DownSouth, UpSouth

DownSouth, UpSouth


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Well-to-do white folk, actually, have always confused the Southern Negro. They have

always been to the black man like the dog that wags his tails and growls simultaneously.



Books by John Oliver Killens


Youngblood  /  And Then We Heard the Thunder  /  The Cotillion  /  The Great Black Russian

A Man-Aint-Nothin But A Man Adventures of John Henry  /  Slaves  / Sippi A Novel Black-SouthernVoices: An Anthology 

Great-Gittin-Up-Morning: A Biography of Denmark Vesey / The Black Man’s Burden


Keith Gilyard, Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens (2003)


*   *   *   *   *


By John Oliver Killens


We are a Southern Country, fundamentally. At least for me, Macon, Georgia, where I was born is “Down South,” and New York City, to which I escaped, is “Up South,” and the difference is far less than the eight hundred miles that uneasily divide them. I am reminded of a bit of folklore I first heard when I was a boy striving desperately to grow to manhood in the dear old Georgia of my childhood dreams and disillusions. Doubtless it is still going the rounds.

It seems that during the Great Depression a certain hungry soul-brother (African American) arrived in New York City, freshly escaped from Georgia. Unemployed and destitute and much too nervous to steal, he decided to become a beggar, so he went from house to house along Park Avenue of the Great Affluence. Our hapless hero would knock on the front doors of majestic mansions with hat in hand, and when a door was opened he would go into song-and-dance about his hard luck and his hunger and his mighty awful desperation. Time after time, he was told, with profound warmth and courtesy and in all sincerity, and in great sympathy even: “Sorry, sir. We have nothing to give you, sir, but we want you to know in all humanity that we wish you all the success in the world, and hope that you all the success in the world, and hope that you will always trust in our Lord and Savior Jesus.” Or heartwarming words of Christian brotherhood and fellowship to that effect, which however much it may have warmed the cockles of the brother’s heart, did not fill a single nook or cranny of the vacuum in the brother’s belly, though it did keep his human dignity intact.

Near the end of his rope (as they used to say, his stomach was beginning to think his throat was cut), he finally knocked on the door of the largest mansion on the street, and a tall, quality-type gentleman came to listen to his sad sad tale. At the conclusion he laughed and said good naturedly, “All right, nigger, you know better than to be coming to my front door. Go on ‘round to the back and tell Mandy I said give you something to eat.”

Whereupon the grateful soul-brother replied, “Thank you kindly, suh. You are the first Southern gentleman I met since I arrived in New York City!”

We used to laugh at this alleged joke, when we had no better sense. In retrospect, it was undoubtedly concocted by a Southern gentleman from Georgia or Alabama to make the point that the South knew better how to take care of the nigrahs than the North. You see, we negroes in the South were always a little envious of those uppity, up-the-country Negroes a few years removed from down home, who had managed to shake the red Georgia dust from their feet for the last, last time.

It was a time when some of us were serving advocates of and true believers in the Southern Way of Life and Southern Womanhood and Segregation, and even lynchings, when they happened, and they very often happened.

Some black brains had been so thoroughly whitewashed they believed religiously in “our” good white folks, who treated the negro fairly so long as he stayed in his place, which place was in the most menial of low-paying jobs, in the back of the bus, way up on the last balcony of the movie houses, and in the clapboard segregated one-teacher schoolhouses that covered the southern countryside like the morning dew did dear old Dixie. We believed that rich white folks were good white folks, which strangely enough contradicted Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who clearly and on many occasions took a very dim view of the rich man’s chances of achieving His Father’s Kingdom. And we had good reason, the Holy Bible and Karl Marx’s revolutionary working class notwithstanding. For our experience had grimly taught us that the white workingman clung to his whiteness far more desperately than he did to his Christianity and his so-called revolutionary tradition. Was not the white worker the one whom black men saw with the lynch rope in his hand in the cool of a Sunday evening after prayer meeting at the Friendship Tabernacle Church? Was he not the very same man who would against black membership in the labor union? Was he not one of the obvious reasons that the C.I.O. “Operation Dixie” failed in his noble undertaking to organize the Southern unorganized, the most exploited working class in the country?

When “Operation Dixie” invaded the South, Negroes hailed it as the Freedom Train, and they leaped aboard with great enthusiasm and profound dedication. But the trained got bogged down very quickly and finally was derailed in the muck and mire of white supremacy. In my home town a negro church (the one in which I grew up) opened its doors to the organizers (white and black0 as a meeting hall. One elderly Negro businessman even jeopardized his life and livelihood by helping the C.I.O. organize the unorganized, though this had nothing to do directly with him or his business, but being black he realized it had everything to do with him, or should have. A couple of years before he died he said to me: “Son, there ain’t no colored or no Negro problem in the land. The color of the problem is pure-dee white. It’s the white folks that ain’t ready yet.”

