Freedom road

The abolition of slavery in the United States wasn't even the beginning of the end of black oppression. Here, the writer Bonnie Greer, grand-daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, gives her personal account of the fight for liberty
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The Independent US

The word "freedom" is bandied about a great deal today. We all want more of it, whether it's freedom to chose those who represent us to the freedom of having an extra hour of sleep in the morning. "Freedom" for me was a visceral word, full of meaning. Growing up the child of a son of black sharecroppers, and witnessing on television some of the most momentous events in the struggle for human equality that the 20th century had seen, I heard the word sung by people only a few years older than me as they tried to go do something as simple as go to school. Being a child, I did not at the time understand the boldness of their song.

The word "freedom" is bandied about a great deal today. We all want more of it, whether it's freedom to chose those who represent us to the freedom of having an extra hour of sleep in the morning. "Freedom" for me was a visceral word, full of meaning. Growing up the child of a son of black sharecroppers, and witnessing on television some of the most momentous events in the struggle for human equality that the 20th century had seen, I heard the word sung by people only a few years older than me as they tried to go do something as simple as go to school. Being a child, I did not at the time understand the boldness of their song.

I am still old enough to recall history classes where black people were shown bent over in cotton fields, the implication being that this was all they were good for, and that they were happy and grateful to be where they were. There was a map of the world on the board. Africa was smaller than Europe. Every Friday afternoon, our school was shown a film, and when Tarzan was the film, with the screaming natives leaping all over the place, we all slid under our seats.

But I also knew something very important: we all did, since our parents, our grandparents, and those before them had come up to Chicago from the South. We knew that those "happy darkie" faces in the media hid a bitter reality. Being educated at a time of great transition in America, I both saw the jolly Mammy of Gone With The Wind and was taught, too, why she might have been so jolly, so rotund. Mammy would have been bred, the way a horse or a dog was bred, to breed. The British had, by the middle of the 19th century, eradicated the transportation of slaves on the high seas so that, in effect, Southern plantation owners had to grow their own. Thin was out, and fat was in. A big woman was more fertile. The systematic eradication of clan, language, any sense of the past, was part of a process that would be considered genocide today. I learnt that my family name, "Greer", had not been some exotic moniker brought over from Africa but the name of the man who had owned our family. We had no name. I often think now that the interesting names that so many of us have today derives in part because, at last, we can call ourselves what we like. Because we belonged to the land.

Yet there were communities, families and associations that worked to secure the release of their people from slavery. They came f together in the face of everything to plan escapes via "The Underground Railroad", a system of safe-houses for runaways that led to Canada. And they created sophisticated means of directing them on their journeys. Those happy songs sung in the cotton fields were, in many cases, codes. "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd" instructed the runaway to keep her eyes on the Big Dipper - the North Star - which would point the way to freedom. Freedom meant the right to do, to move, to get away.

The black soldiers who joined the union cause in the Civil War did so for a higher purpose than mere preservation of the Union. The risks they took were enormous. If captured they were sent back into a far harsher slavery than they had escaped. The regiment upon which the film Glory is based made a heroic stand, but the majority of them were killed and the rest sent back to who knows what fate.

These fighters for freedom were not seen graciously in many quarters in the North. Irish immigrant workers, fearful for their jobs if blacks were free - a lot like the immigration debate today - rioted against the draft and the Southern influx in New York in 1863 and killed 100 blacks in the process. You can see the mythology in the scene in Gone With the Wind when the "carpetbaggers" came from the North to settle in the conquered South, bringing with them black men dressed in top hats and silk breeches, the Old Confederacy's nightmare.

That nightmare was alleviated in the 1870s when a compromise was reached with the South allowing it to return to some of its old practices. By the 1880s, Federal troops had withdrawn from the old Confederate states, the Republican Party had ceased to be the party of Lincoln and became, instead, the party of big business, and the vote was taken away from black people by a combination of state law, custom and practice, but above all, terror and intimidation.

Even as late as my growing up, in the waning years of the Fiftiess, the horror of the late 19th and early 20th centuries still haunted the collective memory of my people. Mississippi, arguably the most racist and most repressive state in the Union and where my father was born and raised, instituted "Black Codes", laws that effectively revoked the two amendments that gave slaves their freedom and the right to vote - and made it a living hell for any person of African descent. Black men and women were lynched with impunity. There was a vogue for postcards of lynchings, complete with the smiling white populace at the foot of the tree. My childhood was replete with stories of white men breaking down doors at night to cart off a son who did not show the requisite deference; or the father who dared complain about his meagre wages from sharecropping; or the returning Northern soldier who bragged a little too much about life in "gay Paree" and was found shot the next morning.

