I’m at Jerusalem, a small village of Negro
homes in southern Virginia, near the town of Jarratt, named for an
English slaveholding family, which has yet to die out entirely as
landowners. Some say the church was so named to remember Jerusalem
of Southampton, the town Nathaniel Turner
(a black Christ figure),
attempted to seize. Near the river his Soldiers of the Cross
encountered resistance and were halted on this side of the
During the annual August revival of our family
church, I’ve returned home for rest and vacation. This
was the time of year that the prophet Nathaniel found significant
in God's divine plan. Last night, I arrived from Baltimore on the Greyhound Bus.
The trip used to take only five hours by bus. It can now be
done by car in three and a half hours.
Trailways now Greyhound makes the 250 miles
from Baltimore a seven-hour trip. Most of the southbound
buses bypass the town. I got off at at
the Emporia station, a community store, about fifteen miles from
Jerusalem. Each day, there are only two buses going north and two
buses going south. I called Mama: a neighbor, a friend of my aunt Annie, picked me up.
In ways Jarratt has been a victim of progress.
I-95, rather than Route 301, is the main artery north and south on
the East Coast. Most
of the traffic now by-pass the town, rather than going through it.
Jarratt, a rural farming town, overlaps the two counties of Sussex and
Greensville (which contains Emporia). Farming and timber (used to be Johns-Mansville) have
produced the little wealth that exists. Farming today needs fewer
Negroes than in the past and so the county and region, especially
the rural areas, continue to lose population as students graduate
from the county schools.
In these regional counties blacks predominate,
though they do not rule. The old white families still own most of
the land. Children of black families have been driven from the
land by new farming technologies. Cotton no longer has to be
picked from the bolls; peanuts no longer have to be chopped;
tobacco leaves no longer have to be crapped and tied to a stick
and carried to the barn. The black farmer with a mule making $900
a year for his tobacco, peanuts, and cotton, that fellow has
stretched out and gone.
Formal education for the general region is much
higher now than when Mama went to grade school around 1920. She
dropped out in the third grade because she was only able to get to
school three days a week. Children had to work then for the family
In search of employment and livable wages,
students now graduated from local high schools move away to Richmond
or Norfolk or to northern cities. They become detached and
unappreciative of the necessity to maintain vital links between
individual and community— they are at once "of" yet
"apart," outsiders visiting home.
I suppose I'm such an outsider, one of Richard Wright's "educated
elite." By intellectual training and at times emotional
sensibility, I live apart from my home, a rural community of agrarian folk, of
semi-literate black Christians.
At least that is what it used to be. Many now with their bricked
homes have the veneer of the middle class, often struggling to
make ends meet with wages under $10 an hour. The dropout rate at
local black high schools remains high, around 40%.
The population of this rural town has increased
recently with the building of a state prison. Its establishment
created for the town public utilities—running water and waste
removal. These made possible the building of apartment houses and
single-family homes right next to one another, mostly large trailer homes placed on cinder
blocks. That most of the land is near sea level used to limit population
Outside of the prison the population has increased by
several hundred to six or seven hundred, on or near Route 301.
Many of the new residents hail from North Carolina, and thus have
no family connection to native residents.
When I left here in 1965 after high school,
telephones were not ubiquitous, surely there were no satellite
dishes for cable channels. There were no Hispanics and no Chinese
restaurants. We were still then using outhouses and toting water
and chopping wood. Daddy had his hogs, and Mama her chickens. And
Daddy was still farming with a mule and wagon.
At the center of our village is Jerusalem
Baptist Church, which celebrated this year its 134th
birthday. Now a bricked edifice (formerly white clapboard until
the early 60s) with a high ceiling, it can hold about 250
worshippers. Its foundation now rotting and its ceiling unstable,
there’s a movement afoot to tear the old building down and build
a new church edifice—to the right of our family home, which is
itself a half-century old. During its heyday the early 50s
Jerusalem had an an active membership of three hundred, now
reduced to fifty. For a new building, the cost and the debt
assumed are crucial issues.
One building proposal has an estimated cost of
Though just a few, an educated middle-class, some still
connected to the farming and timber business, has now developed at
Jerusalem. Its membership used to be primarily farm and timber
semi-literate workers, paid at times from a quarter a day (during
the Depression of the 30s) to six dollars a day (around 1965).
Jerusalem now has a few members with wages from $30,000 to $80,000, including
teachers, nurses, and manufacturing workers. But there is a much
larger “retired” group within the community than there used to
be. Some who left
the “country” for urban centers, like New York, have returned and built
brick (retirement) homes.
There are also a lot of widows.
A Senior Citizen's Center operating for several decades find ways
to amuse them and keep them occupied.
Of course, most of the money is made outside
the county, the area has become a bedroom community—the place
people sleep rather than a place of work and play. Of course,
there are a few who own and retain a relationship with the land by
gardening collards, peas, potatoes, watermelons, tomatoes, cabbage,
and so on. And fewer still preserve vegetable and fruits to get
one through the winter. Mama
gave me her last quart of pear preserves.
Wal-Mart, now ten
miles away, satisfies all such desires and more, cheaply. We are
all hooked into the global economy.
Mama scrambled me three eggs and cut me a few
slices of ham. Corn and applesauce were side dishes. This kind of
hospitality is second nature to Virginia Negroes who have exported
their manners and skills north, south, east, and west. But such
manners are dying out in the younger generations.
