John Muir On The ‘Negroes’ Of The American South

John Muir often wrote soaring prose about the beauties and majesties of nature, about how the outdoors were our ‘natural cathedrals’; he urged his fellow human beings to leave behind their sordid, grubby, weekday cares and let themselves be elevated by the sublime qualities of hill and vale and river and babbling brook. Here, on earth, he sought the transcendent, and his writings reflected that elevated aspiration and his delighted and delightful responses to the grand offerings of awe-inspiring locales like the American West. Elsewhere, in his opinions of human beings, he often showed himself to be anchored firmly in his times and place; a man ultimately, of a particular locale, at a particular point in history.

During his famed 1867 walk from Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, Muir passed through an American South still recovering from the Civil War. Its population included both ‘whites’ and ‘negroes.’ Muir’s encounters with the latter are described in a language typical for its time–‘negroes’ are creatures with distinctive characteristics, a sub-species of a very particular kind.

In Kentucky,  Muir met “a great many negroes going to meeting, dressed in their Sunday best. Fat, happy looking, and contented.” There too, when trying to cross a “deep and rapid” river, he had been aided by a “negro woman” who asked him to wait while she arranged for a horse. This was arranged; “the little sable negro boy that rode him looked like a bug on his back.” Muir was soon “mounted behind little Nig. He was a queer specimen, puffy and jet as an India rubber doll and his hair was matted in sections like the wool of a merino sheep….little Afric looked as if he might float like a bladder.” Muir did think that “many of these Kentucky Negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed upon a subject that interests them, are eloquent in no mean degree.” In Georgia, Muir found that the “negroes here have been well trained and are extremely polite. When they come in sight of a white man on the road, off go their hats, even at a distance of forty or fifty yards, and they walk bare-headed until he is out of sight.” Still, Muir was worried about “idle negroes..prowling about everywhere” and took considerable concern to avoid them–and their “wild eyes”– in his search for a resting place at night. He was generally less than impressed by their work ethic for “the negroes are easy-going and merry, making a great deal of noise and doing little work. One energetic white man, working with a will, would easily pick as much cotton as half a dozen Sambos and Sallies.”

His impression of the negro’s essential wilderness was confirmed by an encounter with a ‘negro family’ in Florida, who he encountered in a forest:

When within three or four miles of the town I noticed a light off in the pine woods. As I was very thirsty, I thought I would venture toward it with the hope of obtaining water. In creeping cautiously and noiselessly through the grass to discover whether or not it was a camp of robber negroes, I came suddenly in full view of the best-lighted and most primitive of all the domestic establishments I have yet seen in town or grove. There was, first of all, a big, glowing log fire, illuminating the overleaning bushes and trees, bringing out leaf and spray with more than noonday distinctness, and making still darker the surrounding wood. In the center of this globe of light sat two negroes. I could see their ivory gleaming from the great lips, and their smooth cheeks flashing off light as if made of glass. Seen anywhere but in the South, the glossy pair would have been taken for twin devils, but here it was only a negro and his wife at their supper.

I ventured forward to the radiant presence of the black pair, and, after being stared at with that desperate fixedness which is said to subdue the lion, I was handed water in a gourd from somewhere out of the darkness. I was standing for a moment beside the big fire, looking at the unsurpassable simplicity of the establishment, and asking questions about the road to Gainesville, when my attention was called to a black lump of something lying in the ashes of the fire. It seemed to be made of rubber; but ere I had time for much speculation, the woman bent wooingly over the black object and said with motherly kindness, “Come, honey, eat yo’ hominy.”

At the sound of “hominy” the rubber gave strong manifestations of vitality and proved to be a burly little negro boy, rising from the earth naked as to the earth he came. Had he emerged from the black muck of a marsh, we might easily have believed that the Lord had manufactured him like Adam direct from the earth.

