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  • from The Louis Till Blues Project
  • John Edgar Wideman (bio)

On the long bus ride to Columbia, South Carolina, Marlow, bored by droning tires, boring interstate scenery, amuses himself by gently picking at the rough stitching of the Senegalese boubou, a tunic length wrapper of the sort he favors these days, kind to his bulk, though this one's fabric a bit heavy for surprisingly mild March weather, traces the boubou's threads of many colors, assigning names to colors, imagining lives for them, following colors that entwine, appear and disappear in the weave's stripes, amusing himself further on the long ride south with the funny thought, not so amusing come to think of it, that for boys his age, Emmett Till's age, colored boys growing up in Northern cities, teenagers in the mid-1950s, boys taught in school they owned no origins other than the dark skin covering them at birth, no roots older than slave plantations, boys orphaned from their history by ignorance and shame, for them, us, the American South served as a surrogate Africa. Our ancestral home. Our heart of darkness. South the birthplace of grandparents, elderly aunts and uncles, many parents of the boys, too, so the boys just a generation or so removed from the old ways, old country that most likely they had never visited, a land vaguely understood from family stories, magazine pictures, movies, legends, myths, negative news items in the Negro press deploring ignorance, backwardness, and violence. A shameful American Negro South, not shameful Africa, his ancient, original home. A south darkened by slavery's long shadow. Source of manners and customs, half-understood, half-remembered language, music. A south preying upon Africa, hiding and preserving Africa. Though the boys couldn't have articulated why, nor appreciated the fact if confronted by it, Africa reborn in their walking and talking, singing, dancing, superstitions, ways of worship, ways of telling time, swimming in time clocks can't reckon, styles indisputably West African, by way of the South, the Caribbean, styles boys express simply by imitating one another, styles not associated in city boy minds with any particular region on earth except the urban turf on which they were born and raised, boys keeping the secret, dark heart thumping in spite of themselves.

Like Africa, their south a distant, primitive region. Dangerous, mysterious. Stuck forever in some old-timey ghetto of the past. South with savage natives who were not the boys' color, tribes of pale faces who would as soon catch, cook, and eat you as welcome you home. Blood-thirsty inhabitants, enemies time out of mind. Do not trust them. Their funny way of talking. Ghost color. Ghost blue eyes. Black eyes with no pity. They mean you no good, boy. Never have. Never will. They will hurt you, kill you if you don't stay on guard against the evil hearts and minds of those different colored natives down south. A trip south meant penetrating hostile territory, risking heat, wild animals, noxious insects, shitting in nasty outhouses, wiping your ass with a Sears catalogue. Skinny, vicious farm dogs. Skinny farms and skinny redneck farmers. City flair and flash lost in dark miles, in [End Page 1] dark nights of rural isolation. Territory it could cost a boy's life to enter, a forbidding land no matter how fondly parents, grandparents, tottering uncles and aunts remembered it in funny down home tales they told each other and their progeny, tales full of laughing, patting, hugging, dance steps, pantomime, mmmmm-mmmmm-mmmmm, recalling good food, clear air, sweet water, hunting, fishing, sermons, funerals, weddings, baptisms, moonshine. No matter all that once-upon-a-time good stuff, those smiles, struts, city boys like Marlow had heard other tales, too, and remained more suspicious, more than reluctant to take the plunge south.

Marlow had said, No sir, and Thank you, sir, can't go this summer, declining many summers his grandfather's invitation to accompany him south, dodging the trip south until his grandpa Harry, born and baptized Hannibal in 1878, in South Carolina, not long after slavery days, got too old to go and stopped asking, and they missed the opportunity...


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