Home to Jerusalem

Home to Jerusalem


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


Home In these regional counties blacks predominate, though they do not rule. The old white families still own most of the land. Children of black families have been driven from the land by new farming technologies    ]]> Home to Jerusalem

Notes from Nathaniel Turner Country

By Rudolph Lewis


August 9, 2004 (Tuesday)

I’m at Jerusalem, a small village of Negro homes in southern Virginia, near the town of Jarratt, named for an English slaveholding family, which has yet to die out entirely as landowners. Some say the church was so named to remember Jerusalem of Southampton, the town Nathaniel Turner  (a black Christ figure), attempted to seize. Near the river his Soldiers of the Cross  encountered resistance and were halted on this side of the Nottoway.

During the annual August revival of our family church, I’ve returned home for rest and vacation. This was the time of year that the prophet Nathaniel found significant in God’s divine plan. Last night, I arrived from Baltimore on the Greyhound Bus. The trip used to take only five hours by bus. It can now be done by car in three and a half  hours. 

Trailways now Greyhound makes the 250 miles from Baltimore a  seven-hour trip. Most of the southbound buses bypass the town. I got off at at the Emporia station, a community store, about fifteen miles from Jerusalem. Each day, there are only two buses going north and two buses going south. I called Mama: a neighbor, a friend of my aunt Annie, picked me up.


*   *   *

In ways Jarratt has been a victim of progress. I-95, rather than Route 301, is the main artery north and south on the East Coast. Most of the traffic now by-pass the town, rather than going through it. Jarratt, a rural farming town, overlaps the two counties of Sussex and Greensville (which contains Emporia). Farming and timber (used to be Johns-Mansville) have produced the little wealth that exists. Farming today needs fewer Negroes than in the past and so the county and region, especially the rural areas, continue to lose population as students graduate from the county schools.


In these regional counties blacks predominate, though they do not rule. The old white families still own most of the land. Children of black families have been driven from the land by new farming technologies. Cotton no longer has to be picked from the bolls; peanuts no longer have to be chopped; tobacco leaves no longer have to be crapped and tied to a stick and carried to the barn. The black farmer with a mule making $900 a year for his tobacco, peanuts, and cotton, that fellow has stretched out and gone.

Formal education for the general region is much higher now than when Mama went to grade school around 1920. She dropped out in the third grade because she was only able to get to school three days a week. Children had to work then for the family to survive.

In search of employment and livable wages, students now graduated from local high schools move away to Richmond or Norfolk or to northern cities. They become detached and unappreciative of the necessity to maintain vital links between individual and community— they are at once “of” yet “apart,” outsiders visiting home. 

I suppose I’m such an outsider, one of Richard Wright’s “educated elite.” By intellectual training  and at times emotional sensibility, I live apart from my home, a rural community of agrarian folk, of semi-literate black Christians.

At least that is what it used to be. Many now with their bricked homes have the veneer of the middle class, often struggling to make ends meet with wages under $10 an hour. The dropout rate at local black high schools remains high, around 40%.

The population of this rural town has increased recently with the building of a state prison. Its establishment created for the town public utilities—running water and waste removal. These made possible the building of apartment houses and single-family homes right next to one another, mostly large trailer homes placed on cinder blocks. That most of the land is near sea level used to limit population density. 

Outside of the prison the population has increased by several hundred to six or seven hundred, on or near Route 301. Many of the new residents hail from North Carolina, and thus have no family connection to native residents.

When I left here in 1965 after high school, telephones were not ubiquitous, surely there were no satellite dishes for cable channels. There were no Hispanics and no Chinese restaurants. We were still then using outhouses and toting water and chopping wood. Daddy had his hogs, and Mama her chickens. And Daddy was still farming with a mule and wagon.

*   *   *

At the center of our village is Jerusalem Baptist Church, which celebrated this year its 134th birthday. Now a bricked edifice (formerly white clapboard until the early 60s) with a high ceiling, it can hold about 250 worshippers. Its foundation now rotting and its ceiling unstable, there’s a movement afoot to tear the old building down and build a new church edifice—to the right of our family home, which is itself a half-century old. During its heyday the early 50s  Jerusalem had an an active membership of three hundred, now reduced to fifty. For a new building, the cost and the debt assumed are crucial issues. 

One building proposal has an estimated cost of $800,000. 

Though just a few, an educated middle-class, some still connected to the farming and timber business, has now developed at Jerusalem. Its membership used to be primarily farm and timber semi-literate workers, paid at times from a quarter a day (during the Depression of the 30s) to six dollars a day (around 1965). Jerusalem now has a few members with wages from $30,000 to $80,000, including teachers, nurses, and manufacturing workers. But there is a much larger “retired” group within the community than there used to be. Some who left the “country” for urban centers, like New York, have returned and built brick (retirement) homes. 

There are also a lot of widows.

A Senior Citizen’s Center operating for several decades find ways to amuse them and keep them occupied.

Of course, most of the money is made outside the county, the area has become a bedroom community—the place people sleep rather than a place of work and play. Of course, there are a few who own and retain a relationship with the land by gardening collards, peas, potatoes, watermelons, tomatoes, cabbage, and so on. And fewer still preserve vegetable and fruits to get one through the winter. Mama gave me her last quart of pear preserves. 

