My occupation as editor compels me to reserve my strength of opinion for the printed page; it gives shape to my capricious whims, allowing my mind to act as an ombudsman over what I feel, translating a true depiction of what I think. The controlled channels release me, refine my ferocity, bridling a rage, controlling its power to prohibit a reckless, verbal deluge that could consume me.
These black letters filling white paper, charcoal impressions on bleached-bone canvas, these characters and I, have woven lonely days as in a somber dance, a tryst between ebony and wool.
When compressed too deeply some words seep crimson, like today, when a black headline in a white paper foments the lynching of young black elevator operator, Dick Rowland, for assaulting a white girl. Fresh on our minds is the story of a recent Memphis lynching when a black man named Ells Persons was strung up only after they had hacked off his ears, soaked him with kerosene, and ignited him alive, his moaning blaze serving as candlelight for the thousands of white onlookers.
A battle in the field of war, a battle in the field of words: sometimes it seems as though both alike yield horrific tragedy. Black letters can spell redemption, freedom, and opportunity, but they also weave wickedly in a white world, inducing fear, opening rivulets of raging rivers of hate spilling across all color lines. When the floodwaters subside, the debris clutters our minds, pollutes the landscape of progress.
Black blood from white lashes. Black hate for white injustice. Black suppression in a white republic. Our history of hate inexorably intertwined: white, black.
This evening, nearing the eve of which I shall finally retire, my erratic thoughts continue to traipse backward, tumbling awkward over decades of progress and regress, carried along like the electric current beneath a dry riverbed, which, after so many years, still pulses with the faint surge of possibility. My thoughts rise and fall on a sea of words, ushering a carmine tide that when the waves roll back, yield rocks as memories I am reluctant to collect.
And the one memory I am most reluctant to turn over was the catalyst, possessing life and death.
Recoiling at the brightness, my eyes snap shut.
“You look like hell,” an elderly voice brittles my direction.
Groping for balance, I sit up on the edge of the cot. Dried blood caked on my hands and face. I open my mouth to speak; a piercing bolt throbs my skull, restricting me from uttering a sound. Pulsating regrets in my body bound me earthward. I lie down, turn my head to the voice, and let fall my eyes to focus. An old man sits before me, proffering a blue book.
“A shifty fella, funny walk, strong as a mule, carried ya here. Couldn’t speak. Handed me this here book, pointed at you. I thumbed it but can’t make out the sayings.”
I reach for the blue book and placed it on my chest. Staring upward, the luminous expanse that now blankets over me was, hours before, witness to a reign of pitched terror. I try to recall. Returning to me: shouts. Fists. The winged omen. Desire to fly. The sky’s swirl. A gun blast. Voices. The slump and clump of a shifting gait.
I slowly rise to a sitting position. All around me, the chaos of black bodies interspersed with occasional whites in blue uniforms. Everywhere men, women, and children mill about in protective enclaves. Some merely stumble among the disorder, mumbling, glancing down at their hands in the hope of finding answers there or gazing into the confused bedlam, disoriented.
“They’s all contraband. Was slaves. Now contraband. Least that’s what they call me when I show up. Ran off. Hear tell freedom could be found at the soldier camp, so I come.”
General Order 135 allows enlistment of slaves into the army without consent of the owner. The tide of the war is shifting with the stroke of a pen. The Union campground swells, thousands arrive daily.
“You in the army now … chattel. Dey say we’s contraband and chattel you and I. Guv’ment property. Sure hell don’ feel like guv’ment property. Feel live slave but no work. Master just trade whip for gun.”
Multiple soldiers pick their way across the tumult in small groups. From the midst of one of them come shouts, “Benjamin Adams! Benjamin Adams!”
Faltering to my feet, I raise my right hand. The youngest soldier casts a reproachful glare, barks a command to follow. I slowly shift my weight to comply. The butt of a rifle gun in my back asserts its demands.
Lines of men stretch around the corners of tents, plodding slowly, each foot gained, lost, as more and more line up. A bleary fog settles upon the camp, a foreboding sense of danger and exaltation commingling in the confused morass of men.
Rifle stock as rudder, we steer toward a tent in the center of the campground, two sentries guard the entrance. The bitter wind blows violently about the tent, raising the flaps up and around the poles.
From the opening steps the familiar, straw-colored hair of the master, his green eyes hid behind slits of a concerned countenance. He pockets something, and as his eyes catch mine, he averts his glance and walks away.
The tent flapped opens, and the two soldiers present themselves, swinging their arms to their brow, one announces, “Benjamin Adams, sir!”.
The crown of a head, hovering over papers, speaks, “That will be all Private Williams. I’ll be with you momentarily Mr. Adams.” The military man, bent above his maps, moves an eyepiece about the board slowly. Intense upon the table, his head lifts only to maneuver to another position around the board.
