Tag Archives: Black History month

467. Steel Drivin’ Man

So we come to the end of another Black History Month. I have said some new things, and repeated some posts that could not be said better. This is one of those repeats; it originally appeared as 88. John Henry, January 28, 2016.

The battle goes on, not just for “blacks” (who aren’t fully black) and “whites” (who aren’t fully white), gays, Latinos . . . the list goes on. If life permits, I’ll be back next year, beating the same drum. I won’t be here forever, but when I’m gone, you will still be here. It will be up to you then.

I have always wondered why John Henry is a folk hero.

Maybe it’s just a folk song. Maybe it isn’t supposed to make sense. I never worry about the fact that Stewball “never drank water, he only drank wine”; I do have a tendency to overthink things.

But let’s look at the facts. John Henry is big, strong, uneducated and very black. Symbolically black, even. As a ”little bitty baby” he picks up a hammer and accepts his fate. He works himself to death for white folks, while they stand around and bet against him. Then his wife takes over when he’s dead, and the story goes on unchanged.

Sounds pretty damned Jim Crow to me.

A technical point here, so it all makes sense. As a “steel drivin’ man”, John Henry is not spiking down rails to ties. He is digging tunnels. He is swinging a doublejack, a two handed medium weight sledge hammer. He is hitting a star drill, which is a steel rod about a yard long ending in a hardened cross bit. Every time John Henry hits the drill, another inch of rock is pulverized in the bottom of a hole. Between each stroke, his assistant turns the drill an eighth of a turn.

Men with John Henry’s job spent their days drilling holes in the face of a tunnel. Those holes were then filled with black powder or dynamite, depending on the era, and blasted. Then the drill men moved back in to do it all over again.

Imagine working in near darkness, covered with sweat and stone dust, breathing in the fumes from the last blast, damp and cold in winter, damp and hot in summer. Tough for John Henry; terrifying for his assistant, holding the drill steady, turning it only in that moment when the hammer is drawn back, and knowing that if John Henry ever misses, he’s dog meat.

It gets worse.

It is useful to those in power to have a large population of the powerless and hungry. Slaves fit that bill very well; so do new immigrants. Today we have the working poor, who are kept humble by the myth that if you can’t make it in America, it’s your own fault. You aren’t working hard enough (see post 5.Labor Day).

Immediately after the Civil War, white southerners found a way to get back some of their power and some of their slaves. They simply arrested and imprisoned newly freed blacks, then rented them out. They invented the chain gang. If you are trying to find historical reasons why blacks fill our prisons and why our police are so often corrupt, chances are pretty good your research will lead you to those events.

What does this have to do with John Henry? In searching for the man behind the legend, writer Scott Reynolds Nelson’s* discoveries suggest that John Henry was one of these convict-slaves.

John Henry was a man who could not break his chains, but was still a man for all that. His status as a black hero makes sense.

Still . . ., if I were borrowing all this to make a story, I would rewrite it so that John Henry used his hammer to brain the overseer. But, of course, the real John Henry could never do that, and today’s black community would not accept such a cheap answer, or such an easy road to freedom. It would not match up with their own experiences.

History is usually uglier than anything we novelists can invent.


*Scott Reynolds Nelson. Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend.


464. Miscegenation at Work

This post is a rewrite and mashup of 90. N Word, M Word and 89. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

A cousin of mine told me recently that interracial marriage is still a big no-no in Oklahoma. Bear in mind she is my age, so she may not speak for the present generation. Here in California where I live now you see black-white couples everywhere, and that pleases me, but then I never did fit in back home.

Abhorrence of mixed-race marriage has two parts. It is a fear that a (perceived) bad thing has been made legal, and it is a refusal to admit that the (perceived) bad thing has been going on for a very long time.

Did you ever hear of a nigger in the woodpile? (Yes, there’s that damned word again. In looking at race honestly, there are some things that can’t be avoided) The phrase has been a Southern staple forever. You can Google it, but it won’t tell you much. You will find it was used in an anti-Lincoln cartoon during his election bid, and you will find various definitions to the effect that it refers to something not being what it seems.

Fine, but why this particular phrase? Why is that legendary black man hiding in that woodpile near the back door of the big house? What are his intentions?

The answer lies in when the phrase is used. It is rarely used to cover general sneakiness, but it is always used when a child doesn’t look like his father. Hmmm. So that’s why that black guy was sneaking around the back door.

The great fear is that black men will do to white women what white men have been doing to black women for four hundred years.

