Helene Johnson: Poet of the Harlem Renaissance

Helene Johnson: Poet of the Harlem Renaissance

This Waiting for Love

Edited by Verner D. Mitchell

University of Massachusetts Press  2000  130 pages

Foreword: “Chromatic Words”: The Poetry of Helene Johnson written by Cheryl A. Wall

These poems first appeared in magazines of the 1920s and ‘30s

Helene Johnson’s cousin grew up to be an author: Dorothy West

Introduction

The cousins were avid readers and aspiring writers. “Restless, fun loving Vicky could be sobered and inspired by the simple act of opening a book. She turned pages tenderly, not wanting to break the ebony thread that wove itself into a wonderful pattern of words. And the words were the explanation of life, the key to understanding” (5).

“Years later, speaking of the writer’s need for ‘a certain laxity,’ Johnson explained: ‘It’s very difficult for a poor person to be that unfastened. They have to eat. In order to eat, you have to be fastened and tightly…[Y]ou don’t have too much time to go in another direction. And to write anything (it can be poetry or anything at all), you have to have time. You have to sit and rock like a fool or look out the window, and something will come by’” (8). 

Most of Johnson’s early poems focused on nature.

Here are the poems and their topics featured in the book:

“Trees at Night”: about nature and looking at trees at night (something I’ve always loved)

“My Race” is about her race and their characteristics

“The Road” is about nature, race, and their shared characteristics

“Night”: nature and the moon as a woman with long hair

“Metamorphism”: changing faces of the sea

“Fulfillment” is about the beauty of life. Here it is in full:

To climb a hill that hungers for the sky,

To dig my hands wrist deep in pregnant earth,

To watch a young bird, veering, learn to fly,

To give a still, stark poem shining birth.

To hear the rain drool, dimpling, down the drain

And splash with a wet giggle in the street,

To ramble in the twilight after supper,

And to count the pretty faces that you meet.

To ride to town on trolleys, crowded, teaming

With joy and hurry and laughter and push and sweat–

Squeezed next to a patent-leathered Negro dreaming

Of a wrinkled river and a minnow net.

To buy a paper from a breathless boy,

And read of kings and queens in foreign lands,

Hyperbole of romance and adventure,

All for a penny the color of my hand.

To lean against a strong tree’s bosom, sentient

And hushed before the silent prayer it breathes,

To melt the still snow with my seething body

And kiss the warm earth tremulous underneath.

Ah, life, to let your stabbing beauty pierce me

And wound me like we did the studded Christ,

To grapple with you, loving you too fiercely,

And to die bleeding–consummate with Life.

“Fiat Lux’: a Black female prisoner flogged to death for picking a flower

“The Little Love”: secret lovers

“Futility”: being prim and proper can keep you from participating

“Mother”

Soft hair faintly white where the angels touch it;

Pale candles flaming in her eyes

Hallowing her vision of Christ;

And yet I know

She would break each Commandment

Against her heart,

And bury them pointed and jagged in her soul–

That I may smile.

“Love in Midsummer”

Ah love

Is like a throbbing wind,

A lullaby all crooning,

Ah love

Is like a summer sea’s soft breast.

Ah love’s 

A sobbing violin

That naïve night is tuning,

Ah love

Is down from off the white moon’s nest.

“Magula”: the missionary can take away your true happiness

“A Southern Road”: visions of a lynching

“Bottled”: the outside can be ‘bottled’ but the inside is still an African man dancing

“Poem”: This poem is about falling in love with a musician. Here is a small portion:

I’m glad I’m a jig. I’m glad I can

Understand your dancin’ and your

Singin’, and feel all the happiness 

And joy and don’t-care in you.

“Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem”: race and characteristics

“Summer Matures”: nature and love. Here are a couple bits:

Summer matures. Brilliant Scorpion

Appears. The pelican’s thick pouch…

And here Pan dreams of slim stalks clean for piping, 

And of a nightingale gone mad with freedom.

Come. I shall weave a bed of reeds

And willow limbs and pale night flowers.

I shall strip the roses of their petals,

And the white down from a swan’s neck.

Come. Night is here. The air is drunk

With wild grape and sweet clover. 

“What Do I Care for Morning”: is about the night. That is why I love it:

What do I care for morning,

For a shivering aspen tree,

For sunflowers and sumac

Opening greedily?

What do I care for morning,

For the glare of the rising sun,

For a sparrow’s noisy printing,

For another day begun?

Give me the beauty of evening,

The cool consummation of night,

And the moon like a love-sick lady,

Listless and wan and white.

Give me a little valley,

Huddled beside a hill,

Like a monk in a monastery,

Safe and contented and still.

Give me the white road glistening,

A strand of the pale moon’s hair, 

And the tall hemlocks towering,

Dark as the moon is far.

Oh what do I care for morning,

Naked and newly born–

Night is here, yielding and tender–

What do I care for dawn!

“A Missionary Brings a Young Native to America”: about a natural soul, bottled

And as the moon grew large and white

Above the roof, afraid that she would scream

Aloud her young abandon to the night,

She mumbled Latin litanies and dreamed

Unholy dreams while waiting for the light.

“Cui Bono?”: she wants romantic love, not sex

“I Am Not Proud”: race

“Invocation”: about nature and death

Let me be buried in the rain

In a deep, dripping wood,

Under the warm wet breast of Earth

Where once a gnarled tree stood.

And paint a picture on my tomb

With dirt and a piece of bough

Of a girl and a boy beneath a round, ripe moon

Eating of love with an eager spoon

And vowing an eager vow.

And do not keep my plot mowed smooth

And clean as a spinster’s bed,

But let the weed, the flower, the tree,

Riotous, rampant, wild and free,

Grow high above my head.

“Regalia”: yet another reference to the force of religion taking the life out of everything. By listening to the foolish restrictions of religion (and the white man) the janitor lost all his love and joy for his favorite thing. His fancy lodge outfit took him above and beyond his janitor’s position; made him so proud. The preacher took all the fun out of it and the janitor fell further below his position by losing his joy; by listening to someone else, and not following his heart.

“Remember Not”: the end of love. Yesterday.

“Rustic Fantasy”: nature. She uses the word “anchoret” which in the footnote you learn is a hermit.

“Why Do They Prate?”: age

“Worship”: struggling with religion. The church is so confining. One can worship outside the walls of the church in nature.

“Vers de Society”: young love is bold and rushes in. Get it while it’s hot!

“Sonnet [Be not averse to Beauty]”: experience all the love and beauty you can. I like this phrase: “keep the tingleness of life”

“Sonnet [Wisdom May Caution]”: she knows he is bout to leave her, but this knowledge does not help the pain

“Monotone”: mediocre, boredom

“Widow with a Moral Obligation”: a widow ready to love again

“Plea of a Plebeian”: fantasizing about being royalty

“Let Me Sing My Song”: let me be one with nature. We all sing

“Goin’ No’th”: all the mishaps getting on the train north

“Rootbound”: the frustrations of a Black man

“Foraging”: too prudent. Too proper. She wants out!

[End part one]

“He’s About 22. I’m 63”: an older woman’s inner fantasy dialogue about a young man

“A Moment of Dignity”: going job hunting to be turned down?

“Time After Time”: here is the last bit:

Drink up! Crush the paper cup and 

Let it quiver to the floor.

Old woman

Gulp the joy!

Belch the pity!

Straddle the city!

“War”: irony. War.

“War–Part II”

“The Street to the Establishment”: the have-nots speaking to the haves

“For Jason”

Little boys are so pleasant

Why not love them as they are?

Cheer their jousts. Shine their armor

Know their wonder,

Share their star.

They are not far below us.

Why can’t we kneel a bit?

See what they try to show us.

Sit in reverent surprise.

Are we afraid of the reflection in their eyes?

“A Boy Like Me”: two boys wising they could be as God and create the perfect playmate

“The Whimsy of It All”: a favored space

“The Quest”: old age

The poems end and there are letters reproduced. Here is one from Wallace Thurman to Dorothy West. In part:

“But I grown facetious. What I do want you to do is not be like Helene, and for your intellect’s sake get rid of the puritan notion that to have casual sexual intercourse is a sin. It’s a biological necessity my dear. More tragedies result from girls clinging to their virginity than you would imagine. Physically, mentally it is bad after a certain age. Celibacy is certainly admirable under certain conditions and at certain times, but sex is after all but an expression of bodily hunger and must be appeased like the hunger of the stomach. Not immoderately of course, for gluttony is always harmful to one’s physical and mental organs. But when one is hungry one should eat, and an 18 year fast may bring about chemical disturbances as the 18 day diet brings on acidosis. I don’t say just saunter forth and give yourself to the first taker. I only say don’t repress yourself, not violently suppress your sex urge, just because you are Puritan enough to believe that hell fire awaits he who takes a bite of the apple, unless you re profoundly inoculated with the illusion of love. You might be too sensible to entertain that illusion, but you will certainly be subject to chemical affinity, and when the call comes do not wait to decide if this is the man. The man may never materialize or else be halted in his rush to you. And unplucked fruit soon loses its fragrance and rots. Be discreet but be adventurous is a good motto for the literary tribe” (104-5).

Afterword: A Daughter Reminisces

In any case, a word should be said about the family economics since the only written evidence we have is Dorothy’s version in The Living Is Easy, which caused such a catastrophic uproar in the family that most members stopped speaking to Dorothy. To this day many family members still don’t speak to one another as a direct result of that book.

Helen used to accuse me of ‘ghetto thinking,’ and because we were black and we lived in a housing project in Brooklyn, I always assumed that it meant thinking from the bottom up instead of from the top down. It was not until I was about ten years old that I discovered what she meant. She meant that my thinking was controlled by boundaries, that I was encircled by limitations in the same manner that a geographical ghetto is within boundaries. What she wanted me to realize is that with imagination there are no limitations to thought. Once I was able to understand this, I could see how limitless life was and how all things were possible. And since I have always been a big showoff, I went and accused Sondra Johnson of having ghetto thinking, with the assumption that I could expand her horizons. Instead she punched me out.

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

By James McBride

Riverhead Books New York 1996 314 pages

Just as the title indicates, this book focuses on McBride’s white Jewish mother who never identified with white people. She loved Black people, married Black men, and was extremely proud of and educated her many Black children who all grew up to be working professionals. It is a fascinating story because you have such deep description of a real person: her history, her words, her actions, her beliefs. It is also heartwarming that an adult male child took such a great interest in the inner world of his mother. His love for her is great and enduring.

There is a short intro where McBride says his mother was “the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi [who] married a black man in 1942” (xvii). His mother will not reveal where she was from or if she were Black [she was not]. She educated all her children who didn’t even know her maiden name when they were grown.

1  Dead

Whenever the text is in italics it indicates that McBride’s mother is speaking. She begins the narrative with “I’m dead.”: “They want no parts of me and me I don’t want no parts of them.” “I was born an Orthodox Jew on April 1, 1921…in Poland” (1).

Mother says her mother’s name was Rachel Shilsky and “is dead as far as I’m concerned. She had to die in order for me, the rest of me, to live.” “My father’s name was Fishel Shilsky and he was an Orthodox rabbi” (2). When Mother married a Black man they mourned as if she were dead.