Mama is getting around now on a walker, very
slowly. Her knees and joints are wracked with arthritis but her mind
and spirit are clear and sound. Her memory and her life link us to
what we were and provide us a foundation to what we can make of
ourselves with our new and growing opportunities. A woman
semi-literate, Mama knows nothing about the continent and its
peoples. The oldest member of our family she remains for us our
Africa. And the village of Jerusalem is our Little Africa. I had to
go to the continent to learn this familial reality.
Ours is a land of traditions that rose up from
our centuries-long engagement with the natural phenomenon, with tilling
the land, tearing down and replanting the forests, fishing the
streams and swamps, killing animals domestic and wild, and living
with and enduring the white man and his oppressive institutions. We
are one of the few Negro families that has held onto most of the
land our mothers and fathers acquired after the Civil War. Most of
the members of my family still remain (live and work) in southern
Though some of our family came up from Scotland
Neck, North Carolina, our family has been native to this region for
nearly a century and a half. Our bodies have enriched this land. I
expect that my body will be returned here to the church cemetery.
* * *
We have neglected the two family cemeteries
(Lewis and Williams/Jackson), still on family land. Overgrown by
bushes and grasses without names, some graves are so sunken in that
they are difficult to recognize. Mama only can identify individual
graves, though I have written down the names of all who are there. In back
of our house and fields up in the woods was the Old Jerusalem and
its cemetery of former slaves. Those graves are lost in the forest.
Few know of their existence.
Then there are family remains lost entirely that
used to be on white land—black bodies plowed under. Unrelated to
our family, four new graves were moved from white land and reburied
here at Jerusalem . The oldest person buried in Jerusalem's cemetery
was born 1864, a year after Abe Lincoln issued his Emancipation
August 11, 2004 (Wednesday)
Today is Mama’s birthday, her 93rd. Last
evening, she went out to the family church for a three-hour revival
service. She got up late this morning. Though a bit sore and tired,
she is well and in good spirits. During prayer service (the preacher
still in his study), she led the song, “Is There Anybody Here Who
Loves My Jesus.”
The congregation joined in. They all—Mama, and
her two daughters (Lucinda and Annie) and my sister
Theresa—returned home happy, exclaiming what a wonderful
performance the gospel group gave.
The preaching was long. Annie’s son Peter
played the drums well, I was told. Mama said the leader of the group
could play his guitar, sing, and dance, and that she could have
watched him do his dance all night. Pentecostal performances are
seldom seen at Jerusalem, though there are a few shouters. Most are
reserved and respond with an “Amen” or a “Preach.” There is
also some handclapping. Whatever is necessary to help the speaker
deliver or bring the spirit of the Lord into the house is done.
To celebrate Mama’s birthday, Mama, Lucinda,
Annie, and I will go to Applebees for a late lunch. I understand the
flesh of their barbecue ribs fall off the bone. . . .
* * *
We had a nice birthday dinner for Mama. I got the
ribs but the meat though tender did not fall from the bone. I had a
beer and they sodas. Women in my family tend not to use spirited
drink, though there are exceptions. With my one beer, we ate well
and enjoyed ourselves. Mama and I had enough left over for a doggy
bag. When we got back home to Jerusalem, Mama and I had some of her
ice cream cake Theresa bought for her birthday – too much
chocolate for both our taste.
Lucinda and Annie went to the Wednesday night
revival service. I stayed home with Mama. We talked about the older
folk who still lived and those who were dead. I sat with her until
Annie and Lucinda came home and we then spoke of the service and who
* * *
These one-week revival services, during the month
of August, probably can be traced back to the evangelical movements
of the 18th and early 19th centuries,
especially among the Methodists. Jerusalem has always (for a century
or more) had its revival during the second week of August. It has
been several years since I attended one.
The last time I went with Miss Lula Bell, Mama's
best friend, to Hunting Quarter. There, this young preacher walked
the benches (literally) and must have preached for almost two hours.
It was too much for me. I walked out and waited for Miss Lula Bell
on the outside.
I like especially the prayer services that come
before the preaching. In this ceremony, each of the congregants can stand and
speak her heart; give thanks to the Lord for blessings received;
raise a song of praise. It is especially delightful when one of
wrinkled and worn (and usually female) raise one of the old spirituals, like “Walking
in Jerusalem, Just Like John.”
Others join in. If the rendition is
good one or two may extend the songs with additional verses, the
Spirit is present but it has not fully and sufficiently, though
possessing the power, moved the House. Most are not trained
singers. Yet they know how to swing a tune.
This praise ceremony, I believe, is a
remnant of a tradition from a time when the community of worshipers
was a group of religious individuals who sought God and
righteousness hand in hand, without a preacher. Now the services are
mostly preacher-centered, and often about doctrines. Satan was more
palpable then. Sin (and taboos) more keenly felt.
Different churches choose different weeks so that
members from other churches can attend. A guest pastor is chosen to
deliver the Word for the week-long service (Sunday to Friday). From
Monday to Friday services begin about 7:30 pm. Choirs or singing groups from
come as well. Revival at Jerusalem begins on the second Sunday,
year a packed house (about 250) surprised regular members. Most of
these came "home" from the cities. They have or had kin
who belonged to the church. The
deacons and trustees took up $5,000 in the collection. Marvin
Briggs, Margie’s son and also a boxing celebrity, visited
Jerusalem and his mother's grave in the cemetery.
