“Sweet Harlem”: A historical fiction short story

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I was seven the first time I saw a man lynched. He was strung up from a flimsy branch of a short, stout tree. A dangling, lifeless body with a face caked in dry crusts of blood, and skin torn from being dragged down the long, thin gravel road, the one that separated the white part of town from the black one. His plain white shirt, the one sewn for him by his grandmother, a former slave and my neighbor, was drenched with sweat stains. And all around him on the ground were empty bottles of liquor, crumbs of sandwich leftovers, wrappers from chocolate bars and entry tickets. Remnants of a party, which in these parts of town is what a lynching was.

I walked past him looking up at the face of a young man not even twenty years old, and smelled the rotten stench of death by hate. Then I ran home along the disheveled roads of our Mississippi country town, up the rickety steps of our home made from mismatched wooden beams, walked inside and jumped into the arms of my father. I wrapped my arms tight around his neck and buried my face on his shoulder and let tears stream out like the rich waters of the Mississippi river. 

In broken words I told him what happened.  Then I asked, “pa, why?” 

He bit his upper lip, let out a sigh. Words were not quick to come, but I could already see the answer in his eyes. The prolonged desolate gaze of soulful longing for a different life. I don’t doubt he thought about this day. And I’m sure he rehearsed and tried to be ready with his words. But I reason one cannot prepare for the moment he has to explain to his daughter why men who look like her are being hung up from trees by mobs.

I sat there nestled on the banks of his upper thigh staring up and waiting for his response. There was none of course. How could he explain to me that our home was in a truly unremarkable country basin in the bedrock of racist America. That I was born into a society in which rules were little more than blots of black ink on stale sheets of white paper. Empty words of broken promises. Or that the governor of our state was not the man we heard on the radio, but an intangible institution by the name of Jim Crow. One that had been put in place to solace segregation, to appease and placate the hate filled hearts and corrupted minds of men and women for whom racial prejudices were still life’s norm. How could he explain to me that I was born into a society in which a mob was the jury and a noose was the verdict.

He couldn’t of course. The theatre of 1910’s southern life didn’t lend kindly to characters of darker skin. We were slaves in a slave time passed.

My father rested my head on his chest and let me fall asleep.

Not long after that day, my father sat me down on his sturdy right leg and told me I would have to pack my belongings. 

“Ella, we’re movin’,” he said.

“Where to?” I asked.

“To a place called Harlem, in New York.”

I had never heard of Harlem in New York nor did I care to learn. I didn’t want to move. Streams of tears made their way down my small pudgy cheeks. I don’t remember much from that day other than this conversation and that I was angry with my parents.

There was little for me to pack. Some clothes and a couple toys. Being poor did have advantages.

On a sunny winter morning in December of 1915, my parents and I stepped out of our house for one final time. Under the shadows of grand old oak trees that towered over our homes, friends and family came over to say goodbye. There were hugs, some tears, but for the most part there were many splendid smiles. For in our parts moving was becoming normal. Family after family was heading north. All chasing after dreams of a better life.

My father insisted we walk the one gravel road to town. He wanted us to have one more feel of the light brown soil, one more smell of the deep green bushes along both sides of the trail, to feel the crisp winter air on our skin.

Our walk took us past the small red brick building that was our church, where we spent every Sunday morning. We walked past trails that led into the dense forest. Ones that I’d run through with my friends hundreds of times. We walked past memories of life. For this road was the only one which we had ever actually traveled.

Once we got to town, I went over to the water fountain for a drink. Father taught me to use the one with the label, “colored only.” But even without the label, I knew which one was for me. My water fountain was a small bowl, once white, now covered with spots of brown rust. Rustic, you could say, if you wanted to make yourself feel better.

It was a stark contrast to the water fountain for white people. Theirs was much bigger, solid, and rectangular, with a shiny silver casing and the proud label of Westinghouse patched onto the front. The water fountain was a great metaphor for life in the south. Just like white folks, we had access to water. But their experience was separate from ours, easier to use, and more pleasant.

In town, we boarded the bus that would take us to Jackson, the start of our train ride north. We took our seats in the back of the bus and settled in. My mother at the window, my father next to the aisle, the two of them holding hands, and me on my father’s lap.

I looked up at my mother and watched her stare out of the bus window with a solemn yet dreamy gaze. My mother, only twenty-four years old but with wrinkles and grey hairs already beginning to show, standing in height taller than average and always proud, athletic thin, with a reserved smile, and at this moment, wearing her finest and only pearl necklace, just staring out into the vast planes of the Mississippi countryside.

My father, on the other hand, had his standard ear-to-ear wide smile on his face. A large man, 6’7, with broad shoulders, a chiseled clean-shaven face, soft, gentle eyes, long thin fingers that came useful at one point in life in his baseball career, as he was a great baseball player people would always tell me. One of the best pitchers in our parts, maybe the whole country. But when I was born, money became more important. So baseball was put aside.

That day he wore his only suit with his only white dress shirt and his only skinny black tie, with his only pair of shiny black shoes. It didn’t matter to him that the gravel road would make them dirty, and by the time we got into the bus, the shoes looked true to their old, worn-out self. What mattered to him was walking out of the house looking his finest.

I looked outside to a city going through change. Cars were not common in my parts of town. Here though, they were everywhere. And with the rise of cars came the construction of roads. Country dirt was going out of fashion, replaced by concrete. I watched cars drive by and looked at the smiling faces of the people inside. What problems were they dealing with, I wondered. What troubles burdened their lives. These thoughts didn’t last long. As the bus began to move, I dozed off, drooling on my father’s chest.

Notes:

“Sweet Harlem” is a historical fiction short story. While based on actual events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.

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