When white and black labor organizers came to Macon, they paid nightly visits to Negro homes and talked to black folk about the union, but practically nobody talked to the white workers; to tackle those poor, misguided, brainwashed bastards would have been to touch them at their tenderest spot, their racial prejudices. To do so would have challenged the Southern way of Life at its foundations. The C.I.O.’s “Operation Dixie,” like Reconstruction, indeed like the American Revolution and every other American movement that should have spelled freedom and equality for Americans of all colors and religions, died still-born. To give the C.I.O. its due, it did not keep the Negroes out. The trouble was it could not keep the white workers in.

Well-to-do white folk, actually, have always confused the Southern Negro. They have always been to the black man like the dog that wags his tails and growls simultaneously. One is hard put to know which end to believe. We do know, though, that the well-heeled Mister Charlies control the jobs of working people, black and white, and also the Southern mass-communications media. And therefore, in a real sense, they control the minds of poor white Southerners. We also know that historically they have parlayed the racial prejudices of the poor whites vis-à-vis Negroes into a profitable system of divide-and-rule that has, in plain words, meant cheap non-union labor. Ask any honest labor organizer who hoed the union row in Dixie.

During the great race riot in Atlanta near the beginning of the century, wealthy white folks stripped their own “house niggers” and took their clothes and locked them in their rooms and then went out and killed other Negroes on the streets of Atlanta.

The pragmatic philosophy of some Negroes, particularly in the smaller Southern towns, used to be: “The way for a black man to get along is to attach himself to some well-to-do good white folks. Just one big white folks is all you need. Then don’t care what happen, can’t nobody do you no big harm. Not the sheriff, police, judge, nobody! Not even the Good Lord Up on High.”

Nobody but the good white folks, that is. I remember as a boy walking the streets of my home town one night when a big black Packard drove up alongside me with two well-appointed white gentlemen in the front seat and stopped. One of them leaned out and beckoned me over. “Hey, boy, you know where we can get a colored gal?”

I yelled, “Go get you dear old mother like you been doing!” and ran, with tears in my eyes. Angrily, I wished to God I’d been a grown man that night, but at the same time I was relieved that I was only ten years old and didn’t have to assert my manhood. Even at that age, I felt the sharp denial of my manhood. And that is another thing the struggle between the black man and his country is all about, his manhood, his black manhood, which has been denied him ever since he was brought here in slavery.

Two summers ago, in a little sleepyhead cotton-center town in Dixie, a white man walked up to a black man and his black wife and shot the husband down dead in full view of the momentarily startled pedestrians. The only words that passed between them came from the self-righteous white man who said, just before he pulled the trigger, “Nigger, didn’t I tell you to stay away from this black woman?”

This was, no doubt, in the proud tradition of protecting Southern womanhood. This is how the white man has so nobly fought miscegenation. In any event, for one brief moment the town awoke, then went immediately back to sleep again. The brave gunfighter was inconvenienced for two or three hours at the county jail and—case closed.

During the days of slavery the black man was given another ultimatum: “Deny your manhood or die!” And ever since we were brought here in chains we have been cast in the role of eunuchs in a great white harem. But now, at the historic moment, “Down South” and “Up South,” we refuse to be your eunuchs any longer.

I remember the first day I came to Washington, D.C., from the Deep South. I was nineteen years old, with the great American success story exuding from my every pore and glowing in my eyes, however tentatively. Life is tentative for most people, but especially for Negroes. We never look a gift horse in the mouth, but we have learned to keep an eye on it from other vantage points. Like hoboes, metaphorically speaking, we always sleep with one eye open. I had been in called by my government to work in the nation’s capital, which I somehow imagined to be the freest place on earth. But even my young naïve imagination had more sense than that. Nevertheless, I would be working in the White House, and I had high hopes. Never mind that it was only a messenger’s job, it was in the White House.

Now let me state here categorically: I was never in the White House in my entire life. But to the innocent, unsophisticated Southlander, Washington was just one great big White House, and everybody who left Dixie to go to work for the government in Washington was going to work in the White House. Even colored people. My older brother was already working in the White House, at the Government printing Office more than a mile away.

When I walked into the file room that first Monday morning and announced that I was John Oliver Killens, a tall white boy from New York City thrust his hand toward me for a friendly handshake. As I recall, my split-second reaction (conditioned reflex0 was to throw up my guard or duck my head, believing that young “Whitey” was going to hit me for being arrogant and sassy, or for no particular reason at all. There never had to be a reason. In any event I was very slow on the draw, downright backward really, it being the first time a white man had offered me his hand to me or ever called me “Mister” Killens.