The folks now have more church than they used to
when I was going to church. Preaching used to occur once a month and
then on second Sunday. A younger generation preacher pushed the
people to four Sundays a month. Without other employment they pay
him a livable wage. Maybe the younger generation needs more
preaching than folks used to need, and, of course, TV evangelism
further satisfies the thirst and the taste some need for
* * *
Spawning other churches, Jerusalem is considered
the mother of churches, including Hassiadiah and Center Star. More
than likely internal dissent led to the founding of these separate
churches. That’s the freedom desire of black Protestants, especially the
In a radius of ten miles there are about thirteen
black churches, with active membership of less than 300. Spread out
thus over a wide area, they include Center Star (Gray), Bethlehem (Grizzard),
Shiloh (Emporia), Calvary (Yale), Hassidiah (Jarratt), Morning Star
(Jarratt), Galilee (Stony Creek), St. John (Stony Creek), First Baptist
(Purdy), Hunting Quarter (Stony Creek), Pleasant Plain
Most of these, it seems, have remodeled or
rebuilt their churches within the last decade or so, even Center
Star which received a grant from a prosperous athlete who grew up in
the little church. Jerusalem is struggling to keep up.
August 12, 2004 (Thursday)
On cable TV tonight I saw for the first time the
film Tears of the Sun, with Bruce Willis. The setting was in
recent Nigeria during a Muslim repressive war against the Christian
and Catholic Ibo. There were numerous gruesome scenes of rape and ethnic
cleansing—men, women, and children, and European and American
missionaries slaughtered with machetes and military weapons. The
American government sent in US Marines to airlift Americans out of
Nigeria. A young American female doctor refused to leave unless her
African friends—men, women, and children—were also taken.
Leaving the Africans and seizing by force the
American female doctor, “LT” (Bruce Willis) and his troops fly
away in two helicopters. They fly over a village in which men,
women, and children have been slaughtered. Against his mission
assignment, LT affected by the sight turns the copter around for the
Africans they left stranded and vulnerable to the ongoing genocide. But there is room only for the children and old women. The
marines and the remainder, including the female doctor, decide to
track through the jungle and across the mountains to Cameroon.
The Nigerian federal troops are in pursuit and
track them day and night. LT and the Marines discover a spy among
them with an electronic signaling device. They kill the spy, who
tried to save his family by this collaboration, destroy
the electronic device, and question again the Nigerian men. They
discover among them the son of the deposed president (a prince)
whose family was slaughtered. The prince is the last of this royal
With their own form of technological shock of
thunderous bombs and awe of fire and smoke miles in the sky, the US Marines and the US Air Force save the day against the
advancing Nigerian ground troops.
All these events of rescue are are set in a
scenario of good and evil. The US Marines are the good guys and the
military forces of the government of Nigeria the bad guys, the
forces of evil. The death of several hundred African ground forces
in the flames of US bombs is represented as a moral victory for the
forces of good. And the Americans, at one with humanity, are lauded
for their sacrifices. Black Power and black government are
disparaged as brutal and savage.
Films indeed provide us some wish fulfillment and
shore up our flagging uprightness.
August 13, 2004 (Friday)
I got up after
ten this morning and did little or nothing today. My body is still
adjusting to a change of place. A fine rain settled after dinner
and together caused me to nap several hours. I was up last night
until daybreak watching cable TV.
Mama cooked shad for breakfast and
fried some good tasting chicken drumsticks for dinner. I do not care
for the oiliness of shad nor its thousand tiny bones. Still there is
nothing like Mama’s cooking. It makes me feel as if all is right
with the world. She also made me a pan of rice pudding with raisins
I have been eating on and off for several nights.
August 15, 2002 (Sunday)
It has been raining since Thursday and the nights
have been cool enough to close the window and sleep under a
Saturday, Celestine arrived to take her mother
Lucinda back to Baltimore. Ronald, her brother, came up from
Virginia Beach with Grover, Lucinda’s husband. Theresa came down
late from Petersburg. Lucinda cooked neckbones, boiled potatoes, and
butter beans. We all had dinner together. I can never hold court
when my younger brother Ronald is at the table. Sometime ago, it
seems, his “queen” knighted him with a “Sir.” With the
exception of Debbie and me all my siblings have a child or children.
August 16, 2004 (Monday)
I have ODed on cable movies. I watched Scarface,
a very long violent movie of Cuban crime lords in Florida. Watching
movies without commercials is a real treat. I go rarely to the movie
theater and I do not have cable TV in my house. I would never get
The movie industry seems to turn out films that
run on three wheels: greed, power, and revenge. They must indeed be the
central motivations of modern society.
Check them out: the comedy The
Distinguished Gentlemen, with Eddie Murphy; the hip-hop crime
drama Jacked Up; Duma’s The Count of Monte Cristo,
the film; and so on and on. Popularly seen by millions, these films are
entertaining and escapist. So many of them, even when they are
comedic, are criminal fantasies. These cinematic extravaganzas fill
up time for the bored and the uninspired. Some might say, they are capitalist
Even if the fantasy is of a short duration, what
poor kid can resist the attraction of the rise and fall of a Tony
Montana, the Castro-hating Cuban cocaine smuggling syndicate boss?
