Carole Boston Weatherford
The Poet Professor
According to family lore, my relative Fayett Johnson was lynched in Bristol, Virginia. Not surprisingly, my research produced no clues beyond a fatal house fire. Many lynchings went unreported and remain unsolved. This question poem evokes the climate of hate that fueled lynch mobs and the mystery surrounding so many such crimes.
On that day my family has tried to forget
Were buds on the branches or did leaves shade the lawn?
Were the trees adorned in red and gold or sheathed in ice?
What had Fayett done to land in jail?
Did he wink at a white girl who smiled at him?
Or had he simply sassed the wrong white man?
How many days was he locked up
before the masked mob took the law
into its hands and snatched him from that cell?
Who was in the mob? The doctor, the shopkeeper?
Did it swell to hundreds? Thousands? And did they advertise?
Could the sheriff have stopped them if he’d tried?
Did they drag Fayett down a dusty road
to a clearing in the woods? Or to a bridge?
What if they marched him to the square?
Did families flock to the spectacle as if a picnic or a fair?
Were there boys in caps and girls with bows?
Who would miss this?
Was a rope waiting on a limb? Did they make him climb
A ladder? Thread his head through a noose?
Was there a hush as his body dropped, as his neck broke?
Did the mob strip Fayett
And then light kindling beneath his limp body?
Did they swap jokes as flesh charred?
Did the onlookers clamor for bits of rope and bone
and scraps of overalls? Did they sever body parts as souvenirs?
Did this horror make headlines?
Did a photographer snap a penny postcard?
Was that dread or sick delight on the faces in the crowd?
Did a single soul cringe or shed a tear?
When the news reached Fayett’s folks
Did his father pound his fists and his poor mother faint?
Did he leave a wife or children? Or just unrealized dreams?
Months later, when grass covered his grave,
Did his dog wait on the porch for his return?
Did his family mention that day only in whispers?
A century later, does that tree still stand?
Carole Boston Weatherford's book, Birmingham, 1963 is a poetic tribute to the victims of the racially motivated church bombing that served as a seminal event in the struggle for civil rights. In 1963, the eyes of the world were on Birmingham, Alabama, a flash point for the civil rights movement. Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Civil rights demonstrators were met with police dogs and water cannons. Archival photographs with poignant text written in free verse offer a powerful tribute to the young victims.
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