Wal-Mart, now ten miles away, satisfies all such desires and more, cheaply. We are all hooked into the global economy.

August 10, 2002

Mama will be 93 tomorrow. Her father’s mother Malvinee lived to be more than a hundred years old, birthing by two husbands about ten children . . . This morning, Mama had Lucinda (my mother), one of her three remaining daughters, to wake me to come to breakfast. Seventy-two, Lucinda reached a while ago retirement age, but she has little inclination to return to Jerusalem, though Mama has given her Granny’s (her mother’s) land. Lucinda’s sister’s son Peter lives in the house on the land. 

Lucinda prefers the lights and fast activity and the social isolation of the city. In fairly good health, she cares for an ailing diabetic husband. She recalls too easily her childhood drudgery growing up as a sharecropper’s daughter and working for 75 cents a day for ten hours work.


*   *   *

Mama scrambled me three eggs and cut me a few slices of ham. Corn and applesauce were side dishes. This kind of hospitality is second nature to Virginia Negroes who have exported their manners and skills north, south, east, and west. But such manners are dying out in the younger generations.

Mama is getting around now on a walker, very slowly. Her knees and joints are wracked with arthritis but her mind and spirit are clear and sound. Her memory and her life link us to what we were and provide us a foundation to what we can make of ourselves with our new and growing opportunities. A woman semi-literate, Mama knows nothing about the continent and its peoples. The oldest member of our family she remains for us our Africa. And the village of Jerusalem is our Little Africa. I had to go to the continent to learn this familial reality.

Ours is a land of traditions that rose up from our centuries-long engagement with the natural phenomenon, with tilling the land, tearing down and replanting the forests, fishing the streams and swamps, killing animals domestic and wild, and living with and enduring the white man and his oppressive institutions. We are one of the few Negro families that has held onto most of the land our mothers and fathers acquired after the Civil War. Most of the members of my family still remain (live and work) in southern Virginia.

Though some of our family came up from Scotland Neck, North Carolina, our family has been native to this region for nearly a century and a half. Our bodies have enriched this land. I expect that my body will be returned here to the church cemetery.

*   *   *

We have neglected the two family cemeteries (Lewis and Williams/Jackson), still on family land. Overgrown by bushes and grasses without names, some graves are so sunken in that they are difficult to recognize. Mama only can identify individual graves, though I have written down the names of all who are there. In back of our house and fields up in the woods was the Old Jerusalem and its cemetery of former slaves. Those graves are lost in the forest. Few know of their existence.

Then there are family remains lost entirely that used to be on white land—black bodies plowed under. Unrelated to our family, four new graves were moved from white land and reburied here  at Jerusalem . The oldest person buried in Jerusalem’s cemetery was born 1864, a year after Abe Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.

August 11, 2004 (Wednesday)

Today is Mama’s birthday, her 93rd. Last evening, she went out to the family church for a three-hour revival service. She got up late this morning. Though a bit sore and tired, she is well and in good spirits. During prayer service (the preacher still in his study), she led the song, “Is There Anybody Here Who Loves My Jesus.” 

The congregation joined in. They all—Mama, and her two daughters (Lucinda and Annie) and my sister Theresa—returned home happy, exclaiming what a wonderful performance the gospel group gave.

The preaching was long. Annie’s son Peter played the drums well, I was told. Mama said the leader of the group could play his guitar, sing, and dance, and that she could have watched him do his dance all night. Pentecostal performances are seldom seen at Jerusalem, though there are a few shouters. Most are reserved and respond with an “Amen” or a “Preach.” There is also some handclapping. Whatever is necessary to help the speaker deliver or bring the spirit of the Lord into the house is done.

To celebrate Mama’s birthday, Mama, Lucinda, Annie, and I will go to Applebees for a late lunch. I understand the flesh of their barbecue ribs fall off the bone. . . .

*   *   *

We had a nice birthday dinner for Mama. I got the ribs but the meat though tender did not fall from the bone. I had a beer and they sodas. Women in my family tend not to use spirited drink, though there are exceptions. With my one beer, we ate well and enjoyed ourselves. Mama and I had enough left over for a doggy bag. When we got back home to Jerusalem, Mama and I had some of her ice cream cake Theresa bought for her birthday – too much chocolate for both our taste.

Lucinda and Annie went to the Wednesday night revival service. I stayed home with Mama. We talked about the older folk who still lived and those who were dead. I sat with her until Annie and Lucinda came home and we then spoke of the service and who was there.

*   *   *

These one-week revival services, during the month of August, probably can be traced back to the evangelical movements of the 18th and early 19th centuries, especially among the Methodists. Jerusalem has always (for a century or more) had its revival during the second week of August. It has been several years since I attended one. 

The last time I went with Miss Lula Bell, Mama’s best friend, to Hunting Quarter. There, this young preacher walked the benches (literally) and must have preached for almost two hours. It was too much for me. I walked out and waited for Miss Lula Bell on the outside.

I like especially the prayer services that come before the preaching. In this ceremony, each of the congregants can stand and speak her heart; give thanks to the Lord for blessings received; raise a song of praise. It is especially delightful when one of these soldiers wrinkled and worn (and usually female) raise one of the old spirituals, like “Walking in Jerusalem, Just Like John.” 

