TeeJay’s Song: Shadows at Midnight
By Rudolph Lewis
All and all, the way I reckon it, after three quarters
of a century and me still with my health and a sound mind, my life ain't
been that bad. One thing's sure, I ain't hungry as I used to be. And that’s
saying something—a mouth full.
I been stomping about long enough to know you can't
measure a man by how much he got in his pants or in the bank, how much
land he holds, or how many sons he got strutting like roosters. It don't
always add up to what you want it to be.
An agile mind, quick feet, strong
arms, and a sturdy back ain't gone bridge every stream.
Nor can you give much account to what people gotta say.
Signifying is what some people do best. Cause they don't know nothing
else. When you want to give a man his due, the tree must be put to the
tape whole—each cord, root, and limb—to know what's been done. And I’ve
done some measuring to know there’s truth in that.
There’s been some bigger than me, badder than me,
blacker than me, drunk more shine than me, loved more women than me,
worked longer and harder than me. But where's them fellows—John Henry
and other bad men like Stackolee? Bold men with thunder aplenty, but they
burned themselves out in their bright and youthful manhood.
But the scales have their own mind about these things.
There's so much that didn't get done, that I wanted done. And there's all
that I refused to do. And all that I let slide.
When you done done something, and you can't get it
undone, and it can never be forgotten, it’s like a heavy stone dangling around
the neck. It’s not like a man’s been mistreated by a woman. One can
drink that away.
A man that works with his hands, he just can't make
everything right. In ways my life’s been blue, magical blue, like a
* * * *
Let my dear Laura tell it, I shadowed her sun and her
happiness. But I ain't gone argue with her on that point. At least, I
ain't gone utter no word to her about it. She gotta a right to view her
situation the way she sees it.
I can understand how she never got beyond that single
drunken night. That full moon August night, I forgot my love for her and
fell into arms other than hers. A distant cousin in Drewryville. One of
those nights a soul gets carried away.
When she came to know about that night, it was as if a light I loved flicked off in her. A red
shield came down. She became more dutiful than loving. More pious and
brooding than playful. We like two trains running side by side. But I
could never and will never stop loving her. Even now in her sixties of
sagging and wrinkling flesh, the blush of youth gone, my love for her is
fresh as a spring rose. She stayed faithful by me, though at a distant.
I was not altogether taken back by how she came at me.
I understood, in a way. Everybody got their sense of worth and how to
value theyself. That only means you step lightly round some people. Laura
was Sam Williams’ baby daughter. She was much like her father—quiet,
graceful, and steady. A great rock a strong man can't move with ease.
Sam Williams was proud much like Mama Malviny. I admire their sense of the dignified. Like soldiers who go to war and come
home escaping the fate of the fallen dead, buried in another country, in
another time. They have gone through something that can't be spoken, for
there are no words. Sometimes I get glimpses of the depth of that despair
in hoops and hollers and soul-filled moans at the mourning bench. They
survived a world that no image or word renders true. Each lived to make
slavery a great lie.
Old man Sam taught Laura, her sister Tammie and Guy
her brother, what it means to live in the world with integrity. He wanted
more for his chillun than the troubled world he had lived in. A world with
too many freedoms for the wicked.
I admired and respected Sam Williams for his
uprightness. What he wanted for his daughter Laura, I wanted too.
I was proud she consented to be my wife. She was fair
and lovely. Her smile a light shining down on me making my world wondrous.
Though a stranger in this country, twenty-eight, black, and poor, her
father embraced me like a son he never had. He gave me shelter on his land
and in his house. All that in mind, I meant to do everything right by him
and his daughter.
Sincere, in his soul's promise, a young man's still got
a young colt, wild, more body and heart than head. But God is merciful. I
survived the craziness of my youth, but not unsinged.
I was no farmer like her father. The pace and patience,
the sun scorching black soil gray, the grudging earth. The land, the clay,
the crabgrass and weeds and pests, the mule and the plow, the hoe and the
fork, and your back. The lack of rain and market and barely breaking even.
Still I worked the fields with the old man, for awhile,
but his way was not mine. Some things a man gotta figure for himself,
gotta go his own way. I wanted money for every hour, for every day. Not
the ragged promises of the barren harvest.
* * * *
* * *
In the early 1890s Jarratt was a safe place to raise a
family, and to own land. Though at the crossroads of two trains, Jarratt
had few people, maybe five hundred in the countryside of small farms. But
it was no place for a man to make money. No place for a man to be free.
The town of Waverly, forty miles away, was different.
It was a trade crossroads between Petersburg and Portsmouth. Even before
the War it had become the hub of moneymaking in Sussex. I figured I needed
to be there. And so I went.
A few years before the new century I began snaking logs
for Gray Lumber Company. No man could beat me at taking logs to the
cutting deck. A snakeman needed quick rabbit feet to avoid the twining
chains, tumbling logs on the loose—hands like pliers and smarts enough
to rein in a horse that got its own head. I became the Man, TeeJay. I rose
quickly to lead my own gang. The woods and swamps, oaks red and white,
yellow pine, gum, and cypress tress—stretching out ripe timber became my
But my work came between me and my sweet Laura. A man
who works forty miles from home can't come home every night by horse nor
wagon, nor by car. Not even by train, though it cost only five nickels
between Hilda (a few miles from home) and Waverly. But who can afford
that, coming home every night? That kind of traveling wear you down fast.
It's not only hard on a wife, it's hard on a man, too,
lonesome. Makes you want to hoop "O Lawdy, O Baby." I know it
was hard on my Laura, young and full of joy, even if she was among friends
and family, even if her man was sending money home on a regular basis, for
groceries and other things needed around the house.