Tony provides the model and the method for "success": “First you get the money.
That gives you power, and that’s how you get the women.”
women Montana is strangely a failure, maybe to emphasize his machismo.
He is unable to win the love of women, not his mother, nor his sister.
Montana’s repressed incestuous love for his sister is made
Montana’s murderous escapades and accumulated
wealth come to quick end. A Bolivian drug lord hired an army
to kill him. He asked Montana to assist in killing one of
his enemies--at a certain time and a certain place. Montana failed
to do as he promised But there were
children in the car. Montana, a man of principle, does not kill
By this time Montana's Baltimore blonde, the
proceeds from his murder of her former lover, has also left him. For she, a beautiful Anglo cocaine addict (languishing in
the wealth of powerful men), viewed Montana as little more than as
another “Spic” who had an inordinate love for money and power.
So there’s this irrationalism—the mystique of race—that the
film exploits. Montana is a mad man, a megalomaniac whose died in a
hail of bullets.
Of all the films I viewed, The Saint of Fort
Washington only possessed any redeeming value. The characters of
Danny Glover and Matt Dillon, two homeless men sleeping where they
may, are the social victims of greed, power, and revenge. Most of
us, sensitive enough, can identify with their plight. With nothing
materially, we admire their character
and humanity in how they reach out for and encourage the
other. How these two characters (a black man, a white
boy) deal with each other model an ethical standard we all should
strive to achieve.
August 18, 2004 (Wednesday)
Yesterday (Tuesday), three deacons of three local
churches (Hassidiah, Jerusalem,
and First Baptist) came by to pray and sing with Mama. These three
evangelists, retired from their jobs and on pensions or social
security, have been performing these missionary rites from household
to household for a year or so. Life must have meaning, whatever
quality. The orality of ministry lives among the semi-literate.
These men perform their religious activity especially for the aged.
Mama led them in the song “Is There Anyone Here Who Loves My
comforters’ sadly sentimental service complete, I walked the three
men to the backdoor, thanked them and bid them adieu.
* * *
I called my friend Fred to
check the house when after several attempts I was unable to reach my
Baltimore neighbor, Jimmy, who is now watching my cat Bobo, my house, my car.
I finally got in touch with Jimmy. My mind has been set at ease.
I did not entirely OD on cable movies. I am still
watching them. So I have only read a few pieces of writings since I
have been home: a review by Gerard Fergerson of the book From
Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954;
a letter dated 2 February 1990 I sent Mama after I resigned the
second time from Local 1199; a newspaper article on the lower test
scores (reading and math) of the much boosted charter schools in
relation to the test scores of public schools.
Today, I returned to Richard Wright’s White
Man, Listen (1957), an intriguing and much neglected analysis of
racial consciousness. Wright’s views on American Negro folk
culture have always made me uneasy. In White Man, Listen (1957),
Wright again undermines our romantic views of Negro and African
cultures: he raises the question of the “modern serviceability of
African culture.” Indicting
ancestor worship, which he conceives as a ubiquitous African trait,
Wright concludes that we, fearing the present and the future,
“seek shelter in the warm womb of the past.”
August 19, 2004 (Thursday)
Mama cooked me perch filet and called me to
breakfast. She is also fixing dinner—peas and baked chicken. She
is also washing clothes. She now has a dryer. So I hung clothes out
on the line once while I was there. The sun and the wind (the piney
outdoors) make a more pleasing difference to the touch and smell..
Yesterday was a day for visitors. Warren Wyche,
formerly a member of Jerusalem now an elder in the Pentecostal
church of Detroit, stopped by to visit Mama, prayed for her, and
administered a blessing through the application of oil to her
forehead. That same morning, Nathaniel, Annie’s husband, also had
visitors—Tom Henry and Roy Mason, each with a beer in hand. I sat
with them at the mouth of the woodshed, between the house and the
field, while they in turn told lies about their lives and what they
had experienced with gambling, women, alcohol, and drugs.
* * *
I’ve returned to White Man Listen (1957).
I completed its first essay “The Psychological Reactions of
Oppressed People.” There, Wright came to no final conclusion with
regard to the “modern serviceability of Africa culture.” As I
do, Wright fears that “vast populations” can be “trapped in
tribal or religious loyalties” and can be “easily duped by
self-seeking demagogues.” Here, Wright has been prophetic about
the dangers of limited allegiances. Ugly tribal conflicts have risen
their ugly heads in South Africa, Zaire, Nigeria, Sudan, Liberia,
Sierra Leone, and Rwanda. Wright feared “an all-pervading climate
of intellectual evasion or dishonesty” for self enhancement is
intoxicating, and many of us love drunkenness like it was
In this article, Wright continues, “In short,
if good will is lacking, everything is lost and a dialogue between
men becomes not only useless but dangerous, and sometimes even
Fear and suspicion on all sides like a London fog blur and obfuscate
the truth of things.
In his second essay “Tradition and
Industrialization,” Wright explains his negative response more
fully to African culture:
I’m numbed and appalled when I know
that millions of men in Asia and Africa assign more reality
to their dead fathers than to the crying claims of their
daily lives: poverty, political degradation, illness,
ignorance, etc. I shiver when I learn that the infant
mortality rate, say, in James Town (a slum section of Accra,
the capital of the Gold Coast in British West Africa) is
fifty per cent in the first year of life; and, further,
I’m speechless when I learn that this inhuman condition is
explained by the statement, "The children did not wish
to stay. Their ghost mothers called them home." . . . .
