Tag Archives: race

639. In The Canebrake 3

“Cotton, how come you’re so pale?”

The older man said, “Shit!”, and grinned. He wouldn’t have answered anyone else, but he had known Titus all the boy’s life, and had known his parents before that.

“It’s a long story, passed down,” he said. “My mother’s mother’s mother was a pale, good lookin’ woman. I suppose she had some white in her, I don’t know how much. Her master caught her one day in the fields and that’s how my granny came about. She was half white plus whatever her mother already was.

“My granny got sold to her master’s cousin, and he caught her out when she was washin’ clothes in the creek. That’s how my mother got to be three-quarters white, and then some.

“She got sold too, when she was still young. She grew up to be a rare, beautiful woman, so they made her a house slave and she had six of us. She never got married, but the boss’s son spent a lot of time in her room, so we all came out pale as cotton. That’s how I got my name.

“He kept my sisters and sold me to Bullfrog.”

Titus said, “I always wondered.”

Cotton shook his head, not so much angry as bemused. He said, “Hell, I’m whiter than half the so-called white people in Tennessee, for all the good it does me.”

Titus was quiet for a while, then he asked, “So you’re going north to freedom. How far are you going to go?”

“How far would you go?”

Titus chuckled. “Cotton, if you want my advice, keep walking north ’til your feet freeze to the ground. Then thaw them out and go further.”

“Sounds right.”

“You going to stay black, or pass for white?”

“What do you think? If I say I’m a free negro, what’ll that get me? If I say I’m white, they’ll treat me like a man.

“I’m going to find me a poor, good-lookin’ white woman, and we’re going to have a batch of pale colored kids. And I’m never going to tell her. And I’m never going to let my kids know that their daddy started out life as a nigger.”

=================

The night wore on. There were worse things than bogles in the night around the two of them.

For Titus, there were soldiers; men, true enough, but full of evil intent. They were of his own people, his own race, his own nation, but they had come for the Cherokees that his parents had devoted their lives to, and that he had lived his life among. They had come for them and had carried them away, out of a country which had been theirs since before the white men ever came, and toward a land none of them had ever seen.

And for Cotton, there were men who looked like Titus — looked like Cotton, near enough, though they would ever acknowledge it — men who would take him into captivity and sell his body as if it had no soul. As if he were not almost entirely white. As if some of those soldiers were not at least as black as he was, but don’t say it! They would kill you if you said it.

And what if Cotton had been all black, not mostly white. And what if Titus were a Cherokee, instead of Scots and German. And what if those soldiers were as white as they claimed to be. What then? Would it matter? Really matter?

So the wind made its noises in the canebrake, and the trees moaned. So Titus’s eyes were wide in a white face and Cotton’s eyes were wide in an almost-white face. So the waterhorses frolicked in the swamp, and the moccasins slithered through the stagnant water, and the frogs croaked like the toads of Armageddon.

So the darkness was filled with all the fearful creatures out of Scotland — and out of Africa as well, for that matter. Cotton too would have his own demons, brought with his people from their old home across the ocean, and now hiding in the canebrake with the bogles, and the soldiers, and the rattlesnakes.

Even if it weren’t All Hallow’s Eve — even if the barriers between Earth and Hell had not thinned and broken — they might as well have.

Cotton raised his cup and drank the tea made of herbs he had found in the swamp. He handed it across the fire, and Titus’s lips touched the same cup as he drank the same liquid. Cotton said, “In the morning I go north.”

Titus replied, “In the morning I go west.”

They would not meet again. They both knew it, but neither said so.

Fire and death and the hangman. The slave catchers and the block. They are all real, but a man goes on.

Still, it had been good to see Cotton one more time.

======================

Not a Halloween story, you say? No ghosts? I disagree.

These wraiths of fiction never lived, and the men of that era who did live are long gone to wherever souls go. But they still haunt us today, and they will probably haunt our children as well.

638. In The Canebrake 2

A voice out of the darkness called, “Titus?” It shook him; he had expected almost anything except someone who knew his name. “Is that you, Titus Young?” the soft voice repeated.

In answer, he kneed his horse and rode further into the light of the fire. The hidden voice said, “You scared hell out of me.”

“You didn’t do my heart any good either, Cotton.”

A man of middle age came out of the canebrake and Titus swung down to walk up to the fire. Even though they had known each other most of Titus’s life, they didn’t shake hands, because Cotton was a slave.

