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Professor Explores KKK Ties of "Little Tree" Author

Laura Browder, an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, is trying to answer those questions. She has been writing and producing a documentary about this unusual American story, a project that recently drew interest from executives at HBO and PBS, among others.

Browder has long been fascinated by people, especially authors, who shed their ethnic identities and adopt new ones. In 2000, she published "Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities," in which stories like Carter's abound. Browder examined impostor slave narratives written by white abolitionists; the memoir of a Jewish immigrant written by the daughter of a Baptist and a Lutheran; and the tale of a black janitor who in the 1920s became Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, a movie star and best-selling author.

"We have tremendous faith in autobiography as a pure, undiluted voice," Browder says, and people are often angry when they discover that the "true" story is changed in publication. From her perspective, people such as the aforementioned represent the meeting of "two great American traditions" — the ethnic autobiography and the process of self-fashioning.

Asa Carter, whose pen name was Forrest Carter, is an extreme example. A former speechwriter for George Wallace, he wrote the famed "segregation forever" address and was involved with a KKK group that castrated and tortured a black handyman, among other crimes.

Carter's "Little Tree" is quite a contrast. The book is full of messages about loving nature and racial cooperation. Carter, a vocal anti-Semite, even added a sympathetic Jewish character, Browder notes. After the book was published, Carter adopted the public persona of a mountain-raised Cherokee man, causing even his wife to declare publicly that she had married a different person, Asa's "sensitive, artistic nephew."

For her documentary, titled "Gone to Texas: The Lives of Forrest Carter," Browder has traveled to Texas and Alabama to interview Carter's critics, friends and family members. She hopes to finish the film, which was partially funded by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, next year. — Melissa Scott Sinclair

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