“We had been out in the fields all day. Working. Not saying a word just working. Picking that cotton, man. It’s almost like that traumatized me more than Korea. Seems like my whole body remembers, you know, the movements of picking that goddamn cotton.” Mr. Graham went on with his story. “All a sudden there was a boom and then came a long drawn out scream like it came from inside some animal. I ran in the direction of both of ‘em. There was mah lil cousin. On fire! We tried to put him out but he had that diesel all over him too. Seems like that fire just wouldn’t stop jack.”
I sat across from Floyd Graham as he told me his story, or the story of how his cousin got burned, at Bob Puryear’s real estate office. I think we were alone. I don’t really recall anyone else being there. I can’t recall the walls. The phones. Or the computers. All of it just faded away. He took me to those fields in Sunflower county Mississippi and he left me there with that memory. His memories of the screams. His memory of the sights of a cooked human being. His memory of the smells of that flesh. He couldn’t describe it. He tried. His attempts only made me wonder if he had ever, truly, released his anger and hurt from that day.
Mr. Graham and his kinfolks put the young man in the truck. He was burned everywhere not one of his body was untouched by the flames. Burned past the skin and down to the white fat meat underneath. Down to the yellow fat oozing out of his legs and arms. Burned to the red underneath the brown of his cheeks. No one could look at this boy and not fall to their knees and beg God for assistance in calming the malevolent storms which twisted his once unmarred face into a death mask of agony. No one if he had been White.
They arrived at the hospital and Floyd told me, “I knew they didn’t take colored folks. But I thought that there was no way they would turn him away.” Mr. Graham was wrong. They did. Not with any other words except for threats to call the police. They didn’t even look at his cousin or put a temporary dressing on the wounds. Hippocratic oaths, in those days, didn’t apply to burnt up little nigger boys.
“I thought about Mound Bayou. Those Black folks there had built they own selves a hospital. Had doctors from Howard or Meharry, I don’t know which one. So, my cousin had passed out and we decided that the only thing we could do was try to get there. It was about an hour away. Lemme tell you something. The drive there might as well been to the other side of the world. “What happened next was their arrival at the Taborian Hospital. The cousin was taken inside by Black nurses and was seen by Black doctors. “My cousin lived.” Mr. Graham stopped talking for a spell. He sat back in that chair. It was an ordinary chair but it could have been a throne for a weary king or warrior. Mr. Graham’s face shone with a brilliant light and a quiet determination. “The man didn’t get that one. No. The man didn’t take one of us that day.”
Whether it was in the fields, the jails, or the hospitals Mr. Graham, taking me inside the daily routine of Mississippi let me know that a Black man’s life was worth less than nothing. Not even the time to cool a wound, give a quick kind word, or show the compassion necessary to load a gun and extinguish the pain of a lame horse. He started talking again, “But in Mound Bayou, where yo people came from? A Black man could stand upright. That much I know for sure. In Mound Bayou a Black man could stand upright.”
Mr. Graham is a tall, husky, beaming brown man. The same mix as me. Africa. Native America. Some Europe. Just enough Europe to thin the lips and narrow the nose. But not enough to gain access to that hospital. Not enough to not have to stoop. Not enough to avoid Korea. Not enough to stay on his family’s land. Just enough to propel him onward to community college, university degree, and life in St. Louis. You see, it’s not the lynching ropes. It was and it is those hands attached to minds which oversee the eyes. The eyes which view color as some sort of system of hierarchy. You don’t have to feel if you see black skin. That line may never have been said but it was done every day and every hour.
Mound Bayou might be the only authentic Black town created during the aftermath of the Civil War. Whatever was its raison d’etre in 1887 it served to save the life of one boy on a summer day. And to all others it became a symbol of how life should be lived. Not shuffling, groveling, and in fear. But upright.