In honor of reaching 800 posts, we’ve taken a look back at our most popular pieces. Some of them have been surprises–like Do Black Babies Have Blue Eyes? (I didn’t think they did, but I wanted to be sure, because I had run across general claims like “All babies are born with blue eyes.”)
Apparently people love babies, so here are some interesting baby facts:
Babies are born with less melanin than their parents, because there’s no need for protection from sunlight while in the womb. This is why black babies are often a bit paler than than parents. (I try not to invade other people’s privacy by posting photos of other people’s infants, but here is a stock photo in which the newborn’s color is about the same as their father’s palms, distinctly lighter than their father’s overall coloration.)
Melanin levels typically increase over time in babies of all races, darkening skin and eyes. So white babies are often born with blue, grey, or light brown eyes that darken to the normal white range of blue to dark brown, but most African and Asian babies start out with eyes that are already pretty dark because they naturally have more melanin–though even their eyes show a range of newborn colors, from dark grey to green.
Hair: Most babies, including black/African babies, are born with soft, silky hair. Baby hair is different from adult hair because it grows from round hair follicles (which produce straight hair) and lacks the central shaft (or medulla) that stiffens adult hair. Over the first few months of life, follicles flatten and medullas grow in, giving hair its stiffer, curlier, more adult form, though the extent of this process differs widely by population.
White babies end up with a variety of hair textures. Most Asian babies end up with thick, straight hair, due to a variant of the EDAR gene that arose about 65,000 years ago. Despite the great genetic variety found in Sub-Saharan Africa, almost all black babies end up with tightly coiled, curly hair. Black hair has probably therefore been very valuable to people in Africa, providing enough of an evolutionary advantage that it has become nigh universal.
(Note that our nearest human relatives, the chimps, do not have curly hair. It is tempting to say that infant hair resembles chimpanzee hair, but I have never petted a chimp and so cannot really judge.)
433 4-mo-old infants from Boston, Dublin, and Beijing were administered the same battery of visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli to evaluate differences in levels of reactivity. The Chinese Ss were significantly less active, irritable, and vocal than the Boston and Dublin samples, with Boston Ss showing the highest level of reactivity. Data suggest the possibility of temperamental differences between Caucasian and Asian infants in reactivity to stimulation.
The average length of gestation is about 5 days shorter in black populations than in white populations. Although some of this difference is accounted for by higher preterm delivery rates in blacks, the most common gestational week of delivery at term is the 39th in black populations, the 40th in white. Black gestational age specific neonatal mortality is lower than that of whites until the 37th week of gestation, but higher thereafter.
Another article with similar findings (though I don’t know how they define “Asian” because the source is British and Brits often include south Asians like Pakistanis in the “Asian” category even though they are genetically closer to Europeans. So far I haven’t found any data that specifically addresses gestation length in East Asians.) This study found that pregnancies vary naturally in length by over a month, even excluding some premature births. There are many reasons why pregnancies may vary, including maternal age, size, stress, and genetics–important factors for Obgyns to keep in mind when evaluating the medical needs of different mothers and their fetuses.
I found this book a very interesting read in part because of its connections to my own personal past (as discussed two weeks ago,) and in part because of its insight into an era in American history that has passed away: post-WWII, pre-internet. Post-Civil Rights Act, pre-large-scale immigration. Post-industrialization, but before many of the farms were left behind.
I don’t normally review (positively) anthropologic works this recent, but I think Sapp did an admirable job documenting and understanding the cultural and political dynamics at play in the community. So let’s dive in.
On Horseback Riding:
“Interestingly enough, horseback riding for pleasure has long been disdained by countrymen. This attitude relates to differential traditional uses of the horse: to the small farmer the horse was a necessity as a draft animal and beast of burden; to the “gentleman farmer,” the wealthy town professional, the horse was a relatively inexpensive luxury and a means of transportation for supervisory visits to the small homes and fields of tenants. The gentleman farmer bred or purchased animals for qualities other than ability to pull a wagon or a plow: from horseback, one looks down to one’s servants.”
Population Nodes and Distribution:
“Churches, rural schools, and crossroads general stores have served as centers of widely dispersed rural neighborhood,s tying the scattered populace into networks of communication. Over the years a demographic shift in population has emptied half a hundred of these hamlet centers for each that exists today. … The railroads, as much as any factor, account for the distribution of population… Lizbeth, the present county sea, was formed forty years after the county was firs settled, as a station stop on a railway spur from Georgia.
“In Apalachee County [Note: today Suwannee County] farming neighborhoods appeared prior to Lizbeth… and decades before numerous and ephemeral market centers that sprang up every few miles along railroad rights-of-way. In those years before and briefly after the War Between the States inhabitants marketed preponderantly at the river. After 1880 or so, rural people marketed chiefly at crossroads stores and at tiny commercial nuclei strung like beads along country railway chains built to sell real estate and to haul timber. …
“In Appalachee County the dirt farmers arrived first. Townspeople, as small merchants and peddlers, part-time preachers … appeared on the heels of the farmers, setting up in dozens of rural neighborhoods, at intersections too small to be cross roads, at numerous railroad stops.”
Country Family, Town Family:
“The social nature of he work environment suggests that the family system of the townspeople differed from that of the country people. In the country men worked in the open where, till the advent of mechanized farming, income level depended in part upon amount of work done and the ability to be up and out before dawn till after sunset. Wives brought dinner pails into the fields so that work would be interrupted as little as possible. The more sons a family had, he greater the amount of work they could do. Work began before ten years of age and continued… until a man escaped or died. The extended family which ended to cohabit in the same rural neighborhood… participated in work sharing, especially in times of family crisis.
“The family system of the townspeople operated within a far more enclosed setting: the locus of work, a store or a mill. A man and wife or a man and business partner easily handled the business of the store, where income depended on direct commodity exchange for money (or credit) rather than on the duration of work-related activity inside or the number of workers there. Children were not a direct economic asset… The town merchant might marry his children into rural families to increase his clientele… but four reasons doomed even this as a conscious effort.
[1. Love as an ideal, 2. Town and country folk frequent different churches and so don’t meet, etc.]
“The town nabob group per se has not maintained a historical continuity in this community. Prominent families of the pre-1920s have generally failed perpetuate themselves biologically… The failure to abide and beget relates, perhaps, to differing export economies of the times…
“The rotation of elites prompted by changes in community revenue-producing activities has bequeathed two characteristics to the Apalachee own nabob class: small size and a tenuous hold on high status.”
EvX: There are a lot of social clubs in this town. I am reminded here of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which posits that there once existed an America in which people belonged to civic organizations. This must have been before the era of cable TV and Facebook.
I know a lot of the decline in club membership is attributed to rising diversity, but entertainment options have a lot to do with it, too. A world in which people have cars but only 3 or 4 TV channels–what do you do with yourself? You could read a book, or you could go hang out at the Rotary Club.
According to Sapp:
“Of the three principal white, mature men’s clubs, it is said:
The Rotary club owns the town;
The Kiwanis club runs the town; and
The Lions club enjoys the town.
For a full discussion of how the clubs work and interact with town governance, you may want to read the paper.
There follows a chapter on African American life in Suwannee, with special attention to the men of the turpentine camps. According to Wikipedia:
Turpentine (also called spirit of turpentine, oil of turpentine, wood turpentine and colloquially turps) is a fluid obtained by the distillation of resin from live trees, mainly pines. It is mainly used as a solvent and as a source of materials for organic synthesis. …
To tap into the sap producing layers of the tree, turpentiners used a combination of hacks to remove the pine bark. Once debarked, pine trees secrete oleoresin onto the surface of the wound as a protective measure to seal the opening, resist exposure to micro-organisms and insects, and prevent vital sap loss. Turpentiners wounded trees in V-shaped streaks down the length of the trunks to channel the oleoresin into containers. It was then collected and processed into spirits of turpentine. Oleoresin yield may be increased by as much as 40% by applying paraquat herbicides to the exposed wood. …
Oleoresin may also be extracted from shredded pine stumps, roots, and slash using the light end of the heavy naphtha fraction (boiling between 90 and 115 °C or 195 and 240 °F) from a crude oil refinery. Multi-stage counter-current extraction is commonly used so fresh naphtha first contacts wood leached in previous stages and naphtha laden with turpentine from previous stages contacts fresh wood before vacuum distillation to recover naphtha from the turpentine…
According to Sapp, turpentining was the hardest work in Appalachee county; when the turpentine industry rand out, wood pulping became the hardest work. Unsurprisingly, this unpleasant work was carried out by African Americans, many of them “leased” from the Florida state prison system. In 1870, Florida prisoners were 20:1 black to white’ by the 1890s, that proportion had dropped to 2:1 as things like “evidence” became required for conviction.
Still, one gets the impression that life in the turpentine camps at the turn of the century was little more than slavery.
Quoting Zora Neale Hurston:
“… teppentime folks are born, not made, and certainly not overnight. They are born in teppentime, live all their lives init, and die and go to their graves smelling of teppentime.”
“Regional white people made fortunes in [turpentine], founded on a supply of unskilled, legally unprotected and dependent black labor. …
Negroes have provided the labor for the [turpentine] industry since the beginning of slavery in America. Generation after generation they have followed its southward migration, and the majority of those engaged in it today are descended from a long line of turpentine workers. More than any other occupational group these Negroes are denied the rights for which the Civil War was supposedly fought. …
“White men with access to a black labor pool contracted to tap the trees on land owned by other whites. The contractor… then moved a settlement of black people into the area of the leased trees, housing them in portable huts in a “camp.” …
“Contractors sublet stands of pines to black men, encouraging them to maintain families in the camp on the theory that the men would thus be bound to their service and prevented from “running” when accumulated debt [to the camp commissary] negated any profit from a year’s activity.
“It was not at all unheard of for the owner to supply a woman for a man without, “marrying” the pair by the simple expedient of assigning hem to a cabin and opening an account for them in the camp commissary.”
EvX: The text doesn’t say how these women were obtained, nor what they thought of this arrangement.
Anyway, turpentining eventually faded as and industry (and today machines do a lot of the heavy work of hauling and chopping logs to be made into pulp,) and boll weevils killed the cotton crop in the 1920s, which probably had a big effect on black employment in the South and helped motivate the Great Migration, though the Wikipedia page on it doesn’t mention the weevils.
There follows a rather detailed description of the most important cafes/coffee shops in the county seat and which county officials sit where while drinking their coffee. Apparently a lot of governance happens through informal coffeeshop discussions between different local “factions.”
Banks loom large in the discussion, due to their influence and necessity in agricultural life:
“Occasionally a crop fails and bank notes cannot be met. In this situation a deferred note means continued solvency and perseverance in a preferred life-style. …
“At this point in the credit system the principle of “personalism” regulates the nature of the relation of power between lender and borrower. The alternative to default involves a loyalty complex “up” in exchange for continued credit loyalty “down.” To maintain the system in the long run, the flow of local resources up must somewhat exceed the flow down. … but too great a flow up would ruin the exchange and precipitate the collapse of the townsman-countryman pattern of relations. Loyalty “up” means that secondary goods and services (e.g. … supporting the creditor’s community projects and policies) temporarily take the place of the primary credit repayment and help assure continued future credit.
