I’ve spent much of the past week processing the papers of the New Orleans-based insurance executive and writer Octave Lilly Jr. Lilly is an atypical figure; he was one of the few African American Louisianans employed by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s, but he abandoned writing for nearly three decades to, in his own words, “tend to the business of making a living.” Yet, he was a poet of unique talents, first publishing a story in Screenland at the age of fourteen. In the 1930s, he would ultimately see his works printed in the leading African American publications of his day, including Opportunity and The Crisis. Lilly’s poetry was often about the African American underclass, including ex-slaves and prostitutes, and was unusually gritty for its day – although he wrote in metered verses, typically in sonnets. In his writing, Lilly was a firebrand who wrote with an indignation ahead of his time.
Octave Lilly lost most of his personal belongings, including his earlier writings, when Hurricane Betsy ravaged New Orleans in 1965. However, he felt compelled to resume writing after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a connection echoed in the title one of his collections of poems, Killer of the Dreams. Lilly’s gritty, angry poems struck a chord with a younger generation of New Orleans writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and again Lilly saw poems published in such publications as The Crisis, Negro Digest/Black World, Freedomways, and The Pittsburgh Courier.
Reprinted below is one of Lilly’s unpublished works, “Shadow of the Cross,” a short story on a lynching in Louisiana. Accompanying this story in the papers of Octave Lilly is a letter from George Schuyler, the acclaimed author and journalist who was then working for The Pittsburgh Courier newspaper. Lilly’s story, written in 1939, was submitted to the Courier for publication. The conservatively-minded Schuyler, however, didn’t like the story, and suggested it would be “more effective if it were told with less indignation and a little more objectivity,” among several other critiques.
Night lay over the town. Like a million leaves of love dying and dead on the floor of despair. Cast a shadowy mist that enveloped an occasional pedestrian who found his way to Main Street… ah! Main Street, the one lighted thoroughfare of the Louisiana bayous… the sacred hunting-grounds for defenseless blacks after nine o’clock at night. Michel, approaching the bridge from the other side of Bayou Lafourche, started at the sight of a woman walking along the street. A white woman walking rapidly with her shoes in her hands. The light in her face now, her hair pencils of auburn writing messages of the night’s loneliness in her face, her distended eyes daggers of impending peril plunged into the vitals of the night. Michel’s black brow a trenched arc subdued against the greater blackness of the night. Dull above the shimmering ivory of teeth. Evenly shaped teeth plainly visible between bulbous lips. Steady now and she would be past soon and he could go on his way… Gawdamighty, aint at Miss Jenny? Bless mah soul, hit sho is her… wonduh whut she doin out dis time uhnight by hersef, and walkin bout barefooted widuh shoes inuh hans. Sho hope she don see me, cause she’ll sho say suppn tuhme, and ah don wan no wite man tuh see ma talkin tuh uh wite oman dis time unnight… But shux, whut ahm thinkin bout, ah ain scared uh talkin tuh Miss Jenny, evuhbody knows ah works at Miss Jenny’s house sometime… jis finished hepin her step-pa fix uh fence yistiddy… sho, ah even knowed her Ma fo she died… Still, ah reckon ah better be careful, cause uh nigger ain got no rights nohow… so ah reckon ah’ll jis ack lak ah don see her an pass on dout saying nothin tuh her…
“Oh, it’s allright, it’s me, Michel, yuh cn come on cross duh bridge, ah ain scared uh yuh, ah ain gon holluh… Yuh bin playin at uh ball tuhnight, hanh?”
Michel did not answer immediately. He gripped his banjo with a firmer hand as if to gain support from it as his eyes lingered upon the girl’s stockinged feet. “Yasm, Miss Jenny, ah bin playin wit duh boys at uh barn dance cross duh bayou.”
“Ahm allright, Michel, dahs nothin wrong wit muh feet, deys new shoes ah got on an dey hurts me suh much ah tuk em off. Goodnight, Michel.”
Jenny reached the field she must cross before arriving at the clearing that led the way home. Broad expanses of cane and the night air redolent with its pungent smell. The loves and sorrows of the South wafted by April’s breeze through the canebrake. Lord, how intimate the lives of these people with these flowing stalks. Cane had brought them into the world… would take them to the grave. God, can’t you hear them, the leaves of the cane whispering, gossiping about the lovers’ trysts they had spied on, the heartbreak and laughter and sorrow and gayety?
The chirping of crickets recaptured for Jenny a sense of direction her musing made her lose. Made her conscious that the moon was looking at her with laughing, knowing eyes. Yuh cain fool dold man induh moon, Jenny Lunn… as if he didnt know yuh loves Tom Rollins. But ah cain have duh man ah wants cause — damn it all, if it wuznt dat ah knows Jake’d kill him, and throw muhsef down to his feet an ax him to take me. Jake Lunn, gotdam im, duh dirty bastard… made me have him wen ah wuz jis uh girl fifteen year ol… right aftuh muh Ma died. Treated her lak uh dawg til she died… if only she had tol me who muh real Pa is… maybe ah could fin him now… But Tom an me’ll run off an git married… he tol me so tuhnight fore Lem tol us Jake wuz lookin fuh us in town…
Slush! Slush! Slush! Footsteps in the canebrake. The April breeze was a black poet singing a song of sorrow. A subdued but fluent hymn of hate carried on the wings of the night. Jenny looked up. Jake Lunn! Damn him! Look at him… drunken beas… staggin lak uh tree inuh stom!