Surely, thought I, as I started for Gainesville, surely I am now coming to the tropics, where the inhabitants wear nothing but their own skins. This fashion is sufficiently simple, “no troublesome disguises,” as Milton calls clothing, — but it certainly is not quite in harmony with Nature. Birds make nests and nearly all beasts make some kind of bed for their young; but these negroes allow their younglings to lie nestless and naked in the dirt.

These lines of Muir’s are only odd because Muir wrote so eloquently and voluminously about how he descended into a kind of feral existence himself when he ventured into the wild, how he slept wherever he could make a bed for himself, and so on. Clearly, in his case, his ‘wilderness’ represented a kind of movement outward, while for the ‘negro’ it was just an essential state of being.

Vincent Simmons: ‘The Innocent Burn When Falsely Accused’

A few decades ago, while watching a Bollywood potboiler at home with my parents, I saw a central character react sharply to a concocted accusation–perhaps of theft–by the movie’s villain, out to frame him and send him to jail so as to clear the way for his other nefarious plots. As our hero responded to this charge with loud, anguished protestations, his body shook; he seemed to be possessed by a demon of some kind. Unable to take my eyes off this acute reaction, I asked my mother, “Why is he so upset?” My mother replied briefly, “The innocent burn when falsely accused.” (Something is lost in the translation here.) Her language seemed apt; this man was aflame, suffering the agonies of being burned on the stake.

A few years later, in boarding school, a slimy weasel lodged a false complaint against me with the school prefects. Apparently, I had abused and hit him. I was lucky; the prefect who received the complaint let me off with a warning. As I stood there receiving his sonorous lecture about the need to behave better, to restrain myself and show some manners, I seethed with anger. What if I had actually been punished–perhaps by a caning or a punishment drill, or even worse, by suspension or expulsion? (Bullying, if found to be occurring, was a severely punishable offense.) I dared not even imagine what my response–helpless in the face of such injustice–would have been.

Last week, as I watched The Farm: Angola, USA, Jonathan Stack, Liz Garbus, and Wilbert Rideau‘s 1998 award-winning documentary set in the infamous maximum security Louisiana State Penitentiary, and discovered the story of Vincent Simmons, still serving a life sentence–hundred years–for the attempted aggravated rapes of a pair of teenaged twins in 1977, I remembered my mother’s words all over again.

Simmons has been burning for thirty-eight years now. He was railroaded into jail, and there he stays. No physical evidence linking him to the rapes was ever prosecuted by the prosecution; his alibis were discounted; his counsel provided him inadequate legal representation by failing to question state witnesses about their testimony; the victims professed to not knowing the identity of their attacker because “all niggers look alike”; he was identified and picked out of a line-up in which he was the only handcuffed person; it took sixteen years for him to be granted access to “the evidence file pertaining to his case, including police reports, arrest reports, victims’ statements, trial transcripts, the medical examiner’s report”; in The Farm, a parole board, which reviewed his case in 1998, summarily dismisses the compelling evidence he presents to them without so much as a discussion of the merits of his appeal; the legal and moral atrocities go on and on.

Many Americans remain unaware–blissfully so–of the catastrophe that is our penal system. The indigent innocent go to jail all the time, there to face further brutalization and diminishment of their life’s prospects. The book is too often thrown at them; that done, they are left to rot behind the walls. Racism, the war on drugs, and the vicious retributive streak that informs our notions of punishment have resulted in a collective perversion of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’

The horror of what is happening today, under our noses, should keep us awake at night. It should induce nightmares, visions of innocence falsely condemned.

Note: A proper review of The Farm will follow anon.

Is “Black Lives Matter” Aiding And Abetting Criminals?

This is a very serious question and deserves a serious answer. It is so serious that the New York Times has asked: Is “police reticence in the face of such protests, some led by groups like Black Lives Matter causing crime to rise in some cities”? The first answers are in. Those honorable folk, “the heads of the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration said they believed that this so-called Ferguson Effect seemed to be real.” (The Ferguson Effect, which sounds like an atmospheric condition that produces high winds and heavy rain, is capable of creating law and order crises.)