Indeed, the teeming religions gripping
the minds and consciousness of Asians and Africans offend
me. I can conceive of no identification with such mystical
visions of life that freeze millions in static degradation,
no matter how emotionally satisfying such degradation seems
to those who wallow in it. But . . . my sympathies are
unavoidably with, and unashamedly for, them. For this
sympathy I offer no apology.
In this instance, one sympathizes unavoidably
with Wright’s criticism. But can this be the whole story?
How would the circumstances of these slum dwellers be
different, be changed, indeed, if they had a non-cultural,
non-religious explanation for their victimization? Would a more
rational explanation alleviate this “inhuman condition”? Of
course, the African folk (the tribesmen and clansmen) must learn to
be critical and self-critical of their traditions as we too must be
critical of our more rational and social traditions. I suspect in
their traditions there
is beauty as well as ugliness. In such traditions, naturally, we
embrace the practical and sustaining,
the useless, rotten, and destructive
Though he is more absolutist with regard to the
value of the African (or folk) past than that which makes me
comfortable, Wright nevertheless seems well-aware of the difficulty
his argument poses. He writes:
Men who can slough off the beautiful
mythologies, the enthralling configurations of external
ceremonies, manners, and codes of the past are not
necessarily unacquainted with, or unappreciative of, them;
they have interiorized them, have reduced them to
mental traits, psychological problems.
I know, however, that such a fact is
small comfort to those who love the past, who long to be
caught up in the rituals that induce blissful
self-forgetfulness, and who would find the meaning of their
lives in them. I confess frankly that I cannot solve this
problem for everybody; I state further that it is my
profound conviction that emotional independence is a clear
and distinct human advance, a gain for all mankind and, if
that gain and advance seem inhuman, there is nothing that
can rationally be done about it. Freedom needs no apology.
For me, Wright's skin analogy with respect to
culture does not work because culture is much more deep-seated and
intrinsic with respect to self and identity.
In these two essays of White Man Listen (1957),
I have not read anything that indicates that Wright is indeed not
“unappreciative” of Africa’s cultures and its past. For Wright
the “central historic fact” is that in the “clash of East and
West,” an “irrational Western world helped, unconsciously and
unintentionally to be sure, to smash the irrational ties of religion
and custom and tradition in Asia and Africa.”
Seemingly a materialist and atheist, Wright longs
for a progressive extension of secularism globally; the goal of
mankind, for him, is the development of “rational societies.”
In the West today we seem to
suffer from too much secularism. Translated financially,
Whether man’s irrational impulses can be
replaced by Wright’s “rationalism” and what Wright refers to
as the “spirit of the Enlightenment, of the Reformation, which
made Europe great” is doubtful and probably undesirable. Western
slavery, colonialism, and racism were also born during this period
and one sustained the other. Though "rationalism" may be a progressive human desire, it may indeed
also be an inhuman achievement, at least, at the extremes.
Reduced to “pure reason,” I suspect,
man would cease to be man and become rather more machine-like (or a
god in a machine) than
human. Instead of trying to rid ourselves of that which is human
(“irrationalism”), there may be a third approach (or third
approaches), struggling for a balance between the two forces of rational and
irrational impulses, each being a check upon the extremes of the
August 20, 2004 (Friday)
I am sitting on the screened-in front porch,
overlooking a green yard fifteen yards from the road. Dark-blue dirt
daubers, akin to the wasp family, are trapped inside. They have no
stingers and are harmless. They make their nests out of mud. People
used to use their nests to make poultices for swellings. This native
cure with dirt dauber nests has been forgotten now in our modern
times that we have doctors aplenty with their science and technology
and we with our unaffordable insurance policies and our disregard
for what Wright calls the “dead past.”
From the front porch, we can see across the road
the church cemetery. It is much larger now and has more residents
than when I was a child. Directly across the road from the yard used
to be a forest with blueberry bushes, hands and hands of berries we
gathered as children. All that is gone now, like the muscadine vine
near Creath, No. 5, the torn-down grade school.
Here the forest has been cut back by fifty yards.
The cemetery extends about thirty yards to the right beyond the
family house. A couple of days ago, I did my annual tour of the
graves to greet those passed that I loved and to discover the
tombstones of new residents. One recently buried is a former
neighbor Miss Geraldine, Percy Junior’s mama now buried by her
Senior; she and Mama sewed hundreds of patchwork quilts. Some
visually stunning, beautiful.
Daddy has been here in this burying ground since
1970. Two of his daughters are also—Edith and Virginia. Mama’s
sister Sally is there also. I expect one day to lie down with them.
Before noon Mama called me to a breakfast of
pancakes, salmon cakes, and mashed potatoes without milk. I ate
heartily and thanked her and the Lord who provides all. I retired to
the front porch for my morning cigarette and coffee while listening
to “Rolling & Tumbling Blues.” There I finished Wright’s
essay “Tradition and Industrialization.”
Wright wrote two more additional essays for White
Man Listen (1957)—“The Literature of the Negro in the United
States” and “The Miracle of Nationalism in the African Gold
Coast.” The latter I have read a couple of times but I need to
read it again in light of having read again the first two essays
which dealt with the “irrationalism” of East and West, which I
have commented on above.