“Why should the credit lender not foreclose in these cases? As bank owner, the credit lender facilitates a continual flow of exchanges through his institution. Were the flow inhibited, the bank owner and his immediate family would not personally be threatened with ruin, but the thousands of transactions which the bank handles and which define the bank itself would teeter on the brink of collapse, pushed there by the uncertainty and insecurity of hundreds of other persons akin to the foreclosed in situation as well as kinship. Foreclosure (area bank owners boast of their efforts in assisting local borrowers on the verge of financial disaster) is an act of transactional finality. In the long run the institution benefits not from amassing wealth by foreclosures, but from extending overdue notes and translating the credit dependency to secondary areas.”
EvX: Finally, we have some comparisons to other small-town communities:
“Based on the evidence from this community study, we have not seen social disorganization or a “surrender to mass society” such as Vidich and Bensman (1958) witnessed in a New York township. … They found that the “controlling conditions” of local society were “centralization, bureaucratization, and dominance by large-scale organizations”… While these conditioning elements are present in Apalachee County, the do not dominate the local social organization. Indeed, the county-community has tended to absorb new relational sets, incorporating them into extant patterns in the system. …
“Perhaps the town-country dynamic of the county-community, the internal dynamic expressed between county seat and rural neighborhoods, has proven more resistant or resilient as a social form to the advent of a “mass society” represented here by the townsman system of social relations. The country community has proven more resilient than the nucleated New England village community, wherein the essence of centralization was planted long ago. Perhaps “surrender to mass society” depends upon the social form of human community, if indeed there is any such thing.”
“Important political decisions about local affairs will continue to be made outside the community, but the future of life in the human community is not necessarily bleak. The local life of neighborhood and community will survive “centralization, bureaucratization, and dominance by large-scale organizations.” Whether the county-community survives the twentieth century in its present form is not important. People adapt. the human community will absorb these changes as it has absorbed others of a dehumanizing nature, for it is the locus of the life of man.”
I wonder what Sapp–if he is still alive–thinks of the changes wrought in American society over the past 50 years, and particularly in Apalachee–now Suwannee–county.
Welcome back to Anthropology Friday, featuring Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. At his height, Lucas’s net worth was, by his account, around 52 million dollars, much of it stashed in off-shore bank accounts and American real estate. But at this point in our story, Lucas was still Bumpy Johnson’s driver.
One evening, Bumpy, Lucas and a few others were eating dinner:
At Well’s, I sat a few booths away from Bumpy. …
The chimes at the door rattled and in came a tall, lanky young man with a shock of red hair styled in a straightened conk. He made his way to Bumpy’s table and then stopped, waiting for permission from Bumpy before sitting down.
Bumpy smiled, just barely, and tilted his head to the side in a gesture that meant “have a seat.” …
The two of them spoke briefly. I wasn’t close enough to hear anything but I could tell it was a friendly, personal conversation. They didn’t look like they were in any kind of business together.
The guy took one sip of his coffee, looked at his watch, and stood up.
“Gotta go. Good to see you, Mr. Johnson.”
Always good to see you. Careful out there, Red,” said Bumpy…
Just like all of Bumpy’s associates, the guy called Detroit Red didn’t speak to me… But I knew him. I knew they called him Detroit Red and I always recognized the bright red hair he had. Years and years later, he would become Malcolm X.
I assume I don’t need to tell you about Malcolm X. He’s pretty famous–even I’ve seen the movie about him.
Bumpy decides to put Lucas in charge of a “numbers” spot, keeping track of gamblers. He explains to Lucas the different kinds of gamblers and how the operation works:
“[This guy] Can’t afford to play more than a quarter a day. But he plays it. He’d skip lunch before he missed playing his number. …
“This is a sensitive operation. It’s illegal–God only knows why–so you have to watch out for the police. Avoid the good cops. Pay off the crooked ones. …
“Spot like this one? Right next to the subway line. Brings in at least a hundred grand a week.”
As crimes go, gambling is pretty mild and makes decent money, but Lucas finds it boring and itches to expand into something more exciting. While watching a news report about American servicemen in Vietnam getting hooked on the local heroin, described as purer and cheaper than the heroin available in the US. Those words stuck in his brain, but Bumpy nixed his idea to go to Thailand and buy drugs straight from the source, bypassing the Mafia. In the meanwhile:
[Frank’s third child] was born in the spring. And by the fall of 1960, I was in a situation that would make it much harder for me to go see him.
I got arrested for conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to thirty months in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg… Doing jail time was no big deal to me. But what made it a little complicated was that they had blacks and whites desegregated. Around the time I went into Lewisburg, they’d passed some law that made it illegal to segregate prisoners. So, for the first time in the common areas and in the mess hall, black folks and white folk were together. I’m not so sue that was a good idea back then ’cause, for the most part, blacks and whites in jail were like the Bloods and Crips today.
And at Lewisburg, there were more white boys. We were outnumbered at least three to one, which just added to the tension when they started mixing us up.
I started this whole project hoping to find something on race and prison gangs (unfortunately, my local library didn’t have anything that looked promising on the subject.) Even within the genre of crime stories, it appears that most people aren’t very comfortable discussing racial conflict, but I doubt a stranger who started his memoir with a Klan slaying is any stranger to racial animosity.
With Bumpy’s passing, Lucas became one of the top gangsters in Harlem and could finally pursue his dream of importing heroin directly from Thailand. With military planes flying in and out of the area due to the Vietnam war, it wasn’t hard to arrange for a few more things to be shipped in their holds. The drugs arrive and Lucas arranges for a crew to unload it from the plane:
Doc and his boys moved everything out. They would take it to the second location to prevent the first crew from knowing too much about the operation. I always wanted to have more than one layer to my business proceedings. And with a project like this, it was even more important.
My work was now done. Doc and Glynn would make sure the product was prepared for the streets and sold. I didn’t touch any part of that process. … I was no longer a drug dealer. I didn’t deal with any junkies. I didn’t touch any drugs, and I was several layers removed from the streets. I was an entrepreneur; I simply dealt with supply and demand. Some folks import tea from China, art from Paris, or fabric from Italy. I imported heroin.
Both Mafia bosses and Frank Lucas used this technique of putting multiple layers of employees between themselves and the street-level handling, processing, and selling of the product (or street-level gambling operations, extortion, etc.) The Bosses call the shots, but with enough plausible deniability to make them difficult to prosecute (which is why they are often prosecuted on money-laundering charges, instead.)
With Frank Lucas managing the supply chain, the streets of New York were flooded with cheaper, more potent heroin–leading to thousands of deaths.
For years, I would use this to keep my mind off the guilt of what the heroin was doing to the people in my community. Joseph Seagram made sure the streets had beer, wine, and liquor. And I’m sure he didn’t feel bad about the winos and alcoholics in the street. Down in North Carolina, where I was from, R. J. Reynolds had tobacco fields everywhere. Made sure the streets were flooded with cigarettes… I know R. J. Reynolds didn’t feel bad about folks dying of lung cancer left and right.
I was Frank Lucas. I supplied the streets of Harlem with heroin. It was my profession. And, like war, it came with casualties.
Lucas goes to visit the poppy fields in Thailand:
I’m telling you, I felt like we crossed every river in Asia on our way. From the Ruak River to the Mekong, we trekked out on foot for miles and miles. ….
And across the land, there was nothing but poppies–everywhere. I was in complete shock.
Now, when I say there was nothing before me but poppy field, you really have to understand what I’m trying to tell you. I’m talking about land the size of all five boroughs in New York City combined. And there was nothing but the poppy seed plants–the plant that heroin is made from–stretching from one end to the other. I looked up and noticed that the entire field was covered with dark netting. The netting made it impossible to see the fields from the sky so that traveling military planes wouldn’t know what was going on there. But the sun could still shine through…
I asked my guide how the area had become the headquarters for heroin… In the 1960s, there was an anticommunist group of Chinese people who had settled near the border of China and Burma. They ended up getting support from the American CIA… The Hmong people traded in heroin, an with the CIA tuning a blind eye to their illegal activities, the region exploded. …
While the CIA was sponsoring a Secret War in Laos from 1961 to 1975, it was accused of trafficking in opium (an area known as the Golden Triangle). …
During its involvement, the CIA used the Meo (Hmong) population to fight Pathet Lao rebels. Because of the war against Pathet Lao rebels, the Hmong depended upon poppy cultivation for hard currency. The Hmong were very important to CIA operations and the CIA was very concerned with their well-being. The Plain of Jars had been captured by Pathet Lao rebels in 1964, which resulted in the Laotian Air Force not being able to land their C-47 transport aircraft on the Plain of Jars for opium transport. The Laotian Air Force had almost no light planes that could land on the dirt runways near the mountaintop poppy fields. Having no way to transport their opium, the Hmong were faced with economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. “According to several unproven sources, Air America began flying opium from mountain villages north and east of the Plain of Jars to Gen Vang Pao’s headquarters at Long Tieng.”
The CIA’s front company, Air America was alleged to have profited from transporting opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao, or of “turning a blind eye” to the Laotian military doing it. This allegation has been supported by former Laos CIA paramilitary Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe), former Air America pilots, and other people involved in the war. … However, University of Georgia historian William M. Leary, writing on behalf of Air America, claims that this was done without the airline employees’ direct knowledge and that the airline did not trade in drugs.
Finally Lucas get a bit sloppy, shows off a bit too much wealth, and more than just crooked cops (who had long known about his business and been extorting him for money) come down on him. His house is raided and they find nearly $600,000 in cash (Lucas claims there was far more, but they stole it, including the key and subsequently contents of his safe deposit box in the Cayman Islands.) He was sentenced to 70 years in prison, but for providing evidence that lead to 100 other drug-related convictions, he was placed in the Witness Protection Program. His sentence was was soon reduced to five years plus lifetime parole.
After some more in-and-out with the legal system, he was released from prison in 1991.
Testimony during one of the trials from a grieving mother whose son overdosed on heroin began to make Lucas realize that he couldn’t just wash his hands of the results of his “business.” Tired of prison and the drug trade, Lucas was faced with the prospect of finding legal ways to make money:
As soon as I got out, my brother Larry asked me about working with him on an oil deal. He knew a man who was trying to import oil from Nigeria to Texas.
“He’s got a great connection,” said Larry. “He’s just trying to raise money.” … “Nothing illegal here, Frank. He just needs investors. Everything’s on the up and up.” …
I met with the guy and I was impressed with him right way. I agreed to start doing some fund-raising for him and try to get his oil business off the ground. Even though I wasn’t in the drug game anymore, I still knew people with money. I ended up raising close to a million dollars in three months… ‘The profits from the oil business started coming in quickly. It wasn’t big money. It was nothing like I’d experienced years before… But I did pull in about a hundred grand every few months. And I did it legally–for the very first time in my entire adult life.
Lucas soon found other ways to make money, like turning his life’s story into a book and then a movie.
