ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
A Funeral Sermon, Virginia Style
Transliterated by Rudolph Lewis
Brethren and Sisters!
The day before yesterday I went to the house of this man, having heard that he was sick nigh unto death, and I met Sister Judy, his wife at the door.
“Sister Judy,” says I, “how is Jeremiah?” “He done gone home,” says she. And sure enough when I crept to the bed and drawed back the cover from his face, I saw that winter’s cold and summer’s heat were all the same to him. He done gone home. If the Prophet Isaiah had spoke them words he could not have spoke them more to the point.
If we only knowed it, this earth that’s such a peaceful, inviting look this evening is not our home. The great God molds us out of the miry clay and breathes just a little of His breath into us, and then lo! He turns His back upon us for a moment, and the breath dies out and the clay cracks and crumbles and mixes with the ground again. This life is so short that I sometimes studies how ’tis that the All-wise has succeeded in making us so keen after it.
This man often spoke of his home, and a mighty good home he tried to make it for Judy and the chilluns that he raised by her (that’s God’s living truth!) but what right had he, I ask you, to call it home at all? I recollect the very day he was born. It was the year that brick granary was built across the Creek. He come from the outer darkness just as naked as the palm of my hand, and so helpless that his mammy had to help him to lift his mouth to her breast.
A few years more, and he was strong enough to split a little firewood and to fetch a little water from the spring; a few years more, and he was a man swinging his cradle and handling his axe as proud as if he thought hisself as strong as the lean arm with which Death swings his cradle.
A few years more,– time so brief the Almighty hardly turn His head to notice it,– and that home is blotted out the same as those, lowgrounds is when de moon done gone down, and all the stars is buried deep in the clouds.
No, Brethern and Sisters, I done live longer than any of you, and I has always had a roof above my head, but even I ain’t never had no home here. The Giver of all good has given is a life longer than the life of that jimson flower there by the grave, or of them gnats that’s bobbing up and down in this sunshine,– perhaps longer than the life of them frogs that’s croaking in them ditches (though little is knowed, I reckon, about the life of a frog, under water as he is most of the time, and disposed to the appetites of snakes and blue cranes).
But even that black crow that is cawing hisself hoarse in them pines yonder, and that for all I know was stealing corn on these plantations more than one hundred years ago, can beat us all when it comes to living right along. Certain ’tis that he might just as well call the limb that he is perched on his home as for me to say that I got any. Take away the time that we is pulling infants and the time we is old and worthless, and our lives is almost as short as the flight of a barn swallow from the hills of Halifax to the hills of Charlotte.
What better proof can there be of how perishable we is than this very graveyard itself? There is a grave over there under that cedar, that done strike its roots down into it and suck the marrow from the bones in it. And of course, the oldest man on these plantations don’t know whose bones they are that been abused that way. But there is that other grave nigher to us that ain’t had time to grow no tree, and has scarcely had time enough to become covered with cow itch vines.
Can any of you even tell me whether ’tis a man or a woman that fills it? As for the names of most of the people that’s lying about here, I might as well ask you the name of that jealous crow that is still cawing hisself hoarse as he eyes these proceedings. A few years more, and this very grave that we have dug this day will be lost to the knowledge of everybody except some hunter that may catch his foot on it when he is tracking old hares in these thickets.
No, Brethren ands Sisters, Sister Judy was right. Our home is not here, but up yonder beyond them white clouds that’s hanging over us looking like big open cotton bolls turned upside down. There’s where we come from; there’s where we going to. From birth to death, we are in the hands of the mighty power that directs the land and the water, and even them stars that move about in the sky more regular than railroad trains, as if they was all nothing but a plowshare slipping through the soft soil of these uplands. We abide here but a while in these earthly cabins only that He may see how fitted we is for that real home of ours that He prepared for us eternal in the heavens.
This His law that the bread we eat must be soaked in the sweat of our own faces, and at times He blights our crops, and visits us with misery in our backs and limbs, an sooner or later every human soul rises up into the skies followed by the sobbing voice of inconsolable sorrow or sinks down to the devil, loaded with curses; but even here His countenance is oftener turned towards us than away from us, and, moreover, all the time we knows that up yonder wings and harps and white robes and freedom from sin and suffering and rest and the life everlasting, right by the steps of the great throne of our Heavenly Father, is awaiting us, if we’re righteous till the end.
There Jeremiah is already. His grave clothes done dropped from him. His eyes done opened, and his limbs done become supple again., and he can eat, sleep, sing, rock hisself in his rocking chair, or project with the other angels from morning till night without ever so much as having to trouble hisself whether the sun is rising or setting.
Wipe them tears then from your eyes, Sister Judy, and tell them bereaved chilluns of yourn that’s hanging onto your skirts to dry theirs too. A few years more, an other wagons will be bringing other coffins to this place, and then all of you will be united once again, never to be parted more. In the meantime, let all them that hears my voice take counsel.
Go about your daily work cheerfully, manfully, wrestling with all the evil suggestions of your rebellious hearts, determined while you are here to do your duty faithfully to God and man, and making the most of all the innocent pleasure this world affords, but recollecting always that wide as this world is ‘taint wide enough to make a home.
Source: Below the James (1918). Transliterated by Rudolph Lewis
* * * * *
By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection’s “lyric brilliance” and “political impulses [that] never falter.” A New York Times review stated, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to acceptor at least endurethe universe’s mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the books first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant.” Life on Mars follows Smith’s 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans. The Bodys Question (2003) was her first published collection.
Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.
* * * * *
Edited by Michael G. Long
Bayard Rustin has been called the lost prophet of the Civil Rights Movement, a master strategist and organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and a deeply influential figure in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Despite these achievements, Rustin often remained in the background, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era. Published on the centennial of his birth, and in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, I Must Resist: Bayard Rustins Life in Letters are his words shining through a collection of more than 150 of Rustins letters. His correspondents include major figures of his day for example, Eleanor Holmes Norton, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Ella Baker and of course, Martin Luther King Jr. I have file boxes full of Rustins letters that I tracked down in archives across the country, said book editor Michael G. Long.
The time it took to complete the research was much longer than I had predicted, not just because of the number of letters I had in hand, but also especially because for their high quality. It was incredibly difficult to weed out those letters I really liked but that did not serve the purpose of putting together a publishable narrative of letters. And there are quite a few of those that are topically fascinating but not easily fitting for a narrative.phillytrib
* * * * *
By Charles C. Mann
Im a big fan of Charles Manns 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. Its exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that its 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, Im 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.
* * * * *
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 books 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 conventions decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maiers 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 conventions verdict affected anothers. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.Booklist
* * * * *
From The World and Africa, 1965
* * * * *
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
online through PayPal
* * * * *
Browse all issues
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
update 1 June 2012