on Writing Floyd as well as his experience teaching creative writing, Sutton will link this exploration with family, society, history and culture.
Customized for your needs, Sutton is a Gallup Facilitator-Certified Trainer who has run over 80 StrengthsQuest workshops
Lifting the Hoods of Our Grandfathers:
A New Way to Present History or a Cheap Shot?
This is a presentation focused on the research which went into Writing Floyd as well as reaction from family on how they were being represented. Lifting the Hoods also focuses on the history of the Ku Klux Klan and how ubiquitous it became for millions of people in the 1920s. Besides situating stories in a historical context, it posits what's at risk and what's to be gained by delving into family secrets.
Constructing & Deconstructing Identity: A History of Whiteness
Drawing on historical constructions of identity documented from his family history, Sutton will argue how identity (including whiteness) changes according to the historical context. Questions explored include why concepts such as being patriotic or being a real American are so intimately entwined with concepts of race. How are such constructions an obstacle to promoting diversity?
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