I was the only Negro working at the National Labor Relations Board, and all day long I walked around the place wondering where the drinking fountain and the toilet were—For Colored, that is. I was too proud to ask my white colleagues and lacked the courage to take anything for granted, especially white folk. It was a part of my upbringing to take nothing for granted when it came to the schizophrenic ways of white folk.

It was about four in the sweaty afternoon before necessity and sheer desperation dictated that I go for broke and damn the consequences. Of course there were no drinking or toilet facilities exclusively For Colored. There had been no occasion for them, since I was one of those peculiarities in the life of Black America known as a “First Negro,” notwithstanding my humble messenger status, which is pretty hysterical when you come to ponder on it. Such humiliating experiences are certainly not unique in the context of the American Negro experience, and hardly worth mentioning. But how many red-blooded, all American white boys ever experience this particular kind of lynching of the human spirit, this psychological castration?

It was on my first trip back to Macon that I realized the chasm between the Northern and the Southern Negro, built on myth and misconception on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Under the impact of the Negro Revolt, this chasm is slowly disappearing, but it was real and wide and deep in those days of not so long ago, I had been in Washington no more than six or seven months when my older brother and I drove back at the end of the summer.

Everybody put on the dog for us; most everybody also put up a wall between them and us. Most of the boys and girls I’d grown up with, all of my buddies with whom I had spent my childhood, swimming naked in the muddy Ocmulgee River, had laughed and played and cried and cussed and dreamed with, most of them now looked upon me as a stranger. To them, I was an agent from an alien land spying on them. By my very presence I was an unspoken accusation, as if I were actually challenging each and every one of them: “Why in the hell haven’t you had the gumption to leave this hell hole like I did?”

Consequently, when you asked one of your best friends an innocuous question like “How’s every little thing?” he went out of his way to assure you that nobody had it so good. He pointed to his automobile, his new home on the outskirts of town. He exaggerated the progress that had been made since you left, as if you’d been away for ages. The new mayor and the sheriff were good white folks.  Things were different from what they used to be. Never once did he let you get beneath the thin layer of his insecurity, brought about immediately upon hearing you were back in town. You knew what he was thinking: “Lording it over everybody, hasn’t been up North long enough to get his feet wet, and already he’s talking with a brogue.’

In retrospect, there was at least some superficial truth in this reaction. One of the first things a Southern negro did upon moving farther North was to begin work on losing his Southern accent, the symbol of the near-slave status he had just put behind him, forever, he hoped. This losing of our “Southerness” was a defense mechanism of us latecomers to the North against that rarity of the species, the Northern-born Negro, or against negroes who had taken off their Southern shoes one whole year ahead of us.

In those days most Negroes were fiercely ashamed of their Southern background, so much so, that it amounted to an inferiority complex. My first year in the army, during the late World-Wide Madness, I was the company clerk for a segregated company. Not a single one of the men in my outfit admitted being from Georgia or Alabama or Mississippi. They were all from Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, or New York, and you wondered about the very Southern accents they carried with them, dogging their heels, belying their “birthplaces.”  You wondered, that is, until you looked at their files and found that Billy Joe Washington was indeed from Cleveland, though he had been there for at most two or three weeks before he was drafted, having spent the remainder of his twenty-two years in Yazoo city, Mississippi. The same applied to J.B. Jones, from Georgia via new York City, and Victor Jackson, who had been from Chicago a scant three month after escaping from Chittling Switch, Alabama.

Each time I went South, the chasm widened, though it is probable that it did not deepen, since the chasm, after all, was superficial. After the war, I went back with my Northern wife and children. The number of my schoolmates who had remained in Macon had dwindled considerably. A few had offered up their lives as sacrifices in the great bloodletting, and the Jim Crow American Legion post was named after one of them. Others had remained in Paris after the war, or stopped off on their way home in New York or Chicago or Detroit or Los Angeles, and never made it back. But those who did come back stayed; they built landscaped ranch-type houses and bought bigger automobiles and became more and more defensive vis-à-vis the Northern Negro.

I often felt like saying: “Look, fellows, remember me? I’m the same guy you grew up with. You don’t have to prove anything to me, any more than I have to prove anything to you. Who is to say which took more courage? To stay with the south and fight it out here, or to give up and migrate to the North like D.P.s in time of war?”

