I saw the competition pop up on my IG thread, and the theme of love caught my eye immediately. Being that I am a woman known for always speaking about love and pride myself in how I love people, there was no question on whether I would enter the poetry contest. In addition, I had already written a poem on love and initially submitted that poem because I was not sure if I would have enough time to create a new poem. However, after submitting my first poem, I read how participants could submit two poems and the challenge to us poets to look beyond the normal description of love we often see in poetry. This forced me to visualize all the different perspectives of love.
I love it. What do you love most about poetry?
I love that poetry takes on a life of its own. It can be a song, a narrative, a teacher, a friend, a love letter, a movement, etc. It has its own language to the reader because poetry is personal. It not only speaks to us, but it has the power to move us individually in various ways as if it knows each of us intimately. Does that make sense?
Yes, it does! How did you get started writing?
I started writing when I was very young- it was my escape, and writing was my voice. Although I was outgoing and never had a problem with talking, I struggled with my identity (being understood), so my journals were the only place where I could be myself. I loved how words had the ability to say what I wanted to express vocally. In short, when I wrote, I was free to be me, raw and unapologetic.
You are an author. What has that journey been like for you?
I have to say exciting! I love to hear how something I wrote transformed or inspired someone, which is mostly the core of my writing. But it is also hard because if you are not an established author, it is hard to get your work out there when you are self-published. I had to decide to enjoy the journey no matter what, but your greatest desire is for your work to be read as an author—the journey itself has also been an adventurous teacher. There have been many doors of opportunities that opened for me that I never imagined. For example, my book has been used as a resource in a business. I also use my book as a resource in my work as an encouragement coach, not to mention the speaking opportunities.
You are doing such excellent work. I love it.
As I mentioned earlier, you challenged me. That challenge forced me to look inwardly beyond the “emotion of love” beyond “conceptualizing love,” and I was able to see love in ways that superseded my surface emotions and mental awareness. Realizing that love has always been present, but we are often unaware of its presence. I can admit, I didn’t recognize or appreciate it when I was younger because I allowed others to define love for me.
So, I wanted to give tribute to that type of love and the givers of such love. When they gave, they gave all they had. So as the memories washed over me, I began to write, and it flowed from my being. I saw faces- my mother, grandmother, neighbors, friends. I saw our ancestors, their scarred backs, and forgotten history. When I finished, there was joy and sadness within my heart, and I was proud and, without a second thought, submitted it. It deserved to be read even if I didn’t win. I wrote this poem quickly as the memories washed over me.
That’s beautiful and I can tell you put a lot of thought behind your poem. It’s deep and relatable. I felt right away how set-apart your poem was from the beginning.
What would you say is your writing strength and weakness?
My strength is that I can create a piece quickly. If I am passionate about a topic, the creativity flows. I also love taking chances as a writer, even if I am uncertain if I can write about a particular topic or theme. I put myself out there! I believe it is because I know myself, so I am no longer writing to be affirmed as a writer. I fell in love with my voice, whether written or verbal.
Wait a minute. Sis said, “I know myself, so I am no longer writing to be affirmed as a writer.” That’s a bar.
Okay, go on, lol.
My weakness. Wow, there are two that come to mind. The short one is learning to get out of my head to fully unlock the untapped potential and creativity that I know I have. My second weakness is more of a past weakness, which is fear because it hindered my writing for so long.
I love it! And I think it’s what sets you apart. Are you working on any writing projects/books?
I am currently a full-time student, so I only take on small writing projects for people, such as writing personalized poetry pieces or short stories for birthdays, events, or special projects.
Oh, that’s cool!
I have more books in me, but I am trying to get through these last two years of schooling. I recently, right before school started, for the first time, had the opportunity to work on a script project for a short series, and I can’t wait to see where it goes. There are still more episodes to be written, and I hope I have the time to be on the rest of the project. I will say this, scriptwriting gave me a new desire to write a fictional book and maybe dabble even more into scriptwriting for films.
Yes! I see it.
Where do you see yourself a year from now?
On my last year of college, celebrating being a writer on the series project I mentioned earlier and seeing it on Netflix or Hulu. My book being not only in other states but other countries and being a best seller. I want to impact more lives through my encouragement, coaching, and writings, and I expect more unexpected opportunities that blow my mind! I am also a huge supporter, so I want to be in a position to help beginner writers in whatever way I can.
That all sounds amazing and I pray you go as far as you are destined to.
And without further ado, I introduce to you “Love Is,” by Tiffany James
Love is distinctively woven into the fabric of our being experienced through the ordinary each day a silent wave of an old memory washing over us; a segue to our humanity.
Love is home, love is grandma’s baby love is survival and hustling; cleaning toilets, scrubbing floors, changing diapers, washing clothes by hand, and layaway plans.
Love is spiritual; a scared village, the spirit’s libation, broken history, and love is migration love is food stamps, government cheese, grits with sugar, and collard greens love is the sand between my toes.
Love is the prize at the bottom of the crackerjack box, love is hopscotch, and double-dutch love is afro-puffs, two French braids and your first French kiss love is overtime, colored easter eggs, Santa Claus tales, and hand-me-downs.
