I must interrupt my narrative again and accompany the reader back to the present, here in 1921.
I sit at my desk, surrounded by books, decades of arduously acquired volumes dear to me, conveyed over many miles as impedimenta, over fields and on the trails. I helped establish one of the nation’s foremost Negro universities and sit mere miles from another. My home sits in the center of the Greenwood borough on Greenwood Ave, right atop the hustle. The presses one floor below me are not running now but the smell of ink lingers with the aroma of the Bell and Little Restaurant next door. Evening customers line up past their front doors, spilling onto the streets where the cigar hawkers and candy sellers and shoe shiners ply their trade. Throngs of people promenade their way toward the Dreamland Theatre to witness Chaplin’s comedic bumbling while others just stand or amble in small groups. Thursday night means letting steam from the week’s pressure of working in white homes and businesses slowly evaporate. No one else has work on their minds now but even when I am not working, I am working.
I am but one of many editors in our nation of black owned newspapers. The ‘colored’ town in which I live boasts a number of prosperous black citizens. Our community is thriving. There are barbershops, jewelry stores, numerous grocery stores and restaurants, clothiers, tailors, druggists, bankers, shoemakers, photographers, a beauty school, and many more enterprising ventures. Make no mistake, there are staggering depths of poverty still and moreover, all, regardless of affluence, are violently and vily oppressed by the hands and minds of whites through the impostering personage of Jim Crow. Yet, I must ‘pull rank’ (as we would have said in the army) and claim my rightful role as griot: Having an advantage of historical aspect, I see remarkable progress. Traveling back to that dim period of time where, like a blanket, illiteracy cloaked our minds, suffocated our wills, and chained every ounce of cognitive ambition, it is nearly impossible to describe the squalor of ignorance that then prevailed. It is easy to imagine the physical poverty, slaves subsisted like animals. But it is rather difficult to comprehend the destitute poverty of mind. The indigent ignorance so pervasive that it had long been accepted as fate by most whites and, in complicity, even some blacks. (I do not judge; complicity was more compelling than death).
It was shocking to the white folks to discover that a slave harbored a genuine longing for education. So convinced were they of their superior provision for our supposed inferior race and so fearfully (and skillfully) hidden our secret desires, they assumed we had only an aptitude for captivity. True, a slave’s days were subsumed with the difficulty of living, eating, working, and surviving, but to suggest we possessed no aspiration was to relegate the human spirit in a black man to a non-entity, below mammals, and to exile hope to the unendurable, monotonous lands of forced labor. When whites would ask directly about our desire for education, our response was always in the negative, feigning disinterest, fomenting denial. The labor of one’s hands, not one’s mind, was the only exertion permissible in the land of forbidden learning. The placidity with which slaves conducted themselves around the question of learning was simply self-preservation. This subtle cooperation with the whites about our identity would reveal itself in verbal collusion, we had no choice but to accede to an inferior persona (yet another mask, another preposterous self). Still today, we see ourselves as shadowed reflections of our individual desires and as an effigy of how the white man prefers us to be seen, a dualism that has forever haunted the negro.
But just as a starving man never forgets the depth of his physical hunger and deprivation -so entombed in his bowels the memory- neither can I forget the despair of intellectual impoverishment. Never.
Back to 1863.
Peering over the past, looking down at that young man, I see questions hanging over me and lodged within me, intractable and stubborn, inscrutable questions about the nature of words and letters: How could anything so free from affectation, so simple and unadorned as black lines on white paper prove to be subversive? Were they not mere embryonic squiggles? What perilous power did words possess that whites would demand darkness? If I am prohibited from words, they must conceal some potency. Were words, keys? If so, what would they unlock? Secrets? Mysteries? Power? The color lines were obvious to us, white and black, but what of the boundaries of ignorance and intelligence? Who created such benighted borders? If I were to breach them, what would I become?
As a young boy, I remember thinking: if I were to learn as whites, would I reach an age of literal enlightenment? Would my own complexion move from dark to mulatto to white? Would I transmute just as my vermillion had done? It seems absurd now but that is how a seven-year old mind thinks, particularly when his mother, the only literate black he knows and the only person he trusts, was a mulatto. Was my mother a mystical intermediary between worlds? So steep our ignorance, so dangerous our pliability, were someone to suggest it, I would have believed it.
Once I mastered the alphabet, mother moved to repeating words to me she had heard in the house or words recollected from her days at the floating freedom school. In rare moments of daylight that she could spare, she would read entire sections from the blue book and encourage me to memorize its passages. ‘Love him that loves his book, and speaks good words, and does no harm: For such a friend may do thee good all the days of thy life.’ Or, ‘If you want to be good, wise, and strong, read with care such books as have been made by wise and good men; think of what you read in your spare hours; be brisk at play but do not swear: and waste not too much of your time in bed.’
At times, mother would recite poetry she learned in Mr. Meachum’s school. In private, her elocution was sharp and resonate. Mother possessed a resolute calm, a disposition that seemed prone to resignation. Around whites she would lapse into a slave’s dialect to hide her competence but with me, she repeated poems with such frequency that I memorized them as well. Mother recited many poems by the English poet William Blake. I would later learn that Blake abhorred slavery. Mr. Meachum must have found in Blake sufficient texts with which to stoke the flame of abolition. I surmise now she had resolved that her fate was to be forever chained. But she prayed fervently for me otherwise.
One cold night, she wrapped her arms around me and we sank back together in the corner of the stable as she recited Blake’s poem, A Divine Image. Whispering a sing-song poem-prayer, she wavered between a brusk confidence and a tremulous sigh, quivering a supplicant hope and warning as if wresting words from darkness, pushing them into the light of truth:
Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face
Terror, the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy the Human Dress,
The Human Dress is forged Iron
The Human Form, a fiery Forge,
The Human Face, a Furnace seal’d
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.
It is seventy years now and turning over those phrases again, tilling the hard soil of memory, I halt my remembrance and rest my wearied spade -not merely worn from plowing in fields of obdurate minds as teacher and editor- but vexed, mystified by the variation and tyranny of human faces Blake unmasks. Rubbing my temples, a question troubles me at the opaque periphery of my mind. I clutch the small, sacred blue book in my hands, its pages eroded by time and wear, and clench my eyes to force myself back into the cavern of memory. After a short period of time, the faces I am searching for suddenly materialize, gaping back at me. Cruelty, Jealousy, Terror, and Secrecy, gathered together on the very afternoon of that desperate day.