Seeds of Departure

From The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson:

They were too young to escape. So they had to endure their peculiar station in the feudal world they were consigned to and the madness that could intrude at any given moment.

Like the night back in the 1940s, “a moon-shining night, bright, like it’s almost day,” when little Gibert and Percy were sitting on the front porch steps of their family’s cabin.

The boys could hear voices coming from the woods. The voices echoed through the trees in the night. The boys got quiet and still and tried to make out what was happening. They could hear the crackle of a whip and a hollow wailing coming from the woods. A colored man was being lashed in the pine scrub beyond their cabin.

The boys heard the man cry out with each blow.

“Alright, we gonna take a break,” some voices finally said. There was silence.

Then the men took up the task again.

“We gonna kill you,” the voices said from the woods.

“Please, please, don’t,” the colored voice said. “Before y’all do, will you let me pray?”

The man began to pray. “The man prayed a prayer like a Baptist preacher,” Gilbert remembered decades later. “I ain’t never heard a man pray like that man.”

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they doing,” Gilbert remembered the man praying. “I lived a good life for you, if you never done nothing for me, Lord, please …”

“Alright, that’s enough,” the other voices said. The man continued to pray.

The beating and wailing commenced again. Then the wailing stopped.

“The sonabitch dead,” came a voice from the woods.

Gilbert could never get the man’s cries out of his head. “We don’t know who he was,” Gilbert said some fifty years later, “or what he was supposed to have done.”

The seeds of Gilbert’s departure from Mississippi were sown that night.

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