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"Traditions": article draft by Roosevelt Fitzgerald




1980 (year approximate) to 1995 (year approximate)


From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Drafts for the Las Vegas Sentinel Voice file. On the traditional strength of the Black family.

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man001012. Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers, 1890-1996. MS-01082. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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Well, I don't know what I'm going to write about this time. There are so many things that could stand being written about. I could easily write about former Under Secretary of the United Nations, Dr. Ralph Bunch who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1950 for settling the Middle Eastern Crisis but the major newspapers will cover that. I could write about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who received that same Prize on the same date, December 10, fourteen years later in 19.64 but we know about that already.
There are many other such things that I could write about but I don't think I will, I think, this time, I'll write about slaughtering time in Tunica County, Mississippi back in the 1940s and the 1950s.
Each fall of the year, when the first chill hits the air, I am reminded of my childhood and early youth during that time of year and one of the great events which I looked forward to--traveling to Tunica County to my uncle's for slaughtering time.
Don't ask me why that time was so important to me. I really don't know. It was a lot of work even if one only watched when one was very young. You may wonder why it was a lot of work then. The answer is easy. Back in those days and in Mississippi, slaughtering was part of what men did. Childhood was simply a period of apprenticeship and it required rapt attention to every aspect of everything that men did.
There was not too much reason to expect that life would be any different for the upcoming generations. Black men did hard, physical labor from the time they were big enough to until they were too old to and many died long before they became too old.
As a child, I remember seeing men cutting and loading pulp wood all day. "Coffee break" had not made its way to black Mississippi in the good ol' days. The work started at daybreak and continued until it was too dark to see. Many
of the men who did such work were called "cant" anc they were called that because when they left for work in the morning it was so dark that they could not be seen and when they returned it was so dark they couldn*t be seen.
Other men were diggers. They dug holes and ditches and trenches for every occasion and they used picks and shovels and post-hole diggers to do it. I don't know if back-hoes had been invented at that time but if they had they had not found their way to Mississippi—at least not to that part of Mississippi where I lived. Whenever anyone needed a hole or a ditch or a trench dug, they simply called on the appropriate number of black men.
As a child, there was nothing more exiciting than seeing black, men, shirts off, bodies glistening with sweat and muscles rippling as they swung picks and shovels and dug ditches as deep and as long as needed and then, after doing so all day, walking five miles or more home with their implements on their shoulders and never looking for nor expecting a break. That's what I wanted to do when I was a child.
Slaughtering was different. It was a time for fresh meatj I remember the men in my family were all large, barrel-chested and tireless. The men would capture the animal and prepare it for slaughter. The first time I ever saw it happen, a sledge hammer was the instrument of death. The forelegs and the hindlegs would be tied and the animal would be tetered between two stakes. It would continue to resist pulling first one way and then the other and my uncle would sort of dance, with sledge hammer cocked, and wait for just the right moment to deliver the deadly blow to the head of the animal.
As carefully and attentive as I would watch, I would never see the actual blow because my uncle was so deft and swift. It would only require one swing and the animal would drop.
Through the morning, afternoon, evening hours and on into the night, the butchering would take place. The entire family participated. Gutting, skinning, shanking, cooking, boiling, separating, sausage making all required total family involvement.
What has been described is the actual event itself. One of the more memorable aspects, however, was the family interaction. In the course of that interaction, elements of the family's history would be discussed, jokes would be told, songs sung and children would play. The family members involved ranged in age from types to early nineties. It was a time when children could stay up as late as they could stay awake and every waking hour brought not only the discoveries of how things were done but why they were done that way.
The men would describe their activities to the young and answer questions. When the work being done would be routine that is when the story telling would take place. The oldest women would cook the meals and they were hearty meals. The younger women would do the fine cuts and tend the crackling, The oldest woman would make brushes with the bristle from the hogs by using the small pieces of wood whittled by the oldest man. The youngest children would gather kindling from the area where the bigger little boys would spend the greater part of the day cutting wood for use in the house and in the cook in the yard,,
The smoke house would be prepared for the hams, bacon and chops. There
was smoke, the sound of wood being cut, the laughter of children,* the chit
chat of the women, the pitter patter of the men. the bubbling noises of
lard cooking and the array of an assortment of other sounds and smells which
accompany the slaughter of an animal.
Throughout it all, there were the constant humming of everyone who had their own tune to hum. From time to time several members of the family would
just happen to hum the same song and without anyone assuming the role of
director, singing would begin. The songs were always old songs—old spirituals which talked of a time long since passed but still there in the minds and the memories of the people. A kind of ceremonial quality would take over and the children, the small ones, would even stop their running and playing. There was something about different moments in the collective activity of a family which transcended words and I remember, clearly, more than once, seeing both men and women cry for no apparent reason, I would learn the reasons later.
- Many of those activities dated back to slavery and beyond to Africa, In “such communities and families, traditional life styles were common. Those sort of gathering allowed for those traditions to be passed on from one generation to the next. Older members assumed the responsibility of educating the young about the family and they did so without having to formally teach them or take them aside. In normal conversations references were made to ancestors and/or some event they had been involved in. Those conversations included the recollections of deeds of strength, courage, tenderness and intellectual prowess. All were required in order to survive and more was needed to remain together and move ahead.
By today's standards we were poor and ugly and ragged. Ha. We didn't have money or fancy clothes or houses with conveniences and all that but we had family, in every direction, who, as the man symbolically said; didn't have much but what they had was pure gold."
As I grew up, I did not learn to speak ill of others. I did not become exposed to that until I entered this civilization--the kind we have now. We were straight-forward but called naive. Vie were pensive but called docile. We were hard working but called lazy. Vie were thrifty but call spendthrifts. We were honest but called unsophisticated. Our word meant something but we were called fools. We were family. My, my. I miss it so.