Negroes in Northern ghettoes often lived in a fool’s paradise, and somehow the Southern Negro knew it and resented it. Many Northern Negroes thought they had it made, no matter what their circumstances, merely because they were up North. They felt a condescending pity for their downtrodden brother in the South, but they no longer felt the same bond of mutual suffering and exploitation. In a way it was an extension of the Southern ‘good white folks” myth. Everything in this dialogue was based on the attitudes of white folks, “good” or “bad” “Crackers” or “Northerners.” White folks were still the determining factor. And what the Southern Negro said in rebuttal was at least partially true. “You raggedly-ass Negroes up there in Harlem and on the South side of Chicago living on top of each other in the company of rats and bedbugs, what you got to be so high and mighty about? You got freedom all right—freedom to starve to death. What if you can go to them hotels downtown? Hell, you can’t even afford the subway fare!”

Once when I was in Montgomery, Alabama, as a guest of the vice president of Alabama State Teacher’s College, his wife told me, “We often thought about moving North, but in the final analysis we decided it didn’t make that much difference. Whenever we visited New York and looked up our old friends, we found most of them living in Harlem, just as segregated as they’d ever been and just as far away from the cultural life of New York—the theater and Carnegie Hall—as they’d been when they lived in Alabama. All they’d done was travel hundreds of miles to settle in another Southern community. We see more of Broadway on our visits than they do their whole life through.”

It must be said that when the ex-Southern Negro returned home for a visit he was also on the defensive. He had to give the impression that he had done well up North. So when he was there he usually showed up at church on Sunday, even though in New York he never attended, and wearing the latest style in clothing. He showed off his Northern brogue, which was oftentimes an unknowing caricature of the real thing, and he might even have borrowed somebody’s big long Cadillac to drive down in. But notwithstanding, the differences between the black brothers and sisters, North and South, were always superficial. The ties were never broken fundamentally; the Northern Negro still had family ties and friendships back home. Richard Wright was never closer to the truth when he spoke of the irreducible strength of familial love, which transcended all the white man’s laws and conventions. Despite the eternal, unabating pressure on the black man to hate the face he stares at in the mirror, his love for his black brother has survived.

I remember when I was a lad in Macon, you would hear that a funeral was going to be on  Thursday, then Friday, then Saturday or Sunday, and then it might finally take place on the following Tuesday or Wednesday. What was happening was that the family was waiting for its members to gather from the far corners of the land. And so long as there was hope that a brother or a sister or even a distant cousin would make it, the funeral would be postponed again and again.

A family very close to mine, when I was about eight years old, lost one of its member. It was winter and a cold one for our part of the country; snow lay on the land from the Great Lakes all the way to Jacksonville. One of the brothers of the deceased was living in Chicago as was one of his sisters. He had come upon hard times and was penniless. But he borrowed enough money from his sister to get his clothes and suitcases out of hock and checked the bags on her ticket. She rode the train as a passenger; he rode the boxcars. At Atlanta, where it was necessary to change trains, he got his bag and went into the colored restroom to bathe, shave, and put on his best suit, then caught the same train to Macon with his sister. The people in Macon shook their heads.

“That boy did prosper up the country!”

Now, lest the wrong impression be given, there were always some Southern Negroes who had no need to be defensive, had no good white folks to speak of, and always spoke their minds and told it like it was. One of them told me a fantastic (true) story about a young man who had come back from the second World-Wide Madness, and built up a promising vegetable trucking business. He was married and had a couple of children, and through industry and faith in free enterprise had built up a fairly successful business. Each day he would drive his truck out to the edge of town where the farmers’ markets were to buy produce and bring it back to the neighborhood to sell.

One morning he was on his way to the market in his truck when the white driver of an automobile tried to take the highway away from him. The young veteran would not relinquish his position, a few words were passed, and they both went their contemplative ways. He arrived at the first market and exchanged greetings with his friend the wholesale produce man, a real sensitive friendly type good white man, who didn’t hold anything against the Negro simply because he was a Negro. Besides it was good business to be friendly to young prospering Negroes. After all, you didn’t have to invite them into your home.

“Morning, Mr. Henry,” the young black ex-G.I. said pleasantly.

“Morning, Joe,” the chubby produce man replied, with equal plesantness. “Excuse me for a minute, I’ll be back directly.”

While Mr. Henry was inside for one hot minute, the white driver appeared and, leaping from his car, jumped G.I. Joe, shouting insults about “goddamn biggedy niggers.’ By the time Mr. Henry came back outside, Joe and the white man were rolling in the dust. Rushing back into the store, he reappeared with his pistol and shot Joe as dead as he had to be to die. That’s right, killed his ‘friend” and cash customer, even though he’d never seen this white man before in his entire life.

One thing the Negro Revolt has taught the negro, North and south, is the universality of his degradation, that so long as human dignity is denied him in one section of this country, he will never achieve it fully in the other. Such wisdom was not always with us.

