Hidden Figures in Black History

katherine_johnson_john_glenn

When I was doing the research for my novel, “Triangle: A Memoir of Black Caesar,” I became aware and concerned about the apparent lack of authentic role models available to black youth in America. I use the term “authentic,” to mean role models beyond the entertainment industry’s view, including sports, and beyond the typical characters created for entertainment by the likes of Spike Lee. I’m talking about real role models, and my concern for such was the premise for my story about the life of Henri Caesar, of whom my POV character says, “there is much more to this man’s story than history has yet told.”

So it is for most of the true heroes of Black history in America. For me, that trail begins with  Olaudah Equiano. Although his place of birth, c. 1746, is disputed, the fact that he was sold in Virginia to a Royal Navy ship’s captain was well documented in 1754. He was given the slave name, Gustavas Vassa and taken to England where he eventually came into the hands of a Quaker merchant named Robert King. King gave Equiano the means to purchase his own freedom, which he did in 1766, becoming a merchant himself, traveling much of the world and learning all that he could about the Triangle Trade and English politics.

Back in London, Equiano, aka, Gustavas Vassa, joined an abolitionist group called The Sons of Africa and began pressing parliament for anti-slavery legislation. In 1789, as an activist in the abolition movement, Gustavas wrote and self-published his memoir entitled, “The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano.”

The book was widely read through nine editions and was instrumental in parliament’s passage of The Slave Trade Act of 1807, which put an end to British involvement in the slave trade. Unfortunately it did not include the ownership, or practice of slavery, the end of that horror would require a brutal and bloody war in America.

That said, there is a long and growing list of heroic, black figures that follow Equiano. I won’t attempt to list them here, but I will write about a select few from time to time. I think the awareness of them is vital to our future as “one” nation.

Getting back on track, if you haven’t seen the movie, “Hidden Figures,” then you have missed a truly great story, the kind of story from which flows the compassion and understanding required to change the world. The viewing of it should be mandatory for all Americans. It should be part of the curriculum in our schools. There needs to be more of this type of encouragement and less of a Black America with the kind of hopeless future Spike Lee and his ilk portray. What is required to change things for the better is more of the personal initiative demonstrated by heroes like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and a chain of others that goes all the way back to Olaudah Equiano.

The trouble is that the voice of truth, the voice of hope and reason, is often drowned out by the shouts of those who promote selfish agendas, but there is nothing new in this. The manipulation of public opinion is as old as human nature itself and the latest suppression of truth in Black America, of hope and reason, began almost immediately following Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. King’s positive message of character, accountability and personal initiative was drowned out by loud, plaintive demands for equality through entitlement. I don’t need to mention their names, these false prophets continue to drown out truth and hope to this day, and we all know who they are as well as the various organizations that front their ideas.

To conclude, a new paradigm is needed among young Blacks in America and along with it, a lot more men with the vision and courage of John Glenn and, in the historical record, Robert King. Men who will step up and intervene where the scales are being intentionally skewed against anyone of good character for reasons of race, creed, color, gender, religion, or national origin. What’s needed is sacrifice, the willingness to set aside self-interest for the greater good. That is the deeper message of “Hidden Figures.” People of all kinds and colors, working together to accomplish what’s better for all of us.

Advertisements

Aftermath

GM-CVR-01

A Prison Memoir, Williamsberg, 1718

I spent many days troubled that Henri would fynd out that I pissed on the fuse cord and prevented him blowing the ship. I have more to live for than my loyalty to him as a friend, but I know that he wouldn’t see it that way. Unfortunately we lost the battle and were condemned to fayce trial in Willimsburg. Governor Spotswood, with his personal haytred of Teach, would preside and, so, our situation had become hopeless. We were doomed to the gallows.

We spent a miserable week bound together in the hold of the smaller sloop, Ranger. Then we languished for more than a month in a maykeshift jail, more a cayge really, at the port, in Hampton, where we were exposed to the elements and the abuses of the local citizenry. We suffered that way through Christmas, though we sang some carols at the direction of a Quayker gentleman name of Brian Keith and he read to us from the good book, but there was little joy in the season for us. On December twenty eighth we were locked together in chaynes and slayve makers, and marched through a freezing wet snow, under heavy guard, to the stockayde in Williamsburg.

It was there, without my knowledge, that Henri, being removed from us for questioning, as it was clear to our jailers that he was our leader, began an appeal on my behalf. It seemed a futile effort, though I am grayteful and ever in his debt.

Then, in layte January of 1719, when I was much diminished, as were we all, and near death from cold and starvaytion, a gentleman came to speak to the prison authorities. His name was William Randolph, husband of Elizabeth, whom Teach had kidnapped in Charles Town, he’d come from the Governor to seek me out.