“Turn loose uhme, Jake Lunn, ah ain gon have no mo uhyo bulldoozin… ahm leavin town tuhnight…”
“Yuh lil bitch! Ah’ll show yuh bout goin out wen ah tells yuh not tuh… Ah’ll learn yuh bout goin out wit dat bastard Tom Rollins too…”
The palm of Jake Lunn’s hand planted splinters of fire in Jenny’s face. She fell heavily into the long green arms of the cane. Soft cadent tones of a requiem floating on the waves of early morn seemed insistent in her ears as her limp form met the earth’s dewy kiss. Strong red fingers, relentless in their grasp, throttled her soft white neck. Jenny lay still… too snugly cloaked in the cloth of ebbing existence to hear the distant plaint of a hound rise a sharp compelling dirge into the dying night…
Nights of the Louisiana canebrake know the ways of the people of the countryside too well. Know of their sufferings and sacrifices – the struggles of Negroes and poor whites alike with cane for a precarious subsistence – they know too how the plight of the blacks is infinitely intensified by the ever-present threat and too frequent reality of the noose. And knowing these things the nights cannot rest and when dawn comes are tired and wan and go to a warm bed only to toss in delirium and wake at twilight as gaunt and haggard as before.
So the night heard the great rumble of voices on the countryside. Heard the purr-purr of motors being primed for the chase and felt the quick dagger-thrusts of headlights in its sides. The night drew closer. Again voices. Distinct now. Still strident voices. Hoarse grating voices. Men’s voices. Women’s voices and children’s. Burn duh nigger! Michel decuir, duh black sonafabitch! Jenny Lunn dead induh canebrake… Jake got worried cause she stayed out so late… went out to meet her an foun her induh fiel… Tom Rollins seen dat nigger Michel talkin to Jenny on Main Street…
The voices became a subdued hum subordinated to the slush-slush of feet in the dusty road. A dozen torches signaled to the moon. Told the stars that a soul would soon return to its maker… Lord, I’m a-comin home… God, did they need all those rifles to kill one poor black man? And shotguns, knives, rope, kerosene? A cock crowed a question in the distance. A hound held in leash by one of the mob moaned confirmation that death stalked the countryside.
Funny Michel never heard the gathering of the mob… all the other Negroes heard and closed their doors and windows tightly and prayed to Jesus… Lord, he ain gon study wah no mo… Hep, Jesus… Emma heard the noise outside before Michel did. She got up from his side in the bed in time to hear a great pounding on the door.
Yelling voices outside. A man’s gruff voice above the others. “Open dis gotdam do, or we’ll set duh shack a-fire…” The butts of shotguns rammed into the door. Yells. Screams. A baby cried. Chickens startled from slumber by the strange cacophony of sounds about them cackled in nearby poultry yards. Curses. Sonafabitchin nigger… foolin wit wite women, we’ll learn him to stay in his place…
Big red-fisted hands held Michel, ragged him outside.
“Ah ain done nothin, Emma… dey gon kill me ah know, but fo Gawd, Emma, ah ain done nothin…” His voice trailed on in a stream of denial. The trees reached their arms to heaven in protest… The moon hid its face and the stars sang a song of sorrow.
They took Michel to the bridge on Main Street. After soaking the shack with kerosene. After watching a million greedy tongued of flame lick at dry cypress chops. They left Emma and her three children huddled about her. Standing in the shadow of the flames. Weeping. The youngest child, a little girl about nine yaers old, asking in tears what papa had done and where he was going… The sluggish waters of the bayou greeted them in silence… Christ on the cross in front of the Church of the Blessed Lord across the street did not tell them to disperse… but sang a song – not now though… wait…
They had tied Michel’s wrists behind him. The big red-fisted men pushed him under the shadow of the hanging rope… ah! Gallows in the shadow of the cross! Hang the nigger and hold torches under his hands and feet. Listen atduh bastard scream… whoever heard uh stringin up uh nigger dout burning his hans and toes… got tuh have souvenirs fuh ouah wives an chillun, aint we?
Michel was screaming no longer. His eyes were set in a glassy stare. Only his irregular gasps for breath and the twitching of his hands and feet told them that he was not already dead. Now the mob’s voice rose to a wild crescendo, yelled satisfaction at the feast prepared before their eyes. The mob was quiet now and eyed Michel with bloodshot eyes. Michel was swaying in April’s breeze. His head sagging on his breast. His eyes popping. A child, “Mama, cn ah have duh nigger’s finguh now?” The mob howled. Cursed. Sonafabitchin bastard. Cut duh nigger’s finguhs an toes, give em tuh duh women and chillun! Yells! Yells! Yells! The countryside echoed and re-echoed them. The moon was going to bed. The sight had nauseated it. Emma, dragging her children behind her, appeared in the street. Barefooted, disheveled, screaming. Curses and stoned swept them back along the dusty road. A woman laughed, fell to the earth in hysteria… ground her hands and teeth into the warm earth… swooned. Michel swaying in April’s breeze as the sorrows of the South wafted through the canebrake… O, where were the loves of the South…? Christ hanging on the cross in front of the Church of our Blessed Lord across the street stretched out his hands, bowed his head and sang a song…
In the shadow of the cross
Hang the nigger on the bridge.
Heaven’s gain is earth’s loss.
Look, Michel, they lynched me too –
I, as innocent, as you!
Posted by Andrew Salinas
Not to be reproduced without permission.