And now it should be said, lest someone gets a false impression, we black folk do not spend twenty-four hours of each day musing over the ways of white folks. Believe it or not, our time is much too valuable. When we leave the white man’s job most of us really leave the white man’s job. We go home to another life which is black and has dignity, and though we may be the janitor in your apartment building or an elevator operator or the cleaner of your streets, we are leaders in our own communities. Club presidents and trustees and deacons and elders and Grand Exalted Rulers. As much as it is possible, we shut your alien white life out of our hearts and souls and minds. Every evening we leave the foreign country, and we go home to our families, our associations, our Grand Lodges, our societies, our Elks, our Masons, our churches. The Negro Revolt notwithstanding, our main involvement is with ourselves, not with white folks, not even with integration, which you believe to be our obsession. It may hurt some white folk’s tender sensibility to hear this, but the truth is most Negroes could not care less about integrating with most white folk. We are not so uncritical, having lived in a society among a people that has denied us for nearly four hundred years. There must be something basically sick about such a society or something basically wrong with us, and loving us, as we do, we favor the former.

When I listen to my people’s songs, when I feel the beauty and the strength and the depth of their feelings, when I ponder over the essential had-working goodness of my people, along with the human weaknesses which are common to all men; as I have shed my own tears and heard their laughter, just as I have felt their tears and heard their laughter, which is mine and mine theirs, for in the deepest sense our hopes and aspirations are one and indivisible; as I ponder all these things, I raise this question: How could you, who claim to be the land that spawned the basic rights of man, deny an entire people such as we? We upon whose backs the nation’s initial wealth was accumulated?

There is something wrong here, fundamentally wrong. That is why we don’t aspire merely to reach where you stand now on sinking sand. We want to move the whole country to higher ground and build a society that will make sense for all the people, black and white. We want freedom and we will be free, And integration and freedom are not synonymous, certainly not in our dictionary. Freedom is a principle men have historically laid down their lives for; integration with dignity for the integrated can only come after the fact of freedom.

Another thing. You are forever buying off us “different” ones, but the price is never right. The offer never includes manhood or freedom. Historically, the reward has been, and still is, merely to graduate to “house niggers,” to be grateful for the crumbs from old Massa’s table. And in compensation for this we must play the role of Gunga Din. This is what is still expected, be it Down South or Up South, of every “different,” “educated” Negro.

When I was an undergraduate at Morris brown College in Atlanta, I remember vividly the “integrated” forums we used to attend of a Sunday afternoon over on the Atlanta University (or the Morehouse or Spellman) campus. There would usually be a few students from Georgia Tech and Emory (both very-lily-and-very-very-white at the time0, but most of us were from the surrounding Negro colleges.

We black people, whether we come from the city or village or the country farms of Georgia are rarely ever more than one generation removed from a peasant background, a background very close to the soil and fraught with deprivation. Yet most of our parents instilled in us a kind of nervous and precarious dignity and a blind faith in the American dream, to wit: “If you persevered and prepared yourself, you would be ready to go inside the door of success when opportunity knocked.” If the metaphor were badly mixed, it was probably because the reasoning was terribly mixed up and the dream itself had little or nothing to do with the American reality.

At most of those forums we inevitably and interminably discussed how to rid the country of the “Problem.” What else was there for black and white students to discuss together on a college campus in Atlanta on a Sunday afternoon? One Sunday afternoon I remember in particular. The speaker (white and aristocratic-looking) had finished, and questions had been coming from the floor for three-quarters of an hour when a tall, blond, crew-cut boy from Emory or Georgia Tech got to his feet and proclaimed to one and all that he had the solution to the “nigrah” problem. We all waited with bated breadth, as the cliché goes.

“The way to get rid of the nigrah problem,” he said gravely, “is to collect all the nigrahs together and take them to the river and dump them in.”

There was shocked silence. But well, he wore a serious expression, you know. He wasn’t making with the joke And he appeared to be perfectly sober.

On another Sunday afternoon we were lectured at by a charming white professor from one of the liberal, white, Southern colleges. And afterward, as we stood outside on the campus ‘neath the falling shadows of a dying day in autumn, he approached a group of about five of us young colored “elite,” who gathered around him expectantly as he lt us in on the great big secret. “You fellows are all right,” he said. “You’re different, you’re not like the rest of them. It’s the riff-raff over on Decatur Street that makes things hard for the rest of you-all.” And we all felt properly superior and smiled our dazzling dark smiles at this magnanimous great white father. He had knighted us, and we were properly grateful. He even almost shook our hands.

The funny thing about the South, more alarming than hilarious, is that they believe their own propaganda. They believed in the reality of their happy nigrahs. They created the myth and came to believe in it religiously, making it into a way of life. And that is the scary part. That is the sickness.