Collin Aldworth,

Williamsburg, June, 1719

Battle at Oakracoke

GM-CVR-01

Williamsburg, Virginia, November, 1718

Alexander Spotswood had just finished his substantial breakfast when acommotion began in the foyer. The servants were calling to him, their voices shrill with panic. William Randolf, his treasurer, and husband of Elizabeth, had collapsed on the hardwood floor, just inside the opened door of the mansion. His horse, out side, was covered in a thick, white froth of sweat, whinnying in distress, near collapse itself, with one of the governor’s servants trying to calm it. Two of the house maids and the Governor’s personal servant, Charles, were tending Randolf when Spotswood stepped into the foyer and began to give direction to the chaos.

“Minnie, fetch some cool water. Charles, remove his coat and his waistcoat and bring him into the parlor.” He noticed a sealed parchment clutched tightly in William’s hand. Spotswoodtook it and preceded them to the parlor, where there was better light for reading. The seal was Charles Eden’s. The message inside informed him that Eden’s sources were telling him of a conclave of hundreds of pirates, led by the infamous Blackbeard, at Oakracoke, where they were building a fort to establish their own “Pirate Nation”. Eden had put a bounty on Blackbeard’s head and he was asking that Spotswood do the same. In addition, Eden had sent an assassin to kill the pirate leader, but so far he hadn’t heard from the man and assumed him dead. Having no naval forces of his own, nor access to them, Eden suggested that, Spotswood should send the forces of His Majesty’s Navy stationed at Hampton. They could trap the pirates on the beach at Oakracoke and put an end to them, once and for all.

Spotswood had always been deeply suspicious of Eden, his motives and his relationship to Blackbeard and other pirates, but he held these thoughts to himself, as things he would discuss with William, when he was able. In the mean time, it was inconceivable to him, given the circumstances, that a man he considered to be a useless idiot, ruling the colony at his southern border, had offered no assistance in the matter of these pirates, whom he had as much as invited to his shores. He offered no gold, no ships, no troops, but only some unreliable information and the suggestion that the Royal Navy might capture the pirates if the colony of Virginia would send the resources to do the job. He crumpled the note so tightly in his fist that his freshly manicured fingernails dug into his palm. He watched as Charles brought young William into the parlor and settled him on a divan near the windows.

“Give him water and open the window. Keep his face and forehead moist, and

fan him till he cools,” he ordered his servant.

With that, he stormed from the room and went straight to the stables, ordering his groom to prepare his carriage and saddle horses for his personal guard.

When the governor and his entourage arrived at the wharf in Hampton he found the port filled with merchant ships and busy with cargo. Spotswood, his aide and two of his personal guard pushed their way along the crowded quay to the King’s Street Tavern where he knew Captain Brand, the naval commander assigned to him by the Admiralty, would be staying. Inside, the interior of the tavern was dark, cool and quiet. One sailor sat slouched on a bench in a darkened corner of the public room, a flagon in one hand and a long, clay pipe in the other.

“Is the proprietor here?” The governor called out to the man, who mumbled something incomprehensible. The governor was about to ask a second time when a man wearing a dirty apron appeared from a back room carrying a heavy wooden crate. Upon seeing the governor, he quickly deposited the crate, nervously wiped his hands on his apron and bowed.

“Your Lordship. Its’ an honor, sir.”

Spotswood looked around the room, despairing of the odorous filth and shambles.

“I seek Captain Brand. Is he here?”

“Oh, no sir, Yur Honor. He’s gone on leave, Lordship.”

Spotswood’s face colored and he roared, “On leave my arse! He’s gone off with some whore, I know the man, I pay his wage and I was not informed of any leave! Where’s he taken the wench and how long does he usually stay?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t know Yur Honor,” the innkeeper begged. “Only that I’m to ‘old his correspondence till he returns, sir.”

The man blinked nervously, searching for something more to say, something that would appease the governor’s obvious exasperation. It struck him a moment later and he said, “Lieutenant Maynard’s his second in command. He might know the captain’s whereabouts, Lordship.”

“Maynard, you say.” The governor repeated, turning to his aide, indicating that he should take note. “And where might I find Mr. Maynard?”

“Oh, ‘e left early this mornin’ Yur Honor, over to the yard to check on ‘is men and ships, sir.”

“The yard?”

“Yes, Lordship. Captain Brand’s ships are careened, over at Woodes Landing, in the river, for repairs.”

“Damn!” Spotswood exploded at the news that the navy ships Lyme and Pearl were under repair and unavailable for his use. “Why wasn’t I informed of this?” He complained to no one in particular.

