Men in Black, my contribution to the recently published STEAMFUNK Anthology, explores the darker side of the Victorian and Progressive Era, a minor Steampunk tale (no airships, corsets or zombies) about a lynching, the arrival of a mysterious stranger, his fantastic machines and the fate of a small town called Blackwood.
The story first came to me in a dream. I know. It sounds cliché. But that’s what happened. Woke up and jotted down the basic premise. Sketched an outline up in 15 minutes, then started writing and finished within a week. That was 2004. Since that time, the story just took up space on a flash drive. Truth be told, it was just too long, approaching a novella. But that’s how it is with stories you feel must be written–they meander and sprawl far out of control. No matter how many scalpels I took to it, just couldn’t reduce it to a decent size–nothing fit for publishing anyway. So I tucked it away for tomorrow, which grew into years.
Then in 2012 indie authors Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade announced they were putting together an anthology of black Steampunk, aptly titled STEAMFUNK. Best of all, they were accepting high word counts. Took the story out of carbonite cold storage, edited it down to something slightly less embarrassing, submitted, and crossed my fingers. I got notice it was selected later that year, and the story was published last month alongside well over a dozen other tales of gears, aether and steam. Men in Black finally got to see the light of day.
My interest in the more seedy underbelly of race and violence in the Victorian and Progressive age, and its relationship (or silence) in Steampunk, is nothing new to readers of this blog. In previous posts I’ve imagined a steam era version of the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and retold the tragic story of the Blues era “badman” Robert Charles. Steampunk has been a great tool for those missing voices from history, allowing for the creation of alternate “retrofutures,” where women, people of color, the disabled, queer and other marginalized groups can create worlds in which slavery is overturned or colonialism is defeated. And that is a powerful project in its own right. With Men in Black however, I wanted to play within the world as we know it, with all its dark moments, while still allowing for a glimpse into the fantastic.
The theme of the story was heavily influenced by historian F. Leon Litwack’s Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow which I first read in a graduate history course. The book details the era of segregation and lynch law that permeated the American South in sheer and vivid detail. I was not new to the era, or studies of the so-called nadir. I had devoured numerous works on Reconstruction and its tragic aftermath. I’d even written papers on it. But Litwack’s narrative was compelling even for the initiated, giving a view of Jim Crow from the eyes and voices of its victims. In this account segregation is more than a matter of water fountains and denied service. It is violence and hate on an insensible level. It is everyday humiliation and terror through heart-wrenching personal accounts. It is such stark oppression and brutality you can’t fathom it as reality. The black cotton farmer and his adolescent daughters lynched and set afire for harvesting the first crop of the year. The black husband and wife first tortured with a medieval corkscrew device that gouged flesh before being killed. The displaying of a black lynch victim’s severed knuckles on ice in the window of an Atlanta butcher shop. As you read each new horror endured, each new “lesson” black children learned in order to survive, each new spectacle of ritualized terror performed for mass audiences, you realize that all these moments added up were whole lives, whole generations, for who the grotesque and perverse were normalized.
One story in particular stuck with me, inspiring an entire scene in Men in Black. It was about a North Carolina sharecropper named Charlie Holcombe in the early 1900s. When he was a boy, less than half a century out from emancipation, his grandfather, a former slave, would take him fishing. One day, Grandfather Holcombe pulled a fish from a river and threw it onto the bank where it thrashed about until it died. His voice grew stern, as he instructed, “Son, a catfish is a lot like a nigger. As long as he is in his mudhole he is all right, but when he gits out he is in for a passel of trouble. You ‘member dat, and you won’t have no trouble wid folks when you grows up.”
Young Charlie tried to remember this lesson, but he also wanted a better life for his son Willie. He sent Willie to school and even to a local black college. But this was Jim Crow America, and Willie returned home to find that even with an education there were no opportunities for a black man beyond sharecropping. He grew desolate and embittered, angered especially by the white landlords that continually cheated his family out of their labor. One day, fed up, Willie went to confront the white men to get the monies owed his family. When he didn’t return to dinner that night, Charlie Holcombe went to town to search for his son. He found Willie in a field, blood pouring from where his head had been bashed in and surrounded by a group of white men. “I knowed he was dead de minute I seed him,” Charlie recounted. “Right den I knowed dey wasn’t no use to ax for no he’p and dat I was jist a pore nigger in trouble.”
With tears running down his face, Charlie picked up his murdered son, placed him in his cart and rode home. He would wash Willie’s head, put him in his best suit and bury him. There were no charges made. No one was arrested. No trial was called up. The worth of black life in this world didn’t merit any of that.
