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Slavery, Black Womanhood and the Death of Laura Nelson
The 1911 lynching of the African American woman Laura Nelson, who was abducted from her jail cell, raped and, along with her son, lynched by a mob in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, is evocative of a story told many times over in the annals of America’s most shameful history. In this case, however, these component parts have merged into a single story that has resonated throughout the decades as a battle cry for the black woman in America, and for womanhood in general.
Just as slavery is part of the heritage of African Americans, the lynching of Laura Nelson is part of the heritage of black women; and any American with roots in the soil of Africa can lay claim to this painful legacy as we strive to achieve in a land that once enslaved and rejected us.
A Legacy of Terrorism, Told in Music
During the 18th century, African slaves in New Orleans were allowed to take Sundays off and congregate in an area that became known as Congo Square. During these gatherings, a musical revolution took place that would spawn the heartfelt, throbbing emotions of gospel music, and generate the intricate, earthy rhythms and harmonics that later evolved into jazz.
This is the musical heritage that culminated in the 21st century with great singers such as Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday. These women achieved mainstream fame, yet their lives were still shadowed by the pain of growing up black in America — a pain that, in Holiday’s case, was dulled by alcohol and drug abuse.
During these decades, two songs in particular — “Strange Fruit” (written by poet Abel Meeropol and sung by Billie Holiday) and “Suppertime” (written by Irving Berlin and sung by Ethel Waters) evoke this horrific era when an African American could be abducted and lynched at the hands of terrorists.
The horror of the lynch mob crossed racial lines as well, as artists of all color raised their voices in protest. Singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie, whose own father was part of the mob that lynched Laura Nelson, was so appalled by his father’s act that he penned several lyrics in memory of Nelson, including “Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son,” “Slip Knot” and “High Balladree.”
Poems of Protest: the Harlem Renaissance
During the 1920s and 1930s, a group of African American writers produced a wealth of experimental writings, poems, books and paintings depicting the black experience. In particular, these artists recognized the dire dilemma that women suffered (and still suffer) in facing twin tiers of discrimination for race and gender.
For women, one of the most evocative works of the era is William Waring Cuney’s “No Images,” a poem exploring the low self-esteem of the African American woman who, traumatized by a legacy of discrimination, believes that her color is a detriment to her beauty. Nearly four decades later, this poem was recreated as a song and recorded by Nina Simone.
The Evolution of Change: Freedom Sunday
In 2010, a group of more than 1,000 churches in 30-plus countries initiated Freedom Sunday, an event that serves as a rallying cry commemorating the millions of people worldwide who are still enslaved and subject to brutalities such as torture and lynching. In the spirit of Freedom Sunday, we can still find the spirit of Laura Nelson and other victims of the terrible holocaust perpetrated by the lynch mobs of an earlier era.
In today’s global society, every time a black woman is denied the right to live out her life and accomplish her dreams, the voice of Laura Nelson can be heard again, whispering a warning that racism and its subsequent crimes against humanity must not be allowed to continue into the next generation.
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