At the memoir’s end, he approaches the premier of the movie about his own life, considers for a few minutes, and turns away:
In some small measure, my absence from the premier [of the movie about him] was out of respect to the many people, in Harlem and beyond, who suffered from the heroin industry that I helped to expand. …
Today, I write this book and outline all my successes and my failings in honor of every single person affected directly or indirectly by the evils of the heroin trade. … I’m seventy-eight years old today and I still have a lifetime of regret.
And every single word in this book is dedicated to those I impacted in any way.
Does he mean it? I suppose that is between him and God. Can a man of no conscience develop one? Can a man with psychopathic disregard for the lives of others (and his own) become a loving husband, father, and son? And can a man redeem himself for such crimes?
And from a societal perspective, what should be done with people like Lucas? Is there some alternative scenario where he didn’t enter a life of crime? Lucas certainly didn’t enter crime because he lacked the intelligence or talents necessary for other occupations, but because he was far too ambitious for the honest employment options open to him. Even if better jobs had been available, would he have wanted to pursue them, or would all of those years of school and training have been too tedious beside the allure of immediate money?
Welcome back to Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. (Given that I’d never heard of Frank Lucas before reading this book, I’m not sure how notorious he actually is, but I’ll grant that I can’t name a whole lot of drug lords off the top of my head.)
To recap: at the age of 14, Frank Lucas arrived–penniless and homeless–in NYC. He began stealing food and quickly progressed to drug dealing and armed robbery:
I was crazy. I didn’t care about anything except where my next dollar was coming from and how I was going to spend it… I heard through the grapevine that I had at least five contracts out on my life. From the grocery-store owner to the group of gangsters I’d robbed at the gambling spot,* people were straight up making deals and promising money to anyone who would kill em dead in the street.
*Not a good idea.
I should mention here that I was all of seventeen years old.
I wasn’t afraid to die. More than that, I just didn’t care about dying. I was young, tough, good-looking, and strong. I was prepared to do whatever I had to do to live. If that meant killing anyone who tried to kill me, so be it.
I have a friend who was homeless for many years. During that time, he never held up a liquor store or so much as picked a pocket. He ate at soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters, and while the food was dull and the environs terrible, he didn’t starve and he is very much still alive. Of course, the charity situation in NYC in the 40s may have been different, but I have not heard of their homeless just starving to death. Theft is not necessary for survival.
On the other hand, Frank Lucas was homeless for a far shorter time than my friend, and ended up with far more money.
For several weeks, I was a wanted man. But if you’d run into me at one of my Harlem hangouts you’d never have known it by looking at me. I was calm, cool. and collected. I woke up every morning ready to kill on sight. …
I continued robbing whoever and wherever, getting my money up, and I was still dating any woman I wanted.
Lack of fear is one of the signs of psychopathy (especially since psychopaths experience low emotional affect in general.) As Wikipedia puts it:
People scoring 25 or higher in the PCL-R, with an associated history of violent behavior, appear on average to have significantly reduced microstructural integrity between the white matter connecting the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex (such as the uncinate fasciculus). The evidence suggested that the degree of abnormality was significantly related to the degree of psychopathy and may explain the offending behaviors. …
Additionally, the notion of psychopathy being characterized by low fear is consistent with findings of abnormalities in the amygdala, since deficits in aversive conditioning and instrumental learning are thought to result from amygdala dysfunction, potentially compounded by orbitofrontal cortex dysfunction, although the specific reasons are unknown.
Back to Lucas:
I think we need to recap right here before I go any further. I come up to Harlem in the mid-1940s, just barely a teenager. I start robbing and stealing, move on to selling heroin, and within a few years, I’d made and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. … And I took it straight to the gambling and pool halls throughout my neighborhood and lost every penny.
Glib and superficial charm
Cunning and manipulativeness
Need for stimulation
Impulsivity / Irresponsibility
Poor behavioral controls
Lack of (realistic) long-term goals
Many short-term marital relationships / Sexual promiscuity
Lack of remorse or guilt / Lack of empathy
Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Early behavioral problems / Juvenile delinquency
Revocation of conditional release
Lucas does eventually get married, love his wife, provide for a couple of his many children, and feel remorse for selling the heroin that killed many people. But that’s later. At 17, he was wondering if he could get in on the murder-for-hire business:
I wondered if Icepick needed a little help in the kill-for-hire business. I would have killed someone for twenty-five thousand dollars. … It’s the mind frame I was in at the time. … It was kill or be killed, as far as I was concerned.
Icepick Red was wanted by the police for walking up to people in the streets and sticking icepicks into their chests, presumably in exchange for money. Lucas tries to talk to Icepick, but Icepick (who does not come across as the sanest guy) won’t even acknowledge his presence. (Later in the book, one of Lucas’s wives–upon realizing that he was going to be a terrible father–has an abortion, and Lucas has the temerity to object that killing fetuses is immoral.)
I wanted to find a picture for you of Icepick–or even the original newspaper article about him–but so far nothing specific has come up. I did, however, find an article confirming that icepicks were a popular murder weapon about this time:
Just when it seemed the ice pick served no purpose, a Brooklyn organized-crime syndicate, known as Murder Incorporated, found a deliberately sinister use for the otherwise antiquated tool. Historians estimate that the gangster ring carried out 400 to 1,000 contract killings. In more than a few cases, the victim met with his death at the end of an ice pick.
According to newspaper accounts, two young Brooklyn “underworld characters” were found dead in a vacant lot in New Jersey in 1932. Their bodies, each stabbed at least 20 times with an ice pick, were stuffed into sewn sacks. One victim had only one cent in his pocket.
In 1944, a jury found Jacob Drucker guilty of the murder of Walter Sage, a Brooklyn moneylender whose body was found “riddled with ice-pick holes” and strapped to a slot machine frame.
“Let me put it to you this way,” said a former New York City police detective. “An ice pick stabbed through the temple and through the brains was not uncommon in homicides.”
Back then, mobsters used ice picks not only because the tool was easy to get and did the job … but also because an ice pick instilled fear. It was employed to send a message, said the detective, Thomas D. Nerney, 72, who joined the New York Police Department in 1966 and worked in virtually every homicide squad in the city before retiring in 2002.
“Murder is not only to take somebody’s life away, but to terrorize,” Mr. Nerney said. …”That was the message that went out to the people who didn’t comply with the rules of the Mafia.”
A little later, Lucas and Icepick Red got into a tense situation over a game of pool, when Bumpy Johnson stepped in (and, according to Lucas, saved his life):
I’d never seen him before. But anyone living in Harlem knew the name Bumpy Johnson. I’d read his name in the paper a few time and I knew that if anyone in Harlem wanted to do any kind of big business, he had to come see Bumpy Johnson first. Or die. …
I only knew the basics about Bumpy stuff I’d heard in the streets. He was from South Carolina. And I’d heard that he wasn’t a typical gangster. He worked the streets but he wasn’t of the streets. He was refined and classy, more like a businessman with a legitimate career than most people in the underworld. I could tell by looking at him that he was a lot different than most people I saw in the streets. …
From that day until the day he died, my place was at the right side of Bumpy Johnson. I went where he went. I did whatever he told me to do. I listened, I observed, and I learned. I didn’t ask questions. I only followed commands and order. And I learned everything about how the King of Harlem ran his enterprises.
There’s some debate over how much Lucas actually worked for Bumpy. Bumpy’s wife, Mayme, tells the story differently. (Here’s an interesting story about Bumpy from Mayme’s POV.)
I’m not sure if Icepick Red was a real person, or multiple people rolled into one character, but Bumpy was definitely real. He moved to Harlem in 1919, and became an enforcer for Stephanie St. Clair, herself, fascinating. St. Clair, born in 1886 in Martinique of French and African parentage, became one of Harlem’s only female mob bosses. According to Wikipedia:
After the end of Prohibition, Jewish and Italian-American crime families saw a decrease in profits and decided to move in on the Harlem gambling scene. Bronx-based mob boss Dutch Schultz was the first to move in, beating and killing numbers operators who would not pay him protection.
Saint-Clair and her chief enforcer Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson refused to pay protection to Schultz, despite the violence and intimidation by police they faced. St. Clair responded by attacking the storefronts of businesses that ran Dutch Schultz’s betting operations and tipping off the police about him. This resulted in the police raiding his house, arresting more than a dozen of his employees and seizing approximately $12 million (about $216 million in 2016 currency). Saint-Clair never submitted to Dutch Schultz like many others in Harlem eventually did.
After Saint-Clair’s struggles with Schultz, she had to keep clean and away from police, so she handed off her business to “Bumpy” Johnson. Eventually her former enforcer negotiated with Lucky Luciano, and Lucky took over Schultz’s spots, with a percentage going to “Bumpy”. The Italians then had to go to “Bumpy” first if they had any problems in Harlem.
Luciano realized that the struggle with the Five Families was hurting their business, so Schultz was assassinated in 1935 on the orders of The Commission. Saint-Clair sent an insulting telegram to his hospital bed as the gangster lay dying. By the 1940s, “Bumpy” Johnson had become the reigning king in Harlem, while Saint-Clair became less and less involved in the numbers game.
Let’s return to Lucas’s account:
If you wanted to do business in Harlem, you went through Bumpy. And you paid him a percentage of your profits for the benefits of being in business in the neighborhood. It was like property tax–hazard insurance. If you didn’t want your hardware store, beauty salon, or grocery to go up in flames in the dead of night, you collected your fee every month and passed it off to one of Bumpy’s associates…
I saw a variety of celebrities come into his brownstone to visit. I saw the actor Sidney Poitier in the sitting room one afternoon, talking with Bumpy. On other occasions, I saw people like Billy Daniels and Billy Eckstine in the formal dining room for dinner. Of course, I never had conversation with these people. That wasn’t my place…
years later, I’d hear about how Bumpy Johnson was supposedly a big time drug dealer. I put my life on this statement right here: I didn’t know nothing about Bumpy and drugs. He never whispered a word to me about it and I was with him from first thing in the morning till late at night. I’m not saying he wasn’t. I’m just saying that if he was, he did it all without me hearing a word about it. …
Bumpy didn’t just shake down businesses in Harlem. If anyone made any money doing anything illegal, Bumpy was owed a piece of that, too. Soon after I started working for him, some guys from Harlem pulled a job off out in the Midwest, robbed some diamonds from somewhere. And they sent Bumpy his share of the heist. That kind of thing happened quite often.
The story of Icepick Red comes to an end after Icepick murders one of Bumpy’s associates and rapes the deceased’s wife. Bumpy sends Lucas and some of his other men to do what the police couldn’t: bring Icepick in. Bumpy proceeds to chain Icepick to a pipe and sic a couple of jars of fire ants on him. Icepick is eaten alive.
(Despite Icepick’s crimes, Lucas expresses horror at the nature of his murder, noting that he wishes he had just shot Icepick when they cornered him.)
Whether Icepick was real or a composite, I still wonder it took someone like Bumpy–not the police–to bring him down. Was it only in the 90s that the police got serious about stopping criminals, instead of occasionally beating them up and then returning them to the streets?