Culturally, Wright admits he is “a man of the
West.” But he is conflicted, “Being a Negro living in a white
Western Christian society, I’ve never been allowed to blend, in a
natural and healthy manner, with the culture and civilization of the
In his The Negro Mood (1965), Lerone
Bennett makes a similar statement about the Negro’s struggle with
his identity in America. The Western “irrational” forces of
racism blocked the Negro’s assimilation. This “schism,” Wright
points out, has thus made him an ardent critic of the West. In ways,
Wright believes, the American Negro is more a Westerner than the
whites of the West. That too is true of the Western-educated elite
of Asia and Africa.
Though this “outlook breeds criticism,”
Wright reassures his Western audience, "Yet I’m not
non-Western. I’m no enemy of the West. Neither am I an
Easterner.” Wright contends that he sees “both worlds from
another and third point of view.” This dialectical position is an
advance (maybe) on the dualism of Du Bois’ “double
consciousness.” Yet both views—Du Bois’ and Wright’s—fall
short of what makes me fully comfortable. Wright has far more
confidence in the West than I can muster.
His faith in certain Western values cannot be
sustained by the rationalism and secularism that he champions. He
prays that the whites of the West will live up to these values and
that they will not revert to the traditions and customs of the last
five centuries in which they enslaved, colonized, and brutalized the
colored worlds of the Americas, Asia, and Africa. That the whites of
the West will live up to the separation of church and state, the
dignity of man, human freedom, the autonomy of science, art, and
literature is for me a faith too dependent on the goodness and
common sense of white men.
I saw the latter part of the cable movie
“Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale.” Squanto, an Indian born in an
area that eventually became New England, was captured and taken to
England. He escaped his captors and found refuge in a monastery.
Protecting Squanto from the merchants, the monks learned from him
and he from them. The English merchants viewed Squanto and the
natives of America as savages, no better than livestock, useful as
entertainers and soldiers. Their humanity was undermined by English
While Squanto lived with the monks, a friend and
companion was in the hands of the merchants from whom Squanto had
escaped. This "Indian" saw more clearly the underlying greed and racism of the
English whites. Squanto felt uneasy with his friend’s hatred of
the whites. The kind and humane English monks who saved him from capture and
death affected him deeply.
Both these Native Americans managed to
escape their captors and return to their villages in the New World.
In their native land, Squanto’s companion deceives the English,
slaughters them, and burns their ship. Squanto is appalled. His
companion asks him to speak to him again after he has returned to
his own village. At his village, Squanto finds that his people have
been decimated by their contact with the whites. Alone in his own
world, he is now ready for revenge and marks himself with war paint.
Yet Squanto is unable to forget the humanity
showed him by the Christian monks. The Puritans then land at
Plymouth Rock. They are about to be slaughtered by an army led by
his former companion. Squanto intervenes. A peace is established
between the natives and the Puritans. It lasted two generations, we
are told. The Indians thereafter are decimated or dominated by the
newcomers and their lands confiscated.
I also saw Buck and the Preacher, with
Sidney Portier and Harry Belafonte, which explores the relationship
among southern white slaveholders, freed slaves, and Native
Americans. And the vulnerability of black life and our emotional
need for land to call our own.
This evening I went with Annie up to the Masonic
Temple on 301 in Jarratt. The missionary ministry of Jerusalem, a
group of older ladies, met to ready itself for its fish fry
tomorrow. There are fourteen ministries at Jerusalem and each
ministry has a goal to raise $1500 a year. It has been years since I
have been at the Masonic Temple.
Women over sixty predominate in
this ministry and in the church itself. A few men however
volunteered to assist them. Most of these women, at one time or
another, were field hands, cooks, or maids, but they have
subsequently found work with the county or state government making
more livable wages than the labor they applied to white folks’
fields of cotton, peanuts, and tobacco.
In Jarratt, there is a new generation of black Masons. I went
to school with them. Though meaning well, these new Masons, I suspect, are not as moral and
upright as their rural and agrarian forefathers. At least they have
less shame in how they carry themselves. These new Masons have or
have had high-paying jobs in the manufacturing and industrial arena. They
are indeed carrying on the Prince Hall tradition, nevertheless.
Compared to their fathers they are men of leisure—simple-minded,
married men boasting more their talents as women chasers than as
socially-conscious black men interested in changing the fabric of
But I am not inclined toward secret societies
and fraternities. They have their use, however, in extremely
suppressive states in which freedom to organize is curtailed by
government agencies. In his "The Miracle of Nationalism in the
African Gold Coast," Wright speaks of such a society in the
Gold Coast, once headed by Kwame Nkrumah (former head of the new
nation of Ghana) and his five comrades (all educated in the
Those six sweating black men in that
jungle, discussing and planning and plotting the freedom of
a nation that did not exist, resolved to bind themselves
together; they agreed to call themselves: The Secret
Circle. Then they swore fetish, a solemn oath on the
blood of their ancestors to avoid women, alcohol, and all
pleasure until their "country" was free and the
Union Jack no longer flew over their land. They swore fetish
to stick together.
I am afraid such men of conviction and purpose
are lacking among us. Instead, we are too often plagued with a
plethora of opportunists and pundits.