Love is that switch from the tree, love is praying hands and bended knees love is loud, silent, large, small, and intriguingly complex —Love is Proud love is scarred backs and stubborn roots —old hymns and sung negro spirituals.
Love is “I told you so” love is easy like Sunday morning love is Betty Wright, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and Patti LaBelle; a brilliant collaboration of lyrical hands fighting for the same devotion because love is Soul Train.
Love is rich soil to the soul love is fearless laughter, getting up at 6am, sleepless nights, untold stories and second chances love is the ancestors’ wisdom —the great orator and the greatest debater.
Love is underestimated, yet chosen love is fierce; righteously angry, patient, and sacrificial — it is the caged bird singing love is the paint, painter, and work of art.
Love is a savior —the hero’s journey Love is amazing grace Love is wealth, life, and death.
Love is not weak; it bows down to no one yet surrenders itself to everyone by its own authority — love is badass. Every time I close my eyes, I witness love.
Love is distinctively woven into the fabric of our being. experienced through the ordinary each day
Today wraps up our poet spotlight for the 4th Annual Poetry Contest. I want to thank everyone who has participated and supported our poets this year. If you want to help coordinate or sponsor next year’s contest, please reach out to me at email@example.com. I love hosting these contests, but I can’t do it without your help.
Congratulations again to all our poets!!
You can find their bios on the dedicated page for year four.
“Beginning in about 1890 and continuing until 1968, white Americans established thousands of towns across the United States for whites only. Many towns drove out their black populations, then posted sundown signs.” – James W. Lowen
When I first published this article in 2017, I got much controversy about it. I didn’t take it personally for two reasons. First, very little literature covers sundown towns, and not much is said about it in the limited topics covered during black history month.
The other reason is, although these towns were known as sundown towns, the people of the town did not call it that. It was only a well-known fact that some blacks were not allowed in some towns, and if they visited, they had better leave before the sun sets or risk lynching. Therefore, when I wrote about it, some people thought I was making it up.
This past week, I posted this image to my Instagram, and I was surprised to see how many more people had not heard of this. For this reason, today, we are revisiting our black history fun fact on sundown towns.
“Is it true that ‘Anna’ stands for ‘Ain’t No Niggers Allowed’?” I asked at the convenience store in Anna, Illinois, where I had stopped to buy coffee. “Yes,” the clerk replied. “That’s sad, isn’t it,” she added, distancing herself from the policy. And she went on to assure me, “That all happened a long time ago.” “I understand [racial exclusion] is still going on?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. “That’s sad.”—conversation with clerk, Anna, Illinois, October 2001.
Anna, Illinois, was named after the daughter of the town’s founder but got its more derogatory name after the 1909 lynching of a black man in Cairo, IL, and the mob of angry white citizens who drove out Anna’s 40 or so black families following the lynching. It is at this point that Anna, IL became a sundown town.
A sundown town is a town with an exclusive population of non-whites on purpose. They are towns with overwhelming populations of non-whites and are so deliberately. Sundown towns were also known as “Sunset Towns.”
“A sundown town town is an organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus “all-white” on purpose.”
Side Note: In the black community, black kids are constantly warned to “come in the house when the street lights come on,” so many of us had to be in the house before the sunset. I wonder if Sundown Towns had something to do with this. Not to say black parents are the only ones with this command, but it’s food for thought.
Although signs were posted, forced exclusion was also implemented:
“There were also race riots in which white mobs attacked black neighborhoods, burning, looting, and killing. Across America, at least 50 towns, and probably many more than that, drove out their African American populations violently. At least 16 did so in Illinois alone. In the West, another 50 or more towns drove out their Chinese American populations. Many other sundown towns and suburbs used violence to keep out blacks or, sometimes, other minorities.”
– America’s Black Holocaust Museum, James W. Loewen, PhD; Fran Kaplan, EdD; and Robert Smith, PhD
Sundown towns began after slavery and the Civil War when blacks left the plantations and poured into every city and corner of the country. This was followed by the system we know as Jim Crow.
Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the southern and northern United States to keep blacks in a state of servitude. It included having to look down and step to the side when a white person walked by, drinking from separate water fountains, entering the rear of the bus, sitting in the balcony of the movie theater (which came to be known as “Nigger Heaven,”), attending separate schools, and more.
While Jim Crow and segregation are most notably known as a southern practice (“The Jim Crow South”), it also existed in the north. In fact, many parts of the north were more segregated than the south, and when it comes to Sundown Towns, these communities mainly existed in the north as the Great Migration brought floods of blacks into northern cities. Many suburbs to this day are mostly white because they were either part of redlining -the systematic denial of various services to black residents either explicitly or through the selective raising of prices – or its white residents ran its black residents out of town, and the descendants of those people kept it that way.
I’ll use Chicago as an example, still one of the most segregated cities in America. Yes, I said Chicago. Remember, we started this conversation with Anna (“Ain’t No Negroes Allowed”), Illinois.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Chicago in 1966 due to the high poverty rate in black neighborhoods and rented an apartment on the west side. He was there as part of what he would call The Poor People’s Campaign and the Freedom Movement. On August 5, 1966, King led a march through Cicero, an all-white district, and was hit in the head with a rock by members of the angry mob.