Cold winds blow the tent, the walls flap and pop in sporadic bursts. The accommodations are scarce. A small chair, a weathered cot nestled in the far corner, beside it a makeshift table where papers rest atop a thick pile of books. Books, stacked haphazardly on every surface, -cot, tables, chairs- some splay open like eagles, perched precariously atop another as if read simultaneously. On the cot lay the heavy cloak of an officer, the down-arrowed chevron and stars of a Lieutenant Colonel.
More telling than the marks on the coat are the marks on the man. Deep lines, weathered eyes and cheeks, a premature aging like the husks of tobacco leaves dried in summer heat.
A resolute determination makes the figure seem as stone. Smoke wreathes gingerly about the head, the pipe jutting as fixed an appendage as arms. His sleeves, rolled up past his elbows, reveal thin forearms, skin a dark olive.
The Lieutenant lifts his head only to peer into a tobacco pouch, poking around as if addressing the leaves, “Mr. Lincoln has set the going rate for enlisted slaves at three hundred dollars but, because of your supposed special abilities Mr. Adams, you cost me four hundred and fifty. I hope you’re worth it.”
The sounds of soldiers echo in the distance, rising and sweeping with gusts that shimmy the tent door. The soldier lifts his head and by his reaction I judge my appearance to be specter.
“You’ve … run into some trouble, it seems.”
He pauses, his pipe half way between pouch and mouth, “I am sorry to hear about your mother. Slave patrols are to be abolished. Lynching is -”
My eyes shoot upwards, the room reels and shifts. I lean forward, place my hands on the back of the chair in front of me.
Steady … steady.
His eyes affix mine; an empathetic furrow creases his face, articulating a story but moreover, casting his glance as one would a rope to save a drowning man, an effort to gird my stability and counterbalance loss. It is this moment, a moment that infuses and informs my entire life, that I suddenly lose everything I ever loved and yet -as time would tell- gain something I never before had: a friend.
We stand in silence for some time until the Lieutenant picks up a book from the corner of the table and thrusts it toward me, “I understand, that not only are you good with horses, but you can read and write. Read for me, Mr. Adams.”
I glance at the cover and read the title, Hardee’s Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics. My eyes bounce to a book on the tabletop, a regretful reflex. Such a pause under an officer’s order could be interpreted as insubordination.
The Lieutenant’s eyes crinkle in the corners, “You prefer the King’s English?” he asked wryly, a gentle smile revealing a thin row of teeth.
I stammer, “No, sir, this is fine.”
“No, no, no, here. I insist.” He holds out the big book while seating himself on the corner of the table and crosses his arms. “Open it to where the bookmark lay, Mr. Adams, I think you’ll find a passage there that suits you.”
The leather’s supple cover slides easily into my open palm, I bow my head toward the great book, flip the bookmark to open the page and read aloud:
“And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, wherein they were strangers. And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments … “
Years later, long after the war. Long after years of correspondence. Long after the trail drives, the newspaper jobs, and the University, Lieutenant Branson would write to me about that moment, one of many letters I hold dear:
A trance, a bliss of words enveloped me as a deep baritone resonated the room. Perhaps, imbued by my knowledge of your loss, it seemed as if perfect diction reached my ears: the voice, pausing; pursuing; hesitating; drawing fiercely from a full stop; approaching the next line by relenting to wonder. It was your mother’s voice trembling through anguish. Her instruction in rhetoric infused your reading that would, in time, inform your life. Pain gave way to surprise. I watched the treble of discovery quiver upon your lips, moving from darkness toward illumination along sentences like passages never traversed. The inflection intoned a soft rising curiosity. I was soldier enough to feign indifference but man enough to allow my heart to be raptured by the golden voice of this great soldier, a paradox of captivity -newly freed but suddenly prisoner to sorrow-. I had never before, nor since, heard such an impassioned plea carry the force of emancipation. You lifted a lantern for us all.
“Congratulations, Mr. Adams,” Lieutenant Branson takes the big book from me, “you are not merely a Private in this blessed Union but I am promoting you to Sergeant in the 62nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops."
He thrusts a piece of paper toward me, “Your first order. Read.”
General Order No. 31
All non-Commissioned officers of this command who shall fail to learn to read by or before the 1st day of January 1865 will be reduced to the ranks and their places filled by persons who can read. In the position of Sargent's, preference will be given to men who can both read and write and are otherwise good soldiers. All soldiers of this command who have by any means learned to read or write, will aid and assist to the extent of their ability their fellow soldiers to learn these valuable arts, without which no man is properly fitted to perform the duties of a free citizen.
"As Sergeant, you will teach every negro in your command to read and write. I want every man in this regiment to either revere or revile dear old Mr. Webster. The printed word is the negro’s self-emancipator. His release from bondage remains within his grasp. It is now he who holds whip and chain against himself if ignorance prevails. Any soldier who won’t comply will return to the farms, or swamps, or whatever miserable condition they found themselves in; those who will not, will pronounce upon themselves their own verdict. ‘Tis not my order but their refusal that sends them back, do you understand Sargeant?”
I nod, "Yes, sir."
“Private Williams will show you to your new quarters.”