Smash Pages Q&A | Bill Campbell talks ‘The Day the Klan Came to Town’

The writer and editor talks about his latest graphic novel, which is based on true events that occurred in Carnegie, Pennsylvania in 1923.

Bill Campbell is a writer and editor who readers might know from his books like Sunshine Patriots, My Booty Novel, Baaaad Muthaz, or anthologies like Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany; APB: Artists against Police Brutality. He’s also the founder and publisher of Rosarium Publishing, which has been publishing a great lineup of books and comics including The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories by Marguerite Dabaie, Box of Bones by Ayize Jama-Everett and John Jennings, and Ghost Stories by Whit Taylor.

This year PM Press published The Day the Klan Came to Town by Campbell and Bizhan Khodabandeh, which is arguably Campbell’s finest work to date. Based on true events in Carnegie, Pennsylvania in 1923 in which the Klan targeted a town of African-Americans, Catholics, Jews and immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. It is a disturbingly contemporary tale and Campbell took time out to talk about the book and his work. 

To start, how did you come to comics?

When I was a kid I was a big comics fan up until I got a drivers license. [laughs] Cause you know, girls. So from 1978 to maybe 1987 I was a huge comic book fiend. And basically it’s Rosarium. Before I started it I did a book called Koontown Killing Kaper, which is an anti-racism satire that had a lot of comic book elements. Like, she fights vampire crack babies. [laughs] I did couple comic books conventions and spent time in Artists Alleys and met a lot of artists who weren’t being published. That was basically the inspiration behind Rosarium. Here are these folks like John Jennings and Keith Miller and maybe I can help them by giving them. That was how we became a comic book and science fiction publishing company, just seeing these people that could use an extra boost.

So much of the work you publish is sci-fi and fantasy and horror but then you also publish work like Ghost Stories by Whit Taylor. Which isn’t really about ghosts.

They’re metaphorical ghosts. Whit was somebody I had heard of and then I got to meet her and I bought Ghosts and because I’d heard her name so often. When I go to cons, a lot of times I’ll buy stuff and never read it, but I read Ghosts and was like, oh my god, this is absolutely amazing. The courage it took to create this thing. That’s how that came about. That story just blew me away.

She’s amazing. And in prepping for this, I was on your website and discovered books and people I didn’t know you’d published.

That’s part of being a small publisher. If I had more money, we’d definitely be bigger. [laughs] Even if you’re highly visible, as a small publisher you’re still invisible. It’s the book nerds who know the publishers. Like it’s the music fiends who know the labels. You have to be pretty deep into it to know that stuff.

So tell me about The Day the Klan Came to Town.

This was 2019, I guess, my brother and I were at my mother’s for easter and just chatting about things we learned about Pittsburgh as adults. He said, like the big klan riot in Carnegie. I said, what the hell are you talking about? I was stunned because I grew up there and no one had ever said anything about it. I read about it and like 30,000 klanspeople came to the town to basically teach the immigrants a lesson. And the town was small. There was only like 3,000 people there at the time. So the klan came to beat them up – and the klan lost. One person was killed on the doorstep of my childhood church. Again, no one ever talked about it. So I was coming back from TCAF and my family would kill me if I didn’t stop, and I had to drive around Carnegie to get to my mom’s house. As I was driving, the main character Primo just popped into my head. The funny thing is that he appeared as Bizhan’s art, so it was all laid out for me, his whole life story popped into my head. It was just a matter of research.

As you said it’s a story people don’t talk about, and there are a lot of these stories everywhere. How do you research something like this?

There’s not much written about the incident itself. I found a few monographs when I went to the historical society. There was a judge who wrote his autobiography and he dedicated a chapter to it. Just little things here and there. Basically what the klan did and what officials did was all documented. But the people who fought them, nobody talked. The klan did this, the police chief did that, but as far as what individuals did, nothing. There was someone who was fingered for shooting a klansman but nobody talked so the trial went nowhere. I had to go into census data because I know the ethnic composition of the town when I grew up there, but that was 55 years later. A lot of our things that we take as “fact” in America are not. Because people said, the Irish killed him. This was the Irish part of town. But looking at pictures and census data, I know a lot of black people lived in “Irish town”. I also knew that there was a German Catholic Church in Irish town, too. So it wasn’t just the Irish there. Census data and pictures told us that what we thought where people lived wasn’t where people lived. It wasn’t that all Irish lived here, all blacks lived there, all German lived here, all Polish people lived there. That just wasn’t true. So you have to imagine what the crowd was. And then we had to wrap our heads around the fact that these people were’t “white.” And what does that mean. That was the hard part. There were all these animosities, but none of these people are “white.” The klan was about white supremacy and these southern europeans and eastern europeans and catholics were not “white”. You have to wrap your head around that and think about the cultural attitudes towards these people.