That black feller in the woodpile helps whites laugh at the hidden realization that white purity is not just endangered; it hasn’t existed for a really long time.

You can see it in the classic movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but you have to look sharp. If you don’t remember the story, in 1967, a very handsome, very black man (Sidney Poitier) wants to marry a very pretty, very blonde white girl (Katherine Houghton). They spring this on her liberal parents and complications ensue.

I like the movie despite its obvious problems. I even forgive that it ends with a fifteen minute monolog by the grumpy, old white guy (Spencer Tracy), as he puts everybody else in their places.

The movie is dated and excessively sweet. It is unrealistic that the black guy in question is such a moral superman and so terminally handsome. Never mind; the movie’s heart was in the right place and it probably did some good. And it was 1967, after all.

However, if you look closely there’s something else to be learned from this movie beyond what the producer intended. The next time you see it, take a look at Dorothy (no last name, played by Barbara Randolph), a minor character, assistant housekeeper and a drop-dead gorgeous black girl.

Or is she black? Stand her up in your imagination half way between Poitier and Houghton. She is half as black as he is, and half as white as she is. How could this happen in America! And why do we accept her as black? Why not white? She’s exactly half-and-half, compared Houghton and Poitier.

The whole movie is based on the shock that everyone feels when Poitier and Houghton decide to marry, but no one even takes notice of the obvious product of four hundred years of interracial sex, married or otherwise, strutting her stuff in the background.

Imagine that, people not noticing what is right under their noses.

462. The N Word

Another version of this post, with the same poem, appeared as 86. N —-

The N—– word. Everybody in America is afraid of it. Including me.

I could write it out plainly. In fact, I feel a little foolish writing a letter followed by dashes, especially since I used it in a post just a week ago, and will again in the poem below. But if I spelled it out, I would feel like a little kid cussing in front of his parents, then pretending he didn’t know they were there.

I grew up white in a community which had no blacks. So how do you learn to hate or fear someone you never see? Easy. You listen to your parents and their friends, and absorb their attitudes.

I didn’t come to hate, in part because my parents didn’t hate. But they did fear. If you study black-white relations in America, it is amazing how much fear there is on both sides. I certainly had my share, and I hated having it. But I couldn’t shake it, until I wrote and published this poem. It didn’t cure me, but it helped.

          Mother Tongue

               I saw a calf born.
His mother, in her need to clean him,
Knocked him over on his first rising,
And on his second rising.

In her need to make him safe,
she drove him to his knees.

               Words are like that –
A mother tongue that overwhelms us,
That makes us what we are,
and sometimes, what we should not be.


When I see a black man, I hear “nigger”
Spoken sharply in my father’s voice.
I step back, my eyes grow tight,
Suspicion fires my blood,
And for one moment he is my enemy.

Then reason returns,
And I am shamed.

It is my father’s fear.
I would leave it in my father’s grave,
If I could . . .,  but I cannot!

I can only drive it down;
And bury it deep in shameful, hollow places.


461. Undesirables

Emigrants statue, Helmsdale, Scotland, commemorating the eviction of Highlanders from their land. A father and child and, hard to see in this photo, the mother looking back at her home which she will never see again.

Black History Month is human history month. I’ll have plenty to say about the position of blacks in America, but today they are not the most threatened group. As I write this, Congress is fighting over DACA.

Two Christmases ago I wrote a fictional story about a little girl who was going underground with her parents because Donald Trump had become president. One of my readers replied with a short fictional addition in which one of my characters said, “If only our parents had followed the law, we would be all right.” That reader had a right to his opinion, and I published his reply. I’m not here to disrespect him. I am here to disagree with him. Strongly.

Deportation is a kind of eviction. Eviction is the act saying, “You can’t stay in this place any more, because the rights to this place belong to someone else.” That someone is usually a person or a corporation. Deportation makes the same statement, except that the someone else is you and me.

Eviction is old. It has been around since Og the caveman kicked his mate’s brother out of the hut. It wasn’t long after that before force of boot was traded for force of law.

Between 1710 and 1850 in northern Scotland, Scots who had lived on their lands for hundreds of years were forced off, their houses burned, and their livelihoods destroyed. It was all quite legal. Scotland had become an adjunct nation to England, de facto. Ancient laws had been misrepresented and changed to match an English model. Clan chiefs, whose existence was traditionally enmeshed in reciprocal obligations with their clan, were now seen as landowners.

It equivalent to Donald Trump shifting his legal position from President of the United States to owner of the United States, but on a smaller scale.