* * * *
My sweet Laura was only twenty-three in 1897 when my
world began to turn. She like a young and tender stemmed flower, lovely,
yellow long petals, cheeks rouged lightly and high. Her hair black and
light as silk. Oh, how I delighted in her. She was my all and all when I
was away in Waverly, a private treasure tucked away with a loving father
at the other end of the county.
Alone, thinking of her, I'd hum a few lines:
you black woman.
I'll tell the world I do.
I love you black woman.
tell your daddy I do love.
She'll take the train sometimes. And we'll have a few
private moments. Don't you hear me crying, baby, I done got hungry.
Come here black woman, and sit on black daddy's knee.
I wanted so much for her, for us. I wanted to give her
the things that a woman needs: her own house, nice clothes, shelter from
dread and the storms of life. I was filled with a young man’s dreams, a
world with all doors thrown open. But my fate didn't follow that path.
After she became Miss Laura, it all came hard and harder.
But I couldn't keep myself apart from my men. My men
and me and our work, altogether we was like a great fist. We were one.
When I was with Laura, I was "Thomas." With them I was TeeJay,
John Henry was a man unto himself. Though they do say
he was a married man. Still he was a man above men, alone. I was a man
among men, good strong men. Their life was my life. What they could do was
what I knew. Our lives went beyond the woods and the mill. We ate pork and
beans and sardines out of cans, drank shine, lived in shanties together.
We cried and laughed and had our little miseries together.
We listened to the same songs. Bluesmen who knew a few
tales about being away from home. One had a verse I liked just fine. I
knew it had been written for me and Laura:
Well, my baby got
like the lighthouse
on the sea:
And every time she
she throws down more
light for me.
What's used to
living and you
can't be with the
one you love
You know that makes
life so miserable
you breathe anger without her love.
And we told the same lies. Rumbled, tramped all over
towns like Portsmouth and the back roads of Southampton. Wrassled and had
We were strong men with money in our pockets. Me, the
man with the books, seventy, eighty dollars a month. We rode all about our
world. I was a leader, but one of them, and no pretense about it.
We were men who tore down forests. No fears of snakes
nor bears. Axes and saws and might ripping through fleshy oak and giant
ringed pines. With drenched clothes, hands like bark, smelling like
turpentine, we were men rugged and sometimes reckless as wild boars. Yet
we were men proud of our work, without us nothing could've been built in
* * * *
A timber man ain't gone be as soft, gentle as he
might otherwise be, except maybe in the heart. There’re things a
woman just got to forgive a man for, not just look the other way. What's
the use of holding a grudge about something that happened fifty years ago?
Some things just can't be helped.
A wife will never believe that other woman meant
nothing to you. That things just happen sometime, after working hard,
sweaty hard all week, you don't just want to go back to the camp and think
of a beautiful wife forty miles at the end of the county. Sometimes you
just want to go out to a juke joint, hear some music, cut the fool with
the fellows, and go on back to your cot, and get ready for the next day’s
It was just a moment of missing her. Of needing her and
being so far from home. No matter how much you want to, some things just
can't be undone.
I was married to Laura for five years and no child. We
were in a way still on honeymoon. A man feels confident that nothing can
go astray. But like a tall tree falling out of nowhere in a silent forest,
creating more noise than lumber, more darkness than light, Henry came in
the spring of 1898, squalling into the world to make everything different.
Laura heard the rumors. I had a son in Southampton. She
didn't believe them, at first. "Not my Thomas," she was heard to
say, like a steady refrain. "Not my Thomas." I received no
reproach. A year or two after Henry's birth, Laura bore me our first
child, a son. Then four other sons and three daughters. They came almost a
year a part until 1911.
The child Henry grew to a boy and church people began
to talk. And every other woman saying the child was as if I had spit him
out. Chipped off the old block, some men said. Unlike his mama, the boy
was dark, lean, keen features.
The lie became too heavy to bear. I could not be a man
that way. A man needs to look his wife in the eyes so that he may see her
soul. After fifteen years I gave up the lie. I got a plan. I wanted a new
covenant, beyond the innocence of our bright youth.
In a horse and wagon I drove Henry and his mother
Fannie from Drewryville (15 miles away) to Laura's house. It took half the
* * * *
She was sitting on the front porch, looking over the field
toward her Sis Tammie's house. Then she heard the sand grinding the
wheels. I knew she was wondering from a distance. She reckoned it might be
me. We pulled up in the wagon. The game of silence and pretend was over. I
pulled the curtain so she could see the truth, all the truth.
I wanted it clear the boy Henry was mine. And Fannie
was his mother. I jumped from the wagon to give Fannie a hand down. Laura
gets up from her chair, stern of face, no word from her, turns, walks into
the house, and slams the door shut.
She could've invited Fannie to sit a spell on the
porch. How was small talk gonna hurt anything? Fannie told me this would
come to nothing and I'd feel like a damn fool. I told her Laura was a lady
and had manners. That Laura would welcome her. That we could get beyond
this heaviness of spirit. How wrong-headed about women can one man be?
I can't remember rightly, but it was about this time, I
began to call my wife "Miss Laura." Maybe I'd always thought of
her that way in some dark wood of my mind.
But she never turned on me like some wild thing. Nor
did she do aggravating things like refusing to cook me something to eat. I
had no problem there. Laura never made me "superstitious about my hog
and bread," as the bluesman sings, like some women do. Deep down she knew I wanted her in the
high chair. The lessons we need ain't always written. We learn the hard way, life is not always a dream.
* * *
* * *
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.
* * *
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
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.
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)
20 February 2012