In general, whenever black folk get uppity, crime increases. See, for instance, the wave of crime that spread through the American Deep South after the Civil War during the Reconstruction Era when freed slaves went on a rampage, killing, raping, and looting. Some folks blame that on white racists worried about the imbalance in the old power equations of the American South, but we should remind ourselves that the folks conducting those terrorist campaigns were riding around on horses while wearing white robes and hoods, so we will never, I mean never, know whether they were white or not.

We need not debate this question for too long. The FBI and the DEA–fine, upstanding defenders of civil liberties, and really, the first folks we should check in with when it’s time to evaluate political protest conducted by minorities–would never speak falsely on such matters. Besides, they have better things to do–like entrapping young Muslims in terrorist plots, arresting folks smoking that dangerous chemical, marijuana, and listening to the phone conversations, and reading the emails of, American citizens. (Some pedant will say I should be talking about the NSA but in this post 9/11 intelligence-sharing era, what’s the difference?)

We should be curious though about what such “police reticence” amounts to. Perhaps it means the following. Police officers will not be able to: fire sixteen bullets–known as ’emptying a clip’, I’m told–at black teenagers walking on a highway even ones with knives; come scrambling out of a car and begin firing, assaulting-a-Pacific-Beach style, at a twelve-year old playing with a toy gun in a children’s playground; shoot black men in wheelchairs; drive around a city with a ‘suspect’ in a paddy wagon, and then beat him to death; place sellers of illicit cigarettes in fatal strangleholds; shoot black men in the back, whether during an undercover drug sting or after a traffic stop; shoot black men who have knocked on doors seeking help; search, randomly and roughly, hundreds and thousands of young black men and women in their neighborhoods for looking suspicious.

The ultimate ramifications of such handicapping of our armed forces–sorry, police–are as yet, only poorly understood, but the contours of the resultant landscape are perhaps visible. Black folks will once again walk the streets; they will stay out late at night; they will go into white neighborhoods and mingle with the populace there. Of all the chilling effects of this new police caution, the last one, surely, is the most chilling. Black folks will be set free among us. The horror.

Tocqueville On Slaves, House Of Cards, And Miami

In his classic Democracy in America, in the section “Situation Of The Black Population In The United States, And Dangers With Which Its Presence Threatens The Whites”, Alexis Tocqueville wrote:

[I]n a certain portion of the territory of the United States…the legal barrier which separated the two races is tending to fall away, but not that which exists in the manners of the country; slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth remains stationary. Whosoever has inhabited the United States must have perceived that in those parts of the Union in which the negroes are no longer slaves, they have in no wise drawn nearer to the whites….the prejudice of the race appears to be stronger in the States which have abolished slavery, than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those States where servitude has never been known….In the South, where slavery still exists, the negroes are less carefully kept apart; they sometimes share the labor and the recreations of the whites; the whites consent to intermix with them to a certain extent, and although the legislation treats them more harshly, the habits of the people are more tolerant and compassionate. In the South the master is not afraid to raise his slave to his own standing, because he knows that he can in a moment reduce him to the dust at pleasure.

This passage on segregation and the power structures that create and sustain it inspire the following indirectly related observations:

1.  In House of Cards Francis Underwood is shown loving the finger-licking good ribs at Freddy’s BBQ, a down-home Southern joint owned by Freddy Hayes. The Wikipedia entry for the character describes him as “One of Frank’s only true friends and confidants who he turns to for a fun talk.” One of the reasons, of course, that Freddy, a black man from the South, is such a ‘true friend’ to Francis, is that besides his facility with ribs, he knows his place; he knows the line not to be crossed. In the North the “negroes” Tocqueville observed did not know their place.