These “landowners” forced their clansmen off the land, sometimes with great violence. In early clearances, they were moved to undesirable lands within Scotland. When this failed, later clearances moved them off to the Americas.

In Ireland, during the Famine, undesirable Irishmen were moved out by eviction or allowed to starve in place. Most of them went to the Americas.

It was a pretty practical solution. If you don’t want undesirables around, send them to America. Ironic, isn’t it, that those undesirables’ descendants are now about to evict a new set of undesirables from America.

Meanwhile in America, the American Indians . . . but you know that story. If you don’t, check out 247. The People’s President.

You may not realize that in 1941, all those undesirable Japanese with their rich farms in California were moved into relocation camps. It was supposed to be for our protection, because they might attack from within. Maybe; but if so, why did they never get their farms back. (266. The Other War)

So let’s get back to DACA. This is an act protecting persons brought to the United States illegally as children. They are American in every way but a technicality. They may well not speak any language other than English. They may never have stepped foot outside the United States.

Now we are going to send them home. Home? They are home.

Let’s consider a pair of hypothetical children. Jose was born in Mexico, an hour before his parents crossed the border illegally into the United States. Ramon’s parents were on the same trip north, looking for work. Ramon’s mother gave birth just an hour after they crossed the border, illegally, into the United States.

We’ll let Ramon stay. He is a citizen. We’ll deport Jose. That’s fair, isn’t it.

Maybe, but . . .

What about (hypothetical) Barta Kovacs? He was brought over in 1956 by his parents, who were refugees from the Hungarian Revolution. Today he is 64 years old. He never married, but he spent thirty years as a school teacher, rising to be principal of a local high school before running for office. He has been a State Senator in one of those northern states for eleven years, and now he’s ready to retire.

However, as he applied for Social Security it was discovered that there had been an irregularity in his application for citizenship years before. Technically, he has never been a citizen, even though he has spent 62 of his 64 years here, and has no memory of Hungary.

Will the present administration deport him back to Hungary? I don’t think so.

Good thing our hypothetical Barta Kovacs wasn’t Mexican.


460. White World

“Welcome to Black History Month,” said the old white guy.

You might wonder what I know about black history. The answer is, actually, quite a bit. I was a teenager during the height of the civil rights movement. I wasn’t involved, but I was watching and learning.

I grew up in Oklahoma in the fifties. That isn’t the South, but it’s close enough. We didn’t have blacks-only facilities in my town, because we didn’t have blacks. There were blacks in Tulsa where we shopped, and a few in Claremore, the county seat, but not in the rural areas I inhabited.

We called them negroes in polite conversation, but niggers most of the time. Sorry. It hurts my fingers to type that word, but I’m not going to lie to you. Nowadays, I use the term blacks because that is what they chose for themselves in the sixties. African-American came later, along with Native American. Both those terms sound to me like something made up by embarrassed white guys. I’ll stick with blacks, because that is what blacks wanted to be called when I first became fully aware of them as real people.

When I was very young, I didn’t have much of an opinion. I had never met a black person. There was one black man who farmed somewhere in the area. I saw him go by in his pickup once in a while, but that was as close to a black person as I had been.

I had also never met a Jew. I had never met a Spanish speaker, nor an Italian, nor a Mormon. Certainly not a Muslim; actually, I had never heard of Muslims. There was one Catholic boy who attended our school briefly. He wasn’t well treated and he didn’t stay long.

We didn’t have segregation. We had apartheid. I just didn’t know it at the time.

You get the picture. Not just white — WHITE. And not just Protestant, but Southern Baptist. And not just Southern Baptist, but small-town-Southern-Baptist; not like those liberals down in Tulsa. There were so many Baptists in town that the local high school didn’t have a prom.

That’s who I was when I was at ten. That’s not who I was by the time I was fifteen.

When those black people down south went marching, and were met with clubs and dogs and firehoses — when my father (and everybody else’s father) said it was their own fault, I couldn’t buy it. When I saw them bloodied and beaten, yet standing firm for freedom and dignity, I knew they were right and we were wrong.

When they fought for their own freedom, they also gave this Oklahoma white boy his freedom. They gave me a new way of looking at the world, and I am grateful to this day.

So the first year I was blogging, I wrote a month’s worth of posts on civil rights. Check any post between January 18, 2016 and February 18, 2016 if you want to see them. Last year I didn’t try to repeat myself. I had said everything I had to say.

This year, everybody who doesn’t look like me is in jeopardy all over again.