Years later (the early 80s), my brother-in-law and his friends would be chased out of this same area, racial slurs hitting their backs as they rode their bikes out of Cicero.
This statue below is of Orville Hubbard, which sits outside of the City Hall in Dearborn, Michigan, was the cause of much controversy when people started to learn more about his past.
Hubbard was the mayor of the then all-white suburban town outside of Detroit from 1942 to 1978 and, in a 1969 speech acquired by the New York Times, said that “If whites didn’t want to live with N–they sure didn’t have to.” He went on to say this was a free country, and this was America.
“City police cars bore the slogan ‘Keep Dearborn Clean,’ which was a catch phrase meaning ‘Keep Dearborn White,’ ” according to David Good, a lifelong resident of the city who is the author of ‘‘Orvie: The Dictator of Dearborn,” a biography of Mayor Hubbard.
“Out here in Dearborn where some real Ku Klux Klans live. I know Dearborn, you know I’m from Detroit, used to live out there in Easten. And you had to go through Dearborn to get to Easten. Just like riding through Mississippi once you got to Dearborn.” – Malcolm X
Over time the name “Sundown-town” faded, but Sundown Suburbs still exist. A sundown suburb is a discrete way in which Sundown-towns live today when large white populations migrate to the suburban part of the city with the express purpose of separating themselves from the minority population. We can see this in our Cicero example.
An Instagram video inspired today’s post, where a group of young black people engaged in a debate about whether light skin blacks are treated better than dark skin blacks. This debate spun out of control and eventually led to a full-blown argument that made it difficult for the viewer to comprehend what each party said. In the young people’s voice was a lot of hurt and pain. The caption on the video read: “Does Light-Skin Privilege Exist in America?”
Not to bestow to Willie Lynch any gift of prophecy, but when he said to “pitch the light-skin slave against the dark-skin slave and the dark-skin slave against the light skin-slave,” it was as if he c-sectioned the calendar and saw color bias in black people’s future.
Even if one does not wholly believe The Willie Lynch Letter is entirely accurate, one cannot ignore the Black community’s divisions based on skin color in a way that is strangely accurate to William’s letter. To add to this, Willie Lynch did not say these divisions will help for a few days, weeks, and months. In 1712, William Lynch said that if implemented “properly,” slave owners could expect these divisions to keep the blacks mentally enslaved and divided for generations.
It is 2021, but skin-tone is still an important physical characteristic among some black people that sometimes cause divisions in the black community. Historically, people immediately noticed a black person’s skin-tone and recognized it as a critical component in joining churches, fraternities and sororities, and other social interactions. Throughout history, variations in skin tone have reflected social status and hierarchies. The most notable social experiment was the paper bag test, used widely among African Americans to determine inclusion in certain activities and groups.
The Brown Paper Bag Test
The Brown Paper Bag Test, known widely as “The Paper bag Test,” was a form of racial discrimination practiced within the African-American community in the 20th century by comparing an individual’s skin tone to a brown color paper bag.
If a person’s skin tone matched or was lighter than the brown bag, they would be more likely to be accepted than a person whose skin tone was darker than the paper bag.
Many famous black clubs and social organizations used this test to determine membership, including churches and employers.
The Lighter the Skin, the Better the Chances
In Spike Lee’s movie, School Daze, two groups of black sorority women are at odds over which group’s hair and skin color are best. In the film, the Gamma Rays had to be “paper bag light.”
The Alpha Kappa Alpha Brown Paper Bag Test
A letter from 1928, written by sophomore Edward H. Taylor, at Howard University discusses the Alpha Kappa Alpha brown paper bag test and colorism. Watch the Yard details the statements made in the student newspaper “The Hilltop.” Watch the Yard said the article:
“accused fraternities of “splitting the various classes into groups of different shades — yellow, brown, and black.” According to Taylor, “The light-skinned students are sought after by the fraternities and sororities, particularly the latter, as members and the dark ones passed by. The darker brown students then form their own cliques while the blacks are left in the cold.”
Jack and Jill Brown Paper Bag Test
Jack and Jill of America was established in 1938 with a mission of “nurturing future African American leaders by strengthening children through leadership development, volunteer service, philanthropic giving, and civic duty.”
But an article from the Pittsburg Courier says Jack and Jill has seen its share of negative press from the Black community over the last 81 years. Similar to African-American sororities and fraternities, in the early years, Jack and Jill had a reputation of only being for elite “light-skinned Blacks”. The article says:
“some Blacks saw it as open only to those who had ‘good hair’ and were able to pass ‘the paper-bag test.’”
Resumes Used to Emphasize “Light Colored”
Nadra Kareen Little from ThoughtCo. discussed colorism in her article about skin tone discrimination. The article said:
“Colorism didn’t disappear after the institution of slavery ended in the U.S. In black America, those with light skin received employment opportunities off-limits to darker-skinned blacks. This is why upper-class families in black society were largely light-skinned.”
Her article mentions a writer Brent Staples who discovered this while searching newspaper archives near the Pennsylvania town where he grew up. She said:
“In the 1940s, he noticed, Black job seekers often identified themselves as light-skinned. Cooks, chauffeurs, and waitresses sometimes listed ‘light colored’ as the primary qualification—ahead of experience, references, and the other important data. They did it to improve their chances and to reassure white employers who…found dark skin unpleasant or believed that their customers would.”