I’m running low on time, so that’s all for today. See you next Friday!
Welcome to the final volume in our exploration of the anthropology of crime, Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster. Unlike the other book in this series, this one is actually (co)authored by the criminal himself. This provides a unique perspective, but also introduces the question of whether the author is entirely honest–but since I have no way to independently verify his story, I’ll just be reporting matters as he tells them.
It’s been a month since I finished the book, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s an interesting read, for sure, but I am ambivalent about giving criminals more attention–on the other hand, the book has already been made into a movie, so what’s one more reader?
Lucas’s story begins in 1936, when, at the age of six, he witnesses his cousin’s head blown off by the KKK. He soon began stealing food to help feed his impoverished family, and left home at the age of 14. I forget why, exactly, he decided to set off on his own, but he quickly ran into trouble, was arrested and put into a chain gang. With a little help he managed to escape and made his way to New York City, where a helpful bus driver got him to his final destination:
“Right here! Go. Get off! This is Harlem.”
I stood on 114th Street and 8th Avenue and looked to my right and to my left. There was nothing but black people as far as I cold see. And there were all kinds of black folks: men and women of all ages and sizes, some who looked dirt poor (but not as poor as me) and some who looked straight-up rich.
I threw out my hands and screamed out as loud as I could, “Hello, Harlem USA!”
Harlem has an interesting history of its own. The British burned down the small, Dutch town during the Revolutionary War. New York City expanded into Harlem, and after the Civil War, the area became heavily Jewish and Italian. By the 30s, the Jews had been replaced by Puerto Ricans (the Italians lingered a little longer.)
In 1904, black real estate entrepreneur Phillip Payton, Jr., of the Afro-American Realty Company, began encouraging blacks to move from other New York neighborhoods to Harlem (which had particularly low rents then because of a housing crash.) According to Wikipedia:
The early 20th-century Great Migration of blacks to northern industrial cities was fueled by their desire to leave behind the Jim Crow South, seek better jobs and education for their children, and escape a culture of lynching violence. During World War I, expanding industries recruited black laborers to fill new jobs, thinly staffed after the draft began to take young men. … In 1910, Central Harlem was about 10% black. By 1920, central Harlem was 32.43% black. The 1930 census showed 70.18% of Central Harlem’s residents as black… As blacks moved in, white residents left. Between 1920 and 1930, 118,792 white people left the neighborhood and 87,417 blacks arrived.
Between 1907 and 1915 some white residents of Harlem resisted the neighborhood’s change, especially once the swelling black population pressed west of Lenox Avenue, which served as an informal color line until the early 1920s. Some made pacts not to sell to or rent to black Others tried to buy property and evict black tenants, but the Afro-American Realty Company retaliated by buying other property and evicting whites. …
Soon after blacks began to move into Harlem, the community became known as “the spiritual home of the Negro protest movement.” … The NAACP chapter there soon grew to be the largest in the country. Activist A. Philip Randolph lived in Harlem and published the radical magazine The Messenger starting in 1917. … W. E. B. Du Bois lived and published in Harlem in the 1920s, as did James Weldon Johnson and Marcus Garvey.
You know, some books are written in a way that lends themselves quoting, and some are not. This book had a great deal of interesting material about crime and particularly Lucas’s development as a criminal, but most of it went into too much depth to easily quote. (I do longer quotes for books out of copyright.) This passage works, though:
I never even thought about getting a regular job. That just wasn’t me. From the moment I saw my cousin’s head blown away in front of me by the Klan, I had no faith in doing things the “right” way. … I watched my parents break their backs for next to nothing because they tried to play by the unfair rule of the sharecropping system. Just seemed like trying to do things the so-called right way got you nowhere…
There were two Harlems back then. There were the high-society folks, the people who lived in the fancy brownstones overlooking Central Park or up on Mount Morris. … I didn’t notice these people. I knew they were there, but it was like they were in black and white. …Those people up on Mount Morris had solid educations, which gave them a hell of a lot more options than I had. …
The underworld was in full, living color. The prostitute and their pimps, the number runners and their clients, the drug dealers and, most especially, the gamblers, who always had lots of money. They spoke a language I could read, write, and understand fluently.
Just to recap, our author showed up in Harlem at the age of 14 or so with the clothes on his back and not enough money to ride the bus. He found a warm place to sleep with the other homeless and began stealing food. This progressed to stealing money, and as the author puts it:
A few months after I started stealing anything not nailed down in Harlem, I was introduced to the heroin trade.
Hoffmann, working at Bayer pharmaceutical company in Elberfeld, Germany, was instructed by his supervisor Heinrich Dreser to acetylate morphine with the objective of producing codeine, a constituent of the opium poppy… Instead, the experiment produced an acetylated form of morphine one and a half to two times more potent than morphine itself. The head of Bayer’s research department reputedly coined the drug’s new name, “heroin,” based on the German heroisch, which means “heroic, strong” (from the ancient Greek word “heros, ήρως”). …
In 1895, the German drug company Bayer marketed diacetylmorphine as an over-the-counter drug under the trademark name Heroin. It was developed chiefly as a morphine substitute for cough suppressants that did not have morphine’s addictive side-effects. Morphine at the time was a popular recreational drug, and Bayer wished to find a similar but non-addictive substitute to market. However, contrary to Bayer’s advertising as a “non-addictive morphine substitute,” heroin would soon have one of the highest rates of addiction among its users.
Like Frisbees and Kleenex, Heroin was once a brand name that has become synonymous with the product.
Lucas isn’t out to take heroin. He wants to sell it–probably a less risky and more profitable venture than robbing people at gunpoint. But by now he’s attracted some unwanted attention.
In the underworld environment, cops are the natural enemy of a drug dealer. It was my job to just stay out of their way, but that rule only applies to cops trying to do their job. Crooked cops have no rules and no ethics. And some of them get a badge just so they can have a license to beat people up and rob them.
If I ever turned a corner and saw Diggs and his partner, Pappo, my stomach sank and my temper jumped a few degrees. …
“You got a reason to have your hands on me?” I’d say.
“We can make one up if you don’t shut the fuck up,” they’d say.
Diggs and Pappo beat him up a lot, until one day Lucas went a little crazy and threatened to kill them, after which they left him alone.
If I recall correctly, Lucas was only about 17 at this time, so this was around 1947, maybe into the early 50s.
Obviously Lucas has interacted with a lot of police officers, since he’s been arrested a few times and spent many years in prison. He doesn’t have much negative to say about honest cops, but crooked cops–who not only beat him, like Diggs and Pappo, but also extorted money from him–earn his ire.
Of course, Lucas was actually a criminal, but why did he attract so much attention from police officers who were content to beat him up a bit and then let him back out on the streets? If the crooked cops knew he was dealing, why didn’t he attract the attention of honest police officers before becoming a multi-millionaire drug lord? Were the crooked cops just more attuned to criminal activity (being, essentially, criminals themselves)? Was there just not enough solid evidence to convict Lucas in a court of law, but more than plenty to randomly harass him? Does arresting people require a lot of paperwork?
Lucas was eventually arrested and sent to prison (in 1975, though his 70 year sentence was eventually reduced to 5 plus parole.) Throughout the period Lucas was operating–primarily the 1960s and early 70s–heroin, crack, and crime hit NYC like a sledgehammer. How much was Lucas’s fault is debatable (though it was surely a lot.) But the attitude of “let’s just beat up the criminals a bit and then put them back on the streets” couldn’t have helped.
It’s getting late, so let’s continue this next Friday.
Note: We will be posting only on Mondays and Fridays for a bit.
As we were reading on Friday in Dago’s Outlaws on Horseback:
It was commonly believed that a mixture of Creek and Negro blood was a dangerous cross, and that the offspring of such a union was sure to be ‘mean.’ It was true enough in the case of Lukey Davis, but there would seem to be little reason to accept it as generally so. For several hundred years there had been a strong infiltration of Negro blood into the Creek tribe, more so than with the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw. Few Creeks were a hundred per cent Indian. Undoubtedly intermarriage had some effect on Creek culture. That it worked any tribal character change or was responsible for the inflamed criminal instincts of some Creeks, such as those with whom Rufus Buck surrounded himself, must be dismissed as absurd.
EvX: These are two interesting claims: first, that Creeks are heavily mixed, and second, that some people believe this an inauspicious mix. (Our author makes numerous statements throughout the book to the effect of not believing that criminality runs in families.)
This leads us to a modern-day controversy:
The Creek (aka the Muscogee,) were known as one of the “5 Civilized Tribes,” along with the Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw, for their high level of cultural sophistication and swift adoption of European technology. The five tribes are descended from the Mississippi Mound Builders Culture whose cities and towns once dotted the south east, before European diseases and Spanish-horse-mounted raiders from the Great Plains brought it down. And like their European neighbors in Georgia, they had slaves:
After the [Revolutionary] war ended in 1783, the Muscogee learned that Britain had ceded their lands to the now independent United States. … Alexander McGillivray led pan-Indian resistance to white encroachment, receiving arms from the Spanish in Florida to fight trespassers. The bilingual and bicultural McGillivray worked to create a sense of Muscogee nationalism and centralize political authority, struggling against village leaders who individually sold land to the United States. He also became a wealthy landowner and merchant, owning as many as sixty black slaves. …
In the summer of 1790, McGillivray and 29 other Muscogee chiefs signed the Treaty of New York, on behalf of the ‘Upper, Middle and Lower Creek and Seminole composing the Creek nation of Indians,’ ceding a large portion of their lands to the federal government and promising to return fugitive slaves, in return for federal recognition of Muscogee sovereignty and promises to evict white settlers. …
In 1805, the Lower Creeks ceded their lands east of the Ocmulgee to Georgia… A number of Muscogee chiefs acquired slaves and created cotton plantations, grist mills and businesses along the Federal Road.
The Seminole tribe fused about this time in Florida from a combination of Creeks, various other local tribes, and runaway slaves:
Led by Chief Secoffee (Cowkeeper), they became the center of a new tribal confederacy, the Seminole, which grew to include earlier refugees from the Yamasee War, remnants of the ‘mission Indians,’ and escaped African slaves.…
Many Muscogee refused to surrender and escaped to Florida. They allied with other remnant tribes, becoming the Seminole. Muscogee were later involved on both sides of the Seminole Wars in Florida. …
The Red Stick refugees who arrived in Florida after the Creek War tripled the Seminole population, and strengthened the tribe’s Muscogee characteristics. …
The Seminole continued to welcome fugitive black slaves and raid American settlers, leading the U.S. to declare war in 1817. … In 1823, a delegation of Seminole chiefs met with the new U.S. governor of Florida, expressing their opposition to proposals that would reunite them with the Upper and Lower Creek, partly because the latter tribes intended to enslave the Black Seminole. Instead, the Seminole agreed to move onto a reservation in inland central Florida.
