An Old Negro Spiritual

Chapter 1 – Marshall’s Ghost

Marshall was dead, to be sure. There was no debating that. After a long and distinguished life both as a lawyer and judge, he had died in a Bethesda hospital bed with a nation looking on. His coffin was displayed in the Great Hall of the Court, and the funeral took place in the National Cathedral. Dolittle attended the funeral, detached and deferential, as he and the old man hadn’t much in common. Old Marshall was gone indeed, but not forgotten.

Ah, but I must make a distinction here, as there is a difference between one having been forgotten verses never having been known at all. Generations had been born and had grown old in the time since Marshall made his name in Topeka and changed the way children went to school. Most of these children would scarce even recognize his name or realize how profoundly he had affected their lives, learning and attitudes. For that, he could never be forgotten.

Dolittle knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Dolittle was, after all, his legacy. Dolittle was his sole heir, his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign and his sole residuary legatee. But Dolittle, like Esau, valued little his inheritance and cast aside Marshall’s pioneering shoes and breeches, favoring instead those of the traditionalist and conservative variety. Legacy aside, Dolittle never exhausted thought to truly understand Marshall.

Fortunately, Dolittle had never painted out Marshall’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the court-house door: Marshall, and then Dolittle. The legacy was known as Marshall and Dolittle. Sometimes people new to the business called Dolittle Dolittle, and sometimes Marshall, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the written opinion, whether favouring the majority or expressing dissent, Dolittle! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and resentful as an ill-treated child.

Ironically, his secret self-loathing exaggerated his Hamitic features, broadened his nose, darkened his skin, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his black lips thick; and quiet spoken in his Geechee rhyme. A kinky rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry, white-haired chin. He carried a sense of anger and resentment about him; he hardened his heart in the dog-days; and didn’t soften it one degree come November.

While Dolittle was a respected judge, he was never well-liked and he knew it, in fact he thrived on it. And the resentment he felt from his own people only made him more convinced of his duty to pursue a course to punish those people—for their own good. His stern grandfather, who raised him from a child, made him realize that discipline was a sign of love—that the father who loves his son must punish that son. In this mind, the judge who wanted better for a people mustn’t help those people.

Punish those people! Refuse to help them—for their own good! He didn’t say it, but he suggested as much on the rare occasions that he did speak. No, he was a man of few spoken words, rendered silent by childhood ridicule. He intimated it, though no one understood it. He was lying, believed only by himself. He could not love those people, as he refused to be identified as one of them. In the looking glass, he could not see himself because he refused to acknowledge the reality of melanin, facial features and hair texture. What he did see he could not explain.

He had learned to harden his heart and steel his face during encounters with them (those people), had deafened his ears to their arguments and criticisms. Oh, to him, they were a difficult, bitter and resentful sort! Indisposed to fairness, hard work and education, overly animated, overly religious, selfish, jealous, immoral, fractious, disrespectful and ignorant of the very principles they had been conditioned to exploit. Save a tenth of them!

None of them ever stopped him on the street or on an elevator to say, “My Dear Judge Dolittle, is it well with you today? When will you come around to see me?” No pleaders expected empathy, understanding or goodwill from him. No children admired him or sought his guidance or advice or ever sought to follow in his plodding footsteps; no men and women once in all his life inquired which way to go, of Dolittle. Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”

But what did Dolittle care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call nuts to Dolittle.

Once upon a time, of all the good days in the year, on the eve of the birthday of the King – old Dolittle sat busy in his courthouse chamber. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people outside the court, suffering under heavy weights and put upon from all sides, clamoring for fairness, justice and opportunity, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to sue for relief.

The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already: it had not been light all day: and dim bulbs flared in the windows of the neighboring offices, like the fading lights of stars under unpromising skies.

The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.

The door of Dolittle’s courthouse chamber was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was writing his master’s opinion. Dolittle had a very small light, but the clerk’s light was so very much smaller that it looked like a candle, barely flickering.

But he couldn’t replenish it, as Dolittle kept him to the narrowest interpretations and strictest rationales, as he was TTT; and so surely as the clerk came in with the written dissent, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter and tried to warm himself with ambitious ideas of unanimous opinions; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.