Article from the NY Times that gave an example of a job ad from the 1950s that specifically requested applicants with light-colored skin.
“The owner of Chock full o’ Nuts, a white man named William Black, advertised in the tabloids for ‘light colored counter help.’
Advertising jobs for people with lighter skin or “Eurocentric” features is no longer legal or acceptable when doing business, but research shows that these preferences still play a role in our society. The same NY Times article reported that:
“Researchers tell us that it affects how people vote; who appears in Hollywood movies and television news shows; who gets hired and promoted in corporate America; and even who gets executed for murder.”
“Passing is a deception that enables a person to adopt certain roles or identities from which prevailing social standards would bar him in the absence of his misleading conduct. The classic racial passer in the United States has been the “white Negro:” the individual whose physical appearance allows him to present himself as “white” but whose “black” lineage makes him a Negro according to dominant racial rules.”
– Randall Kennedy, Racial Passing
Racial passing was a common practice among lighter-skinned African Americans and is the focal point of book two of The Stella Trilogy, where Stella changes her name to Sidney McNair, marries a white man, and has biracial children whom she raises as white. This narrative is taken directly from historical accounts of light-skin blacks (mixed or not) passing and living their lives as Europeans.
As a child of a white mother and a light-skinned black man, Gregory Howard Williams was a person who assumed that he was white because his parents pretended to be white. Not until he was ten years old, when his parents divorced, did Williams and his brother learn that they were black.
Many lighter-skinned blacks pretended or classified themselves as white in the US, which gave them access to the rights and opportunities that other blacks could not enjoy. In the image we see here, Dr. Albert Johnston passed to practice medicine. After living as leading citizens in Keene, N.H., the Johnstons revealed their true racial identity and became national news.
For Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs, a similar situation occurred where she discovered a cousin she had never met. This cousin lived in California as a white woman from her mother’s instruction, who sent her away from Chicago many years ago. The mother thought her daughter would have the best chance of success living as a white woman.
“She was black, but she looked white,” Hobbs said. “And her mother decided it was in her best interest to move far away from Chicago, to Los Angeles, and to assume the life of a white woman.”
This came around and bit the mother when her husband died and her daughter, now fully immersed in her life, said that she would not attend the funeral, saying, “I can’t. I’m a white woman now.”
The most famous instance is probably art imitating life in the 1934 film “Imitation of Life,” starring Fredi Washington playing a black woman who passes as white. They made this movie at a time where passing was a widespread practice for fair-skinned blacks. They remade this film in 1959.
Colorism is prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group, where lighter-skin is treated more favorably than darker skin. The brown paper bag test was used to determine who was acceptable and not based on colorism or color bias. When darker-skinned blacks bleach their skins or attempt to look lighter for the special treatment given to lighter skin (such as to join an organization), it is like passing.
While this is fading as dark skin is becoming more and more appreciated, that video of those young people arguing is proof there is still some work to do.
In the latest Mixed-Ish episode, Johan (pronounced Yohan) allowed his peers to think he was Mexican, thus passing for Mexican. Alicia’s sister Denise’s remark that Rainbow’s parents had indirectly caused this by living in a community where race, specifically blackness, was not discussed or considered has some truth to it. People think that by saying, “I don’t see race,” this is a compliment, but it is not. The one who does not see race also does not see racism.
“You all taught that poor boy of being ashamed of being black. You took him to that commune where…nobody talked about race, and that taught him not to be proud of his blackness.”
Why is there truth to this? Because one cannot be proud of what one does not know exists. If Johan does not know what it means to be black and all his people’s rich experiences, how can he see the shame in not telling his peers who he really is? Johan allowed his peers to think he was Mexican because he does not fully understand who he is as a black boy.
[Side Note: Can someone explain to me why they chose The Color Purple as the movie to help a black boy understand blackness? I can think of tons of movies from the 80s that are better suited to teach blackness to black children. The Color Purple ain’t one of them. They could have put on Cornbread, Earl, and Me.]
It turned out the kid who called Johan the racist Mexican slur was also black. This is another example of color bias within the African American community. Now, whether the child understood Johan to be black reflects the school system and the lack of representation of black people and black history. Contrary to the popular myth, not all light-skinned black people are mixed. Blacks produce a variety of skin-tones within the race, but that is a topic for a different day.
All Black is Beautiful
Today, “Blackness” (black skin) is promoted in pop culture. I hate to say it this way, but “dark-skin is in.”
With actresses like Daniel Kaluuya and Lupita Amondi Nyong’o, people once looked down on for being “ugly” for their dark skin tone (“too dark”) are now looked upon as being sexy, beautiful, and exotic. Dark skin is now socially acceptable, highly praised, and elevated, among many now seeing the beauty of brown skin.
While this is not a bad thing, the hope is that it has not become some fad in which dark-skin is fetishized. We would not want a reversal of the paper bag test in which light-skinned blacks are looked down on in the way dark-skinned blacks have always been. Blackness is not a trend that goes in and out of style and should not be treated as such.
The message here should be that all black is beautiful, no matter the shade.
I love entrepreneurship. I talk about it. I live it. I stand behind it. I encourage all people, especially black people, to go on and do it if it is within their means to do so. If you’ve ever had a desire to own your own business, I say to go for it.
