by John Milton Wesley
On a road in Mississippi
A dirt farmer stopped
Long enough to leave a son child.
A midwife’s folly
Ended in a tear. Ten round
Fat fingers reached for
A hollow meat bottle
For lack of something else
To do with a toothless mouth.
Out of a pregnancy, into
A cold world. Free to stretch
Dared to move and demand love.
I never saw his face.
Was told it was round and fat
And filled with false teeth.
His fingers were also known to roam.
He ran away to avoid a steel cage,
And an avocation of license plates.
In the years ahead, my brother
Would do his time.
“Fats was a big man”
The neighbors whispered,
How could he be such a skinny child
Before the streets were named
And the sewers were laid,
And the water rose
When Catfish washed up on the bridge,
Before they said Emmett Till
Whistled at the white woman (they hung him for it.)
A son child left by a dirt farmer
Reached for something soft.
At two he knew the coal bin,
The blackness kept him warm.
Snow fell, Ice cream sat quietly
On the window seal. Hog killing time
Took his friends away. Only roosters
Remained calm and mounted
Feathered backs crowing, then ran off
To the neighbors’ back yards.
Pulling scratching, cackling chickens
Danced over brown eggs.
Sister Heron’s cow kicked the bucket
All the neighbors came out to see
The truck with the pulley roll Bessie
Onto its back. Mr. Seals had a stroke
Coming up the street. He had promised me
Cookies from the store. He fell
And never broke one.
Ruleville, a main street town
North on 49-W, one policeman
Khaki and fat, spat on Negroes,
Ate their cooking, beat their men,
Loved their women, robbed their children,
Then gave us their old clothes.
Shot-gun houses and shot-gun weddings
Married us to our turnrows,
Stuffed our noses with cotton,
Broke our backs with hay bales,
Turned our bright eyes dark
With corn whiskey.
Baked us browner than we were,
Bearing their burdens
In the heat of the day.
Saturday night, on “Greasy Street”
The pool halls filled with
Cotton picking money, full of Schlitz,
Southern Comfort, and Black Berry juice.
Wall to wall colored people,
Before we were Black,
Before we built toilets
On our front porches to save money,
Running sewer lines to the back of the house.
Those were the simpler days of
Commodity lines, of surplus peanut butter,
Raisins, cheese, milk and flour.
We moved up in line by trading cans
Of Corn Beef cured in salt water.
Yellow meal seeped through holes
Left in potato sacks. Sack dresses hugged
Our sister’s shoulders and waistlines.
We ran for our lives from Klansmen
And tornados, high winds, and hail storms.
God caused everything, life and death,
Beauty and ugliness, love and hate.
Compress whistles marked the time of day,
Crickets and church bells, Whippoorwills
And Fireflies danced and sang.
Fish frying could be smelled for miles.
We were a backdoor people.
We knew our place. It was
Behind the nearest white man, on
The back of the bus.
Through the kitchen, waiting
Until table cleaning time for
Cold rolls splatter with coffee grounds,
And meat left on T-bones for Negroes
Racing with dogs.
I once saw a vision of Jesus
Lying awake waiting
For the cotton picking truck.
The voice of the driver made
The sacred mouth move.
In the still cold morning hours,
“Come with me, come with me.”
And a billy goat waiting to be barbecued
Answered “Baaaaaaa, Baaaaaa, Baaaaa.”
Short fat ladies, heads tied, gold teeth glistening,
Wrapped sweet potatoes, pork chop sandwiches,
And Tea-cakes in cellophane,
And climbed on the back of Ford pickups.
We went early to catch the dew-cotton,
And sunrise, while Jim Eastland, fat, racist,
And serving, chewed bitter round cigars
On Capital Hill.
We were a beautiful brown hateless people,
Drowning in a sea of cotton,
Living on the leftovers of Bollweevils,
And LadyBugs. A day was worth 300 lbs.,
And what HoneyDew melons could be found.
Baby-Ruths lasted all day, and Coca-Colas
Was a nickel.
Those were the days this son child knew,
Burned in his eyes by the sun,
Chilled in his belly by pump water,
Etched in his soul by fear.
Way, way back to where the memory fades,
And dissolves into misconcepts of freedom,
And white children who loved us until,
They were taught to hate us, and
Keep their Oatmeal cookies to themselves.
And they became “crackers”
And we became “niggers,”
And before they locked our churches
At midnight, and burned crosses in our front yards.
Way before Wallace and the door, and Barnett
And Ole Miss. Before Little Rock,
King, Kennedy, and Watts, and Selma,
Way, Way back before they shrunk
The Baby-Ruth, a dirt farmer stopped
Long enough to leave a son child,
Who reached for something soft,
And is still waiting to touch it.
From Across a Blue Bridge
Read internationally acclaimed writer John Milton Wesley’s speech to the 2007 winter meeting of the National Newspaper Publishers Association ~ NNPA ~ in Phoenix, Arizona. CLICK HERE
BIO: JOHN MILTON WESLEY
Place of residence: Ellicott City, Maryland
Birthplace: Ruleville, Mississippi
Grew up in: Delta of Mississippi. Moved to Jackson on June 12, 1963, the night Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway.
Day job: Partnership development, marketing, media and idea development, consulting
Education: Tougaloo College, Mississippi. Yale University. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Anthologies: Black Southern Voices. Mississippi Writers, Volume III
Serial publications: Essence Magazine. Prevention. Pipeland Magazine
Awards: Reader’s Digest United Negro College Fund First Place Award for Poetry, 1968. Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Outstanding Community Service Award, 1988. National Conference of Blacks in Government
Current project: Novel and screenplay set in 1957 Mississippi
Favorite book: Living Well is the Best Revenge by Calvin Tomkins
Belief: Despite fame, weather will determine the attendance at your funeral.
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