Others join in. If the rendition is good one or two may extend the songs with additional verses, the Spirit is present but it has not fully and sufficiently, though possessing the power, moved the House. Most are not trained singers. Yet they know how to swing a tune.

This praise ceremony, I believe,  is a remnant of a tradition from a time when the community of worshipers was a group of religious individuals who sought God and righteousness hand in hand, without a preacher. Now the services are mostly preacher-centered, and often about doctrines. Satan was more palpable then. Sin (and taboos) more keenly felt.

Different churches choose different weeks so that members from other churches can attend. A guest pastor is chosen to deliver the Word for the week-long service (Sunday to Friday). From Monday to Friday services begin about 7:30 pm. Choirs or singing groups from other churches come as well. Revival at Jerusalem begins on the second Sunday, always. 

This year a packed house (about 250) surprised regular members. Most of these came “home” from the cities. They have or had kin who belonged to the church. The deacons and trustees took up $5,000 in the collection. Marvin Briggs, Margie’s son and  also a boxing celebrity, visited Jerusalem and his mother’s grave in the cemetery.

The folks now have more church than they used to when I was going to church. Preaching used to occur once a month and then on second Sunday. A younger generation preacher pushed the people to four Sundays a month. Without other employment they pay him a livable wage. Maybe the younger generation needs more preaching than folks used to need, and, of course, TV evangelism further satisfies the thirst and the taste some need for “successful” charlatans.

*   *   *

Spawning other churches, Jerusalem is considered the mother of churches, including Hassiadiah and Center Star. More than likely internal dissent led to the founding of these separate churches. That’s the freedom desire of black Protestants, especially the black Baptists. 

In a radius of ten miles there are about thirteen black churches, with active membership of less than 300. Spread out thus over a wide area, they include Center Star (Gray), Bethlehem (Grizzard), Shiloh (Emporia), Calvary (Yale), Hassidiah (Jarratt), Morning Star (Jarratt), Galilee (Stony Creek), St. John (Stony Creek), First Baptist (Purdy), Hunting Quarter (Stony Creek), Pleasant Plain (Southampton).

Most of these, it seems, have remodeled or rebuilt their churches within the last decade or so, even Center Star which received a grant from a prosperous athlete who grew up in the little church. Jerusalem is struggling to keep up.

August 12, 2004 (Thursday)

On cable TV tonight I saw for the first time the film Tears of the Sun, with Bruce Willis. The setting was in recent Nigeria during a Muslim repressive war against the Christian and Catholic Ibo. There were numerous gruesome scenes of rape and ethnic cleansing—men, women, and children, and European and American missionaries slaughtered with machetes and military weapons. The American government sent in US Marines to airlift Americans out of Nigeria. A young American female doctor refused to leave unless her African friends—men, women, and children—were also taken.

Leaving the Africans and seizing by force the American female doctor, “LT” (Bruce Willis) and his troops fly away in two helicopters. They fly over a village in which men, women, and children have been slaughtered. Against his mission assignment, LT affected by the sight turns the copter around for the Africans they left stranded and vulnerable to the ongoing genocide. But there is room only for the children and old women. The marines and the remainder, including the female doctor, decide to track through the jungle and across the mountains to Cameroon.

The Nigerian federal troops are in pursuit and track them day and night. LT and the Marines discover a spy among them with an electronic signaling device. They kill the spy, who tried to save his family by this collaboration, destroy the electronic device, and question again the Nigerian men. They discover among them the son of the deposed president (a prince) whose family was slaughtered. The prince is the last of this royal Ibo family.

With their own form of technological shock of thunderous bombs and awe of fire and smoke miles in the sky, the US Marines and the US Air Force save the day against the advancing Nigerian ground troops. 

All these events of rescue are are set in a scenario of good and evil. The US Marines are the good guys and the military forces of the government of Nigeria the bad guys, the forces of evil. The death of several hundred African ground forces in the flames of US bombs is represented as a moral victory for the forces of good. And the Americans, at one with humanity, are lauded for their sacrifices. Black Power and black government are disparaged as brutal and savage.

Films indeed provide us some wish fulfillment and shore up our flagging uprightness.

August 13, 2004 (Friday)

I got up after ten this morning and did little or nothing today. My body is still adjusting to a change of place. A fine rain settled after dinner and together caused me to nap several hours. I was up last night until daybreak watching cable TV. 

Mama cooked shad for breakfast and fried some good tasting chicken drumsticks for dinner. I do not care for the oiliness of shad nor its thousand tiny bones. Still there is nothing like Mama’s cooking. It makes me feel as if all is right with the world. She also made me a pan of rice pudding with raisins I have been eating on and off for several nights.

August 15, 2002 (Sunday)

It has been raining since Thursday and the nights have been cool enough to close the window and sleep under a comforter.

Saturday, Celestine arrived to take her mother Lucinda back to Baltimore. Ronald, her brother, came up from Virginia Beach with Grover, Lucinda’s husband. Theresa came down late from Petersburg. Lucinda cooked neckbones, boiled potatoes, and butter beans. We all had dinner together. I can never hold court when my younger brother Ronald is at the table. Sometime ago, it seems, his “queen” knighted him with a “Sir.” With the exception of Debbie and me all my siblings have a child or children.

