ChickenBones: A Journal

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Daddy was distant, never an embrace, and seldom a kind word, maybe

a small gift now and then, when I was small and not old enough to talk back.

That was just the way of strong men in those days



Me & The Devil at Crosshairs

By Rudolph Lewis


Though impressive, William Norman could be a frightful man with his one eye, from a child's height. When he was sixteen, his right eye was punctured by a wayward pitchfork and shut closed like an eternal curtain of black night. One can only wonder what this early tragedy among a string of of tragedies this event had on this Negro boy. But he was not one to be so easily conquered by the tragedy of seeing with only one eye. He could light a match at twenty paces with a .22 rifle.

Still he was seldom seen to smile, except according to Mama, when he stepped out in his sweet-water pants. With women,  I am sure he must have been an imposing figure, handsome, even with his singular vision, he a man of many talents and skills. When in the spirit among his peers and a few drinks under his belt, he could be a raconteur. He played the organ and the guitar and he might have even sung the blues, Virginia style.

But what does the innocence of a child know of such contrariness. . . . His mulatto father George Graves, born a slave, was twelve years old when Abe Lincoln became the newly-elected president, so Daddy's pop was sixty years old at his birth. His mother Mary, the daughter of a former slave and a Carolina Cherokee (I imagine because of her long straight black hair) was thirty years old, possibly, when he was born on Christmas Day.

But it seems she was born much later. The 1940 census says she was 53 years old, which suggests she was born 1887 and that she was seventeen at William Norman's birth. But he was Mary's fourth son, followed by Richard, Arthur, Percy, and Theodore. It is difficult to reconcile the census records which suggests that Mary started having children at 13 or 14, making her a child herself when she began bearing children and then birthing a child every year or so thereafter, for there were no twins.

William Norman had seven brothers and the seventh, Percy, was fathered by Marvin Owens, the white man on whose farm his family grubbed out a life. Many whispered behind their backs, but none dared, however, to make public such carnal knowledge.

Fathered by six different men, Mary’s eight children all received the surname Lewis, a good Cherokee name. Her wayward father left her and her mother Betty penniless to work as field hands. For them slavery didn't exactly end with Lincoln or his death. Grandma Mary, as we called her, found herself a husband in her late forties or early fifties.

She must have believed every woman needed at least one husband before she died. By then all her children had become grown men and so she was at marriage a mother-in-law and grandmother Her marriage to Nat King was relatively brief, ending sometime before 1948 in his death. When I knew her as a child in the mid 1950s she was living alone as a widow.

William Norman was called by some "Pompsie" and by others "Tinka."  Though trained as a carpenter and mason, he spent most of his years as a sharecropper on Ol' Man Luther Creath's farm with his young wife Ella and their five daughters, one of whom was my mother Lucinda, who became pregnant with me at sixteen. She was sent off to Richmond and then Baltimore and I was returned two months after my birth to her mama and daddy in southern Virginia.

I was raised thus by my grandparents, William Norman and Ella, whom I have always known as Mama and Daddy. I grew up as their child and this fiction was sustained by family and neighbors until I was old enough to know better. But that knowledge didn't change my heart or my affections. My birth mother and I remained emotionally distant as maybe a distant aunt and nephew. I knew her early as an older sister.

Daddy was distant, never an embrace, and seldom a kind word, maybe a small gift now and then, when I was small and not old enough to talk back. That was the way of strong unsentimental men in those days. For a man had to be a man in those rough times and show no weakness, except maybe in the bedroom to his wife or his woman.

Like many of his generation, the shadow of slavery was upon him. A child was lazy no matter how much work performed. There was never enough effort to satisfy. "Where’s that goddamn boy. I bet he’s got his head in a book." Or, when I helped him to saw a tree down one winter with snow under my feet, cold and aching, and I dared to complain, his retort was, "You ain’t old enough to have a back!"

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His brutal tongue and contrariness, I discovered later as a man myself, had to be seen in the light of his mother’s compromising position within a rural, isolated, religious community. Where morals and ethics meant something, even though one was not always able to live up to respectability. And then there was the old man he had for a father. George Graves, his father, was a big and important man in the community. He was, as some would say, a high yellow nigger, and a deacon at Jerusalem Baptist and owner of twenty-five acres of land. His daddy died and left him not a dime. Daddy didn't see a damn thing funny about the life he inherited. So there were things he couldn't get out his head and he wasn't one to talk about such things.

But what child knows about hard luck and trouble. I had great respect for my daddy and he commanded as much. When our house burned down in 1952, I saw no tears and heard no grumbling. He set about building another house, a bigger house with eight rooms, from the ground up. Moreover, I saw him farm the land, manage his own country store and juke joint, work with Capn' Smith at saw mills—the palms of his hands callused black. Though he boasted he went to school only one day, he seemed to know everything and capable of doing everything. As a child, for me, he was a mighty god of thunder and lightning.

When I was eight to ten years old, Daddy’s weekend drinking caused me great anguish. The watery spirits released a great flood of passions. Like his brothers and many other men who worked the fields and forests, Daddy drank to get drunk, to forget the pains and anguish of a hard week of back-breaking work. And what man among men could break such a tradition.

The men of Sussex were known for their fruit brandies. Slaveowners of the county  made just as much, maybe even more on brandy than their breeding and selling of slaves. In the last century, especially during  the Depression, making corn liquor (moonshine) became the popular enterprise among black men to supplement meager incomes. County officials were at times lax in enforcing the law, informing both white and Negro still owners of impending raids by federal officials. As a sharecropper, it was  their way of balancing "balance due." But this devil's work had its dangers and not just from the law, but took a personal toll..