2  The Bicycle

The author always thought of his stepfather as Daddy. “He married my mother, a white Jewish woman, when she had eight mixed-race black children, me being the youngest at less than a year old. They added four more children…” “…a stroke, and he was gone” (6).

“Hunter Jordan, my stepfather, was dead. Andrew McBride, my biological father, had died while she was pregnant with me fourteen years earlier.” “The image of her riding that bicycle typified her whole existence to me. Her oddness, her complete nonawareness of what the world thought of her, a nonchalance in the face of what I perceived to be imminent danger from blacks and whites who disliked her for being a white person in a black world. She saw none of it” (8).

“She was the commander in chief of my house, because my stepfather did not live with us.” “Matters involving race and identity she ignored” (9).

“‘C’mon,’ she said, ‘I’ll walk you to the bus stop.’ Surprise reward. Me and mommy alone. It was the first time I remember ever being alone with my mother. 

“It became the high point of my day, a memory so sweet it is burned into my mind like a tattoo, Mommy walking me to the bus stop…” (11).

“Gradually, as the weeks passed and the terror of going to school subsided, I began to notice something about my mother, that she looked nothing like the other kids’ mothers. In fact, she looked more like my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Alexander, who was white. Peering out the window as the bus rounded the corner and the front doors dlew open, I noticed that Mommy stood apart from the other mothers, rarely speaking to them. She stood behind them, waiting calmly, hands in her coat pockets, watching intently through the bus windows to see where I was, then smiling and waving as I yelled my greeting to her through the window. She’d quickly grasp my hand as I stepped off the bus, ignoring the stares of the black women as she whisked me away.

“One afternoon as we walked home from the bus stop, I asked Mommy why she didn’t look like the other mothers. 

“‘Because I’m not them,’ she said.

“‘Who are you?’ I asked.

“‘I’m your mother.’

“‘Then why don’t you look like Rodney’s mother, or Pete’s mother? How come you don’t look like me?’

By kindergarten McBride sees that his mother looks different than the other mothers. She won’t discuss it.

3  Kosher

Text in italics again. It is a description of the traditions of his mother’s Jewish grandparents.

4  Black Power

“When I asked her if she was white, she’d say, ‘No. I’m light-skinned,’ and change the subject again” (21). There are secrets.

“Yet Mommy refused to acknowledge her whiteness. Why she did so was not clear, but even my teachers seemed to know she was white and I wasn’t. On open school nights, the question most often asked by my schoolteachers was: ‘Is James adopted?’ which always prompted an outraged response from Mommy” (23).

“I thought black power would be the end of my mother” (26).

“Her motto was, ‘If it doesn’t involve your going to school or church, I could care less about it and my answer is no whatever it is.’

“She insisted on absolute privacy, excellent school grades, and trusted no outsiders of either race. We were instructed never to reveal details of our home life to any figures of authority: teachers, social workers, cops, storekeepers, or even friends” (27).

“She and my father brought a curious blend of Jewish-European and African-American distrust and paranoia into our house. On his end, my father, Andrew McBride, a Baptist minister, had his doubts about the world accepting his mixed family” (28).

“…represented the best and worst of the immigrant mentality: hard work, no nonsense, quest for excellence, distrust of authority figures, and a deep belief in God and education. My parents were nonmaterialistic. They believed that money without knowledge was worthless, that education tempered with religion was the way to climb out of poverty in America, and over the years they were proven right.”

“Mommy’s contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably slightly substandard” (29). 

McBride describes his mother’s personality and society back in 1966. He speaks of civil rights leaders and his mother identifying as Black. McBride always fears that his mother will be hurt by Black people. “The incident confirmed my fears that Mommy was always in danger” (34). 

McBride is always in mortal fear that his mother will be hurt or killed. 

5  The Old Testament

McBride had grandparents and an aunt he never knew. In italics:

“We attracted a lot of attention when we traveled because we were poor and Jewish and my mother was handicapped. I was real conscious of that. Being Jewish and having a handicapped mother. I was ashamed of my mother, but see, love didn’t come natural to me until I became a Christian” (38).

“His marriage was a business deal for him. He only wanted money. That and to be an American. Those were the two things he wanted, and he got them too, but it cost him his family, which he ran into the ground and destroyed” (41).

Mother was sexually abused by her father: “Of course I had something to run from. My father did things to me when I was a young girl that I couldn’t tell anyone about. Such as getting in bed with me at night and doing things to me sexually that I could not tell anyone about. When we’d go to the beach in Portsmouth, he’d get into the water with me, supposedly to teach me how to swim, and hold me real close to his body near his sexual parts and he’d have an erection. When we’d get back to the beach, Mameh would ask, ‘Are you getting better at swimming?’ and I’d say, “Yes, Mameh,’ and he’d be standing there, glaring at me. God, I was scared of him” (42).

“Folks will run with that, won’t they? They’ll say, ‘Oh, she felt low, so she went on and married a nigger.’ Well, I don’t care. Your father changed my life. He taught me about a God who lifted me up and forgave me and made me new. I was lucky to meet him or I would’ve been a prostitute or dead. Who knows what would’ve happened to me. I was reborn in Christ. Had to be, after what I went through” (43). 

6  The New Testament

Mom went to and brought her kids to Black churches. Mom LOVED church.

A little part that reminds me of me: “…about fifteen feet back from the sidewalk, with a sign above the door that was done by a painter who began his lettering without taking into account how little space he had. It read: WHOSOEVER BAPtist Church” (49).

“…like ‘We’ve Come This Far by Faith’ or ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus,’ she would bow down her head and weep. It was the only time I ever saw her cry. ‘Why do you cry in church?’ I asked her one afternoon after service.

“‘Because God makes me happy.’”’Then why cry?’

“‘I’m crying ‘cause I’m happy. Anything wrong with that?’” (50).

“All my siblings, myself included, had some sort of color confusion at one time or another, but Richie dealt with his in a unique way. As a boy, he believed he was neither black nor white but rather green like the comic book character the Incredible Hulk. He made up games about it and absorbed the character completely into his daily life…”(52).

7  Sam

There is talk of the KKK. In italics: “It seemed to me death was always around Suffolk. I was always hearing about somebody found hanged or floating in the wharf. And we were uneasy too, my family, because in the South there was always a lot of liquor and drinking…” (58).

“They didn’t complain about it. Who would they complain to? The cops? The cops wouldn’t ride back there, you crazy? They were scared to or didn’t want to. But what always struck me about black folks was that every Sunday they’d get dressed up so clean for church I wouldn’t recognize them. I like that. They seemed to have such a purpose come Sunday morning. Their families were together and although they were poor, they seemed happy. Tateh hated black people. He’d call the little children bad names in Yiddish and make fun of their parents, too. ‘Look at them laughing,’ he’d say in Yiddish. ‘They don’t have me in their pocket and they’re always laughing.’ But he had plenty money and we were all miserable. My brother Sam, he couldn’t take it and ran off as soon as he got big enough” (61).

Sam was the author’s uncle. “He didn’t know a soul in Chicago and made it there on his own. Mameh was beside herself with that letter. ‘Write him back,’ she told me. ‘Write him back now and tell him to come home.’ so I did. I wrote Sam and told him to come home, but he never did come home and I never did see him again.

“He joined the army and got killed in World War II, my brother Sam. I didn’t find out what happened to him till long after the fact, when your daddy died in 1957. I had seven kids and was pregnant with you and I called one of my aunts to ask for help and she said, ‘Your brother died in the war.’ I asked her what happened, and she said,’ Stay out of our lives. You’ve been out. Stay out.’ And she hung up on me, so there was nothing I could do for Sam but pray for him” (63).

8  Brothers and Sisters

Stories of what would go on in the house while Mommy was gone. When Helen was 15 she ran away.

9  Shul

When Mom was in grade school nobody liked her for being Jewish. She had one friend, Francis. People were poor, but Mom’s family always had enough to eat. Her dad didn’t mind paying for private tutors.

10  School

“…communicated the sense to us that if we were lucky enough to come across the right Jew in our travels–a teacher, a cop, a merchant–he would be kinder than other white folks. She never spoke about Jewish people as white. She spoke about them as Jews, which made them somehow different.”

“It was in her sense of education, more than any other, that Mommy conveyed her Jewishness to us. She admired the way Jewish parents raised their children to be scholastic standouts, insulating them from a potentially harmful and dangerous public school system by clustering together within certain communities, to attend certain schools, to be taught by certain teachers who enforced discipline and encouraged learning, and she followed their lead” (87-8).

“She invariably chose predominantly Jewish public schools…”

“We grew accustomed to being the only black, or ‘Negro,’ in school and were standout students, neat and well-mannered, despite the racist attitudes of many of our teachers…” (89).

“Ma, what’s a tragic mulatto?” I asked.

Anger flashed across her face like lightning and her nose, which tends to redden and swell in anger, blew up like a balloon. “Where’d you hear that?” she asked.

“I read it in a book.”

“For God’s sake, you’re no tragic mul–What book is this?”

“Just a book I read.”

“Don’t read that book anymore.” She sucked her teeth. “Tragic mulatto. What a stupid thing to call somebody! Somebody called you that?”

“No.”

“Don’t ever ever use that term.”

“Am I black or white?”

“You’re a human being,” she snapped. “Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!”

“Will I be a black nobody or just a nobody?”

“If you’re a nobody,” she said dryly, “it doesn’t matter what color you are.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said.

She sighed and sat down. “I bet you never heard the joke about the teacher and the beans,” she said. I shook my head. “The teacher says to the class, ‘Tell us about different kinds of beans.’

“The first little boy says, ‘There’s pinto beans.’

“‘Correct,’ says the teacher.

“Another boy raises his hand. ‘There’s lima beans.’

“‘Very good,’ says the teacher.

“Then a little girl in the back raises her hand and says, ‘We’re all human beans!’”

She laughed. “That’s what you are, a human bean! And a fartbuster to boot!” She got up and went back to cooking while I wandered away, bewildered. (92-3)

“The question of race was like the power of the moon in my house. It’s what made the river low, the ocean swell, and the tide rise, but it was a silent power,, intractable, indomitable, indisputable, and thus completely ignorable. Mommy kept us at a frantic living pace that left no time for the problem” (94).

“Now the others began to act out, and the sense of justice and desire for equal rights that Mommy and father had imparted to us began to backfire. Kind, gentle, Sunday school children who had been taught to say proudly, ‘I am a Negro,’ and recite the deeds of Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson now turned to Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown and Martin Luther King for inspiration. Mommy was the wrong color for black pride and black power, which nearly rent my house in two” (96).

“The extended black family was Mommy’s hole card, and she played it as often as the times demanded because her family was not available to her.”

“I’m dead. They’re dead too by now probably. What’s the difference? They didn’t want me to marry on the black side.”

“But if you’re black already, how can they be mad at you?” (99)

“…and going out with Mommy, which had been a privilege and an honor at age five, had become a dreaded event. I had reached a point where I was ashamed of her and didn’t want to the world to see my white mother. When I went out with my friends, I’d avoid telling her where we were playing because I didn’t want her coming to the park to fetch me. I grew secretive, cautious, passive, angry, and fearful…” (100).

