Chapter 1: 1920s Tough Truckin’
As the Puritans dried up the alcohol
And the influenza virus waned,
As another anniversary of Red summer came around
As Butter Beans and Susie gained Vaudeville fame,
A fever took hold to hit the northbound road,
We packed up everything we owned
To board the Orange Blossom Train
Heading up the Atlantic Coast.
As the stock market rose
And the stock yards grew,
As Henry Ford’s invention
Created jobs for glass, rubber and steel,
As the trap doors of speakeasies
Hid the booze,
Jim Crow buoyed upon the northern lakes
While we caught the Illinois Central or the Dixie Flyer
To Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago.
As the fife and the drum
Found its way to the edgy Delta sound,
As the bo-weevils ate another crop
The tenets were cheated once again
As the Mississippi river caught the echoes
Of Son House and Satchmo,
Highway 61 carried those who couldn’t take the train.
As Texas oil coated the state, the Invisible Empire maintained its terror campaign;
They burned people with acid and castrated men,
Tarred and feathered folks for working together
Demanding fair wages from the cotton field.
Lead Belly and Blind Lemon Jefferson captured tortured spirits by singing the Blues,
Double entendre embodied the lyrics holding raw unedited truth,
So, we pack our gingham clothes with no intention of looking back,
As the Argonaut whistle blows
And the sun radiates in the western sky,
Better days await us
Once we get to the golden pacific coast.
One tortured nickel at a time,
One foot in front of the other,
Coming out of the southland
To elevate our condition of existence
We shook the southern dust from our feet for the last time,
By foot, mule, train or truck,
Dixie is at our back and a new day is ahead,
Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York,
We finally made it!
Thank the Lord,
But it don’t feel the same;
All that we’ve ever known is gone,
The warmth of familiar relations,
Sustenance across wide open fields
That swallows the evening sun into the lower forty,
The smell of the wood burning stove
Doesn’t seem quite real just yet,
But, weez here.
Honking horns and loud machines
So many people and so many streets,
Look at all these cars,
Skyscrapers blocking the sun,
Storefront church right next to the bar
Lawd have mercy,
Shoe shine boy asking for a dime,
Evangelist warns us the end of time is near
Undertaker on the ground floor,
Doctor’s office upstairs
Citified folk walk and talk so fast
And always seem to be in such a hurry
I wonder where they going?
It’s hard to understand what to do next,
Hard to understand how.
Every door is shut tight,
Until we get to the Belt, The Bottom or Uptown
With no more to offer than cold water flats,
Kitchenettes or second floor back
But it beats the plantation shack,
And weez here.
Yeah, weez here and it hurts,
We’re put to shame by our own people
Calling us simpleminded and backward,
White folks act like they’re afraid and only speak
When the rent is due or when they’re looking for a nurse, a butler or a maid.
We traded bo-weevils for roaches,
The outhouse for a stopped up toilet,
We traded the farm fresh air
For the funk of a rundown building
And a tower of stairs
Packed up on top of one another
Expired tempers pouring blood into the street
Losing our grip on this thing called hope
Just to breathe our own air.
We patch together parts of down home that we miss the most;
Our music and food, our song and dance with the best of folks who share and enjoy in what we are longing for
Then, it’s back to,
The Madam’s kitchen,
Master’s clean up boy,
But weez here,
Yes, thank you Lawd,
The war was over and the stocks were up,
Motor cars were running and jazz music was jumping all across the U.S.A.,
And a new generation was coming of age.
They made a clean break from the old days,
Throwing those values and mores right out the window,
They were no longer midwives and nurses
No longer maids and servants,
But working good paying jobs
Living life on their own terms
And enjoying the pleasure of nighttime fun.
The feminine gait down a Harlem street was the cat’s meow,
The style of dress and flamboyant taste constantly turned heads;
A face full of Berry lipstick and earth tone base
The scent of perfume and long string pearls
The new hairdo was Marcel or curls,
They were fine sisters in high fashion and style
Flapper girls were liberated women for the times.
It didn’t matter if you were in Chicago or New York,
It didn’t matter that the country had gone dry,
It only added to the mystique of the speak easy appeal,
Amidst the company of masculine fondness.
