Front Door to Cuba

A Town Sets A Black Man On Fire

by José Martí, Published in El Partido Liberal (Mexico City), March 5, 1892

Jose Marti portrait

Where do ten thousand souls gather, the men in broadcloth and the women in silk, to watch twenty human couples, twenty black couples, degrade themselves? From where do two hundred black men flee, without water and without bread, ruined and beggared? Where do five thousand souls gather to watch a woman set fire to the clothing of a bound black man—and see the black man burned alive? In New York, in the Garden built of porphyry, crystal, and cream-colored brick the ten thousand gathered to watch the dancing and walking of couples who were competing for the prize of a cake, the cake that goes each year to the most elegant cakewalker. From Indian territory, where the invidious white man has settled, the two hundred wretches are fleeing to Liberia, seeking “milk and honey.” In Arkansas, Texans and Arkansans gathered, both women and men, and set fire to a Negro drenched in gasoline who was tied to a pine tree. “To Liberia!” “To Liberia!” the two hundred who were coming from Indian Territory shouted in a chorus through the streets, with their bearded captain at their head, and in vain the men of their race who wear greatcoats and spectacles try to stop them. They do not want to listen to the lawyer or the pastor or the congressman or the senator; they want only to go “where they do not set fire to our men.”


Nor did the prancing couples want to listen to the advice, pleas and protests of the redeemed blacks who see the annual mockery of the “cakewalk” as an obstacle to the respect that their exemplary virtue and intelligence have succeeded in earning for their race. What good does it do for the family of a Brooklyn pastor, he with his white beard, she gray-haired and matriarchal in a sumptuous dress, the daughters arrayed in roses and lace, to listen to the firstborn son deliver the class speech at law school? What good does it do for black historians to write and for their poets to win awards, for banquets to be held in their homes and for their doctors to drive out in their own carriages? These ignoble Judases, merely for a percentage of the clown show’s take, will dress in elaborate getups with patent-leather shoes, the women in dancing pumps and the men in frilled shirts, so they can be mocked, ridiculed, whistled and shouted at, and have coins thrown at their heads by frenetic, curly-haired players from the gaming dens, by the gamblers on the stock market who are called brokers, and by students from the two great colleges, who throw their arms around each other and trumpet with delight, finding in their young souls neither pity nor any manliness that would make them—and the man who will be born from them—suffer from this degradation of mankind. These criminal couples, for a bottle of sour wine and a few dollars, will spin and strut around a cake, and will by their own baseness promote disdain for their own race!

“But there were a hundred couples two years ago,” says a handsome, eloquent black man at the door, whose friends try in vain to restrain him—“and this year there are no more than seventeen of the shameless creatures! Upon the tower of this evil house I must say that the hearts of honorable black men bleed at the ignominy of these vile Negroes, and that in our homes Tchaikovsky is played on the piano and draper and Littré are on the bookshelves. I must say that we abhor these dishwashers and hussies who want only to buy some pleasure for themselves with the money that this gambling-master collects at the door from those who come to jeer the black color of their faces!” And the handsome Negro could no longer hold back his sobs, and the gambling-master, spilling out of his dress-coat and opera hat, pulled aside the crimson velvet curtain, his fat face all smiles, to let in a petulant blond youth and the jingling lady friend, covered in silk and bracelets, who walked at his coattails. Behind the curtain was a glimpse of a crowd in a smoky room leaning against the railing, a gleaming dance floor, burnished by the procession, couples walking arm in arm, sashaying on tiptoe, competing to see who could put the best foot forward; and the lead drummer, in front of the cohort, in a waistcoat and cap, making the sticks fly. And then the whole crowd spills over into the ring and whirls around it.