Here are some black-owned communities that prospered to get your blood pumping.
Free Blacks of Israel Hill
This community was the inspiration for the backstory of Renaissance: The Nora White Story. Nora is a descendent of the free blacks of Israel Hill. It is how her father Gideon inherited five acres of land and why, although Nora’s not very impressed, they’re doing well financially compared to those around them. It was during my trip to New Mexico in 2016 while reading Melvin Patrick Ely’s book Israel on The Appomattox, winner of THE BANCROFT PRIZE, A New York Times Book Review, and Atlantic Monthly Editors’ Choice that the first inklings of the back story emerged.
The community was settled in Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1810-1811 by ninety formerly enslaved persons. These slaves (now freedmen) received freedom and 350 acres from Judith Randolph under the will of her husband, Richard Randolph. These Israelites and other free Blacks worked as farmers, craftspeople, and Appomattox River boatmen. Some labored alongside whites for equal wages, and the family of early settler Hercules White bought and sold real estate in Farmville. Israel Hill remained a vibrant black community into the twentieth century.
The Rosewood community came back into people’s consciousness when John Singleton made a movie for it starring Ving Rhames in 1997. The quiet town prospered in 1870 when a railway depot was set up to transport the abundant red cedar, from which the town got its name, from Rosewood to a pencil factory in cedar key. By 1900 it was predominantly Black with a school, turpentine mill, baseball team, general store, and sugarcane mill. The community had two dozen plank two-story homes, some other small houses, and several small unoccupied plank structures.
There was much revelation during my New Mexico trip. During that time, I learned of Blackdom, another little-known Black community about 18 miles southwest of Roswell, New Mexico, and was founded by Frank and Ella Boyer. Walking 2,000 miles on foot from Georgia to New Mexico, Boyer left his wife and children behind to cultivate land in the West’s free territory before sending his family some three years later. At this time in history, Blacks had begun migrating from the south in significant numbers in a movement called “The Great Exodus” following the Homestead Act of 1862, particularly in Kansas. Henry was a wagoner in the American-Mexican war when he first set eyes on the New Mexico land. The Artesian Water sprang in abundance as more and more blacks were invited and nourished on the land. Blackdom had its own school and post office.
Mound Bayou, MS
The first all-black town in Mississippi, Mound Bayou was founded by two former slaves, Isaiah Montgomery and his cousin, Benjamin Green. In December of 1886, according to a Cleveland Mississippi article of July 1887, Montgomery and Green bought 840 acres of land from the Louisville-New Orleans & Texas Railroad for $7 an acre. That acreage would serve as the site of Mound Bayou.
The men were successful, reaching a population of 4,000 people (99.6 percent black) by 1907. The community had a train depot, a bank, a post office, numerous thriving industries, various stores and eateries, a newspaper, a telephone exchange, and, eventually, a hospital. Mound Bayou was a flourishing community.
Nicodemus Township in Graham County, Kansas
This town was founded in 1877 by seven members, six of whom were Black along the south fork of the Solomon River. Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a former slave and Underground Railroad conductor, helped produce the “Kansas Fever” of the late 1870s. Tens of thousands of African Americans left their homes headed for Singleton’s Cherokee County colony or Nicodemus, in Graham County, Kansas.
Promoted as the “Promised Land” throughout the south, founders hosted visits by potential settlers. By 1879 the town’s population stood at about 700.
The All-Black Community of Boley, Oklahoma
The all-black community of Boley, OK, was founded in 1904. With Railroad access and land that helped, Boley became one of at least 20 Black towns in Oklahoma to thrive. By 1907, it had at least 1,000 residents, and twice that many farmers settled outside of town. There were several businesses and an industrial school.
Fort, Mose, Florida
Located just north of St. Augustine, Fort Mose was the first free black settlement in what is now the United States. King Charles II of Spain issued what would become one of the first proclamations that any male slave on an English Plantation who escaped to Spanish Florida would be granted freedom if he joined the Militia and converted to catholicism. We see this a lot throughout history. Whether we are talking Catholicism, Islam, or Christianity, none of these religions had anything to do with the black man, woman, and child’s natural Israelite way of life (Muhammad converted blacks to Islam a thousand years before the Europeans came with Christianity.)
In any event, by 1738, there were hundreds of blacks, mostly runaways from the Carolinas, living in what became Fort Mose. They were skilled workers, blacksmiths, carpenters, cattlemen, boatmen, and farmers. They created a colony of freed people with accompanying women and children that ultimately attracted other fugitive slaves.
There were over twenty black communities in Oklahoma.
Greenwood, a neighborhood in North Tulsa, Oklahoma, was one of the most successful and wealthiest black communities in the United States during the early 20th Century. It was popularly known as America’s “Black Wall Street” due to its financial success that mirrored Wall Street. During the oil boom of the 1910s, which gained the town such titles as “Oil Capital of the World”, the area of northeast Oklahoma around Tulsa flourished, including the Greenwood neighborhood. Home to several prominent Black business people, the community held many multimillionaires.
