A lot of changes were going on by the time nineteen hundred came round. In less than two years, President McKinley would be assassinated. It seemed, at the turn of the century, that not only the country but the people in it were still busy deciding how we would be fitting in, finding our place in the world I guess you can say. Slavery had been abolished for thirty-five some years, but that didn't mean it still didn't go on. And if it didn't go on, Alabama, Virginia, Arkansas and other southern states were trying, and succeeding, in restricting what we could and what we couldn't do. Jim Crow laws made sure to remind us regularly that we were inferior to white folk. The stress of racism and prejudice led many to leave in hopes of finding a better life elsewhere. What they found instead was equally unwavering fear, prejudice and discrimination, no matter if they traveled east, west, north or farther south. Many came back to Sheffield complaining of numerous grievances. I wouldn't be surprised if people were to leave again: our lives teetered between dangerous and unbearable.
By nineteen hundred and ten, Sheffield, Alabama was still not the best place to live, especially if you were colored like me. I never would have paid much mind to or understood exactly what was being said if I hadn't been educated growing up. We were supposed to feel oppressed, despised and rejected among men, that much was obvious. Old Man Buckley stood at that pulpit every Sunday and preached quite passionately about how the Bible says that colored folk are damned and substandard as a people. When he was about ready to lynch someone, he would lecture how it was impossible for us to take to learning, how we were savage, uncivilized and ignorant. When he sat with Mr. Boyer in front of the old oak tree in the middle of town (that had several rope burns across its branches), I could hear them talking about how Negroes hadn't evolved the same as whites, so they didn't count as a full person, only half one. For two years before that summer of nineteen hundred and ten, Old Man Buckley and his congregation were responsible for lynching over forty-five men, accusing every one of them of either "bestowing adulterous and lustful glares in the direction of a white woman", or of actually raping a white woman. The distinction was one and the same, receiving the same penalty, whether true or not. Old Man Buckley's nephew once raped a woman in Nashville while her baby girl was forced to watch. When the law caught up to him, he was fined and told to be on his way, knowing his punishment would be the scandalous looks he would be given back home for having fornicated with a colored woman.
White men only raped colored women in silence.
Summers were warm in Sheffield, at times even hot. When it rained, the sky mesmerized with its dark, brooding, ominous beauty and in the way the lightning danced across. It was a beauty that absolutely terrified. That summer I turned thirteen, but in all honesty, I don't know how old I am for certain 'cause my daddy never learned to read or write. In eighteen hundred and ninety seven, when I was still an infant, some folks from some place called the American Missionary Association came passing round on their way to, I guess, figure out where they'd build the Burrell Normal School. My daddy was a proud man but not proud enough to go talk to Protestants. That's the day he decided eighteen hundred and ninety seven was the year I was born. Between me and you, I'm not sure he even knew what year it was before meeting with those missionaries. Ever since my momma died giving birth to my little brother Daniel, he was never quite right again. I mean, he did everything a daddy was supposed to do, but you could always tell something wasn't quite right. His soul had died the same day my momma did.
When I started to grow some, those Protestants came by more and more, eager to teach me how to read at the insistence of my daddy. Thus began my proper education.
In nineteen hundred and nine, when they thought the time was right, they gave me "The Souls of Black Folk", by W.E.B. DuBois. At the beginning of nineteen hundred and ten, they gave me "Up From Slavery", by Booker T. Washington. No two books impacted me as much as those. The truth of their words jumped out of the page and touched me profoundly.
Later that same summer of nineteen hundred and ten, my daddy sat me down and explained how people who know better should do better. He made sure I understood this point by the serious look in his eyes. His eyes were usually heavy, burdened with a long life of toil and drudgery working on Mr. Harvey's plantation and as a hostler at the Harvey Stables Inn on Avalon Avenue for Mr. Harvey and his family, doing all sorts of things that would normally humiliate a man. But my daddy was no ordinary man. He did everything that was asked of him and took care of two sons on his own. Mr. Harvey was nice enough, I guess 'cause he knew that my daddy remained at the mercy of his whims.
But today, in addition to the heaviness, my daddy's eyes showed fright, sadness and sternness when he looked at me. I had not meant to disappoint him but it seemed that half an hour ago on that day, I did just that. His dark brown eyes penetrated my disheartened soul the way only he could manage. I had only been trying to defend my younger brother.
"You're a dirty filthy stinkin' NIGGER!"
Remember, it had been forty-five years since the Civil War had ended, but resentment was still alive and well in the South, resentment that had been fused with anger, bigotry and hate, passed between generations, ready to unleash itself on anyone.
