Utopia Interpreted

[THE coming in of the Family Order of society, and the actual practice, among such large groups of the Race, of the Discipline of Happiness both in the bringing up of children and in the treatment of social disturbers, seem to have stolen upon us like a thief in the night. Events have so crowded each other, since the apathetic decade following the L. C. W.1, up to the dramatic revival of Nomadry in 1963, that it has become ever more and more difficult for historians to trace cause and effect. Especially is this noticeable in the recent History of Earth, published last year by the Interracial press at Cairo.2
This magazine, six months ago, opened a contest for the best Interpretation of these changes. Hundreds of persons presented their opinions. We now publish four of the most interesting of these Interpretations; and every reader of the magazine is entitled to one vote upon the most convincing of them. — From a note by the Editors, under date of JULY 1995]

First Interpretation


I DON’T think it’s because some of my ancestors were Single Taxers that I’ve always had a sort of filial feeling about Earth — little green pellet that she is among the stars! Of course everybody nowadays thinks of Earth as alive. But I believe I realized before other people did, and more sharply, too, that Earth has an animal existence of her own, has emotions of her own, — unconscious, of course, — and her own instincts and habits. I’ve always had a dramatic feeling about Earth, an impulse to think of her as a buxom young thing engaged in a sort of Marathon morris-dance, with all of us, her raft of tiny children, clinging to her shoulders, and all surrounded by a long twirling veil of atmosphere.

If I felt thus romantically even in my young days, what must I feel now, when with one cool touch of her hand she has straightened out the sticky, sobbing mess our human relations were in, and had been in so long? For of course I think the one thing that quieted and reasonablized us was the Ice Age Bubble of the thirties.

Nobody remembers better than I do the beginnings of the Bubble. So far back as 1925 I ‘d been thrilled by an obscure little item, tucked away somewhere in the interior of one of those huge cumbersome newspapers we used to have then: dinosaurs of which we think with wonder now, as we tuck away the morning’s newsleaf into our watch-pockets.

The headlines of those unwieldy sheets were all taken up at that time with ruction-news of one sort or another: tantrums the French or Irish or Fascisti were getting into about something or somebody. Away inside of all this I noticed an inch of information something like: —


SCIENTIFIC records, says Professor Lestrop, of the Royal Geographical Society, who landed here yesterday from the Gatamaran, show that most of the glaciers of the world are slowly extending. They are stretching down their icy claws farther and farther into the valleys. Exactly what conclusions the man in the street might draw from this information, Professor Lestrop did n’t say, beyond remarking that, so far, this is a rather cold winter.

I drew some conclusions though, boy as I was. I shivered on the sleepingporch that night, wondering what was going to happen — and rather hoping it would. I’d read the venerable Van Loon and the classic Wells: they were n’t venerable or classic then. Consequently I knew about Ice Ages in a rather realizing way. Plenty of other people knew about Ice Ages too, but I could n’t manage to infect any of my friends with my own shivers and thrills.

Everybody took notice, however, of the monstrous inferno of earthquakes in the summer of 1928 in the Aleutian Islands. Those Gargantuan volcanoes, eight or ten at a time spouting both from land and sea, went on intermittently from June until January. I remember that that was the beginning of the regular airplane excursions to Alaska. People went up there to see the volcanoes as they’d once gone to see the devastated war-areas in France. I see them sometimes still in dreams, after all these years and all the water that’s run under the bridges since! — those bubbling kettles of the gods, those appearing and disappearing islands, those square miles of hot spitting ground, those immeasurable ocean geysers!

The volcanic-dust theory about Ice Ages was a new one at that time. Seismists and meteorologists were discussing it. There was even then a school of geologists who believed the Ice Ages had come on quite suddenly. Of course they inclined to the volcanicdust theory. Naturally the theory got a good deal of prestige from the Aleutian volcanoes. Still, to the majority of people it did n’t seem possible that enough powdered rock could ever sift into the atmosphere to dim the sunshine — actually dim it to a point which would be perceptible.

