THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu
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By Mohammed Adamu
Post-slavery America had a black-only ‘lower-class’. It was a class that was not any more different from ‘slavery’ than the difference between the ‘letter’ and the ‘spirit’ of Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Emancipation proclamation’ document in the early days of the abolition. It had to be a ‘black-only’ class because no matter how abjectly poor any white Americans were then, just by their white pigmentation, they were deemed over-qualified for an underclass that was populated by emancipated slaves. Blacks by the way, had to grow from abject slavery to emancipated nonentities to qualify for this underclass. It was unthinkable that they should ever grow to meet and to equal even the most indigent white underclass who, by merely being freeborn-white, should forever be more privileged and more entitled by blacks.
This was the beginning of the post-slavery problems of the Afro-American –the warped view by most white Americans that it would be unjust and inequitable that librated slaves should be seen and treated equal to any class of white free born no matter how abjectly equal with blacks or even how indigently lower they might be. And what better way to make the white underclass feel better and more privileged than to impose on a post-slavery America a form of racial ‘apartheid’ or segregation? It was the only way to make America’s ‘supper’ lower class an exclusive club not necessarily of the lowest income Americans generally but of the lowest income blacks.
And on the extreme of that ‘black-only’, post-slavery lower-class, was also a white-only ‘upper-class’ that blacks, it was believed, because they would never have the purse, the position or the pigmentation, would forever therefore be under-qualified to attain. And it is the death-bed kicks of those racistly bigoted days bent on keeping blacks as permanent underclass, that are still manifesting in the spasms of occasional white-police-on-blacks brutality in America today. The asphyxiation of George Floyd by a racist white policeman bears all the imprimatur of the hangover of that malevolent past, and at the risk of sounding pessimistic, it will not be the last. It was in fact, one of the reasons JF Kennedy’s younger brother, Robert Kennedy, warned a black audience that given the very America that he knew, not even the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. would mark “the end of violence”.
But quite unusually too, between the black-only lower-class and a white-only upper-class, post-slavery America had a Middle Class also, stratified by race into two distinct Middle classes –one for whites who could not make it to ‘white-only upper-class’ and the other for blacks who had at least managed to escape the vagaries of ‘black-only lower-class’. And what did it take to escape the black-only ‘lower class’ and to launch into the black-only middle class? In those days, it was almost a lifetime of housemaidship -cooking and cleaning for a ‘white-only upper-class’ family. This was what chiefly distinguished the typical black middle class family from its typical co-white middle class’ family –which by pigmentation alone was middle-class enough without having to go beneath their pigmented status to cook and clean even for their more privileged white upper-class families. White middle class were, in a sense, a supper Middle class category, and light years more privileged than their black middle class counterparts.
But there was also a further subdivision of the black-middle class, this time stratified by locus, between black middle class families living in a disgruntled South that had just lost the Civil war and with it the right to keep its slaves, and black middle class families living in the North which had won the war and with it its right to enforce the Lincoln’s emancipation. And so whereas the North had embraced the fait accompli of Lincoln’s emancipation, the South was still in its fit of dying kicks, which would manifest in its fierce romance with racial segregation –a new phenomenon only a little less ignoble than slavery. Segregation was some kind of white apartheid which restricted the association of blacks and whites in public spaces.
In Mississippi for example a fiercely racist Governor J.P. Coleman had insisted that blacks were not fit to vote, and a chain of post-emancipation incidents including the lynching of over 500 blacks by whites would thereafter trigger the civil rights movements. It was the notorious era of ‘Jim Crow America’ when Southern states went haywire enacting a deluge of ‘apartheid’ legislation segregating white and black sittings in public spaces and entrances including prohibiting inter-racial marriages between whites and blacks.
It was around this time in 1955 that a 14-year old Chicago black boy named Emmett Till traveled to a little town called ‘Money’ in Mississippi, to spend summer with his relatives. And knowing the fierce anti-black sentiments of the wild wild South, Emmett’s nervous mother was said to have made sure to teach her son some self-preserving racial etiquette of that infamous South. In fact she had to secure Emmett’s promise that he would never forget to always answer whites (whether police or civilians) with ‘yasssuh!’ or ‘nawssuh!’ –to keep out of trouble. It was that bad in the nineteen-fifties, it is still bad even today in the twenty-twenties!
And so although little Emmett Till had been well schooled to stay out of racist white man’s trouble, nonetheless he still ran into racist white man’s trouble. One fateful day Emmett –while lampooning the racial segregation in the South- would tell his friends especially about his fully integrated schools back home in the North of Chicago including, they said, he showed them a picture of his white girlfriend. This was how liberal, he bragged, the North could be. Not believing this, Emmett’s friends challenged him to go do a stunt that no black boy dared to do in the South: talk to a white female cashier in a nearby store –who they had no idea was even married. Call it double jeopardy.
Emmett, apparently also schooled in the southern etiquette of boy-girl-relationship, practically had no difficulty doing just that –to the amazement and amusement of his racially-scared-stiff friends. Two days later the cashier’s husband Roy Bryant and his brother Milam heard about this derring-do pulled by a 14-year old black boy and as their racist anger got the better of their senses, they were said to have broken into the house of Emmett’s great-uncle, Moses Wright, dragged the 14-year old out into the thick of the night, shot him in the head after they had thoroughly bloodied and mutilated his face and body. With a length of barbed wire, it was reported “they tied a heavy cotton gin fan around his neck and then threw the body in the Tallahatchie River”. Black America, as usual, was hurt. But that was all that blacks were entitled to, then –the right to be hurt. Not the right to be enraged or outraged. Let alone to go swinging! Maybe in the North, yes. But never in the wild, wild South.
Both black and white press though were said to have covered the murder and the trial. But it did not do anything to get Emmett justice. An all white jury was empanelled which sat for only sixty-seven minutes to acquit the accused persons, with one juror in fact reported to have said “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it would not have taken that long”. This was the America of Muhammad Ali’s days, when he was Cassius Clay just venturing into boxing. In fact the 14-year murdered Emmett was just a year older than him. And this would also include some the reasons that informed Ali’s choice of boxing –to go into a line in which, he thought, he would avoid, as much as possible, racist white man’s trouble.
To be concluded