But enough about the Seminoles; let’s get back to the Creek who are called Creek:
Because many Muscogee Creek people did support the Confederacy during the Civil War, the US government required a new treaty with the nation in 1866 to define peace after the war. It required the Creek to emancipate their slaves and to admit them as full members and citizens of the Creek Nation, equal to the Creek in receiving annuities and land benefits. They were then known as Creek Freedmen. The US government required setting aside part of the Creek reservation land to be assigned to the freedmen. Many of the tribe resisted these changes. The loss of lands contributed to problems for the nation in the late 19th century.
So in 2001, the Creek tribal government changed the rules:
Creek Freedmen is a term for emancipated African Americans who were slaves of Muscogee Creek tribal members before 1866. … Freedmen who wished to stay in the Creek Nation in Indian Territory, with whom they often had blood relatives, were to be granted full citizenship in the Creek Nation. …
The term also includes their modern descendants in the United States. At the time of the war and since, many Creek Freedmen were of partial Creek descent by blood. Registration of tribal members under the Dawes Commission often failed to record such ancestry. In 2001, the Creek Nation changed its membership rules, requiring all members to prove descent to persons listed as “Indian by Blood” on the Dawes Rolls. The Creek Freedmen have sued against this decision. …
Most of the Freedmen were former slaves of tribal members who had lived in both upper and lower Creek territories in the Southeast. In some villages, Creek citizens married enslaved men or women, and had mixed-race children with them. Interracial marriages were common during this time, and many Creek Freedmen were partly of Creek Indian ancestry. …
Beginning in 1898, the US officials created the Dawes Rolls to document the tribal members for [land] allotments; registrars quickly classified persons as “Indians by Blood”, “Freedmen,” or “Intermarried Whites.”…
The peace treaty of 1866 granted the Freedmen full citizenship and rights as Creek regardless of proportion of Creek or Indian ancestry. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation in 1979 reorganized the government and constitution based on the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936. It changed its membership rules, requiring that members be descendants of persons listed as ‘Indians by Blood’ on the Dawes Rolls. They expelled Creek Freedmen descendants who could not prove descent from such persons, despite the 1866 treaty, asserting their sovereign right to determine citizenship. Since the Creek changed their membership rules in 2001, they have excluded persons who cannot prove descent from persons listed on the Dawes Rolls as Indians by Blood.
Who belongs? For that matter, who has the authority to determine who belongs? Are you a real goth, or just a poser? A real American? A real Creek? It’s rather silly signalling when we’re talking about teenagers at the mall; it’s a significant question when “belonging” to a group entitles a person to significant benefits. Americans enjoy the benefits of protection by the American Armed Forces, welfare if we need it, and a free trade/free movement zone within the 50 states, for example. Creeks enjoy the benefits of scholarships, housing assistance, health care assistance, and of course culture and community.The Creek likely don’t regard treaties with the conquering US government as actually determining who is a “real” Creek–and money can be a strong incentive for tightening the membership rules.
Today, the Muscogee Nation operates a more than $106 million budget and has more than 2,400 employees. It has tribal facilities and programs across eight districts of the Muscogee Nation and serves more than 60,000 enrolled tribal members.
As for the second claim, that Creek-African mixes were likely to be unpleasant people, if there is any truth to it at all, it was most likely due to which Africans ended up in the Creek Nation and which particular Creeks they married. Many of the whites who crossed into Indian Territory and married into the various tribes seem to have been “difficult” people (often criminals) escaping the US legal system. The same may have been true for blacks who chose to move to Indian Territory, or were sold to the Creeks by white plantation owners. Overall, though, Creeks aren’t genetically that different from related tribes like the Cherokee, so there’s nothing exceptional about a black/Creek mix besides the individuals involved.
Angola, also known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, is the largest maximum-security prison in the US. It holds 6,300 inmates, most of them for life–and for those who have no families or friends to bury them, death.
Before it became a prison, Angola was a slave plantation, named for the country most of its residents came from. With 18,000 acres and a working farm (complete with cotton fields) run by inmates, many people call it the nation’s last plantation.
I wanted to move away from traditional anthropology–focused primarily on “primitive,” non-industrialized peoples–and focus instead on the economic, political, and social lives of people on the margins of our own societies, such as pirates; criminals; prisoners; and the completely innocent, ordinary poor.
Spoiler alert: This is not an upbeat book. I mean, the author tries. He really does. But we are still talking about criminals who’ve been sent to prison for life. If you’re looking for something cheerful, go look at funny cat pictures.
Amazon’s blurb for the book reads:
Never before had Daniel Bergner seen a spectacle as bizarre as the one he had come to watch that Sunday in October. Murderers, rapists, and armed robbers were competing in the annual rodeo at Angola, the grim maximum-security penitentiary in Louisiana. The convicts, sentenced to life without parole, were thrown, trampled, and gored by bucking bulls and broncos before thousands of cheering spectators. But amid the brutality of this gladiatorial spectacle Bergner caught surprising glimpses of exaltation, hints of triumphant skill.
The incongruity of seeing hope where one would expect only hopelessness, self-control in men who were there because they’d had none, sparked an urgent quest in him. Having gained unlimited and unmonitored access, Bergner spent an unflinching year inside the harsh world of Angola. He forged relationships with seven prisoners who left an indelible impression on him. There’s Johnny Brooks, seemingly a latter-day Stepin Fetchit, who, while washing the warden’s car, longs to be a cowboy and to marry a woman he meets on the rodeo grounds. Then there’s Danny Fabre, locked up for viciously beating a woman to death, now struggling to bring his reading skills up to a sixth-grade level. And Terry Hawkins, haunted nightly by the ghost of his victim, a ghost he tries in vain to exorcise in a prison church that echoes with the cries of convicts talking in tongues. …
According to Bergner, in Angola’s early days in the late 1800s (post-Civil War,) conditions were extremely bad. Convicts were basically worked to death in Louisiana’s swamps; average life expectancy for a long-term prisoner was only 6 years.
The state took over the prison in 1901, which hopefully ended the working-to-death-era, but as Wikipedia notes:
Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, authors of The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, said that Angola was “probably as close to slavery as any person could come in 1930.” Hardened criminals broke down upon being notified that they were being sent to Angola. White-black racial tensions in the society were expressed at the prison, adding to the violence: each year one in every ten inmates received stab wounds.
In 1952, 31 inmates cut their own Achilles’ tendons in protest against prison conditions, (which are reported as pretty horrible,) but things didn’t really improve until the 70s, when Judge Polozola decided the prison was so bad that if the legislature find funds to clean things up, he’d start releasing prisoners. According to Bergner, this led to an initial improvement in conditions, but subsequently a liberal warden with a kumbaya-approach to running the place was appointed and matters degenerated again. The lax approach to managing the prisoners led to men sleeping in cafeteria-tray armor in hopes of not being murdered by their neighbors in the middle of the night.
A more conservative warden replaced the liberal one, marched in military style, re-established order, and got the shivving rate back down. Angola appears to have found a workable middle-ground between getting worked to death in the swamps and getting stabbed to death during candle-lit kumbaya sessions.
But since Louisiana is poor and people tend not to want to spend money on criminals, Wikipedia notes:
In 2009, the prison reduced its budget by $12 million by “double bunking” (installing bunk beds to increase the capacity of dormitories), reducing overtime, and replacing officers with security cameras.
That sounds like a bad idea.
Unfortunately for me, Bergner doesn’t explore the prisoners’ economy beyond the occasional reference to trade in cheese, cigarettes, or marijuana. (Cigarettes as prison currency appears confirmed.) He also doesn’t go into much detail about how the 6,300 prisoners (many of whom sleep in a large, open dormitory) regulate social relations among themselves. Rather, he focuses on describing the lives of a handful of inmates. Bergner’s mission is to humanize them–to portray them as people who, potentially, could be redeemed–without forgetting their crimes.
The biggest thing that stood out to me while reading was the gulf between these men’s lives and the world of middle and upper-class people who like to say high-minded things about criminals. The common vogue for blaming bad life outcomes on environmental effects–as though a few changes in early childhood could have radically changed the course of these men’s lives (and their victims’,) sending them to university instead of prison.
But this is not the story the mens’ biographies tell.
Obviously some people end up in prison by accident–unfortunate folks who actually were wrongly convicted. Then there are folks who did make a bad decision–or whose parents made bad decisions–that led to a much-regretted action. But this does not describe most of the Bergner’s criminals.
Rather, they share a combination of impulsiveness (high time preference,) aggression, and low-IQ.
In isolation, each of these traits is not so bad. People with Down’s Syndrome aren’t very bright, but they’re friendly and don’t murder others. An aggressive but smart person can understand the consequences of their actions and direct their aggression to socially-acceptable activities. But taken together, even people who later greatly regret their actions can, in a fit of rage, put a meat-cleaver into someone’s skull.
And even once they are in prison–a place where the average person might reflect that violence was a bad life choice–many criminals commit yet more violence–beating, raping, stabbing, and occasionally killing each other. Despite Angola being more peaceful than it was in the past (a peace imposed by marching guards in full riot gear,) it still requires constant, armed surveillance and daily searches to prevent the prisoners from shivving each other.
Bergner also visits a former Angola inmate in his home, where he now lives with his mother. As they survey the landscape surveying his childhood home–burned down buildings, crack houses on every corner, childhood friends consumed by drug use–it is clear that the traits that lead many men to Angola are not abnormalities, but more extreme forms of the traits responsible for the degradation around them.
This is an extremely difficult problem to solve, or even think up potential solutions for. It’s easy to say, “get the crack out of the cities,” but there were people dealing drugs even inside Angola. If people can smuggle and sell drugs in a maximum security prison, I don’t think anything short of heads on pikes will stop them from smuggling drugs into cities.
And even well-intentioned, drug-free people struggle with basics like picking up trash from their yards and preventing their homes from falling apart. As Bergner writes:
We stepped away from the house, a shabby box of pale green wood, the house Littell had been born in, that his mother still lived in, that he had returned to. A corroded swing set stood in front, then a low, wilting cyclone fence, then a stack of four torn tires like a welcoming statue beside the fence gate. … He never invited me inside, and I have always wondered what level of decrepitude or disarray he preferred not to show me…
Across from his house a vacant lot occupied half the block, a reminder of the property facing O’Brien, except that there the grass was cut low, while here saplings crowded one another amid shoulder-high reeds. An abandoned nightclub buckled behind the saplings. Within the tall grass were the charred boards of two houses leveled by arson while Littell had been at Angola. A pair of tremendous oak trees, draped with Spanish moss, had once shaded those houses. The trees still thrived, though now the effect was different, the dangling webs of moss no longer gentle but looking like an onslaught of chaotic growth spilling from the sky.