In the autumn of 1929 Ar Barrue published his conclusions. Of course Ar Barrue was n’t then a great discoverer, but an obscure young Negro from the Sudan who was making astronomical researches at the brand new Gandhi University in Bengal. His modest little article in the Hibbert Journal only said that the sunshine seemed to be changing color. It seemed to be losing some part of its red-goldness — I reduce, of course, his scientific language to an ordinary style. Nobody that I knew at that time paid any attention to this statement. But of course scientific people paid attention, and two or three months afterward, there was a Committee of Correspondence discussing it — meteorologists, astronomers, geologists, and others. The general public heard nothing about them; and yet it was their first meeting, at Munich, in the winter of 1929-30, that set on foot the plans for the never-to-be-forgotten Rio meeting.

Ah, t hat winter of 1929-30! Nothing in the way of cold will ever seem so cold, to us who remember it, as that first mild little taste of coolness that we got in the winter following the Aleutian earthquakes. To this day I can’t help feeling that it must have been the coldest winter the Earth has ever known. I was then a thin young fellow with a habit of stooping, and I remember wishing I could coil my long neck down inside my collar like a flamingo. But all through November we rather laughed at it. November was about like what we’d used to consider a normal February. We all said that after such a start we might look for an open winter: the cold was using itself all up at the beginning. Then, when December was so much colder than November had been, we began to feel bewildered and perhaps a little scared. We had to give up driving cars — or even horses — as much as possible; we could keep warm best by walking. We walked without talking, very fast. When the wind was blowing we could n’t keep our windows open at night, health or no health.

Time-clocks in factories had to come down from their high horses that winter and pay a little attention to human limitations. Working-hours imperatively had to be shorter. And that’s just one of a hundred things we owe to Earth’s taking a hand directly in our affairs. Why — every other shortening of the workday had always cost a pretty penny of effort and ructions to bring about. But now the strange thought began to seep into people’s minds that afterward became so great an anxiety: ‘Suppose the people who are weighed down with some social handicap or other should n’t complain of it soon enough? It might be too late, by the time they complained.’ For the first time, — howquaint that seems! — the general public began to disapprove of the suicidal patience of the poor.

This came out especially in the question of fuel. We have to remember that most people still burned coal or oil, in the twenties and thirties; an easy thing it is to forget. The very idea of tanking up the waste heat of summer and the w aste cold of winter, to use in the extremes of the opposite season, had n’t then been seriously conceived, any more than the notion of utilizing the whole tidal power and harnessing the pulling force of the moon to human needs. And the Workerscult, in large numbers, lived on niggardly scuttlefuls of coal, from scuttleful to scuttleful, in thousands of crowded homes, every winter in the years before the Ice Age Bubble. But in the terrible — so it seemed then — winter of 1929-30, the fear of widespread death from cold became so general that practically all householders joined the Fraternal Warmth Association and agreed each to report his coal-supply from week to week, so that before the middle of January the custom was well established that no private family should permit itself to have more than a week’s supply on hand, until every family had a week’s supply. Of course there was hoarding and smuggling; but public opinion was decided about hoarding and smuggling, and neither was ever very prevalent. Fridays were ‘coal days,’ and busy days they were: all other business had to give way to coaling, from nine o’clock to four.

The cold alone was enough for us to bear: it put a strain on our endurance, just to get through the days and nights and hang together so that no poor footless creature among us should freeze. But that really was n’t the worst of it. It was n’t just the local cold. What bothered all of us the most was the realization that it was n’t local. We knew from the beginning that it was an Earth-wide phenomenon. The South Argentine and Tasmanian weather bureaus, for instance, agreed with the Canadian and Siberian ones; what had been a cold winter in the Northern Hemisphere had been a cold summer in the Southern one.

And then, as the summer of 1930 came on, the reports from the Southern hemisphere were that a frightfully cold winter was raging there. Great areas of Argentine pasture land were winterkilled by thick, implacable sheets of ice. Round Cape Horn the storms of that July were extraordinarily severe. Furious snowstorms driving up from the Pole wrecked a ghastly number of stout sailing vessels, and the Seamen’s Union was making a herculean effort to get the route outlawed by international agreement.

By the middle of that summer of 1930, anyway, even the best-informed people were in a state not far removed from panic. For the cold kept on, implacably; and in some ways the cool summer was harder to bear than the ice-cold winter. The state of the average person’s mind was such that the news — in August 1930 — that the glaciers had doubled their rate of advance, created something which I think might really be called a general panic. You ‘ll hear people sometimes dispute the term. But among the people I knew, it cert ainly would n’t have been too strong a word. We did n’t need the ‘New Titanic’ cartoon, reprinted so widely from the New York World, to scare us; nor the movies featuring Bill Hart as Primitive Man, waking up one morning in his lake dwelling to find his ladder frozen into the marsh, and Douglas Fairbanks riding a sabre-toothed tiger to safety just ahead of a blizzard that suddenly snowed the jungle under!

