Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
(Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol)
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave
I am the dream and hope of the slave.
-(Maya Angelou, “And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems”)
It was the place where children waited for a hug and a bowl of neck-bone soup. The mending of clothes took place there. People sang and danced in those homes, seemingly with not a care in the world.
Malevolence and lust resided in those homes too. All the indifference and cruelty of the enslavement enterprise represented itself in the tired bones, scarred skins, and deflated spirits that prayed for freedom before laying their heads down on bare floors.
Managing to escape the confines of plantation cabins was one young Black man who found employment as a steward, aboard the steamboat, Flora.
On the day he enters history, he was tired after working his shift. He wouldn’t have known the two sailors running past him, wouldn’t have known the police were chasing them, wouldn’t have known that once the police took a look at him, they instinctively dropped their pursuit of the white men. The police were looking at him, Francis McIntosh, a free Black man.
The US isn’t home yet, for Black Americans. To dwell in whiteness has to cost America the only “home” she has ever known
It’s April 28, 1836, and McIntosh has landed in St. Louis when he is arrested, writes historian Walter Johnson. He’s jailed, but not for long.
What happens to McIntosh reaches President Lincoln who, even as a proponent of shipping African Americans back to Africa, nonetheless, called out what he called “mobocracy.” McIntosh “‘was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within the single hour from the time he had been a free man, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world’” (qtd. in The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States).
Lincoln, speaking of the violence of white America, calling the lynching, the first lynching of a Black in America, a lawless act revealing a lawless spirit, did little to deter white America from using the remains of McIntosh, Johnson writes, as “a grisly landmark” at the entrance to the city of St. Louis. The violence inflicted on the Black body announced to the world that St. Louis was a home town reserved for white America! “White man’s county”!
McIntosh’s remains hung from that tree, attracting white travelers to their home away from home while serving, for years, as a warning to Blacks that no home in St. Louis would ever be available to them.
Long before the Civil War is to begin and end, city representatives send the word out that the “colored” wouldn’t be welcome anywhere other than a plantation cabin. Yet African Americans didn’t “fit in” on those cabins, either.
So much should have been left behind there…
At the end of the Civil War, during the years of Reconstruction, African Americans worked on created hostile territory into home, moving into one or two-room houses with front and back yards. Nothing fancy. But home, nonetheless. And homes wasn’t limited to the walls of individual houses. Down the road or right up the street or right around the corner, the children were gathered to be taught to read and write in one-room schools by Mrs. or Miss ______. The next-door neighbor, or the church organist. Not far away, Dr. ______ delivered those children and Dr. _____ treated the parents and grandparents with ailing feet or sore backs or arthritis at the Black hospital. Pastors administered to the faithful; businessmen ran barber shops, grocery stores, businesswomen cared for the hair of their friends and neighbors, and journalists reported the latest news about the community and its political representatives.
Home had become something more than four walls and a bare floor; it was a whole community, a whole world.
But there were eyes. Watching. The Old South was slowly slipping away.
It’s difficult to plan for tomorrow if today you are threatened by the presence of burning crosses on your lawn. Black protests resulted in the ethnic cleansings of whole communities and even towns, once majority Black.
Maybe home will be in the next town or maybe up north.
In these United States, between 1865 and 1950, over 6,000 lynchings (the Equal Justice Initiative, EJI) of fellow citizens became the pastime of other citizens convinced of their invincibility. They were, after all, the reason Earth orbited the sun and the US was home to the Caucasian race. Never mind the presence of the Indigenous and Black! The majority of those over 6,000 were Black, hanged from trees or burned on woodpiles, putting the race on notice that life in this country for Black people will be, at best, precarious.
American’s practice of domestic terrorism has always served as the training ground for executing conflict and wars that do more to destroy the lives of women and children than dispel further military and political violence from “the enemy.”
Between 1865 and 1876, domestic terrorism picks up where it began with the further annihilation of Indigenous people and their removal from conquered lands and in the enslavement of Africans and their descendants. Torture and the occasional murder of an enslaved Black became torture and lynching with impunity during Reconstruction. Two thousand Blacks, men, women, and children, lynched in a 12-year period (EJI) alarmed few Americans intent on making a stand in the world as the greatest Empire ever.
And so it continued. Between 1877 and 1950, 4,400 Black Americans were lynched (EJI) throughout the US: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi. And Blacks were lynched in California, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York…
And how many just last year, 2020: Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, George Floyd in Minnesota…
In 2021, despite the January 6th Insurrection of predominately white supremacists and white nationalists, the Vice President is a woman of Black and Asian descendant, Kamala Harris, and compassion is the guiding principle in confronting the COVID pandemic and the climate crisis - for openers.
The US isn’t home yet, for Black Americans. To dwell in whiteness has to cost America the only “home” she has ever known.
The Black Commentator