“As I walked home, holding Mommy’s hand while she fumed, I thought it would be easier if we were just one color, black or white. I didn’t want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul. I don’t consider myself Jewish, but when I look at Holocaust photographs of Jewish women whose children have been wrenched from them by Nazi soldiers, the women look like my own mother and I think to myself, There but for the grace of God goes my own mother–and by extension, myself. When I see two little Jewish old ladies giggling over coffee at a Manhattan diner, it makes me smile, because I hear my own mother’s laughter beneath theirs. Conversely, when I hear black ‘leaders’ talking about ‘Jewish slave owners’ I feel angry and disgusted, knowing that they’re inflaming people with lies and twisted history, as if all seven of the Jewish slave owners in the antebellum South, or however few there were, are responsible for the problems of African-Americans now. Those leaders are no better than their Jewish counterparts who spin statistics in marvelous ways to make African-Americans look like savages, criminals, drags on society, and ‘animals’ (a word quite popular when used to describe blacks these days). I don’t belong to any of those groups. I belong to the world of one God, one people. But as a kid, I preferred the black side, and often wished that Mommy had sent me to black schools like my friends. Instead I was stuck at that white school, P.S. 138, with white classmates who were convinced I could dance like James Brown. They constantly badgered me to do the ‘James Brown’ for them, a squiggling of the feet made famous by the ‘Godfather of Soul’ himself, who back in the sixties was bigger than life. I tried to explain to them that I couldn’t dance. I have always been one of the worst dancers that God has ever put upon this earth. My sisters would spend hours at home trying out new dances to Archie Bell and the Drells, Martha Reeves, King Curtis, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, and the Spinners” (104).

Problems with color out in society.

11  Boys

If there was one thing Tateh didn’t like more than gentiles, it was black folks. And if there was one thing he didn’t like more than black folks in general, it was black men in particular. So it stands to reason that the first thing I fell in love with in life was a black man. I didn’t do it on purpose. I was a rebellious little girl in my own quiet way, but I wasn’t so rebellious that I wanted to risk my own life or anybody else’s life. They would kill a black man for looking at a white woman in the South in those days. They’d hang him. And the girl, they’d run her out of town” (107).

“I was never asked out for a date by anyone in school. I loved to dance and had long legs, and I once auditioned for a dance musical at school and made it, but some of the girls made such a fuss over having to dance next to a Jew that I dropped out of it. During gym class when we’d pick tennis partners, the girls would pick and pick until I’d be standing alone. If Frances wasn’t around, I wouldn’t get picked. I’d like to say I didn’t care about my classmates, and what they thought of me” ((108).

“None of the boys in school would even bother with me. So after a while I had me my own friend, and he didn’t care that I wore secondhand clothes or was Jewish. He never judged me. That’s the first thing I liked about him, in fact that’s what I liked about black folks all my life: They never judged me.”

“I loved that boy to death and he loved me. At least, I thought he did. Who cared that he was black? He was the first man other than my grandfather who ever showed me any kindness in my life, and he did it at the risk of his own because they would’ve strung him up faster than you can blink if they’d have found out. Not us the Ku Klux Klan but the regular white folks in town would’ve killed him. Half of them were probably the Klan anyway, so it was all the same. You know death was always around Suffolk, always around. It was always so hot, and everyone was so polite, and everything was all surface but underneath is was like a bomb waiting to go off. I always felt that way about the South, that beneath the smiles and southern hospitality and politeness were a lot of guns and liquor and secrets. A lot of those secrets ended up floating down the Nansemond River just down the road from us. Folks would go down to the wharf and throw out nets for crabs and turtles and haul in human bodies. I remember one of our customers, Mrs. Mayfield, they found her son out there, he wasn’t more than seventeen or so. He’d been killed and tied to a wagon wheel and tossed into the wat until he drowned or the crabs ate him. You know a crab will eat anything. You have never seen me eat a crab to this day and you never will.”

“Well, Peter and I were having our regular little secret rendezvous, carefully arranged. We’d meet in the yard or the passage behind the store, or he’d write a note and slip it to me secretly. If the store was closed he’d slide the note under the front door. On the Sabbath, Friday nights, it was a thrill for me to pretend I was going downstairs to the kitchen and then creep into the store to pick up the torrid love notes he slipped under the door. He would pledge his love for me no matter what and write out the plan for our secret meeting. At the appointed time he’d come by and pick me up in a car and I’d get into the back seat and lie flat so I wouldn’t be seen. He had friends that lived out in the country in isolated areas, and that’s where we would be together.

“You know, my whole life changed after I fell in love. It was like the sun started shining on me for the first time, and for the first time in my life I began to smile. I was loved, I was loved, and I didn’t care what anyone thought. I wasn’t worried about getting caught, but I did notice that Peter’s friends were terrified of me; they stayed clear anytime I came near them. They’d walk away from me if they saw me walking down the road coming toward them, and if they came into the store, they wouldn’t even look at me. That started to worry me a little but I didn’t worry much. Then after a while, my period was late. By a week.

“Then another two weeks.

“Then it never came.

“Well, the whole thing just started to unravel on me then. I was pregnant and couldn’t tell a soul. The white folks would have killed him and my father would have killed him. I had maybe just turned fifteen then. There wasn’t a person I could tell. I’d wake up in bed in a sweat, and go outside to the back balcony to hide my tears from my sister. I did consider telling Frances, but that was too much to ask. This was 1936. I mean, what I did was way, way out as far as white folks were concerned” (112).

“You know, the thing was, I was supposed to be white and ‘number one,’ too. That was a big thing in the South. You’re white, and even if you’re a Jew, since you’re white you’re better than a so-called colored. Well, I didn’t feel number one with nobody but him, and I didn’t give a hoot that he was back. He was kind! And good! I knew that! And I wanted to tell folks that, I wanted to shout out, ‘Hey y’all, it really doesn’t matter!’ I actually believed folks would accept that, that they’d see what a good person he was and maybe accept us, and I went through a few days of thinking this, after which I told him one night, ‘Let’s run off to the country and get married,’” (113-4).

Momma was never liked by the boys until one black boy came along. He was nicer to her than anyone and they fell in love. 1937. She got pregnant and didn’t know what to do. This could cost them their lives.

12  Daddy

“His name was Hunter Jordan, Sr., and he raised me as his own son.

“As a small boy, I was never quite aware of the concept of ‘father’” (117).

“He married her and made the baseball team his own, adding four more kids to make it an even twelve. He made no separation between the McBride and Jordan children, and my siblings and I never thought of or referred to each other as half brothers and sisters; for the powerless Little Kids, myself included, he was ‘Daddy.’ For the midlevel executives, he was sometimes ‘Daddy,’ sometimes ‘Mr. Hunter’” (118).

“His father was a black man, a railroad brakeman, and his mother a Native American, so he had a lot of Indian in his face: brown skin, slanted brown eyes, high cheekbones, and a weather-beaten outdoor look about him, a very handsome dude” (120).

James had a pretty great stepdad who eventually died of a stroke.

13  New York

“My mother knew I was pregnant and in trouble” (129).

“She just went about it in that matter-of-fact way my mother’s family did things. She made a few phone calls, found a Jewish doctor in Manhattan, and took me to his office, where I had an abortion. It was a horrible, painful experience and the doctor used no anesthesia” (134).

Just as Momma’s family was neither immigrant nor American, Mommy was neither black nor white. (In her soul she was black.)

14  Chicken Man

When James’s stepfather died both he and his mom lost it. James drops out of school. He begins smoking weed and stealing.

“It did not help. My friends became my family, and my family and mother just became people I lived with” (140).

“I was numb. I felt I was getting back at the world for injustices I had suffered, but if you sat me down and asked me which injustices I was talking about, I wouldn’t have been able to name them if my life depended on it…I had no feelings. I had smothered them. Every time they surged up, I shoved them back down inside me the way you stuff clothing in a drawer and shut it. Reefer and wine helped me to forget any pain, and as the pain and guilt increased, my problems with drugs worsened” (142).

“The men did not seem to be afraid of the police, nor did they dislike them. Their lives just seemed complete without the white man. I liked that. Their world was insular, away from the real world that I was running from. They called me ‘New York’…I turned fifteen on the Corner but could act like I was twenty-five, and no one cared. I could hide. No one knew me. No one knew my past, my white mother, my dead father, nothing. It was perfect. My problems seemed far, far away” (147).

“‘And nobody’ll give a damn neither!’ Chicken Man snapped. ‘Everybody on this corner is smart. You ain’t no smarter than anybody here. If you so smart, why you got to come on this corner every summer? ‘Cause you flunkin’ school! You think if you drop out of school somebody’s gonna beg you to go back? Hell no! They won’t beg your black ass to go back. What makes you so special that they’ll beg you! Who are you? You ain’t nobody! If you want to drop out of school and shoot people and hang on this corner all your life, go ahead. It’s your life” (150)!

James is getting a taste of true street life.

15  Graduation

After Moma aborted Peter’s baby in high school, she moved away for a year. During that time peter got another girl pregnant. Mama’s heart was broken.

“Oh, that messed me up. I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore and walked back through the black neighborhood, into the store, and went upstairs and cried my heart out, because I still loved him. I went through this entire ordeal and here he was getting busy with somebody else. The fact that he was black and the girl he was marrying was black–well, that hurt me even more. If the world were fair, I suppose I would have married him, but there was no way that could happen in Virginia. Not in 1937” (154). 

Mom’s father never cared for Mom’s mom.

“I wasn’t going to have an arranged marriage like my parents did. I’d rather die first, which I did do in a way, because I lost my mother and sister when I left home” (155).

Moma’s Jewish father forbid her to go into the Protestant church for her graduation ceremony. Mama left the next day for N.Y.C.

16  Driving

James begins to turn around although he was still seeking solace in drugs in order to distance himself from his mother’s suffering.

“I wanted to give up weed, but I couldn’t. Weed was my friend, weed kept me running from the truth. And the truth was my mother was falling apart.

“Looking back, I see it took about ten years for Mommy to recover from my stepfather’s death. It wasn’t just that her husband was suddenly gone, it was the accumulation of a lifetime of silent suffering, some of which my siblings and I never knew about. Her past had always been a secret to us, and remained so even after my stepfather died, but what she had left behind was so big, so complete that she could never entirely leave it: the dissipation of her own Jewish family, the guilt over abandoning her mother, the separation from her sister, the sudden, tragic death of his first husband, whom she adored. While she never seemed on the verge of losing her mind, there were moments when she teetered close to the edge, lost in space. Even in my own self-absorbed funk, I was worried about her, because as my siblings and I slowly got to our emotional feet, Mommy staggered about in an emotional stupor for nearly a year. But while she weebled and wobbled and leaned, she did not fall. She responded with speed and motion. She would not stop moving. She rode her bicycle. She walked” (163).