‘Harlem Sweeties’ according to Langston Hughes,
From potato pie bronze to butter cake cream,
Above their silk stocking,
Was the forbidden flask just behind their garter,
Hidden just above the knee.
There was a lot of integrating going on,
Vaudeville and burlesque shows were going strong,
A codified rap on the door got you inside
Where everyone spoke easy,
They Shimmied and Messed Around
To the pop and bounce of the new Rag time sounds,
Trios and quartets kept happy feet busy all night long
Gangsters supplied the thirsty needs of gamblers and dancers,
The Hupmobile was the new General motor ride
And the new drive-in movie was a place for young lovers to hide,
It wasn’t just Saturday night, but a new way to live,
No more lonesome boring days
Of endless domestic work with no pay.
That’s what made the twenties roar,
The party was on and women were free
it was just the beginning of a new way to be,
Elixirs of opium
Sold to the public
To cure whatever ails,
Prescription free availability
At the drug store or apothecary
Free samples were sent by mail,
Sears catalog featured a syringe and needle for sale.
It came as a cocktail mixed with alcohol
Or a cordial with molasses and sassafras,
It was a woman’s best friend
It promised to quiet agitated children
Calmed the cough from tuberculosis
That at the time was commonly called Consumption.
It was the answer to the toothache
Neuralgia or rheumatic fever,
Just one dose of the magical pain reliever
And all was well,
One should try to go without,
And then a beast arose,
Aches and pains, with moans and shouts
That could not be satisfied except with one more dose.
Morphine was extracted from opium
And then synthesized into heroin
It was used as a step down cure
To reduce the fiend and begin to wean the victim from its captor,
But it was useless;
Addiction had gone through the roof.
The U.S. ban couldn’t compete with the strong demand that sent addicts into the streets,
They had to get that fix to keep from getting sick,
Pleasure was now replaced with desperate need.
The black markets were wide open
New York’s Chinatown was leading the way,
The glorious nightmare was smuggled in from China and refined in Shanghai,
While doctors were trying to figure why it was so difficult to stay clean.
The wonder drug,
To treat whatever ails
Sending people to heaven and then straight to hell.
Predator and prey trapped in the same wretched soul,
Just one taste from an approved medical cure
Paved the road to always needing more
And dying in disgrace.
It is a sad story to tell,
Man’s inhumanity to man is bloody and mean,
But we must take a look at the past and reveal some of what has been concealed,
To get closer to the truth of our history.
Let’s start with Shark Island,
Where African people were massacred,
Herero’s were tortured and the Namibian’s rebelled against imposing rule,
Germans had to manage this fiery African rage,
Prison camps were set up to keep the indigenous warriors in control and in their place.
They were literally worked to death;
Murdered, raped and beaten by the guards,
Ravaged from starvation and disease
Thousands of lives were lost.
Shark Island was for people not worthy of remorse,
It was a harbinger for future slaughter
It was a template for the holocaust.
Our history is filled with mass murder
To get rid of people who were deemed unfit,
A philosophy and science were developed to justify killing folks;
Race and class containing the melanin gene,
The feeble minded, disabled and half-breed
Had to be exterminated
To keep the white race clean.
A few decades later it was used to kill the Jews,
And while the world was appalled
It was really nothing new at all,
Just the second verse to the same song,
Wiping out civilizations
Some to the point of extinction,
It happened all over the world
Of people who did nothing wrong
Except for the fact that they were born.
So much has been erased from our historical consciousness,
One of which was the supported and endorsed science
That was known as Eugenics.
You stay over there and over here is mine,
Said the Germans to the Italians;
Irish to Polish,
Said the Slavs to the Jews,
So, the Negro had to build his own place and worked to improve his lot in life.
Armed with skills from being a slave,
The masons and carpenters
The farmers and house maids
put together an empire that would serve and would be
An enclave of Negro prosperity.
We owned acres of land across the U.S.
Built factories and worked our farms;
We had humble homes to care for elders and the young with no political clout,
No pleas and shouts to give us a job or even give us a loan
Because we had our own banks to back us up,
We had everything we needed to get the job done.
