November 13, 2008

Vernon Jarrett

—as appears in Studs Terkel's book Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith.


Vernon Jarrett

He retired as a columnist for the Chicago Tribune as well as the Chicago Sun-Times. He had begun his newspaper career as a journalist for the Chicago Defender. For years, lie conducted a weekly television program on Chicago's ABC affiliate.

DEATHS WERE QUITE frequent in the black community. The life expectancy of black men and women was anywhere from ten to twelve years less than whites. It seemed as though somebody was always dying. The old folk used to sit around at nights, before we had radio, before we had record players, and certainly before television, and remember when old sister so-and-so died, and how she looked. Older people always explained predilections about how they would like to die and warnings of death in the clouds, or in the shadows at night that the moon liked to give. [Laughs] As little boys and girls in the South, you grew up sitting there listening because you weren't permitted to talk. Our entertainment was relating to each other at night great moments in your personal histories. Some of these stories you heard over and over and over, until they became real to you … About how a friend died right after a big picnic in the country. They used to say, "He died from indigestion," when he was actually having a heart attack. I used to hear that all the time.

I remember when B.B. died, one of my little playmates. First grade. Because people were very poor, when my dad took me to the wake, he didn't have a casket. He was laying on what they used to call the cooling board. It took a little time for them to raise money to get him a little casket. I remember going by and there was little B.B. laying up there. I blamed God for this. Why would God do this to a little boy? A little innocent child. Do I believe in God? The whole God concept is unavoidable. Whether you believe there was an identifiable God, as we grew up believing, is too heavy for us. I don't think our brains will ever be able to understand the idea of a God. So we make it up. The human being has the capacity to create situations to make up for what you don't know. So we are going to create a God. Who knows?

My paternal grandfather used to come and live with us in Trenton, Tennessee. Two thousand people. My maternal grandmother used to come, too, because they were very old. They sat around and talked all the time. She would read the Bible to him. He couldn't read, but we didn't know it. He claimed his eyes were bad—actually, he was illiterate. Both of them were ex-slaves. They talked about dying, and they remembered specific deaths all the time. How some people saw signs in the sky predicting death—sometimes the image of it was on the clouds. They were saying, "That looks like old man so-and-so. We don't know whether he's going to make it to next year." [Laughs] They had me believing all that too. Shadows that were on the out-house in our backyard had the configuration of the moonlight through the clouds, and these configurations might take the shape of some face that they knew—and people would become worried. Especially if you were already ill, usually somebody old. They didn't see any for young people.

My grandfather was very strict, very stern. I didn't like him too much. He didn't like it when I asked him questions. He was a run-away slave. We learned later that he didn't know where he came from. He just ran north. One Sunday morning, I went to Sunday school and I was mad at him. He had pushed me around a bit, whupped me, because I talked back to him once. I asked the Sunday school teacher, "Who was God's father?" She said, "You don't believe in God, little boy?" I said, "Yes, I do—but I would like to know who was God's father." She made me go sit in the corner and reported me to my parents … [laughs] because I was entertaining atheistic thoughts. I guess I couldn't have been over seven. Finally she said, "There's God the son, the father, and the Holy Ghost, and that's all you need to know if you are a true believer." I just swore I was a believer. I said, "OK, you told me who God's father is, but who was God's grandfather?" I thought about that all my life. I'm grandfather-conscious. I wanted to know. She couldn't tell me who his grandfather was. Then I asked her, did God's grandfather ever give him a whipping when God was a little boy? [Laughs]

The question reoccurred when my son died. I had a hard time, even when I was a strict churchgoer, believing that a loving God— a God that everybody says is such a loving God—would make sinners burn forever. I remember one time I burned my finger on the stove when I was a kid, and I said, "Oh, this is awful!" I said, "I wonder what it must be like to burn for an eternity…" What kind of God is this that would make somebody burn forever because they didn't believe the same thing that somebody on earth said? I said, "This whole thing is outrageous. I cannot believe that any God would do that to anything that He made!" If you knew we were going to burn, why didn't you make us different? These are questions that used to go through my mind as a kid. I used to have conversations with God. I'd say, "Why would you do a thing like that?"

People have to have something to hang on to. Black people say, "We identify with the Supreme Being. We're not worried about you white folks here now, because you're gonna get yours." That's the way me older people used to think—God is going to take care of you guys, you people who are brutalizing us and lynching us. Our day is coming. God is going to see to that, because we're God's children.

