In Every Black Man's Eyes--Death To The Rebel

Black Soldiers.jpg

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-B8171-7890 DL

When I was young, those tee-shirts of Malcolm looking out the window with a rifle were everywhere. They were, for black ghetto kids, what Che became for the urbanistas--replete with all the same problems. I had all kinds of Conscious tee-shirts back then decked out with all kinds of slogans--Black By Popular Demand, Black By Nature Proud By Choice, How Long Shall They Kill Our Prophets, While We Stand Aside And Look. My favorite was actually pink, and had the cover art from Bob Marley's Uprising. My Dad's response was to just hurl more Carter G. Woodson and copies of the Wall Street Journal at me. He didn't believe in announcing who you were. And while he suffered my tee-shirt collection, he specifically barred me from buying the Malcolm and the Rifle number.

You must understand that my Dad, in his time, actually carried guns, and from the time I fully knew what it meant to serve in Vietnam, to come home and become a Panther, to point a rifle at a cop, I was fascinated. I still am. I think part of it is knowing that while you may one day write for the Atlantic, you will never knuckle up on the streets of West Philly, fly off to Vietnam and take a lover, come home toting guns, talking Fanon, and then say, "Meh, I've got kids. Time to work at a library." Allow me my dumb, childish romance. We all have it, if we're lucky.

But the other part, and the reason I think those Malcolm shirts struck such a chord, was because so many of us were raised with this solemn, sepia-tinged, gospel-drenched, noble suffering view of black history. It's like our story is basically  massacre, after defeat, after massacre, after more defeat, after massacre, after defeat and then white folks deciding they're tired of kicking the shit out of us. It's like our whole story is marching into billy-clubs, amazing facts about the peanut, and a few Old Negro Spirituals.

I stake no claim on an objective reality--this is how it feels to me. Knowing that, maybe my view of history says more about me and my time in West Baltimore, and the premium the neighborhood put on righteous violence, then it does about actual facts. Moreover, I'm not sure my perspective is any better--I come to my history prejudiced,and baggaged, halfway looking for the truth, but more so looking for heroes.

This weekend I started in on Drew Faust's This Republic Of Suffering and Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard. I was reading Faust's meditation on how soldiers prepared themselves to kill, and I came across this incredible passage about the reaction of black soldiers to the Fort Pillow massacre perpetrated by Nathan Forrest. It's written by one Cordellia Harvey, sent South from Wisconsin to help with the Union wounded:

Since the Fort Pillow tragedy, our colored troops and their officers are awaiting in breathless anxiety the action of the government...Our officers of Negro regiments declare they will take no more prisoners, and there is death to the rebel in every black man's eyes. They are still but terrible. They will fight...The Negroes know what they are doing.

There's another passage in which an enslaved black woman comes upon her mistress weeping uncontrollably over the latest news--she's lost her only son. "Missus," says the slave woman. "We is even now." The "Missus" had, over the years, sold every one of this woman's children into slavery in the deep south--all ten of them.

I read those passages and got that old, stupid thrill again--Negroes with guns, Negroes fighting back. But more legitimately, I was, as I have been throughout all of this reading, simply stunned by the preservation of humanity--no, by the repeated assertions of humanity made by people who lived under a system specifically structured to destroy it.

All my romance aside, this picture you see, these beautiful brothers, still but terrible, were hell to Johnny Reb. The black soldier was human--sometimes cowardly, sometimes brave, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, ill-led, ill-fed, ill-trained, ill-equipped. But goddamn, if he wasn't the spitting image of everything the South fought against, everything that slavery declared untrue. Howell Cobb put it best, "If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong."

That's the point. Black soldiers literally, and symbolically, assaulted the very foundations of the South. There were a living weapon of psychological warfare. I think back to the Blight lectures, where in one, a group of black soldiers come across a group of slave women, recently whipped by their master. The soldiers find the master, have him stripped and flogged--then they hand the whip over to each of the women, so as, in the words of one of the soldiers, the master will understand "that they are not his property anymore."

The Confederacy responded by denying their eyes and massacred black soldiers taken prisoner. They refused to let black soldier retrieve their dead. They basically did everything to rob them of any status as soldiers, as men. The most moving section of Battle Cry, for me, is when Lincoln and Grant suspend prisoner exchanges, because the Confederates refuse to treat black POWs with the dignity they treat white ones. This was more than mere talk--Lincoln and Grant, sacrificed white Union soldiers, wasting away in notorious Andersonville, on the insistence of equal treatment.  Two months before the War ends, Lee relents. But by then he's come to an ironic reckoning--if the Confederacy was to survive it would need black troops, too.

But it was too late. History had passed him by.

I've been thinking so much about memory lately, and a letter I recieved from a woman trying to raise a statue of Ida Wells, in Memphis, really crystalized something in me. I've spent a lot of energy talking about the white South, about the lionization of Klansmen like Forrest, the statues of avowed white supremacists like Ben Tillman.

But to paraphrase Grant, I grow heartily weary of hearing of General Lee. I want to talk about us. How will we remember our heroes? What will those of us in Charleston, South Carolina have to say about Robert Smalls? About Robert Brown Elliot? In Holly Springs, Mississippi, who will raise a statue in memory of Ida Wells? Who will remember Hiram Revels and Daddy Cain? What does Baltimore have to say about Christian Fleetwood and New Market Heights? (Forgive me, but hyperlinks here are demeaning. These people deserve your own search.)

I am not so interested in dictating to others how they should remember their past. Let the Lost Cause find itself, our search lies within. And when it's over, we will put Ida Wells up against Nathan Forrest, on any day of the week, and leave the generations to judge. Sooner or later, in the words of Nas, we'll all see who the prophet is.