During the Montgomery Bus protest Movement, I spent some time in the “Cradle of the Confederacy.” I witnessed a growing realization, a deep sense of disillusionment among the white folk, that something was wrong with their own “dyed-in the-wool-happy-and-contented-Dixie-nigrahs.

One elderly red-necked newsman from the North: “I just can’t understand it. Here we were minding our own business, and the races gittin’ along together separately, they on they side of the street and us on ourn, and then one day boom! All this bus-boycott business and carrying on!”

The old man scratched and shook his scraggly head, rather in the manner of Stepin Fetchit or Willie Best. His old face wore a puzzled expression. “It’s like fifty thousand other nigrahs moved into town under cover of darkness and took the places of our nigrahs. They look like our nigrahs, but Lord in heaven knows they sure don’t act like them!”

And all over the South today, with the demonstrations, white men look at their own Southern nigrahs with a hurt sense of deep betrayal. Black folk are no longer speaking their lines according to the old script, and this is disquieting. “When you can’t rely on your own nigrahs, what is this old world coming to? It makes you lose faith in human nature, not that nigrahs are human, necessarily.”

And yet it is difficult for a Negro raised in the South to put that part of the country irrevocably behind him. It is not easy to leave a place where you have lived out the days of your childhood, when all your memories have not been those of ugliness. You do remember the soft quiet beauty of a southern town, which is unmatched by the crowded, noisy, soot-filled urban centers of the North. You do remember the fragrance of honeysuckle and magnolias. You do remember going barefoot in the early Southern springs that come when blankets of snow still lie over most of the Northern country, and the clouds of birds that filled the sky coming South and going further South. You recall the lazy hot summer days when there was a greenness over everything and the smell of the Georgia pines standing tall and lording it over the rest of the forest. And that was good. You have memories of going for hikes into the woods and picking wild blackberries and muscadines and going swimming out the “Big Road” in an infamously treacherous swimming hole on the sly and getting a whipping when you go home because you forget to dry your hair. And Sunday-school picnics that always came in May, the long games played and the romping and tearing about as if nobody ever had a care in the world. You even remember the teachers in the segregated schools who seemed “mean” and “strict,” because they cared, the whipping you get at school or the one your parents gave you when you got home with the note saying you hadn’t done your best. Everybody cared, everybody believed in you and in your capacity as a human being, and you belonged to everybody, so everybody was determined that you do your best. This is the kind of loving care a black child misses almost entirely in the “integrated’ schools Up South in new York City, where most of the teachers are white, and many of them could not care less whether you are prepared for the future, or even if you have a future. This is the great contradiction in the fight for “integrated” schools. Negro children often find themselves in a school system where nobody seems to give a damn, and discipline is almost wholly for precious discipline’s sake.

I went a couple of years ago, to an “Open School week,” and overheard a Brooklyn high school teacher tell a worried Negro parent, “I wouldn’t worry about Jerry, Mrs. Wilson. He’s doing all right, about as well as could be expected. He’s a nice boy, doesn’t give anyone any trouble. We don’t have any disciplinary problems with Jerry at all.”

“But,” the frustrated mother protested, “I am not worried about the deportment, I’m worried about his grades. I know he can do better.”

“Everybody thinks his child can do better, Mrs. Wilson.”

In the “integrated” schools, too many of the authority symbols are white, almost all the principals and assistants, most of the teachers. There are only two negro school principals in the whole of New York City. If integration is to have any real meaning for black children, integration must be achieved at the level of authority, as well as in the student body. I mean black and white kids must experience some black authority. How can there be incentive without example?

Are all Northern white teachers antagonistic to their Negro students? No. There are a few who care. I have known a precious few. My son has also, as has my daughter. I have heard of others. But they are the exceptions that prove overwhelmingly what the rule might be, but isn’t.

Yes, it’s easy to be nostalgic about a Southern childhood. Christmas mornings when black folk went from house to house, knocking on doors, and when the doors were opened, crying, “Christmas gift!’ Then the answer: “Hand it here!”

And this from those who had nothing to give but the gift of giving. You remember Easter mornings when you gathered on the hill (even a few “good’ white folks gathered to the side of you), and sang songs of Jesus’ crucifixion and of his triumph over the grave and watched the sunrise shout for joy for Mary’s boy-child and his Resurrection.

Or going home on a train, leaving Washington with the snow lying quietly over everything but beginning to vanish as you moved deeper into Virginia, then North Carolina and its faint hint of springtime and South Carolina where spring had already arrived, and finally the red clay hills of North Georgia, with the tall pine trees glistening in the warm sunlight. You remembered suddenly all the good things about your home, and it was home, after all, no matter how violently you denied it. And you got a choking in your throat of sweet nostalgia.