They were also anti-immigrant – and their targets included most of the people we now consider “white.”

The Klan’s tune has never changed, but their targets have narrowed. I remember growing up in Carnegie an old timer would say, you know, the klan doesn’t like catholics either. But by this time they were white so that confused me. It was like, what are you talking about? So you have to go back and read that stuff and realize that yeah they weren’t black but they weren’t white.

Yes, and the klan used same tactics and same language.

Exactly. It’s literally the same. And that’s what pulled me to doing it. I was born in 1970 and you get to see the tail end of white amalgamation. All of these people who now are just “white” but they didn’t necessarily refer to themselves like that in seventies and even in the eighties. It’s an interesting journey. We still have vestiges of it here and there, but it still doesn’t show us how deep it actually was. Right next to Carnegie is a hoity toity town and I remember hearing that you couldn’t move there if you had a Polish sounding name. I think that’s why people don’t talk about it. Because now they’re white so you don’t want to act like you were never part of the club.

Historical trauma gets passed down in different ways.

It’s like the nouveau riche. You want to act like you’ve always been rich. So you act like you’ve always been white. Because then you can have the myths about how you worked hard. You get to perpetuate the racism that your grandparents suffered from by creating these ideas about we worked hard and created this country. No, they just stopped discriminating against you.

So you knew from the beginning that this was a comic and had an idea of how to approach the story.

It just made sense to me. Like I said, it popped into my head as Bizhan’s art. I have written novels and I think it would be really interesting if white writers went back to the immigrant experience and had it in their head that their ancestors weren’t white. It would be a very interesting way of telling stories. I used to read books for a living for the Library of Congress and I had to read this Irish saga and I was just it was the usual potato famine and when they get to America they talk about the discrimination against the Irish – but they don’t talk about the race mixing with freed blacks and they don’t talk about the constant race riots the Irish perpetuated on black people. So I’m sympathetic and I’m not sympathetic. The main character is Sicilian and I read tons and tons of stuff about Sicilians and Sicily and coming to America, but I would never feel comfortable writing a novel about that. I just don’t think I could get it right. But with a comic I know that I could get it right enough. Does that make sense? I believe that people can write outside their own experiences, but they have to try hard to get it right. I don’t think as a novel I could get it right. If the Sicilian was a secondary or tertiary character, sure, but not as a main character. I’d want to go live there and spend time. 

As part of that, did you get a sense of how Northern Italians looked down on Sicilians?

I knew about Italian discrimination. I knew about the lynchings when they got here. And I already knew cause I grew up in Pittsburgh about the Northern/Southern divide. I did not know about “moulinyan.” That’s what they call black people. And it’s because Northern Italians used to call Sicilians that. Because they were black. [laughs] There were obvious similarities with the Irish went through when they first came here and the Germans when they first came here. But especially the Sicilians. Because they’re not “white.” And I kind of knew it, but when I realized that it was the same word, that’s really interesting. When they call us that, and they’re called that, what does that mean?

How did the book end up being published at PM?

When we started, we were just going to publish it under Rosarium, because I had always had that outlet. But I don’t want to do that because it was never meant to be a self publishing venue. The reason my old novels are published by Rosarium was that I thought, I could just cut out the middle person, but I never intended to self publish. Bizhan said, why don’t we send it to PM? It is about unity, but it’s not kumbayaa and it’s not liberal. They don’t come together because they’re brothers, but because these people are trying to kill them. We felt like PM would let us do that. A lot of people would want it to be heartfelt or people learning to be better human beings or some redemptive arc. But it wasn’t like that.

I’ve heard a few people as we talk, especially as we’re addressing the 1619 project, how do we teach history in a way that doesn’t end up as a collection of anecdotes where we collectively triumph? Because “we” are not always the good guys and don’t always win.

