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She was not even thirty-five and like that she was gone like smoke in the hand. My soul thrown

in midair with only God's hand to catch me. I with only the scent of her left to caress.

I promised her things would get better

 

 

It’ll All Get Done in Time

A Tale for Sam Williams (1829-1910)

By Rudolph Lewis

 

6 November 1882

I still wake with her breath on my neck, her snuggled up under me. My Fannie, my darling Fannie. The night is still and blue black with the chirps of birds in the morning wind. The frogs and crickets resound their cacophony of sweet sounds in the ring of silence.

Her mothering breasts on my back like life loving me. The smell of her presence fills my nostrils. And when I turn to take her in my arms there's only the memory of where she used to be. And the circle of emptiness.

I throw my legs over the side of the bed. My feet on the cold floor and my forehead in sweaty palms. I gather my thoughts on what I must do before daybreak. I must get beyond grief and remorse, the mourning over yesterday. Such garments are difficult to toss off; they cling like armor.

I've no time for yesterday and pleasant memories when I got three chillun whose mouths are always open. I light the lamp and keep it low.

*  *  *  *  *  

In longjohns I go to the window and pull the curtain, the wind is in the trees and the morning dark as midnight. I putter around the room, pulling on my pants and fastening my shirt.

"It's your way of oiling your joints," Fannie used to say, when I neared fifty. My sweet Fannie found my routines and quirks amusing.

She was not even thirty-five and like that she was gone like smoke in the hand. My soul thrown in midair with only God's hand to catch me. I with only the scent of her left to caress. I promised her things would get better. Pioneering is hard on a young woman beautiful and used to being pampered. Just keep the faith, I urged her.

The house weighs on me heavy as a wet coat. I open the door and step out into the morning. The chill in the air opens my head. The wind is in my jacket. The snow is coming but not today. I smell it. It will get colder first. Then the snow will come early Sunday and cover the ground a foot or more, I reckon.

*  *  *  *  *  

I walk behind the barn and relieve myself. In the blue blackness of starlight I look over the harvested fields. The speckled whiteness in the blue shadows of night. Still a hundred pounds in those bolls, I estimate. I hear the pigs grunting and the chickens stirring in the coop.

I go to the stall and release the latch and urge Sallie in the yard. She bolts to the other end and comes back to the pea vines I was throwing in the yard. With an ear of corn, I coax her. She nibbles the grains from my hand. I pat her on the mane and rub her ears.

"You a good girl Sallie." From my hands, she takes the ear of corn, falling among the vines. I answer the grunts of the pigs with a few forks of vine and more ears of corn.

*  *  *  *  *  

The cotton field in the damp cool dawn was a dream--blue night soaked into the whiteness of cotton pointing to the heavens. I had a burlap bag tied to my waist, and halfway down a row with mounds of cotton in my hand. I've cleaned two rows, damn near. People talk about education. Well these fingers are "edjucated." They can see in the dark, like my feet on a moonless night. I stretch my back. "It's not that bad," I say to myself out loud. "Not bad at all."

Fifteen years out of slavery. I haven't done so bad. We didn't do so bad. God be praised. I've got my own fifteen acres for me and mine. My Lord has seen me through a many a scrape, while so many fell by the wayside.

I look down the row spying the bolls that will give me their fruit, my fingers ready. The bottom of the bag fills. The sun will rise soon.

I survey the field. I see the cotton in my bag. The joy of owning, of being one's own man, of being on one's own land, command of my own children. And only one small hole in my fine garment. I loved her too much.

*  *  *  *  *  

I had a mind to wake the chillun when I came out this morning. Wake them to these hundred pounds. Teach them what it means to survive in this world I bought with my sweat and spirit.

But the little darlings . . . I see it in their eyes, especially the boy and the girl. They remember their mama. The baby girl has only a faint image of what happened. And they feel her absence more than they have the words to express, except in their eyes and the way they carry theyselves. The boy and girl still go to their Mama's grave with wild flowers.

Children need the softness of their mama. My little darlings, I let them rest this morning. Maybe dreams will take them to her. They loved the child in her, the play of innocence in her eyes. That's what we all loved. It's like the beauty of a flower that fades under a summer heat when you want it to be forever. How foolish the heart that brings on little more than tears.

*  *  *  *  *  

A crow caws in the far wood. A deer comes to the edge of the field, spies me and turns back into the darkness of the pines. I love this land. It's not the best. Too low in places, some hilly clay. But it's rich if you tend it well. You got to love it like a woman who's never had much. Coax it. You got to be attentive and generous and it'll give you its all. What else can a free man demand?

It's strange how the Lord leads a man. I come here by accident to this country, blind. Came out of Suffolk into this county. The land in Sussex ain't so rich as the land down there with all the great plantation houses. They big market men in Suffolk. I learned a thing or two before I left there about farming and every thing else a man needed to live and prosper.

I was thirty-five or about when I was sent to Jarratt. The gray and the blue were at each other's throat. Whites rooted hard and well for General Lee, but Grant was a brutal man however gracious he was to the Old Man in the end. And we knew our time was near. Some left home for the Union lines, throwing caution to the wind. Who knew what those white folks up north wanted?