“…her Orthodox Jewish ways had long since translated themselves into full-blown Christianity. Jesus gave Mommy hope. Jesus was Mommy’s salvation. Jesus pressed her forward. Each and every Sunday, no matter how tired, depressed, or broke, she got up early, dressed in her best, and headed for church. When we kids grew too old and big for her to force us to go, she went alone, riding the F train from Queens to Brooklyn to New Brown Memorial, the church she started with my father. Church revived her, filled her up, and each Sunday she returned a little more renewed, until that Saturday afternoon she announced she was going to drive my stepfather’s car” (165).

“Rachel Deborah Shilsky could drive a car and pull a trailer behind it, but Ruth McBride Jordan had never touched a steering wheel before that day in 1973, and you can make book on it” (168).

17  Lost in Harlem

“I don’t know what drew me there–maybe because I’d lived around black folks most of my life, or because I’d heard so much about it. In those days, nobody in New York City went to the Village to have fun. Harlem was the place. White and black came to Harlem to party. There weren’t heavy drugs and crime like there is now. It was different. People were flowing up to Harlem in droves, from the South, from Chicago, from everyplace. Harlem was like magic” (171).

“Nobody would hire me. Why would a white girl hang around Harlem unless she was up to something bad” (172)?

“I would stay in the little room he rented for me for a few days, then go back to Bubeh’s, then go back there to my little room again. Bubeh was getting very suspicious now, but she was very old then, she slept a lot, you know, and she had diabetes, and I got over on her the way my grandkids get over on me now. I told her anything, you know, and after a while it got so that I couldn’t see my grandmother anymore and keep doing what I was doing, hanging out in Harlem. I had to break away and not go back home to her, because Bubeh reminded me too much of what I was and where I came from. I needed to move into Harlem completely and make enough money to stay there and e cool and wear the fancy dresses and the clothes. So one day I asked Rocky, ‘When do I get to make money like your other girls?’ I knew what I was saying. I wasn’t blind. But what was love to me? What did I know about love? And sex? I wanted to be swinging, but Rocky said, ‘You’re not ready to get out there yet. I’ll tell you when you’re ready’” (175).

If Mama hadn’t had friends looking out for her she likely would have become a prostitute. She returns to her grandmother’s. 

18  Lost in Delaware

Moving.

“In June 1974, Mommy walked into the kitchen of our house in Queens and said, ‘We’re moving to Delaware. Pack up the house.’ She had five kids at home and seven who were away at college” (177).

“My mother is the only individual I know who can fall asleep instantly for two minutes–deep REM sleep, complete with snoring–only to be awakened instantly by certain select noises” (178).

Culture shock: “…the promised land of Macy’s, Gimbels, and Ohrbach’s, entertaining them for free at museums, parades, block parties, and public concerts, Wilmington was a land of suburban shopping malls, high school marching bands, blond prom queens, small-town gossip, and an inner city from which whites were fleeing as fast as their Ford Pintos could take them. We were shocked by the racial division of the city and surrounding county, where most of the black kids attended understaffed and underfunded city schools while whites attended sparkling clean suburban schools with fantastic facilities. The segregated schools came as a complete surprise to Mommy, who had not even considered that problem, and the southern vibe of the city–anything south of Canal Street in Manhattan was the South to us–brought back unpleasant memories for Mommy. She hates the South” (180).

“But mommy did not have that insight, and from that moment on she hated Delaware. ‘We’re really moving back to new york now,’ she said” (181).

We see James’s life changing in Deleware and how he feels about white people.

“It hurt me a little bit to stand there and lie. Sometimes it seemed like the truth was a bandy-legged soul who dashed from one side of the world to the other and I could never find him” (187).

“She had few friends there. The black folks found her to be awkward. The white folks bored her. But there was no quick and easy escape.

“College was my way out. My eldest brother’s wife, Becky, had gone to Oberlin College in Ohio and she told me I should apply because they had a great liberal ars school, a conservatory of music, and most of all, scholarship money. My high school grades were sour, my SATs low, but my musical and writing abilities were strong and I had good recommendations” (188).

A sad parting from Mama as James leaves for college. This is her eighth child in a row to go to college.

19  The Promise

Dennis the violinist.

…Aunt Mary’s leather factory and we started going out, he brought me by there and said, ‘I want y’all to meet a friend of mine,’ and their eyes kind of popped out when I walked into the room.

This was around 1940 and black and white didn’t do what me and Dennis were doing, walking around and such. Some folks did it, but it was all secret, or they were good-time, partying folks like Rocky’s friends at Small’s Paradise. But Dennis was a Christian man and a serious man and so were his friends. This was no joking matter to them.”

“She was the grandchild of slaves. When I first came to North Carolina and walked into her house, she said, ‘I just hope you excuse me for looking at you so hard, because I’ve never had a white person in my house before, and I’ve never been this close to a white person before.’ And I said, ‘All right,’ and she was my friend till she died. I’ll never forget her as long as I live. She lived to be nearly a hundred. We wouldn’t have made it without Aunt Candis. She came up from North Carolina and cared for y’all after Dennis died, because I was grieving and lost and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move. She took the train all the way up to New York from North Carolina and took care of all eight of you, including you, James, and you weren’t but a tiny child. She had never been to the city before. She’d never seen so much cement and so many tall buildings in her life. Your stepfather, he bought her a big gold watch after he married me and she left to go home to North Carolina. He said, ‘That’s some woman,’ and he was right. She was some woman” (195).

“So I did my own thing. I moved in with Dennis and I didn’t regret it. He continued to work for my Aunt Mary while I was living with him, and she never knew it” (196).

A father she grew up with but never really knew.

“She tried to ignore that, too, as long as she could, and I don’t think she knew for a while because Tateh was always a little strange anyway, you know, and secretive. He never told us anything, like where he was born, or if he had any family or relatives. Every summer he’d disappear for a few weeks to Europe. He’d say, ‘I’m going to see my landsman,’ and off he’d go on a steamer to France someplace. ‘Landsman’ in Jewish is somebody from your hometown. We’d run the store in his absence, me, Dee-Dee, and Mameh. To this day I don’t know exactly where he went, but a few weeks later he’d strut into the store, put down his bags, and say, ‘Where’s my money?’ We’d give it to him and he’d sit down and count it. Even before he took off his jacket, he’d count his money. He knew just how much he was supposed to earn a week, more or less. He was serious about his money.”

…say our prayers to begin the Sabbath, and Tateh would pack a bag of groceries and throw them in his car while Mameh watched him. He’d say to her in Yiddish, ‘I’m going out.’ Then he’d say to me in English, ‘I won’t be back till Monday. Open up the store Sunday morning.’” (198).

Mama’s parents getting divorced and how hard it was on the family.

20  Old Man Shilsky

As a young adult in Boston facing prejudice. Learning about his grandfather; not a pretty picture.

“‘Well…he just disliked black folks. And he cheated them. Sold ‘em anything and everything and charged ‘em as much as he could. If you owed him five dollars he’d make you pay back ten. He shot ol’ Lijah Ricks in the stomach. Lijah brought that on himself though, went in the Shilskys’ store fussin’ over some sardines and crackers and wouldn’t pay. Shilsky shot him in the left or right side, I can’t remember which. He didn’t kill him, but he was a hateful one, Old Man Shilsky. His own wife was scared of him’” (209).

James goes to Suffolk where his mom grew up. It is difficult to hear more stories of his mean ol’ grandpa.

21  A Bird Who Flies

“There was no life in Suffolk for me. I packed what few things I wanted and tried to talk to Dee-Dee before I left, but she wouldn’t talk to me. ‘You promised you wouldn’t go,’ she said, and she walked away from me. As I left the store to walk downtown to the bus station, Mameh handed me a bag lunch and kissed me and I was out the door and gone. I never saw her or Dee-Dee ever again. Tateh didn’t say a word to me as I walked out” (214).

“I began to yell at him and we argued. Here he was having divorced Mameh and he was still using her against me. Then he said, ‘I know you’re gonna marry a shvartse. You’re making a mistake.’ That stopped me cold, because I didn’t know how he learned it. To this day I don’t know. He said, ‘If you marry a nigger, don’t ever come home again. Don’t come back’” (215).

…he heard Aunt Mary say that my mother was sick and had been brought up to a hospital in the Bronx. I right away went out and called Aunt Mary and asked if she knew where Mameh was. She said, ‘You’re out of the family. Stay out. We sat shiva for you. You can’t see her.’ Well, that just hurt me to the bone. That night I told Dennis, ‘I’ve got to see her.’ He said, ‘Ruth, your aunt Mary made it clear that you’re not welcome up there’” (216). 

“That’s why she gave me that passport. I’ve always held that to this day, that guilt, that I left Mameh, because all her life I was the one who translated for her and helped her around. I was her eyes and ears in America, and when I left…well, Sam had gone, and Bubeh had died, and her husband treated her so bad and divorced her, and her reasons for living just slipped away. It was a bad time” (217). 

The story of when grandpa died.

22. A Jew Discovered

Interactions with white Jews: “Like most of the Jews in Suffolk they treated me very kindly, truly warm and welcoming, as if I were one of them, which in an odd way I suppose I was. I found it odd and amazing when white people treated me that way, as if there were no barriers between us. It said a lot about this religion–Judaism–that some of its followers, old southern crackers who talked with southern twangs and wore straw hats, seemed to believe that its covenants went beyond the color of one’s skin. The Sheffers, Helen Weintraub, the Jaffes, they talked to me in person and by letter in a manner and tone that, in essence, said ‘don’t forget us. We have survived here. Your mother was part of this…’” (224).

“The Shilskys kept to themselves. Your Uncle Sam, he joined the air force and got killed in a plane crash in Alaska” (226).

“The Shilskys were gone. Long gone” (228). 

“It suddenly occurred to me that my grandmother had walked around here and gazed upon this water many times, and the loneliness and agony that Hudis Shilsky felt as a Jew in this lonely southern town–far from her mother and sisters in New York, unable to speak English, a disabled Polish immigrant whose husband had no love for her and whose dreams of seeing her children grow up in America vanished as her life drained out of her at the age of forty-six–suddenly rose up on my blood and washed over me in waves. A penetrating loneliness covered me, lay on me so heavily I had to sit down and cover my face. I had no tears to shed. They were done long ago, but a new pain and a new awareness were born inside me. The uncertainty that lived inside me began to dissipate; the ache that the little boy who stared in the mirror felt was gone. My own humanity was awakened, rising up to greet me with a handshake as I watched the first glimmers of sunlight peek over the horizon. There’s such a big difference between being dead and alive, I told myself, and the greatest gift that anyone can give anyone else is life. And the greatest sin a person can do to another is to take away that life. Next to that, all the rules and religions in the world are secondary; mere words and beliefs that people choose to believe and kill and hate by. My life won’t be lived that way, and neither, I hope, will my children’s. I left New York happy in the knowledge that my grandmother had not suffered and died for nothing.

23  Dennis

In 1942 Dennis and I were living in a room in the Port Royal on 129th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and one night after work I walked into the hallway of our building and this black woman punched me right in the face. She hit me so hard I fell to the floor. ‘Don’t disrespect me!’ she said. She was a raving lunatic. I never even knew who she was. I somehow got off the floor and she chased me up to our room and I slammed the door on her and waited for my husband to get home. Dennis went to speak to her when he got home from work. ‘That white woman don’t belong here,’ she said. That’s what she told him. Dennis didn’t attack her. He just said, ‘Leave my wife alone,’ and she did. Even though we were not married, we considered ourselves husband and wife.