My son, William Robert Jarrett, I took a special interest in. He was my firstborn. I have two sons. I named him after my father. When his son came, he named his son after me. This is a reverence that we learned early to have for our elders. When he died, he was forty-one. Let me tell you what happened to me. Despite the fact that I had dismissed the idea of Heaven or Hell, I didn't have the gall to say there's no such thing as God. I think you have to be very careful to say what is not. For somebody to say there is no God, well, what is there?

When my son died, I started getting these wonderful phone calls. "Brother Jarrett, you will see your son again, in glory, in Heaven. God has a way already mapped out for us, and this is just one phase of our transition." One person, whom I had high respect for, who is in the sciences, said something about our being just like the butterfly, maybe one thing in one world and maybe a worm in another. Mostly, it was, "You will see your son again in glory." You know, that made me feel good. That's when I realized I needed to hear something like that. The thought, even today, of never, ever meeting again is an awesome thing. Never! You can call this fiction all you want to, but we need to create these bromides to make us feel better, like you need a drink… or like some people smoke a cigarette. You need something to give you the lift to continue on. Because if you conclude that this is all there is … You know that song, "Is That All There Is?" You say, "Is this all there is to it?! You mean we're through?"—then you leave the door open really for everybody to go out and exploit everybody else if they want to, say, "Let me get mine." Or kill themselves. This is the law of the jungle. Why do you want to live? There's no aftermath. It's only a matter of time before I'll be forgotten, everything I'm doing will be forgotten, so why bother?

I think this is the genesis of all the religions. People need something. Can you imagine being a slave in America, where you don't see any future at all for your physical being? So what you have is a spiritual being that is going to outlast the rest of this. I used to hear my grandmother and the other old ex-slaves sit around and sing "When the Saints Go Marching In": "I want to be in that number." Suppose they didn't have that song… They couldn't say: "This is all. This is it. There's nothing left." So you have to create something to make you want to bother with just being here.

I remember the first Christmas Eve after my son's death—he died in November. I went out to the graveyard in the afternoon—it wasn't sunset yet, but almost. Ice was on the ground, and snow. I didn't see any cars or anybody near Oakwood Cemetery. I parked right in front of my son's grave and I said to myself, "It's just wrong to say he's out there in the cold ground. If he is living, and I hope he's living, it's going to be through me or his brother or his friends or his mother, and his grandchildren." I just had to disabuse myself of the thought that he's out there in the cold ground. That's how my mother used to think. When my dad died, she spent a big chunk of the insurance money on an expensive vault. You know why? She said, "I just don't want my husband out there wet in the cold. I want a leakproof vault where, on the coldest days, he will be dry." She felt so much better spending that money. I think that thing cost us two thousand dollars.

When my grandmother Harriet Jane Thomas died, she suffered for three or four days. The word got out in the church and in the neighborhood that she was dying. It was a simple ailment. Today it would have been knocked out in no time—gallstones. She had lost consciousness. There was a little ritual in the semirural South. After they have decided that you are beyond hope, they take the pillow from under your head. I remember my brother, when he heard that, he said, "Don't ever take the pillow from under my head!" I said, "Me either! Leave that pillow under my head because something may happen that I come back to life!"

I can remember all the specifics of that afternoon when my grandmother died. The people in the neighborhood would come by and pat her on the hand and say something to her. It took a little of the edge off of the suddenness of death. I think she was about three days out of it. People would come by, and they'd pray and they'd bring stuff to the house. When she finally died, somebody called a mortician from another town, because we didn't have a black mortician. The white morticians then did not want to do black funerals or burials. This man came over with his assistant and they left my grandmother in the room where she died. That evening, while all the other older folks were in another room around the fireplace talking and eating their dessert, I went outside and peeked in the window. I saw them begin the embalming process. I remember they put this jug right up under her arm and they cut a slit in her arm and put a tube in the vein, and the blood started coming out. That's when I left.

They used to have the wakes in the house. The casket stayed open. The speech-making was at the funeral. I grew up going to funerals all the time when I was old enough to walk. I cried at all the funerals—I didn't have to know who it was. My brother used to get on me. He'd say, "You little phony—you don't even know these people." But you learned to accept the things for all mankind. I used to feel real sorry for whoever was dead. The older people would take you there because they wanted you to get accustomed to the fact that you can die, that you're not going to live forever. They really drilled that into your mind. I'd go by the coffin and try to peep up and look at them or pat them.