I was sent to Jarratt, a town, a depot, at the far end of Sussex. Thirty-five miles south of Petersburg. We supported the Reb defenses and shored up their position. News got back to us how thousands of Negroes saved Grant at the Battle of the Crater.

Jarratt was a strategic juncture for Gen'ral A.P. Hill and his Confederates, 16,000 of them. headed north to defend Richmond. Jarratt sat on the Halifax Road that connected Carolina to the capitol of the Confederacy. Trains crossed at Jarratt, connecting western Virginia with Norfolk and Petersburg with Weldon, North Carolina.

Spring 1864, the Union forces burned Jarratt to the ground and ripped up the tracks. It was like a shooting star in a sky that leads to blessedness.

I was among a gang that repaired the railway and rebuilt the station. I never went back to Suffolk. The bluecoats on Lee's surrender came here and read the rail crew a paper that say we free. There was celebrating that night and into the morning too.

With peach brandy still in my head I asked myself the next morning what did freedom me. My men too wanted to know where they be now with their freedom. I knew I was not going back to Suffolk, no where near until I knew what was what.

I worked for one army that wanted to keep me slave, surely I can work for one that set me free. From the army, the railroad, and lumber companies I got my fifteen acres and my farm for work and wages.

*  *  *  *  *  

The wind settles down. The sun is above the horizon and there is smoke from the kitchen chimney. My chillun obey me. They are learning something about life. Allan has made a fire for his sister Tempie, who by now has dressed the baby Laura. Tempie, she's an old woman already at twelve. And can cook too. A few things, at least.

She's always showing her brother how it be done. How her mama did it. I worry about that boy. He might miss his mama more than any of us.

Fannie was gentle with him when I knew he had to be a man. You got to work no matter what. A man had to live and the sooner he learned the better. Ain't no need of moping around. Being down in the mouth about what you ain't got or who got something better. That's like acid. It eats away at the soul and the joy of life.

A man has to live with what he's given. And go from there. The boy had to learn that. Every black boy has to learn that.

From behind I hear the boy as he brushes through the rows of empty cotton stalks. "Papa, we made you breakfast," Allan lifted the pail. I raise myself up to my full height and take the pail and set it at my feet. "Thank ya, son. What we got here?" I push a few empty stalks over and sit on the half-full bag. There was fat back, crisp and browned. Eggs scrambled and molasses and pan-fried corn bread. More than enough to last to supper.

*  *  *  *  *  

"Sit down with me for a minute boy," I begin to nibble on the bread and molasses. He has his mother's soft eyes.

"You know what you got to do today, don't ya?"

"Yes, Papa. Tempie will clean and dust and put up beans. And I will chop wood and make a fire under the iron pot and help Tempie." Okay, lad, I said. And he got up to move away.

"Don't forget to feed the chickens on the way back. And give my good morning to Temp and Baby Laura." I shout after him.

That boy's going to be all right. He is much that I was not at his age. And much more quick to get up and go without the threat of the whip. He's the first generation out of slavery. And he's going to be a dwarf, out of place still in the larger world. And I am the father of that generation. They'll have much to say that will startle the world. Not so much about the masters of the world but about their fathers. Our folks were held back too long. And they're anxious to have their say. Have it they will, hell and high water.

*  *  *  *  *  

I down the eggs, finish the bread with molasses, and save the skins to chew on. Let me get up from here. "Farming ain't for a lazy man." I say aloud. I pull the bag back around my waist. I'll finish this by mid-afternoon.

I hear the ax's thud against the logwood up at the house, the boy is struggling with the oak. The smoke wafts from under the pot.

I'll be an old man by the time they get grown. In my seventies damn near. But they won't have to do without if they follow my lead. The morning dew is dry.

My chillen'll have a legacy of land, work, discipline to buoy them up in tough times. Into the next century. The century of the Negro. We would have done our part and then some in reviving this virgin land and spreading civilization to the far reaches of woods and swamp. That's something to think about.

I finish the cotton. The field clean as a whistle. The sun in the western field. I heave the bag back to the barn and the scale. Almost on the nose. A hundred and ten pounds. I pull the bag and set it with the rest. That should bring in some cash and a few holiday gifts for my darlings.

I check the corn bin. With an ear of corn I coax Sally to me, pull the bit in her mouth and her ears in the bridle. I buckle the harness around her neck. I bring in the ropes and the traces and hook Sallie to the wagon and head toward the corn field.

"Giddy-up gal. Let's go." I tap her with the reins and we are off. There's still so much to get done. There's food still to put up for the winter. The girl needs help. I'll talk with A'nt Jane tomorrow at church. I got some meat hanging in the smokehouse and we have more than enough vegetables. We'll get it done, all in time. All in time. It'll all get done in time.

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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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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

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 Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s 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.     

Professor Perry 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 Caucasian babies.

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 indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

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

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Related files: Dwarfs Lament  Tale for Sam Williams