of Walter Cotton
By Rudolph Lewis
The iron bars closed shut behind me. The black man sat on the edge of
the cot, his elbows on his knees, his forehead in the palms of his
hands. He did not look up until I spoke. I was in suit and tie. He
thought me at first to be a lawyer, a white man.
my name is John Battle. I'm pastor at Hassidiah Baptist in Jarratt.
Aunt Malviny, a friend of your mother, is a member of my church.
She asked me to come here and comfort you as much as I
sat down in the chair against the wall across from this mountain
of a man. He hid his eyes from me and continued to look down as if
his life was being replayed on the wooden floor.
you doing?" I finally asked him.
a helluva question preacher." He looked up and stared me
square in the eyes. "How the hell you think I am? A hole in
my hand and these crackers about to lynch me." Again, he
dropped his head, his forearms on his thighs, and continued to
look down at the floor.
you right son. Your timeís near. Thereís hundreds gathered in
the courtyard lusting for your blood. They want you dead and the
sooner, the better."
right preacher. They gone get me sure. Thereís no way in hell
the sheriff and his deputy gone hold all these mens back. I
supposed thatís the reason they done brought me back to
He seemed to know they plotted his death.
The wolves were gonna tear this house down. I could
see he wasnít the dumb animal some believed him to be.
nothing I can do about that. But we thought you might want to talk
to somebody, to talk to some man who has you at heart." I
reached out to him.
withdrew and sat back on the cot, his back propped up against the
wall. He looked at me. Stared for a moment, trying to get my
you really a black man? Cause you donít look like no nigguh I
Walt," I said familiarly. "I hoped you donít mind if I
call you Walt." I pulled out a bag of tobacco and rolled two
cigarettes and passed him one and threw the pack and rolling paper
on the cot. I lit his cigarette and then mine.
daddy was a white man. He took my slave mama one night. I donít
know whether she fought or welcomed him to her bed. But I was
twenty-four when the war came to an end and they freed us. My
mother was dead then. But I had learned how to read and the book I
read most was the Bible. I managed the farm while my master, some
say he was my daddy, was away at the War. He never came back. His
missus gave me a few pennies and I hit the road and came to
Jarratt, bought some land the white folks didnít want and helped
to raise a church called Jerusalem." I confided in him and he
seemed to relax, interested in my story.
thought you said you was from Hassidiah." He pulled hard on
the tobacco and fire. Smoke bellowed from his powerful lungs,
creating a blue hanging cloud of smoke.
thatís right. But me and a few deacons had a parting of the
ways. I left and some of the congregation left with me to start a
new church, Hassidiah, closer to the town of Jarratt and Iíve
been there the last thirty years. Aunt Malviny is one of the
saints of the church. She wanted me to give you her regards. She
said she knew your mama, Rosa Cotton, before she left Scotland
Neck, down in Carolina." I paused.
rolled another cigarette. And looked up at me. I wondered how he
was going to take all that in and whether he was going to respond
at all. I waited. He lit the cigarette and blew out a another cloud of
He seemed to see his world clear in this den.
a fine story preacher. Seems like youíve had a wonderful life. I
wish I could say as much. I didnít have no missus to give me a
few pennies and I ainít never bought no land and I ainít never
belonged to no church." He was getting edgy.
you a man. I can respect that. You about thirty, Malviny tells me,
born about 1870, she remembers. Her oldest son Thomas, Malviny's
son, was born
a couple of years before you. She wondered what had happened to
you. She said you and her son used to play together. . . . Look
here Walt, I didnít come here to preach to you about your life.
You know your story better than I. Of course, Iíll pray with
you, if you got a mind for that." I looked into his eyes.
your prayers, preacher," his eyes piercing the depths of my
blackened soul. "Your God ainít done a damn thing for me!
Heís been absent all these years, I donít need him now. I
ainít afraid to die, like I ainít been afraid to live."
He got up and walked to the window and looked out.
said you were about six or seven when she and her children came up
here to Virginia and she wondered what happened to you and your
mama, your two brothers, and sister."
donít know where they are and I donít care a damn about none
of that." He snapped, still looking through the bars of the
window at the crowd gathered in the courtyard below.
Walt, thatís a pretty hard thing to say, ainít it?"
turned and looked at me as if he had a mind to smack me or
something. But I knew he wasnít going to do me no harm. For
whether he knew it or not, he needed me now. He wanted to talk to
me, to tell me everything. Deep down, he knew he had to get it all
out. Tell somebody what happened. Talk to somebody who might
understand. He sat down on the cot and rolled one cigarette and
then rolled another and passed it to me. I pulled out a couple
more matches. I struck one on the wall and lit his cigarette. And
hard to figure, preacher. But I suppose you all right."
appreciate you saying that, Walt. Every man wants to be liked,
even a man like me, at my age. I still wants to stand right in
another manís eyes."
all right with me, preacher" He repeated himself. "You
threw his cigarette on the floor and rubbed the fire out under his
boot. Again, he sat on the edge of his cot, his forehead and his
eyes in the palms of his hands. He shook his head, as if he were
looking back over his life, but couldnít make any sense of it. I
knew he was about ready to talk, to figure it all out, to bring
his life to a close.
