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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

American Jesus

Jesus ached.
He hadn't a clue to where he was… when he opened his eyes the darkness remained. He remembered running away from Massa… he remembered being caught once and whipped and hobbled… and caught again by a mob of ghosts…. turned in by someone he thought of as a friend seeking silver coins paid for run-away slaves… but happened between that moment and this particular one was a blur.
He tested his limbs discovering he could not move at all. He sensed uprightness to his situation rather than being prone but what held him in place seemed a mystery he hadn't strength to solve. An odor of rotting leaves penetrating his nostrils informed him he was out of doors… most likely in a forest or at least at the edge of one.
He wondered for an instant how he had come to end up here… he wondered if he might be dreaming but he couldn't wake up. A fragment of memory from his youth floated into his mind.
"Jesus… you gonna make Massa whip all the black off your hide," he remembered mami warning him. He might have been all of four years old. Mami wasn't his mother… the woman he took to be his real mother had been sold off a few months prior. Her distressed wails at being taken from him were stuffing for his nightmares.
He squalled a little to see her go his tears flowing down his cheeks wetting the dust at his bare feet… and Rachael Massa's daughter who was perhaps ten years older than him felt sorry for the little slave child suddenly bereft of mother. She took his hand bringing him into the horse barn to read him passages from her bible. What started out as a way to salve his angst at losing his mother became a regular pastime for them both… each morning after chores Jesus sneaked away to meet Rachael in the horse barn.
He had no way of knowing such things were strictly forbidden by Massa until mami came across the two of them on a rainy autumn morning huddled in a warm stall with Rachael reading in a quiet voice the parables of Jesus from Luke.
"Was Jesus white?" Jesus asked Rachael, unaware that mami was eavesdropping in the dim recesses of the horse barn.
"No… Jesus was a Jew," Rachael said. "His skin was probably brown."
"Brown like mine?"
"I don't know," Rachael told him. "Probably not as dark as yours but it might have been. No one knows for sure though."
"Child… you better be comin' with mami right now," the old woman said, erupting out of the shadowy stacks of hale bays and hanging saddles like a bad dream coming true. "Miss Rachael… you knows better than to be reading to this here little colored boy… Massa don't allow no learning amongst his slaves… you knows that. If he catches you all in here like this he's like as not to have hisself a fit."
"But it's just the bible, mami… pa wouldn't mind Jesus learning a bit of scripture, would he? After all, he named him Jesus. Why did he do that?"
"What Massa names his slaves is none of mami's business, Miss Rachael. I suspect he liked the name's all. It is a good name. That don't mean Massa won't put a whupping on this boy's rear end if'n he catches you two in here reading from that there book… likely's not he might be putting one on yours too, Miss Rachael."
Mami took hold of him by clamping her thumb and forefinger onto his left ear compelling him out of the barn. He saw the old woman look both ways at the door before exiting as if checking to see if they were being watched. That was the end of his bible lessons with Rachael. But the fire had been stoked and once the coals were burning it was impossible to quench the tiny flames of curiosity springing up in his mind.
"Those who have ears let them hear," Jesus told his congregation. He was seventeen years old… the other slaves had taken to coming to the barn Sunday morning before chores to hear Jesus speak. They were a mottled collection of young and old, toothless from both age and lack of it, and they all sat rapt listening to the teenage boy as he stood atop of the broken Chuck wagon seat Massa kept in there, out of the rain and safe from thieves. Jesus spoke with his eyes closed… he was shy standing in front of so many of the others though he knew them well… and he sensed them all crowding around him rather than saw them.
"This seed is the word of God," Jesus said, holding up a handful of dried corn. He tossed it into the air with the yellowed kernels landing all about… some on the ground, some on the wooden slats that served to hold the hay up off the floor to keep it from molding, some on the people themselves. "To you it has been given to know the secrets of heaven. Faith in the Lord is the way to wisdom… let these words grow in your hearts and flourish throughout the land."