He turned to his aide. “Go and secure a longboat to take us across to Woodes  Landing. I must speak with this ‘Lieutenant Maynard’, right away.”

Separate Ways

GM-CVR-01

A Memoir of Fish Town, 1718

After two months Israel was able to get around with a crutch. The ball had tayken his knee-cap and shattered the joint as it tore across his left knee at an angle. Doctor Fontain wanted to amputayte the leg, but Israel swore to kill him if he did. Although he moves with an awkward and painful limp now, he feels it better than

to have a wooden peg in its playce. Teach apologyzed profusely, clayming, “I were drunk. I didn’t know whot I was doin’.”

Things chaynged among us though. No one trusted him any longer. For one thing, the governor offered him a pardon with land and he took it. He drew labor from the crew aboard The Queen, promising to pay them to build him a house and a barn, thus slowing the work of refitting the ship. The sickness continued to spread among them and many more of the crew died. Now it spread among the colonists ashore and, in fact, becayme epidemic.

Teach took him a new wyfe. A young girl from New Bern, but he quickly grew bored with her and began philandering among the women of gentry. Not only in Fish Town, but beyond in New Bern, Queen Anne’s Creek and even Bath. When one offended husband dared challenge him to a duel, Teach graciously accepted the man’s terms then shot him in the back as he was walking away. The man lived, but was much diminished after that, by his wound.

Over tyme, Teach’s behayvior becayme more erratic and unpredictable. It’s hard to know if he becayme more reclusive of his own will, or if we, his friends, becayme more reluctant to tolerayte his presence. All I know for certain is that I saw less of him and felt the better for it. Henri, Maya, Oguna, Odulette and I spent many an evening discussing the matter while trying to decyde our own faytes, in a future baysed on the relationship we still kept to him because of the treasure.

It was Henri, who would not be convinced to depart from him. Henri’s heart was deeply committed to the loyalty he felt he owed Teach in the African excursion. It seems strange to me now, that a man who had fought so hard to free himself from chains could be so easily held a slayve to something as intangible as a debt of loyalty. Teach, who had never known the chains of a slayve-mayker, was himself a slayve to his own greed and to Henri, who retayned control of Teach’s shares. He would never consider betraying Teach, though I tryed to convince him to do so, or deliver the shares to Teach, or his crew, but Henri would not hear of it.

Oguna pressed him for a return to Africa, whyle Maya argued for Le Ruisseau, all the whyle, Oguna’s dark prophesy hung over us all. She performed frequent, blood rituals on Henri’s behalf and for the crew of Grande Maronage, as part of her efforts to convince Henri to leave Teach behind. Odulette tried to convince me to do the same, that is to leave them both behind and move on. But, in the end, I was also a slayve, we were all bound together by a chayne of perplexing loyalties, Henri to Teach, I to Henri, Odulette to me and so on. Such bonds, though invisible, are hard to break and, often harder to live with.

In layte August, Hornigold returned to Fish Town, enriched and invigorated by the spoils he’d tayken at sea. He was sayling with a dastardly scoundrel naymed Charles Vayne and the long expected news that Woodes Rogers had announced an end to the grayce period for the King’s Pardon, and mayde a promise that the days of unrestrayned pyracy in the Caribbean were over. He’d already hung near a hundred of those who wayted too long to accept his terms.

We met together that night at White House where Hornigold announced that a pyrates conference had been called for, to discuss an assault on Nassau and on Woodes Rogers, who cayme to power by his letters of mark and, to his letters by following the same path we had all come by. He was no different, or better than us, but he betrayed The Brethren for a pouch of gold and the promise of a governorship. It was a path that also appealed to Teach, though, so far, Teach had fayled to negotiayte it.

No action came from our small gathering that night, only the news of the coming conference, but the stories of adventure the three visitors brought with them, lit the flayme of desyre in Teach’s heart. I saw it ignyte in him and shortly after he becayme more irritable than ever, if that be possible; and complayning constantly about the boredom of lyfe ashore. Soon he stopped the building of his house and barn and returned the crewmen to The Queen, to finish refitting her. That task was completed by mid October, but he had not scuttled her then. Instead he toyed with the idea of sayling down to Nassau to confront the traytor, Woodes Rogers, face to face. It took the rest of the month to convince him otherwyse. He was spoiling for a fyght and his temperament had become so sour that only Henri dared speak to him.

During the rest of October the spread of yellow fever ashore became so wyde that we mostly confyned ourselves to the ships. The number of sick aboard The Queen continued to grow and all our crews grew restless and irritable. Brutal fights and sometimes riots bordering on mutiny became the norm. Maintaining the fleet had become an unmanageable task and Teach was desperate to mayke a chaynge. He sent another appeal to Governor Eden for more medicines, but the response was an emphatic, “No!”