Some black folks never did accept me. Most did, but there were always a few running around saying ‘Nubian this’ and ‘Nubian that’ and always talking bout Africa and all this. Well, I’m a mother of black children, and nobody will ever deny me my children, and they can put that in their Nubian pipe and smoke it. All this Nubian. If you want to go back to Africa, James, well, you can go. I don’t see the point in your going when you have your family here. But if you feel you want to go to Africa to find your roots I won’t stop you. I’ll still be your mother when you come back. And you’ll still be my son.

There was no turning back after my mother died. I stayed on the black side because that was the only place I could stay. The few problems I had with black folks were nothing compared to the grief white folks dished out. With whites it was no question. You weren’t accepted to be with a black man and that was that. They’d say forget it. Are you crazy? A nigger and you? No way. They called you white trash. That’s what they called me. Nowadays these mixed couples get on TV every other day complaining, ‘Oh, it’s hard for us.’ They have cars and televisions and homes and they’re complaining. Jungle fever they call it, flapping their jaws and making the whole thing sound stupid. They didn’t have to run for their lives like we did. Me and Dennis caused a riot on 105th Street once. A bunch of white men chased us up the street and surrounded Dennis and tried to kill him, throwing bottles and hitting and kicking him until one of them made the rest of them stop. He said, ‘Get out of here while you can!’ and we ran for it. See, most interracial marriages did not last. That’s what Dennis would say when we argued. I’d say, ‘I’m leaving,’ and he’d say, ‘Go ahead. Go ahead. That’s what people want us to do. That’s what they expect.’ And he was right” (231-2).

Dennis was a deacon and he sang in the church choir. And it was a mighty, mighty choir too. What a time it was. Those were my glory years” (234).

“All his friends from North Carolina who lived in Harlem would come see him. They’d holler up to our window. ‘Dennis…Denis!’ and he’d invite them in and give them our last food or the shirt off his back if they asked. He came from a home where kindness was a way of life. I wanted to be in this kind of family. I was proud to join it, and they were happy to have me.”

“There were a lot of stares and whispering and pointing and silly questions when we went to the marriage bureau to get our license. The clerks were very nasty and no one wanted to write up our paperwork, but we didn’t let those fools ruin our marriage. We got the license and Rev. Brown married us in his private office at the church. I had told him the truth about me and Dennis not really being married and he said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll marry you and be quiet about it.’” (236).

“‘We have to be strong. You know what people will say about us, Ruth. They’ll try to break us up.’ I said, ‘I know. I’ll be strong,’ and over the years we were tested, but we never split up or even spent a night apart except when he took the kids to North Carolina to see his parents. I never could go south with him because of the danger. The first time I went south with him was the last time, when I took his body down there to bury him” (237).

“Our family grew so fast, before I knew it me and Dennis and four kids were cramped in that one room. So we applied to get an apartment in the Red Hook Housing Projects in Brooklyn” (239).

“I loved that man. I never missed home or my family after I got married. My soul was full.”

“With his little salary, we could barely afford to feed our kids–we had gone from four kids to five to six to seven. I mean, after a while they just dropped like eggs and we loved having them…” (240).

Prejudice is experienced even in life-or-death situations.

“A sinking feeling like I was going right down into blackness. The children woke up and they were huddled together crying and I started to cry. Part of me died when Dennis died. I loved that man more than life itself and at times I wished the good Lord would have taken me instead of him, because he was a much better person for living than me. He just had so much more to give the world than me. He brought me new life. He revived me after I left my family, brought me to Jesus, opened my eyes to a new world, then passed on himself. Lord, it was hard. Very hard to let him go. I was angry at him for dying for a while afterwards, angry that he left me with all those kids, but more than that, I missed him” (244).

“I was thirty-six then and had been with Dennis nearly sixteen years and I’d never functioned without him” (245). 

I was on my own then, but I wasn’t alone, because like Dennis said, God the Father watched over me, and sent me your stepfather, who took over and he saved us and did many, many things for us He wasn’t a minister like Dennis. He was different, a workingman who had never been late for work in the thirty years that he worked for the New York City Housing Authority, and he was a good, good man. I met him after you were born and after a while he asked me to marry him, and Aunt Candis said, ‘Marry that man, Ruth. Marry him!’ and she’d clean the house spotless and cook up these splendid meals when your stepfather came by, to make me look good. He thought I was making up those tasty yams and pork chips and I can’t cook to save my life. When I told him the truth, he said it didn’t matter, that he wanted to marry me anyway, even though his brothers thought he was crazy. I had eight children! But I wasn’t ready to marry. I turned him down three times. I took you down to North Carolina to show you to Dennis’s parents, Etta and Nash, in late ‘57–they only lasted four or five years after their only child died–and when I told Grandma Etta I was thinking of marrying again, she said, ‘God bless you, Ruth, because you’re our daughter now. Marry that man.’ That’s how black folks thought back then. That’s why I never veered from the black side. I would have never even thought of marrying a white man. When I told your stepfather about how my sister and Aunt Betts treated me, he spoke about them without bitterness or hate. ‘You don’t need them to help you,’ he said. ‘I’ll help you for the rest of my life if you’ll marry me,’ which I did, and God bless him, he was as good as his word” (246-7).

The story of Daddy Dennis dying and how the stepfather took over a family of eight kids.

Chapter 24: New Brown

New Brown in the Red Hook Housing Projects. “This is Mommy’s home church. This is the church where I got married. This is the church my father Andrew McBride built” (250).

“He left behind no insurance policy, no dowry, no land, no money for his pregnant wife and young children, but he helped establish the groundwork for Ma’s raising twelve children which lasted thirty years–kids not allowed out after five o’clock; stay in school, don’t ever follow the crowd, and follow Jesus–and as luck, or Jesus, would have it, my stepfather helped Mommy enforce those same rules when he married her. The old-timers at New Brown used to say god honored Rev. McBride. The man died without a penny, yet his children grew up to graduate from college, to become doctors, professors, teachers, and professionals all. It was the work, they said, of none other than Jesus Christ Himself” (251).

This is what extraordinary mothers and fathers can do.

Living in certain past memories while avoiding others:

“For years, Mommy rarely talked about my father. It was as if his death was so long ago that she couldn’t remember; but deep inside she saw her marriage to him as the beginning of her life, and thus his death as part of its end, and to reach any further beyond that into her past was to go into hell, an area that she didn’t want to touch. In order to steer clear of the most verboten area, the Jewish side, she steered clear of him as well. Her memory was like a minefield, each recollection a potential booby trap, a Bouncing Bettery–the old land mines the Viet Cong used in the Vietnam War that never went off when you stepped on them but blew you to hell the moment you pulled your foot away” (253).

How Mom morphed into the new era of New Brown Church.

Chapter 25: Finding Ruthie

“‘No way, I spent all my life running from the South. Don’t put me in the South.’

‘Okay. New York,’ I said. ‘You lived there forty years. You still love New York.’

‘Too crowded,’ she sniffed. ‘They bury them three deep in New York. I don’t want to be smushed up under somebody when I’m buried.’

‘Where should we bury you then?’

“She threw up her hands. ‘Who cares?’”

“Doctors found squamous cell cancer in a small mole they removed from Ma’s face, a condition caused by too much exposure to the sun. Ironically, it’s a condition that affects mostly white people. To the very end, Mommy is a flying compilation of competing interests and conflicts, a black woman in white skin, with black children and a white woman’s physical problem” (260).

Identity issues for James

If it takes as long to know Jesus as it took to know you, I think, I’m in trouble. It took many years to find out who she was, partly because I never knew who I was. It wasn’t so much a question of searching for myself as it was my own decision not to look. As a boy I was confused about issues of race but did not consider myself deprived or unhappy. As a young man I had no time or money or inclination to look beyond my own poverty to discover what identity was. Once I got out of high school and found that I wasn’t in jail, I thought I was in the clear. Oberlin College was gravy–all you could eat and no one telling you what to do and your own job to boot if you wanted one. Yet I laughed bitterly at the white kids in ragged jeans who frolicked on the camps lawn tossing Frisbees and went about campus caroling in German at Christmas. They seemed free in ways I could not be. Most of my friends and the women I dated were black, yet as time passed I developed relationships with white students as well, two of whom,–Leander Bien and Laurie Weisman–are close friends of mine today. During the rare, inopportune social moments when I found myself squeezed between black and white, I fled to the black side, just as my mother had done, and did not emerge unless driven out by smoke and fire. Being mixed is like that tingling feeling you have in your nose just before you sneeze–you’re waiting for it to happen but it never does. Given my black face and upbringing it was easy for me to flee into the anonymity of blackness, yet I felt frustrated to lie in a world that considers the color of your face an immediate political statement whether you like it or not. It took years before I began to accept the fact that the nebulous ‘white man’s world’ wasn’t as free as it looked; that class, luck, religion all factored in as well; that many white individuals’ problems surpassed my own, often by a lot; that all Jews are not like my grandfather and that part of me is Jewish too. Yet the color boundary in my mind was and still is the greatest hurdle. In order to clear it, my solution was to stay away from it and fly solo” (261-2). 

“…I wore my shirt and tie like an imposter. I wandered around the cities by day, stumbling into the newsroom at night, exhausted, to write my stories. I loved an empty city room, just the blinking terminals and a few deadbeats like myself. It was the only time I could write, away from white reporters, black reporters, away from the synergy of black and white that was already simmering inside my soul, ready to burst out at the most inopportune moments. Being caught between black and white as a working adult was far more unpleasant than when I was a college student. I watched as the worlds of blacks and whites smashed together in newsrooms and threw off chunks of human carnage that landed at my feet. I’d hear black reporters speaking angrily about a sympathetic white editor and I’d disagree in silence. White men ruled the kingdom, sometimes ruthlessly, finding clever ways to gut the careers of fine black reporters who came into the business full of piss and vinegar, yet other white men were mere pawns like myself. Most of my immediate editors were white women, whom I found in general to be the most compassionate, humane, and often brightest in the newsroom, yet they rarely rose to the top–even when compared to their more conservative black male counterparts, some of whom marched around the newsrooms as if they were the second coming of Martin Luther King, wielding their race like baseball bats” (263).

“It was a devastating realization, coming to grips with the fact that all your life you had never really known the person you loved the most. Even as a young boy I was used to Mommy hiding her past, and I grew to accept it, and the details of her past got lost as my own life moved forward, which is probably how she wanted it anyway. I never even seriously broached the subject with her until 1977, when I was in college and had to fill out a form that for some reason or other required Ma’s maiden name. I called her long-distance, in Philadelphia, to find out, and she was suddenly evasive” (266). 

“I felt like a Tinkertoy kid building my own self out of one of those toy building sets; for as she laid her life before me, I reassembled the tableau of her words like a picture puzzle, and as I did, so my own life was rebuilt.

