I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?
- The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois
What started as a strange form of extradition ended as immigration: from the land of slavery to a new land, teaching soldiers.
Thousands of ex-slaves flooded Benton Barracks. The overcrowded conditions soon riddled the camp with measles, pneumonia, typhoid fever. Resources, whether food or medicine, were slow to come. Colonel Branson made repeated requests for supplies to keep up with demand, but books, paper, and pens were in short supply. White regiments demanded priority. I spoon fed instruction to as many soldiers as time and energy would allow.
The men famished for words. Though fatigued by constant drilling during the day, at night, we bonded over words. Words were a love affair with letters. It was a new and odd romance cultivated amid malevolence.
To make way in this new world, we would need to unite freedom and necessity under the common yoke of learning, plowing our way through the obdurate soil of change.
The wind whips its fury, whining and groaning the lament of winter.
The line outside, a hundred men deep. Bracing themselves from the gusts, they stand in groups of threes and fours, stamping feet and blowing in their hands. The line inches slowly. It is some time before someone emerges from the tent and another disappears. For those in the back of the line, it will be a long wait and the sky is already beginning to grow dark.
I check the flame on my lamp. The wick and oil, sufficient for another hour, enough time for a few more students. I stand, shake off the cold, rub my face vigorously. The damp seeps through my clothes, weighs my mind.
“You the readin’ nigger?” an impatient voice growls over me.
“My name is Liberty Adams, sit, please.”
“I don’t want learn no readin’. I write my name, that’s good.”
“Write it here.”
I look up. It is a face I will see, not often, but often enough. Anger. Bitterness. Resentment. Though I understand, I cannot comply. To do so is collusion with ignorant forces.
“You can’t write at all, can you?”
“I got my mark.”
Rubbing my eyes, I wearily ask, “Then why are you here?”
“I hear you write letters. I’ve no money to pay you for letter writin’ but I brought this cup for trade.”
“Private, you are aware, the order to read and write means to make you comply or remove you from the army?”
“And where will you go when they discharge you, Private?”
“You’ll wander around until captured by slaveholders or you’ll die a miserable death of starvation.”
“Plenty dying in this godforsaken camp now, don't seem to matter where I die. Soldiers need weapons, not words. Hell, I hear tell they never will arm the negro.”
“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
“The hell you talkin’ about?” he snapped.
"It’s Milton, a blind poet, vexed by his inability to perform his duty. 'That one talent which is death to hide, lodg’d within me useless, though my soul more bent to serve therewith my maker.'"
“You talk just like ‘em.”
“You the mark of cain and the tower of babel.”
“Private, I have men who want to learn. Who recognize that words are as vital as weapons.”
His back disappears into the window of night as another shadow emerges.
The new voice, bright but brittle, “You sho look better than the first time we met.”
Yellow eyes, deep wells around the corners, lines of weariness and mirth. Patches of gray above a wilted but winnowed countenance. A familiar face. His broad smile cracks the chill left by the angry soldier.
“Thank you for holding onto my book,” I said.
“Dat the book you’ll learn me from?”
“I aimin’ to read. Ain't too old yet. Name’s Jed.”
I smile, proffer my hand. “We are wanting for paper, but let’s not let that get in our way.”
I flip open the blue book to the table of letters and start a lesson that will begin a thousand times before this war is over. “The English Alphabet consists of twenty-six letters or single characters. I want you to draw each character on my hand with your finger, starting with the letter ‘A’.”
If my rudimentary education began in a barn, my classical education started in a tent. Lieutenant Colonel David Branson kept me fed. Not food. For this, we subsisted on rations the white soldiers would not eat: compressed horse meat, petrified bread honeycombed with maggots, and a sooted dredge disguised as coffee, unfit for swine. We repeated Lincoln’s anecdote with howls of bitter laughter, ‘If this is tea, bring me coffee; if this is coffee, bring me tea.’
While the army starved our physical appetites, Branson fed my rapacious hunger. From Branson, I inherited tattered copies of Tennyson’s poetry. Marvell, Milton, Melville, Thomas Gray, George Herbert, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats and, as would prove crucially for my future, newspapers.
I began to learn how writers crafted unwieldy shapes and lifeless forms, arranging locution into columns toward a progression of meaning. Arranged letters can justify cruelty, incite rage, evoke empathy, inculcate hope and dictate wars.
As the army whittled our will into submission, the seeds of an editor germinated in me. I paid particular heed to how words wield as subterfuge, like the phrase, “peculiar institution” used by the south to abrogate the horrors of slavery. It is no minor grammatical inference. Just as the “War of the Rebellion” became for some the “War Between the States” or, “The War for Southern Independence”, or the “Freedom War”.
As Union soldiers, our weapons were iron; in the war of equality, our weapons are far more malleable but no less deadly. Words penetrate as the pointed edge of a bayonet. Ideology an invisible adversary but deadly still.
I have not wearied of the printed word; I have traveled through it. To my dim eyes the printed word remains pregnant, more so now on the blunted edge of liberty and in the waning sunset of my years, than ever. Words remain the world whose margin fades when we move in them. But I’ve often wearied over the fierce similarities of that short, bloody war for freedom and this long conflict for equality.
Mine has been a campaign of successive, tiny battles in a prolonged engagement. A war fought in inches. The battlefield lay in legislation, editorials, speeches, and pamphlets, in skirmishes that erupt between the landscape of head and heart. Jim Crow laws proliferate like a plague and as editor, I make my trade by needling loopholes in white opinions.
The battles are many and varied. In recent years, frightened by the election of a negro to the Oklahoma legislature, the newly minted state has accelerated its adoption of Jim Crowism.
Citizens approved an amendment that would require voters to prove their literacy by reading a section of the state constitution before being allowed to vote. The law exempted anyone whose ancestors could legally vote before 1866. Since most black voters’ ancestors were “property” then, not citizens, this “grandfather clause” fired a direct salvo against equality from within the old institution of slavery. Those ancient walls and battlements have been destroyed but the armament of white supremacy has never been surrendered. They laid down arms but kept their pens. And their rope.
It took three years for that law to be overturned by the Supreme Court, only to be replaced by new voter restrictions, blockades on the road to equality.
Years of training men, fomenting freedom in wilderness, returns to me. We knew then that words were important. We did not know that words would become armament in a new battle even longer than the war itself.
The letters scrawled on my mother’s open palm live as ultimatums in me, the words from her lips an epitaph engraved on my heart. As long as I continue to teach, instruct, inform, debate, I dispel the ignorance that enslaved her and sow a part of her in all who choose to live by learning, thereby granting, in small measure, her freedom.
Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing … *
*Andrew Marvell, "The Definition of Love"