Oh to know more about the other Ice Ages! Was the Earth chilling by slow and even degrees, or manifolding its rate? Or was it chilling by leaps and bounds, mysterious and incalculable? Oh, for a record of the Fourth Ice Age! If the wandering tribes could but have notched it on a cliff, or hieroglyphed it on a buried hatchet! If they could but have blazed a record on the rocks of how fast they were driven southward — how often they trekked!

It was one of the most singular things in the world to see land values suddenly fall a mile. Such a world-wide slump in real estate had never been imagined. It needed a Jules Verne or a Balzac. If you remember the story of the Magic Skin, it was something like that. Everybody had it in mind that the timber-, farm-, and mininglands of the temperate zones might some day, not too remote, turn into icefields. Somebody would probably be left owning tracts of lost land, buried under ice a mile thick. What many and many a weary book had been written to bring about — the reclamation of land for present use at present value merely — took place in a moment when the cool foreshadow of the Ice Age fell over the speculator’s purse. And all the time there was a contradictory feeling of confidence among those who lived as tenants on the land. For the first time that I remember they felt at home upon it, and felt confident that it would n’t be snatched away from under their feet by climbing prices.

I always date the duration of the panic stage of the great Bubble from that news in August, that the glaciers were advancing twice as fast, to the opening of the Rio meeting in May.

The Rio meeting is too distinguished in history, of course, for me to have to recapitulate much about it. And yet the excitement of this past decade about the exploration of the ether, and the discussions of abstract Animals’ Rights, have begun, I fear, to make the Rio meeting shrink somewhat into that mere name and reverberation of greatness that all great events turn into by the softening and muffling and darkening of time.

Everybody used to know how the meteorologists and astronomers and geographers of the world decided at their Munich meeting to call another meeting at Rio, in the spring, to discuss the whole ‘climate situation.’ This assembly was to consist of one hundred and seventy scientists in various lines, representing all the great universities and observatories of the world. And everybody knows — or used to know — that no sooner did the news of the forthcoming Rio meeting reach a certain group of Jewish tailors in Warsaw, than they decided to stint themselves yet a little further than they always stinted themselves to maintain their union, in order to send a delegate to the Rio meeting, to hear what the scientists should say and come back and report to them.

No sooner, again, did the news of this action appear in the Advance, the organ of the great union of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in the United States, than the Amalgamated decided to send a delegate to represent them, who should sit with his Polish fellow workmen; and then the Russian cooperatives and the British coöperatives came in, and then the International Machinists and Miners; and after that it went on with a rush, until long before May 14, 1931, there was assembled a second committee, known as the Listening Delegates, about forty in number, representing, in addition to these, and others I can’t recall: —

The Forest Schools of India
The Chinese Students’ Association
The Federated Women’s Clubs of Australia
The Fellowship of Reconciliation
The Vatican
The Street Traders of Constantinople
The Federal Council of Churches.

As the representatives of these conglomerated organizations sat and listened to the speculations the assembled scientists were advancing, criticizing, and discussing, several of them kept diaries. And it seems to me enough to establish my Interpretation that Earth itself took a hand directly in our affairs at that time if we only glance into any one of those diaries. For all of them are filled, are flooded, with the same overwhelming sense of the vast ness of time and the power of cosmic forces. Mrs. Magoon of Sydney, I recollect, said that she felt all the time a kind of creative darkness brooding over her as she heard the geologists estimating the lapse of ages. The representative of the Nitrate Workers said that craft unionism versus industrial unionism had been his chief concern for twenty years, and suddenly now it began to seem to him impossibly picayune. The Vatican representative — a convert from protestantism — had been writing for years a monumental work on the persecutions by Queen Elizabeth. Now he was startled to find that he could n’t even remember the name of his book.

The representative of the Dukhobors astonished everybody by her poise and calm before the overwhelming realization that so changed the scale of thinking of the rest. Perhaps this was only because, like all habitual mystics, she lived in the presence of cosmic thoughts. An ignorant old woman, worn by a life of labor in the fields, there she sat and heard without a tremor the unimaginable durations of sidereal time roughly guessed at, the incredible bulk of the ages before man, dimly outlined against the darkness of man’s wonder and curiosity about them. I believe it was said that she spoke but once throughout the proceedings. What she then said has always seemed to me the essence of my own conviction,— poetically condensed, —

‘The stars in their courses have ended war.'

