Night Roads

It started with a lantern on a road at night.

I was traveling alone, as I often did, my senses not on edge, but not dormant. The stars and moon were old friends now, comfortable, and not the beautiful distractions, the harbingers of romantic foolishness they’d been.

My weapons were sharp, my pace was easy, my body was sound, but I was thinking of the rest to come; they day was long, and as the horse clopped along beside me, a light came the opposite way, seeming to dance in the air, clinking as it approached.

Someone was holding up a lantern, the light pushing them into deep shadow so that only part of their face was lit.

I said nothing, and put the knife in my hand.

The light must have glinted off the blade, because they stopped.

“I’ve no money. Please don’t hurt me.”

It was the voice of a child, but that meant nothing; there were people in this world who had no problem using children as a ruse to tragic endings.

“Show yourself.”

They put down the light, and I watched their moonlit shadow as they removed the hood.

“It’s just me…”

I still kept the knife to hand because we had to pass each other.

“Move along, then, and keep to your side of the road. I’ll keep to mine, and we’ll get where we’re going.”

“But it’s you I was looking for.”

I sighed, running out of patience. “Considering we’ve met for the first time, and I don’t count youths among my friends, I doubt it, now–”

“She told me I’d find you here, on this road.”

“Who did?”

“The woman at the cottage on the hill. She said you called her ‘Amia.'”

It sent a jolt through me, because I thought I’d lost her. In fact, I had, but here she found me.

“She’s there, waiting for you. She asked me to meet you and show you the way back.”

“And what’s your name…?”

“Alazne.”

I half expected her to say she was my daughter, but nothing else seemed forthcoming, and I stood there for a moment or two longer than necessary.

“It’s getting late, sir. Will you come, or not? I am to either bring you, or tell her why.”

Nothing in me rang any warning bells; I was curious as to what happened to her, how she knew I was here, why she sent this young girl through a night forest to an empty road, and how at precisely the time of night I’d be on it.

As I recalled, she had no great powers to speak of, at least, of the supernatural kind.

Still, the best decisions throughout history were seldom made by moonlight, and perhaps a little of the old magic from those celestial bodies that have wreaked havoc on the heart were not quite done with me.

“Lead on, Alazne.”

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

RAIN

As I listen the rain

Each new drop’s a fresh new pain

Memories blossom in my brain

As I listen to the rain

 

To new places you have gone

Laughing as you travel on

Never caring, dusk til dawn

It’s my heart you’ve walked upon

 

As I sit and watch the sky

Cry the tears I cannot cry

Clouds all hide the reasons why

As I sit and watch the sky

 

Others hold you in their arms

Never hearing the alarms

Muffled by your many charms

Unaware your poison harms

 

Solitude’s new denizen

Seems the sun won’t shine again

I was very happy then

Guess I’ll just remember when….

 

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

 

 

The Mark of Cane

The children were crying, wrapped in chains and manacles, covered in scars from when they’d first resisted.

They didn’t resist now. They couldn’t if they wanted to; they were hungry and tired from their long journey.

The slavers let them sleep, but didn’t feed them for a few nights, though they kept them in drugged water. In days they were gaunt, bedraggled, and dejected.

After five days, they gave them scraps, and watched them pummel, kick, and bite each other for an extra piece, laughing and betting.

After ten days, when they began nearing the city, they fattened the kids who survived the fighting up with full meals to make a decent presentation at auction, and peace reigned in the camp once more, for a time.

A day’s ride out from the city gates, the slavers woke to find their sentries dead, and the children gone. A dark figure in a broad brimmed hat stood among them as they approached him in a circle, their leader stepping forward, his own knife drawn, to confront the silent intruder, who had his head down inside the hood that hid his face.

“You have until a minute ago to bring those brats back, or tell me where they are.”

The figure, his eyes hidden by the brim, gave an enigmatic smile, and then he lifted his eyes, and looked at the slaver.

The slaver’s skin sloughed off his body in a red, wet heap, and his flesh and bones sagged like sludge, collapsing in red, gory mound, spreading out in a pool of meat and guts and bone.

He heard the sound of men crying out, vomiting, shouting, cursing, praying, and finally, running.