Yet, in the midst of all of this, certain black communities were determined not only to survive, but to thrive. They set up their own businesses, their own institutions. If whites would have nothing to do with them, why they would do for themselves. Booker T Washington's Tuskeegee Institute is a brilliant example of this self-help practice. Washington taught his students to excel at the jobs they were allowed to have, to become teachers among their own, to shun the hand-out, the pity. The "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" philosophy also informed the other end of the spectrum. W E B Dubois, a Harvard graduate and philosopher, saw it as the duty of the most privileged to aid the most downtrodden. He and his associates in the "Niagra Movement" in f the early years of the 20th century sought to do something different from the West Indian-born Marcus Garvey with his Black Star Line - that dream of a fleet of ships that would return us to Africa. Dubois was going to stay. In the end, he did take the Garvey option: dying in Ghana on the eve of its independence in the late Fiftiess. Dubois refused to accept the definition of black Americans as part of Rudyard Kipling's "white man's burden". The black American plight was the local version of a disease sweeping the world: the belief by Europeans that coloured peoples - blacks, Arabs, Indians, Chinese, indigenous peoples - were simply incapable of governing themselves. Not even the Great War and the heroism of black American troops could dispel that notion.

Yet if one of the African contributions to the story of humankind is improvisation, the Harlem Renaissance of the Twenties and Thirties, and Josephine Baker in particular, are some of the best examples of this contribution. Having been a witness to the horrific East St Louis, Illinois pogrom that happened right after the Great War when she was a girl, Baker made her way to New York and on to Paris. There she became the epitome of the modern age Europeans so desperately sought. Black literature, art, music, photography, portraiture and letters did not flower again in such force until the end of the Sixties. It was as if the war, the decades of misery, the blossoming black middle class and working-class Northern liberation had exploded into a force that inspired such disparate figures as Federico Garcia Lorca, Berthold Brecht, Gertrude Stein, even the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, who became enamoured of the little chorus girl, Florence Mills, and became her lover.

Paul Robeson was a muse of Eugene O'Neill and everyone wanted to be Louis Armstrong, the first modern superstar. The old folks used to say that the Wall Street Crash spared Al Capone and Joseph Kennedy (JFK's father) because they were too rich, and black people because they were too poor. Mary McLeod Bethune, confidante of the Roosevelts and the most influential black woman in the 20th century until Condi, brought the concerns of the people to the inner sanctum of the Oval Office.

Black soldiers, like my dad, stormed the beaches of Normandy, only given arms as they entered the water. The armed services were racially segregated, and black servicemen rioted at the miserable conditions under which they lived, compared with German POWs. They protested again after the war when they were denied access to the housing, education and jobs promised to all returning soldiers. The language of their struggle was expressed in a faster, more improvisatory jazz, whose king was Charlie Parker, whose queen was Sarah Vaughan and went by the name of be-bop.

Around the time in the early Fifties that Parker was dying of drug abuse and disrespect, a team of brilliant lawyers under Thurgood Marshall, who was to become a Supreme Court justice, built the case against segregation. This titanic legal effort was the basis of Brown vs Board of Education, which declared the doctrine "separate but equal" to be unconstitutional.

Rosa Parks was selected by the Birmingham branches of Civil Rights organisations to ride a bus and not to give her seat up to a white person. Birmingham spread, giving birth to Martin Luther King's leadership, the freedom riders who desegregated the inter-state buses, followed by my era, the late Sixties and Black Power, a youthful attempt to correct centuries of what we saw as passivity and meekness. We grew our hair, we changed our names, we became fugitives, like Angela Davis, we honoured Muhammed Ali and H "Rap" Brown, we took the great Harriet Tubman's threat to those slaves who were too afraid to accompany her on the road to Canada: "Be free or die."

Freedom for black Americans is the right to be ourselves, the right to analyse and critique our society. Freedom is the right, as the great black American playwright Ntozake Shange wrote: "To be coloured and love it."

Photographs from 'Freedom: a photographic history of the African-American struggle', published by Phaidon, £24.95. To order your copy at the special price of £22.50 (including free p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897.

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