August 21, 2004 (Saturday)
Mama called me to a breakfast of eggs, sausage,
toast, applesauce, and coffee. I am quite amazed by her stamina and
strength, and her use of the walker. The meal was good and I was thankful to her
and the Lord who provides all. I see mosquito hawks through the
kitchen window circling and, I imagine, seizing their breakfast before
the sun gets high.
I was late getting to bed and got up several
times, once because my arm itched from several mosquito bites. I got
up found the mosquito and killed it. We have all wondered how they
get into the house with screens on the windows and doors. I applied
some cocoa butter that eased the itch and finally got back to sleep.
Annie did not wake me before she left for the Masonic Temple for the
missionary fish fry. Her husband Nat said that she said she was
coming back by noon to picked me up. But it is now past 1 pm. I find
myself walking from room to room, kitchen to bedroom.
I just checked a calendar in the TV room and was
reminded it was on such a weekend as this that Nathaniel Turner
began his religious revolt against and slaughter of slaveholders of the local
Methodist church (men, women, and children), in Southampton County.
Our church is in Sussex, a sister and bordering county. A few
Christian slaves from here became caught up in that slaughter of
roving whites seeking revenge. The bloodletting
lasted several months. The prophet Nathaniel did not pay for his
“crimes” until early November 1831. He disappeared for about 70
days and then allowed himself to be apprehended. As a result of his
capture we learned of the revolt's divine origins.
Around noon Roy Mason, riding his bicycle,
stopped by to see Nat, who is suffering from a very elevated blood
pressure. Roy pulled about fourteen watermelons for Nat and put them
beside the road with the hope that some will stop by, especially
tomorrow when there is church, and buy them—the small ones for $2
and the large ones for $3.
Out back of the house, Nat has planted also
several acres of corn, expecting that he will raise hogs and
chickens for extra cash money. But that’s a lot of pulling and
shucking and he has neither the pigs nor the chicks. That kind of
work was common when I was twelve. Then we used mule and wagon to
pull the corn. But he has a little tractor that can do the job if
there are hands enough. There's a business in Emporia that will take
the kernels off the cob.
* * *
I’ve returned again to Wright’s White Man
Listen (1957) and the essay “The Literature of the Negro in
the United States.” Here Wright introduced the concepts of
“entity,” being one with one’s culture, and “identity,”
being at odds with one’s culture or in search of personal
identity. This individual search for identity is typical of Western
societies and those individuals influenced by the West. Wright
claims that Phyllis Wheatley, born in Africa and a black poet of the
18th century, was one with her culture. Maybe so. But
wonders whether that was style, only.
Since 1988, the term "African American"
has been used more frequently to refer to those blacks whose
families endured American slavery. Some African immigrants are now
claiming an African American identity, to the chagrin of some like
Alan Keyes now running in the Illinois senatorial race against the
Kenyan American Barack Obama.
The duality and bitterness typical of
middle-class Negro poetry began with Moses Horton of North Carolina,
according to Wright; his generation and subsequent ones experienced more keenly the brutality and
cruelty of American slavery than Phyllis Wheatley.
This duality of sentiment and racial bitterness of black letters, according
continued throughout the 1930s. This bitterness was caused by the
exclusion from institutions that sustained the social, intellectual,
and moral inferiority of the Negro. Wright did not deal with the
1960s and the black artists and writers who generated a cultural
revolution similar to the Harlem Renaissance.
In his The Negro Mood (1967), Lerone
Bennett defends the content and consciousness of 1960s black writing
and its “serviceability” not only to black people themselves in
their struggle to become something “new” but also an entire
nation suffering an inward void:
Down there, at the bottom of
himself, the Negro earned the right to speak of man and for
men. What he saw, in the place where nobody was praying,
what he dreamed and thought, speaks to us today in the Negro
folk tradition. . . . The essence of the tradition is the
extraordinary tension between the poles of pain and joy,
agony and ecstasy, good and bad, Sunday and Saturday. . . .
The creators of the great tradition
respected the cutting edge of life; they understood that
good and evil, creative and destructive, wise and foolish,
up and down, were inseparable polarities of existence. This
attitude, so un-Anglo Saxon in its balance and complexity,
permeates the whole of the Negro tradition which looks life
in the face and smiles at "the fast black train" of
An African American identity, I believe, should be extended without
rancor to all who wish to claim it, whether they come from the
Caribbean (or the rest of the Americas), Africa, Asia, or Europe, as
long as they appreciate the American history and sensibility
attached to the term.
I like also the notion of Africans retaining
their tribal identities, so that they might thus refer to themselves
as Ibo American, or Ashanti American, or Zulu American, or Kru
American, or Baluba American. Of course, these tribal identities are not nationalities.
Still those identities should not be lost. In a Pan-African spirit,
we Africans (at home or abroad) should learn to appreciate our
individual histories and cultures. They are more complex than we
feel comfortable enjoying.
Overall, one can say easily, the United States
has been Africanized for sometime and that that Africanized American
culture is exported daily all over the globe in music, dress,
language, and athletics. In a deeper sense, all born and raised in
America are African American.
August 22, 2004 (Sunday)
Saturday, I went to the missionary fish fry,
which was a financial success with a collection of nearly $1500
(their expressed goal). Outside, the men fried the fish and the
hush-puppies; inside the air-conditioned hall the women served the
food and collected the money.
