Authors: Eddy L. Harris
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BECAUSE HIS LIGHT SHINES LIKE A BEACON
BECAUSE HE KNOWS THE VALUE OF SELF-DISCOVERY
BECAUSE HE IS MY FRIEND
A most special thanks to Marie Arana-Ward, whose patience and understanding guided me through this effort
I am your brother Joseph, whom you once sold into Egypt.
Genesis 45, 4
Philosophy has informed us that the most difficult thing in the world is to know ourselves.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
I wish I was in the land of cotton, Old times there are not forgotten.
South of Owensboro, Kentucky, a wooden sign hangs from a rusted post.
DAVIESS COUNTY COON HUNTERS' CLUB
, the sign says, and as I ride past, a cold hand touches the small of my back. A shiver runs up my spine. The road I am on, Highway 231, goes over the Ohio River at Owensboro. I have crossed into the South.
Instinctively my hand locks tighter around the grip of my motorcycle and twists open the throttle. The engine roars. The bikeâa blue BMWâquickens. I hold on tight. I crouch forward on the bike and hurry past the sign, hurry past the evil spirits that hold the thing upright and steady. These many years later, the South still owns my nightmares and haunts my memory. Like links in the heavy chains dragged by ghosts, the images form one by one and rattle round me, weighing me down, terrifying me.
Coon, Ape, Pickaninny, Darkie, Nigra, Nigger, Boy: these are a few of the names blacks were once and not so long ago called in the Deep South, and when a white man said, “We're going coon huntin' tonight, boy,” a colored man in those days never knew quite how to take it. I imagine the white man's voice menacing, perhaps teasing a little, or even sporting and jocular. The knife edge of terror would slice into the backbone of even the bravest black man, as indeed now it slices into mine.
Those were the nightmare days of our history, a time not long enough ago when killing a nigger in the South was no more an offense than jaywalking. That era has passed us now, times do change (I hope), but the memory of those days has not died.
Incredibly those old times are remembered now as gentler than today, somehow looked upon fondly by many southern whites longing for the glory that has been lost and the simplicity that went with it, the chivalry, the courtesy, the gallantry, and of course the southern hospitality.
“The South shall rise again,”
they say, hoping once more, I suppose, for a time when white supremacy was the rule, a time when life seemed simple and easy. The lines were clearly drawn, the boundaries set: blacks and whites, Indians, Asians, Hispanics, and Jews all knew their places in society, where they could and could not go, what they could and could not do, who they could and could not be. It was a white man's country, all right, a white man's world, and if you were lucky enough to have been born white, all was right with the world. The land was prosperous and generous, peaceful for all, the bounty trickling down supposedly from rich to poor, from white to black. As long as no one upset the delicate balance, the world seemed to spin in a greased groove.
But behind the storefront of gentility hid, and perhaps still hides, an edifice of white supremacy and segregation so rigid and so codified that in 1949 the racist society of South Africa could have turned to the American South to learn the system of apartheid. Beneath the myth of chivalry and gallantry lay a reality of paternalism and repression that lent shame to the miracle of human justice and equality upon which this country was founded. Beneath the veneer of largess lurked a poverty that would rival the worst conditions of the poorest Third World nations. And beneath it all lay a core of hatred and commingled violence, and the politics of injustice.
Perhaps in a way, then, the kindly old South is responsible for the violent present we have inherited. Since the founding of the republic the South has dictated and defined us. Perhaps the South, more even than the wild wild West, more in fact than any other region, is responsible for who we are as a people and as a nation. Since the very beginning the South has compromised us.
This is the South into which I had crossed, the South of mythic reality:
In 1945, on his way home after serving his country during the Second World War, a black veteran named Isaac Woodward was attacked by a gang of angry whites at a bus station. He had used the wrong men's room. There was no men's room for coloreds and the one he had used was reserved for whites only. The white mob gouged out his eyes. He was still in uniform.
In 1955, a black male named Emmett Till went from Chicago to Money, Mississippi, to visit relatives in the South. He didn't know any better, whistled at a white woman, and that night two men dragged him from his bed and beat him savagely. They shot him, then pitched his body into the Tallahatchie River. An all-white jury found the two men innocent of murder. Emmett Till was fourteen years old.
In 1958, Jimmy Wilson was tried in an Alabama court and convicted of stealing $1.95 from Estelle Barker, a white woman. Wilson was black. He was sentenced to die. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the conviction.
In 1955, while trying to organize blacks to vote in an upcoming election, Lamar Smith was shot dead in front of the courthouseâin broad daylight, by a white man. His assassin was never indicted. No one would admit to seeing a white man kill a black man.