“This neighborhood was no Fifth Avenue,” Littell said as we passed between the lot on one side and homes like his mother’s on the other. “But it looked good. Fifteen years ago, a lot of these houses were still pretty new. Now it’s like nature’s taking over. When people move into a community they build up on nature, and now it’s like nature’s coming back and the will of man is losing out.” …
But he felt more threatened than I did, walking me around the neighborhood. Up ahead, three or four teenagers sat on the unrailed porch of a shack with boarded up windows. “They think you’re here to buy drugs,” he said, their eyes tracking us past the house. “They think I’m bringing the white dude around.” …
It was no joke to him. …. He had nothing to show the police if they stopped him for questioning. …
“Every evening, I try to be back inside by eight o’clock,” he said, “‘Cause all I need is to be in the wrong place at the time. They ask me for some ID, they see I got none, they run a check, see I’ve been to Angola, that’s it. Any unsolved robbery, they can pin it on me. You see, Dan, the new thing is that crack. And that’s everybody. It’s seldom you see anyone around here who’s straight. Sometimes it makes me thankful for Angola–all the guys I grew up with are wasted on it.”…
Then I listened to the neighborhood. At six-thirty in the evening it was silent, almost motionless. The dealers on their porch weren’t speaking. Nor were the women in their dingy yellow or powder blue knee-length shorts, sitting on a stoop propped up on cinder blocks. They only stared. No cars drove by…. A few rickety bicycles difted past,w ith grown men riding them. The supermarket where we went to buy sodas had seel mesh ove every window and, inside, scarecely any light… The grocery seemed to be the only operating business around. …
The place was like a ghost town, still inhabited.
I’ve often wondered: what is the difference between poverty and merely being poor or living at a lower socio-economic level? We don’t normally think of nomadic hunter-gatherers or pastoralists as “homeless.” A homeless guy sleeping under a bridge is poor, an aberration in a society where most people can afford homes; a hunter-gatherer sleeping in the bush is just living like his ancestors have always lived.
We might say that poverty is a departure from a community’s average–that is, a man is poor in comparison with his neighbors, not some global, a-historical ranking. But it seems a little dishonest to lump together people who live simply on purpose with people who struggle hard but still can’t get ahead.
So I propose a second definition: the inability to maintain the level of civilization you’re in. The Amish, for example, have a relatively low standard of living, low incomes, etc. But they are more than up to the task of maintaining their infrastructure, building their homes and barns, taking care of their horses, raising crops, etc. Amish society isn’t falling apart.
By contrast, Littell’s neighborhood has fallen apart over the fifteen years he spent at Angola. Nature is reclaiming the houses and burned-out businesses. We can blame crack, but that’s just kicking it back a level: why was this neighborhood blighted by crack while others went unscathed?
Many of the prisoners Bergner follows are functionally illiterate–one struggles (and fails) to pass a quiz intended for younger elementary school children. His struggle cannot be blamed on “lack of opportunity to learn,” as he is enrolled in a prison-based literacy programed whose entire purpose is to help inmates learn to read, and if there’s one thing people have lots of in Angola, it’s time.
Again, just as with impulsivity and aggression, the prisoners’ low-IQ mirrors that of their neighbors and peers back in the free population.
To be fair, this does not describe all of the prisoners. Some (like editors of the Angolite, Angola’s award-winning prison magazine) seem bright; some come across not as impulsively aggressive, but truly sociopathic.
Bergner wants us to consider redemption–the possibility, at least, that some of the men who have served 20, 30, or 40 years in prison may not be dangerous anymore, might have repented, might deserve a second chance at life. (One of the men he follows does seem truly sorry:
“Please take him off,” Terry prayed late at night, in Walnut [one of the dorms.] “He’s hunting me down again.”
His bedtime ritual had been performed hours earlier. On his cot, he had read the verses he’d highlighted months ago during his Bible group back at D. He turned the thin pages to find the neat orange markings
Lord, I cry unto Thee:
make haste unto me;
Give ear unto my voice…
Incline not my heart to any evil thing.
Then, twenty feet from whee the man had lost his sneakers and gained a long, scythe-shaped scar on the left side of his face, Terry knelt beside his own cot and closed his eyes and lowered his head to his folded head.
“Lord Jesus,” Terry went on, with a persistent hope that he was heard though he had failed to be saved,”thank you for looking over me… please keep an eye on my, Lord; can You take some of this away, Lord? Can you forgive me, Lord? …”
But after midnight something had woken him, and now Mr. Denver Tarter wouldn’t let him return to sleep. So Terry knelt again. …
“Please take him off. Please just this one thing.”
Religion plays a prominent role in the narrative, from the warden’s blustering claims of saving souls to the prison’s Pentecostal, “holy roller” church service; from quiet Bible study to the chaplain’s rounds:
Chaplain Holloway was assigned to Camp J. … Holloway pushed a grocery cart full of inspirational literature. … “What’s up, bro?” the chaplain asked at each set of bars. “What can I get for you, bro?” Built thick, a football player in college, he was a white hipster in a golfing shirt in the middle of the Inferno. I don’t know what he was, but he was tireless. And kind.
“How’d you end up back on One, bro?” he asked an emaciated man, referring to the worst of J’s levels, where you were let out of your cell–int a solitary dogrun–only two hours each week.
“I just told hello to a nurse on hospital call and told her she looked beautiful this morning.”
“Well, you know, babe,’ the chaplain said, understanding what had probably happened, that the man had told her hello and started jerking off, “next time just say hi and skip the rest of the verbology.”
He asked the man if he wanted to pray. They held hands and, leaning together, their foreheads almost touched. “In nine months you could be out of here, back in population,’ he encouraged afterward. … “You want some reading?”
He slipped through the bars a paperback of big-print advice and biblical quotations called You were born a Champion, Don’t Die a Loser. They held hand once more, and the chaplain moved on to the next convict. This was his day, this was his life, cell after cell after cell.
Those of us whose lives are so good that we have time for this voyeurism of peering into prisoners’ lives often approach religion with a disdainful, scornful attitude. Who needs a bunch of rules set down by an invisible sky fairy? Do you really need someone telling you not to steal? Don’t you already know how to behave?
But for many people at the bottom of society–not just criminals, but also the poor, the suffering, folks struggling with addictions, loss, disabilities or life-threatening diseases–religion really does seem to be a comfort, a guide, a way of working toward a better life. As I’ve documented before, in some of the world’s poorest and most isolated places, religious folks are often the only people willing to go to these awful places to try to help people.
It’s easy to look at statistics and say, “religious people are, on average, poor/less educated/more likely to be in prison/etc than atheists” but maybe this is like saying that people who buy hammers have a lot more nails that need pounding in than people who don’t.
The last thing that stands out in this narrative is the women who date and marry convicted murderers. Two of the men whose lives Bergner follows begin dating while in prison (for life). One meets a woman while performing in the annual Angola rodeo; she is impressed by his amateur bull-riding performance and they begin writing letters back and forth. Soon they were planning marriage, hoping for a pardon or an overturned conviction:
Pretty soon, he’d have it going in the courts. Pretty soon, he’d be working for Gerry Lane [just a guy he hopes to work for] himself, raising Belva’ kids like a regular father, straightening out her daughter and making sure the rest of them stayed on the right road Pretty soon, he’d have a son of his own. Pretty soon he’d be lying in bed next to Belva with all their letters piled up between them, all their letters from when he was in Angola, to read over how they got started.
They would be a family. They were already. He hadn’t met the two daughters, but the two boys had been to visit once, when there had been room in Sandra’s car. [Belva doesn’t have her own car but gets a ride with another woman visiting someone at the prison.] He played Pac-Man with the boys. …
The little Pac-Man munches snapped their jaws, and Brooks urged, “Gobble ’em, son, gobble ’em, move that stick,” and Marcus squealed, “Coon ass things! Coon ass things!” He seemed to think the Pac-Man prey were Cajun rednecks.
“Con ass things?” Brooks laughed.
And Marcus aw that it was funny. “Coon ass things! Coon ass things!” He cracked himself up, and Brooks put his cheek next to Marcus’s jittery, giggling head.
The boys had sent Brooks a Father’s Day card, and after his phone call with Belva he took the card from his box …:
“No one chooses a Dad From a magazine ad Or a paper with classifieds in it….
But if we’d had the chance For a choice in advance You’re the Dad we’d have picked in a minute.”
Tight to the top of the inside page, the thirteen-year-old, Kenny, had drawn a smiley face and written, “You are the father we did not have.”
He and Belva do get married, in a ceremony in one of the prison chapels. I rather doubt the relationship will last for the long-haul, however. Dating a guy in prison may seem fun at first, but as year after year of a life sentence pass by (and the author gives us no real reason to expect the men will receive the pardons they hope for,) the problems inherent in any long-distance relationship begin to manifest.
Bergner describes another relationship, begun when the prison’s band performed a show off prison grounds and the guitarist met a fan. She, too, already had a child (in this case, only one,) who quickly bonded with her “new father.” They were also married, but as the years passed, she stopped calling, stopped visiting. I suspect she has just grown bored, found someone else who is physically present in her own neighborhood.
Bergner doesn’t explore these women’s lives, what motivates them to date criminals serving life sentences for murder, nor the effects on their children. Chances are there is something deeply wrong in these women’s lives. Whether it is merely that love sometimes blooms in even unusual places, or something deeper, I can’t say and Bergner makes no comment. His focus is the criminals.
Race is obviously ever-present in the book–Angola’s population is about 90% African American, (according to Bergner,) in a state that’s only 30% black–but he never addresses it in any systematic way, nor does he discuss how (if at all) race impacts relationships between the prisoners.
Disclaimer: my copy of the book was missing a few pages, so there might have been something on those pages that I missed.
Ultimately, this isn’t exactly the book I’d have chosen for Anthropology Friday if I’d had more options, but it was still a good read and probably deserves more attention than it’s garnered.
Some of my baby books make claims like, “Babies are born with blue or grey eyes, most of which gradually darken during their first year.” Some go so far as to claim that all babies are born with blue eyes.
This got me curious: what about Black / African American babies? Are they also born with blue/grey eyes which darken with time? Or were my books over-generalizing from a sample population composed primarily of whites?
The idea isn’t totally crazy. After all, I’ve observed plenty of Caucasian children’s eyes go from blue to brown. Pretty much all infants are born with less melanin than their parents, just because fetuses don’t need protection from sunlight.
To be fair, not all of these photos are necessarily of newborns, but could be somewhat older babies, but this is a process that is supposed to happen over the course of several months to a year, not days.
And while some of these infants do have a greyish or bluish tint to their eyes, the overall color is still brown, not blue.
I suppose I should look up photos of Asian babies while we’re at it.
And… they have brown eyes.
There you go, folks. Asian and African babies have brown eyes, not blue.
Upon further reflection, I decided a discussion of the changing attitudes toward American Fast Food restaurants is incomplete without race.
Japan, as I’m sure you already know, is an extremely homogenous country. According to Wikipedia, Japan is 98.5% Japanese, with 0.5% Korean, 0.4% Chinese, and 0.6% other. I don’ t know if “other” includes the Ainu, or if they’re just numbered within the Japanese, (most of them are at least part Japanese anyway,) but even if we take the high estimate of Ainu population, they’re < 0.2% of the total. So, yes, Japan is very Japanese.
By contrast, America has a large, ethnically distinct underclass of blacks and Hispanics: 65% white, 5% Asian, 13% of black and 17% Hispanic.