Then the not-so sweet reality as the train dashed by the little country stations with red-neck Crackers sitting outside staring at the world passing them by forever, with black men standing to the side, always to the side, staring too, but with a different look, and then all at once you became aware of the little outhouses alongside the stations with the signs that reminded you in bold crude letters” FOR WHITE ONLY.

So you were brought sharply back to the truth about your dear old honeysuckled Southland. Whatever the natural beauty of this land, it was a superficial beauty; it had the prettiness of a lovely woman with the insides of a hard-hearted whore. And you wept inside for what it could be but never had been, and you began to wonder if it ever would. You’re sometimes seized with a helpless anger at the sickness of this beautiful bitch. She could be beautiful inside. You knew she could be. But, Good Lord, would she ever, as long as she pretended that she was already the mostest of the very most?

And yet the hope is always there with man black folk that the South shall one day lead the nation. She has misled us all these years since Reconstruction. This is what makes them stay with the South and struggle with her redemption. The hope that the few white folk who care will increase steadily and gain more courage from our display of black courage so that no longer will they le the loudmouthed ones intimidate them. The desperate hope that there are many more white folk “ready” than black folk dare suspect. It is this that gives the Freedom Riders such fierce conviction when they sing: “We shall overcome some day.”

But white allies or no, we black folk mean to overcome.

We are a Southern country, not incidentally, but fundamentally, and the sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we will be able to get down to the business of changing. This is, after all, what the demonstrating is all about, including the Freedom Rides, the Sit-Ins, Malcolm X, James Farmer, the Wade-Ins, Daisy Bates, the Harlem Riot, Rochester, Jersey City, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Whitney Young, and Jackson, Mississippi. The purpose is to change and thereby save the country, not to help the “poor downtrodden colored man.”

Reconstruction is the purpose. Ours has been a racist-oriented country from the beginning. Even in the days of slavery, the vaunted North was Southern country. The slaves knew this—or found it out very soon. A fugitive slave learned he was never really free until he crossed over into Canada. If he had not known this beforehand, the Dred Scott decision made everything very clear. The Supreme Court said, in essence: “No black man had a right that nay white man need respect.” This is the brutal truth of our history which we must transcend. We are, black and white, still the slaves of our history, of the myths as against the historical reality.

Up South in New York City, in Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles, in all the Northern urban centers, black folk face de facto segregation and discrimination and other denials of basic humanity. These denials are sharp and hard and fast and real. They all spell human exploitation; economic, political, social, cultural. This harsh reality is all the crueler for the millions of words of lip service paid by Northern mouths to equality and brotherhood. In the Deep South they do not celebrate “Brotherhood Week.” In the North they invented “brotherhood Week,” and that is one of the basic differences between New York and Atlanta.

Dick Gregory has said: “The only difference between the Negro in the North and the Negro in the South is that the Negro is a little safer (physically) in the North.” Well, at least he’s safer from the whims of the average white civilian. In New York his most obvious adversary is often the “Finest.” I suspect that the police play a similar role in most Northern cities. Only the most brainwashed of Negroes in Harlem or other Northern ghettos really believe that the police are in their community to protect them. The age-old cry in Harlem is: “Who will protect us from the representatives of law and order?” let’s face it. We Negroes did not invent the “myth of police brutality.”

If this be paranoia, it evolves from our black reality. To most Negroes the “friendly cop” is a contradiction in terms. To most of us the police in the black ghetto are the army of occupation, Storm Troopers, U.S.A., protectors of the status quo which has always been anathema to our black existence. The point is: Whether Colonel Penn was gunned to death on a Georgia highway by the K.K.K., or fifteen-year-old Powell shot by one of New York’s “Finest,” the fact is, neither killer will be brought to task by the enforcers of law and order. Everybody knows it. And almost everybody accepts it. There is the sickness.

Where are your law and order that you ask the “hoodlums” of Harlem to respect? Where is your boasted justice, when I can say, and honestly, that so far as I know no white man has ever been capitally punished for murdering a negro in America. Repeat more calmly: No white man has ever paid the supreme penalty for killing one of us, North, South, East, or West, so far as I have been able to determine.