Restaurants and barbershops,
Blacksmiths and bakers
Seamstress and undertakers,
Nightclubs and stores created jobs and fueled an economy for the wealthy and the poor and kept everyone alive,
Willing to strive for a better life
While the Jim Crow party insisted we live otherwise.
We had fleets of buses and cabs
A couple of baseball leagues,
Had our own movies and movies stars,
And so, it seemed we could go as far as we wanted to,
Walking on solid ground with our heads held high,
We would sell to one another and we would buy
Our homes and cars and invest in our dreams,
Our doctors made house calls
Lawyers took our complaints to court if need be.
Teachers taught us to know better,
Preachers brought The Good News on a closer walk with thee,
While we worked, and depended upon one another.
Black Wall Streets were popping up all over
Not just in Tulsa Oklahoma, but in Wilmington and Durham, North Carolina,
Mortgaged and insured educated and fed,
By our determined spirit and not the heads of state,
Justice and peace were ours to create.
The Great Depression slowed the pace,
And then it was further diluted by the desire to integrate.
We don’t need a revolution,
We don’t need a leader or any more books
We need to look at what our ancestors did,
Roll up our sleeves
Get to work.
Let’s Have Church
Fresh from the Praise House,
We stomped our feet and clapped our hands
We worshipped our God in Ring Shouts
Called on His name to free us from the slave land.
We had been stuck with the Master’s church all day,
But at night we prayed and worshipped our way;
We sang our own songs deep into the night
Generating power to buy freedom for one another and then set our sight on a church of our own,
We prayed to the Lord to guide us and help us
and to give us strength to weather the storm.
We were hanged and beaten,
Arrested and jailed,
Our churches were burned down
The white folks just didn’t understand
The church wasn’t the building, but inside of us all,
The fellowship from song and praise endured
So even if we died,
The church would spread and sustain subjugated souls,
Under the fiery cloud of blessed assurance
That no whip, or chain, or rope could ever control.
The northern migration brought a change of heart;
Some took the high road and sought education, a decent job and a home.
What had been the hallmark of faith
Was pushed aside and left alone,
A few roamed to other congregations
And quickly absorbed different style
And different taste.
They got rid of everything Negro,
Foot stomping and hand clapping was low brow,
Those old slave songs were not allowed.
’This is a proper church with proper hymns
You can take that screaming and shoutin right back to the praise house!’
Membership was not available
If your skin was darker than a paper bag
Or if your hair got stuck in the comb,
You weren’t welcome in silk stocking service,
Had to go someplace else to find a church home.
Highbrow folks as they were called,
Adopted lifestyles from whites
But it was considered acquiring class,
Nobody shouted amen,
They barley bowed their heads
They sat quietly and polite
With solemn faces throughout the entire mass.
Saturday night chords came in the back door and found its way to the ivory keys of glory;
Reverends had a fit
Deacons and sisters were appalled,
Some kind of nerve bringing the Saturday night devil music inside of these holy walls;
But it started to catch on
Even proper folk took note,
And when churches were bombed
Marchers were armed with power from the Gospel.
Everybody had a little talk with Jesus,
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around,
Babylon is falling
And I’m a calling
For the blood to be over me.
Just a taste of our history
Of how we treated each other
When we were all just trying to be free.
Let’s have church.
They clung to their European heritage
And shunned the African side,
Shunned the back slappin, toe tapping, emotionally gesticulating hard Baptist shoutin Negro,
Preferring the prestige of indoor delights,
Exposed to the finer things in life;
They had store bought clothes and dining etiquette accompanied by refined articulation that rivaled their master,
Exiled cousins and siblings looked on from a distance racked with envy and contempt.
Rejected by kith and kin,
The light, bright, damn near white, mulatto, high-yella red bone was often conflicted from the outside in,
Embracing a culture requiring their subordination encrusted with an ugly residue of silent hatred.
Hostage to the one drop rule
Resenting their African tinge
Stuck on the boundary of the racial divide
With no place to hide they fled to the Tidewater Region,
Where the marriage between Maryland and Virginia created Washington D.C.,
A place that produced another chapter of Negro culture commonly known as Black Bourgeoisie.
High toned alumni from segregated schools bought bits and pieces of plantations that they were proud to own.