The Governor and the colony were overwhelmed by the spread of the disease. Though Eden had appealed to other governors and even the crown, there was no medicine to be had. Within his own circles, Eden was being blaymed for the playgue, as it was believed that Teach and his crew were the source. The governor was urged to be rid of us and, in fact, the people ashore in Fish Town becayme quite hostile. They would be rid of us themselves if they could mount the force necessary.

In late October, Teach sayled The Queen out through the inlet with the excuse that the crew needed exercise and trayning, as they’d been idle too long. Bonnet sayled along syde, in his own ship. When they returned, after several days at sea, they anchored up in the larger sound, near the inlet. That night, Teach quietly transfered his command to Adventure, Israel being out of commission, living aboard Mary-Kate with Esmeralda and ourselves, Odulette and I. Teach took Gills, Salter and sixty three other men from The Queen with him that night.

Aboard our own ships we heard a terrible commotion drifting across the still waters of the sound. Men yelling and screaming that the ship was sinking and, to be sure, she was. By morning the Queen’s sunken hulk lay blocking the channel at Top Sayle Inlet. We sent boats in the night, for the survivors, but many were swept out to sea on the tyde before we got there, others drown outright for the lack of knowing how to swim. Those whom we were able to retrieve, we took ashore, to fend for themselves, not wanting them aboard our own ships, as many were sick.

Within a few days of that, unayble to acquyre supplies any longer from Fish Town, or New Bern, Teach sayled his remayning fleet up to Oakracoke Island, anchoring there, in the sound. In the days following that, one ship after another began to arryve, lyke an infestation of lyce, from southern waters and the Caribbean. By All Hallows Eve their camp had grown to nearly a thousand ruthless men.

Collin Aldworth,

Williamsburg, June 1719

Dark Prophecy

 

Dark Prophecy

Core Sound, June, 1718

GM-CVR-01

Henri sat cross-legged in front of Oguna, as he often did, like the child he’d once been in Africa, the boy, Nwoye, now only a distant memory. Grande Maronage’s aft cabin was shrouded in the smoke and incense of her burning pot. The scent of it and her monotonous droning filled the space around him. She rocked back and forth, shaking the soft, leather pouch that contained the sacred bones, while Henri sniffed at the herbal tea she had prepared. He took a deep swallow and closed his eyes, relaxing, withdrawing from the pressures placed on his shoulders by his leadership role. After a moment the droning stopped, Henri heard the soft rattle of the pouch’s contents rolling out onto the dry, splintered planks of the cabin floor, a scattered assembly of small, white bones. Behind the veil of smoke rising from her pot, Oguna studied the pattern they formed.

As the tea began to take its effect, a dreamy remembrance of his recent voyage to Cap Francoise entered Henri’s mind, thoughts of Maya pleading with him to return to the peace and freedom of Le Ruisseau and the way of life they made for themselves and their children in that place. Then, in direct conflict, a vision of Oguna’s exhortation that he remember the Dyula people anxiously awaiting the return of their king, her insistence that Abana, the royal daughter, bare his child, a royal son, to be the rightful heir to his throne, not some child born of Maya’s womb and lowly station. Henri’s mind drifted through the recent past, reviewing his accumulated power and the riches lying in the stone vault at Le Ruisseau, the dowry jewels safely hidden away, the gold and silver bars and coin, a lifetime’s riches, all waiting for him there. Then, the king’s breastplate which he wore even now, began calling him to its service.

As when he was a boy, Henri was soon overcome by a sensation of floating high above the scene, seeing himself sitting in front of the old witch. He opened his eyes and, there she was, sitting straight up in front of him, her vacant eyes looking through him to a vision beyond the moment, opening him up like the door to a closet that contained his future, enabling her to rummage inside. The chanting began again, dragging him into the dark closet with her, as if she’d taken his hand and pulled him along. The sound of her voice, ancient, dry parchment, created swirling, familiar visions. Visions of an expansive and desolate dune, of being separated from his own body, watching the white jackals tearing at his flesh from someplace high above, and then, a dark prophesy of death and doom, a cry of raging battle, the smell of gunpowder and decks flowing with blood. A face loomed up before him, raging, demonic, twisted in the throws of death. It was Teach, calling out to him, from a burning hell, “Blow the ship!”