Or had been. The fact that he was alone in the dark, not far from the Ohio border suggested he had run away. That left a lot of questions. Titus had been told that the Cherokees were allowed to take their slaves with them, and Cotton had been with Bullfrog since he was a boy.

Cotton was the one who taught Titus most of what he knew about hunting, fishing, and tracking, and just keeping alive in the hills and the swamps. That counted for a lot, but Bullfrog and Salali were the Cherokee couple who had adopted Titus when his parents died. Even if Chief Ross had told them to do it, and even if Bullfrog hadn’t paid much attention to him afterward, Titus still owed them both a debt of loyalty.

Titus asked, “Why are you here? What happened to Bullfrog and Salali?”

“I’m sorry to tell you, Titus,” the older man said. “I stayed with them as long as they were alive.”

“Go on.”

“Salali was sick all summer. By the time we left, she had no business traveling, but the soldiers didn’t give us any choice. She died two days along the trail.”

“And Bullfrog?”

“He was hurt bad inside when Salali died. He rode all day, he ate, he laid under his blanket at night, but I don’t think he ever slept. After about two weeks, he died too.

“The soldiers didn’t want to give us time to bury him, so I carried him out of camp in the middle of the night. Those soldiers weren’t much. It wasn’t hard to avoid them. I found a nice place under a pecan tree and buried him, same as I had buried Salali. When I finished, I stuck the shovel in the ground like a gravestone and started walking north. I was already out of the camp and there was no reason to go back.”

So. Bullfrog and Salali hadn’t been the best pair of substitute parents, but Titus missed them. To be fair, he had been no prize either when they got him. Headstrong; too young to be independent, but determined to be independent anyway. He had spent most of his time with Cotton, learning Cherokee ways from the slave, the same way Cotton had learned when he came to Bullfrog as a boy.

“Was Francesca in your group?” Titus asked.

“Your wife? Why would she be with us? She wasn’t Cherokee.”

“The soldiers took her anyway.”

“That’s why you’re following?” Titus nodded. Cotton said, “I never saw her, but there were several groups that moved out at different times. She might have been in a different group.”

“Okay,” Titus said, swallowing his disappointment. “Don’t matter, I’ll still find her.”

Cotton bustled about the fire, pulling something out of the ashes. It was meat, long, slender, cylindrical. Snake. Titus didn’t mind snakes, as long as they were dead. And if they were dead, you might as well cook them. When Cotton started to tear it with his fingers, Titus said, “Don’t you have a knife?”

“Got nothing. I should have kept the shovel, but it seemed too much trouble.”

Titus went to his horse and took a knife out of his saddlebag. “Keep it,” he said as he handed it over. “I’ve got another one.” Cotton grunted his thanks and split the snake. It tasted like squirrel, and it was as welcome as a feast.

Except for munching, they ate in silence. Titus hadn’t seen Cotton in a couple of years, and the time showed in extra wrinkles. It was good to see him again.

Titus had been born to a German father who had died too soon, adopted by a Cherokee father who had not been able to handle him, and had learned most of what he knew from this black slave. Only he wasn’t really that black.

“Cotton,” he said, “how come you’re so pale?”

This story will conclude tomorrow. After all, that will be Halloween.

637. In The Canebrake 1

The background for this story is told in 636. Half Breeds, Various.

In the Canebrake

It was a long, cold afternoon, with spits of snow that were slow melting. There wasn’t any green left in the grass; it was all the crackly brown of late fall. The year was 1838; the month was somewhere in that no-man’s land where October slides into November on a path slippery with sleet.

Titus’s mare was holding out, but he was treating her with extra care since she had lamed up a week earlier. Somewhere ahead of him the main body of the displaced Cherokees was moving west, but he didn’t know how far behind them he was. He had been riding after rumors, picked up at wood cutters’ camps and isolated cabins since he left eastern Tennessee. Now he was tangled up in a canebrake, following a narrow, muddy trail that paralleled one of the many tributaries of the Tennessee River. It wouldn’t be long now until he reached the Ohio — he thought. He hadn’t been really sure of his location for days, and the low overcast sky didn’t help any.

He pulled up at a familiar churring sound, followed by a slithering in the leaves. Canebrake rattler, probably. Titus had lived around snakes all his life, but he had never gotten to like them. Even worse were cottonmouths. They didn’t even have the decency to warn a man before they struck.

