Three Selections from Poems from The Elaine Race Massacre
By J. Chester Johnson
Highlights of the Massacre and Aftermath:
During the Red Summer of 1919 when racial conflict between black and white Americans flared throughout the country, the Elaine Race Massacre in Phillips County, Arkansas, along the Mississippi River Delta, stands out as possibly the most brutal and murderous conflagration. From Tuesday, September 30th, 1919 to the following weekend, more than a hundred and possibly hundreds of African-American sharecroppers and family members perished. Five whites also died, although two may have been killed by friendly fire. Whites feared a black insurrection where blacks outnumbered whites by multiples, but also feared the local black sharecroppers’ desire to unionize for improving economic negotiating power; these two factors contributed to the whites’ extensive aggression against the blacks. The largest number of deaths of African-Americans were caused by white federal troops with machine guns, brought into Phillips County allegedly to stop the black revolt. No investigation ever found that local African-Americans planned or executed an insurrection. …
The Poet’s Overview:
This segment and sequence of individual pieces, which are part of Poems from The Elaine Race Massacre, represent authentic episodes based on historical accounts at the time the federal troops establish order in Phillips County that includes various advances and killings.
Morning, Thursday, October 2, 1919: Frank Moore And His Family Are Marched, With Others, By Federal Soldiers South Along Highway 44 To Elaine Where They’ll Be Impounded; After Questioning, Moore And Several Other African-Americans Are Transferred To The Phillips County Jail.
Road dust kicked high by a lost breeze,
Churning spells I cannot hope for
Anymore. Laughs, dreams, faces, yes,
Dreams where the days do blaze out
Loud like ribbons on an early gift,
Even when the clouds control at large or
Rains exhale longingly without anger;
That’s what I wish for children of mine:
Ditchless, uninvaded, no more macabre.
Distant, but near, and rhythmic like
Water disregarded, nearby doom, troops
Choose machine guns to do their order
Or cure among whispers that a thicket
Rose upheaved, but it is not burning,
Except with the color of pain, the lead
Phantoms tearing down the wind and
Hiding the sun, pruning the doomed –
The rat-tat-tat of machine guns forever.
How far will the soldiers take their
Lightheadedness? Until we have all
Disappeared into the soil or swamp? –
Our names turning blue, a choke of
Blame that can fall in one direction
Only, a smirk of certitude to rule one
More day here and another here and
Again and so on, so on. We do not
Hear hope; only close groans can do.
The children will ask and then cry;
For they heard us ask among us until
Nothing moved but the wariness still
Flitting from voice to mute secrecy;
Shots rang oddly cadent away from
Our march toward Elaine; yet, all had
Come to this: the children knew better
Than to stop attention to gun sounds
With noon falling on unspared ground.
Can anything other than close guns be so
Implacable? Can the night alone bring
An end to bullets and the rhyme and
Rhythm of angular and jagged gunfire?
Toward Elaine, a town transfigured for
Tales to let killing be wise, comfortable
Or loyal – a town, coached to forgive easy
The murders, to fault the dead, draws
Unbalanced gains across unfamed blood.
“Line up,” they say, “line up,” they say,
“Straight.” The children also. I see a body
Now lying tossed onto open steps beside
The street with more bodies of black men
Branding Elaine like birthmarks or sores
Around the corner, up the block; we’re
Told of souvenirs taken for Little Johnnie
To save, for it is a time to remember when
The earth moved and all blacks fell apart.
Early Afternoon, Thursday, October 2, 1919: White Men Begin To Gather In Helena Outside The Phillips County Courthouse And Jail; Murmurs Among Those Massing Propose The Lynching Of Jailed African-Americans.
It’s too easy to picture a loud
Lynching, which surely comes
A multitude – cutting, hanging,
Burning, shooting, a drowning;
You name a way of effacement,
And they’re all; fill in the blanks
For method, and form falls right
Into place, as though no one had
To think of it anxiously for long.
Ida B. Wells could linger over
Them – hundreds at a time, year
After year, any number at all,
Deconstructing with colons:
Words to substitute for being
There, a careful sentence to
Make compound verbs work;
For most, words lay too tame;
Still, one should be amazed.
A story astir into American
History held in hand that day
As white men with hats wait
That day for a crowd, higher
Rage, an excuse; blazed men
With lessons framed, bitter
The better, for lynching has
Its wild taste and glut to come,
A story passed along to sons.
3:00 P.M., Thursday, October 2, 1919: Moving Gradually West Toward The Canebrakes Where At Least A Hundred Blacks, But Perhaps As Many As Four Hundred, Are Trapped, Federal Soldiers Make Another Sweep North of Elaine Into More Killing Fields.
From house to house, the torch
Of the thrashing brute falls upon
Those full of no escape – no lamb’s
Blood upon the lintel to give life,
For they were in the country of
Pharaohs again, and against God’s
Back; no face, no Moses, brutes
On the other side, passing no door,
No relief from an ounce of prayer.
Motion had become danger, each
Step or hitch held its dense crusade,
Shots ringing again loud on cue,
Shot after shot cascading a rain
As if cataracts folding plentiful
On tin-roofed shacks then left
The dead for the dead with only
The dead left to speak to those
Coming afterward who’ll not say.
Half-lives are breathing among
The canebrakes just west, half
Life not exhaling for fear notice
Shall swell its passion and stay
Merciless and blunt, thunderous
With the rat-tat-tat unceasing
Now into mostly inaudible bodies
That roll down, always down into
The redemptive earth taking root.
The NPR interview with Kyle Miller and Chester Johnson was aired on September 12th, 2019 as part of “Here And Now”. Below is the link. Kyle had four ancestors die in the Massacre.