The Charleston Nine, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Art of Jacob Lawrence
Excerpt from “Meditations on Migration”
One soul, hundreds, thousands may hear the whistle of the early-1900’s train in Jacob Lawrence Number #5. These are W.E.B. Du Bois’ “black refugees” who decades prior were also escaping the injustices of the vestiges of Southern slavery. Amongst these souls, the excitement may be there, the expectation, and idealization of life in the U.S. North, especially given that Northern industry, in many cases, is paying the fare, making it quite worth the while to pick up and leave the unequal, segregated living conditions of the South. Will Northern industry’s promise to pay transportation lead to the same indentured servitude experienced by blacks in the Reconstruction South? Will the North be the antidote for the circumstances in the South where “the black man has simply to choose between pauperism and crime” (Du Bois)? The experience of my grandmother was that of leaving Tennessee in the 1930’s, barely 20, the youngest of eleven children all living except the one black male disappeared into the night to never return home again. She was the only one to take the train north to Chicago. Or perhaps there were others in her family who went north, but they didn’t stay. They would eventually return south. Not she. Her mother and father had come from Mississippi to Tennessee and as family lore would have it, her mother had Indian blood. This was more than likely a truth, but also a bit of a digression given our black folk propensity to reach into a nebulous past and pull out our Native American blood to explain why we are not quite so black African, where the yellow, honeyed brown, and, chestnut skin colors come from. These skin tones being a phantasmal legacy of the white rape of black females by slave owners. This acerbic inheritance was quite apparent in my maternal grandmother’s family line, even more so in my father’s whose family, unlike my grandmother’s, took a loathsome pride in their light skin color, so much so, that my own mother was not readily accepted into their clan. All this, yet the most important factor being it was the African blackness which held everything together and made us who we were and who we are and which is the beginning and end of our universe until eternity always loyal linking me, us to Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas, and beyond. Thus, therefore, and so forth, into the North on Lawrence’s black train, belching black smoke as the headlamp leads the way. Iron tracks shackle southern, agricultural land “once marvelously rich but already partially devitalized by (the) careless and exhaustive culture” (Du Bois) of the slave system. Iron wheels navigate plots deceitfully promised “for eventual lease and sale to ex-slaves in forty-acre parcels” (Du Bois). Northern industrial lords, in their bidding, analogous to the contemporary “coyotes” of the U.S. Southwest and Mexico who round up desperate immigrants and move them north with the expectation that the human smuggler will eventually be paid for his effort.
Jacob Lawrence 42 exposes a South disgruntled with the undertaking and enterprise of migration. A white man, gun and holster on his hips, stands as an “X” at the train station door ready to arrest the two departing black passengers. Police officer? Sherriff? Perhaps. Yet this is the land in which “every white man was ipso facto a member of (the) police” (Du Bois). And blacks were a people whose first crime in this country, and particularly in the South, was their “blackness or other physical peculiarities” (Du Bois). Surely, there must have been more than a few residents in white neighborhoods who murmured under their breath, “Let the niggers leave.” Before their self-ordainment as African-American. Ante-dating their self-proclamation as Afro-American. Prior to salvos accompanied by raised fists of black power, these Colored people and Negroes (as branded by the Spanish and Portuguese) were leaving a land that for several centuries had deemed “life amid free Negroes (as) simply unthinkable, the maddest of experiments” (Du Bois). Still there was this despotic effort to impede blacks’ departure, blocking their train passage because, of course, the South was losing former free labor, current cheap labor, the people who made both the white landowners and the white poor feel racially superior to all other beings on earth, the women who had cleaned their houses, raised their kids. The men and women who while working in their hot, insect-infested fields, some dropping dead to the ground and then being kicked aside, because the plough never stopped (Du Bois), still had the audaciousness to light a white, desolate world with spiritual song. The people who should have been crushed by centuries of abuse after losing their African spiritual world but who bowed their heads down and embraced a god on a cross whose word they had to fight to read, often in secret, and to whom they had to worship in the wooden churches that would be kept separate Black Churches because they could not enter the white. Wooden churches that could light up in burning flames of hatred at the flick of a match and still do, historically black churches, because we are a historically black people carrying history historically on our backs, historically black in Charleston when praying to that same God and subject to being shot by a white man who is not alone in thinking in his solitary mind that his whiteness is under threat and siege, shot for being historically black – Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Say his name. Cynthia Hurd. Say her name. Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Say her name. Tywanza Sanders. Say his name. Ethel Lance. Say her name. Susie Jackson. Say her name. Depayne Middleton Doctor. Say her name. Reverend Daniel Simmons. #Sayhisname. Myra Thompson. #Sayhername. Amen. Nine people killed. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. June 17, 2015. Charleston, South Carolina.
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (New York: First Vintage Books, 1990).
Writer and Teacher