I had been teaching Daniel how to box by the south bank of the Tennessee River. You see, James Jeffries was the Heavyweight Champion of the World until nineteen hundred and five and people thought him the best boxer that ever lived even though he refused to fight a Negro boxer named Jack Johnson, deciding instead to retire undefeated. In nineteen hundred and eight, Tommy Burns, the champion, agreed to fight Jack Johnson. In the fourteenth round, the fight was stopped and Johnson became the first Negro Heavyweight Champion of the World.
I still remember that day vividly. The wind came from the west that December afternoon, cooling us from the heat escaping our pores. It was God's Christmas present to us. The trees swayed, and danced a little quicker too, under that Alabama sky, as if privy to The Awakening going on. The swelling of pride grew within me, as I'm sure it did for every other Negro in the United States, to the point where I literally shook with excitement hours after the news arrived in Sheffield. It was a demonstration that fueled our self-respect; it was a cup of dignity in a tub of daily subjugation. That same day I started practicing how to box by the edge of the Tennessee.
"Come back here you fuckin' NIGGER!"
Later in that summer of nineteen hundred and ten, James Jeffries was to come out of retirement to fight Jack Johnson in July. The Fight of the Century they were calling it, so everyone waited, nervously anticipating the outcome; especially me. I admired Jack Johnson and wanted to be him.
"Get your monkey ass back here!"
That's when I heard the voices interrupting my drifting mind. I had not noticed that Daniel had wandered off while I stared at the river, thinking about Jack Johnson. When I did see him, he was being chased by three white boys about his height, carrying large sticks and rocks.
"Elijah, HELP!" my brother called out to me.
I remember seeing the look in his eyes. Have you ever looked at someone's eyes when they're terrified to death? The look you give off when you suspect your life may well be in danger is distinctive. That's the look I saw in Daniel's eyes as he ran towards me with them boys running after him. Apparently Daniel had been taunting the boys, suggesting James Jeffries didn't stand a lick against Jack Johnson (I had told him that numerous times). I remember running toward my brother with an intensity stirring deep in my core. I had to protect him.
I don't remember what happened next.
The next thing I do remember is looking at my daddy's heavy, frightened, sad and stern eyes. I remember seeing my reflection in the tears that formed in them. He knew what was about to happen before I could even conceive of the evil capable of forming in the hearts of men.
"What did I do?"
That's the only time my daddy ever raised a hand to me. The sting across my face never went away.
I had killed two of the boys. Cornelius and Lucius Boyer. The third boy ran when he saw what I did. Because I'm bigger and older than my age, had been boxing for a couple years at that point and confined within myself a rage deep within my soul, it's no surprise I killed those boys. And for that I apologize. That burden weighs not lightly on my soul.
It took another half hour before the mob showed up in front of my daddy's house.
"Clifton, come out here!" Mr. Boyer stood at the front of the mob, yelling for my daddy.
From where I was hiding, I could also see Old Man Buckley, the barber Mr. Siloam Towers, Mr. Franck, who owned a gin and grist mill across the Tennessee, and Mr. Calhoun Nelson, who owned a general merchandise store in town. Mr. Calhoun Nelson got Uncle Willie lynched the previous year 'cause he said Willie looked at his wife "in an adulterous and lustful way". The truth is Mr. Calhoun Nelson needed only to look at Mr. Franck if he wanted to know who was looking at his wife "in an adulterous and lustful way". Elizabeth Calhoun Nelson looked at Mr. Franck the same way too. On that day, Uncle Willie just happened to be in Mr. Franck's way when Mr. Calhoun Nelson prematurely followed his wife's gaze.
Even Mr. Harvey was out there.
"No sir, I ain't comin' out, 'cause if I do, I ain't prepar'd for what's about to happen," my daddy responded.
"You best get prepar'd. Your boy kill'd my sons!"
"Your boys were gonna kill my little one. Elijah was only tryin' to protect his brother." My daddy's voice cracked.
"He murder'd my own flesh and blood! And now I'm gonna do right by them. Come out here Goddamit and get you some Justice. You got three seconds."
There was no placating this outraged mob.
My daddy suddenly turned to me as I was wiping the tears that had formed in my eyes. It had all been my fault. All this was my fault.
"Elijah, there's somethin' I've been meanin' to tell you--"
That's when the shotgun blasts poured into the house, broken glass and exploding wood showering us with lethal intensity. I felt a warm wetness on my face that I thought was from my crying but would later realize was my daddy's blood. The bullets had entered his back and legs, collapsing him onto the floor, unable to move, immediately prompting me and Daniel to plunge to the floor as well. He hid the pain well.
I wilted with breathtaking terror.
With shallow gasps, he continued, "Listen, you couldn't hide your anger no more. I understand. Some days I'm not sure I can either, but right now they want to kill me, you and Daniel. And they will. You see, what I never got around to tellin' you yet is that we're supposed to follow the rules. Not the rules like law, mind you, but the rules where white folk is supposed to act like white folk and colored folk ain't supposed to do spit about it. We supposed to keep our heads down and not draw any kind of attention to ourselves. You understand?