Greenwood had grocery stores, clothing stores, barbershops, banks, hotels, cafes, movie theaters, two newspapers, and many contemporary homes. The dollar circulated thirty-six to one-hundred times, which means that sometimes it took up to a year before the dollar left the community. To put this in perspective: today, the black dollar leave the black community in fifteen minutes.
This week, I spoke briefly on Dr. George Cleveland Hall, for whom the Hall Public Library in Chicago is named. I talked about the Hall Branch as the place I got my first library card and all the historical things I didn’t know that happened there. To read this post, click here.
Today, we are digging a little deeper into this man’s background, Dr. George Cleveland Hall.
As I dug into his story, I found Hall was a pretty big deal, and I am surprised there isn’t more information on him because this man was phenomenal and a significant influence on Chicago.
Dr. George Cleveland Hall was born on February 22, 1864. Not only was Cleveland a doctor, but he was also head of the Urban League and “one of the five founding members and the first president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), currently known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).” (William Smither)
In 1886, Hall graduated from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University and studied medicine at Bennett Medical College and in 1896 graduated from Harvey Medical College.
Cleveland was a surgeon at Provident Hospital, the first private hospital in the state of Illinois to provide internship opportunities for black physicians, the first to establish a school of nursing to train black women, one of the first black hospitals to offer postgraduate courses and residences for black physicians, and the first black hospital approved by the American College of Surgeons for full graduate training in surgery.
In 1911 Cleveland founded the Cook County Physicians’ Association of Chicago, the organization of black doctors in the city.
But Dr. Hall’s significant influence on Chicago was not just about his expertise in the medical field. He is actually most known for his civic duty and grassroots work. In 1915, he joined Carter G. Woodson and others in the founding of the ASALH at the Wabash YMCA in historical Bronzeville.
I cannot believe I have not heard of Dr. Hall before. His contribution to black history and medicine is groundbreaking. He is right up there with Carter G. Woodson and then some. Hall also had a close relationship with Booker T. Washington.
Cleveland received two honorary degrees, one from Lincoln University for Doctors of Laws and another from Howard for Doctor of Science. He became the first black Chicagoan appointed to the board of directors for the Chicago Public Library.
Dr. George Cleveland Hall died at sixty-six in 1930.
On January 18, 1932, Chicago city officials dedicated the George Cleveland Hall Library to Dr. Hall, the first full-service library on the city’s Southside.
This is the same library where I received my first library card.
Today, she provides insight into the book, To Shoot Hard Labour: The Life and Times of Samuel Smith, an Antiguan Workingman 1877-1982.
A Long Preamble
The full title of To Shoot Hard Labour, which I was first introduced to as a secondary school student and have referenced in the years since, is To Shoot Hard Labour: The Life and Times of Samuel Smith, an Antiguan Workingman 1877-1982 (first printing 1986).
You may immediately pick up that the title structure is reminiscent of the true-to-life literary genre known as the slave narrative. Famous examples of which include Twelve Years a Slave, Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New York, kidnapped in Washington City in 1841 and rescued in 1853 from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River in Louisiana (published 1859). Additionally, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by himself (published 1845 by the anti-slavery office in Boston); and The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, related by Herself (published in England in 1831).
The subject and author of the last of these spent some of her time in enslavement in Antigua, where I live, the locale of the post-slavery narrative told by Samuel Smith to his grandchildren, co-authors Keithlyn and Fernando Smith.
The slave narrative emerged in the colonial era as a genre and a tool of the anti-slavery movement concerned with dismantling chattel slavery in the Americas – other references will say North America, but I am being very specific.
It shouldn’t need to be said in 2020 with all the material (e.g., slave narratives) at our disposal, but chattel slavery – the brutal multi-generational-generational-generational form of human trafficking and enslavement of Africans fed by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the need (read: greed) for labour for the mass production of sugar and cotton that built the European and North American (meaning the USA) economies – happened across the hemisphere known as the Americas. The Americas includes North and South America and the Caribbean. Historically, this is the so-called ‘New World’ over which European powers fought and which they colonized over hundreds of years – beginning with Columbus’ wrong turn at Hispaniola, modern-day Haiti (French), and the Dominican Republic (Spanish) in 1492.
The first enslaved Africans arrived in the New World in the 1500s. To Shoot Hard Labour, in its sweeping introduction, spoke of Las Casas, the Catholic priest known as the protector of the ‘Indians’, the Kalinago (called Caribs by the Europeans who in the history books I read as a child were described as ‘fierce’ and ‘warlike’) and other indigenous groups being exterminated for European profit, who proposed that the colonizers look instead to Africa for labour. In this introduction, it said the first enslaved Africans landed in the New (to the colonizers) World in 1502.
The Old World powers of England, Spain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands (Dutch) divvied up and dominated Africa (which they mined of her natural and human resources) and the colonies they claimed in the New World, often through violence. England emerged as a superpower – an empire upon which the sun never set, into the 20th century, until its former colony, America, which had greatly expanded its fortunes and influence since declaring its Independence in 1776, rose to take that spot. Forgive me for being hand wave-y on the details of globalization; I intend this as a discussion of the book To Shoot Hard Labour, not a New World history.