“Justice and Equality, uncle! Compassion!” cried a hopeful voice. It was the voice of Dolittle’s nephew, Fredrick, a man of the streets who was scarce recognizable in bandages from a recent beating by the law’s hand, dread locks hanging down his shoulders. “We will have justice.”

“Justice! Wha fa ya—” said Dolittle, “Fa ya![i]

He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this injured nephew of Dolittle’s, that he was straight-up amped; his body was yoked and his face was handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

“‘Justice cripples the privileged?’ you say? ‘Equality is not for everyone?’” said Dolittle’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, Uncle, I am sure.”

“I do,” said Dolittle. “Justice and equality! What right have you to justice, or anyone? And for what reason do you speak of equality? You count yourself among the poor, of lesser quality. You and your problems don’t matter to anyone in the overall scheme of things.”

“Negro, please,” returned the nephew, though with a degree of respect. “What right have you to be such a hater? What reason have you to diss your nephew, your family, your people? You’re rich enough and married, but you’ll never be one of them.”

Dolittle, having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Wha fa ya!”  again; and followed it up with “Fa ya! You know what I mean.”

“Aw, don’t get your face so bent all outa shape,” said the nephew. “It’s all good.”

“It is not all good! All will never be all good! How else should I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools who never stop with this justice and equality! And now reparations? For all these years, those people preach ad nauseam for justice and equality. Society has grown tired of hearing it! What’s Equality to you but an entitlement to eat, receive healing and pay bills without money? What is justice for you, besides class warfare and the redistribution of wealth through taxation and unnecessary regulation?

“A scheme for finding yourself more free things? but more dependent; a scheme for appealing to the past and working collective guilt and pity rather than your minds and backs in a good and productive work?  If I could work my will,” said Dolittle indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Justice and Equality’ on his lips should be taken out, strung up and whipped, and banned from public speaking out altogether. He should! And if he is shot in the streets, so be it!”

“Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.

“Nephew!” returned the uncle, sternly, “Keep Justice in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

“Keep it!” repeated Dolittle’s nephew. “But you don’t keep it.”

“Let me leave it alone, then,” said Dolittle. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”

“My father, your brother, sent me to the finest schools,” his nephew returned. “There are many things in this world from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say: I cannot but consider the King on his day of birth. All my life I have always thought of him, when it has come round — the day set apart to remember his name and the life of privilege he sacrificed.

“That man was a rabble-rouser!” Dolittle snapped. “A media pirate!”

“I have always encouraged others to reconsider the words he spoke and wrote, the dream he dreamt, for not a day, but for an entire month—as a time to be kind enough, as men and women of goodwill, to understand and support the struggle of the oppressed, to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of those oppressed as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a dollar in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good. As I always say, ‘It’s all good!’”

“Speak it, young brotha!” blurted out the voice of the clerk in the next room, but acutely aware that the exhortation would not be taken well by his boss, he turned up the volume on his tablet and pretended to be listening to a religious sermon.

Unfooled though not un-irritated, Dolittle pronounced morosely to the clerk, “turn off that nonsense! And if I hear one more ‘Amen’ from the choir pews out there, I will grant you all the freedom you want to join the struggle of the oppressed.”

“But tomorrow is the holiday to celebrate the birth of the King, Uncle,” nephew pivoted. Surely you will close your office in his honor?”

“Why him and why not me?” the judge sneered. “Am I not yet honorable?”

“All honest men are yet honorable, though some not yet,” answered Fredrick. “Don’t be a hater, Uncle. Come to the family dinner tomorrow. We’ll have black-eye peas, collard greens, she-crab soup- and red rice. You know they’re your favorites. Kum bah yah!

Tie yuh mout, boy!” Dolittle snapped. “Those are not my favorites. They have never been my people! I’d rather wrestle with a boo hag!”

“But why?” cried Dolittle’s nephew. “Why?”

“Why? Why do you care about them?”” said Dolittle.

“Because they’re my people.”

“Because they’re your people, not mine in my appointment!” growled Dolittle, as if that were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than “equality and justice.” “Later for you.”

“Nay, uncle, but you never came to family dinners before your appointment. Why give it as a reason for not coming now?”

“Good afternoon,” said Dolittle.

“I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?”

“Good afternoon,” said Dolittle.

“I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Justice, and I’ll fight the fight to the last. No justice, no peace, uncle!”