“Mommy has changed, changed from the time she adopted Christianity back in the 1940s. What’s different is that she can face the past now. After years of saying, ‘Don’t tell my business,’ she reached a point where she now says, ‘It doesn’t matter. They’re all dead now, or in Florida,’ which in her mind is the same as being dead. ‘I’ll never retire to Florida,’ she vowed. Riding past a graveyard one day, she looked over and remarked, ‘That’s Florida Forever.’

“Ma settled in to get her college degree in social work from Temple University at age sixty-five. She enjoyed the intellectual back-and-forth, the study, reading different authors–I’d forgotten how bright she was. The constant learning and yearning for knowledge was what helped her finally move away from the bustle of Philadelphia to settle into the quieter, safer suburb of Ewing with my sister Kathy. For a few years, she used her degree to work as a volunteer in a Philadelphia social service agency that helped pregnant, unwed mothers; then she moved on to run a weekly reading group for literate and illiterate senior citizens at the local Ewing library, which she still does today. But that’s not enough to keep her busy. Every day she rises, spirits her two grandchildren off to school and drives around central New Jersey, haggling with merchants at flea markets, taking yoga classes in sweats and Nikes, tooling along in a 1995 Toyota at twenty-seven miles an hour in a fifty-five-mile-an-hour zone, holding up traffic on Route 1 listening to Bernard Maltzer on WOR-AM or the Howard Stern show. (‘Grandma laughs when Howard Stern talks dirty,’ my niece Maya whispers.) Sometimes she’ll get up in the morning and disappear for days at a time, slipping away to her old stomping grounds, the Red Hook Housing Projects, to go to church and see her old friends there. She loves Red Hook. Despite the fact that my siblings often urge her to stay out of the projects, she won’t. ‘Don’t tell me how to live,’ she says. She’s always been slightly out of control, my mother, always had the unnerving habit of taking the ship into the air to do loops and spins, then fleeing the cockpit screaming, ‘Someone do something, we’re gonna crash!’ then at the last dying second slipping into the pilot’s seat and coolly landing the thing herself, only to forget the entire incident instantly. She wouldn’t recall it for you if you showed her pictures of herself doing it. She wipes her memory instantly and with purpose; it’s a way of preserving herself. That’s how she moves. Her survival instincts are incredible, her dances with fire always fun to watch. ‘Ruthie,’ my sisters affectionately called her. ‘Ruthie’s crazy’” (271).

“Like any family we have problems, but we have always been close. Through marriage, adoptions, love-ins, and shack-ups, the original dozen has expanded into dozens and dozens more–wives, husbands, children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, nephews–ranging from dark-skinned to light-skinned; from black kinky hair to blond hair and blue eyes. In running from her past, Mommy has created her own nation, a rainbow coalition that descends on her house every Christmas and Thanksgiving and sleeps everywhere–on the floor, on rugs, in shifts; sleeping double, triple to a bed, ‘two up, three down,’ just like old times” (277).

The Illustrated Man

The Illustrated Man  by  Ray Bradbury

The Grand Master Editions  Bantam Books  1951   186 pages

I am very glad I did not take the time to read this in graduate school when I was researching tattoos. More than one person suggested this book because the “illustrated man” is heavily tattooed, yet the book has nothing to do with him. I don’t even know why Bradbury went to what little trouble he did to include him at the beginning of what is essentially a collection of short stories. A tattooed man wanders place to place in search of a job. He comes upon a young lad whom he befriends and explains that his tattoos tell the future. At night the tattoos move. The tattoos are a curse placed upon him by a witch. Each tattoo tells a story, and if one looks at him long enough, he or she will become one of the tattooed stories. Even though the boy is asked not to, he stares at the man’s tattoos all night as the tattooed man sleeps. Each tattoo shows us the story that we have before us. Each tale is pretty short, so this book would be a good “before going to sleep” book. Most of the stories have to do with spaceships and intergalactic travel. Each story also seems to hint at a moral of some kind. I will give you the name of each story, some best bits, and its synopsis.

  1. The Veldt This is one of my favorites since it puts the kids in charge of their own world. What they do with it is gruesome! The Hadleys have allowed technology to take over their life. It spoils their children and kills the parents.
  1. Kaleidoscope A philosophical piece regarding looking back at your life and wondering what it was all for. How did you use your time? Did you live or dream about living?
  1. The Other Foot People of color were shipped to Mars as Earth began a nuclear war. Twenty years later a white man came to visit and let them know that Earth was destroyed. The Martians had plans to subjugate the man like the way of life in America, but when they learn of the fate of the Earth, they feel the man has been punished enough.
  1. The Highway A theme of atomic war again and the thought of being so far removed that you don’t know or even understand the news.
  1. The Man Of searching, belief, skepticism, and faith. What would you think if Jesus actually returned? Would you dismiss it? Believe? Follow him? Laugh?
  1. The Long Rain On Venus there is only rain. It makes all visitors crazy.
  1. The Rocket Man I really liked the following passage that described the mindfulness a child needs from his/her parent:.

“‘Let’s hear it,’ he said at last.

And I knew that now we would talk, as we had always talked, for three hours straight. All afternoon we would murmur back and forth in the lazy sun about my school grades, how high I could jump, how fast I could swim.

Dad nodded each time I spoke and smiled and slapped my chest lightly in approval. We talked. We did not talk of rockets or space, but we talked of Mexico at noon, seeing the hundred butterflies sucked to our radiator, dying there, beating their blue and crimson winds, twitching, beautifully, and sad. We talked of such things instead of the things I wanted to talk about. And he listened to me. That was the thing he did, as if he was trying to fill himself up with all the sound he could hear. He listened to the wind and the falling ocean and my voice, always with a rapt attention, a concentration that almost excluded physical bodies themselves and kept only the sounds. He shut his eyes to listen. I would see him listening to the lawn mower as he cut the grass by hand instead of using the remote-control device, and I would see him smelling the cut grass as it sprayed up at him behind the mower in a green fount.”

What is it like to be an astronaut with a family? He is caught between two worlds. He loves his family and space equally. Eventually, the father/astronaut is killed in space. The wife began pretending he was dead long ago in preparation for this eventuality.

  1. The Fire Balloons This passage is good:

“‘I wonder–’ Father Peregrine mopped his face. ‘Do you think if we called Hello! They might answer?’

‘Father Peregine, won’t you ever be serious?’

‘Not until the good Lord is. Oh, don’t look so terribly shocked, please. The Lord is not serious. In fact, it is a little hard to know just what else He is except loving. And love has to do with humor, doesn’t it? For you cannot love someone unless you put up with him, can you? And you cannot put up with someone constantly unless you can laugh at him. Isn’t that true? And certainly we are ridiculous little animals wallowing in the fudge bowl, and God must love us all the more because we appeal to His humor.’

‘I never thought of God as humorous,’ said Father Stone.

‘The Creator of the platypus, the camel, the ostrich, and man? Oh, come now!’ Father Peregrine laughed.”

On the next page there is some more good stuff:

“And again, Independence Night, thought Father Peregrine, tremoring. He felt like a child back in those July Fourth evenings, the sky blowing apart, breaking into powdery stars and burning sound, the concussions jingling house windows like the ice on a thousand thin ponds. The aunts, uncles, cousins crying, ‘Ah!’ as to some celestial physician. The summer sky colors. And the Fire Balloons, lit by an indulgent grandfather, steadied in his massively tender hands. Oh, the memory of those lovely Fire Balloons, softly lighted, warmly billowed hits of tissue, like insect wings, lying like folded wasps in boxes and, last of all, after the day of riot and fury, at long last from their boxes, delicately unfolded, blue, red, white, patriotic–the Fire Balloons! He saw the dim faces of dear relatives long dead and mantled with moss as Grandfather lit the tiny candle and let the warm air breathe up to form the ballon plumply luminous in his hands, a shining vision which they held, reluctant to let it go; for, once released, it was yet another year gone from life, anther Fourth, another bit of beauty vanished. And then up, up, still up through the warm summer night constellations, the Fire Balloons had drifted, while red-white-and-blue eyes followed them, wordless, from family porches. Away into deep Illinois country, over night rivers and sleeping mansions the Fire Balloons dwindled, forever gone…”

Missionaries thought they were going to bring Christianity to the Martians, but they ended up learning from them.

  1. The Last Night of the World Everyone has the same dream about the world ending. It seems so logical that everyone just accepts it.
  1. The Exiles Best bit: “Mr. Poe’s face was weary; there were fire coals remaining, fading, in his eyes, and a sad wildness in the way he talked, and a uselessness of his hands and the way his hair fell lanky over his amazing white brow. He was like a satan of some lost dark cause, a general arrived from a derelict invasion. His silky, soft, black mustache was worn away by his musing lips. He was so small his brow seemed to float, vast and phosphorescent, by itself, in the dark room.”

The thought that authors cannot live beyond their works. When their books were censored and destroyed, the authors would disappear from the face of the Earth.

  1. No Particular Night or Morning Best bit: “‘Why should I hold onto things I can’t use?’ said Hitchcock, his eyes wide, still staring into space. ‘I’m practical. If Earth isn’t here for me to walk on, you want me to walk on a memory? That hurts. Memories, as my father once said, are porcupines. To hell with them! Stay away from them. They make you unhappy. They ruin your work. They make you cry.’”

A man goes crazy out in space. If something is not physically interacting with him he believes it doesn’t exist.

  1. The Fox and the Forest Time travelers try to escape their horrible war-torn world…but it’s not so easy to disappear into the past.
  1. The Visitor Sick people are exiled to Mars and find a man who can hypnotize them to see anything. Their possessive jealousy ends up killing him. No more escapism.
  1. The Concrete Mixer I made a note that I might like this one best. Martians visiting earth are not met with force but invited in. How slothful and unhealthy will they become? How fast will they become dumb like humans?
  1.  Marionettes, Inc. You can buy a look-alike so it can cover at home and work while you live your best life. But what happens when the clone wants you out of the way?
  1. The City A city once destroyed by men lays in wait for revenge. When men come they turn them into robots, load their rocket with disease and send them to Earth.
  1. Zero Hour Another version of kids wanting to kill their parents. An outside force recruits them because no one really pays attention to what they do.
  1. The Rocket How can a poor man afford space travel? Ask Mr. Bodoni.

W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Is the book a coherent whole or a set of disparate essays? Explain.

After examining the themes of each individual chapter of The Souls of Black Folk I feel that instead of the text hanging together as one entire body, it more reflects different viewing points on one particular topic. Obviously, the progress of the African American was the one unifying topic that ran throughout the finished book.   I understand that Mr. Du Bois wrote all of these pieces as essays and was later asked if he would allow his essays to be collected into a book.  I can easily see the differences of mindset between the chapters.

In chapter one Du Bois asks how the race should progress and in what directions now that they have been emancipated?  In chapter two the aim is to understand and criticize the freedman’s bureaus and other emancipation agencies that were formed during that time.  In the same way, Du Bois examines and criticizes Booker T. Washington’s views in chapter three.  Chapter four completely switches gears by discussing the meaning of African American progress.  Skipping ahead to chapter seven, Du Bois writes from a unique amalgam of cartographer and sociologist while discussing the various Cotton Kingdoms in Georgia. Chapter twelve examines a true human character in Alexander Crummel while in the very next chapter Du Bois creates two fictitious peripatetic young men both named John who are forever changed by their color and education.  I would venture to say, and this is only a guess, that the forethought and afterthought, along with the chapter-opening sorrow-songs, were added as a coalescing element to the final form of the book.

