Blues for the White Man by Fred de Vries

 In How to write a book, Newsletters

We were delighted to host the virtual launch of Blues for the White Man by All About Writing’s non-fiction expert, Fred de Vries.

Here’s a recording of the event:

And here’s an extract from Blues for the White Man. Fred chose this piece because it uses the blues in the musical, socio-political and historical sense. It shows how the blues is a metaphor for something much larger than a rowdy bar, few chords and a raspy voice – black pain if you like.

It’s almost 9 p.m. and pitch dark when I see a brightly lit spot with a dozen or so cars randomly parked in front of a small wooden building, a shack really. To the left of the entrance, someone has placed a pole sporting an American flag. Next to it stands something that looks like a site hut and functions as a food outlet. I smell fried catfish. The juke joint looks eerily desolate against a moonlit background of what are most likely endless cotton fields. The outside walls have been decorated with beer ads. There’s also a word of warning for those who wish to enter: ‘No Loud Music. Dope Smoking. Rap Music.’ The name of the place has been painted in big blue letters on a signboard: Poor Monkey Lounge. The place is commonly known as Po’ Monkey.

It’s hard to imagine that this ramshackle building has survived more than fifty years of storms and hail and God knows what else. To enter, you have to climb seven wobbly wooden steps. After paying a couple of dollars you enter a space that has been divided in two. There’s a section in which you can play pool and a room with small tables and chairs. You can even shake your booty on the tiny dance floor near an elevated space where a DJ is busy sifting through a pile of CDs – vinyl is apparently something for white hipsters.

This description makes Po’ Monkey sound organised and thought out, but in reality, the place looks as if a flea market and a shop selling plastic Chinese party supplies have made an unholy pact and stuck their unsold stock randomly on the walls and ceiling: Christmas lights of all sorts and sizes, garlands, a pink toy monkey, small flags, adverts, neon slogans and transparent plastic boxes of baubles. And that’s only half of this mad, happy mess. The wooden poles that hold up the ceiling have been decorated with tinfoil. The walls are skinned in flowery wallpaper, at least those bits that are still visible, because the rest has been covered with pictures and posters. The interior is a mishmash of tables, chairs and sofas that any self-respecting charity store would reject. This is the po’ man’s party hall.

What it certainly isn’t is a tourist trap. Most of the customers are black, some of them drinking from bottles wrapped in small purple velvet bags – Crown Royal whisky. Mr Po’ Monkey, the owner, who is deep in his seventies (he would pass away two months later), walks around greeting guests, happily doing his party trick: when you reach out to shake his hand, an enormous brown dildo pops out from underneath his apron. He must have done this a million times, but he still bursts out laughing. I was told that in Po’ Monkey you hear ‘nothing but the blues’. But tonight the DJ mainly treats us to obscure funk and soul.

I must have looked unsure when I entered, because when I make my way to the bar, two white men happily gesture for me to join them at their table. I guess they are in their early forties. One introduces himself as Will; I don’t catch the other one’s name. They have known each other since their schooldays. The nameless one now lives in New York and is visiting Will. Will, a large man with a goatee, is wearing the standard leisure outfit of a white American man: chequered shirt, baseball cap, jeans. He is a true Southerner, he proclaims proudly, and he clearly loves to talk – preferably non-stop. He grew up in Florida and is a blues fanatic. His hapless buddy from New York, he explains, is gonna experience that obsession, because for the next ten days Will is taking him on a tour through the Mississippi Delta. True to his obsession, Will has given up his day job and has registered at a university to research the black history of the Delta. His wife, he says with a wry smile, wasn’t too chuffed. But Will is happy as a lark – the Mississippi Delta is his man cave. By now, he says, he feels so black that every morning when he looks into the mirror there is a moment of unspeakable disappointment: yes, he’s still white.

Tomorrow he and his pal will visit a place called Sumner, which more than sixty years ago was the scene of a famous court case against two white men accused of lynching a fourteen-year-old boy called Emmett ‘Bobo’ Till. The friend nods – it’s gonna be another long day. Will orders more beer, makes himself comfortable on the small chair and tells the story that a young Bob Dylan turned into a song in 1962: ‘The Death of Emmett Till’.