Reunion

GM-CVR-01

Reunion

Le Ruisseau, 1717

Maya lounged in the shade of one of the few overhanging palms on the windward side of Ile de Long, watching the children splashing in the shallow water of the reef, as they worked the traps there. She loved this part of the day as much as the children did. A life of ease, gathering the bounty that the sea provided along the edge of their reef. It was amazingly productive, for the small amount of effort required, like having baskets full of fresh fish, crabs and lobster delivered to her hands each day. Enough to feed the whole community and enough left over to trade with the Viscaynos. She lay back in the cooling shade, closed her eyes and listened to the happy sounds of children making play of their work. To Maya it was the most comforting sound she could remember ever hearing, a reward she received each day in return for the pain and suffering she had lived through, the fear of her experiences in Africa, the torture of her enslavement and her suffering in the cane fields of the white jackals.

In the orchard, on the sandy ridge at the center of the island, Odulette stood up and wiped the sweat from her brow. Even at this early hour, the sun bore down relentlessly, the dense growth of the jungle cut off the shore breeze so that the air stood thick and still. She struggled each day in the heat, fighting a constant battle with the undergrowth that choked her stunted lime trees, trying to improve their yield and, at the same time, her life and the life of her daughter, Hope.

She straightened her aching back for a moment, stretching and shading her eyes from the glaring sun. From where she stood she had a clear view of the bay to the south. She blinked her eyes, hardly believing what she was seeing at that moment. The sloop had appeared suddenly, from behind the screen of ubiquitous mangrove trees that grew on the western tip of La Roche, across the creek from where she stood. Odulette knew instantly, by its lines, that it was Grande Maronage. She was so excited that at first she couldn’t speak. She dropped the cutlass she had been using as a scythe and ran from the steaming orchard. When she reached the main path, at the center of the island, she turned south, in the direction of the creek, crying out, “Their here! Their here!”

Maya heard an unintelligible scream that fought its way against the wind, through her light sleep, startling her awake, leaving her unsure whether she had actually heard it, or just dreamed it. She looked first to the children, counting each one to be sure they were all there. Then she struggled to her feet and called to them. “Children! Come!”

She ran off toward the center of the island with the children following. They early learned the connection between quick compliance to adult commands and survival. Hearing alarm in Maya’s voice, they ran to her side and, together, caught up with Odulette at the rocky point on the southern tip of Ile de Long. Tears were streaming down Odulette’s hollowed cheeks as she wrung her hands with excited agitation.

“What’s wrong?” Maya asked.

“Their here!” Odulette cried, pointing down the creek to the west.

As Maya looked, Grande Maronage came into view, turning into the creek, sailing in their direction. Maya fell to her knees, sobbing. Their long lived anxiety would soon be at an end. Both women searched the deck of the ship for their respective mates, watching in silent prayer as the ship slowly made its way toward them. Then, seeing him at the bow, falling to her knees beside Maya, Odulette screamed his name, “Collin!”

A moment later, to her great relief, Maya caught sight of Henri, manning the ship’s tiller, resplendent in his golden breastplate.

A Call For Shares

GM-CVR-01

 

A Memoir of Saint Augustine, 1716

I am told that Governor Antonio de Benavides was in terror when he descended the stairs to find his house filled with more then fifty desperate men, pyrates all, who’d as soon cut his throat as spit. He tried to retreat back up the stairs, but Teach got hold of him and asked where he thought he was going. The governor was so terrifyed he could not speak. When his wyfe and children were brought down into the midst of them, he offered all that was in the treasury if Teach would just spare their lyves.

Our men, who were spread throughout the town, found the guardhouse empty and soon learned that the garrison of one hundred twenty, upon learning that Black Beard and his men occupyed the town, had run off to hyde in the wood, north of the settlement.

The governor sent a runner, with a note, one of Teach’s own men, to summon the king’s tax collector, ordering him to open the counting house and give Teach all that was contayned in the treasury. It wasn’t much, a bag of silver coins and a few bars. Teach nearly beat the man to death before he would believe him, that there was no more to be had.

The people were so poor that many houses and hovels burned that night for the lack of ransom. I am ashaymed now of what was done, but I was not present with them, not that I would have had the power or inclinaytion to put a stop to it. I was in the tavern at the wharf, with the Frenchmen of Bonnett’s crew, indulging myself, as I too often do.

When Henri returned and found me so disposed I thought he would kill me, or leave me to the wrath of the townspeople. But he took me by the scruff of my neck and fairly threw me into the longboat, returning me to the ship, upon which we left that town with Teach also aboard, who left his men to march back to Saint Matthew on their own. Though the adventure gayned us little in the way of treasure, it served to embolden Teach with a new idea to raid other, richer towns along the coast.

Collin Aldworth

Williamsburg, June, 1719