The ghettoes of the North are as firmly entrenched in the urban centers as they are in any Southern city. They are citadels of black despair, a despair that expresses itself in dope addiction, alcoholism, the numbers racket, school drop-outs, juvenile delinquency, teen-age gang warfare, crime and prostitution, and more positively in occasional riots. It is a curious thing the way most Northern newspapers designated the Harlem rioters as hoodlums, while the rioters on the beaches of New Hampshire and Oregon were merely pranksters, students, high-spirited youngsters. Psychologists were quoted in The New York Times as saying that the young people who ran amuck on the fancy beaches of America last Labor day were in “quest of their identity.” Well, is there a youth who has been more deprived of his identity than the youth of Harlem? I honestly believe, though I say this with all kinds of trepidation, that the Harlem riot was a healthy thing for the country and for Harlem. The wonder is that it took so long for our patience to wear thin.

The fight for this country’s emancipation must be successful in the northern cities if the struggle Jackson, Mississippi, and St. Augustine, Florida, is to have any real significance. What are we fighting for in the South? Merely to become like the North?

We, as a people, at this moment in the twentieth century, must determine once and for all which shall have primacy in our land, the sanctity of private property or the dignity of man. This is the question colored peoples all over the world are posing for the 20th century. This is the truer, deeper meaning of the Negro Revolt. The Negro is the conscience of the Western world. There can be no American morality without affirmation of black human dignity. There can be only immorality and decadence.

Of course one must say now emphatically, the North is not the South. New York is not Mississippi. Negroes can sit at the front of the Northern buses and eat hot dogs at Nedick’s or Chock Full o’ Nuts counter. Black men and women can register and vote without imminent danger to life or limb, and only disenchantment and hopelessness keep black folk from flocking to the polls in greater numbers. In the final analysis, we Negroes must pool our strength and turn our despair into hope and human dignity. We have too often put the car before the horse. Moving into a white neighborhood cannot be the solution for the mass of black city dwellers. Negroes themselves, against overwhelming odds, must make the ghetto livable, a fitting place to raise our children. We must make the Harlems of the U.S.A. sources of black strength, political and otherwise. For as my son, Chuck, wrote me after exposure to the Negro community of Washington: “I suddenly realized that the Negro ghetto is not a ghetto. It is home.”

It is time for black folk to de-brainwash themselves. Too long we have accepted the psychology that anything that was all black was ipso facto inferior. It is a psychology of self-hatred and self-destruction.

Harlem is home to hundreds of thousands of black folk. Harlem is many things other than dope addiction and prostitution. Harlem is people; freedom-loving people, loving freedom so fiercely because of their denial of it. Hard-working, unemployed; alert, apathetic; hopeful, despairing; proud, lazy, and industrious people; Democrats, Republicans; radicals, liberals, even one or two reactionaries.

Harlem is E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie in Lennox Terrace and in Riverton, respectable and striving. Harlem has recently been the protagonist of many a book and magazine article, and invariably it has turned out to be the antagonist, the eternal anti-hero. More often than not, Harlem is pictured as one vast “jungle” unsafe for human habitation; the established Western image being that a jungle is inhabited by wild animals and savages, plus a few courageous white men, missionaries and such, who brave the jungle at their own peril to “civilize and Christianize the natives.” And the worst of it was, that what was said of Harlem by outsiders, many Harlemites believed. But Harlem is, among other things, a City of True Believers, including striving, middle-class believers in the sanctity of free enterprise and church-going, God-fearing people who forsee a better life for their children and still buy the American dream. Harlem is the 135th Street Y.M.C.A. and the new Y.W. on 125th Street. Harlem is the Countee Cullen Library and the famed Schomburg Collection. Harlem is raw black anger, black frustration, disillusionment. Harlem is HARYOU, which could spell hope for Harlem children. Harlem is Black nationalism. Harlem is Muslims. Harlem is bars and funeral parlors and black laughter and Langston Hughes and Malcolm X and Nipsey Russell and Adam Clayton Powell and Jesse Gray and Percy Sutton. Harlem is way up North, the Promised Land. Carl Van Vechten once called it “Nigger Heaven.”

Yet Harlem is, for all that, essentially Dixie accents and Southern attitudes, like every acre of the North, shackled forever to the South. Abe Lincoln once said that “no nation can remain half-free and half-slave.’ No can a country remain half-North and half-South. That is why we must all get down to business. And un-South the entire nation. Now is the Time.

Source: John Oliver Killens. The Black Man’s Burden. Simon & Schuster (Pocket Book), 1969. pp. 61-96.

posted 22 September 2007

*   *   *   *   *

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

*   *   *   *   *


The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *


*   *   *   *   *






updated 4 November 2007  / updated 12 June 2008  




Home   John Oliver Killens Table 

Related files:  Killens and the Black Man’s Burden  DownSouth, UpSouth   Globalizing the South    Lest We Forget Killens (by Rivera) Killens, Fort Bliss, & Korea  by Kalamu Ya Salaam 

Coal, Charcoal, and Chocolate Comedy  by Keenan Norris

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.