August 2, 2021
Adelaide was making sandwiches and potato salad. She said that "it's too hot to be turning on the stove." Her wiry black fingers creased and folded the wax paper to make a pocket for the turkey sandwiches.
"Ma," said her daughter Summer, "you know we have plastic bags?"
Adelaide knew but she had wrapped her sandwiches in wax paper for sixty five years. "I know," she said as she brushed her hands on the towel folded into her waistline.
"Grandma, grandma!" nine year old Vincent yelled as he sprinted into the kitchen with his younger brother Cecil in tow...
"Hey! What I tell you about running in the house?" Summer scolded the boys.
Vincent slid to a stop, "Sorry ma."
"We need a jar." Cecil said with a smile plastered on his little brown face.
"For what?" Summer asked.
Vincent responded, "We're gonna catch some lightening bugs tonight."
Adelaide laughed, "You mean fireflies?"
"Yes ma'am," said Vincent.
Adelaide went to the counter and rinsed out a mayonnaise jar. She used a steak knife to poke seven holes in the lid. She held the jar against her chest. "Do you know the rules of catching fireflies?" The boys had a look of confused intrigue which caused her to chuckle. "After you collect enough," she said. "You have to set them free."
"I never heard of that rule," said Vincent.
"It's true," added Summer.
Vincent looked at his little brother who offered no input. He shrugged and took the bottle from his grandmother and as he turned to leave a question crossed his mind, "Grandma?"
"Why do people call way them fireflies when they don't have any fire?"
Adelaide smiled and sat at the small kitchen table across from Summer. "Come." She patted her lap. Vincent lifted himself onto his grandmother's lap while Summer picked up Cecil. Adelaide began to tell a story, it was tradition. "Knowledge is history," she told them. "There is nothing new under the sun. What can be discovered has already been known."
The children had no idea what she meant but nodded their heads as if they understood. Her story began, "a long time before Summer was even a twinkle in her daddy's eye. Just like today," she said. "Black people everywhere thought that escape meant freedom."
Adelaide told of slaves that dreamed of escaping the slavery of the South and making it to the north. Some made it to cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York city only to find that the racism of the North could be just as deadly as it was in the South.
"A lot of our family made it to New York," said Adelaide.
"New York wasn't a slave state," Vincent said proudly.
"That is true." Adelaide nodded and smiled. "But there were plantations and there was even a time when brown people of all kinds were locked in zoos."
"What?" Vincent said in disbelief. "Like animals?"
"Yes," said Adelaide. "When you get the chance, you research Ota Benga. Ask your teacher about him and if they do not tell you, I will."
Adelaide explained that their distant relative Jim Montgomery was one of the first in the family to make it to New York. He had arrived at night, looking for directions to a place that offered rooms to Black people. "There he was, strolling down the street when he sees the strangest sight. A row of lanterns headed towards him. Now, Jim's heart done jumped into his throat. All he knows is white folks bring lanterns when they come to snatch you up and lynch for no reason or another."
It turned out that the people holding the lamps were Black. Jim stopped them. "Excuse me," he said slightly bowing his head to the two women in the group, "My name is Jim Mont...Jim Mont. Is there a place I can get some rest?"
The clean shaven dark skinned man revealed a smile, "Welcome Jim Mont. My name is Asher." Asher offered his hand and Jim accepted. The man pointed to the two women who could have been sisters. Their cinnamon complexion shined like brass under the lantern light.
"This is Madelia and this is Avery."
"Pleased to meet you." He nodded in their direction.
"You can relax, Mr. Mont. You've made it," said Madelia.
"You are escaped ain't you?" asked Avery.
Jim's heart was back in his throat preparing to leap onto the road and sprint away.
Avery placed her hand on his forearm, "Don't be afraid, we're here to help."
Asher explained that he was not, they had run into many people like Jim. "We'll take you where you can get some rest, some food, and even some work."
Jim thanked them.
"You besta stay close." Asher said as held the lantern above Jim's head.
Asher told him, "It's the law up here. Every black out after dark that ain't got no white person with them must have a lantern."
"Or else any white person seize upon you and enforce the law," Avery added.
"Hey!" a voice echoed from the shadows of a nearby house from where a white man emerged wearing a wide brimmed hat and a black overcoat. "What's that one doing without a light?"
"He and I are sharing," said Asher. "Sorry, we didn't have enough."
"Them ain't the rules, boy," the man said as he moved closer. "Ev'ry ni-gra is supposed to be lit up when the sun goes down. What's your name boy?"
"Jim." Answered as if he were the only boy present.
"Where you s'posed to be at?"
Jim knew that questions meant trouble. Where Jim had come from there were no such thing as correct answers, only reasons for white people to whip you harder. Jim ran. At first his feet felt heavy—he was tired. The night air filled his lungs, set fire to his legs and soon he was running on air. A loud crack pierced the night and pushed Jim to the ground. His face hit first, scraping his lip and causing him to bite chunks of dirt. His body landed with a thud. He tried to scramble to his feet and choked on liquid. He spit. The spit was blood. He looked down and found a hole in the center of his chest. "How'd that get there?"
"Grandma, what does that have to do with fireflies?" Vincent asked.
"Be patient," said Adelaide. "The lights inside of fireflies are the souls of ancestors. They use the lights to communicate with each other and with us."
"How do we read them?"
"No one knows."
"Grandma, why they hunt us?" asked little Cecil.
"Some were runaway slaves," answered Summer.
"That's right." Adelaide nodded. "There were also sundown towns where when the sun went down Blacks had to be home or get out of Dodge. In those towns some people lit lanterns when the sun began to set."
"Why is always lights, lights, lights?" Vincent inquired.
"So long as they can see you, they can get you. Those who take people to freedom use light to lead the way. Those who man to harm you, use it to blind you. That is why it is important to control your light."
"How?" asked Vincent.
"You let it shine and then others will know to let theirs shine."
"You know the song." Summer said as she began to sing, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine-O-oh."
The boys joined in, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine."
"Can you shine, Vincent?" Adelaide asked him.
"I can do that," he assured.
"You must," said Adelaide. "You have a little brother that watches all that you do."
"Can we go now grandma?"
Adelaide looked at Summer who said, "Go ahead."
Vincent snatched the jar from the table top and headed toward the door with his little brother in tow.
"Hey, you two," Summer called to them.
"Yes," they said turning toward their mother.
"You make sure you're in front of this house when the streetlights come on."