Jun 24, 2021
Introduction: Yerakhmiel (Ralph) Lazarson (c.1894 – 1964) was a long-time Arbeter Ring teacher who composed several short stories about the problem of race in the U.S. South. These works were informed by his time as an instructor at the Arbeter Ring schools in Atlanta (c. 1927 – 1928) and Dallas (c. 1930 – 1931). The following vignette 1 1 Yerakhmiel (Ralph) Lazarson, “Nit zikher mitn lebn (bilder fun der soyt), in Unzer vort: literarish-gezelshaftlakhe khrestomatie, eds. Salman Yefroiken and Chaim Bez (Besprosvany), (New York: Max N. Maisel Publisher, 1933): 141 – 144, https://archive.org/details/nybc204435. comes from a collection of children’s literature published in 1933. It may have been previously published elsewhere. The story appears in a section titled “poverty and struggle” that addresses economic inequality and labor issues. To the best of my knowledge, this narrative is not based on a specific instance of anti-Black violence. This piece and his other work seem to reflect how living with southern systems of race and class weighed on the conscience of this leftist Jewish educator, as well as how he sought to alert Jewish children to the problem of American racism through literature. At the same time, the piece is somewhat flat and voyeuristic, and the revelation of the narrator at the end reflects the inability or unwillingness of would-be Jewish allies to take consistent, meaningful action.
A Life in Peril
(Scenes from the South)
Night. The Black neighborhood is veiled in darkness. Its inhabitants are already asleep. It is peaceful and quiet. From time to time, a tired sleeping negro lets out a snore.
At the end of the street, in a small house, Lula lies on the bed. She tosses and turns and cannot fall asleep. She listens to every rustle. Her husband, Josie, should have been home long before. He always comes home at midnight on the dot, straight from work. Now the clock has already struck one, and he is still not there. Lula lies there and thinks. Different thoughts come to her. She recalls the words that Josie said to her a few days earlier: “the whites don’t want to work with us. They ordered me to beat it if I didn’t want to end up as a cripple . . .”
Terrible images fill her mind. She sees Josie bloodied, beaten, with a bruised face and swollen eyes. Then she imagines Josie dead: his eyes are closed, his mouth open.
She raises her head, looks at the other bed, where her four children are asleep—two boys and two girls—and tears well up in her eyes. “What will I do without Josie?” she asks, holding back the tears. “Who will put food on the table? Selah Bee is not even three years old . . . and the children love their father so much . . . and Josie is such a good man . . .”
Soon Lula can hold it in no longer. She begins to cry out loud. The children awaken, look around in fright, and begin to cry as well.
A large yard surrounded by an iron fence. Buildings inside, one next to the other. These are the cotton mills.
Josie works in one of these buildings. He and two other Black men bind the raw cotton with twine and cart the bales to the department where it is spun into thread.
Josie labors day-in, day-out—eleven hours a day. The work is hard, but he doesn’t complain. He looks forward to the end of work on Saturday. Before he goes home, he plans to stop by a ten-cent store and buy some little toys for his Selah Bee. His heart swells with pride, and the work feels lighter.
As he carts the cotton bales, he imagines his three-year-old daughter Selah Bee taking the toys from him, climbing up into his arms, hugging him around the neck with her chubby little hands, and kissing him with her soft little lips.
Josie works with two other Black men, baling and carting the raw cotton for the mill. The white workers from the other departments cannot tolerate it. “How is it,” they complain, “that we, the whites, have to work under the same roof with Negroes . . . it’s unheard of in the cotton mills . . .”
“Black devils, get the hell out of here!” the white men advised the Black workers, “otherwise we’ll drag you out ourselves . . .”
The Negroes heard the warning, bit their tongues, and said nothing. ‘They only want to scare us,’ they thought. ‘Why should they bother us? We aren’t messing with anybody . . .’
Days, weeks, and months pass by. The Black workers bind and deliver the bales of cotton. The white workers are angry, not wanting to work together with the “Blacks.” 2 2 Here (and again below) Lazarson uses shv**** (quotes in the original). The Black workers remain quiet, taking in the abuse without responding.
“We’re already used to being insulted by the whites,” think the Black men. “Maybe God wants it this way. One can’t oppose His will.”
Half past eleven at night. Josie has just finished his work. He puts on his jacket and hat, and sets out for home.
By the gate, as he opens the door to the mill yard, he suddenly feels hands on his shoulders. Before he has time to look around, he is knocked to the ground and beaten. A sack is pulled down over his face. Blows rain down on him from all sides . . .
“Someone needs to kill this ______ . . . break his hands. He won’t be able to work here anymore . . .” scream the wild, unrestrained white men.
Josie heard no more of what they said. His head filled with noise. His vision grew darker, darker. His hands grew heavy. Crimson blood ran from all over his body. He grew woozy and lost consciousness . . .
Morning. The Black neighborhood is lit with sunbeams. In the yards stand Black women with rolled up sleeves and washboards. The men head slowly to their work. Boys and girls rush off to school. Smaller children run around barefoot and play with pebbles.
At the end of the street, around the shack where Lula lives, stand a group of Black men, talking among themselves:
“A pity, a pity. That Josie was a good man.”
“Why are you mourning him already? He isn’t dead. Someone got him to the hospital. Lula and the children haven’t left his side. The doctor says that he’ll survive. They’ll only have to amputate his hands.”
“And what’s the value of one of us without hands? Death would be better . . .”
“And what’s the value of a Black man with hands, if someone can take them and destroy them . . .”
“They do what they want, those privileged whites . . . If you’re one of us, even your life is in peril . . .”
A whistle from a nearby factory interrupts the conversation, and the assembled group disperses. Each hurries to his work.
I watch the Black men filing into the mills, and it seems to me that their cheerless eyes look to me, speaking, complaining, demanding justice. I recall that I myself am “white.” I grow ashamed, cast my eyes down to the ground, and steal quietly away.