August 16, 2004 (Monday)

I have ODed on cable movies. I watched Scarface, a very long violent movie of Cuban crime lords in Florida. Watching movies without commercials is a real treat. I go rarely to the movie theater and I do not have cable TV in my house. I would never get anything done.

The movie industry seems to turn out films that run on three wheels: greed, power, and revenge. They must indeed be the central motivations of modern society. 

Check them out: the comedy The Distinguished Gentlemen, with Eddie Murphy; the hip-hop crime drama Jacked Up; Duma’s The Count of Monte Cristo, the film; and so on and on. Popularly seen by millions, these films are entertaining and escapist. So many of them, even when they are comedic, are criminal fantasies. These cinematic extravaganzas fill up time for the bored and the uninspired. Some might say, they are capitalist distractions.

Even if the fantasy is of a short duration, what poor kid can resist the attraction of the rise and fall of a Tony Montana, the Castro-hating Cuban cocaine smuggling syndicate boss? Tony provides the model and the method for “success”: “First you get the money. That gives you power, and that’s how you get the women.” 

With women Montana is strangely a failure, maybe to emphasize his machismo. He is unable to win the love of women, not his mother, nor his sister. Montana’s repressed incestuous love for his sister is made exceedingly dramatic.

Montana’s murderous escapades and accumulated wealth come to quick end.  A Bolivian drug lord hired  an army to kill him. He asked Montana to assist in killing one of his enemies–at a certain time and a certain place. Montana failed to do as he promised But there were children in the car. Montana, a man of principle, does not kill children. 

By this time Montana’s Baltimore blonde, the proceeds from his murder of her former lover, has also left him. For she, a beautiful Anglo cocaine addict (languishing in the wealth of powerful men), viewed Montana as little more than as another “Spic” who had an inordinate love for money and power. So there’s this irrationalism—the mystique of race—that the film exploits. Montana is a mad man, a megalomaniac whose died in a hail of bullets.

Of all the films I viewed, The Saint of Fort Washington only possessed any redeeming value. The characters of Danny Glover and Matt Dillon, two homeless men sleeping where they may, are the social victims of greed, power, and revenge. Most of us, sensitive enough, can identify with their plight. With nothing materially, we admire their character and  humanity in how they reach out for and encourage the other. How these two characters (a black man, a white boy) deal with each other model an ethical standard we all should strive to achieve.

August 18, 2004 (Wednesday)

Yesterday (Tuesday), three deacons of three local churches (Hassidiah,  Jerusalem, and First Baptist) came by to pray and sing with Mama. These three evangelists, retired from their jobs and on pensions or social security, have been performing these missionary rites from household to household for a year or so. Life must have meaning, whatever quality. The orality of ministry lives among the semi-literate. These men perform their religious activity especially for the aged. Mama led them in the song “Is There Anyone Here Who Loves My Jesus?”  Her comforters’ sadly sentimental service complete, I walked the three men to the backdoor, thanked them and bid them adieu.


*   *   *

I called my friend Fred to check the house when after several attempts I was unable to reach my Baltimore neighbor, Jimmy, who is now watching my cat Bobo, my house, my car. I finally got in touch with Jimmy. My mind has been set at ease.

*   *   *

I did not entirely OD on cable movies. I am still watching them. So I have only read a few pieces of writings since I have been home: a review by Gerard Fergerson of the book From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954; a letter dated 2 February 1990 I sent Mama after I resigned the second time from Local 1199; a newspaper article on the lower test scores (reading and math) of the much boosted charter schools in relation to the test scores of public schools.

Today, I returned to Richard Wright’s White Man, Listen (1957), an intriguing and much neglected analysis of racial consciousness. Wright’s views on American Negro folk culture have always made me uneasy. In White Man, Listen (1957), Wright again undermines our romantic views of Negro and African cultures: he raises the question of the “modern serviceability of African culture.”  Indicting ancestor worship, which he conceives as a ubiquitous African trait, Wright concludes that we, fearing the present and the future, “seek shelter in the warm womb of the past.”

August 19, 2004 (Thursday)

Mama cooked me perch filet and called me to breakfast. She is also fixing dinner—peas and baked chicken. She is also washing clothes. She now has a dryer. So I hung clothes out on the line once while I was there. The sun and the wind (the piney outdoors) make a more pleasing difference to the touch and smell.. 

Yesterday was a day for visitors. Warren Wyche, formerly a member of Jerusalem now an elder in the Pentecostal church of Detroit, stopped by to visit Mama, prayed for her, and administered a blessing through the application of oil to her forehead. That same morning, Nathaniel, Annie’s husband, also had visitors—Tom Henry and Roy Mason, each with a beer in hand. I sat with them at the mouth of the woodshed, between the house and the field, while they in turn told lies about their lives and what they had experienced with gambling, women, alcohol, and drugs.


*   *   *

I’ve returned to White Man Listen (1957). I completed its first essay “The Psychological Reactions of Oppressed People.” There, Wright came to no final conclusion with regard to the “modern serviceability of Africa culture.” As I do, Wright fears that “vast populations” can be “trapped in tribal or religious loyalties” and can be “easily duped by self-seeking demagogues.” Here, Wright has been prophetic about the dangers of limited allegiances. Ugly tribal conflicts have risen their ugly heads in South Africa, Zaire, Nigeria, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda. Wright feared “an all-pervading climate of intellectual evasion or dishonesty” for self enhancement is intoxicating, and many of us love drunkenness like it was righteousness..