One day you're gonna change all that, if you know it yet or not. God chose that name for you for a reason. I'm tellin' you boy, one day even Generals'll be taking orders from you. You're that special. I know it."
"I'm not leaving without you." The tears were washing away the blood from my face.
"You have to! Listen, I'm proud you got yourself some learnin' and didn't end up not knowin' nothin' like me. Right now I need you to keep bein' a good son; take your brother with you and head south. They'll think all colored folk wanna head north but you'll go south, you hear me? I got cousins in Decatur so you'll go there first, alright? But that's not far away enough from all the trouble so when you think the time's right, you'll head down to Birmingham. My brother Clinton lives there."
The smoke started getting thicker in the house from the burning torches thrown in after the bullets, igniting every combustible object in my daddy's house. The embers spit with satanic ferocity.
"Get down to Florida. Tallahassee (gasp). Your Aunt Celia lives there. She'll know what to do. You'll be safe there. Now for God's sake, take Daniel and GO! (cough, cough)"
The forcefulness of his voice jolted me to my feet.
"Daniel! We have to go." I cried out while reaching for him still lying on the floor. I pulled his arm but he wasn't responding.
"Come on Daniel!"
I tried picking my brother up hoping there was some semblance of life festering within his small frame, when I noticed half his head was not there anymore. Blood was spurting, gushing from his limp, lifeless body the way the river did at Muscle Shoals Canal after a heavy downpour. I lovingly and frantically rocked him in my arms, desperately crying out to God to bring him back, but he didn't come back. God overlooked my appeal. Reality punched me in the stomach and I keeled over, vomiting from the pain of absorbing the fact that Daniel was dead.
My daddy and I exchanged looks before he placed his head down and started whimpering and babbling incoherently. First my momma and now Daniel. When my daddy got quiet, I knew that his body went the way of Daniel and his own soul so many years ago.
Judgment had fallen on me. Bloody sorrow washed over me. I became intimately acquainted with affliction, despondency and grief. I stood there, emotionally damaged for my indiscretion, spiritually marred by wickedness, with immense drops of my daddy's and brother's blood falling to the ground from me.
"Any of you niggers still alive in there, we're about to take care of that real quick!"
And there it was. The stirring within me rose once more, hot as the sun in the sky. But it was different. Not the same kind I had felt earlier that day...it was stifling, overwhelming. Like someone had cut off the air to my lungs and I couldn't breathe anymore. It wasn't from the smoke rising from my daddy's house though, it was coming from within, like something inside me wanted to get out in a hurry. I'm not too sure how much of this is making sense but I remember being sad and scared. I had done violence, and in doing so, had secured my place among the wicked...
Reverend Aloysius Mackenzie lived just outside of town, teaching Geometry and Calculus at the Burrell Normal School, two disciplines that had confounded him prior to priesthood. On this twenty-fourth of June, nineteen hundred and ten, a shortage of scotch caused his presence in town. You see, Reverend Mackenzie was a fervent believer when it came to matters of faith. He zealously, ardently and intensely adhered to religious beliefs, needing desperately to believe there was more to life than Man. In short, he filled the void in his heart with scotch and the love of God.
A large crowd had formed in the middle of town, a mob intoxicated with vengeance, disgust and hate circling around the bruised, battered body of Elijah Cobb.
"They about ready to hang a nigger." answered a tall man dressed in a suit.
"Oh." Reverend Mackenzie muttered after waiting momentarily.
Fifteen minutes of silent objection and repulsion passed.
In those fifteen minutes, Elijah Cobb had been disfigured and set on fire while still alive. It was later written in the local newspaper that Elijah Cobb "was beaten with shovels and bricks... he was castrated, and his ears were cut off. A tree supported the iron chain that lifted him above the fire...Wailing, the boy attempted to climb up the skillet hot chain. For this, the men cut off his fingers."
The crowd continued cheering and shook hands for a job well done after Elijah's death.
It was a gruesome scene.
Reverend Aloysius Mackenzie's footsteps echoed loudly across the winding hallways of Ewing Building the next day. He stood for a moment, letting the sun wash over him, shielding himself against the solitary glances of despair. He couldn't go on. Turning around, each step back towards the door was one less glimpse of isolated misery, but it was the eyes, all those expressive eyes pleading with him, begging him to rid them of the injustice that they couldn't escape.
He had done nothing and was convinced he could do no more than that.
Upon exiting, Father Mackenzie collapsed at the top of the stairs, weeping inconsolably. The tears ran from his eyes and sat on his brown cheekbones momentarily before diving off onto the ground, swirling with dust.