The meeting sat for about six weeks. At the end of that time it issued its never-to-be-forgotten Recommendation: the greatest document, I think, since the Sermon on the Mount. In language it isn’t so noteworthy, perhaps, though passages of it rise to eloquence; but in scope, and in range, and in its wonderful simplification of the profundities with which it deals, it is — I think — without any other rival. It began, as we all know, by pointing out the fact t hat in the coldest parts of Earth no fuel is used.

Races who live beyond the timber line [it said] never trouble about the fuel supply. They have none. There is no fuel of any sort for them, and so they keep warm without it. It is true that they burn a little oil for cooking and to dry their wet clothes; but they keep warm as their and our remotest fathers did, by animal heat. Like the cows in a northern farmer’s stable, like primitive man in the dark chill of his cave, they keep each other warm.

In any possible climatic changes of great extremity which may lie ahead of us, — for all is problematic, and we have been able to reach no conclusions in our recent sessions, — we too must be prepared above all things to keep each other alive; to keep each other warm. For this reason, animal heat, above all things, must be ‘preserved upon the earth.

To this, every business, every profession, every art, all other possible interests, callings, research, rights, privileges, profits, laws, treaties, and constitutions must give way. Neither national nor international, neither ecclesiastical nor racial interests can stand before this paramount human obligation.

Life must be cherished; and all things possible must be done that can enrich and invigorate and vitalize the common life. All that is good for us all must stay; all that is good for some and bad for others must go.

It then called upon scientific men everywhere to investigate—so far as they were equipped to do so — the possibilities of trekking on a large scale, and the possibilities, in sanitation and industry, of the equatorial lands.

‘And above all,’the Recommendation ended, ‘let Africa be studied. For Africa, in the last emergency of possible cold, must be the refuge of man and beast.'

There was something in this expression that especially caught the imagination of Americans. We got a sudden vivid picture of the White race fleeing from its pleasant temperate zone. It was a strange thought! And to think that they might flee to Africa! the Black Man’s Land, the Ice Age homestead, the one only huge-enough shelter from the on-coming cold! It was the strangest thing in the world to think of Europe and America forsaken, icebound, silent, glittering, and dead!

The Recommendation was broadcasted in thirty-seven languages. It was printed in thirty, and posted in every church, lodge, school, station, and public library; printed of course in all newspapers. It appeared early in August.

There was some bewilderment in Government offices when the Recommendation was first read there. Of course, such a proposition had never before challenged any Government. One elderly statesman who left his Alemoirs confesses that he felt that it was in some way beneath his dignity, and that of his colleagues, to be asked to take measures to invigorate and enliven the life of the ordinary man. ‘We seemed,’he writes, ‘ to be relegated to the mere functions of a Board of Health or a Welfare Bureau.’ Many others, who were only too anxious to act on the Recommendation as soon as it should be humanly possible, were appalled by the dimensions of the task. But above all loomed this immense difficulty: that there was nothing and nobody to work against. Effort in those days was almost wholly another word for fight; something was to be won ahead of others or in spite of them; or defended, when it had been won, from their attacks. Those were still we have to keep reminding ourselves — the ages of the Ruction Life.

However, there was one thing so obvious that no living man could miss it. Of all the furniture on Earth there was one kind most dangerous to life. Armament of every sort had become overnight unspeakably antiquated. The word sounded as faint and faraway as stagecoaches. Government officials could at least begin with that; and besides it was their most familiar material. They certainly showed no hesitation here. With a joyful alacrity, in fact, as of persons long awaiting permission to do so, they took immediate steps to destroy it. W ithin nine days — it has been computed — after the issuance of the Recommendation, the stores of explosives and poisonous chemicals accumulated by every civilized government since the L.C.W. had been treated with Antint3 and buried in lime and salt. There at last lay safely buried the means of poisoning every living fish; of sterilizing every field; shattering every city and town upon the globe; withering every forest; destroying every seed; eating out the heart of every root. There under lime lay the blight for enemy cows and the paralyzer for enemy chickens; the rot for enemy vegetables; the parasites for enemy cotton and corn; the ready-to-broadcast infections of diphtheria, croup, and infant paralysis for enemy children; the United States leprosy bombs; the English smallpox shells; and — the triumph of the French army chemists—the revival of the putrid plague.