I tell you the truth. I never meant to harm nobody. But thatís
the way my life has turned out. Maybe my heart never really got
passed that time when I was eight years old and my mama gave me
away to a white man, Capín Henry. What you think about that,
preacher. A mother who abandons her son. Yeah, thirteen years
beyond a slavery that supposed to be dead as Abe Lincoln. My mama
learned no instruction other than the whip and the rod and she
thought that was all I deserved.
was her youngest child and she believed I was too bad for her to
raise, she told everybody, and gave me at eight years old to a
white man to break my spirit. Can you imagine that preacheróthat
a mother would do such a thing? Give her baby child away to a
white man, like he was a slave? What you think she did it for?
Money, bread, laziness, out of stupidity?
white man had no love for me and treated me like a nigguh for
seven years. He worked me, night and day, until I was dead tired.
No pay, no treats, nothing. And I could never do anything right,
never do nothing to satisfy him. And the older I got the harder he
worked me. Picking and shoveling and hoeing and hauling. No new
clothes, just hand-me-downs. Rags and worn shoes. And barely
enough to eat, the roughest fare. And it was no need for me to say
nothing, or heíd beat me down to the ground.
you think, preacher? What should come of a black boy, no mama, no
papaónothing but blackness before him? I worked until my legs
became sturdy and my arms powerful, and my spirit more defiant. I
knew he couldnít keep me forever. I knew my time would come when
he could hold me no longer As I got older, he got weaker. I had a
mind to kill him, but I didnít. I ran away, like other nigguhs
before me. I couldnít take no more. I refused to take any more.
that day, preacher, I promised myself, I took a vow Iíd never
work for a white man again. And Iíve kept that promise. I
ainít never worked for no man of my own free will. Never wanted
more than I could carry in my pocket. I didn't see a need for
anything more. Every corner has had a prison or a whip for me.
I took my vow and I've kept it like it was shiny gold. Such a vow
might not mean nothing to you. . . . But I donít know, preacher,
you might know something about that, you a slave twenty year, you
say. Any way, that vow meant everything to my soul. I am proud I
kept it, even though I am here today in this hole, a rope dangling
before my face, my neck already snapped.
I needed I stole. Iíve never taken nothing from the poor,
nothing from our folks, though they ainít never done nothing for
me. I took from those who had something to steal. And I paid for
it with my lifeís blood. At fifteen, I got twenty months for
breaking and entering at Edmunsen and Jaseyís country store.
Then I got three years for Mister. Shieldís store.
was a man by that time, and Iíd got real touchy. I damn near
killed a man when I was twenty, a nigguh who didnít know what to
say out his mouth. I cut him up real bad. Scotland Neck got too
hot for me. So I hit the rails and promised never to return. And
they ainít never seen me since. I rolled and rambled on the
Atlantic Coast Line railroad in Southside Virginia until I was
twenty-nine a year ago. Doing what I might to live and enjoy
myself, from hand to mouth.
neared the end of the line in Portsmouth. A grocer, Charles Wyatt,
was robbed and killed, the first week of August 1899. They laid
that on me and I had nothing to do with it.
seized me in Norfolk, gave me a speedy trial, thirty-six witnesses
and twelve jurors and sentenced me to hang the twelfth of June
1900. It was then I met that damned Irishmen, Joe Sullivan, in the
cell over there. In a way I owe him my life and my death. He
passed me a file and for the moment I escaped the hangmanís
then it became me and Sullivan, partners in crime. He was a tramp
like me, him by choice. He could read and write, knew a lot of
things in books. I didnít know what his beef was and I didnít
care. I thought he could help me steal better.
came west to Belfield, on the other side the River Nottoway. We
robbed George Blick and I was satisfied with that. But Sullivan,
he wasnít. Maybe he thought he needed to make an impression. He
killed Olí Man Blick with a coupling pin, mangled him bad with a
heavy steel rod. For sport. It was the damnest thing. I never seen
nothing like that, a man pleasuring himself in another manís
suffering. Well, we got out there. That killing created an uproar
here in Emporia and the law was on our heels. Out the pan and into
hid out in Skippers, in an abandoned barn, about ten miles south
of Emporia. One night, I left Sullivan for awhile. I needed to
clear my head and went out on my own. We were to meet again back
at the barn in a couple of days. I wandered over to Grizzard, east
and north of Emporia, not too far from your neck of the woods.
John Grizzard, his wife, and child slept I broke in, took some
clothes, a watch, a pistol. I could have killed all three in their
sleep if I had a mind. They never heard a thing. I took my loot
and headed back to Skippers. I stopped at a juke joint, got some
money, and food for the watch. I danced until I was tired and had
a woman to boot. Man, did I have a time of it?
next night I found Sullivan, sleeping behind a pile of junk,
innocent as a babe, wrapped in an old woolen blanket. We talked.
