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Life Arts    H1'ed 7/28/22

Fiction: America, the Beautiful?

By James Henry Harris  Posted by John Hawkins (about the submitter)   4 comments
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The Isley Brothers
The Isley Brothers
(Image by Arizona Parrot)
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Fiction: America, the Beautiful?

by James Henry Harris

The old black man, tall and gaunt, raffishly dressed was out early walking along the Lighthouse Pier on the Gulf side of the Beau Rivage"a swanky hotel and casino in Biloxi. It was my first time seeing this other side of Mississippi "something like paradise. But, as the cool breeze of the morning stung my nostrils and the glaring heat of the sun and the thick humidity wrestled with each other, the likes of which reminded me of the hot summers in the tobacco fields of Virginia for a moment, I almost forgot where I was. My visits to Sunflower County and the little infamous town of Money, Mississippi snatched me from tranquility into a reality that I wished I didn't have to remember. But, it was all in me. In my soul. In my bones. Both places symbolized seats of evil and ugliness toward Black people. Images and voices overwhelmed my mind.

I envisioned the days doctors deliberately sterilized Fannie Lou Hamer and many other Black women to keep the Black population under control " they justified themselves by citing the number of Black babies that the state would have to care for financially.

I can see Fannie Lou suffering taunts and beatings of sheriffs and jailers to keep Black folk from ever thinking of voting. I see Birmingham, September 1963, when four little Black girls lost their lives while in Sunday school at 16th Street Baptist Church, victims of domestic terror by white supremacists. But that ain't the "wust" as Mark Twain would say. And yet, it was the worst.

It was more than I could bear to think about. The Jefferson County sheriff, Bull Conner, embodied the Confederate state of mind. Fear and anguish took hold of me. As I turned the corner at 6th Avenue and 20th Street in downtown Birmingham, my heart raced. I stopped and sat on the curb, sweat and tears puddling off me. A white man in his early twenties was passing by.

"Sir, are you okay? Do you need some water, it's scorching hot out here," he said.

"I feel a bit faint and my legs are weak," I told him.

"Here, take this little bottle of water, it'll help."

"Thank you," I said, barely able to get the words out.

The water saved me. Sitting on the sun drenched street, gasping for breath, I vectored back to the images of Bull Conner and the Birmingham police force beating, kicking, and cursing the old Black women, men, and children that evil summer of 1963. Blood ran in the streets, dogs were lacerating Blacks at the command of the police. Black people determined to be loving and nonviolent screamed and cried. As I stood up to walk again, I said to myself: "This is America the beautiful and the land of the free, for white people." I thought about the suffering and pain that Blacks endure in silence every single day while loud mouth politicians keep rumbling about everything else.

It was a Tuesday morning, an hour before noonday. As I walked down Richard Arrington Boulevard in Birmingham, outside on the plaza of the Jefferson County criminal courts building where what looked like a thousand people had gathered. Almost all were Black. Everybody except the sheriff's deputy and a security police officer. They were as Alabama white as you could be... Rednecks, short marine or army haircuts. Pistols on their belts and bullets bulging in their pockets. They were law and order personified. Again, I could only see Bull Conner and George Wallace, the two bastions of American segregation and hatred, vehemently and visibly displayed towards Black folk.

What I saw in Alabama plunged me back into the Mississippi Delta. For some strange reason, it was the awful violent and gruesome murder of a 14 year old black boy from Chicago, Emmett Till that haunted me about Mississippi racism and white supremacy. The murder of Medgar Evers also loomed large. It took me almost fifty years before I ventured to set foot on Mississippi soil. The place that had venomous hatred and obsession against racial equality " an equality that would allow black boys to date and even marry white girls. It was a sex thing at the core"born of hatred, fear, and American evil. I was scarred and traumatized by the memories of pictures of Emmett's body on the cover of Jet magazine. This photograph had both depth and meaning far beyond the magazine cover. It affected my conscience and my psyche causing me to suffer debilitating nightmares and night sweats for over twenty years. It also took a toll on my body causing me to have high blood pressure as a teenager and high cholesterol and high blood sugar as a young adult. I was a grown man before I could begin to erase the scars of this strangling anamnestic memory, almost paralyzingly encumbering me with fear. I could see and feel them coming for me with heads covered in hoods, hatchets, and guns " castrating me, burning me at the stake. This was the Mississippi goddamn of Nina Simone and a hundred thousand others.