(EDITOR’S NOTE. — The Interpretation had to be cut here. The rest of it was less valuable. It dealt chiefly with the gradual consolidation of all political parties on Earth into the international Workerscult and Ownerscult parties, which, as we all know, maintained their opposition for a long time. With all this we are familiar from our school histories; nor did our author present any of it in any new light. Nothing he could say of either Cult could show it otherwise, presumably, than as we all realize both these extinct parties were — the product, body and soul, of the btrenuous, or Ruction, Ages.)

Second Interpretation


OF course the present concert of human relations can’t be interpreted by itself, as a thing unconnected with previous history. History is all one piece; and whatever has been the prime cause of this great change and brightening of the life of man must bear some likeness to the causes of other great waves of human achievement. Any interpretation I might make would have to be related to some general scheme that fits Earth history as a whole.

Now my own interpretation of history as a whole is that from time to time a tide of brotherly love has swelled, mounted, and carried human life far up the beach of its great possibilities. Such a tide was early Buddhism, when, in its unadulterated strength, it turned the armies of Asoka, all flushed with conquest as they were, back to the planting of trees and the building of schools and the digging of wells. Such a tide was released by the first Franciscans, when they taught the Christian world not to be afraid to be happy, and released the exulting glories of the Renaissance. And such a tide, I think, brought in the Family Order and the Discipline of Delight; for I think Kate Cotton, her great convert and martyr, Alosha Ban, and the thousands of women who followed them, were the chief architects of the pleasant days we live in.

I even think, if it had n’t been for the Sharers, we should never have had the affectionate wit to think of the revival of Nomadry, but would still have been calling the natural Nomads among us by the stupid old name of ‘tramps,’ and dragging them into tobacco-smelling courtrooms with droning clocks, and there sentencing them to ten days in a greasy county jail. But for the Institute of Sharing, I believe we should still be witnessing the Ownerscult arrayed above the Workerscult in the hopeless endeavor to pacify their realization of inequality. And though the vast chemical armaments of the nations have been Antinted, and buried in coffins of lime, I believe that as soon as the Ice Age Bubble had been pricked by the news that volcanic dust could be gently and gradually precipitated by airplanes scattering adhesive steam, we might quite possibly have sneaked back, one set of temporary rulers after another, and begun to manufacture corroding and infecting germs once more, whereby to impose our wills upon each other.

I knew Kate Cotton personally. I more than once met — though I cannot say I really knew — Alosha Ban Telemark. I was myself only an Associate Sharer — a Sharer of the Outer Degree. But to have met with those impassioned women, to have felt the emanations of spiritual power that flooded round them, was to conceive once for all an overwhelming sense of the transforming energy of those flood tides of loving-kindness that are released upon the world by every actual reckless practice of the Inasmuch ideal.

Kate Cotton was a young matron in the city of Macon, Georgia, the mother of four little children, fond of music and of acting in French plays. The only remarkable thing she had ever done was to go to Serbia during the L.C.W. for relief work there. She was a thorough Southerner, a Georgian on both sides, and the daughter of a Confederate veteran.

There was a little society of young women in Macon in those days called the Helping Hand. They used to meet once a week or so to work for something that was needed in the town — usually something that was rather obviously needed. Sometimes they made clothes for families which the river floods had driven out of their dwellings on the Ocmulgee flats, and sometimes they arranged to send fruit and cakes to the prisoners in the jail. In other words, they were just such a society of amiable young creatures as existed in a thousand other places, and did just such little compassionate things to ease the screaming horrors of the Strenuous Age. In the early fall of 1928 they elected Kate Cotton president.

The legend is that she looked out of her window in the moonlight one night, and saw a few intoxicated white men driving by in six or seven automobiles, having a Black boy, with a rope round his neck, in the front car, and a coffin in the last one. This is a dramatized version of what really happened. The facts were that she read in the Macon Telegraph, at breakfast one morning, an account of a Black boy’s being lynched. It was n’t the first time she had heard of lynchings. As I said, she was a Georgian. She had felt shamed and sorrowful about them a great many times before. But this time she left her breakfast untasted and went to the telephone and called a meeting of the Helping Hand.