It was getting on dark, and the fog was rising from the stagnant waters beyond the trail. He was two days hungry and there wasn’t a scrap of food in his saddlebags. Pretty soon his horse would not be able to find her way ahead, but there was no place big enough or dry enough to spread a blanket. The tall canes around him seemed to close in as the light failed.

He could smell the swamp. He thought of waterhorses and the sluagh, and all the other fairy creatures his Scottish mother had told him about. Those weren’t comfortable thoughts for a night this dark and cold, on a trail this uncertain, at the approach of All Hallow’s Eve.

Something erupted from the brush at his side and hurled itself scrawking into the air. An egret probably, or maybe a heron, but when he saw it for a moment silhouetted against the moon, it became a boobrie, come all the way from the lochs of the highlands to haunt the Scottish half of his soul.

Then he saw the light, faint, almost luminescent in the distance. Perhaps the light of . . .

Titus took hold of his imagination and put it firmly away. What he needed to worry about tonight were not creatures designed to frighten children, but men with guns and knives, and the intent to do a traveller harm.

He eased forward; the sound of his horse’s hooves was swallowed up by the soft ground. There was a spot wide enough for a simple camp, and somebody had managed to find enough dry wood for a fire.

Then the mare stepped into a puddle. It was a small sound, but the figure by the fire vanished. First he was there and then he wasn’t, and he didn’t leave even a hint of movement in the canes.

Titus froze in place. His rifle was in a scabbard at his knee, but pulling it out now might cause the trouble he was trying to avoid. He hallooed the fire in a low voice, but got no answer.

Titus kicked his mare in the ribs and started forward, pausing at the edge of the firelight. He called out, “How about welcoming some company. I’ve been riding all day and this is the first wide spot in the trail I’ve seen in hours.”

No answer.

“I’m not going on in the dark. You might as well come out, unless you plan to stay squatting in the mud ’til morning.”

Still nothing, and a shiver ran up his spine. He wished he hadn’t been thinking of bogles. Then a voice out of the darkness softly called his name.

This story will continue on Wednesday and conclude on Thursday.

636. Half Breeds, Various

A couple of days ago, in late September, I was beginning to search around for an idea for this year’s Halloween post. I’m not into things that go bump in the night, but if there were ever a holiday that calls for the telling of stories, it would be All Hallows Eve. Then I remembered a scene in an unwritten novel.

Of all the novels I’ve written in my head only, not on paper, Titus Young is the most complete. I know who my protagonist is, I know his antecedents and I know his offspring. Titus Young is the middle book in three well plotted but mostly unwritten generational historical novels.

I think I would write it next, if it weren’t for money. I could write five SF novels in the time it would take me to research and write this one lengthy historical — and I will probably do that — but Titus Young still hangs in there, taunting me.

Titus Young himself was a half breed — half Scottish and half German, that is. I assume that the term half breed is offensive now; I certainly haven’t herd it in years. During my childhood it was in common use especially in Oklahoma. Nevertheless, now that I’ve gotten your attention by the post title, I will switch to mixed race to avoid offending modern sensibilities.

Titus’s Scottish mother met his German-speaking Moravian father and they married in the unwritten novel Nativity. They moved from Pennsylvania to south-eastern Tennessee to be missionaries to the Cherokees. Moravians often did that. Titus was born there and the Youngs became respected for their compassionate work. When Titus’s parents died during an epidemic, John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokees, himself mixed race Scottish and Cherokee, arranged for Titus to be adopted by one of his relatives. Thus Scottish-German Titus became legally Cherokee, without a drop of Indian blood.

As a young man, Titus took a flatboat down the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers with a load of cargo for New Orleans. His boatmates were two white brothers. They sold their wares in New Orleans, but on their return up the Nachez Trace a disagreement led to a lifelong feud.

While in New Orleans, Titus met and courted a beautiful young Italian girl. Actually, she had an Italian father and a Natchez Indian mother, but she so hated her Indian heritage that she chose to pass as Italian. On a later trip to New Orleans, Titus met her again and they married. They returned to Tennessee where they opened a business.

Some years later, the events leading up to the Cherokee removal occurred. When the soldiers come to round up the Cherokees, Titus was away. His old enemies informed the soldiers that Titus and his wife were Cherokee.

Titus’s wife was half Indian, but no one knew that. She was believed to be Italian, and Titus was Scots-German, but Titus was an adopted Cherokee and she was married to him. That was enough for the soldiers. She was taken away with the rest of the tribe.