Among the men, brandy and beer were passed
around. There were five or six guys present of my generation. There
were a fewer younger guys. With a couple of exceptions most had made
their families in Jarratt and had had military experience. Several
had been to Vietnam or Japan. They had learned the power of the
American soldier and the American economy.
In Asia, one could have a woman an entire month
for $100: she would sleep with you, wash your clothes, shine your
shoes. Whatever you needed she was there. That’s a lot of power,
for an eighteen or nineteen year old. I imagine, there was a real
deflation in ego and excitement on returning to the States.
We recalled some of our former mates: Alvester
Maryland, now dead (died in prison on drug charges) but who did a
tour and half in Vietnam; and John Alvin, who died six months after
arriving in 1965; and Donald Ford, now dead, also a Vietnam veteran,
retired a sergeant in the Air Force. Mild mannered when in high
school, Donald killed a white man (a car dealer in Emporia who refused to give
him the papers on a car paid for in cash).
Donald went across the river, bought a shotgun,
returned to the store, and shot the car dealer dead. He served a few
years in a sanitarium and returned to Jarratt. He married and was
the first to live on the other side of the tracks in the white area
of Jarratt. Of course, all, including blacks, were a little uneasy
around Donald after the shooting.
* * *
Mama fixed me a bag to carry me home—potato
salad, fried and baked chicken, pancakes she made Saturday night.
Annie took me to the bus terminal in Emporia. About one thirty, I
was on the bus back to Baltimore. When I returned to my house on
Druid Hill all was well. Bobo the cat, I believe, thought he had
lost me. He follows me now to every room. . . . I called Mama to let
her know I arrived safely.
I have yoked together a report of my vacation,
the folk life of my village (my bit of sacred turf), and a discussion
of an African Identity. Much of that folk life I gathered from the
memories of Mama, in her faith and durability, but also in the folk
life I lived until I was sixteen.
While home, Lucinda cleaned Mama’s room and
cleaned out her closets. She convinced Mama to throw out bags of
clothes and other objects. A part of Mama's memory is attached to
those things she has stored away. I was most interested in the forty
or fifty church obituary notices, cards, and photos she has kept in
boxes and folders. There were also dresses and coats that she
probably would never wear again that she refused to let go to trash
In speaking of the African past and its cultural
(religious) life, Wright argues we should allow that pre-rational
past die, especially ancestor worship. But the more conscious
American Negro today has brought that reverence for the dead back
into his reflections and his sensibility, not only in remembrance of
the undiluted African ancestors loaded on ships at African slave
castles but also for that African who became a Negro in America,
often treated worst than livestock.
A growing number of U.S. blacks are becoming more
conscious of the lies and truths of the Western inventions of "Africans"
and "Negroes." They were and are not what the whites made
them out to be—inferior morally, socially, and intellectually. Also,
a growing number of whites are discovering they are not what they
believed themselves to be and what they wanted us to believe they
were. Having experienced in five centuries the basest aspects of
humanity, we Negroes and Africans know that we are more and in our
vigorous awareness and honest engagement of that African and Negro
past we are becoming even more than unchained men.
In the last half-century, the African and the American
Negro has come of age. I speak primarily of that growing conscious,
educated elite who reads and reads extensively, who realizes that
our struggle is yet incomplete. Their actions and words are
reshaping and reevaluating African and Negro life and cultural
forms. They are indeed daily testing the “serviceability” of
black life and culture and the culture of the West, its
“rationality” and “secularism,” too.
Their criticisms are double-edged. East and West are
being yoked together, recombined in third ways that offer a
wholeness, a way out from ethnic greed, tribal domination, and
imperial revenge. Kalamu ya Salaam believes Africans cannot become
truly themselves until the return (at least spiritually) and
acceptance of those
who have been exiled. Similarly, America cannot become itself truly
until it realizes how African it has become since Plymouth
Though Africa and America are places, in some sense,
they are as well fictions, fabrications of white men. But these
fabrications, to paraphrase Lerone Bennett, have been
"wrested" from their previous owners. In the last half
century, blacks have given these terms new and more vital and more
inclusive meanings than they have ever possessed. And that is to
all of our good that we have the courage to traverse the racial and
cultural borderlands that separate us.
* * *
* * *
* * * * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
a big fan of Charles Mann’s 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. It’s exhaustively researched
but so wonderfully written that it’s
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, I’m
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
“southern coast consists of a number of
small bays, one next to another like
tooth marks in an apple.” 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.
* * *
The Persistence of the Color Line
Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency
By Randall Kennedy
Among the best things about
The Persistence of the Color Line
is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the
positions about Mr. Obama staked out by
black commentators on the left and
right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel
West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley.
He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr.
Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism
regarding whether blacks should back
Obama” . . .
finest chapter in
The Persistence of the Color Line
is so resonant, and so personal, it
could nearly be the basis for a book of
its own. That chapter is titled
“Reverend Wright and My Father:
Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”
Recalling some of the criticisms of
America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s
former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with
feeling about his own father, who put
each of his three of his children
through Princeton but who “never forgave
American society for its racist
mistreatment of him and those whom he
most loved.” His father distrusted
the police, who had frequently called
him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr.
Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad
Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never
called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places
his father, and Mr. Wright, in
sympathetic historical light.
* * *
update 2 November