As I walked along the worn and frazzled planked pier, the pigeons and the Seahawks squawked almost in harmony. They sounded like the black church choir I had heard every Sunday growing up in rural central Virginia. Beautiful in their own way. Always a bit out of tune like the old upright piano that Sister Velma Harkins used to play. It didn't matter much because the musician was often self-taught and wrought with commitment but not capable of reading any notated music. Every song sounded the same. The words were different but the tune was the same. The funny thing is that Sister Velma believed that she was directing a real choir. The Mississippi Mass Choir. The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Potter's House Mass Choir. An ordinary choir. It was an authentic reality to hear some folk singing off key. I was one of them " an off key baritone that nobody even knew or cared about. No auditions required or needed in the Black church. Just a desire and fire in the belly to sing. Not quite in tune like Boyz to Men or the Isley Brothers or SWV or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

That morning, as I walked, there were also poor whites, some homeless and wrinkly, sleeping on benches along the pier. One old toothless white man was drinking his beer, looking emaciated and forlorn. It was his morning brew. I thought to myself, "only alcoholics drank that early in the morning or those suffering from a depressed state of mind." I felt a certain sorrow as I glanced over at him without changing my walking stride. It was too early in the morning for such sorrows.

I had gotten up early as my wife, Diane, lay in bed asleep. I said that I was going to the gym, but instead, on the spur of the moment, I decided to take a stroll along the beautiful river, the "beau rivage." It was not quite Paris or the Riviera, but good enough for me. The beauty seen in nature is unmatched and, believe me, I know beauty when I see it. I can feel it in my spirit. Beauty looks and feels good and makes me a little bit strutful. The night before, we had been dazzled by the soulful sound of the Isley Brothers, a group that had been crooning love ballads for as long as I was old. I stood in line by the theater's box office for two hours just to get tickets because my wife wanted to go to the concert. I wasn't too keen on it, but I could never deny her anything she wanted. And she never asked me for much, so when she asked about the show, I started working on it. Figuring. Thinking. Planning.

"Do you think we can go see the Isley Brothers? They are in concert tomorrow night at the Beau Rivage Theater," she said.

"Hey, let me see if I can get tickets."

I called the box office and asked the price and availability of the tickets.

"Sir, the Isley Brothers concert is sold out. It's been sold out for three weeks," she said.

"Thanks ma'am," I said halfheartedly.

At that point, I began to scratch my head and wondered what I could do to get two tickets. I asked around. I called my friend Joe who knew a few things about the underground, the Black market of scalping tickets. In the past, I had gotten tickets from him to see the Orlando Magic, the Boston Celtics, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and a few others. I had even gotten tickets to see Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Chris Brown, Chris Rock, and Chris Tucker. I love baseball and comedy. But this time Joe was a long shot.

"Joe, I'm trying to get tickets to the concert tomorrow."

"Who you trying to see?"

"My wife wants to see the Isley Brothers," I said.

"Man, that concert is sold out. Rock solid, sold out and I couldn't get but four tickets to resell. I just got rid of the last one a few minutes ago for $200. I wouldn't want to charge you that amount anyway. So brother, it's a good thing I ain't got none."

"Okay. You were my best hope."

How was I to get tickets to a "sold out" concert that I didn't really care whether I saw or not. I was doing it for her and for cultural enrichment because I had never seen them perform although I knew their music "having heard it on black radio stations all my life. They had a unique sound, a blend of Memphis and Philadelphia with a tinge of Alabama and Mississippi gospel and blues. It was black soul. You could feel the pain and the suffering in the voice. It was embedded not so much in the lyrics, but in the tone and in the sound of struggle that came from the belly. From the soul.

Two hours before the concert, a long line began to form outside the theater. When I got there, following my spirit, my intuition or maybe a hunch, the line was halfway around the building. I went to the front of the line and tried to bribe my way in front of someone. I picked the wrong person. She was an older lady who appeared to be more than seventy years old in the face, but I noticed that her legs were strong and muscular like Tina Turner's. She had on tall high heels, six inches or more. Stilettos laced up with leather straps. She wore black leather pants and a Texas cowboy hat. Why I thought she would let me cut the line in front of her is crazy and unknown to me.