I’m an American white male. I have all the civil rights in the world. I also have an obligation to see that I am not the only one who has them.

So here I go again. Welcome to Black History Month.


207. I Have a Dream

I’ve told my personal story regarding justice for black citizens several times, and I fleshed it out over a month and a half in February and March of this year. Here is a brief reprise for those who weren’t following yet.

I was born and raised in a small Oklahoma town with no blacks in sight. My father was a Baptist deacon and lay minister, and a dominating man. I never disagreed with him – out loud. He did not hate blacks – really, he didn’t. He expected to see many of them in heaven. He did think they had their place, ordained by God, and they would be happy if they only kept to it. He considered Martin Luther King an agitator and an evil man.

I agreed with his views of God and man when I was very young, but by my teen years I was beginning to question both. Silently question, that is. There was no discussion in our house, only my father’s statements ex cathedra and our silent nods. My final conversion away from his thinking on race came when black marchers were washed down the street by fire hoses in Selma and elsewhere.

This Sunday is the anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. When it happened, it passed me by. At the time, I was wrestling with my father’s views on God. My change of view on race was a couple of years in my future.

In our house, it was just another speech by that self-serving agitator King.

When I was doing research for posts earlier this year, I became aware of Philip Randolph, who orchestrated the March on Washington. Shamefully, I had never heard of him. At that time I said that I would find out more about him, and I did. His story is worth telling, but it isn’t mine to tell. I had planned a post detailing the March, but that isn’t my story, either. I’ve decided to leave both to those who fought the battles while I was still coming to realize that there was a war.

The story of the March on Washington isn’t mine to tell, but it changed my life, as it changed all of our lives, even if I didn’t know it at the time.


Voices in the Walls 34

6 of 6 of an outline of the remainder of Voices in the Walls.

One of the slaves is young, powerful, and pushy. He has always resented the whites above him; he is happy now to treat Matt as an underling. Matt is not about to buy that, and there is a lot of testosterone fueled head butting, complicated by black-white tensions.

Of course, this brings an image to mind – a white guy handcuffed to a black guy, running through the swamps ahead of the law. We’ve seen this show before, in any number of B movies. It will take careful writing to acknowledge that these emotions have to play out, without having the incidents take over the novel.

Eventually, Matt will have a climatic scene where he has to choose between the life of a white man and the freedom of a black man. The whole book points to this moment. It can’t come too soon, nor be delayed too long, but he finally has to take that pistol, given to him to protect his sister, and use it to protect one of the escaping blacks. Which white he shoots has to be carefully chosen. Not Meeker, that would be too pat. Not someone who is a complete innocent, nor a complete villain. The black he rescues is equally important. Probably not Alice – too easy and pat again, as well as being a sexual instead of a racial act. Not his black adversary among the runaways, that would be unbelievable. Probably Ben Sayre. Possibly one of the lesser characters among the runaways.

(Need I point out that this scene will be an obvious metaphor for the entire coming Civil War?)

This climax needs to come shortly before they all reach the Waterside area. There Matt will meet up with the old slave who taught him how to swing and axe and adz at his father’s shipyard. He has to experience again the servility that the old man offers him, and reject it.

Matt and his group steal a bugeye, an inshore vessel which Matt understands well. They work their way down to the Atlantic at night and out into a storm, then turn north and sail to freedom.

I’ve wanted to write this scene since I saw reference to an actual event years ago, long before I got the idea of Voices. A vessel designed for other purposes is exposed to a storm, and weathers it, to the surprise of those who thought they knew its capabilities. Like Matt. The storm is a massive threat from the outside, overshadowing white-black differences, and forcing them to work together or perish. And finally, the land is ripped apart by men in warlike contention, while the sea (aka nature) offers challenges men can overcome if they work together.

Yes, critics, writers are aware of the symbolism in their books. Readers, too. They don’t need you to point them out.

This also prefigures what Matt will do in the years to come. We find in the epilog, as he and Rachel and Sarah listen to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, that he will spend the war in the Northern navy and will be in command of a river steamer with a black crew which is lost at the siege of Vicksburg.

In the final scene Alice comes by with her child at her side and is embraced by Rachel. She and Matt face each other; he nods, she smiles, but they do not – cannot – embrace. Matt realizes, sadly and with feelings of personal inadequacy, that he still can’t treat Alice as he would a white woman, and he predicts in his thoughts – as Lincoln’s words echo in the background – that although the slaves are freed, it may take a hundred years before his kind can bring themselves to treat them as equals.