In this article, Wright continues, “In short, if good will is lacking, everything is lost and a dialogue between men becomes not only useless but dangerous, and sometimes even incriminating.”

Fear and suspicion on all sides like a London fog blur and obfuscate the truth of things.

In his second essay “Tradition and Industrialization,” Wright explains his negative response more fully to African culture:

I’m numbed and appalled when I know that millions of men in Asia and Africa assign more reality to their dead fathers than to the crying claims of their daily lives: poverty, political degradation, illness, ignorance, etc. I shiver when I learn that the infant mortality rate, say, in James Town (a slum section of Accra, the capital of the Gold Coast in British West Africa) is fifty per cent in the first year of life; and, further, I’m speechless when I learn that this inhuman condition is explained by the statement, “The children did not wish to stay. Their ghost mothers called them home.” . . . .

Indeed, the teeming religions gripping the minds and consciousness of Asians and Africans offend me. I can conceive of no identification with such mystical visions of life that freeze millions in static degradation, no matter how emotionally satisfying such degradation seems to those who wallow in it. But . . . my sympathies are unavoidably with, and unashamedly for, them. For this sympathy I offer no apology.

In this instance, one sympathizes unavoidably with Wright’s criticism. But can this be the whole story?  How would the circumstances of these slum dwellers be different, be changed, indeed, if they had a non-cultural, non-religious explanation for their victimization? Would a more rational explanation alleviate this “inhuman condition”? Of course, the African folk (the tribesmen and clansmen) must learn to be critical and self-critical of their traditions as we too must be critical of our more rational and social traditions. I suspect in their traditions there is beauty as well as ugliness. In such traditions, naturally, we embrace the practical and sustaining, and discard the useless, rotten, and destructive

Though he is more absolutist with regard to the value of the African (or folk) past than that which makes me comfortable, Wright nevertheless seems well-aware of the difficulty his argument poses. He writes: 

Men who can slough off the beautiful mythologies, the enthralling configurations of external ceremonies, manners, and codes of the past are not necessarily unacquainted with, or unappreciative of, them; they have interiorized them, have reduced them to mental traits, psychological problems.

I know, however, that such a fact is small comfort to those who love the past, who long to be caught up in the rituals that induce blissful self-forgetfulness, and who would find the meaning of their lives in them. I confess frankly that I cannot solve this problem for everybody; I state further that it is my profound conviction that emotional independence is a clear and distinct human advance, a gain for all mankind and, if that gain and advance seem inhuman, there is nothing that can rationally be done about it. Freedom needs no apology.

For me, Wright’s skin analogy with respect to culture does not work because culture is much more deep-seated and intrinsic with respect to self and identity.  

In these two essays of White Man Listen (1957), I have not read anything that indicates that Wright is indeed not “unappreciative” of Africa’s cultures and its past. For Wright the “central historic fact” is that in the “clash of East and West,” an “irrational Western world helped, unconsciously and unintentionally to be sure, to smash the irrational ties of religion and custom and tradition in Asia and Africa.” 

Seemingly a materialist and atheist, Wright longs for a progressive extension of secularism globally; the goal of mankind, for him, is the development of “rational societies.”  In the West today we seem to suffer from too much secularism. Translated financially, greed rules.

Whether man’s irrational impulses can be replaced by Wright’s “rationalism” and what Wright refers to as the “spirit of the Enlightenment, of the Reformation, which made Europe great” is doubtful and probably undesirable. Western slavery, colonialism, and racism were also born during this period and one sustained the other. Though “rationalism” may be a progressive human desire, it may indeed also be an inhuman achievement, at least, at the extremes. 

Reduced to “pure reason,” I suspect,  man would cease to be man and become rather more machine-like (or a god in a machine) than human. Instead of trying to rid ourselves of that which is human (“irrationalism”), there may be a third approach (or third approaches), struggling for a balance between the two forces of rational and irrational impulses, each being a check upon the extremes of the other.

August 20, 2004 (Friday)

I am sitting on the screened-in front porch, overlooking a green yard fifteen yards from the road. Dark-blue dirt daubers, akin to the wasp family, are trapped inside. They have no stingers and are harmless. They make their nests out of mud. People used to use their nests to make poultices for swellings. This native cure with dirt dauber nests has been forgotten now in our modern times that we have doctors aplenty with their science and technology and we with our unaffordable insurance policies and our disregard for what Wright calls the “dead past.”              

From the front porch, we can see across the road the church cemetery. It is much larger now and has more residents than when I was a child. Directly across the road from the yard used to be a forest with blueberry bushes, hands and hands of berries we gathered as children. All that is gone now, like the muscadine vine near Creath, No. 5, the torn-down grade school.

Here the forest has been cut back by fifty yards. The cemetery extends about thirty yards to the right beyond the family house. A couple of days ago, I did my annual tour of the graves to greet those passed that I loved and to discover the tombstones of new residents. One recently buried is a former neighbor Miss Geraldine, Percy Junior’s mama now buried by her husband Percy Senior; she and Mama sewed hundreds of patchwork quilts. Some visually stunning, beautiful.

