Reflect that the chief source of all evils to Man, and of baseness and cowardice, is not death, but the fear of death. Against this fear then, I pray you, harden yourself; to this let all your reasonings, your exercises, your reading tend. Then shall you know that thus alone are men set free.
- Epictetus, former Roman slave, A.D. c. 125
Muffled moans of a trumpet swell in and out my window.
The noise, attributed to a new young trumpet player they call Satchmo from New Orleans, pours incessantly through the street. I am aware of Satchmo’s growing popularity only because he toured Tulsa last year and as editor of the leading negro newspaper in Tulsa, it is my unfortunate responsibility to know these things.
The screeching and wailing trumpet punctuates my thoughts as if a needled phonograph found a home in Satchmo’s foot, rendering the bellows and staccato punches from his trumpet profane. As we turn this corner here in 1921, W. C. Handy and Satchmo and herds of musicians like them herald a new age in music, an age -I am told- that reflects the plight of our people. I prefer Handy’s arrangements over the discomfort of Satchmo’s blare and, of course, neither compare to the ivory capers of Scott Joplin, but herein I date myself. I am an unreliable arbiter on musical progress.
Perhaps my relic opinions on some matters are safer ensconced in my ‘acorn head’, as a white drover once evinced, his foot firmly planted on my trachea. From the recesses of my memory, any bugler’s horn still summons me to scramble for my sanity as in that great gray dark of the war.
We were the mighty army of the 62nd United States Colored Troops, former slaves, freedmen, and refugees, liberated by the collective cry of our brethren and the sweat of our brow.
Most particularly, the sweat of our brow.
Many a Union officer wore freedom on his sleeve but abode slavery in his heart. Even General Sherman said he would rather have 300 negroes shouldered with spades and axes than 1,000 negroes with rifles. Detractors claimed, “The negro will never fight, he has not the strength, the intelligence, nor the fortitude, he will flee given his first opportunity.”
While liberation greeted us through enlistment, inequality deepened its root into the soil of the nation then, perhaps penetrating so deeply because we donned uniforms to defend her while she declared us unfit to do so.
Pickaxe, rifle, shovel, pen: each a weapon I have used with deadly force.
I cannot convince Andrew, my own dear son, that if given a choice, neither heavy artillery, nor bayonets, nor sharpshooters would affect the future of the negro like the arsenal of the alphabet, rumbling ranks of soldier-letters assembled on a page, marching toward the finished work this great war has wrought.
When Andrew and I stand to look man-to-man to discuss this topic, I’m afraid my words, once again, meet malice, a formidable foe. He was born into a lopsided world, his eyes grow hard squinting at the slant.
His argument, at times persuasive, is that words are the weak weapons of old fools and that the seed of revolution may begin in words but can only bear fruit by force. ‘How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat?’ he asks, quoting Du Bois.
Andrew sees through the rhetoric to my occasional dubiety, as children often do, and scoffs. His scorn for weakness is permissible given our loss of Benjamin, his son (my grandson) in the War, (the recent war that is; I am one of the few still living who must distinguish between “the war” and “the war”). Benjamin’s remains lay somewhere beneath the heels of French citizens. He once sent us pamphlets that Germany’s propaganda patrol dropped on our negro soldiers. The pamphlets decried our supposed freedom, providing a blistering assault on the resolve of our young men by questioning the American rights of negro soldiers fighting alongside whites. ‘They can die together but not vote together.’ (Our nation percolates in nothing if not contradictions).
One would think Germany had enough prejudices not to contend with ours, and no one abrogates the horror that happened there, but the psychological missive hit its mark. On Monday, Memorial Day, our young men will march the streets of Tulsa, not with the white soldiers they fought valiantly alongside but bringing up the rear of the parade, behind the jugglers and clowns, suffering the derision of cowards who scoff that a negro dare don a uniform of ‘liberty’. Germans seemed to have no trouble sighting their rifles on all our soldiers regardless of skin color, their bullets judge indiscriminately. Andrew scolds me with Du Bois ‘we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.’
I bear a mantle to lead peaceably even when that old man rises within me, the one slain long ago, left smoldering in a smithy of hate. Though I will not tell Andrew this, I know the peculiar scorn of a soldier’s indignation.
Memories glint like the winking of sunlight off shouldered rifles. Glancing back at the snakelike column, four abreast, bayonets and brassery of buttons gleam within the cadence-chorus of a trampling blue-backed horde.
From the mountains of Missouri, we march for twenty-eight days southward, toward the sweltering heat of Louisiana. It is the first time these eyes set beyond the borders of neighboring plantations. Each crest of a hill gives glimpse of an ever changing and limitless horizon that expands my boundaries.
During much of the march, we proceed in “route step”, a looser restriction on regimental order. Breaking into song, enjoying the attention as throngs of people line the streets to survey our massive legion, mostly to observe the spectacle of black in blue. We wear the colors with pride.
It is the last time mirth dictates our mood.