As a result, Japan’s underclass is still Japanese, while America’s underclass is ethnically and racially distinct from its upper classes. Japan is more homogenous, with a narrower wealth gap between its richest and poorest citizens and a much lower crime rate.
If SJWs have taught me anything, it’s that white people are always racist. Japan doesn’t have this problem, not only because it lacks white people, but also because it lacks different races for anyone to be racist against.
Around the mid-70s, McDonald’s (and Burger King and probably various other Fast Food brands) began explicitly targeting up-and-coming black customers with ads featuring happy black families, working class men getting breakfast before heading off to the construction site, black couples, etc. Interestingly, the ads aimed at white people tend to contain only one or two people, often with a closer focus on the food. (There are, of course, plenty of ads that only feature food.)
Now, far be I to disagree with the advertising decisions of the world’s most successful fast food chain–selling massive quantities of cheap food to black people has been a great strategy for McDonald’s.
But this has caused a shift in the racial composition of McDonald’s target demographic, affecting how it is perceived by the wider society.
Similarly, the demographics of people who work in fast food have changed radically since the 1950s. Most of my older (white) relatives worked at fast food restaurants in highschool or their early twenties. (Heck, I was just talking with an upper-middle-class white relative who used PICK STRAWBERRIES in the strawberry fields for money back in highschool, a job which we are now reassured that “white people won’t do.”) Unskilled jobs for young people used to be a thing in our society. It was a fine way for young people to start their lives as productive members of society, gain a bit of work experience, and save up money for college, a car, home, etc.
Today, these jobs are dominated by our massive, newly arrived population of Mexican immigrants, driving down wages and making it harder for anyone who isn’t fluent in Spanish (necessary to communicate with the other employees,) to get hired. Meanwhile, the average age of fast food employees appears to have increased, with people stuck in these jobs into middle age.
All of this has contributed, I’d wager, to America’s changing attitude toward fast food, and its poor/middle class people (of all races) in general.
You know, Americans talk a lot about how Japan needs more immigrants–generally citing the declining Japanese birthrates as an excuse. (Because what Japan really needs is higher population density + racial tension.) But despite its near total lack of racial diversity, Japan is one of the world’s most successful, technologically advanced countries. If anything, low Japanese fertility is actually fixing one of Japan’s biggest problems–density (which has long-term problems with Japan needing more food and natural resources to support its population than the archipelago can physically produce).
Only an idiot could take the Tokyo subway at rush hour and think, “What this country needs is more people!” I therefore recommend that the Japanese ignore us Americans and do keep their society the way they like it.
Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re finishing Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States. (available on Amazon.) These stories were gathered in the 1930s as part of a Federally-funded program to get people working and preserve first-hand accounts of the history of the United States before everyone involved passed away.
When I start an anthropology text, I don’t know if I’m really going to enjoy it. Some texts are informative but dull, and many are both dull and uninformative. These personal narratives might not count as “anthropology” in the formal, polished sense–most of the interviewers probably had little to no formal “anthropology” training, and did very little to analyze or comment on the material they gathered.
Despite the obvious shortcomings of their methodology (interviewees sometimes seem to be inventing or exaggerating stories for the sake of the white interviewer,) and many short interviews with people who had little to say, the interviews still constitute nearly 10,000 pages of genuine first-hand accounts of slavery, the Civil War, and the late 1800s in the US South.
As someone who grew up in the South, much of this dovetails with my own cultural knowledge/memories. The tradition of eating black eyed peas for luck on New Years’ was at least mentioned, if not exactly observed (my grandmother probably still eats them.) For that matter, when my grandparents (who are still alive, if quite elderly) were young, back in the 30s, they heard first-hand accounts about the Civil War from their elderly relatives (long story short: Union troops burned down the farm.)
While every story is unique, they have certain commonalities, and many–especially the ones about the Yankees–are similar to the ones passed down in my own family.
Anyway, let’s begin.
“Aunt” Millie Bates: The Ghosts of War
“Was not long after dat fore de spooks wuz a gwine round ebber whar. When you would go out atter dark, somethin’ would start to a haintin’ ye. You would git so scairt dat you would mighty ni run every time you went out atter dark; even iffin you didn’t see nothin’. Chile, don’t axe me what I seed. Atter all dat killin’ and a burnin’ you know you wuz bliged to see things wid all dem spirits in distress a gwine all over de land. You see, it is like dis, when a man gits killed befo he is done what de good Lawd intended fer him to do, he comes back here and tries to find who done him wrong. I mean he don’ come back hisself, but de spirit, it is what comes and wanders around. Course, it can’t do nothin’, so it jus scares folks and haints dem.”
Maggie Black, 79 years old: Children’s Nurse, Games, and School
“Gawd been good to me, honey. I been heah uh long ole time en I can’ see mucha dese days, but I gettin’ ‘long sorta so-so. I wuz train up to be uh nu’se ‘oman en I betcha I got chillun more den any 60 year ole ’bout heah now dat I nu’se when dey wuz fust come heah. No, honey, ain’ got no chillun uv me own. Aw my chillun white lak yuh.”
EvX: As far as I know, the tradition of hiring black women to care for white children has disappeared from the South, (modern children are sent to daycares where they are raised by Hispanic women,) but memories of the system linger. Considering the South’s rather strict racial hierarchy, this was a kind of curious inversion. In practice, I wonder how it affected social relations. But continuing on:
“No, no’mam, dey wear long ole frock den en uh girl comin’ on dere when dey ge’ to be any kind uv uh girl, dey put dat frock down. Oh, my child, dey can’ ge’ em short ‘nough dese days. Ain’ hab nuthin but uh string on dese day en time. Dey use’er wear dem big ole hoop skirt dat sit out broad lak from de ankle en den dey wear little panty dat show down twixt dey skirt en dey ankle. Jes tie em ’round dey knees wid some sorta string en le’ em show dat way ’bout dey ankle. I ‘member we black chillun’ud go in de woods en ge’ wild grape vine en bend em round en put em under us skirt en make it stand out big lak. Hadder hab uh big ole ring fa de bottom uv de skirt en den one uh little bit smaller eve’y time dey ge’ closer to de waist. Ne’er hab none tall in de waist cause dat wuz s’ppose to be little bitty t’ing.” …
“A’ter freedom ‘clare, uh lady from de north come dere en Miss Leggett send we chillun to school to dat lady up on de hill dere in de woods. No, honey, yah ain’ ne’er see no bresh tent ’bout heah dis day en time. Dis jes de way it waz make. Dey dig four big holes en put postes in aw four corner ’bout lak uh room. Den dey lay log ‘cross de top uv dat en kiver it aw o’er wid bresh (brush) dat dey break outer de woods. Ne’er hab none uv de side shet up. En dey haul log dere en roll em under dat bresh tent fa we chillun to set on. Oh, de teacher’ud hab uh big box fa her stand jes lak uh preacher. Eve’ybody dat go to school dere hab one uv dem t’ing call slate dat yah ne’er hadder do nuthin but jes wash it offen. En dey hab dese ole l’arnin’ book wha’ yuh call Websters.” …
“Oh, gourds waz de t’ing in dem days. Dey waz wha’ de peoples hab to drink outer en wash dey hominy en rice in aw de time. Dey was de bestest kind uv bowl fa we chillun to eat corn bread en clabber outer. Peoples dis day en time don’ hab no sech crockery lak de people use’er hab. Honey, day hab de prettiest little clay bowls den.”
Samuel Boulware, 82 years old: Food, Slavery, and Poor Whites
“Us had plenty to eat in slavery time. It wasn’t de best but it filled us up and give us strength ‘nough to work. Marster would buy a years rations on de first of every year and when he git it, he would have some cooked and would set down and eat a meal of it. He would tell us it didn’t hurt him, so it won’t hurt us. Dats de kind of food us slaves had to eat all de year. Of course, us got a heap of vegetables and fruits in de summer season, but sich as dat didn’t do to work on, in de long summer days.”
EvX: Oh God, a year’s worth of rations purchased all at once. That sounds pretty unappetizing.
It appears that one of the questions on the questionnaire the interviewers used was about food, so there are a lot of responses on the subject. The vast majority of responses state that food in slavery times was simple but abundant. By contrast, post-slavery, many people experienced a great deal of hunger (especially since the war disrupted agriculture and the Yankees burned down a lot of food.) But continuing on:
“Marster had over twenty grown slaves all de time. He bought and sold them whenever he wanted to. It was sad times to see mother and chillun separated. I’s seen de slave speculator cut de little nigger chillun with keen leather whips, ’cause they’d cry and run after de wagon dat was takin’ their mammies away after they was sold.
“De overseer was poor white folks, if dats what you is askin’ ’bout, and dat is one thing dat made him so hard on de slaves of de plantation. All de overseers I knowed ’bout was poor white folks; they was white folks in de neighborhood dat wasn’t able to own slaves. All dis class of people was called by us niggers, poor white folks. …
“Most them there patrollers was poor white folks, I believes. Rich folks stay in their house at night, ‘less they has some sort of big frolic amongst theirselves. Poor white folks had to hustle ’round to make a living, so, they hired out theirselves to slave owners and rode de roads at night and whipped niggers if they ketched any off their plantation widout a pass.
EvX: Several interviewees mentioned that overseers/patrollers/KKK members were drawn largely from the class of “poor whites”–an ethnically distinct group of whites drawn from a combination of the English lower classes, “Scotch-Irish,” and probably some regular Irish.
Andy Brice, 81 years old: Fiddlin’ Fiddler and the Election of 1878:
“Howdy Cap’n! I come to Winnsboro dis mornin’ from way ‘cross Wateree, where I live now ‘mongst de bull-frogs and skeeters. Seem lak they just sing de whole night thru: ‘De bull-frog on de bank, and de skeeter in de pool.’ Then de skeeter sail ’round my face wid de tra la, la la la, la la la part of dat old song you is heard, maybe many times. …
“One day I see Marse Thomas a twistin’ de ears on a fiddle and rosinin’ de bow. Then he pull dat bow ‘cross de belly of dat fiddle. Sumpin’ bust loose in me and sing all thru my head and tingle in my fingers. I make up my mind, right then and dere, to save and buy me a fiddle. I got one dat Christmas, bless God! I learn and been playin’ de fiddle ever since. I pat one foot while I playin’. I kept on playin’ and pattin’ dat foot for thirty years. I lose dat foot in a smash up wid a highway accident but I play de old tunes on dat fiddle at night, dat foot seem to be dere at de end of dat leg (indicating) and pats just de same. Sometime I ketch myself lookin’ down to see if it have come back and jined itself up to dat leg, from de very charm of de music I makin’ wid de fiddle and de bow. …
“They say behind my back, in ’76, dat I’s a white folks nigger. I wear a red shirt then, drink red liquor, play de fiddle at de ‘lection box, and vote de white folks ticket. …
“I ‘members very little ’bout de war, tho’ I was a good size boy when de Yankees come. By instint, a nigger can make up his mind pretty quick ’bout de creed of white folks, whether they am buckra or whether they am not. Every Yankee I see had de stamp of poor white trash on them. They strutted ’round, big Ike fashion, a bustin’ in rooms widout knockin’, talkin’ free to de white ladies, and familiar to de slave gals, ransackin’ drawers, and runnin’ deir bayonets into feather beds, and into de flower beds in de yards. …
“Ellen and me have one child, Sallie Ann. Ellen ‘joy herself; have a good time nussin’ white folks chillun. Nussed you; she tell me ’bout it many time. ‘Spect she mind you of it very often. I knows you couldn’t git ’round dat woman; nobody could. …
“You wants me to tell ’bout dat ‘lection day at Woodward, in 1878? You wants to know de beginnin’ and de end of it? Yes? Well, you couldn’t wet dis old man’s whistle wid a swallow of red liquor now? Couldn’t you or could you? Dis was de way of it: It was set for Tuesday. Monday I drive de four-hoss wagon down to dis very town. Marse John McCrory and Marse Ed Woodward come wid me. They was in a buggy. When us got here, us got twenty, sixteen shooters and put them under de hay us have in de wagon. Bar rooms was here. I had fetched my fiddle ‘long and played in Marse Fred Habernick’s bar ’til dinner time. Us leave town ’bout four o’clock. Roads was bad but us got home ’bout dark. Us put de guns in Marse Andy Mobley’s store. Marse Ed and me leave Marse John to sleep in de store and to take care of de guns.