In less than a minute the camp stood abandoned.

The figure turned to go, when the curtain on the leader’s tent parted, and a dark-haired young girl of some twelve or fourteen summers emerged. She looked at the pile of flesh that had only last night claimed her maidenhead, and left her crying and bruised, then she looked at the figure.

“Who are you, mister?”

“My name,” he said, as he removed his hat and bowed to her, “is Cane. Come with me, and I’ll take you to the others.”

Having nowhere to go now, she put out the last of the campfire, and walked toward him, stopping to spit on the red, stinking rubble of her rapist, gave her hand to Cane, and the two of them left the camp without looking back.

 

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

On Black History Month

“They did not take slaves from Africa; they took people from Africa, and made them slaves.”

For years, they brought them out like Christmas decorations, only it was February: Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the ever-ubiquitous Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong.

No one but my father ever spoke of those with more militant stances, more edgy, prickly points of view: Eldridge Cleaver (Iceberg Slim) Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale (founders of the Black Panthers) Malcolm X before his renouncing of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad, and Imiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones).

I did not know of the brilliant, biting edge of James Baldwin, the struggles of Josephine Baker, the strength and vulnerability of the tragic, plaintive-voiced Billie Holiday, the towering courage of Paul Robeson and the fiery Vernon Jordan.

These figures made people ‘afraid’ and ‘uncomfortable.’

We learned that 6 million Jews died and saw films on the horrors of the Holocaust, but as black children we were not taught about the 9 million Africans who died on the journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a sailing lane called the Middle Passage, where slaves still chained together were tossed overboard, either deliberately to lighten cargo, or jumped willingly in order to die free, or just because they didn’t survive, but neither did we learn about Nat Turner (except that he led a rebellion and died, as if that was all there was to know) or the legal victory of the black men of the HMS Amistad.

And over the years, we learned the stories of our annual decorations. We saw films on the Civil Rights movement taking place in the south, having no idea those attitudes existed in the north, and given no awareness through our history textbooks that it was a global truth, if not universal:

Dark skin is evil.

It didn’t matter what form of evil, because all sorts of stories were concocted based generally around these two principals: Black was unclean, White was pure. Black was inferior, White was superior.

Yet, I was taught in science class that in the spectrum, black is the absence of color, and white contained them all. Why were we being persecuted for something we were not?

When I sang, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, until fourth grade I did not know my fathers died differently, I believed that Pilgrims and Indians lived in harmony. When I sang America the Beautiful, I did not know that its Natives had been stripped of their dignity, slaughtered like sheep, ravaged like Sabine virgins, and tossed aside as rubble.

I didn’t even know that as low as they were, they still owned Black men and women.

I was taught that the Quakers helped slaves escape to Canada to freedom. I have learned, only recently, that it was not so. There were slaves in Canada, too, and some who were free, were sold back.

Long buried in the archives of old libraries lay the story of my people, the mixing of my own ancestry, not just here in America, but across the world, doomed to die dusty deaths in the recessed shadows of long abandoned archives, unless one truly took the time to unearth them.

And then the Internet came, and grew, and evolved, and the archives were dredged and lovingly sorted, restored, and made available. And I learned that far more Black people achieved great things in the face of impossible odds and incredible oppression: denied admission, having no transportation, being ripped off, gutting of project financing, threats of death, and they kept going and became pilots and doctors, nurses and teachers, judges and lawmen, cowboys and business owners, so many, many names bubbling out of the soil after so much blood soaked in…

Their vision was clear and focused, their drive to succeed unstoppable, unshakable, and unswerving.

And all, all, having one common thread: ancestors brought here not to live, but to work, as commodities, not people, as beasts, and not men.

And they survived.

And I do indeed live here now, a free man in America, because of their sacrifice and vision, not limited to twenty-eight days in a government building. The storehouse is mine to visit, whenever I choose:

blackpast.org

blackhistorypages

blackhistory.com

These are just a few of the storerooms available online these days, rich with information. If you would gain some perspective, I invite you to celebrate with us, and not just for the month.

There are no ‘colored only’ signs on these doors….