Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling, they’re given wings.
— Rumi, 1262

 

Chapter One

 

‘Smart nigger. Readin’ nigger. Dead nigger.’

A pistol cracks.

The bullet shrieks, careens off the garroted iron round my neck. Shouts seethe above me in a tempest of fury, roiling in the shack’s murk. A bottle shatters. Sharp pain scythes across my temple. Blunt gun stock on skull. Crash backwards. Hands bound, they crush beneath the chair under my flailing weight. Boots sledge against my ribs. Side buckles. I cradle. Clenched eyes. Paroxysms of panic.

Somewhere, cackled laughter.

‘Patterollers’, a slave patrol of men armed with shotguns, keep vigil over plantations in the area. They hunt runaways, disperse large groups, and flush negroes from their secret hush-harbor meetings, punishing any hint of subversion. Sometimes, they appear cloaked in hoods. Hoods heighten horror. Slaves torment over such nocturnal predators. The lashing and beating I endure befalls me for my duplicity, a secret crime so heinous as to alarm every white in the county.

They discovered I could read and write.

The imbroglio of power in the middle years of the Civil War in 1863 meant fear of slave insurrection and literate slaves were incendiaries. Backed by the full extent of Missouri state law, the court appointed slave patrols were commissioned to quell potential revolt. In time, they became ruthless, particularly now that the war has raged for two years and the Union soldiers encamp mere miles away. Though the formal proclamation would not be delivered until January, Lincoln warned the states two months prior: emancipation of all slaves in the rebellion states was imminent. The south reels. Reverberating shocks trembles the foundation of border states like Missouri. Schisms between pro-Confederate and pro-Union loyalties erupt into new hostilities.  

The patterollers, freshly venomed, exact their vengeance by terror.

Hot liquid streams over my head. Shock at the unknown startles me in new affright. I jerk my head violently to avoid the sting. Deep-throated laughter follows, and one, the man in the gray hat, curses, ‘A smart nigger’s a dead nigger. We don’t want no smart niggers’.

Hate and fear commingle into one malignant vapor. I sense it, like the fictive animal they purport me to be. It leaps from their hearts, lurching from their mouths, spilling. It creeps toward me, a noxious fog, encroaching, consuming. It invades my beleaguered city and combusts against the stony, flint heart in my chest.

A small flame alights. An incense of eternal fury rises within me.

We don’t want. No smart niggers. Gushing font of ignorance, spat. The words thrust into my consciousness. Singe. The heavy imprint sears a bright, permanent red.

I fight involuntary heaves of panic, drawing sharp pain through cracked ribs, convulsing chest. Coppery warmth of blood flushes from my mouth, the mordant stench of urine stifling. Something swings past my periphery. A large boot. The heel lowers, crushes my jaw.

Body writhes; soul screams, this was not to be my fate.

Before the world pitches black, through thin slits of swollen sight I see them: ephemeral messengers shimmering through the shack’s broken rooftop. My eyes shutter, collecting that eternal backdrop. Cold stars carpeted in darkness. Such stellar winking of startling serenity. The incongruity towering over this terror jars my senses. I sober to a mindful wit. This will be the final time that canopy reigns over me. Keats words emanate from within, my eyes lift to the constellation: ‘Bright star! Were I as steadfast as thou art’.

The sky whorls. My mind grasps desperately for some hold, reaching only the tattered remnant of fear. At the last moment, a bird, a flash of red vermillion wings its way across my fading mind. The engram, my omen. Its portent fades with me into fiction. I tilt my head back toward the broken rooftop to plead an inquisition to the stars: my freedom … to be found … only in death?

Darkness falls.


It has taken me all evening to write that brief reflection. Halting too many times in the telling. Raising my trembling hand to navigate the scars. Smoldering that I still quiver so. It requires as much courage to open again these wounds as it did to receive them. The scars, decades old now, remain tiny tributaries, exterior disfigurements that spring from a seeping river of rage.

Outside, the streets of Greenwood swirl in heat and sweat. It is Thursday night, the negroes Friday night, when Tulsa’s aristocrats reluctantly relent their consumption of black lives for an evening’s respite. Night enshrouds me and silences the day. In the dark I sit, alone, with the only true self I possess.

I am a fool.

I had thought this remembrance I am undertaking was for friends and the generations to follow. I barely get beyond the beating, the genesis of my journey, and now confess: this narrative is a search and rescue.

When you spend a lifetime masquerading  behind the perception of others, you lose yourself. You lose yourself amid a vast labyrinth of selves.

Last summer, my granddaughter insisted I accompany her to a fair that was traveling through Tulsa. On the last day, the negroes were allowed to partake in (what was left of) the festivities. One of the exhibits was a hall of mirrors. Standing in their midst, the convexed curves reflecting a caricature of who I was, I asked myself: Was it caricature? The many versions of me -elongated, obtuse, fatuous- staring back in exaggerated personification, isn’t this how the white man sees me? A black man is but iconography to the white, different shapes and compositions but essentially the same in essence. Only when he is sweating for the direct benefit of a white, is a black man an answer, otherwise, he is merely a full-stop at the tail end of a curved line, a subject beginning with an interrogative pronoun and ending with a question mark:

‘What to do with the black problem?’

The white man has proven himself adept at categorizing his conundrums of color, even using color-coding palliatives as word-choice. They exterminated the ‘red’ problem and alleviated their culpability by sequestering its subdued remnant to assigned lands. ‘Assigned’ being a genteel word-choice, like ‘segregate’; both terms more respectable than the word ‘quarantine’. (Lily white consciences cannot grace a Sunday church door if they admitted to expulsion as the only answer to their ‘least of these’. They forget, of course, that beneath their pigmentation they are as polychromatic as a rainbow. Perhaps that’s why they compartmentalize; they, too, are trying to find themselves).

This color quandary has hounded the black man since slaves first set their manacled feet onto Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Today, even in 1921, the question still stalks us as specter.

My friends repulse at the black man being a ‘problem’; I, however, am repelled at the injudicious responses when plural becomes singular. The patterollers that night were addressing the problem, singularly: to eradicate the black problem, one must subdue the black individual and if individuality cannot be suppressed, it must be extinguished.

Must I always find myself buttressed against the tail end of a curved line?

What do to do with me?

This, I ponder,  in self-dismantling discovery, here in this illuminating dark. This, I pose, to those who read this reckoning.

The answers are rarely linear.

As a boy on the plantation we made a game of chasing rabbits. With their zig-zagged, lightening-quick maneuvers that patterned their method of escape, those old tricksters always eluded us. We revered them for their cunning. The rabbit game carved a memory trace in my mind and I find myself spilling this narrative in such a pattern, choosing a multi-foliated approach over the illusion of a straight line, trusting that my diversions mean something to the reader, but more importantly, to me. Like all narratives, this remembrance means not merely traversing the geography of personal history but that quest within, circumnavigating the furthest reaches of my own interior. The danger always lies in floundering between a quagmire of indulgent animosity and stark vengeance, a transcendent bog where I, and many, remain lost.

My death that night was the culmination of a day of deepening dark. It began with the only guiding light I ever had, extinguished but prefigured in the dawn of that day’s beginning. 

Three days before Christmas, 1863.