"What's this I hear about you preaching in the barn on Sunday mornings, Jesus?" Massa asked Jesus, looking at him in a way that demanded an answer. Jesus knew better than to look Massa in the eye so he kept his head low staring at the mud caking Massa's shoes. "Is this true?"
"Yassuh… I say a few words… peoples they seem t'like my talking to 'em. Don't know rightly you'd call it preachin' though."
"Well… I'm not sure I approve," Massa said. Jesus could see him stroking his chin whiskers the way the man was apt to do but he didn't dare lift his eyes. "Where is it you learned to preach, Jesus?"
"Can't rightly say, Massa," Jesus said. "The words they just kinda come inta my mind and I opens my mouth and out they tumbles."
"I hear there are colored preachers over Memphis way rousing their people to demand their freedom. I don't like it. I treat all you people good… better than most."
"Yassuh, you surely do," Jesus proclaimed. Hate for Massa began forming in his heart but Jesus knew better than to let it show on his face.
Two days later a man came to the cotton plantation to take Jesus away. Massa had decided to sell him. Jesus rode in the back of the man's wagon until they came to a spot where they had to ford a creek at which point he jumped out and let the current carry him away. Jesus felt as if he were being baptized.
They caught up with him on the side of the creek where he lay drenched and panting. The man put a chain on his ankle securing the other end to the seat of the wagon as he drove Jesus back to Massa, demanding his money back.
Massa whipped Jesus that night. The bull whip sang sweet in the cool night air delivering its poisoned touch to his pristine skin, flaying it away in angry swaths that glowed angry red in the flickering firelight. Massa demanded Jesus be tied to a post in the center of the courtyard and saw to it all the other slaves gathered around to view the punishment inflicted on one of their own.
Massa decreed that night that Jesus be left hanging at the post and in the morning he had his kitchen help take a sharp knife to cut the hamstrings of Jesus so that he could no longer run away. They hauled him from the shackles of the post depositing him in the dirty barn where he lingered in a bed of straw, near death for many days, until his wounds healed and he once again found strength in the Lord.
"If a kingdom be divided against itself it cannot stand," Jesus said, standing uncomfortable in front of the crowd of people who gathered on a stormy Sunday morning down by the creek. He was a man now… no longer the boy who shied away from speaking by refusing to look at his congregation. He stood crookedly bent, high above them on a rock with his eyes wide and wildly open and his voice loud against the silence. "No one may enter a strong man's house and take his goods unless they first bind the strong man… then they may plunder his house. We's not cattle to be bought and sold… we's God's own men and women under blue heaven waiting to be free.
"One day Massa say to us… this tree bears no fruit… cut it down. Why should it use up the ground? I say to him, leave it alone, suh. We hunger for righteousness and freedom. I say to him… we's patient, suh… but we's not that patient. If'n Massa wishes to cut down the tree of freedom then I say we must bind him… we must bind the strong man as the Lord so sayeth and take what is ours. Are you's all with me here'n?"
"Yassuh…" the congregation all called out, their cries filling his ears. "Yassuh… we is with you till the end. We'll fight with you, Jesus. We'll bind that strong man and we'll plunder his rich house and we'll take our freedom for our own!"
*****
But one man crept away unseen. Massa paid this man an extra share of food to report all he heard when Jesus spoke. In a short while a white mob dressed in sheets came for Jesus, pulling him from the rock, calling for his blood, stripping him naked, stoning him with fist-sized rocks until he lay dazed in the sunshine pouring down from blue heaven above. They took Jesus and they gouged out his eyes so he couldn't find his way to his God, and carrying him away they spread-eagled him nailing his arms and his ankles to a tree at the edge of a black forest that grew in the shape of a cross while Massa watched in the distance high on a hill atop his white stallion that pranced under him like Satan chomping at the bit to carry him into hell.
*****
Jesus ached.

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