(Thinking Black History Beyond February)
By Ernie McCray
Charlie Chatman woke up one morning saying to himself, as he had for so many mornings, for eternities: “Lord, give me the strength to put up with these damn peckerwoods one more day.”
The only thing he cared about in his godforsaken life, on a Hawkinsville, Georgia sharecropping plantation, was breakfast, whatever it happened to be, cornbread and scraps of pork, a potato or two, a cup of milk (maybe) – or some stolen boiled corn that the pigs were fed.
Anything to sustain his body and spirit to stand up against the insults to his humanity he had to put up with each day. What kept him alive each day were his daydreams, simple imaginings: sleeping in a nice bed, walking leisurely down a country road, meeting Gabriel on Judgment Day.
But on this particular day, Charlie’s fourteen year old mind drifted far faraway to thoughts of a world way beyond his usual fantasies, a world lightyears away from the mean cottonfields of Georgia; a world where his soul wasn’t owed to the company store; a world where he could move freely to his own beat; a world where he could simply love and be loved in return.
Charlie was caught up in such hopes and dreams as he splashed his face with water, drying himself with his shirt, before his morning meal.
In the midst of his trance-like musing he didn’t hear Mr. Boss Man crowing, for all the world to hear, high above the clickety-clackety sounds of his arrogant looking horse who seemed as ruthless and racist as his rider: “Y’all niggers need to git a move on. That cotton ain’t got all day!”
Charlie, unaware and unwittingly, stepped out of his shack right into Mr. Boss Man’s path which gave birth to “Boy, you ought to know not to get in my way!”
Charlie was wide awake at this point and he re-assumed his position in life and backed away from Mr. Boss Man, uttering not a word, his head bowed, as the world stood still.
Mr. Boss Man frowned as he looked down at Charlie and rose up with his horse high above the ground and when the horse’s hooves came back to the ground Charlie, with a force created by an anger that had built up in his soul like lava in a volcano, snatched Mr. Boss Man by his collar and slammed him to the ground, making a mind-numbing sound that made all the black folks who were around proud to have seen what they saw next: a man they hated getting the asswhipping of a lifetime.
But there can be no sequel to such a story. Charlie, in a moment in time, was faced with a new life, one beginning with him running for his life, learning life’s lessons on the fly.
It didn’t take Charlie long to realize that when one is embarking on a new life it is not wise to skip breakfast. Stomping a foreman within an inch of his life and running for your freedom requires an enormous amount of energy.
But, nevertheless Charlie, certainly adrenalized, survived and went on to a life of ducking and covering and hiding in trees and barns and rivers and streams; a life of assessing who can and who can’t be trusted and learning you couldn’t base it on race.
Oh, there were blacks, after hearing his situation, who would say “We understand and will help you all we can.” And there were those who, in their fright, would reply “You can’t stay here, you’ll get us all hung.”
And many were the times he would be chased by packs of white men and there were more than a few times when a white person would, instead of sounding an alarm, let Charlie know: “We don’t have much but you’re welcome to some of what we’ve got and we’ll tell you when we think it’s a good time for you to hit the road again.”
Charlie had never before these days of running seen white people of the benign kind. Life is full of surprises he learned.
Charlie was finding love in unexpected places as he ran and ran and ran and one day, in Gulfport, Mississippi, after just arriving, he found himself running from some folks, who were bent on hanging him from a tree, across the gangplank of a boat that was about to go out to sea.
His real trip had just begun, one in which he would see much of the world and learn that loving people, like hateful people, come in all colors, in all tongues.
“You approach the world with love, good things can happen,” he used to say to me, many years after his adventures. He was right.
My grandfather skipped breakfast one day and found the world he was looking for: one where he could love and be loved in return. That is truly a good thing.
Photo courtesy of www.flickr.com/photos/jimsurka