However, I am writing this in the summer of 2020, a summer in which the newly announced Vice Presidential hopeful on the US Democratic party ticket, Kamala Harris, is US (i.e., North American) born to a father from Jamaica and a mother from India. The fact that these are both former colonies of England and that Jamaica was, like the entire Caribbean, a chattel slavery colony is not the point, but it is not irrelevant. Harris’ Blackness, and her connection to the struggles of Black people who have fought their way from slavery to freedom and beyond, have been called in to question with sentiments like “She’s not Black. She’s Jamaican.”
If you know the New World history, you know that Blackness and Jamaica are not mutually exclusive. The English speaking Caribbean, including Jamaica, and other non-English speaking former colonies, are majority Black and have been for centuries at the forefront of anti-slavery, labour rights, and independence movements, and for decades at the forefront of the reparations movement specific to the injustices of chattel slavery.
It is a movement that has been centered in American discourse this election cycle – and we love to see it – because it’s all about reparative justice. This is something that should unite, not separate us. We are diasporically – through our ties to a common motherland, Africa, and the inheritance of a common brutal experience here in the New World – family. But here we are, and it needs to be said – some of the most brutal forms of chattel slavery existed in the Caribbean, and the post-slavery narrative To Shoot Hard Labour is one man’s testimony.
The genre known as the slavery narrative grew out of the lived experience of enslaved (and formerly enslaved) people, some 6000 of them across North America and the Caribbean through the 18th and 19th centuries. They were autobiographical and, given their use as an anti-abolitionist tool, emphasized the struggle, with religion and progress being recurring motifs. As with many slave narratives, To Shoot Hard Labour is an ‘as told to’ and Papa Sammy ends by telling his grandsons, “I hope that you will write down exactly what I am telling you. If you do, the people will see how far down in the mud arwe come from.” (p. 162)
To Shoot Hard Labour veers from your traditional slave narrative in that it begins in 1834 – the year slavery legally ended in the English speaking Caribbean, with the four year apprenticeship – Antigua, which opted for full emancipation in 1834, was an exception. I, therefore, describe it as a post-slavery narrative. Its central theme, beginning with Papa Sammy’s ancestor Rachael’s long walk across Antigua to re-connect with the daughter (Minty) sold off years before, is the quest for freedom, life, humanity in a world determined to keep Black people underfoot. “Only when they find Minty they really believe that slavery was all over for sure.” (p. 32) But not without scars, “Minty had a brand on she hand.” (p. 32)
The book is a stark reminder that the legal end of slavery did not mean its end in practice. In some ways, even in a country, politically independent since 1981, with Black leaders and a majority Black population, the struggle for true self-actualization continues. The ways in which the struggle continues and in which they have been brought in to sharp focus in 2020, the year of the COVID-19 global pandemic and the globally resonant Black Lives Matter uprising sparked in North America/the US, and the economic and social quakes sparked by both, is more heavy lifting than this piece can do.
But let’s talk about this book though.
I covered a lot of ground in the 13th installment of my CREATIVE SPACE column of 2020 (SAY THEIR NAME: IN MEMORIAM) in which I wrote about To Shoot Hard Labour by telling the stories of some of the people beaten, raped, and killed, casualties of anti-Blackness post-slavery in Antigua, as well as some of the unsung freedom fighters (labour rights activists). There is likely to be some overlap, but I’ll try to tread ground not covered there, here. I urge you to read that article as a companion to this one.
As the nation was reminded during a month-long on-air book club discussion of it in which I participated, this book covers a lot in its 100 plus years, and even if you’ve read it before, you’re likely to learn something. And even if you’re not from Antigua, what you learn will be educational and impactful as you consider the arc of human history in general and Black people’s experiences in the New World specifically. The particularity of it makes it more potent, not less.
“Just a little away from the market on Church Street in an open space under a big mahogany tree was the old slave market where the bakkra use to sell our generations. That mahogany tree had hoods and spikes in it. After slavery end, Delos Martin, a Scotchman built a business place just west of it, and that would block the view of the courthouse at the corner of Scotch Row and Church Street…the little hill at the head of the city – the one in a straight line with High and St. Mary’s Streets – was called Gibbet’s Hill. It was the place where the open gallow was built – close to what is now called the Botanical Gardens – but the slaves use to call it Dribbet House.
The open gallows were like the frame of a house. Them gallows would have three or four planks overhead. The slaves used to be tied with rope at the neck or shoulders, around the waist, or any part of the body for that matter. They were then pulled up and tie to the overhead planks, and they would be left there to swing. A portion of food would be left in front of them, but that food was to let the slaves see it and not reach it. They were made to swing there till they dead. Nowadays, when you want to show how harsh you want to deal with somebody, you say ‘Me go kill you’. Back then we use to say ‘Me go gibbet you.’” (p. 95)
A long quote, yes, but hopefully you see what I mean, that you don’t have to know those places to see and hear, in Papa Sammy’s own voice, with the vivid descriptiveness of lived and/or handed down memory, the history being revealed.
For me, the reading comes with a sense of loss and reclaiming, as, though I grew up here and knew the named streets, these places, as described, weren’t known to me. There are stories of numerous places for us to re-discover–from the baobob (or as Papa Sammy called it bear bob) tree (the one on the Freemansville main road), which has the distinction of being near a former market where enslaved people were sold, Stony Hill Gully where enslaved people plotted freedom, in 1736 (enduring public torture and death as a consequence), to the lawlessness and licentiousness of bakkra spaces like Guiana Island and Willoughby Bay.