Charlie was forever shaken by the experience. He blamed himself, for not following his grandfather’s sage advice, believing if he had done so his son might yet be alive. “If I’d kept him here on de farm he woulda been all right,” Charlie often said in regret. “Niggers has got to l’arn dat dey ain’t like white folks, and never will be, and no amount o’ eddycation can make ’em be, and dat when dey gits outten dere place dere is gonna be trouble.” None of the other Holcombe children were sent to college. They all settled down and accommodated as best they could to a system from which there appeared no escape. They focused on surviving.
I wrote Men in Black with thoughts of Charlie Holcombe in mind, trying to imagine a glimmer of hope in what must have seemed a hopeless existence. Though I pulled from other accounts, from author Richard Wright’s memories of the murder of his uncle to other lesser known tragedies, Charlie’s tale was the driving force of the story, the center around which all else was crafted. But, as fate would have it, the entire scene was cut from the final draft. It beez like that sometimes.
Fortunately, I never throw anything out. Below is the entire excerpt, Charlie’s account refashioned for the main character of my story, eleven-year-old Laurence Johns. Laurence lives in the all black town of Blackwood. Rumor has it, a lynching is going to take place in a nearby white town. When Laurence naively suggests the people of Blackwood should get guns and stop the intended murder, his family is shaken. His mother unexpectedly slaps him, warning in fright he should never say such a thing again. That night, Laurence’s father takes him fishing, hoping to impart to his son a valuable lesson of survival in Jim Crow America:
That night his father called him outside. He told Laurence to gather his fishing sticks and to come along. Laurence was perplexed. Night fishing was not something his father engaged in often. But he did as instructed.
They walked to the nearby lake in silence, his father’s whistling and the chirping of insects the only sound to fill the cool summer night. When they finally reached the waters they cast their lines and stood waiting, still in silence. Laurence by now had gone from puzzled to frightened. Something about the way his father behaved scared him. Like they were waiting for something to happen. When he felt a tug on his line he was thankful for the distraction. He pulled his catch in and smiled in pride. It was a catfish. Big one too. It dangled on his hook as he held it up.
“That’s a mighty good catch boy,” his father said, finally speaking. Laurence nodded, thankful at the compliment and relieved to hear his voice. “Here now, let me see it.” Laurence handed him the line and he watched as his father unhooked the fish and threw it onto the ground.
“C’mere and look at this,” his father instructed. Laurence did as told, peering down at the fish. It flopped about, its mouth and gills opening and closing, trying to catch the night air.
“In them waters,” his father said, “this catfish is right at home. He can swim all he likes. He can eat as he pleases. He can raise a family. The waters is his home. And that there’s freedom. You understand?”
Laurence nodded, gazing at the fish and imagining how it had lived before getting caught on his hook. He’d never thought of a fish like that before. He wondered if it had dreams and hopes? Had he interrupted its life when he came looking for it? Did it really have a family somewhere who would miss it?
“But look at him now,” his father went on. “He’s out of his home. He done wandered where he shouldn’t be. He can’t swim. Can’t eat here. Can’t raise no family. Can’t even breathe.”
Laurence listened. Those large glass fish eyes seemed to be staring back up at him. And it’s opening and closing mouth looked as if it were mouthing a plea for help. A wave of pity swept across him. He wondered if it was too late to pick it up and cast it back to its watery home?
Then, quite unexpectedly, his father drew a pistol from his waist. Laurence’s eyes went wide. As he watched, his father pointed the black metal muzzle at the fish and pulled the trigger. Laurence near jumped out of his skin as the blast of the gun filled the night air like a clap of thunder. But his eyes never left the fish. He watched as the bullet hit it square in the head, sending blood and gore in every direction. It ceased its wriggling, going dead still.
Laurence was shaking by now, looking down at the glass eye of the fish, torn away from its now ruined head. It was accusing, as if blaming him for its death. His father bent down and grabbed the fish by the tail, holding it’s ruined body up. He remained at eye level with Laurence, his face serious and grim.
“Son this fish just like you and me. And this is what happens when we try to leave our home, looking for things that don’t concern us. Whenever you think bout doing anything like that again, you think of yourself as this fish. And what we just did to it, is what white folks do to Negroes. You remember that in life, and it’ll serve you best.”
Laurence simply nodded, too shaken to give a better reply. His father stood up and threw the dead fish back to the waters. Saying nothing more he turned and headed back down the trail to the house. Laurence soon followed when he was able to work his feet again, casting a glance back to the lake. He wondered if the family of the dead fish would find its body? Would they cry for him?
Men in Black can be found in the STEAMFUNK anthology, available as both a paperback and ebook.
Blog photo- Steampunk Pocketwatch by Purple Glovez