"Do you mind if I get in front of you to try to get tickets," I asked.

"Hell no! You can't get in front of me. I been in this line for almost two hours already."

"What about if I give you twenty dollars?" I said as I flashed the four five dollar bills in front of her."

"You better take your little skinny ass to the back of this line. Nobody is gonna to let you get in front of them for no measly twenty dollars," she said.

Dejected and humiliated, I began to walk away heading to the back of the long line. As I got almost to the end, a guy who was standing just to the side called me over. He was ragged and his face was wrinkled with deep lines of struggle. He had a backpack on and his shoes were coming apart at the soles. No socks on, his disheveled look made me think he wanted to panhandle me for money.

He also looked as though he had been in a slight altercation " he had a cut under his right eye, which was red and a little puffy. To tell the truth, he looked like he had been in the boxing ring with Floyd Mayweather or "Sweet Pea" Whittaker. But that didn't startle me at all because I assumed that sort of thing happens on the street more frequently than I care to admit. So, I walked slowly and cautiously over to him to see what scam he was up to.

"Brother man, you need tickets to the show?"

My eyes lit up, "Yep. I surely do."

"Well, I got me here two good tickets you can have."

"How much?" I asked.

"I just need something to eat, he said. "I ain't charging you for 'em, 'cause I found them this morning while walking in the park.

"Let me see them," I said joyfully.

As I examined the tickets, I noticed the printed price of each ticket and recognized they were premium first class tickets just a few feet from the stage area. Row A, section A, seats 1A and 2A. $120 a piece. I took out a hundred dollar bill and offered it to him. He jumped for joy and handed me the tickets as I gave him the money.

As my gait picked up, I had just begun to think Mississippi is turning out to be" before I could finish that thought, Diane appeared and I told her the tale of the tickets. She pulled me in close for a quick peck of gratitude and she promised to make good on it after the concert.

We were excited the rest of the day. The Beau Rivage Theater was filled to capacity. Black folk everywhere. Speckled with a Asians and whites near the front. As we weaseled our way through the thousands of folk, we finally reached an usher who began to take us to our posh seats just feet from the orchestra pit and the immaculately decorated stage. Blue lights peppered with images of silver stars freckled the stage and made the atmosphere come alive with ambient precision. I was feeling the freshness of the moment when the usher began suddenly to question me about the tickets. I didn't think much of it at first.

"How did you get these nice tickets for tonight's show?" she asked

"Well, it's a long story," I said as we kept walking towards the front rows.

"It's okay, you can tell me," she said rather friendly.

By then, we had reached our seats. So we sat down as others milled around talking and laughingly enjoying the ambience of the theater's new renovated I while sipping cocktails from the bar. I noticed for the first time that almost everyone was drinking liquor or wine of some sort. I could smell the sweetness of Peach CÃ roc, Strawberry Daiquiri, and Pink Moscato as the voices began to morph into a harmony that only I could hear. The ladies were dressed in their Sunday best while the men all had on jackets and shiny shoes. Well not all of them. I noticed that the few white folk were more casual in their jeans and tennis shoes. Some had on baseball caps and football jerseys of their favorite teams.

Just before the lights dimmed, I felt really good about pleasing Diane. She had really given me room to grow and develop into a successful man. She wasn't a nagger; but, she always let me know what's on her mind. Like the time, I almost hooked up with a friend of a friend " in a romantic way. Somehow Diane intuitively knew my plan better than I. She said to me, point blank, "Think about the cost." I stayed on the straight and narrow from then until now. I won't lie; my thoughts and my eyes have wandered " but I have not given in to temptation. All this congratulating myself ended when I heard,

"May I see your ticket stub." Tickets for these two seats were purchased by the president of Dominion Jewelry. How did you get them? Mr. John Brackenbridge was found beaten and robbed in front of his West Avenue condominium earlier tonight.

"What? That's got nothing to do with me," I said boldly.