2. Where segregation is visible and manifest by a variety of social mechanisms it can soon become self-imposed.  My first trip to Miami in 1990 was made in the company of a Haitian friend. We drove down, visited a Cuban friend of ours, and checked out some of the local attractions, including its white sanded beaches. A short while after we had hit the waves and stretched out for a little sunning–not that we, black and brown–needed any, my friend got up, gathered his belongings and said he wanted a change of scene, a “better spot.” He seemed uncomfortable. I was a little puzzled; our spot seemed perfect. But I accompanied him as he left. We walked on for about ten minutes or so,  and then parked ourselves in a locale that did not seem too different from the one we had left. I remained puzzled. But not for too long. When I looked around, I noticed there were more black people around us. Indeed, a few minutes later, when I walked back to our car to retrieve some food and drink to bring back to our blanket, I could look down on the beach below me and saw distinct swathes of black, brown, and white. The population of Miami had, on this beach, with varying degrees of consciousness about their actions, sorted themselves into distinct bands on its sands. They knew where and around whom they wanted to be; they knew who would want to be around them; they all knew their place.

O. Henry on the South (Mainly Nashville)

I’ve only read a couple of short stories by O. Henry but have long owned an omnibus collection of them (presented to me on my twenty-eighth birthday). I’ve finally taken a gander at it, and stumbled on his classic A Municipal ReportHenry was a Southerner transplanted to the East Coast, so I find the narrator’s voice–a supposed ‘outsider’ speaking of the South–of particular interest. This developing ‘attitude’ towards Nashville (and its people) leads to several memorable, witty descriptions. Here are a few of my favorites.

On Southern weather:

Take a London fog 30 parts; malaria 10 parts; gas leaks 20 parts; dewdrops gathered in a brick yard at sunrise, 25 parts; odor of honeysuckle 15 parts. Mix.

The mixture will give you an approximate conception of a Nashville drizzle. It is not so fragrant as a moth-ball nor as thick as pea-soup; but ’tis enough – ’twill serve.

On Southern hotels, hospitality, and history (race and the Civil War too!):

I went to a hotel in a tumbril. It required strong self-suppression for me to keep from climbing to the top of it and giving an imitation of Sidney Carton. The vehicle was drawn by beasts of a bygone era and driven by something dark and emancipated.

I was sleepy and tired, so when I got to the hotel I hurriedly paid it the fifty cents it demanded (with approximate lagniappe, I assure you). I knew its habits; and I did not want to hear it prate about its old “marster” or anything that happened “befo’ de wah.”

The hotel was one of the kind described as ‘renovated.” That means $20,000 worth of new marble pillars, tiling, electric lights and brass cuspidors in the lobby, and a new L. & N. time table and a lithograph of Lookout Mountain in each one of the great rooms above. The management was without reproach, the attention full of exquisite Southern courtesy, the service as slow as the progress of a snail and as good-humored as Rip Van Winkle.

Tobacco chewing:

All my life I have heard of, admired, and witnessed the fine marksmanship of the South in its peaceful conflicts in the tobacco-chewing regions. But in my hotel a surprise awaited me. There were twelve bright, new, imposing, capacious brass cuspidors in the great lobby, tall enough to be called urns and so wide-mouthed that the crack pitcher of a lady baseball team should have been able to throw a ball into one of them at five paces distant. But, although a terrible battle had raged and was still raging, the enemy had not suffered. Bright, new, imposing, capacious, untouched, they stood. But, shades of Jefferson Brick! the tile floor – the beautiful tile floor! I could not avoid thinking of the battle of Nashville, and trying to draw, as is my foolish habit, some deductions about hereditary marksmanship. [links added]

The Southern gentleman, Major Wentworth Carswell:

I happened to be standing within five feet of a cuspidor when Major Caswell opened fire upon it. I had been observant enough to percieve that the attacking force was using Gatlings instead of squirrel rifles; so I side-stepped so promptly that the major seized the opportunity to apologize to a noncombatant. He had the blabbing lip. In four minutes he had become my friend and had dragged me to the bar.

I desire to interpolate here that I am a Southerner. But I am not one by profession or trade. I eschew the string tie, the slouch hat, the Prince Albert, the number of bales of cotton destroyed by Sherman, and plug chewing. When the orchestra plays Dixie I do not cheer….Major Caswell banged the bar with his fist, and the first gun at Fort Sumter re-echoed. When he fired the last one at Appomattox I began to hope.