Daddy has been here in this burying ground since 1970. Two of his daughters are also—Edith and Virginia. Mama’s sister Sally is there also. I expect one day to lie down with them.

*   *   *

Before noon Mama called me to a breakfast of pancakes, salmon cakes, and mashed potatoes without milk. I ate heartily and thanked her and the Lord who provides all. I retired to the front porch for my morning cigarette and coffee while listening to “Rolling & Tumbling Blues.” There I finished Wright’s essay “Tradition and Industrialization.”

Wright wrote two more additional essays for White Man Listen (1957)—“The Literature of the Negro in the United States” and “The Miracle of Nationalism in the African Gold Coast.” The latter I have read a couple of times but I need to read it again in light of having read again the first two essays which dealt with the “irrationalism” of East and West, which I have commented on above.

Culturally, Wright admits he is “a man of the West.” But he is conflicted, “Being a Negro living in a white Western Christian society, I’ve never been allowed to blend, in a natural and healthy manner, with the culture and civilization of the West.” 

In his The Negro Mood (1965), Lerone Bennett makes a similar statement about the Negro’s struggle with his identity in America. The Western “irrational” forces of racism blocked the Negro’s assimilation. This “schism,” Wright points out, has thus made him an ardent critic of the West. In ways, Wright believes, the American Negro is more a Westerner than the whites of the West. That too is true of the Western-educated elite of Asia and Africa.

Though this “outlook breeds criticism,” Wright reassures his Western audience, “Yet I’m not non-Western. I’m no enemy of the West. Neither am I an Easterner.” Wright contends that he sees “both worlds from another and third point of view.” This dialectical position is an advance (maybe) on the dualism of Du Bois’ “double consciousness.” Yet both views—Du Bois’ and Wright’s—fall short of what makes me fully comfortable. Wright has far more confidence in the West than I can muster.

His faith in certain Western values cannot be sustained by the rationalism and secularism that he champions. He prays that the whites of the West will live up to these values and that they will not revert to the traditions and customs of the last five centuries in which they enslaved, colonized, and brutalized the colored worlds of the Americas, Asia, and Africa. That the whites of the West will live up to the separation of church and state, the dignity of man, human freedom, the autonomy of science, art, and literature is for me a faith too dependent on the goodness and common sense of white men. 

*   *   *

I saw the latter part of the cable movie “Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale.” Squanto, an Indian born in an area that eventually became New England, was captured and taken to England. He escaped his captors and found refuge in a monastery. Protecting Squanto from the merchants, the monks learned from him and he from them. The English merchants viewed Squanto and the natives of America as savages, no better than livestock, useful as entertainers and soldiers. Their humanity was undermined by English military might.

While Squanto lived with the monks, a friend and companion was in the hands of the merchants from whom Squanto had escaped. This “Indian” saw more clearly the underlying greed and racism of the English whites. Squanto felt uneasy with his friend’s hatred of the whites. The kind and humane English monks who saved him from capture and death affected him deeply.

Both these Native Americans  managed to escape their captors and return to their villages in the New World. In their native land, Squanto’s companion deceives the English, slaughters them, and burns their ship. Squanto is appalled. His companion asks him to speak to him again after he has returned to his own village. At his village, Squanto finds that his people have been decimated by their contact with the whites. Alone in his own world, he is now ready for revenge and marks himself with war paint.

Yet Squanto is unable to forget the humanity showed him by the Christian monks. The Puritans then land at Plymouth Rock. They are about to be slaughtered by an army led by his former companion. Squanto intervenes. A peace is established between the natives and the Puritans. It lasted two generations, we are told. The Indians thereafter are decimated or dominated by the newcomers and their lands confiscated.

I also saw Buck and the Preacher, with Sidney Portier and Harry Belafonte, which explores the relationship among southern white slaveholders, freed slaves, and Native Americans. And the vulnerability of black life and our emotional need for land to call our own.

*   *   *

This evening I went with Annie up to the Masonic Temple on 301 in Jarratt. The missionary ministry of Jerusalem, a group of older ladies, met to ready itself for its fish fry tomorrow. There are fourteen ministries at Jerusalem and each ministry has a goal to raise $1500 a year. It has been years since I have been at the Masonic Temple. 

Women over sixty predominate in this ministry and in the church itself. A few men however volunteered to assist them. Most of these women, at one time or another, were field hands, cooks, or maids, but they have subsequently found work with the county or state government making more livable wages than the labor they applied to white folks’ fields of cotton, peanuts, and tobacco.

In Jarratt, there is a new generation of black Masons. I went to school with them. Though meaning well, these new Masons, I suspect, are not as moral and upright as their rural and agrarian forefathers. At least they have less shame in how they carry themselves. These new Masons have or have had high-paying jobs in the manufacturing and industrial arena. They are indeed carrying on the Prince Hall tradition, nevertheless.

Compared to their fathers they are men of leisure—simple-minded, married men boasting more their talents as women chasers than as socially-conscious black men interested in changing the fabric of their society.