It’s worth noting that though the book, in the spirit of narratives, is autobiographic and, as a result, largely anecdotal, it is not so easily dismissed as a history. For one, it fills the gaps left by the original history of dates and more official sources, i.e., the colonizer’s perspective. For another, it makes a valiant effort to fact check itself.
When Papa Sammy gives 1904 as the year the Gunthropes sugar factory became operational, there’s a footnote that references “Sir Francis Watts, who played a leading role in the establishment of the first central sugar factory” (p. 115) as saying that it was planned in 1903 and reaped its first crop in 1905. The centralization of at least some part of the sugar production process, by the way, began opening up the world of people who had known only plantation life – a very narrow world indeed.
Sugar was king during much of slavery, plantation days, in the Caribbean, and this changed only ever so slowly post-slavery. Massa (also called bakkra – literally “back raw” according to one source* much like “cracker” a pejorative for white in the US* is, according to some sources I’ve seen, a reference to the sound of the whip hitting Black flesh) was still Lord, Master, and the magistrate. The formerly enslaved was still, for all intents and purposes, enslaved. As Papa Sammy said, “in those days, nega if them right, them still wrong” (p. 118)
While the story doesn’t scrimp on the sorrow, it doesn’t wallow in victimhood. It speaks concurrently of the rise of free villages like Freemansville, the harnessing of skills and resources (female-centered work in medicine – a fair amount of folk remedies included), the lingering effects of enslavement (children still carrying the so-called Massa’s name and harsh corporal punishment of children and adults continuing the pattern from the plantation), and the rise of the workers’ rights movements with sometimes fatal consequences (as during the 1918 ‘riots’).
Additionally, the governorship and business and ownership or lack thereof and the transformation of the country, the push for voting rights and ways the community worked together (“the swap, throwing the box and working the lift was the main things that prevent us from eating each other” – p. 116). And there was a beauty. I can verify that as Papa Sammy said, there is no better vantage point for sunset viewing than Clark’s Hill, which is a rising in the middle of the island.
Chattel slavery was not indentured servitude, no matter what some meme said, and the fact that we seem to be forgetting that makes books like To Shoot Hard Labour even more valuable. Consider that post-slavery movement was restricted – you couldn’t just switch employers, and you would be punished physically or locked up for not going to work. You still effectively lived in slave quarters (called the ‘nega-house’ where there was no privacy); you did not police yourself in any way – in fact, “whenever there was a fight or quarrel among nega-house people, it would be massa that would decide who was to get punish and how the punishment would be” (p.38) and who in fact still had and exercised the power of life and death with impunity over the people he once owned.
Consider that post-slavery, you did not own the land you worked nor what it produced unless bakkra said so, that prison labour (literally a jail cart which moved where the work was) was effectively another form of slave labour. Consider all this and more through the lens of current conversations re Blackness, reparations, etc. Consider all this and more, over the 100 years Papa Sammy lived, dying the year after Antigua arrived at political Independence.
Who else to tell this story even if in the telling he disrupts some established narratives–e.g., bringing nuance to the story of modern Antigua, dinging the mythology, speaking to the jealousies and infighting, and the missed opportunities and broken promises even with Black leadership?
You can hear the heartbreak in his words as he reflects on the mahogany tree that once marked the slave market in town. “It was our government and black people that pluck up that tree.” (p. 161). It is we, now in charge, he insists who have forgotten and that’s the heartbreak of this book, but that’s also the hope. These stories are hard to read but they need to be told because – there is much that was done that we can learn from, there is much that was done to us that we must never forget.
Why read this book, beyond it being riveting history? To quote Papa Sammy, “I want the young generations to remember” (p. 161), and this is important because, to quote him further, “I hope that the day will never come again when our people have to suffer indignity like my generation and others have to.” (p. 162) Indignity, when you read this book, and books like it, you will see that that’s putting it mildly.
RIP to the co-author of To Shoot Hard Labour, Antiguan and Barbudan historian, and trade unionist Sir Keithlyn Smith who died July 31st, 2020, and buried in an official funeral on September 15th, 2020.
*Cracker: “Cracker” was used to refer to poor whites, particularly those inhabiting Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia’s frontier regions. It is suspected that it was a shortened version of “whip-cracker” since the manual labor they did involved driving livestock with a whip. Over time this came to include slave-drivers who used Blacks as livestock during chattel slavery, often literally “cracking the whip” to make them walk faster when human bodies replaced cattle or as a warning to enslaved people who were not “working” hard enough. ‘Ev’ry time I hear the crack of a whip, my blood runs cold. I remember on the slave ship, how they brutalised our very souls.’ – Bob Marley, Slave Driver, from Catch a Fire | Source: “Remembering the Crack of the Whip: African-Caribbean Artists in the UK Visualise Slavery.”
Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of two books of children’s fiction, Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure and With Grace, two books for the teen/young adult market The Boy from Willow Bend and Musical Youth, and two adult contemporary books Oh Gad! and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. Her writing has appeared in several international magazines, literary journals, and anthologies, including, respectively, Essence, The Columbia Review, and New Daughters of Africa.