Longtime Asheville resident, poet and retired therapist Robert “Zack” Zachary is no stranger to stories. In 2015, he launched Dialogue Café, a lecture series that emphasizes the sharing of individual histories as a way to encourage social change. Since that time, he’s taken the event across several states.
But only recently has the storyteller committed his oral tales to paper. Set to publish later this summer, Zachary’s debut essay collection, Forgotten Stories Remembered, spans the author’s 71 years, with an emphasis on his childhood in Anniston, Ala., as well as his time in the military.
“I wanted to tell stories in the raw,” says Zachary. “My hope is that people will take away the realness of what happened, which is different from what seems to be the common belief: that there was no joy in Black America. We were the joy. We gave each other joy. We were about defying the ‘can’t-do-this’ [Jim Crow system].”
Black walnut malt
Yet amid this joy, there were moments of sadness and trauma. A section in the book’s opening chapter explores the confusion and heartbreak Zachary experienced in early childhood, during a weekend visit to a creamery where he and his older sister regularly purchased ice cream.
At the time, Zachary was too young to understand the arbitrary and dehumanizing rules of Jim Crow. So when a white family entered the creamery behind Zachary and his sister, he didn’t realize custom called for the two Black children to step aside.
Adding to the story’s complexity, the creamery’s white owner, who was friendly with Zachary and his sister, decided to serve his customers in the order in which they arrived. The decision infuriated the white family, resulting in a verbal conflict between customer and store owner. Meanwhile, the young Zachary wept.
“I did not understand Jim Crow,” the author writes. “I was not used to people … acting like this around me.”
Ultimately, the white family left the creamery, threatening to report the white owner to the authorities. Once they left, the white owner consoled Zachary, serving him a black walnut malt.
The incident, like many in his book, captures Zachary’s gift as a storyteller. His writing never downplays the cruelties of Jim Crow, but he doesn’t ignore the complicated dynamics at play. Even amid racial tension and hostility, moments of tenderness did unfold.
Though Zachary has previously shared many of the tales in Forgotten Stories Remembered through Dialogue Café, writing the book did require some unearthing. Two of the author’s most frequent sources were his older sisters — one who lives in Detroit and the other who continues to live in the family home in Anniston. “Sometimes I was on the phone with them all day,” he says.
Meanwhile, objects — such as the black walnut malt — also helped recall past happenings. “We forget a lot of times that we live by symbols and images,” says Zachary. “The images of childhood to me remain in a person’s life always. And the black walnut story remains alive in me all the time.”
In other instances, the events weren’t hard to remember but committing them to paper proved emotionally taxing. The most draining story to write, notes Zachary, represented a chronic danger for African Americans in the Jim Crow South — traveling while Black. Beverages were discouraged, if not forbidden, before taking off for a road trip. The risk of pulling into an unknown town was too grave; meanwhile, the designated “Colored” facilities for Black citizens were poorly maintained. “You wouldn’t allow your dog to go into them,” Zachary says.
Frequently, the author notes, his family would pull over alongside a highway to relieve themselves. “I remember watching my mother and sisters and aunts stepping out of the car to find a safe place,” Zachary says. “And I would watch Black men — my dad, my brothers-in-law, my uncles — get out of the car and stand at attention, watching out for their wives and their daughters in case a white-bodied person came and tried to injure them.”
The memory, continues Zachary, was brutal. “That took some time to write,” he says. “That took me three days.”
The second half of Zachary’s book unfolds as a series of philosophical contemplations on religion, white privilege, police brutality and history. The topics are deeply explored, but the very nature of the section feels jumbled at times, especially in comparison to the book’s previous tight focus on Zachary’s life.
Still, the messages Zachary relays are worthy of consideration. It’s also where he’s in direct dialogue with some of today’s current issues such as policing and racial justice.
“Back in the day, we never talked about defunding the police,” Zachary says. “Our thing was about getting Black policemen in the Black communities and to get white police out of the Black community. I have always believed in that.”
And though much of his collection confronts the destructive nature of racism, the author says one of his key interests in writing Forgotten Stories Remembered is to encourage self-reflection.
“Before a person can understand another race, they have to understand themselves and their own race,” Zachary explains. “If you can’t respect your own culture, you can’t respect mine.”
To preorder a copy of Forgotten Stories Remembered, visit avl.mx/9mr.