“De nex’ mornin’, polls open in de little school house by de brick church. I was dere on time, help to fix de table by de window and set de ballot boxes on it. Voters could come to de window, put deir arms thru and tuck de vote in a slit in de boxes. Dere was two supervisors, Marse Thomas for de Democrats and Uncle Jordan for de Radicals. Marse Thomas had a book and a pencil, Uncle Jordan had de same.
“Joe Foster, big buckra nigger, want to vote a stranger. Marse Thomas challenge dis vote. In them times colored preachers so ‘furiate de women, dat they would put on breeches and vote de ‘Publican radical ticket. De stranger look lak a woman. Joe Foster ‘spute Marse Thomas’ word and Marse Thomas knock him down wid de naked fist. Marse Irish Billy Brice, when him see four or five hindred blacks crowdin’ ’round Marse Thomas, he jump thru de window from de inside. When he lit on de ground, pistol went off pow! One nigger drop in his tracks. Sixteen men come from nowhere and sixteen, sixteen shooters. Marse Thomas hold up his hand to them and say: ‘Wait!’ Him point to de niggers and say: ‘Git.’ They start to runnin’ ‘cross de railroad, over de hillside and never quit runnin’ ’til they git half a mile away. De only niggers left on dat ground was me, old Uncle Kantz, (you know de old mulatto, club-foot nigger) well, me and him and Albert Gladney, de hurt nigger dat was shot thru de neck was de only niggers left. Dr. Tom Douglas took de ball out Albert’s neck and de white folks put him in a wagon and sent him home. I drive de wagon.
When I got back, de white boys was in de graveyard gittin’ names off de tombstones to fill out de talley sheets, dere was so many votes in de box for de Hampton ticket, they had to vote de dead. I ‘spect dat was one resurrection day all over South Carolina.”
EvX: I believe this was the 1878 Gubernatorial election. Wikipedia says:
The 1878 South Carolina gubernatorial election was held on November 5, 1878 to select the governor of the state of South Carolina. Wade Hampton III was renominated by the Democrats and ran against no organized opposition in the general election to win reelection for a second two-year term. …
Upon becoming Governor after a prolonged struggle against Daniel Henry Chamberlain in the gubernatorial election of 1876, Wade Hampton adopted moderate racial policies and favored many Republican proposals. For instance, the state modified the agriculture lien law and passed a law giving counties the ability to mandate the fencing of livestock. Hampton also appointed many blacks to government positions and provided for more funds to be spent educating black children than white children. …
Throughout Hampton’s first term in office, he appealed for political harmony between the races. Hampton carried out his pledge to ensure equal rights between the races and he appointed more black men to office than Chamberlain had during his term as governor. The more militant faction of the Democratic Party, led by Martin Gary, was entirely against any cooperation with blacks and instead sought to remove blacks completely from political life. The Edgefield County Democrats would not acknowledge any black Democratic clubs and they prevented blacks from participating in the primary elections. Hampton publicly refuted this policy and no other county followed suit. Nevertheless, new laws were enacted by the General Assembly in 1877 to make it harder for blacks to participate and vote in the electoral process.
Hampton took every county in South Carolina, winning by an absurd 119,550 to 213 votes, or 99.8%.
George Briggs, 88: The Healing Preacher
“I is gwine over to Tosch to see Maria. Everybody know Maria. She go by Rice–Maria Rice. She sont fer me to cure her misery. First, I went from my home in lower Cross Keys, across de Enoree, to see Maria. When I reached dar whar she stay, dey tell me dat her daughter over to Tosch. Done come and got her.
“A kind friend dat de Lawd put in my path fetched me back across de Enoree and over to Tosch to Maria’s gal’s house. I is gwine straight over dar and lay my hand on Maria and rid her of dat misery dat she sont word was ailing her all dis spring. Don’t make no diff’uns whar you hurts–woman, man or suckling babe–if you believes in de holler of my hand, it’ll ease you, allus do it. De Bible say so, dat’s why it be true. Ain’t gwine to tell you nothing but de truth and de whole truth, so help me Jesus. Gone 65 years, I is been born agin dat long; right over in Padgett’s Creek church, de white folks’ church, dat’s what de Lawd tuck my sins away and washed me clean agin wid His blood. Dat’s why I allus sticks to de truth, I does. …
“Sho I can remember when dey had de mustering grounds at de Keys. Dar day mustered and den dey turn’t in and practiced drilling dem soldiers till dey larn’t how to march and to shoot de Yankees. Drilling, dat’s de proper word, not practice, I knows, if I ain’t ed’icated. Dey signed me to go to de 16th regiment, but I never reached de North. When us got to Charleston, us turn’t around and de bosses fetched us right back to Union through Columbia. Us heard dat Sherman was coming, fetching fire along ‘hind him. …
“I can histronize de poor white folks’ wives and chilluns enduring de time of de Civil War fer you. When dese poor white men went to de war, dey left deir little chillun and deir wives in de hands of de darkies dat was kind and de rich wives of our marsters to care fer. Us took de best care of dem poor white dat us could under de circumstances dat prevailed.
“We was sont to Sullivan’s Island, but befo’ we reached it, de Yankees done got it and we won’t ‘lowed to cross in ’64. But jes’ de same, we was in service till dey give Capt. Franklin Bailey ‘mission to fetch us home. Dar we had to git ‘mission fer everything, jes’ as us niggers had to git ‘mission to leave our marster’s place at home in Union County. Capt. Bailey come on back to Cross Keys wid us under his protection, and we was under it fer de longest time atter we done got home. …
“I see a man in de courthouse dis morning, and he was like Nicodemus. Why dat man want to be resto’d back like he was when he was jest 21 years old. I seed him setting down dar in Mr. Perrin’s office, and I knowed his troubles when he ‘low dat he done been to every doctor in town. De trouble was, he never had no faith in de doctors and nobody else. How could he have faith in Jesus when he never had none in nothing else? Brother, you has to have faith in your fellowman befo’ you has faith in de Lawd. I don’t know how come, but dat’s de way it is. My plan is working by faith. Jesus say, ‘Work widout faith ain’t nothing; but work wid faith’ll move mountains’…
“Dey looks at de back of my head, and de hair on it ain’t rubbed against no college and fer dat reason dese young negroes don’t want me to preach. Dey wants to hear dat man preach dat can read. Man dat can read can’t understand less’n some divine man guide him. I speak as my Teacher gives it to me, dat’s de Lawd. In so doing, I testify de word dat no man can condemn. Dat is my plan of Salvation: to work by faith widout price or purse, as de Lawd, my Teacher has taught me.”
John Brown, 86 years old: Mixing
“My father was a ginger-bread colored man, not a full-blooded nigger. Dat’s how I is altogether yallow. See dat lady over dere in dat chair? Dat’s my wife. Her brighter skinned than I is. How come dat? Her daddy was a full-blooded Irishman. He come over here from Ireland and was overseer for Marse Bob Clowney. He took a fancy for Adeline’s mammy, a bright ‘latto gal slave on de place. White women in them days looked down on overseers as poor white trash. Him couldn’t git a white wife but made de best of it by puttin’ in his spare time a honeyin’ ’round Adeline’s mammy. Marse Bob stuck to him, and never ‘jected to it.
Sylvia Cannon, 85: A different Perspective
“Times was sho better long time ago den dey be now. I know it. Yes, mam, I here frettin myself to death after dem dat gone. Colored people never had no debt to pay in slavery time. Never hear tell bout no colored people been put in jail fore freedom. Had more to eat en more to wear den en had good clothes all de time cause white folks furnish everything, everything. Dat is, had plenty to eat such as we had. Had plenty peas en rice en hog meat en rabbit en’ fish en such as dat. Colored people sho fare better in slavery time be dat de white folks had to look out for dem. Had dey extra crop what dey had time off to work every Saturday. White folks tell dem what dey made, dey could have. Peoples would have found we colored people rich wid de money we made on de extra crop, if de slaves hadn’ never been set free. Us had big rolls of money en den when de Yankees come en change de money, dat what made us poor. It let de white people down en let us down too. Left us all to bout starve to death. Been force to go to de fish pond en de huckleberry patch. Land went down to $1.00 a acre. White people let us clear up new land en make us own money dat way. We bury it in de ground en dat how-come I had money. I dig mine up one day en had over $1500.00 dat I been save. Heap of peoples money down dere yet en dey don’ know whe’ to find it.”
EvX: Many slaves had cruel masters whom they disliked and left as quickly as possible. But many slaves also suffered–and died–of hunger, sickness, and exposure after the war. “We would have been rich if not for the war” sounds like wishful thinking, but Mrs. Cannon may have actually lost the money she’d been carefully saving up before the war.
Charlie Davis, 79 years old: Patrollers and Marriage
“De patrollers was nothin’ but poor white trash, mammy say, and if they didn’t whip some slaves, every now and then, they would lose deir jobs. My mammy and daddy got married after freedom, ’cause they didn’t git de time for a weddin’ befo’. They called deirselves man and wife a long time befo’ they was really married, and dat is de reason dat I’s as old as I is now. I reckon they was right, in de fust place, ’cause they never did want nobody else ‘cept each other, nohow. Here I is, I has been married one time and at no time has I ever seen another woman I wanted. My wife has been dead a long time and I is still livin’ alone.”
EvX: I haven’t been keeping track of how many people married vs. never married, but my general impression is that most people interviewed did marry and never parted from their spouse except in death. This is quite different from our modern situation, in which a rather large percentage of the black community never marries and instead carries on relationships with a number of other people. One theory holds that the modern Welfare State has disincentivised marriage by giving more money to unmarried women with children than to married women with children; another holds that high density–and ghettos and housing projects are definitely dense–interferes with our ability to form lasting pair bonds.
Well, that’s the end. I hope you enjoyed these as much as I did.