Professional status afforded them bone China and two sheets on the bed,
They were happy to display a wall full of intellectual books that were hardly ever read.
Their eloquent breeding prepared them for elegant affairs,
With a room full of light skin folks with straight hair.
They were particular, about whom they wed,
Making sure the bride or groom-to-be
Was of proper background and acceptable hue,
The elders had critical concern when a new life entered the family,
Before they asked about gender or health
The first thing they wanted to know was
What color is the baby?
The social currency of European lineage carried a heavy weight,
Followed by education, career and zip code,
The bourgeoisies were pursued and demonized,
Snubbed and glamorized
Until James Brown helped us to realize that black was a beautiful thing.
African culture was embraced,
Black and brown faces held their heads up high
Some for the first time,
Breaking the old version of splendor and worth,
Black and brown folk were finally able to put their proud selves first.
It is another struggle to break the shame and accentuate our beauty;
Breaking the chains from our own people,
Deeply embedded in our history.
The lights were on and the railroads were running
Skyscrapers were being built
Radio was just kicking in,
The silver screen was silent, but the Jazz Age was loud
Motor cars and motor Inns enabled folks to go to places they had never been,
Stock yards and steel mills were backed by Mellon and Morgan
And that opened up free labor in the north,
The Immigration Act of 1924
Meant that there were more jobs for Negroes
Who were hungry to taste the American dream.
Lynching was as pervasive as the fear it created,
Poverty for black and white was the rule
The heartland was feeling the sting of drought
Borrowed money made the stock market rise,
While Bootleggers and rum runners kept an endless supply of booze,
Back yard stills were working overtime by the light of the moon.
The NAACP and the Urban League
Articulated the anger and magnified the pleas
To expose what was causally denied,
When the sun went down and nobody was around
Savagery reigned free
It was plain old fashioned Terrorism,
– American Style.
Sentenced to death if we looked white folks in the eye,
And the good paying jobs proudly displayed a big bold sign,
Saying that Negroes need not apply.
There were strikes to improve working conditions in the north and the price of cotton fell in the south,
So, from the factories to the fields
The American Communist Party
Took a stand and successfully appealed to the struggling worker and the dejected Negro,
They embraced the quest for equality and a
Sharecroppers union was formed
In an attempt to recover back pay, but it was short lived because the economic orgy had reached its peak and then came crashing down,
After the infamous October day, there wasn’t anymore anyone could give,
Because Wall Street laid an egg.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Do you know where I can take a bath or where I can find the nearest bread line?
The Jazz Age was over and for the next ten years
Swing would carry us through our hard times,
And fire side chats would calm our fears.
Big tobacco was in Durham, North Carolina,
The fields and the factories brought us there,
We lived on hot dusty roads in clap board homes
Locked inside the chain linked fence of segregation,
But a section of town grew by leaps and bounds
The black dollar reigned supreme
It was in a section of town called Hayti,
The other black wall street.
Spaulding founded North Carolina Mutual
And Scarborough had a fine funeral home,
We had hospitals and libraries to call our own
Theaters and restaurants flourished,
Carefree nightlife was ours to enjoy and encouraged everyone to live, work and play in Hayti.
We may have been separate, but we were successfully equal,
By keeping the money circulating with our own people
Making Durham a good place to live.
We praised the Lord at White Rock and St Joseph’s A.M.E
We could try on clothes in our shops and send our children to school in peace,
It wasn’t an angry mob, but urban renewal that brought our paradise to an end.
The roads were rearranged and private interest began to change the landscape that led to its demolition.
But for about seventy years we were able to defy and defeat the ravages of Jim Crow,
In the oasis of Hayti,
Durham’s black wall street.
And the Water Kept Rising
T.S. Elliot said April was the cruelest month,
Bessie Smith sang about how much it rained,
And it did;
The skies opened as oceans of water poured onto the delta,
It rained and rained some more,
The river was swollen and the levies were stressed
And it kept on raining;
Three feet, four feet and the water kept rising.
