February 27, 2014

A Massacre in Arkansas: Facing Love and History

The map depicts important scenes of the Elaine Race Massacre.

The map depicts important scenes of the Elaine Race Massacre.

Published on Best American Poetry Blog
A year ago, Green Mountains Review Online featured, in a four-part series, "Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre". The article, which I wrote, describes a forgotten massacre of more than a hundred (maybe even hundreds) of African-Americans in the fall of 1919 in Phillips County, Arkansas, along the Mississippi River Delta. The massacre resulted in a 1923 Supreme Court decision, which gave life to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution (equal protection and due process under the law) and helped pave the way for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In Evanescence I portrayed the personal conflict I experienced in discovering, during my research, that my maternal grandfather, whom I adored (and who adored me) and with whom I lived for several years from age one, upon my own father’s death, more than likely joined in the massacre. He lived most of his life along the Arkansas Delta, as did I for most of the first two decades of my life.

During Black History Month this February, speaking on more than one occasion about the Elaine race massacre, I was often asked to concentrate on the personal conundrum of my grandfather Lonnie’s participation in the event. On the face of it, the rendering could purely be factual, as much as I discovered of a credible nature; however, in the larger sense, while I could indeed conflate the convincing pieces that led to the conclusion that Lonnie took part in the massacre, I could not reconcile my love for him and his apparent views about and role in racism, as practiced in the Arkansas Delta by whites during the first part of the 20th century.

Young children do not have the wherewithal to calibrate direction from a moral compass for the placement of their love. When protection and habitual endearment are present, children do not adhere to any such standards at all and will, without qualms or conscience, show affection to or receive affection from racist and saint alike. At the same time, I realize my response to Lonnie would have been entirely different had I been older and known of his violence and racism; with age, our moral compass filters and refines the focus of our affections. I would, of course, not choose to share my life with a racist, but, as a child, one doesn’t have the option to make that choice.

In my examination of the period in which the massacre happened, I recall the references to the Arkansas Delta as the heart of darkness, and it may have been – with my own grandfather’s propensity adding, in good supply, no doubt, to the pool of darkness that spread murderously and perniciously over the land. Yet, he was always kind to me – much kinder than virtually anyone else. So, I cannot reconcile the two – it would be false, serpentine and artificial. But maybe he couldn’t reconcile the two either. He was who he was, and now that he has been dead for several decades, I can only ponder the questions – with the answers secluded and forever distant. Still, I know unreservedly my own path to the Elaine race massacre was, in part, to discover a slice of him that eluded my awareness and baffles my personal conscience.

In August, 2012, I traveled from my home in New York City to Phillips County, Arkansas to explore the site of the massacre – maybe even to find that a note of reconciliation with Lonnie lay in the Delta land. I was joined by a director from the University of Arkansas Center for Arkansas History. As we surveyed the killing fields and adjacent areas in the fierce and thick summer sun and Arkansas humidity, guided mostly by the eerie notion of a concealed necropolis underfoot, two striking and related conclusions sprung to mind. First, little change to most of the landscape or along the narrow, dirt roads had taken place over almost 100 years. Second, no one ever intended to set any historical reminder in this place – a marker of explanation, a monument, a memorial of any kind – for notable exposition so future generations could know, with a degree of certainty, that several whites and an untold number of African-Americans died in these humble and unremarkable fields and in like spaces within Phillips County as part of one of the most important racial conflagrations in our country’s history.

In my quest to sight an existential piece of Lonnie among those unnamed and silent ruins of the Elaine Race Massacre, I had, after all, concluded that history can be doubtless. Too much and too little abided in the fields and fury of Phillips County for Lonnie and me to inhabit any amicable turf there – too much intervening and unsympathetic time, too much dismay as I turned the leaves of record, which bore too much descent and strife and turpitude, too little comity, too little heart.

J. Chester Johnson is a poet, essayist and translator. Johnson has published numerous volumes of poetry, most recently St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems (second edition). His writings have been published domestically and abroad and translated into several languages. He has also composed many works on the American Civil Rights Movement, six of which are included in the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College (New York City).

Published on Best American Poetry Blog


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