When she had us all in her parlor that afternoon, she told us that she would have to resign as president, because she would have to give all her time to another society she was going to start. She would start it, she said, even if no one else joined; but she knew that others would join. She thought it ought to be called the ‘Sharers,’ or some such name, because the idea she had in starting it was just to share trouble voluntarily with those who had it. The kinds of trouble she meant — she said — were the kinds that human beings let loose on each other; not the kinds we all together try to prevent, such as drought and fire and flood. She did n’t mention race hatred, or the Black race, by name.

Alosha Ban was there. She was a member of the Helping Hand and, of course, the most picturesque person in it, wearing, as she did, a modified Oriental dress, and remaining, as she did to the day of her death, a devout Mohammedan. She had married a Macon business man, Henry G. Telemark. It was said that he had met her on a trip to the Philippines. She was generally known as Mrs. Telemark, though she was something of a feminist and usually signed her maiden name. She had thick black hair, and very black eyes, that you might call gazing, or dwelling, eyes: eyes that never darted about from one thing to another, but seemed to dwell on everything, even as she passed it by. I remember that she looked at Kate with intense concentration that afternoon. She was the only one of us, I thought, that Kate seemed individually conscious of.

It was she, I think, who asked Kate to tell us exactly what she meant by ‘sharing.’

Kate said that she believed in the bottom of her heart that such troubles as she had spoken of ought to be shared in full, and to the bitter end. But so far as she herself was concerned, she had n’t the courage to do that. She thought there might be people who might join the Sharers, who would be pluckier than she was. Such people, she thought, might be called Sharers to the Death, or Last Degree Sharers.

Alosha Ban then, in a composed, even voice, asked: —

‘Do you mean that if a Black man, then, is lynched, a woman — of another race — should commit suicide?’

Kate, almost in a whisper, said ‘Yes.’

Voices instantly rose all round the room; scarcely one of us but was saying in varying ways, the same thing: ‘How could anyone possibly bring such horror and misery on her family?’

Kate did n’t speak. She was very pale.

Alosha Ban composedly said: ‘It would be just about like a soldier going away to fight. He brings horror and misery on his family.’

So much I remember as if it had happened yesterday. I don’t know why I’ve never written it down before. Since the death two years ago of Kate Cotton, no one else is left, I think, who was present at that meeting.

But the rest of it I don’t remember quite so well. I know that Kate must have sketched the Sharers of the Middle Degree, afterward called the Life Sharers, who would go to live — not for a little while, to see what it was like, but permanently — in the forlornest houses in their respective communities, in the dirtiest streets, with the worst drains. And I remember that whereas we had all been willing to consider, after an instant’s protest, the remote possibility that somebody, somewhere, might sometime die as a rebel against the custom of lynching, several of us now rose out of our chairs from the mere shock of such a thought as this of living in Negro streets; and most of us speaking at once as before, but louder, in a confusion of dissent, said that it would be harder than death itself to go and live in those places.

Kate laughed at that, and said oh no, it could n’t be worse than dying, because any Community could take its Sharers out at any moment, simply by cleaning up those streets and making them wholesome and pleasant.

‘We should be martyrs,’ she said, ‘only until our community decided that it did n’t want any martyrs.’

‘But you all can see from that,’I remember her saying, ‘what a coward I am. For I have n’t got even the courage to do that. All I’ve got the courage to do is to go and live in poor people’s streets for three months or so of every year. And I declare I don’t believe I’ve got the courage to take those three months in the summer.’

Even three cool months looked much too hard to the rest of us, and we all said so, except Alosha Ban. Two or three other women and I began trying to think of a still more moderate degree in which we could be sharers. For somehow none of us seemed to want to lay Kate’s challenge on the table, and go home and leave it there. Two or three said they would try to do what Kate did. And several of us worked out, that day, before we left the meeting, what came to be the Third or Associate Degree. Everyone knows, I suppose, what the Associate Sharers were: women who agreed to enter into the lives of the poor by symbol only. And we honestly felt that we were really sharing just by doing that.

We agreed that we would go into definite mourning for a short time every year for the hardships that survived in our community. For every increase in hardship that fell upon any class in our community, we would extend our time of mourning; and for every pleasantness added to the least pleasant lives among us, we would shorten the time.

