Friday, June 24, 2005

Screaming across the chasm ...!

I rarely awaken so tired -- as if I've been wrestling with demons throughout the night ... and in a way, I suppose, I have.

For the first time in a very long time Papa George visited me in dreams -- probably summoned by the Killen verdict in Philadelphia, Mississippi, plus the angst around the typing of that list of senators who refused to sign on to the anti-lynching resolution. Enough to stir up lots of anguish. Found myself staring at each of those I could identify as they appeared before the microphones from the floor today on CSPAN. My awareness changed the nature of the experience of viewing the debate -- and how differently their arguments began to sound to me. Here were Alexander and Lott and Grassley et al from the list, arguing the merits of amendments to a bill -- but all I could hear was their silence on lynching.

I remember Papa's stories about how -- when he was a boy in rural Louisiana -- he'd heard whispers about those luckless African Americans who'd been caught by the infamous Ku Klux Klan. That the usual result of the chase would be that the victim would be hog-tied (ankles to wrists from behind) tossed into the back of a wagon or pickup truck then set on his knees facing down -- at the edge of the levee. Then the murderers would jump on his back until the spine shattered. Only then would they toss him into the river to drown. It was chilling to the 7 year-old, Betty, standing beside him as we weeded the vegetable garden together. His younger brother, (and my great-uncle) Albert, had fled to Kansas never to return to St. James Parish. It was rumored that he'd shot and killed a Klansman in self defense and was being hunted by the Night Riders. I don't believe that Papa ever saw him again. I'm not sure that he spoke much about Albert to anyone but me. I can still see that vacant place in his eyes -- as though he were really alone-- the way grownups do when they don't expect answers. Then he'd laugh and sing another of his crazy little song snatches to dismiss the agony of memory and bring us both back to the moment and the endless pulling of the weeds... .

Those images came up again for me last night -- all mixed in with the kids killing kids on Richmond's streets -- and the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi 41 years ago. I remembered that, during the long search for those bodies, a number of black bodies were discovered -- bodies no one ever bothered to identify. It had never been against the law to kill blacks. The only reason that the one black member of the trio was being sought was because he'd met his death with two whites. It was only they who were killed illegally; lynched. I thought of that infamous list of 20 posted yesterday who refused to even apologize for that heinous act and by now forgotten by most of us... .

It was those deaths and Papa George's stories of the "black logs" found in the Mississippi from time to time, that created this song:

Black Log

black log driftin' down da bayou in de mawnin'
limbs a-draggin' 'gainst da willow
black log floatin' down da bayou in da mawnin'
now it's sun-up, Owl must leave you
time to fine his mossy pillow
bullfrog croakin' out his grievin' from dis strange lily pad
three-finga, twisted lily pad
noontime -- comes da rivah 'roun' de levee
Boy heah fish' fo his suppa-time
caught one! ... no, tain't nuthin' ... but a black log
black log rushin' down da rivah in de evenin'
log cain't see da evenin'
caught! -- now free... , log 'n me .. in da rivah -- no retrievin'

comes da sea now -- here's da open sea now!


Too late... .

(Betty Reid © 1965)
Malvina Reynolds Shroder Music Publishing Co.

Listened this morning to commentary on the Killen verdict and recalled my own reaction a day or so ago. Thought of that mean old white man hooked up to his IV and lashing out at reporters who lined up alongside the pathway he was being taken up in his wheelchair. It was a hollow victory, but my feeling was that at least there was some accountability at last for that community. Then I remembered that the system that had created and permitted such atrocities is still in place and rubber-stamped by at least 20 members of the Senate. How frightening is that?

It was but a short step to connecting the everyday American families who packed picnics baskets to sit in the town square to witness the castrating and burning alive of a black man hung from a tree -- to secretly photographed picture postcards sent home by our soldiers of prisoners being tortured and humiliated at Abu Graib. In some cases the intentions may have been honorable, intended to expose the awful interrogations being conducted there. In most, I truly fear that this is a repeat of the sadistic voyeurism so reminiscent of those earlier shameful picnics in the town square on Mainstreets, USA.

Occasionally I have such strong feelings that we live in totally different realities. and that what I'm saying here only resonates with other African Americans. Perhaps. But it needs saying, if only to point up the dissonance.

That the list of the
Senate Twenty strikes fear into my heart -- enough to bring Papa George back into consciousness is a strong statement of the power of those images, still.

When I wrote
"Black Log" in 1965 I truly believed that those lives had not been sacrificed in vain, and that the nation would rise to its founding principles and promises. It hasn't; at least not yet. And to think that we're spending billions of dollars and countless lives in the attempt to export this unfinished and imperfect democracy out into an unknowing world through corrupted policies and imperial ambition.

... and ...
it was almost close enough to touch ... .


Photo: Maternal grandfather George Allen, Jr.,eldest son of Leontine Breaux Allen and George Allen, Sr, who served in Civil War. Leontine was enslaved until the age of 19 (1865). She was born in 1846 and died in 1948, when I was 27.

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