The New York Draft Riots
Vanish these walls, vanish this wealth, with visionary eyes that see back to hot July 1863. Vanish where wealth shines shopping on Fifth Avenue, five minutes from the lion-braced library, where I turn down my book. Vanish these great, gray walls, to see when this mirage was another, of a white-winged building housing motherless humanity. Try to see out of the eyes of two hundred frightened black orphans and their saviors, or, better, the eyes of one little girl under her bed, who is to be beaten to sleep and burned alive. They come now, the first, malignant rumble of mobs is heard. A giant, bearing a huge American flag, appears. Ten thousand men and women follow. They shout: NO DRAFT; shout: KILL THE NIGGERS! One mob of ten thousand, among many mobs, one mad mob, is coming; Copperheads coming; but Mary doesn't know what they are. Snakes, she is told; and, people like snakes. Snakes? What does it mean? But behind them the sky is red, as if the sun had set in broad day, as if it had hit the earth and bounced back to the sky in cones of flame, like upward teeth, serrating the downward, hot blue. The fireworks for the Fourth, a week before, had shaken her. Looking everywhere, she saw no arms to hold her. BOOM BOOM! Now again--BOOM BOOM! But this is wilder, worse. She caps her ears, her eyes rolling for a mother, while the giant bearing Old Glory juts his lantern jaw toward the white-winged building where she hides terror in tears, holding her braided, ribboned head as, between her ten-year-old fingers, distorted clangor of malignant mob-voice penetrates with curses and screams of coves and harpies, liquored-up looters, drink-mad, blood-mouthed molls, ill-wind-shifted, now, toward Mary in the white- winged Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, the ghost-building, inside tall wealth, that I can reach in five minutes from this great, gray library, close my book and walk out into the Fifth Avenue festival of limousines and be inside of its smoldering, ectoplasmic doors with the orphan children, who are always poorest, with Mary, who hides under her bed, her eyes spraying terror, shutting her ears to the Fourth of July or, now, a week later, to the flag-bearing giant leading a mob through the present affluent Fifth Avenue shoppers to BOOM BOOM KILL THE NIGGERS NO DRAFT KILL, outside the library window on Fifth Avenue, inside of, behind, through, the tremendous modern traffc stalled at red, frustrated, Manhattan-honking. KILL! Mary sees feet, fast feet. She doesn't understand that the children are being herded out to safety, to Blackwell's Island on the East River. Mary sees feet scurry by her bed, sees a watery world, like one submerged, when she looks out. Then, above her bed, something huge and malignant appears, something too big. An evil thing! She will not come out from under, she will not, as the white-winged building shakes like her body with battering and the doors are pulled from their hinges. Mary tries to find her mother inside of herself, and finds an entrance and a dark hall. She goes in, finds herself upright, her legs steady under her. She pats the bodice of her pink dress, straightens her pink ribbon--for she knows her mother waits at the end of the dark hall--as the giant lifts her to the sky-- knows a door will open at the end of the dark hall--and dashes her ten- year-old body down, Great doors open, her mother shimmers with beauty, with long, strong, brown open arms. In fury at his loss, the giant howls after the escaping orphans, and flames rise up around him as he moves, touching, touching the pitiful beds of orphans, touching and torching, his small mad head hissing, spitting curses upon Lincoln, the top- hatted ape, and Greeley, and niggers, niggers, for his tongue would fork with curses if it could, as the white-winged asylum crumbles in flames inside of the facades of now with its BEEP BEEP of prosperity. As if the great library walls had vanished, as if the market values of now, with their multi-millions of construction, were transparent, there stands the Colored Orphan Asylum, and there inside is Mary, hiding under her bed. Mary and the flag-bearing giant. Mary and the mad mob. I lean back in my library chair and push up my glasses. I am trying to see more clearly. I think I don't understand any more than Mary did, as the lion-braced library walls form around me again, shutting me off from my shopping, struggling fellow Americans on Fifth Avenue, outside, who cannot see the white-winged Colored Orphan Asylum as they pass it. But I know that all hurts must be outlived as humanity presses forward.
From Murderer's Day by E. M. Schorb, published by Perdue University Press. Copyright © 1998 by E. M. Schorb. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.