I’m fascinated with history and African American history. I guess every story ends in tragedy because we die. [laughs] But it’s hard to come up with these historical moments of triumph because white supremacy does not want you to breathe. It’s really hard to come up with feel good stories. Like the Wilmington North Carolina thing. They figured it out, and because they figured it out, they had to be crushed. There are so many stories like that where people figured it out or were attempting something beautiful. And because it was working, it had to be destroyed. What was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book? We Ruled for Eight Years. That one black politician saying, we did, we have schools, and we have this and why did they want it to end? Literally because of that. There will be people who go to their graves knowing that Barack Obama was the worst president in US history because it has to be that way. So if I were white and liberal – which I am not – how do you tell those stories honestly? Because you want to be the good guy. Nobody wants to be the villain in their own story. Nobody wants that. But if you try to come up with some hero narrative, it becomes some white savior narrative that only white people believe and is just horseshit. But if you’re a white liberal writer and publisher, do you want to tell the story of, these people figured it out and were doing well, and then my grandfather came and burned it all down.

Or best case scenario, my grandfather saw it happening and went, eh, I don’t care about the murder and rape and chaos. And then end with a line about the moral arc of the universe being long and now things are great. [laughs]

[laughs] Exactly! I think we’re in a space now where we need to be more honest. We’re literally in a cultural battle over the American identity. So just re-examining our history and trying to be honest. But our version of honesty are different, too.

Just to switch tracks, what’s happening with Rosarium right now and what are you hoping to do next?

It’s a weird time. Even before the pandemic there was a lot happening on the distribution end of publishing. When the pandemic hit we slowed everything down. Now it’s weird because when you slow down, ramping back up is a weird process. 

Stopping is hard, but starting back up is a whole other thing.

It’s a weird experience. Last year presented us with a bunch of opportunities and the economic ramifications are going to take a while to shake out. We just came out with Tenea Johnson’s collection Broken Fevers. We did John Jennings and Ayize Jama-Everett’s Box of Bones. Those came out in February. We have another short story collection coming out by Alex Smith called Arkdust. We have Juan Vance’s Gender Studies. Which is a comic that’s great. It’s basically growing up nonbinary in the hood. Just like Whit and Margot, I really admire people who have the courage to say, here’s my story. And it’s a story that you say doesn’t exist. It’s a story that you assume you don’t want. But it’s a story that I think a lot of people need. I have a bunch of writing projects in different stages. It’s been a weird time. It’s really busy and yet really slow. [laughs] I mean there are years that are really busy but now you’re busy building different foundations. I knew that I needed to do things differently, but then the pandemic hit and I realized I did need to do things differently.

We are at a strange moment in so many ways.

For me it’s a fascinating thing. We knew a demographic shift was going to happen. I remember hearing about it in 1995? I was at this weird children’s advocacy conference and this guy was saying, “White people need to have more babies.” [laughs] At the time I was like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” But by 2030 we’re going to be a majority minority country. Jan. 6 popped up and showed us there are people willing to take down the government to stay white. So this is going to get weird. I think for a lot of people, we need to hash these things out. For the Klan book, I’ve been thinking about how we have to realize that people have already conceded that race is a social construct. We can actually map out how whiteness happened. We still don’t have definitions for these things. What is “Black”? We just know that when you’re perceived black, you are black. [laughs] A lot of the same goes for being white. But if we can see how these identities are built, we can realize that they’re not immutable. And if they’re not, are these things that you really want to destroy the country over?

As your book implicitly points out, based on the old school definition of “white,” we’ve been a majority minority country for a very long time now.

Basically forever. There were very few people who were “white.” And it was ruled accordingly. If you look at the melting pot, that’s a plea for whiteness. Can’t you just make us all American? [laughs] To me that’s what we really have to think about. What is it that you’re deciding? What is it that you’re afraid of? What is it that you’re fighting for? Since this shit is made up, how much do you want to hold as dear? Because people will die over this. Why?

Do you want to end with a pitch for the book? Or end on a slightly cheerier note?

I mean, it’s about a Klan riot. The happy moment is somebody getting killed. It seems weird to say, it’s a feel good read! Fun for the whole family! I feel incredibly fortunate that I’m in this space where I can write about something as small and obscure as this moment and get it published and work with somebody like Bizhan, who is incredibly talented, and that people are interested in this. It’s a very interesting time. I’ve been doing this for a long time and people haven’t always been interested in a lot of the things I think about. I feel very fortunate. We’re in a moment where projects like this are socially relevant and important. Unfortunately on January 6th you’re like, this is way too relevant! I didn’t think it was going to be this relevant.

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