“A Scared Negro Will Get You Killed”
As a black history aficionado and an ardent student and observer of human behavior, it is days like today that I yearn to speak with Harriet Tubman.
Harriet Tubman believed in “running away.” She “ran away” to resist being enslaved. She “ran away” to resist from being further dehumanized. She “ran away” after being tortured by serial masters and overseers. She “ran away’ from economic exploitations. She “ran away” from whips, chains, and unspeakable torture. She “ran away” from an environment that touted religion yet did not practice Christianity. She “ran away” to boycott heartache, tears, and the auction of families. As a result of “running away,” her heroic efforts yielded freedom for hundreds of family members, friends, and neighbors. As she so aptly stated, “I never lost a passenger!’
However, Harriet Tubman’s civil disobedience ran afoul with some of the enslaved African-Americans she was trying to “free” from bondage. For instance, I am sure that your black history griot relayed to you how, with extraordinary personal courage, Harriet returned to Maryland seeking to liberate her husband but remarkably he refused to accompany her to freedom thus opting to remain in his current position. During other death-defying trips, the Moses of Her People as she was rightfully called, returned south again and again to help scores of other enslaved African-Americans seek freedom. Inexplicably, it was reported that while some enslaved African-Americans were more than willing to defy the odds by escaping, others had to be forced under threat of being shot by Harriett if they didn’t comply with her orders. “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
Which brings me to Sasser, Georgia. On Wednesday, April 4, 2012, I, along with other “run away” African-Americans, led a peaceful demonstration at the governmental offices of Terrell County. Our attempted request, for the third time, was simple—remove the racially-charged and culturally offensive highway sign called “Chain Gang Road.” We vociferously object to the continuing existence of this highway sign because it resurrects a powerful and shameful imagery that symbolically represented racial oppression and atrocities rendered to primarily southern African American convict laborers. In addition, language is a transmitter of culture and ideas that often shapes perceptions which can be used to perpetuate demeaning characterizations, racial bias, and could easily evoke grossly inflammatory mental images and inaccurate exaggerations synonymous with African-Americans (Trayvon Martin). Finally, hateful language, racist expressions, epithets, and slurs that are transmitted or transposed on or via governmental property intimidates, incites violence, or causes a prejudicial action against a protected individual or group.
So, the sequel and phobias continue. Our peaceful demonstration at the county commissioner’s meeting was met with its usual dose of vindictiveness and hatefulness from the majority white commissioners. Instead of welcoming the participation and attendance from a group of polite, civic-minded African-Americans who were interested in exercising their rights in the democratic process just like the white civic-minded attendees, the chairman upon observing a sea of black faces entering the room abruptly cancelled the business meeting! However, we were not deterred. Our group reconvened the peaceful demonstration at the Babcock Furniture store which is the worksite of one of the commissioners. It is worth noting that this is the same commissioner who represents the district in which the detestable Chain Gang sign is displayed.
Why am I in search of wisdom from Harriet Tubman? Because it is evident that most of the African-American population within Terrell County are scared. They are scared of attending the monthly county commissioner’s meetings and giving voice to issues that are detrimental to their existence. It’s obvious that the lone two black county commissioners desperately are in need of their help. They are scared of championing the “Chain Gang Road” cause and would rather allow an insulting sign to sit prominently and permanently within their community without resistance. (Meanwhile, yours truly who resides in Jacksonville, Florida travels an eight-hour trip monthly to fight this battle on their behalf!) They are scared to challenge the white-power structure that sits on the county commission, who without a quiver, approved the expenditure of thousands of dollars to be given for the construction of a dog kennel while heartlessly rejecting the needed funds for a swimming pool for the black youth and community. Sadly, I was informed that unless enticed with food, most in the faith-based community are scared to be seen attending a meeting involving civil rights matters.
They are scared to overcome their apathy by petitioning for a recall election of the white commissioners who obviously do not have their best interest at heart—-and without impunity openly demonstrate their disdain for African-Americans. They are scared to challenge the anemic hiring of African-American professionals to work in various leadership and rank and file positions within the governmental offices. They are scared to inquire whether government contracts are awarded to minority businesses. They are scared to institute term limits so that the chairman’s 40-year dynasty is immediately abolished. They are scared to fight the ruling class by supporting viable African-American candidates to defeat the incumbents who currently sit on the county commission. (This should be a slam dunk because this county has a majority black population). They are scared to pool their resources so that they can build black businesses thus avoiding getting permission from the bigoted bank officers who can dictate whether they are worthy for a loan. (How hard could it be to build a business since research has shown that our ancestors built this nation?) They are scared of protesting against Bill 1162 which sets aside tax payers money for private schools thus liquidating the needed funds for the public school systems. Bottom line, they are SCARED!
Harriet, where are you when I need you most? Show me why, as a fugitive, you were willing to venture behind enemy lines to liberate other enslaved African-Americans? And, tell me why you were so willing to risk everything for a chance that others might be free?
“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves” has become my mantra.
In spite of the preponderance of obstacles, seen or unseen, like Harriett Tubman, I will continue to venture back across the enemy’s lines (Sasser, Ga) because I witnessed on that day nearly 30 “run away” and fearless African-American freedom fighters (men, women, children, toddlers, and teens ranging in age from 2 to 95) who willingly stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me as we mounted our protest. Harriett has shown me that freedom is intensive labor and despite having an imperfect community of family, friends, enemies, rivals, spies, relations, manipulations, abuses, and even some personal sacrifices, uncompromising and unequivocal advocacy will eventually bring an end to “Chain Gang Road” just as Harriett, along with other abolitionists and freedom fighters, helped bring an end to slavery.