In the basement of a mission, “pickaninnies,” mothers, and grandparents greedily eat the charitable soup that the best black families in New York have sent to those who arrived from out in Indian territory, seeking the ship which the Liberia company agent offered them. Will the unfortunate race scatter, then? Those who have roots and a pillow to sleep on do not see their patria in the color of their skin or renounce the land where they were born, or promote a pilgrimage that would subtract from their race the weight its numbers can give it under the justice of the law. But those who have no pillow want to go to Liberia. And “George Washington” wants to take them there, with his yellowish, woolly beard and his eyes that command and caress and a hand that creases his hat when he takes it off in greeting. He wears a felt hat, a jacket, and boots; he fought in the war, and ever since then has been “wandering, wandering”; like those Indians out in the territory, he is no “lady’s man”; he wants “to be a chief, a chief of somewhere before I die”; out of his own pocket he has paid something like half the fare for “all these children”; and with his arms on high he conducts the choir, which rises to its feet and sings, the grandparents leaning on their canes, the mothers with their heads wrapped in kerchiefs, the young men in their beggar’s clothes, the “pickaninnies” with their arms around each other’s shoulders. And all of them sway back and forth and chorus:

No matter what they say,

To turn us from our way

While our legs do not fail

We must set sail,

Set sail?

To Liberia, to Liberia

We must set sail!

And at the door, in a red shirt and new boots, his refined face fringed with a short beard, a man from Louisiana perorates to the youths who listen to him, laughing, nudging each other, shuffling their feet and thrusting both hands deep into their pockets: “Are we cowards, then, because we don’t stay here, here in these muddy waters until the Messiah comes? Well, ‘cowards live long lives,” they say. Is it back to Louisiana or Texas or Arkansas, then? ‘Once bitten twice shy!’ And don’t we know where we’re going? ‘The pig knows what tree to scratch against!’ For why would we stay here, to be like those who are never more than half gentlemen? ‘Cutting the ears off a mule doesn’t make it a horse.’ And who cares if we don’t have anything to eat? ‘The monkey says it’s nobody’s business if his backside is bare!’ They say we’re going to have to wait a long time there before we’ll have homes, but “Little by little the bird makes its nest!” So, resolute, grateful, huddled tightly against each other, they wait, sitting around their charity soup, for the boat that will take them to the biblical land of “milk and honey.”

Down in Texarkana, on the border between Arkansas and Texas—those places that the man from Louisiana never wants to go back to—a whole town and the neighboring town piled out of wagons and carts at a stable door. The men, in small bands, were carrying rifles and pistols, and—eager to be the first with the news—running and leaping on the first horse they could find; the women were in hats, parasols, and triangular shawls. One of them was giving a speech, and her group applauded her. Young ladies were out strolling with their gentlemen. Strangers greeted each other in the streets. “Here he comes! Here he comes!” It’s the black who comes out of the stable tightly bound; one man pushes him, another hits him in the face. He goes on walking, steady on his feet; “I offered Mrs. Jewell no offense! You’re going to kill me, but I offered her no offense!” “We’re going to kill you, Coy, you dog, kill you like the dog you are, before the mayor can sic the troops he asked the governor for on us!” And they take him up the street, surrounded by rifles, with the wagons and carts training behind, along with the crowd of men and women, five thousand souls in all. The town square seems suitable, but two townspeople are there demanding that the law be obeyed: “Get away, you orators who want law right now!” And the bound black man comes along at a trot-“out of town, in the open countryside where everyone can get a good view”—and behind him, as he trots along, the five thousand souls come running. He reached the only tree. One compassionate man wanted to climb it with a rope, asking that at least they hang him, but his compassion was diminished by the mouth of a rifle. Coy was trussed against the tree trunk with iron hoops. They threw buckets of petroleum over his head until his clothing was drenched. “Get back, everyone, get back, so the ladies can see me.” And when Mrs. Jewell, in a triangular scarf and hat, came out from among the crowd, on the arms of two relatives, the crowd burst into a round of cheers: “Hurrah for Mrs. Jewell!” The ladies waved their handkerchiefs, the men waved their hats. Mrs. Jewell reached the tree, lit a match, twice touched the lit match to the jacket of the black man who did not speak, and the black man went up inflames, in the presence of five thousand souls.

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