…in the first photo of the triptych the young man is still alive. Can you see his eyes? He doesn’t have long. …
His black body is shining and radiantly serpentine at the base of a tree. His skin is glistening, and his musculature is as chiseled and defined as an athelete’s. People who knew him said that he was a slow-witted and gentle young man. He is surrounded by hundreds of white men in white suits and white hats, but he is all alone in the universe. There is nowhere for him to go, no one who can help him. Who could be more alone than Jesse Washington? Someone who was standing near the tree wrote later in a letter that Jesse was praying as he lay there, but to which god? What good would prayer do when there were ten or eleven ministers in the audience along with dozens of their parishioners?
If you look closely into the faces in the crowd, you can see smiles and you can almost hear the laughter. You can see hugs and back slaps–handshakes, brisk tips of the hat, and friends greeting friends.You see men fresh from the perfumed talc and lively jabber and banter of the barbershop. You see men who are tired and sweaty after hours or walking in the furrows behind two gray mules. At the top of the photo, you can just make some men who are giggling and tipsy from a couple of beers at the local saloon.
Look in the lower left corner. Right there! you will see a young red-haired Irish boy in a linen cap. He is lighting a cigarette. You can’t see it in his freckled face or his white skin, but he is half Mexican, and he is about to do something awful. Look around in the picture. You see men who have just jugged their haggard wives and mussed their children’s hair. In the second picture you see Jesse dangling above their heads like a bag of clay. In a circle around his black feet, some freckle-faced children are leering and laughing.
In the third photo, Jesse Washington’s arms are now only stumps, and his legs are stubs of charcoal above the knees. Someone has poured kerosene on his body. Someone has tossed a flaring matchstick. By most accounts he was alive when the flames to enrage all of his nerve endings. A fourth photo–not part of the triptych–is found on a picture postcard.
As you can see, someone has written the words ‘This is the barbeque we had last night.’ …
How does this happen? …
[this song was written by one of the two sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg executed by electric chair for espionage in 1953–see here
Ethel and Julius both enter Alfredo Véa’s narrative.]
You’ve all seen paintings by the impressionists, by the post-impressionists and expressionists. I know you have … even you here in state prison have seen the paintings of Van Gogh, Edouard Manet, and Paul Gauguin. Everyone loves their work today, but in their own time no one loved them–and I mean no one. There was a special venue for many of these artists. It was called the Salon des Refusés–the salon of the rejects. Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting while he lived. Only one or two people out of the millions living in Paris could see the beauty and power of their work.
Those one or two Parisians were derided as absurd, ridiculous–they were branded as tasteless radicals. In fact, they were the lucky ones. History shows that they were right. What were those other millions of Parisians thinking and doing at that time? Nothing unusual. They were doing what everybody everywhere does–even today. They were marinating in the culture of their day, happily mouthing the clichés and the jargon of their time and place, thinking the current thoughts, following the current fads, and eating and drinking the current foods of their time and place. Like you, they selected their music from the few choices that were placed in front of them.
Black prisoners play black music out in the yard, brown inmates play brown music, twelve-year-old girls all love the same little boy bands–it’s so stultifying, so damned predictable. When you’ve been simmering in your own cultural broth all of your life, your flesh and your soul soon begin to take on the common color and flavour. In time you lose the power to taste your own individual life on its own separate terms.
Nowadays everybody loves Van Gogh. People line up at exhibitions of his art and pay millions for his paintings. But it’s a cheap love. Vincent climbed all the way out of the mundane and painted what he saw through his own wild bipolar mind. He had to escape the tepid broth, and he paid everything he owned to attain his unique vantage point–for his art. We pay nothing for it.
If you’d lived in Paris during Van Gogh’s life, would you have stepped forward to champion his work? You can only answer ‘yes’ if in your present life you have stepped forward to defend someone or something against the opinion of everyone around you–against your entire era and against your whole culture. If you were that kind of courageous visionary, you wouldn’t be in here counting the days until your next parole hearing.
… Do you want to know if you’re one of those people who came into Waco by train to see the spectacle of Jesse’s death? Do you want to know if your love is cheap? The question you have to ask yourself is this: What is it that I believe that no one else does? What cause do I espouse that is hopeless–radical? What salon of rejected artists or thinkers have I stepped into lately?
I hear a telling silence … Do you know what that means? It means that you and I were in that crowd when Jesse Washington’s neck snapped.
I’m trying as hard as I can to fly out of this smelly broth that we’re all drowning in. … I want you to lie in your beds tonight when everything is quiet. I want you to use your imaginations to melt away your tattoos–let all of that murky ink dribble down your fingertips and drip onto the floor. Use what’s left of your imaginations to tear away your gang language–all two hundred dull, insipid words of it. Pull all of those tired clichés out of your mouth and spit them onto the linoleum tiles. Rip away every facile obscenity. Then peel all that deadening television culture away from your gray matter.
After you do all that, ask yourself: What’s left? Where am I? Who am I? It might seem like there’s nothing left of you inside that body. You all look like prison and smell like the street. But take my word for it, there is something there. Each of you possesses things that you’ve never seen, never even sensed.
–Alfredo Véa, The Mexican Flyboy, pp.150-155