Let us look for some type of grouping of these chapter topics.  What we find is some observations, ideas and guidance in the form of chapters 1, 4 and 9.  There are geographical studies in chapters 5 and 7.  There are examinations of those living in chapters 3 and 12.  Du Bois  gives a directive in chapter 6.  There are informative chapters in 8, 10 and 14.  In my opinion the chapters that most fall from form are 11 and 13.  Chapter eleven takes us to an extremely personal space with Du Bois.  In this chapter we witness the birth and death of his child.  The only consolation Du Bois offers is that he feels death for his child would be preferable to his life behind the Veil.  “Better for this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrow for you” (742).  Of the many difficult things Du Bois describes in vivid detail in his novel, “Of the Passing of the Firstborn,” in my opinion, is the most heart-wrenching.

The chapter that seems to fit the least, or makes its most awkward debut in the novel, is chapter 13, “The Coming of John.”  This, one supposes, is a fictional story of two young men, one black one white, both carrying the name of John.  Both go off to school, and upon returning home their lives are changed forever.  White John ends up raping black John’s sister, black John avenges his sister’s honor, killing White John, and in the end John Jones is hung for the murder.  Not only does the chapter stand out as a fictional piece, which does not play the role in any other parts of the novel, it is also a somewhat odd mixture of intellect and pathos that makes no one happy in the end (not that this is the goal).

 

Question two: discuss philosophical differences between Du Bois and Washington

I find the philosophical differences between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington interesting because these two vantage points give the reader a window into the multi-faceted struggle of the emancipated black race.  Du Bois devotes Chapter Three in The Souls of Black Folk to discussing Washington’s “…programme of industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights…” (699).  As one can easily tell from the variety and depth of Du Bois’ writing, the man was highly educated and won a scholarship to Yale as well as a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin.  Perhaps because he well understood the intellectual levels that could be attained by an African American, he seemed to sneer at Washington because he felt Booker T. had allowed commercialism to kill his fire for higher education.  Further, Du Bois feels that Washington’s “…educational programme was unnecessarily narrow” (700).  Du Bois chafed against the idea that the freedmen should study mostly industrial arts and concentrate on the accumulation of wealth; he felt everyone should be able to acquire the type of education that would take a student as far as their abilities and desires would take him.  Du Bois solidly believed in college and university-level aspirations that were within the grasp of the new aged black man and he disagreed with anyone steering them away from such untapped possibility.

Du Bois also did not find value in Washington’s philosophy of submission to the white race.  In one way, Du Bois felt that this submission “overlooked certain elements of true manhood” (700).  Du Bois also felt that the idea of allowing the white man to believe he was still running the show was an outdated way of handling this new found freedom in America.  Not only that, by working within the former paradigm of one race being submissive to the other, Washington was by default admitting that his own race was inferior.  Naturally, if one believes they are equal to another they will not stand for any form of degradation or prejudice.  Du Bois resides on the other side of the coin by believing that a man who demands respect will earn respect.  This point is very poignant for Du Bois as he says that Booker T. Washington is to be especially criticized for his leniency on the white race.  “His doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders…” (707) while white America stands back and analyze the scene from afar.  Du Bois did not condone violence but felt the black race must insist on the “rights which the world accords to men… (708).

 

WORK CITED

 

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk.  The Norton Anthology of African American       Literature. Henry Gates, Jr. ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.

Tecumseh  (1775 ?-1813)

Was called by some the Greatest Indian. Tecumseh was unwaveringly hostile to the white Americans who relentlessly encroached on the lands of his people. When Indians began giving away land, Tecumseh attempted to organize a multi-tribal resistance to the Americans. In 1811 William Henry Harrison decisively defeated the Prophet’s (Tecumseh’s brother) forces at Tippecanoe. Tecumseh as not present at the battle. The defeat left the Prophet’s followers disillusioned, and Tecumseh had no further success in bringing the tribes together in resistance. He fought on the side of the British in the War of 1812 and was killed at the Battle of the Thames. The brief speech here derives from the “captivity narrative” of John Dunn Hunter, published in 1823. Hunter taken captive by Osage Indian as a baby and lived among them as a youth. When he was about ten he heard a speech made by Tecumseh. We must treat the following speech as such, but John Dunn Hunter was very moved at the time and the contents seem to match what Tecumseh was going through at the time.

Speech to the Osages

The white man wants to take us down so we must all stick together. When the whites first came here they were so weak that we had to take care of them. “Brothers, the white people are like poisonous serpents: when chilled, they are feeble and harmless; but invigorate them with warmth, and they sting their benefactors to death.” They are not our friends. They want ALL the land. They want to kill us all. They cheat us, despise us and think we are not good enough to live. We need vengeance. Make the tomahawk fat with blood and drink the blood of the white people. We are brave, but there are too many whites. We need the tribes to band together. “If we all unite, we will cause the rivers to stain the great waters with their blood. ” If we do not band together then they will simply take us down one tribe at a time. They are trying to turn us against each other. God wants us to win. Why should we fear the whites? They are not fast; easy to shoot. God will help us if we work together to destroy them. “We must be united; we must smoke the same pipe; we must fight each other’s battles; and more than all, we must love the Great Spirit; he is for us; he will destroy our enemies, and make all his red children happy.”

Cherokee Women

In traditional matriarchal Cherokee society, women held authority within their families, supervised land usage, occupied political offices such as Beloved Woman (or Ghighua), and participated in diplomacy. Motherhood was an organizing concept used to ground women’s claims to power. The diplomatic rhetoric of Cherokee women often focused on the physical and emotional bonds between mothers and children as a compelling reason to sustain peaceful relations with rival powers. In this address of Sept. 8, 1787, to Benjamin Franklin, then serving as the governor of Pennsylvania and as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, several representatives of the Cherokee Women’s Council ask Congress to pay attention to their desire for peace.

To Governor Benjamin Franklin

This side has smoked the peace pipe; hope your side will too. Consider that woman is the mother of All. We pull children from our own bodies; it is only right that people listen to us. I want to keep my children living in peace.

Logan  (1725 ?-1780)

Exact origins and identity of the man known as Chief Logan are not entirely clear. In English they called him John Logan. Agent of Virginia governor provoked a brief war in a bid for Indian lands in which Logan’s pregnant sister was mutilated along with her unborn child. This event was known as the Yellow Creek massacre and took place on the upper Ohio River. Afterwards, Logan was asked to attend a treaty meeting with Dunmore. He refused, but apparently sent a message that eventually was transformed into a speech in English known as “Logan’s Lament.” Not all points mentioned are factual. This speech was said to have been heard by a few who transcribed it, but the mystery surrounding the text deepens in light of the discrepancies between the historical facts as they have been uncovered and various statements attributed to Logan. He was later killed by his nephew who thought it a way to preserve his legacy. It remains unclear just how much of this speech represents the words that Logan actually spoke. It is the most famous instance of Indian oratory as a popular nineteenth-century American literary genre.

 

From Chief Logan’s Speech

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query VI

There is an introduction by Thomas Jefferson who says that in 1774 a robbery was committed by some Indians. The whites undertook to punish this outrage. Cresap and Great-house surprised a traveling and hunting party of the Indians, having their women and children with them, and murdered many. Among these families was Logan’s. This provoked his vengeance. The Indians were defeated. Logan disdained to be seen among the suppliants. He sent by a messenger the following speech to be delivered to Lord Dunmore.

Logan remained an advocate for peace. Such was my love of the white people. Col. Cresap, unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan, not sparing even my women and children. This called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many.

Pontiac  (1720 ?-1769)

 

Pontiac was Ottawa and grew up in the Detroit area. Ottawa Indian meaning “commerce” or “to trade.” Strong trading and diplomatic alliances with the French. In 1760 the British defeated the French so the Indians were then refused supplies. The whites wanted to treat them as servants to the British Crown.

The Delaware Indians suffered at the hands of British, who had defrauded them of most of their lands. Neolin was a Delaware prophet preached the necessity of largely abandoning the things and manners of the Europeans. To persuade other tribes to join the Ottawas in resistance to the British, Pontiac is said to have given the speech printed here to an assembly of Ottawa, Huron, and Pottawatomi leaders in April 27, 1763.

This speech is taken from Francis Parkman’s book, but the original documents cannot be found. Parkman said the information came from John McDougall, but did he actually hear Pontiac speak? Who translated the work? We do not know. Pontiac’s speech can be understood as a bicultural composite, on the assumption that there is a strong likelihood that he spoke words to this effect based on his knowledge of the Delaware prophet.

Speech at Detroit

A Delaware Indian set off on a search for wisdom and began looking for the Great Spirit. He encountered three paths. He climbed a vast mountain of dazzling whiteness. He saw a beautiful woman arrayed in white. She said to throw away guns, ammunition, provisions, clothing. Wash yourself and be prepared to meet the Master of Life. The man went on a difficult climb and later found himself on the summit where he was welcomed into the celestial abode. He was conducted into the presence of the Great Spirit. God said he made the land for the red people. Why do you suffer the white man to live among you? Their products make you weak. And as for these English,–these dogs dressed in red, who have come to rob you of your hunting-grounds, and drive away the game, you must lift the hatchet against them…but the French are cool. Don’t forget the prohibition to marry more than one wife and do not use magic!

 

J. Hector St. John De Crèvecoeur (1735-1813)

De Crevecoeur is a writer with a divided reputation and a mysterious and fascinating past. Crevecoeur rewards the reader’s close attention but only rarely provides firm conclusions about the author’s views and intentions. In “What Is an American?”–the most famous essay in his internationally acclaimed Letters from an American Farmer (1782)–Crevecoeur offers an idealistic portrait of the soon-to-be United States, one that resonated with later depictions of the nation as a melting pot and a land of opportunity. Farmer James, Crevecoeur’s persona in the Letters, is at his happiest and most hopeful here, and these qualities have sometimes been taken as his creator’s entire understanding of “the American, this new man”; however, the full text of the Letters tells a different story. It includes a shocking depiction of a slave suffering a brutal punishment; and it ends with Farmer James having moved his family to a frontier Indian village out of despair over the fratricidal violence unleashed by the Revolution. The complexity of Crevecoeur’s stance toward Revolutionary-era American society is greatly magnified by the uncertainties surrounding the author’s ultimate commitments. The uncertainties associated with the work itself are amplified by the differences between the English and French editions.

Born Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur in Caen, Normandy, he was the son of a minor nobleman. He came to reject Catholicism as oppressive, and perhaps for this reason he broke with his father as a teenager, sailed to England, and lived there with distant relatives. He traveled to French Canada and enlisted in the militia. He was wounded in the defense of Quebec during one of the major battles of the French and Indian War (1754-63). He later traveled to New York and was naturalized as a British colonial subject in 1765 and changed his name to Hector St. John. Sometimes he went by James Hector St. John, a moniker suggesting that he identified with his persona Farmer James. Crevecoeur traveled extensively in the colonies as a surveyor and a trader with American Indians. He married a wealthy Protestant woman, bought land in New York and settled into life on his farm. They had three children. In his first year at Pine Hill, Crevecoeur began to write a series of essays about America based on his travels and experience as a farmer.