This irony of this left her with much soul-searching to do as she experienced the horrors of the Trail of Tears, and saw those horrors inflicted on her husband’s adopted people.

Titus returned, found himself a fugitive, found his enemies in possession of his business, and fled. He headed west, retaining his freedom but following the path on which the soldiers had taken the Cherokees. While he was on this journey, he came across a runaway slave named Cotton, whom he knew from when he was a boy, and that scene will form this year’s Halloween post.

==============

In the 1830’s, America was full of half-breeds (to use the contemporary term). Even more appear in this story than I’ve presented so far. A lot of them were passing for white, and making life hard for the known half-breeds. Gay people didn’t invent the idea of being in the closet. We’ve always had closets.

Titus Young is one more way for me to explore that notion, but it is also just a great story. It begins on a Mississippi riverboat, where Titus meets his old enemies years after the events described above. They don’t recognize him, which allows him to engages them in a poker game and trick one of them into challenging him to a duel.

This part of the novel will be narrated by a young professional gambler who gets roped into being Titus’s second. During the night before the duel, Titus tells the young man his life story, which we will see in a series of flashbacks, and in the morning . . .

But I guess that’s enough for now. The scene which will become the Halloween post will begin next Monday.

627. Banned Book Week

If you google special weeks, you will find a week for everything. Some of them are worthy; most are just plain goofy.

There’s nothing goofy about Banned Book Week.

My first encounter with banned books was in high school, when I became aware that Oklahoma and almost no other state had banned The Grapes of Wrath because it supposedly portrayed Oklahomans in a bad light. They didn’t much like the term Okie either.

I’m an Okie and I like the term, but if I had been walking down the streets of Bakersfield in the thirties, and people had been calling me that while spitting on me, I would probably have a different viewpoint.

When I was a boy, more than half a century ago, I said n— all the time. I quit when I grew up and learned better. Of course Black people will never come to accept the word like I accept Okie, and they shouldn’t. Okie was only a cuss word in parts of California for a brief time, a long time ago. N— has a different history.

While we are banning books, let’s go ahead and ban the word nigger.

See, you can’t do it. I’ve managed to use the abbreviation n— up to now, but I couldn’t write that sentence without spelling it out.

We have made not saying the word the key to survival in modern politics, but does a clean mouth insure a clean conscience, or a clean personal history? If you think so, I have a swamp I’m willing to sell you.

Shall we ban the idea behind the word? Good luck trying.

All this brings us back to books. Books should not be banned, except for a few.

What?!?!?!?

That’s a lot like saying I’m for free speech, but not for hate speech. Okay, define hate speech. Not give examples, that’s too easy. Define it.

It can’t be done.

Now, back to books again. Personally, I hate the *** series. I wish those books had never been written, but I’m afraid to even mention their name in this post. They have all but disappeared on their own, but if I were to mount a campaign to ban them, they would be back on the shelves and on their way to the best-seller list before the month was out. There would be websites defending them and websites condemning them and hash-tags like — no, I’m not going to tell you what the hash-tags would say.

Banning books is not only wrong, it is also self-defeating. If something bothers you — books, words, concepts, actions —  confront it. Banning it just drives it more deeply into the public consciousness.

If the media had not been so outraged in 2016 that they made  ***** the main subject of every newscast, we would have a different president today.

If the Ayatollah had not condemned The Satanic Verses, it would have died the quiet death it deserved. I know. I fought my way half way through the thing out of moral obligation before I tossed it. If it hadn’t been condemned, I would have quit after page three.

End of sermon.

Now here is a tidbit that I am adding just because it amuses me. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum is the list of books banned by the Catholic Church, beginning about 1600, going through various versions, and being finally dropped in 1966. Johannes Kepler and Immanuel Kant along with some translations of the Bible have all had the dubious honor of inclusion over the years.

When I wrote A Fond Farewell to Dying, set on a post nuclear war Earth, the main character wrote a book called Inquiry into Artificially Induced Immortality. I needed to have it banned, so I had to let the New Vatican located on Lake Titicaca (Rome having been nuked) reinstitute the Index just so my hero’s book could be on it.

607. Who Slammed the Door?

This is a July fourth poem, but everybody will be busy tomorrow, so I am posting it today.

Who Slammed the Door?

Land of the free,
Home of the brave,
What happened to your courage?

We have walked a thousand miles toward freedom.
Where did freedom go?