Pigs were squealing and people were screaming, desperation pierced the tormented air as they were washed away,
Neighbors were nearby and yet couldn’t help one another from the currents swirling around,
Houses and barns, boats and trees
Caught a ride on angry waves of power
Having no mercy on livestock, elders or new born babies,
Chilling gurgling sounds signaled somebody dying a lonely death,
But there was no time to grieve;
Five feet, six feet and the water kept rising.
Prisoners and sharecroppers were forced to work the levies in futile attempts to hold the water back,
White men armed with guns
Were ready to blow off any black head attempting to run,
As the water surged workers were swept away
And their bodies were never recovered,
Survivors were trapped with no food or water for days,
And there was no relief in sight,
Seven feet, eight feet and the water kept rising.
From Oklahoma to West Virginia,
From Illinois to the delta,
Nothing but water to see
In some places, more than twenty feet deep
People were huddled in box cars and the second floor of buildings
Trying to keep their head above the water,
Trying to keep the water below their feet.
Boats that could have rescued thousands only saved a few,
They were turned away by landowners who feared their labor would never come back
Africans were stuck on levy camps
Filled with hatred and disease,
Lost what little they had
Waiting for the water to recede,
And then they had to go back to the plantation
With their cotton-picking sacks.
They bided their time
And you know what they did,
As soon as the water was down
They left delta towns heading north
In hopes of finding a new and decent way to live.
Sippie Wallace sang she needed A Man for Everyday of the Week,
While Liquor wars were going strong
Sippie had the Dead Drunk Blues,
Al Capone was armed and extremely dangerous,
And he kept speakeasies well stocked with bootleg booze,
Mamie Smith’s man gave her the Mean Daddy Blues
Ida Cox was ready to kill hers,
“Murder’s Gonna be my Crime,” she testified,
Tired of this booze crazy man
While Alberta complained about an aggravating double crosser
Clara claimed she Ain’t got Nobody to Grind her Coffee,
“He May be your Dog, but He’s Wearing my Collar!” Rosa Henderson boasted,
Sweet Emma declared, “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody my Jellyroll,”
Mama Thornton reassured everybody, ’It’s Gonna be Alright’,
While Bessie Smith Needed a Little Sugar in her Bowl.
I’m talking about the Blues Mama’s who tore up the joints and stage,
Singing about the man they loved, the other woman they despised,
About their empty pockets and Saturday night fights.
They would taunt and tease the men,
Had them losing their minds;
One step, two step, tip toe to the edge,
Show just enough guarder to make them shout Yes!
And then, back it up fast,
Oh, how the crowd applauded and laughed in the glory of the moment.
Now there was one Mama who was hard to take
Lucille Bogan was her name;
She may have played in a dingy cat house
Or some other out of the way place;
Because her lyrics made you drop your mouth
She sang and described what she wanted;
She told you what she liked,
And told you what she did,
She took the guess work out
Could make a prostitute blush,
And for the average crowd
She was just too much,
But that’s the way she was.
Chick Webb stomped at the Savoy,
Sweet Mama String bean was known to turn grown men
Into begging little boys,
Organ grinder blues;
Do what you did last night,
They were fine, brown and sexy
And the white men couldn’t wait
To get just a taste,
Of the after dark uptown delight.
We ain’t misbehaving,
Just enjoying and savoring,
A midnight scene that belonged to loose women and slick men with blistering notes of splendor;
Ragtime, The Blues converged into the jazz age,
Filled with our history, our culture, sorrow and rage
From the delta to Harlem
They were stomping and hollerin’
About what is still bugging us to this very day;
Proud women telling the world what they had to say.
The Music Box
From different countries speaking a variety of tongues,
Yet they shared in the same percussive beat,
They clapped their hands and stomped their feet as they praised the gods from the motherland,
Their spirit survived the Middle Passage,
And brought life to Congo Square,
Syncopation grew up on the plantations of despair where somebody hollered out for mercy,
And then a shout came back confirming their plea was heard,
The repetition strengthened their resolve to endure and resist the carnage of body and soul around them.
The book of Exodus provided hope,
Compositions of Praise were created
It was holy—set them free,
They owned a sacred foundation their masters could not understand,
Syncopation in their feet and hands saved their souls and kept them strong as they looked forward to the promise land,
With divine assurance that it won’t be long.