“Good afternoon!” said Dolittle.

“And power to the people!”

“Good afternoon!” said Dolittle.

His nephew left the room without an angry word, notwithstanding. He stopped at the outer door to bestow the spirit of brotherhood on the clerk, who, cold as he was, was warmer than Dolittle; for he returned the exhortation cordially.

“There’s another fellow,” muttered Dolittle; who overheard him: “my clerk, making not much more than five hundred dollars a week, with a wife and family, talking about justice and equality!”

This lunatic, in letting Dolittle’s nephew out, had let two other people in. They were portly brothas, not bad-looking, and now stood, with presentation materials out, in Dolittle’s office. They had the money collection app already queued up on one of the tablets.

“Dolittle and Marshall’s, I believe,” said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Judge Dolittle, or Judge Marshall?”

“Judge Marshall has been dead these twenty-seven years,” Dolittle replied. “He died twenty-seven years ago, nearly to this very week.”

“We have no doubt his liberal nature is well represented by his surviving partner,” said the brotha, presenting his credentials.

It certainly was not; for they had been two un-kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberal,” Dolittle frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

“In this second month of the year, Judge Dolittle, a month of recognition for our people,” said the brotha, presenting the app, “we are encouraging those of us who have gotten over, those who are not unwilling subjects of the slave state, we’re asking them to make some slight provision for the oppressed and demoralized, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there not enough prisons?” asked Dolittle.

“Too many prisons,” said the brotha, laying down the tablet. “Black people make of 12% of the population, but we’re 34% of the prison population. Two and half million of us are locked up.”

“And what about jobs in the service industry?” demanded Dolittle. “Low paying jobs still are jobs, and they provide a living.

“Not quite, judge. Still,” returned the brotha, “I wish I could say they did.”

“Anti-discrimination laws and the Minimum Wage are in full vigor, then?” said Dolittle.

“So far, they still exist, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Dolittle. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish an even playing field to the underprivileged or opportunity to the multitude,” returned the brotha, “a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to provide for capital investment in underserved communities for business start-ups and expansion. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when wealth inequality abounds, when the top 1% owns 43% of the nation’s wealth. You are in that top 1%. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Dolittle replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“Just leave me out of it,” said Dolittle. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I didn’t get to where I am through affirmative action and I have no desire to make special provisions and give jobs and opportunities to unqualified candidates. I help to support the establishments—law enforcement, the court system, the executive branch, and I pay my taxes; they cost enough. They have welfare, Medicare and the ACA.”

“Many can’t get Medicare or ACA benefits; thousands die unnecessarily each year.”

“If they would rather die than go to work,” said Dolittle, “then let them do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”

“But you should know it,” observed the brotha.

“It’s not my business,” Dolittle returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the brothas withdrew. Dolittle resumed his labors with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened, so that certain of those people ran about in crowds while marching, with provocative placards, all the while shouting provocative phrases, taking their places before cars, trucks, buses and trains in protest, inconveniencing the irritated masses, who sought to get on their way.

The living church, once the citadel of justice and whose gruff old condemnation was always peeping slyly down at Dolittle from a place of moral authority, became invisible, and struck its tones of acquiescence in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense.

In the main street, at the corner of the court, the homeless, cold and ignored, had lit a great fire in a garbage can-fashioned brazier, round which a party of ragged, starving men, women and children were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. All charity and good will abandoned, the city’s margins sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.

The brightness of the shops where the heat of corporate greed disguised the darker purpose of enterprise and the vanity of hard labor, crackled in the lamp-heat of the windows, made dark faces dusky as they passed. Farms, grocers and small business became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do.

The Lord Governor, in the stronghold of the state’s Mansion, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep the oppressed in oppression as a Lord Governor’s household should, and even his bankrupt press agent, whom he had fined $200 on the previous Monday for speaking without authorization and being sympathetic to protesters, stirred up tomorrow’s talking points in his garret, while his lean wife and the baby sallied out to acquire SNAP benefits.

Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. Despite the bitter clime, there came a-singin and a-rappin three teenagers on the sidewalk in front of Dolittle’s office. The first apparently had church training for his soulful voice, which fell on the judge’s tone-deaf stopped-up ears.