There was one other death too that put much on my mind. I watched an execution here in Chicago. I was a reporter for the Chicago Defender. The guy who was supposed to write the story said he just couldn't go out there because he'd been following the trial. It was a young man in his very early twenties. This could have been '47. I'm young, I'm just starting. It was 26th and California—Cook County Jail. We left everything we possessed, maybe outside of a pencil and a notepad, with the guards. The guy had killed a store owner. I said to myself, "I'm sitting here awaiting a human death." It was the strangest feeling in the world—that we could take life quite that lightiy. I was so traumatized by it, and I didn't write the story: I missed my deadline, I went to a tavern, I just sat there, I didn't even talk to anybody. I didn't know what to say. Two men brought him in blindfolded, his head had been shaven, and he stumbled a little and they sat him down in the electric chair. They braced him up and he made one or two little moves.

The thing I remember is the callousness of this famous South Side cop, named Two-Gun Pete. [*Sylvester Washington, a black police officer, was feared in the community. He was proud of his brutal behavior and was praised by the "higher-ups."] He was there acting as though he was a tour guide. I wanted to tell him, "Would you shut your damn mouth." He says, "Now, don't feel sorry for this guy because he deserved it. He had it coming—he asked for it." Then he said, "Now what you're going to see is, they're going to put these cathodes or whatever on his legs and something on his arms and head, and you may see a little smoke come up from the side." He just talked his tail off all the moments prior to the execution. When they brought that boy in, they set him down in a hurry, buckled him up. I remember there was this pause in between. It seemed like hours, but it was a split second. He sat there, buckled his chest, heaved twice, and he went limp. I said to myself, "What is this all about?" The guy, Two-Gun Pete, almost bragged about killing the man. My mind had to go all the way back to people in civilized France where the crowds enjoyed the guillotine—where they put a head under there and they see it chopped off. There was a whole audience in here, about twenty people. They remained quiet. I looked around and there were some people shaking their heads. Then the doctor came out and gave him a check to see if his heart was still beating. Then they took him out.

I saw another death. Remember the old Bacon's Casino which the packinghouse workers union bought, at 49th and Wabash? This was the first place Joe Louis ever fought. I remember walking out of that place one evening and a car sped around the corner. It had too many cylinders for that little-size truck. The thing turned over and the driver was trapped under it. I looked in there and saw this man dead. I was always perturbed by the suddenness with which death can occur. The guy was just driving a car. We heard the screeching. And there he was dead with all these cylinders over him. Then somebody on the street says, "That was God's will." This is when you almost turn God into a cop-out, to explain everything. Yet people need something…

I wish I were wrong about my doubts. That I'd never, never, never see my son again… I'll tell you what really gets to me. When I get an honor of some kind, I say, "Gosh, I wish Bobby was here." I didn't realize how much I had been living for this boy. If I won the Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow, it wouldn't be the same, because he couldn't be there—because the children are something you dream about before they come. So you know what I found myself doing? I think this is trying to make up for it. I never accept an award; I let one of my grandchildren accept it. I may be subconsciously trying to have my son back.

I remember when my brother got his degree at Fisk and my father cried. He had been a high school principal in Paris, Tennessee. Both his parents were illiterate. The only schooling he ever had was when they were not planting or harvesting. He went to Nashville on his own, without a quarter. And he helped build the chapel at Fisk University. My dad, incidentally, was a strict disciplinarian as a school administrator. Nobody talked while the speaker was speaking. He would whip kids in school for what they did on Sunday at church! But here is my dad talking out loud while this distinguished educator, the first black Rhodes scholar in history, Dr. Alaine Locke, was delivering the commencement speech. While Dr. Locke was speaking, my dad started talking and my mother kept punching him, saying: "Don't do that. People will think we're from the country!" And I looked up and he had tears running down his eyes, and he was saying, "You don't know how much I dreamed for a day like this." He said, "These wrought-iron seats that are in here, I helped screw these seats down. When they were building this building, I went to the foreman and talked him into letting me be the one to lock up the building every night. I always left one door open or one window unlocked. I used to come in because I had no place to stay. I really didn't have any money to eat." He said, "I'd take off my pants at night and roll them up to make me a pillow." He said, "I slept right over there in that corner." He said, "Look over there now. Look at my son in a cap and gown." I enjoyed Dad more than I enjoyed the speaker. He just kept talking, he was muttering to himself all the time. You see, if people don't have some dreams to hang on to, a belief in something …