But I am not inclined toward secret societies and fraternities. They have their use, however, in extremely suppressive states in which freedom to organize is curtailed by government agencies. In his “The Miracle of Nationalism in the African Gold Coast,” Wright speaks of such a society in the Gold Coast, once headed by Kwame Nkrumah (former head of the new nation of Ghana) and his five comrades (all educated in the West): 

Those six sweating black men in that jungle, discussing and planning and plotting the freedom of a nation that did not exist, resolved to bind themselves together; they agreed to call themselves: The Secret Circle. Then they swore fetish, a solemn oath on the blood of their ancestors to avoid women, alcohol, and all pleasure until their “country” was free and the Union Jack no longer flew over their land. They swore fetish to stick together.

I am afraid such men of conviction and purpose are lacking among us. Instead, we are too often plagued with a plethora of opportunists and pundits.

August 21, 2004 (Saturday)

Mama called me to a breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast, applesauce, and coffee. I am quite amazed by her stamina and strength, and her use of the walker. The meal was good and I was thankful to her and the Lord who provides all. I see mosquito hawks through the kitchen window circling and, I imagine, seizing their breakfast before the sun gets high.

I was late getting to bed and got up several times, once because my arm itched from several mosquito bites. I got up found the mosquito and killed it. We have all wondered how they get into the house with screens on the windows and doors. I applied some cocoa butter that eased the itch and finally got back to sleep. 

Annie did not wake me before she left for the Masonic Temple for the missionary fish fry. Her husband Nat said that she said she was coming back by noon to picked me up. But it is now past 1 pm. I find myself walking from room to room, kitchen to bedroom.

*   *   *

I just checked a calendar in the TV room and was reminded it was on such a weekend as this that Nathaniel Turner began his religious revolt against and slaughter of slaveholders of the local Methodist church (men, women, and children), in Southampton County. Our church is in Sussex, a sister and bordering county. A few Christian slaves from here became caught up in that slaughter of roving whites seeking revenge. The bloodletting lasted several months. The prophet Nathaniel did not pay for his “crimes” until early November 1831. He disappeared for about 70 days and then allowed himself to be apprehended. As a result of his capture we learned of the revolt’s divine origins.

*   *   *

Around noon Roy Mason, riding his bicycle, stopped by to see Nat, who is suffering from a very elevated blood pressure. Roy pulled about fourteen watermelons for Nat and put them beside the road with the hope that some will stop by, especially tomorrow when there is church, and buy them—the small ones for $2 and the large ones for $3.

Out back of the house, Nat has planted also several acres of corn, expecting that he will raise hogs and chickens for extra cash money. But that’s a lot of pulling and shucking and he has neither the pigs nor the chicks. That kind of work was common when I was twelve. Then we used mule and wagon to pull the corn. But he has a little tractor that can do the job if there are hands enough. There’s a business in Emporia that will take the kernels off the cob.

*   *   *

I’ve returned again to Wright’s White Man Listen (1957) and the essay “The Literature of the Negro in the United States.” Here Wright introduced the concepts of “entity,” being one with one’s culture, and “identity,” being at odds with one’s culture or in search of personal identity. This individual search for identity is typical of Western societies and those individuals influenced by the West. Wright claims that Phyllis Wheatley, born in Africa and a black poet of the 18th century, was one with her culture. Maybe so. But wonders whether that was style, only.

Since 1988, the term “African American” has been used more frequently to refer to those blacks whose families endured American slavery. Some African immigrants are now claiming an African American identity, to the chagrin of some like Alan Keyes now running in the Illinois senatorial race against the Kenyan American Barack Obama.

The duality and bitterness  typical of middle-class Negro poetry began with Moses Horton of North Carolina, according to Wright; his generation and subsequent ones experienced more keenly the brutality and cruelty of American slavery than Phyllis Wheatley. This duality of sentiment and racial bitterness of black letters, according to Wright, continued throughout the 1930s. This bitterness was caused by the exclusion from institutions that sustained the social, intellectual, and moral inferiority of the Negro. Wright did not deal with the 1960s and the black artists and writers who generated a cultural revolution similar to the Harlem Renaissance.

In his The Negro Mood (1967), Lerone Bennett defends the content and consciousness of 1960s black writing and its “serviceability” not only to black people themselves in their struggle to become something “new” but also an entire nation suffering an inward void:

Down there, at the bottom of himself, the Negro earned the right to speak of man and for men. What he saw, in the place where nobody was praying, what he dreamed and thought, speaks to us today in the Negro folk tradition. . . . The essence of the tradition is the extraordinary tension between the poles of pain and joy, agony and ecstasy, good and bad, Sunday and Saturday. . . .

The creators of the great tradition respected the cutting edge of life; they understood that good and evil, creative and destructive, wise and foolish, up and down, were inseparable polarities of existence. This attitude, so un-Anglo Saxon in its balance and complexity, permeates the whole of the Negro tradition which looks life in the face and smiles at “the fast black train” of death.

An African American identity, I believe, should be extended without rancor to all who wish to claim it, whether they come from the Caribbean (or the rest of the Americas), Africa, Asia, or Europe, as long as they appreciate the American history and sensibility attached to the term. 

I like also the notion of Africans retaining their tribal identities, so that they might thus refer to themselves as Ibo American, or Ashanti American, or Zulu American, or Kru American, or Baluba American. Of course, these tribal identities are not nationalities. Still those identities should not be lost. In a Pan-African spirit, we Africans (at home or abroad) should learn to appreciate our individual histories and cultures. They are more complex than we feel comfortable enjoying.