One evening during the fall, I was about eight, Daddy came home for his shotgun, threatening to kill himself. How he and Mama came to tussle over the gun I can't recall. Daddy was a powerful man, but Mama wrestled him for the gun, she too strong as a man. He told me to go and get him his shells. She forbade me to do such a thing. Torn between these two titans, I cried and wailed. Mama relented and so Daddy got the shells and I was left in tears, horrified by the thought my daddy was going to kill himself.

I cried until my head ached, until Mama could take no more. Finally, she had had enough of my wailing and  told me to shut up and added, "Your daddy want to live just like anybody else." Yet I was certain she was wrong and just wanted to pacify me. Exhausted by my fears and sobbing, I fell asleep. The next morning Daddy was well and alive, as if nothing had happened the night before, as if it had all been a bad dream. Moonshine, I knew, was a mighty demon for even the strongest of the gods.

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I witness yet another near-death experience. Thomas, Mama’s nephew by her "Bruh" Sam, sneaked Daddy and struck him from behind with a two by four. Daddy was stretched out on the bed for weeks. To see him in bed in the daytime was disconcerting. I feared his death. But Daddy recovered and again went about as if nothing had happened.

With all his moral lapses, Daddy was extraordinarily religious, a praying man. His prayers at the holiday family dinners were like mini-sermons. In great anguish unable to sleep, he prayed aloud in the middle of the night. His call out to God quickened the blood in one's veins and set one’s nerves on end. When he hurt no one slept. We endured his humiliation before God. He prayed, interminably, it seemed, wrestling with his soul. My love for him was misery.

Daddy talked only when he had something to say and that was usually about the scriptures, his favorite topic, God’s words. For him the earth was flat, for the Bible said the winds came from the four corners. The earth revolved around the sun, for Joshua stopped the sun in the heavens and the walls of Jericho fell.

All these views, of course, were contrary to my school learning. And thus he sermonized on educated fools. I reached finally an age I also could read the Bible and I then questioned his authority on some religious opinions.

Daddy claimed he didn’t trust anyone. I asked what of Jesus. He allowed that was an exception, for He was God. Then he turned the tables. If one did not know Jesus, one would go to Hell. Even if that person lived a good life and loved goodness, I asked. He allowed that was the case. I asked if his reasoning applied to the American Indian, in which a great ocean stood between them and the Word. Even if they lived the good life, would they too be marched off to Hell? He insisted that was the case. I decided his religion was not for me.

And with cruel whippings, a budding hate arose. The worse and last of these was one in which I waited in bed seemingly forever, my mind racing with fear. I finally fell asleep to be awakened. Daddy asked no questions, took me outside, and with his belt whipped me with a passion, as if he were there when the infraction occurred.

Maybe because of my own incipient rebellion, Mama told me of an incident that occurred when they were sharecroppers on the Creath farm at Sansee Swamp. Half Daddy’s age, Luther Allan, husband of Mary, daughter of Luther Creath, the owner of the farm, demanded that Daddy call him "Mister Allan." Daddy denied Luther that courtesy.

A few days later, Luther came up from Sansee Swamp, driving as if he were going no place in particular. His hair a bright red, Luther, according to Mama, was "roguish and speculating." They feared he was cruising for Negro girls walking alone. And they had daughters. In the field in earshot of the passing car, Daddy said, rather loudly, "There goes that goddamn, son of a bitch."

Luther took out a warrant and Daddy was arrested. Daddy denied he had spoken the words. Allan had no witnesses and Daddy was set free. Daddy knew it was time to move on. He took up residence on the Cary Mason farm, a Negro farmer who owned several hundred acres. In 1948 Daddy bought his own ten acres from Jerusalem Church.

In 1969, the summer before his death in January, I was home during his illness. I had just turned twenty-one. He was sick in bed, in the middle room, the one I slept in as a little boy. He lay in the bed he got me up from to whip me for punching Norman in the eye. He suffered chills and Mama had put him near the heater. He hiccupped uncontrollably. To release himself from this agony, he prayed aloud.

I was saddened and went into the kitchen, where Mama and her sister Aunt Sal were talking. My knees buckled. I could no longer hold back the tears, which flowed down my cheeks. They tried to console me. But I knew my Daddy was going to die. 

And so he did, January 1970, five months later. The doctor gave his illness to "brucellosis." He was unable to keep anything on his stomach. His testicles became swollen; the doctor relieved him of this weight with surgery. Even if he had gotten better, he would have not been better. Buried in the church cemetery, his anguish found rest and his prayers fell silent.

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: 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 his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of 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, “globalized” entity.

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.

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The Great Divergence

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By Timothy Noah

For the past three decades, America has steadily become a nation of haves and have-nots. Our incomes are increasingly drastically unequal: the top 1% of Americans collect almost 20% of the nation’s income—more than double their share in 1973. We have less equality of income than Venezuela, Kenya, or Yemen. What economics Nobelist Paul Krugman terms "the Great Divergence" has until now been treated as little more than a talking point, a club to be wielded in ideological battles. But it may be the most important change in this country during our lifetimes—a sharp, fundamental shift in the character of American society, and not at all for the better. The income gap has been blamed on everything from computers to immigration, but its causes and consequences call for a patient, non-partisan exploration.

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The White Masters of the World

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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