I think this was one of the big attractions of Christianity: the fact that He suffered like they had suffered. You have to have a reason to want to live. When I reflect back at the slaves that used to come to my grandmother's house and visit her, I wonder how in the heck they made it psychologically. You saw absolutely no future unless you created it through your religious beliefs. When my dad died, that was a momentous occasion. I got a tele-gram from my cousin, Hedda May Thomas. He taught up until the last week of his death. Some way or other they let him stay on. He was a big joke guy. My mother did her ritual of coming in, sitting down, taking off her shoes, putting on some house shoes—'cause she was a teacher too. She would get up and then fix dinner. He was sitting there having a bit of fun with her. He said, "You know, there's something you forgot to tell me?" She said, "What did I forget?" "You got paid today, you're supposed to give me your money." He thought that was a big joke, and he just cracked up and started laughing and laughing and laughing. And he caught a deep breath and died—a heart attack.

My father and mother put in together around a hundred and ten years collectively teaching school in those small towns. When he died, it rained all day. The church was filled an hour before the funeral. People drove in from everywhere to say good-bye to him. And three generations of people passed by his coffin. What really shook me up, weeping, were all these little kids and they had to raise up and peek and they were saying, "Good-bye, Professor Jarrett, good-bye …" And I said, "What the heck am I crying about? This man has lived a great life."

I took a vow at his coffin—just to get the last look—that I had to do something with my life as a perpetuation of his. That's what I think really counts the most. I'm doing the same thing with my son. Much of what I do is on behalf of my son. I do a lot of volunteer stuff with kids, and it's really in his memory. I think of that kid, thirteen, fourteen, walking outside my house—there was a lightbulb, and he just smashed it out. I heard the sound but I didn't know what it was, so I just grabbed this toy gun—it looked like a real rifle. I came down the stairs. He used some dirty words: "Go ahead and shoot me, mother—" He didn't give a damn. A lot of kids out here have just written off life because they don't see anything to live for. Despite the emotion you see in the churches, it hasn't passed on enough down the line. Even if it is fiction, the fiction hasn't worked. Everywhere you look, it's big fish eating little fish, and little fish eating shrimp. That's why African-Americans are the most churchgoing people in America, maybe the most religious people in America: they've had less concrete evidence than anybody else in this country that they have a place. What's that biblical expression? Faith is the evidence of things unseen. So you create it.

I remember people used to have the little sporadic prayer meetings up and down the street where I lived in Paris. Religion is a way of people relying on each other too for sustenance. It's not just God, it's God together with us—the "us" thing prevails. You may be white, and you may be powerful, and you may have the capacity to take life without any degree of contrition, but I'm connected with God. If I didn't hear that once, I heard that a million times. "God is on our side," "It's just a matter of time."

When I was a kid, a lot of people didn't believe that tornadoes went through black neighborhoods. [Laughs] They'd be the last ones to get off the front porch when a storm was coming. "God's looking out for us." Every group that wants to can anoint itself as God's chosen people. Our species, we damn humans, forget that we're just a little globe amidst millions of stars. Yet we're acting as if we are the beginning and the end. Maybe we've had to believe this in order to justify the acceptance of the fact that this body is going to die— like other animal life has died and will continue to die. To show how we get caught up in our own importance as humans, I plan to write my own program for my funeral. [Laughs] Who I want to be there, who I would like to make remarks. Then I say, "I'm acting like this is a big deal." Mine is just another minor passing. But I am caught into this assumption that we are not insignificant, that there's something to our having been here on this Earth. We don't want to go around here accepting the fact that this is some evolutionary accident. So we give all this importance to it.

I have a tombstone. I want my name on it! I want to be buried next to my son. There's an old black spiritual that says, "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine …" Right now! Since we don't know the truth about any of this, you better let your little light shine right now.

Reprinted with permission from The New Press.

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Voices on the Radio

Terkel was a radio personality and author who published 20 books on central themes and events in American life. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1984 oral history of World War II, The Good War. He died on October 31, 2008.

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