In Louisiana, we defend the Union from the latrinal position, that is, digging wells for water, and latrines for soldiers to piss in. General Sherman’s orders are strictly obeyed. Since white soldiers are prohibited from performing more than ten days fatigue duty, the duty is often carried out by prisoners, but the 62nd fatigues for days on end.
Encamped near the latrine lines -as is the only space afforded negro troops- the regiment quickly succumbs to disease. After constant training and drilling back in Benton Barracks, after the long march south, rather than confronting the yellow eyes of the Confederate, we are beset by alligators, sand, bedrock, and dysentery.
Insidious foes fell our ranks. Typhoid fever ravages the camp consuming swaths of men as fast and cruel as any rebel assault. Every other tent contains a contaminated man. We fall asleep each night to the low chorus of moans of the dying. Our trench digging repertoire expands to daily grave duty. The dead cart piles heavy. A foul stench blankets the campground. I notch my spade for every dead man I bury, in a short time, carving seventy-three marks in my shovel. For some of the fallen, those slashes are the only remainders of their existence.
Momma once told me that the brown thrasher, a seemingly dull and ordinary bird, sang over 1,000 unique songs, proof that plumage was merely a cloak of semblance, but beneath that veil incinerated a fiery spirit. What was it she used to say? “Every song unsung is absence. We feel it. Music missing from the earth.” I can still hear her sing-song whisper, quoting the poet, “I have, O Lord, a river in my body, but a sea in my soul.”
These men die the indignity of indigents, before a free note could sound. Expunged. Obliterated. Songs swallowed by a mass of unknowing. Shoveling soil over the faces of men whose names I barely know, the Roman slave Epictetus cups his hand to my ear: "Not death is evil, but a shameful death."
Evenings: nightly tutoring lessons become difficult. The men, exhausted, lose their hunger for learning, displaced by sheer survival. I continue teaching, making rounds to the more earnest students, ending my nightly sick-bed visits in the tent of Jed, who succumbs to swamp fever. Jed’s appetite for learning remains rapacious. We read and talk, endlessly dreaming of what we will do once the war is over. Jed's wife was killed while in the slave quarters by the hands of an overseer, their two children sold at auction but Jed does not know where. Much of our discussion rambles into thickets of uncertainty, our words grappling for pathways, led by longing.
Colonel Branson gathers newspapers of surrounding communities and passes them along to the troops, the papers, weathered and greasy by the time they make the rounds are nonetheless welcome. Branson surprises me with copies of The New Orleans Tribune, the first daily negro newspaper ever published. I instruct Jed to read from the headlines and editorials to which he proceeds, but eventually he reads phonetically from the French version (issues are printed in both English and French due to the large population of French speaking citizens in the New Orleans area). We close each evening in howls of laughter as Jed struggles to speak French words, comically stretching the vowels, l'armée de l'union, his exaggerations growing larger as the long, hot day slinks into darkness. Paragraph after paragraph, we exhort weariness from our bones and add to our knowledge something of the world we are walking into.
A world much like the Fort Pillow Massacre. Southern troops, under the command of Bedford Forest, slaughtered hundreds of surrendered negro soldiers. We traveled through Fort Pillow on our march south, and, acquainted with the area, we replay the horror in our minds. The familiarity affects in us the Southerner’s propagandic intent: fear. But fear, in the way it is wont to do, foments to anger.
The putrid piles of dead soldiers on empty promises. The inferior work. The indignity of wills surrendered to new masters.
The shovels in our hands bear new significance, barriers between what we are allowed to do and what we want to do: fight. We (many of us) do not wish to fight so as to kill; we wish to fight so as to live.
Every gouge of earth from a shovel sinks the resolve of a good learner, burying with each dead body desire and pride in the living. As each day passes, I struggle to keep the men interested. The disease-riddled camp, the overworked men, the boiling temperatures, the carcasses of soldiers: our minds preoccupied, not as much with the fear of death but with the terror of never a chance to live.
One evening, I return to Jed’s tent and discover him whimpering in the corner. Seated on the floor, his knees to his chest, mouth gagged, hands tied, arms draped over his knees. Through the crook of his elbows and backs of his knees thrust a stick. He sits skewered like a roast pig, rocking back and forth, shaking from chills. The regimental doctor declared Jed able to return to work but Jed refused. Our army calls this punishment “bucked and gagged” and reserves it for those unwilling to work.
I untie the knot, help him stand, and guide him toward his cot.
“Can’t die here, Liberty,” his voice quivers plea and protest, “this uniform s’pose to see us through.”
He squares in front of me, seizes me by the shoulders, eyes flashing in frenzy, “Through, Liberty,” his grip vices, grasping for anchor, “s’pose to see us through.”
The next morning, we bury Jed.
I lay his blue book, dog-eared and weathered, across his chest and cast the last scoop of soil over his grave.
Out of the corner of my eye, a red breasted vermillion cuts the sky, sweeping low across the graves of soldiers too soon forgotten, the mounds of piled earth a chorus of unsung melodies.
The bugler blows.
I notch my spade.