 I was born by the river in a little tent,
Oh, and just like the river, I’ve been a-runnin every since.
It’s been a long, a long time comin
But I know
A change gonna come, oh yes it will.

If the unrequested and street spectacle without a permit wasn’t enough to draw old Dolittle’s ire, then the politically charged extemporaneous expository/political hip hop from the rappers got an instant response. Dolitttle called the police who, owing to his station, arrived not longer than one minute later.

“I want these boys arrested,” Dolittle demanded, “on the grounds of a trespass, and disturbing my peace!”

“It’s a public sidewalk, brotha!” one of the teenagers complained. “What is yo damn problem?”

“Arrest them!” Dolittle insisted. “That one just disrespected me!”

“Judge Dolittle. You’re a powerful man,” one cop said, but this is a public sidewalk, and we can’t arrest this young man because you say he disrespected you.”

“Take his side, will you?” Dolittle threatened. “Either you arrest them or I’ll be addressing your dereliction of duty to your superiors.”

“Arrest them for what?” the cop asked.

“Make up something! A public concert without a permit! Look at them! They’re black teenagers—they must be guilty of something. They probably have criminal records! Check that out.”

The second cop approached the boys, his voice implying a threat. “You boys got any ID?”

“It’s the King holiday tomorrow! We ain’t leavin and we ain’t showin you no ID!”

“Then I have no choice but to arrest you,” the second cop continued, “for obstructing or delaying a police officer by not providing ID.”

“I’m 15,” complained one of the boys. “I ain’t even old enough for ID.”

“Why don’t you guys just leave,” the first officer said, “before this gets any worse.”

“We don’t have to leave!” the rapper shot back, “and we don’t have rights when we let bullies like him run over em.”

“I want them arrested,” the judge insisted. “Now either you do it or I’ll call someone else in here to do it.”

“They’re just kids,” the first cop protested, “and it’s the King holiday tomorrow.”

“Holiday, ha! I’ve had about enough of you,” growled Dolittle. “Your superiors will be hearing from me.” He looked to the second cop, nodding. “And so will yours.”

A minute later, all three teenagers were face-down on the sidewalk in handcuffs, where they stayed for 15 minutes before being shoved in the car and taken away. Yet even as the lie there, they continued to sing and rap.

 Then I go to my brother,
And I say, “brother, help me, please.”
But he winds up… knocking me
Back down on my knees.

At length the hour of shutting up the counting-house arrived. With an ill-will Dolittle rose from his desk, and tacitly admitted the fact to the expectant clerk, who instantly shut off his computer and put on his hat.

“You’ll want all day off tomorrow, I suppose?” said Dolittle.

“If it’s cool with you, it’s cool with me, Sir.”

“It’s not cool, but whatever,” the judge said. “It’s not fair to me.”

“Why not?” the clerk asked.

“To pay you for this holiday. Why would you celebrate it? It has nothing to do with you and your people.”

“That’s just the point,” the clerk answered meekly. “We’re all one people.” And then he left.

Dolittle took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy restaurant; and having read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with upcoming cases, went home to bed. He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.

It was old enough now, and dreary enough, for nobody lived in it but Dolittle, the other rooms being all let out as offices. The yard was so dark that even Dolittle, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands. The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.

Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Dolittle had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Dolittle had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in Washington D.C., even including—which is a bold word— the President.

Let it also be borne in mind that Dolittle had not bestowed one thought on Marshall, since his last mention of his twenty-seven-year’s dead partner that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Dolittle, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change: not a knocker, but Marshall’s face.

Marshall’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Dolittle as Marshall used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid color, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.

As Dolittle looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.

To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. But he put his hand upon the key he had relinquished, turned it sturdily, walked in, and called the lights to come on.

He did pause, with a moment’s irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the sight of Marshall’s “spark,” who haunted the court. But there was nothing on the back of the door, except the screws and nuts that held the knocker on, so he said “Pooh, pooh!” and closed it with a bang.

The sound resounded through the house, like thunder. Every room above, and every cask in the wine-merchant’s cellars below, appeared to have a separate peal of echoes of its own. Dolittle was not a man to be frightened by echoes. He fastened the door, and walked across the hall, and up the stairs, slowly too: checking email messages as he went.


[i]Wha fa ya! Fa ya!” Gullah expression meaning, “If something’s going to be, it will be.