It is not trivial
             that they come in the night.
It is not trivial
             that they rape and kill.
It is not trivial
             to be hungry.
It is not trivial
             to be afraid.
It is not trivial
             to see your father disappear
             to see your mother disappear
             to know that you are next.

Would you walk a thousand miles             
             for a trivial reason?

In our homeland, they throw us in jail.
             In America, they throw us in jail.

In our homeland, they take parents
             from their children in the night.

In America, they take children
             from their parents in broad daylight.

Land of the free,
Home of the brave,
What happened to your courage?
             
Your compassion?
             Your understanding?
             Your humanity?

Land of the free,
Home of the brave,
Who slammed the door on freedom?

597. Who Speaks for Us?

A teacher in a classroom in Sierra Leone.

I had a post written for today, which I will now boot on down the road, maybe a couple of weeks.

My wife and I frequently watch a morning so-called news program, mostly because the hosts are pleasant people. This morning (that would be two days ago, Memorial Day) they took a moment from time to time to “remember those who served”, and went immediately to the men of Big Little Liars and promised an upcoming interview with Lamar Odom. Then they were going to do in in depth piece on where to find the best Memorial Day sales.

Yikes.

I left quickly. Most mornings all I wait for is a hit of good fellowship, a touch of news and weather, and I’m on to other things. Like writing this.

Their treatment of Memorial Day seemed to strike somewhere between grabbing for cheap emotions and checking off a box, but I’m going to give them a pass. I am not the one to judge, because I can’t be satisfied on the subject. Every time Memorial Day comes around I find myself caught between tears and anger, no matter how well things are presented. I have great respect for those who fought for freedom, but I don’t forget the atrocities committed in America’s name. I know that most Americans are offering genuine respect, and that some Americans are using Memorial Day to push military agendas, and a few are doing both at the same time.

I’m just going to have to let go of Memorial Day for another year. 

Lamar Odom is another matter. Mind you, I don’t know the man, and I avoid any news broadcast containing the word Kardashian. He probably has a story to tell, and certainly has the right to tell it.  Nevertheless, he represents something ugly about America — the Redemption Tour.

You are nobody in America until you’ve hit rock bottom, and clawed your way back up, in full public view.

If you’ve simply lived a wholesome, useful life, you don’t count. But if you’ve ripped off a charity, gotten dragged down by drugs, or cheated your kid’s way into college, welcome to celebrity. America is crying out to forgive you, if you can first tell them a stirring tale of depravity to keep them entertained.

Lamar Odom isn’t the problem; he just set me off. He dredged up something ugly from my past.

I was teaching middle school and we all turned out for a rally. It was one of those manufactured teaching moments, half sermon, half vaudeville, but it went wrong from the start. The presentation was by a batch of ex-cons, who had come to the school to tell our kids to go straight. Supposedly. In fact, it was anything but that. They were strutting baboons, flexing their muscles in their tight T-shirts, showing off their tattoos, and tearing phone books in half.

And, no, baboon is not a racist dog whistle this time. These were all white guys. It’s just an accurate description.

They told the kids, “Stay in school, keep on the straight and narrow, don’t end up in prison cause the guys there will eat you alive. You don’t want to end up like us.”

And the teenage boys all said under their breaths, “The hell we don’t!” These parodies of masculinity were exactly what they wanted to become.

Then one of the ex-prisoners began to harangue a tough looking Mexican-American student. He said, “I know you. I know what you’re thinking . . .” But he didn’t. He didn’t even know the boy’s name. He had never seen him before, but that didn’t stop him from calling the boy out.

It was always like that. Whenever somebody came to our school to make our students into better people, they always zeroed in on Mexicans as the ones they planned to reform.

Any teacher in the room could have told you the boy’s name. A lot of them could have told you his parents’ names, and would have had a pretty good idea of their income. Many of them would have known his sisters and brothers names, and would have taught them in years past. Some of those teacher had probably been in his home.

Any teacher in that gym could have stood in front of those children and have given them good advice about their futures — in fact they did just that every day in their classrooms. But those teachers hadn’t been to prison, so they were in the bleachers while the ex-cons cavorted like movie stars.

If you think I don’t believe in second chances, that isn’t the point. I don’t believe in parading your failures like badges of honor and I don’t believe you have to go low before you can go high.

There is nothing wrong with not going to prison.

Just go high, without bothering to go low first. Nobody will ever notice you. They won’t put you on television or in front of a gym full of kids, but that’s okay. We can live with that.