I have told thus in detail about the meeting that epoch-making afternoon, partly because my recollections are so much more concrete than the usual accounts, but more because I think the multitudes of women who responded to us in the outside world divided just about as we did that afternoon into the various degrees of Sharers. For every Death Degree, or Life Degree, Sharer, there were perhaps two of the Season Sharers and half a dozen of the Associates. But of course these distinctions were anything but formal or fixed. Season Sharers blended into Life Sharers, and Life and Death Sharers often merged together, and there was about the history of the Institute from its foundation the informal spontaneous growth of things in nature, rather than of those that are manufactured.

So far as I can remember, nothing about all this appeared in the papers until, in the course of six weeks or so, Kate Cotton moved out of her pleasant Vineville Avenue house into one of the little streets where the working race lived. She left her children in charge of their grandmother, just as she had done when she went to Serbia. How homely and simple a movement the Sharers’ was — arranged to suit housekeeping women, and managed from hand to mouth by common-sense. Kate was only two blocks away from her family, after all. She moved into a small tenement her husband owned, with a peach tree on each side of the door. It had two rooms. I went to see her there, and she was doing her washing in a kettle in the sandy backyard, just as Black women had done it for her for thirty years.

But now, within twenty-four hours, what she had done was in the Atlanta papers. From them it was copied into papers all over the State. For a few weeks she was overwhelmed with reporters and with visitors. But even in those earliest limelight days there was always somebody among the visitors who had come really wanting to join her ‘order.’ And though a few curiosity-seekers came to see us Associates too, many more came who were interested: surprisingly many. There were not a few who really wanted to find some expression for their own sisterly sense of unrest about the poor, who thought our way might prove theirs.

I believe it’s almost impossible to overestimate the amount of talk that was going on by this time about Kate’s little movement. Of course at first the principal interest was among the Southern women. It seemed to be a White woman’s undertaking at first, but very soon Negro teachers and authors living in the North began asking to be enrolled, and came back to the South, giving up their positions and careers and losing themselves in Sharing. Almost without exception, these Black Sharers took the Life Degree.

Sharers appeared in Europe almost as soon as they did in New York, where at first the Sharing principle was understood to be a variation of the Settlement idea. It was the New York Sharers who amalgamated with that young people’s exodus, which had begun years before, out from the Ownerscult into the more adventurous kinds of work. As early as the teens of the twentieth century there had begun to be such an exodus, at first in vacations chiefly, when the sons and daughters of the Owners went into the factories or mines, or as stewards and stewardesses on lake and ocean vessels, from June until October. This was probably the reason why the Sharers attained to such a comparatively enormous growth in the colleges.

Before the end of the winter the American newspapers published accounts of Sharers forming in China. I am not sure whether those first Chinese Sharers were the same reckless and ingenious women who locked themselves into their cellars in order to share the lot of malefactors in the Chinese prisons or whether the Prison Sharers’ movement came later. This variety of Sharer soon spread, for as early as the spring of 1930 I heard of Prison Sharers in Ireland. Ireland, indeed, was where the Prison Sharers carried their campaign to the greatest heights of devotion, imprisoning themselves in area-enclosures on the streets, and hungerstriking with the hungerstrikers.

But this was after Alosha Ban’s death. No historian of the Sharers could ever estimate the course the movement would have taken without that most grisly and effective use to which Alosha Ban decided to put her body. Many critics of the movement think it would have been vastly more effective if it had been less ‘theatrical.’ In the opinion of these judges, the selfmartyrdom of Alosha Ban was the match that touched off the movement into what they call a ‘bonfire.’ It is impossible for me to form any judgment. I was myself, and still am, too much under the dreadful glamour of her death to think of the Sharers without it. I feel that without Alosha Ban the Sharers would have been more reasonable. But would more reason have made them more effective? The Ice Age Bubble was swelling before our eyes at the very time when she put herself to death in that most fearful fashion. Who can say what the thrill of wonder and of horror at her death might have done, or not have done, without the mingled sense of wonder and of dread that was current at that time, about the future of this planet and of the whole race of man ?

The Telemarks had moved to Texas shortly after the Sharers had been organized. I think they went first to Fort Worth, and then to Waco. I knew of their being in Waco as early as January 1929. There Mr. Telemark fell in with two or three old friends of his, whom he had not seen since bachelor days. He now began to see a great deal of these old friends. The newspaper accounts of Alosha Ban’s death said that he had been out very late on the previous night, and that one at least of those old friends of his was believed to have taken part in the horrible lynching of Henry Major. Henry Major was burned alive that night, in the presence of a large crowd of spectators. He was an elderly Negro of poor reputation, who was accused of having spoken familiarly to a young white woman, and was believed to have intended to assault her. He struck the young woman’s father when accused by him.