He was arrested and imprisoned as an American spy in 1779, when he tried to sail from the British-held port of New York. Crevecoeur reached London in 1780 and sold his manuscript to a publishing house there, leading to the 1782 edition of Letters. There is evidence to suggest that the British edition was partially rewritten by an unknown editor to draw out its republican themes. He reconciled with his father then moved to Paris. The French translation of the Letters (1784) was recast more favorably toward France.

In 1783, Crevecoeur returned to the now victorious United States. He then learned that his farm had been burned in an Indian attack, his wife was dead, and his children were housed with strangers. After regaining custody of his children and moving to New York City, Crevecoeur was made French consul to New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. He was a great success as a diplomat. He later became an adopted member of the Oneida Nation.

Farmer James writes his letters in response to queries from an English visitor, who wishes to better understand America. The personal letter was a central genre in eighteenth-century literary culture, featured in epistolary novels as well as popular travelers’ and naturalists’ accounts, both factual and fictional. The American farmer was already a well-established figure in the political and social debates of the day.

Crevecoeur’s Letters engage the revolutionary-era debates over human nature and political organization vividly but unspecifically. He inserted himself into the same transatlantic debates over Americanness and its effects on humankind. Crevecoeur’s philosophical themes are woven through his work rather than presented discursively. This allusiveness distinguishes Crevecoeur’s Letters from the political writings of the day and lends the collection its lasting fascination.

 

From Letters from an American Farmer

From Letter III. What Is an American?

 

Begins lyrical and lofty in tone. The new continent is vast. Modern society, but different. No aristocratic families, no kings, no invisible power for the few. No great manufacturers employing thousands, few luxuries. Rich and poor closer to each other than in Europe. United by silken bands of mild government, all respecting laws, without dreading their power because they are equitable. Wants to convey the image that we are all equal and well taken care of. We have no princes. We are the most perfect society now in the world. We are a nation of immigrants. There never was a people, situated as they are, who with so ungrateful a soil have done more in so short a time.  

Crevecoeur writes of how much better this country treats her people. Laws protect people as they arrive and people are rewarded for their labors. People can buy land. Our government sets up the laws.

Crevecoeur sets out his definition of being an American. He mentions language, land, bread, protection and consequence. We all come from other countries and marry people from other countries. “He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men…” We can see our labors changing the world. Arts, sciences, vigor and industry. Incorporated into one fine system. We have new ideas and opinions. Simple subsistence. We are shaped through nurture and find little crime.

Crevecoeur describes different characteristics according to where people live. He mentions those that live near water, and those that live near the center of the country. More people are moving toward the center. The general indulgence leaves everyone to think for themselves in spiritual matters. He describes backwoods people saying they are the wildest bunch being the furthest away from the government. Where you live differentiates you from people living in other areas.

Various Christian sects introduced wear out, and religious indifference becomes prevalent. The nearer the church, the stronger the zeal. The strict modes of Christianity as practiced in Europe are lost. He gives an example. We do not care what religion you practice, so long as you are peaceful, who cares? Your religion doesn’t make you any better or worse than the next guy. “Their children will therefore grow up less zealous and more indifferent in matters of religion than their parents.” The fury of making proselytes, is unknown here; they have no time, the seasons call for all their attention. One may try a different religion’s church because it is nearby; others may stop attending altogether. Thus all sects are mixed as well as all nations; thus religious indifference is imperceptibly disseminated from one end of the continent to the other; which is at present one of the strongest characteristics of the Americans. Zeal evaporates in the great distance it has to travel. It burns away in the open air.

Woods people have to keep predators away. The farmer becomes the hunter. Woods people experience a lawless profligacy. Their wives and children live in sloth and inactivity; and having no proper pursuits, you may judge what education the latter receive. Half civilized, half savage. They are lonely and eat wild meat. No place of worship. They adopt the moroseness of ferocity of a native, without his mildness or his industry at home. As hunters it is divided between the toil of the chase, the idleness of repose, or the indulgence of inebriation. If European backwoods men can become so wild just imagine the Indians!

This place is settled by freeholders, the possessors of the soil they cultivate, members of the government they obey, the framers of their own laws, by means of representatives. The idle may be employed, the useless become useful, the poor become rich by cleared lands, cattle, good houses, good clothes. New arrivals meet with hospitality, kindness and plenty. We seldom hear of punishment or executions. We have elegant towns, industry and freedom. We have rural districts, convenient roads, good taverns and many accommodations.

If you want to work we have bread for you. America will also provide for your children, which is every parent’s fondest wish. “Go thou and work and till; thou shalt prosper, provided thou be just, grateful, and industrious.”

 

From Letter IX. Description of Charles-Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene

 

Charles-Town is a capital in the north and one of the richest provinces. Carolina produces commodities, has thriving industries and displays its riches and luxuries. It was build at the confluence of two large rivers. It have warfs, docks, and warehouses which are extremely convenient to facilitate this great commercial business. Inhabitants are the happiest and at the center of the beau monde. They have the richest planters with the best health and pleasure. Our space provides better health than the West Indians could ever dream. The growth of this town and province has been astonishingly rapid. The weather is temperate though sometimes when they have no sea breezes the sun is too powerful. There are elegant houses with sumptuous furniture and table settings. The three principal classes of inhabitants are lawyers, planters and merchants. The richest spoils are to them and nothing can exceed their wealth, power and influence. These men are more properly law givers than interpreters of the law. They have the skill and dexterity of the scribe with the power and ambition of the prince. We are a litigious society as well.

At the same time, scenes of misery overspread the country. They neither see, hear, nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labors all their wealth proceeds. Here the horrors of slavery, the hardship of incessant toils, are unseen; and no one thinks with compassion of those showers of sweat and of tears which from the bodies of Africans, daily drop, and moisten the ground they till. [See ninth edition page 647 for deeper discussion of a slavery.]

A clergyman comes in to soften hearts against slavery. The people got upset and asked him to stick to the bible. We try to conceive of slavery as not so bad since it has been known in all ages and all countries. Does the cosmic order abandon mankind to all the errors, the follies, and the miseries, which their most frantic rage, and their most dangerous vices and passions can produce? Everywhere one part of the human species are taught the art of shedding the blood of the other; of setting fire to their dwellings; of leveling the works of their industry; half of the existence of nations regularly employed in destroying other nations. This displays the violence of colonization. Man is neither civilized in nature nor in city. I prefer the country. Too many people equals more trouble. These are my melancholy reflections. While on a walk I perceived a Negro suspended in a cage and left to expire [649]. I gave him a drink of water. The reason for this slave being thus punished was on account of his having killed the overseer of the plantation.

 

From Letter X. On Snakes; and on the Humming Bird

 

While on a walk I came across two snakes, one pursuing the other. The aggressor was of the black kind, six feet long; the fugitive was a water snake, nearly of equal dimensions. They mutually tried with open jaws to lacerate each other. The scene was uncommon and beautiful; for this opposed they fought with their jaws. The black one pulled the water snake back from the ditch. Victory seemed doubtful, inclining sometimes to the one side and sometimes to the other. They both plunged into the ditch. The black snake seemed to retain its wonted superiority. It incessantly pressed down under the water, until the water snake was stifled and sunk. The black snake returned to shore and disappeared.

 

Sarah Kemble Knight 1666-1727

Bostonian Sarah Kemble Knight kept a boarding house and taught school. Her keen writing skills allowed her to teach penmanship, copy court records and write court letters. Taught herself about the law and could settle estates. She traveled alone (while her husband was abroad) to settle her cousin’s estate. The journey was hazardous and not often attempted by women traveling alone. Her travel log was not published until the 19th century. Knight was a keen ethnographic observer of provincial America. She had a sharp humor and did not shy away from the crude or ridiculous. Her journal depitcts everyday life at the turn of the 18th century while revealing some of America’s most troubling prejudices.

The piece below is transcribed and edited. It provides a healthy contrast to the soul-searching journals of Knight’s contemporaries and reminds us of the manifold ways in which provincial Americans absorbed transatlantic models for the expression of the most common and intimate details of their lives.  Her work can be seen as a meditation on what made a provincial culture viable and mature. Knight was a woman who did not suffer fools gladly and she was tough-minded. Her work shows that women early in the eighteenth century had significant economic roles. The text here is from The Journal of Madame Knight, edited by George P. Winship (1920; reprinted 1935).

 

From The Private Journal of a Journey from Boston to New York

From Tuesday, October the Third

[not in new Norton Anthology edition]

This is a travel tale. Ms. Knight writes of a very arduous journey. She and her guide forge a river and travel on horseback through the woods at night. The journal is punctuated with poetry.

When she gets to the inn she cannot sleep for the two men arguing in the next room.

We read a short poem about the arguing men in the next room at the inn. They are arguing loudly. In the poem Knight is hoping the men will get drunk and pass out. She writes that she paid sixpence a piece for their dinners, which was only smell.

 

Saturday, October the Seventh

Having a young male accompany her on her trip–most likely for safety. Knight describes being lost and asking directions. When she arrives in New Haven she pays her guide who then leaves. “…informed myself of the manners and customs of the place and at the same time employed myself in the affair I went there upon.” Knight is discussing the culture and laws of Connecticut and how they are similar to Boston. She feels they come down a bit too hard on the punishment for some rules that don’t allow young people to be young. Public whippings were a preferred punishment. Speaking of negro slaves and Indians who steal and the language barriers that arise when the Native American is brought to court. For fun they go to lectures and perform military exercises. New Haveners marry early, usually before age 20. As a ritual, the groom will run from the chapel right before the joining of hands and his groomsmen then drag him back. The farmers are too friendly with their slaves and they even eat together “…and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand.” Knight also speaks of a court arbitration between master and slave in which the slave won.

These are the most unchristian Indians I have ever seen. Indians can own land and live by their own laws, including having multiple wives. Both Indians and the New Haveners do not seem ashamed to get divorced. Indians can only be punished for offenses on English land. When Natives lose a loved one they paint their faces black, cut their hair, and won’t allow the dead’s name be spoken. Indians will trade almost anything for rum, but it is watered down by the English.

Knight tells a humorous anecdote of what usually occurs in a general store [613]. New Haveners have native intelligence but you can’t always tell. Country people should keep to their own hearths and clean. They dress plainly. They celebrate election day like a national holiday.

 

From December the Sixth

Knight is now in New York. Pleasant and compact on a fine river with a shipping harbor. There are brick skyscrapers. She describes the insides of houses, especially fireplaces. Most hue to the Church of England. They are not as strict as Bostonians regarding keeping the Sabbath. New Yorkers are courteous and civil. Knight goes into detail regarding the jewelry worn by middle class Dutch women. You can get a good stiff drink here. In the winter they ride sleighs and visit friends.

 

January the Sixth

[not in new edition]

The journey was so tough that her horse died! (Or acted as if he did!) Knight procured another horse and carried on. She returned home to her “tender mother and dear and only son.” The entire trip took five months. Knight returned home unscathed.