There's more. There's Medgar Evers. There's Virgil Lamar Ware. There's Herbert Lee and Louis Allen.
And these are only the most notable ones.
There's the Groveland Four, the four black men in Groveland, Florida, accused of raping a white woman. They were beaten and tortured by the police until finally they confessed. And then they were sentenced to die.
There's Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesleyâfour young children blown up when their Birmingham, Alabama, church was bombed one Sunday morning in September 1963.
The list goes on and on. And on.
Their crimes, the real crimes of all these men, women, and little children? That they were born black, already damned by the color of their skin, born nonwhite in a white man's world, a country where being black has always been the greatest curse, has always been the greatest crime, such an offense, in fact, such a heinous and damaging insult that in 1957 the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that it was indeed a grave error to confuse a white person with a black one, and a libelous act to call the white person a Negro by mistake. Even without proof of actual harm, the injured white party could sue for damagesâand win.
Being black was considered such a crime that white persons keeping company with blacks were as guilty as spies caught consorting with the enemy. In 1958 an ordinance was passed in Montgomery, Alabama, forbidding even the friendly association of blacks and whites. “It shall be unlawful,” the statute read, “for white and colored persons to play togetherÂ â¦ in any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, pool, billiards, softball, basketball, football, golf, track, and at swimming pools or in any athletic contest.”
Being black determined where you could live, where your kids went to school, who you could sit next to on a bus, whom you could love and marry. It was against the law in twenty-nine states (not just in the South) for whites and blacks to marry. The law in Alabama:
“The legislature shall never pass any law to legalize marriage between any white person and a negro, or a descendant of a negro.”
White women making love with blacks in Florida, $1,000 fine. (No penalty for white men with black women.)
Ministers performing marriage ceremonies between blacks and whites in South Carolinaâ$500 fine, twelve months in jail.
“If any white person and negro shall knowingly intermarry with each other in this state, or having so intermarried in or out of the state shall continue to live together as man and wife within this state, they shall be confined in the penitentiary not less than two nor more than five years.”
“It shall be unlawful for a white person to marry anyone except a white person.”
Being black was limitation, and one drop of black blood was enough; one African ancestor three, four, five generations ago, and you were legally shit.
“The term ânegro' includes mulattoÂ â¦ a person of mixed blood, descended on the part of the father or mother from negro ancestors, without reference to or limit of time or number of generations.”
“The words âperson of negro race' shall be held to apply to and include any person who has in his or her veins any negro blood whatever.”
Louisiana classified blacks more carefully. Negroes, 3/4 or more Negro blood; Griffe, 1/2 Negro, 1/2 mulatto; Mulatto, 1/2 Negro, 1/2 white; Quadroon, 1/4 Negro, 3/4 white; Octoroon, 1/8 Negro, 7/8 white.
This is the South I had entered and had chosen to motorcycle across, where Governor George Wallace of Alabama had the battle flag of the old Confederacy raised as a symbol of hate, a symbol of segregation and white supremacy to fly above the dome of the capitol.
“Segregation now, segregation forever,” he declared during his inauguration address. Later, for all the world to see and hear, he stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama and announced that he would defy even the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court. He would not allow the public schools in Alabama to be integrated.
In Oxford, Mississippi, riots broke out when James Meredith went to register for classes at the university there. The police refused to protect him from the armed and angry crowds shouting invectives, hurling insults and stones, threatening his life. Federal marshals had to escort him. The National Guard had to be summoned. Just so a lone black man could go to college. And not a single white voice to offer him support nor lend him courage. It was 1962. I was six years old.
I cannot remember the details of my birthday party that same year, but I have heard the stories of those angry days too many times, have seen the images often enough that I cannot forget them. I remember as if I had been there. I remember as if it had happened to me.
I remember the signsâ
WE CATER TO WHITE ONLY. NIGGERS MEXICANS PUERTO RICANS NOT ALLOWED
âand I know the shame and the fear. I burn with the same rage, feel the degradation that generations of black men have had to endure, men like my father, a strong and arrogant man who is a hero to me and yet who had to walk lightly in the shadow of white men, sleeping in his car at the side of the road because unless he was lucky enough to find a colored hotel when he traveled, he would not have been given a room for the night, nor allowed to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, or ever enter by the front door. He would have had to call the lowest white man “sir,” would have had to remove his hat and bow his head whenever a white woman passed. Afraid of a lynching, fearing for his life, he would never have sassed back, would never have hit back, would have put up with every indignity. He knew the boundaries, as all black men did. He would not have crossed over.