"Listen n-word, you show me them tickets."

As I reached for the ticket, the security officer yelled to the other policeman, "He's reaching for a gun. He's got a gun!"

"No, no, no. That's his phone. The ticket is in his pocket with his phone," Diane screamed.

Suddenly, the policeman pulled out his .38 revolver and shot recklessly, though aiming to kill me, as I ducked down in my seat. He missed me as the bullet struck the woman sitting directly behind me. She let out a loud scream and a cascade of goddamns. Chaos broke out as people began running and screaming trying to get away from the violent altercation. I was put in handcuffs and arrested on suspicion of robbery and assault, and for resisting arrest and attempted murder of a police officer. Four criminal charges all because I was just trying to attend a concert.

On my way out of the theater, as I walked past the dressing room I noticed that the drummer was warming up practicing a few beats. He had a black handkerchief on his head, tied in a knot like the man I had seen on the pier and in the park. He was the same man who gave me the concert tickets.

"Hey officer, what's the matter?"

"Mind your own business sir."

"If it's about the tickets, I'm Rufus Isley and I gave him those tickets."

"Didn't I say you better mind your own business?"

After an arraignment the next morning, the black judge refused to grant bail saying that I was a flight risk and a threat to society. An outsider from Virginia, who might have some Nat Turner in his blood. In 1831, Nat Turner was skinned alive for killing 70 whites " in a short-lived revolt against slavery.

"Sir, do you understand the seriousness of the charges against you?"

"I didn't do anything but purchase concert tickets from a man on the street," I pleaded.

"Just answer yes or no."

"Can you afford a lawyer, if not; I can assign you a public defender."

"Your honor, I lost my job two days after I went to a counter-protest rally. I went to the "alt right," white supremacy rally in Charlottesville to stand up for human rights and to stand against the confederacy," I said.

"Okay then, I'm gonna assign Mr. Stephan Gannon to represent you. He'll come by your cell to talk to you later this week. You will remain locked up here in the jail until your trial date and your case is settled.

"Your honor, your honor, can I speak?"

"Sir, that's all. Bailiff, return him to his cell," the judge said.

It was over three months before my attorney, Mr. Stephan Gannon, came to visit my cell. He had filed six continuances of my case with the court. I learned that the last time he asked that my case move to another date, the judge refused him and demanded that he be in court on Thursday, the last day in October. "Mr. Gannon, this is your last time to pull this stunt before the court. No more putting this off. I want you in court the day after tomorrow." It was Tuesday.

"Your honor, I am gonna need more time. My client hasn't been well. Every time I tried to see him, he was in the infirmary.

He had been beaten, developed several skin rashes, and involved in a verbal altercation with the guards, due to no fault of his own.

"Well, you better see him before Thursday. Your case is set for 9:00 AM Thursday morning. If you are not here, I'm holding you in contempt. Jail for you sir," the judge was visibly angry.

"Thank you, your honor. I understand, sir."

Mr. Stephan Gannon had tried all day Wednesday to get me to plead guilty and receive a lesser sentence. "The District Attorney will drop two of the charges if you plead guilty to the robbery and assault charge. Instead of 25 to life in prison, you will get just 8 years. And, they won't charge you with possessing that small amount of marijuana you had on you. You know they found five grams in your pocket after you were arrested.

"I don't smoke weed. They must have planted that on me or something. I've never smoked marijuana, not even when I was in middle school," I said.

"Well, I discovered in their report that they listed having retrieved a small amount of cannabis on your person during the night of your arrest."

"That's a lie. They're trying to get me to say I did something that I didn't do."

"Listen, your life will be easier if you just plead guilty."

"No! You mean your life will be easier, not mine. I ain't gonna lie on myself. That's crazy. Besides, I'm allergic to marijuana. Can't be within 100 feet of the stuff before I start heaving and wheezing."

"Why didn't you tell me that?" the lawyer asked.

"First, you didn't ask and this morning was the first time I talked to you in two months. And, that was for five minutes in the hallway just before court was to start. You tell the judge that before you send an innocent man to prison.

The lawyer held his head in both hands and began to mumble to himself, Primum non nocere. Fiat justitia! Fiat justitia, pereat mundus.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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