The certain facts about Alosha Ban are that she disappeared from her home on the afternoon following the lynching, and that her burnt and blackened body was found lashed with wires to a broken fence-rail close beside the body of the burned Negro. It was found by a party of sightseers who had gone out on the second morning after, to view the spot. It is thought that she had soaked her clothes with kerosene. In the afternoon of the second day following her disappearance, Kate Cotton received a letter from her, which had been postmarked on the day of her disappearance. It said in a few words that she had from the first resolved to be a Death Sharer, but had concealed her intentions for fear of interference with her plans.

She added, ‘Will not some other white woman, especially some young and happy woman, share as I do the death of the next man lynched in her community? I leave my fellow women this in trust.’

The letter closed with saying, —

‘Death perhaps is not so terrible to an Oriental. Mohammedans are vividly aware of Paradise.’

Kate instantly gave out the letter for publication. Immediately she found herself the centre of a storm of condemnation from parents and clergymen and others for giving out the letter. They also bitterly condemned the newspapers for printing it. Others again condemned these clergymen and parents for calling any further attention to the letter and the suicide; and for some time there raged a considerable dispute as to how best to consign the letter to oblivion. Alosha Ban was everywhere condemned as a fanatic, a monster of asceticism, indeed a maniac.

Among the young women of all lands whose imaginations were fired to fever heat by her death and challenge was a young Frenchwoman, a student of medicine at the Sorbonne. This young woman as a child had known Jean Jaurès and she had seen him on the very day of his assassination. It had affected her strongly, and she had been considered peculiar ever since.

This Marie-Jeanne Fischer now called together some of her friends and colleagues and they banded themselves into an order exclusively of the Death Degree, to share the extremities of war. Their vow was that for every person ever killed by the French army in war, whether by direct slaughter or by blockade, one of them would die in imitation of the death of that other, ‘so long,’ their manifesto declared, ‘as our little numbers last.’

This, and not the Argentine legend, was the beginning of that wild order of Enemy Death Sharers, which within six months had its hundreds of members in Germany, Italy, and France, its thousands in Japan and India (twelve thousand, it used to be thought, in Burmah alone), and its smaller, but still determined, groups in the Anglo-Saxon countries. There were, I have been told, about two thousand in Mexico and South America combined. What lent the most terrible power to the order was its practice of keeping its list of members secret and merely announcing the total number in the country, and the pledge they had taken. Though they are often accused of having published vastly swollen estimates of their numbers, and of joining without intending to do more than scare the Government, subsequent investigations of their records seem to bear out the original statements pretty well. No doubt, if they had been put to the dreadful test, many would have faltered and left the order. But what anxious father could be sure that his daughter was not among the steadfast few who would not falter?

I almost wish the Recommendation of the Rio meeting might have been delayed a year or two, so that the world might have seen what the Sharers could accomplish. For consider what they had already done. Housing improvements in England and America were already immense, even before the Rio meeting. No one denies that the prisons of the Orient, in general were greatly improved — and few deny that the protest of the Chinese women had been the means of it. Personally I believe the Sharers would have ended war without any Recommendation at all.

Imagine a young married man going off to war, suspecting that his wife intended to imitate by her own death the death of the first man she could discover that he had killed. Imagine a general in the army having one of his own daughters forcibly fed while he was carrying out a punitive blockade against some rebellious subject tribe in Africa!

Ah well! it is easier, in these days, to imagine that than to imagine the Frenchman going to war without any protest from his wife and fellow countrywomen, or the British or German general embarked on his punitive expedition with the applause of his gentle daughters. And what matter, now, who ended war, or how, or who made the dismal streets gay and embellished the less comely lives among us, and established the unwritten constitution of the Family Order, ‘To everyone according to his need.’

And yet I think, in the bottom of my heart, that it does matter, for the sake of the unborn, whether we composed ourselves into this family life together because of the breath of an iceberg blowing over us, or because of a great illumination of illogical and immeasurable sisterly love.

  1. Last Christian War.
  2. Compiled by forty scholars of the Black, White, and Yellow races.
  3. So named from a combination of the prefix and, and the popularized chemical name of the violent early explosive TNT.