Overall, one can say easily, the United States has been Africanized for sometime and that that Africanized American culture is exported daily all over the globe in music, dress, language, and athletics. In a deeper sense, all born and raised in America are African American.

August 22, 2004 (Sunday)

Saturday, I went to the missionary fish fry, which was a financial success with a collection of nearly $1500 (their expressed goal). Outside, the men fried the fish and the hush-puppies; inside the air-conditioned hall the women served the food and collected the money. 

Among the men, brandy and beer were passed around. There were five or six guys present of my generation. There were a fewer younger guys. With a couple of exceptions most had made their families in Jarratt and had had military experience. Several had been to Vietnam or Japan. They had learned the power of the American soldier and the American economy. 

In Asia, one could have a woman an entire month for $100: she would sleep with you, wash your clothes, shine your shoes. Whatever you needed she was there. That’s a lot of power, for an eighteen or nineteen year old. I imagine, there was a real deflation in ego and excitement on returning to the States.

We recalled some of our former mates: Alvester Maryland, now dead (died in prison on drug charges) but who did a tour and half in Vietnam; and John Alvin, who died six months after arriving in 1965; and Donald Ford, now dead, also a Vietnam veteran, retired a sergeant in the Air Force. Mild mannered when in high school, Donald killed a white man (a car dealer in Emporia who refused to give him the papers on a car paid for in cash).

Donald went across the river, bought a shotgun, returned to the store, and shot the car dealer dead. He served a few years in a sanitarium and returned to Jarratt. He married and was the first to live on the other side of the tracks in the white area of Jarratt. Of course, all, including blacks, were a little uneasy around Donald after the shooting.

*   *   *

Mama fixed me a bag to carry me home—potato salad, fried and baked chicken, pancakes she made Saturday night. Annie took me to the bus terminal in Emporia. About one thirty, I was on the bus back to Baltimore. When I returned to my house on Druid Hill all was well. Bobo the cat, I believe, thought he had lost me. He follows me now to every room. . . . I called Mama to let her know I arrived safely.

A Postscript

I have yoked together a report of my vacation, the folk life of my village (my bit of sacred turf), and a discussion of an African Identity. Much of that folk life I gathered from the memories of Mama, in her faith and durability, but also in the folk life I lived until I was sixteen.

While home, Lucinda cleaned Mama’s room and cleaned out her closets. She convinced Mama to throw out bags of clothes and other objects. A part of Mama’s memory is attached to those things she has stored away. I was most interested in the forty or fifty church obituary notices, cards, and photos she has kept in boxes and folders. There were also dresses and coats that she probably would never wear again that she refused to let go to trash and oblivion.

In speaking of the African past and its cultural (religious) life, Wright argues we should allow that pre-rational past die, especially ancestor worship. But the more conscious American Negro today has brought that reverence for the dead back into his reflections and his sensibility, not only in remembrance of the undiluted African ancestors loaded on ships at African slave castles but also for that African who became a Negro in America, often treated worst than livestock.

A growing number of U.S. blacks are becoming more conscious of the lies and truths of the Western inventions of “Africans” and “Negroes.” They were and are not what the whites made them out to be—inferior morally, socially, and intellectually. Also, a growing number of whites are discovering they are not what they believed themselves to be and what they wanted us to believe they were. Having experienced in five centuries the basest aspects of humanity, we Negroes and Africans know that we are more and in our vigorous awareness and honest engagement of that African and Negro past we are becoming even more than unchained men.

In the last half-century, the African and the American Negro has come of age. I speak primarily of that growing conscious, educated elite who reads and reads extensively, who realizes that our struggle is yet incomplete. Their actions and words are reshaping and reevaluating African and Negro life and cultural forms. They are indeed daily testing the “serviceability” of black life and culture and the culture of the West, its “rationality” and “secularism,” too. 

Their criticisms are double-edged. East and West are being yoked together, recombined in third ways that offer a wholeness, a way out from ethnic greed, tribal domination, and imperial revenge. Kalamu ya Salaam believes Africans cannot become truly themselves until the return (at least spiritually) and acceptance of those who have been exiled. Similarly, America cannot become itself truly until it realizes how African it has become since Plymouth Rock. 

Though Africa and America are places, in some sense, they are as well fictions, fabrications of white men. But these fabrications, to paraphrase Lerone Bennett, have been “wrested” from their previous owners. In the last half century, blacks have given these terms new and more vital and more inclusive meanings than they have ever possessed. And that is to all of our good that we have the courage to traverse the racial and cultural borderlands that separate us.

*   *   *   *   *


Family Stories


Black Mama, White Son

                A Response to “Black Mama, White Son” by Lewis Lawson

The Confessions of Walter Cotton

Conjuring & Doctoring  

Dwarf’s Lament

Father Son and Mary

Me & the Devil at CrossHairs  

Tale for Sam Williams

TeeJay’s Song: Shadows at Midnight  

Driving the Blues Away: Or Dying by Degrees  Responses to “Driving the Blues Away”     Home to Jerusalem  

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



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*   *   *   *   *

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 Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

*   *   *   *   *

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)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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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

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

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

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update 2 November 2011




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