He shared my food and a pint of moonshine. We finally dozed off.
dreamed that night about a woman I had had. I was in her bed while
her man was away on a train and we were enjoying ourselves. Oh my
God, what a night, what a dream I was having. And then I heard a
soundóa squeaking . . . metal against metal. And it got louder
and then there was a light, and heavy footsteps. And I woke, my
pistol in my hand.
confederates thought they had easy moneyóa thousand dollars on
my head. Out of my sleep, I was shooting. Joseph Weldon drew. He
was too late. I dropped him where he stood. J.W. Sanders got a
bullet in his back and fell dead on his face. J.E. Morris escaped
with his life.
was still standing, just a hole in my hand. But I knew then I was
a dead man walking, not worth the clothes on my back. But I was
going to give them a run for their money. I hit the tracks and
Sullivan went his way.
got as far as Jarratt, not too far from your church, preacher. Not
that far at all. Well, you know the rest.
Parham and William Moore waited for me on the railroad tracks,
like hunters they could scent a nigguh a mile away. They took me
up the road to Stony Creek. A bogus telegram arrived, and instead
of my going to Petersburg I was taken back to Emporia. I was
dragged off the train, the mob ready to kill me, yelling over and
over "Lynch the nigger!"
escaped their clutches with the sheriff into the jailhouse, only a
few bruises. Two whites dead in Skippers, the gun that did the
deed on me when I was caught. I know I am a dead man. But I tell
you, preacher, I am dog tired. I donít care any more. I am ready
to die. I couldnít live like your Jesus, but I can die like him.
want to thank you, preacher, for listening to my story. Give Aunt
Malviny my regards. Thank her for thinking after me. I appreciate
her kind heart.
Cotton never had a trial, nor did his partner Sullivan. The next
day the mob broke in the jail and got Walter first. The sheriff
and his deputy didnít fire a shot, not even a warning shot. In
the courtyard, there was about 1500 hundred. Negroes were among
them, far in the back. They didnít utter a word or raise a
finger. They stood silent and took their lesson.
didnít go back to Emporia while Walter lived. I had had enough
of death and dying for one week. But I was told the story of his
lynching. Walter walked boldly, erect to the courtyard cherry tree
outside the jail, with a mind of one going to meet a lover--his
arms tied behind his back, a rope around his neck.
looked over the assembled crowd, as if he were looking for
somebody . . . and smiled. The dogwood was abloom and flowers were
on the cherry tree. Several of the mob hoisted him in mid-air. A
cry of white joy rose when his body tumbled down. Walter suspended
like a scarecrow.
did see Walter one more time, later that week. But he was in no
shape to talk to me. The good people of Emporia had yet another
service for him to perform. They had set him upright against the
wall of the hardware store on Main Street in an unpainted box.
Passers-by had stripped him near bareóa button, a cut of cloth,
sprigs of whiskers, the tip of a finger, an ear, a toe. A
photographer took his image!
just couldnít escape your fate, could you, Stack-O-Lee of
Scotland Neck? His face aglow, innocent as a child. He seemed at
peace, now, finally.
prayed that his soul (that eight-year-old boy) might come to rest
in heaven. . . .
who read this remembrance, I tell you this story because it's a
story that needs telling, again and again. I tell you because a
man's story needs to be told--even the confessions of a man like
Walter Cotton. For every man's life got some value, even a life
steeped in crime.
* * *
* * * * *
Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism
By Derrick Bell
In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school's hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell's fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard's president and all of the school's black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination. Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine of Bell's And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back in some of these ominous allegories, which speak from the depths of anger and despair. Bell now teaches at New York University Law School.óPublishers Weekly /
Derrick Bell Dies at 80
* * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
a big fan of Charles Mannís previous
New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus, in which he
provides a sweeping and provocative
examination of North and South America
prior to the arrival of Christopher
Columbus. Itís exhaustively researched
but so wonderfully written that itís
anything but exhausting to read. With
1493, Mann has taken it to a
new, truly global level. Building on the
groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby
The Columbian Exchange and, Iím
proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer),
Mann has written nothing less than the
story of our world: how a planet of what
were once several autonomous continents
is quickly becoming a single,
Mann not only talked to countless
scientists and researchers; he visited
the places he writes about, and as a
consequence, the book has a marvelously
wide-ranging yet personal feel as we
follow Mann from one far-flung corner of
the world to the next. And always, the
prose is masterful. In telling the
improbable story of how Spanish and
Chinese cultures collided in the
Philippines in the sixteenth century, he
takes us to the island of Mindoro whose
ďsouthern coast consists of a number of
small bays, one next to another like
tooth marks in an apple.Ē We learn how
the spread of malaria, the potato,
tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar
cane have disrupted and convulsed the
planet and will continue to do so until
we are finally living on one integrated
or at least close-to-integrated Earth.
Whether or not the human instigators of
all this remarkable change will survive
the process they helped to initiate more
than five hundred years ago remains,
Mann suggests in this monumental and
revelatory book, an open question.
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammyís behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folksí domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own familyís needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
3 April 2012