The year is 1955, when segregation and race laws, known as Jim Crow laws, still largely define the Southern way of life. Emmett Till has come down from Chicago to visit his family in the Mississippi hamlet of Money (three shops, a post office, a school and a gas station). Emmett has a stutter and a polio limp, but he is a lot more precocious than those little farm hicks from Money. He’s even heard bragging that he’s gone out with a white girl in Chicago. Considerably impressed with this city dude, the local boys encourage him to go to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market and chat up the pretty twenty-one-year-old woman who works there, Carolyn Bryant Donham. Boastfully, Emmett enters the small shop.

What exactly happened next has never been entirely clear. According to witnesses, Carolyn and Emmett didn’t even spend a minute together. But Carolyn later told a packed court in Sumner that the boy had grabbed her hand, had followed her behind the counter and had made obscene remarks. Then he left the shop, and she walked out not long after. According to a friend of Emmett’s, the Chicago boy had whistled at her – a lustful wolf whistle.

Carolyn’s husband Roy has been in Texas for business and when he returns a few days later he hears the news that is now all over Money: a cheeky black teenager from the big city has harassed his young wife. Together with his equally infuriated half-brother, John Milam, Roy drives to the place where Emmett is staying to settle scores. They will teach ‘that nigger boy’ a lesson he will not easily forget. They knock on the door, ask to see Emmett. When the boy appears, they take him with them. Straight into the pickup you go, you little pervert. The car disappears into the dark Mississippi night. 

Three days later, a boy fishing in the Tallahatchie River finds the disfigured corpse of a teenager. It has been tied to the heavy fan of a cotton gin with barbed wire. The idea seems to have been that it would sink quickly and no one would ever find the body. It’s Emmett Till’s, of course, and Roy and John are arrested shortly after the discovery. The case is heard in Sumner, where a jury of twelve white men unanimously find the two accused not guilty.

Later, in exchange for $3 500, the two men tell Look magazine the details of the lynching. First, they imbibed a fair amount of alcohol. Then they thrashed the boy and threatened to throw him into a ravine. The idea was to leave him behind in the bush, bruised, shaking and shivering, so he would never again harass a white woman. But Emmett was tougher than they expected. He didn’t show fear or remorse, and repeated the story that he had ‘done it’ with a white girl in Chicago. That was the bottom line, certainly for John, who tells Look: ‘I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers – in their place – I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’.’

They beat Emmett up, shot him through the eye, tied him to the fan they had stolen from a farm and dumped his lifeless body in the Tallahatchie. Good riddance, they thought. 

Emmett’s mother insisted that her son would have an open-casket funeral so that the world could see ‘what they did to my boy’. So he lay there, neatly dressed, but his disfigured body untouched. Photos of the young boy appeared in Jet and the Chicago Defender. The ensuing horror and the shocking outcome of the court case raised the spirits of the civil rights movement, which was then still in its infancy. Its aspiring leader, Martin Luther King Jr, called the lynching ‘one of the most brutal and inhuman crimes of the twentieth century’.

The transcript of the trial was thought to be lost, but fifty years after the murder it was found, and the FBI reopened the case. However, a grand jury decided there was no cause for further prosecutions since the accused had passed away years before.

In early 2017, the murder of Emmett Till made headlines again, thanks to a book by historian Timothy B. Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till. Tyson had managed to get in touch with the ‘victim’ of Emmett’s youthful bravado, the shop assistant Carolyn Bryant Donham. He interviewed her, and his scoop was that Donham had finally admitted that the story of sexual harassment and intimacies was largely made up. All her life she had been riddled with guilt. ‘Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,’ she told Tyson. She also felt ‘tender sorrow’ for Emmett’s mother. The Justice Department decided to open the case once again in 2018. Insiders say the investigation was closed in 2020, without new charges being brought.

Will takes another gulp of his beer. Yip, this all happened, right here in the flatlands of Mississippi, he says. Tomorrow he’ll take his friend on a tour of the graves of some of the blues heroes, from Sonny Boy Williamson to Robert Johnson. I nod. That’s on my itinerary too. ‘For Johnson, you’ll have to take your time,’ warns Will. ‘There are three different places where he’s allegedly been buried.’ He puts the empty bottle on the table. The dull thud of glass on wood. My turn to buy a round.

***

Blues for the White Man is available from Amazon,  takealot.com, Loot, Exclusive Books, Reader’s Warehouse and many independent book shops like Love Books in Johannesburg and Book Lounge in Cape Town.

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