His name was Eugene Williams and he was seventeen years old on that nearly 100 degree Chicago Sunday in July, 1919. Already a century ago now, and yet I often find that I can’t stop myself from thinking about him when I’m standing in my usual spot at Lake Michigan’s edge on a beach on Chicago’s North Shore in the twilight of almost morning, where what happens every day, without fail, is that the gulls arrive first. From where, precisely, I’ve never been able to determine, but the when is undebatable: They are first.
The stars are there, and then they aren’t. The gulls aren’t there, and then they are. Just like that. Only a few for a while, and then more, and then many, swooping and gliding out over the water, carving their silent, sweeping circles upon the stillness, usually before enough of the morning has leaked into the world for me to be able to see the line between the water and the sky. For that time, it is theirs, the beach, while the symphony of light makes its way through its movements in the clouds and the waves mark their ancient, steady rhythm on the shore.
With my back up against the lifeguard chair and my feet sunk deep in the nightcool sand, I watch them head out and around, again and again, and then come swooping on back to settle for a time, some clustering at the water’s edge, just beyond the ruffle of the waves upon the sand, and others lined up in a row on the jetty, like can can dancers waiting for their cue to go back on. Ha ha ha ha HA, one of them might screech, apropos of nothing that I can decipher, its outburst sounding eerily like human laughter, and then it’ll resume its pose of nonchalance, while the neighbor to its right will look on, unperturbed, and the one two or three or four to its left will sweep out across the lake, sending a farewell scree up towards the disappearing moon. It is theirs, the beach. All theirs.
And then it’s not. Because, from somewhere over by the distant pier, like black silken handkerchiefs that have been tossed into the wind, comes a quintet of crows – shimmering, ebony, iridescent – the whisper of their wings against air stirring up the secret composition of a music all its own. And not far behind them, just a few moments later, comes a trio of ducks, worried-looking and late-seeming and loudly out of sorts, scolding each other, scolding themselves, scolding the moment, scolding the morning, their necks extended far out ahead of their wings as they arrow their way across the water and then the parking lot and disappear into the woods.
It has begun. There’s a woodpecker. Just one, as far as I’ve been able to tell, who flits and floats and flutters, but never lands anywhere long enough to seem to have found what it’s looking for. There are red-winged blackbirds and orioles and nuthatches and blue jays and two tiny yellow jewels, one perfect matched set, whose breed I have yet to identify. Once, there was a heron who descended straight down upon the lineup of gulls on the jetty, its vast shadow causing them all to look up and startle and swoop off, but it quickly chose a spot, settled onto it, let them know it was safe to come back, and they did. Lined up on either side of it and resumed their screeing and their sweeping and their swooping out across the beach that had been all theirs for a time and now no longer was. But what does it matter? they all seemed to be thinking. We’re all birds here after all, and what else are skies for?
You have to pay attention, I often order myself, looking on. Which may very well have been what Eugene Williams’ mother said to him, too, on that sweltering Sunday afternoon in 1919 as he raced out the door to catch up with his friends, his acknowledgment that he’d heard her a wave over his shoulder, his goodbye the clacketing of his footsteps on the building’s wooden stairs, his body already pointed toward the promise of the lake’s chilled embrace.
You have to pay attention, she may have said again, this time to herself in a murmur beneath her breath as she turned back to the pot that was steaming, or the children who were bickering, or the husband who was hungry, or the friend who’d come to call, because it’s likely that she had a feeling, in that way that mothers do. You have to pay attention, she may have even repeated one more time for good measure.
But he didn’t. Not once he was out there, way out into the relief of Lake Michigan – on a raft some have said, although others have reported that he was just floating free – but either way, not once he was out there, with the iciness of the water erasing the stifle and the sizzle and the swelter from the day. Not once he was surfing the waves’ crests and dipping down beneath their invitation into the mystery of all that lay beneath. Then, he was too busy paying attention to the business of being supple and seventeen on a sultry summer Sunday. He may, in fact, not have even given another thought to paying attention until he looked up and discovered where he was – and who knows if that even happened?
What may have happened instead is that the first notice he received that he’d let his attention wander was the rock that slammed into his head. Some say it killed him, some that it only dazed him, but left him too afraid to swim back to the shore, and that he stayed out there until fatigue pulled him under. Because where he was, he would have now finally realized, was on the wrong side of the invisible line that extended out into the water, enforcing an unwritten law: The 25th Street beach was for black bathers, and the 29th Street beach for whites. Only.
Either way, that’s where the speculation ends and the facts march in to take over: It’s a fact that he drowned and it’s a fact that the rock that sent him under had been thrown by a white man, incensed at his having crossed that invisible line. It’s a fact, too, that in the five days that followed –in what would come to be known as “the 1919 race riots” that grew out of the rage that was ignited right there on the sand when the police arrested a black man instead of the group of white ones who had been seen throwing rocks – 38 people would die, 537 would be injured, 1,000 would lose their homes and a million dollars worth of property would be damaged. You have to pay attention. Isn’t that what Eugene Williams’ mother had said? Because she knew that she had to.
Because there have always been mothers who have known that they had to. That they had to pack not only towels and buckets and sandwiches and drinks, but also warnings in their children’s bags when they sent them off to the beach. Because there have always been mothers like the ones of Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1933 (where members of the Balmy Beach Swastika Club planted “Heil Hitler” signs in the sands of the city’s eastern beaches, and lay in wait there to attack Jewish swimmers), and like the mothers of Los Angeles in that same era (where it was made so clear to all but white bathers that they were unwelcome on the ocean’s beaches that Mexican-American parents resorted to creating an imaginary one for their children – which they named Marrano Beach for the pig trough it resembled – along the muddy banks of the shallow, murky Rio Hondo River), and like the mothers of Durban, South Africa in 1989 (where a sign at the local beach’s entrance announced– in English, Afrikaans and Zulu, lest anyone miss its message – that “this bathing area is reserved for the sole use of members of the white race group.”), and like those of Jamaica in 2004 (where police on a beach in Montego Bay rallied all the nearby bathers – who had already gathered into crowds, chanting “Gays must die!” – to join them in beating to death a man suspected of being homosexual), and like those of Maui in 2008 (where a native Hawaiian teen accosted the two teenage daughters of a vacationing New Jersey family, screaming “Go back to the mainland. Take your white asses off our beaches,” and where three native men punched and choked their father when he tried to intervene), and like those of Lebanon in 2012 (where migrant domestic laborers were banned from all beaches except in the course of their employment as nannies and maids, and even then, weren’t allowed in the water), and like those of present day Bosnia and Herzegovina (where some of the beaches along the Danube are designated for use by the Bosniaks, and others are reserved for the Croats. Only.).
Woo-hoo, the seagull whom I have come to call The Whistler would probably say in response to all that. Well, he says it in response to everything, of course. Sweeps the length of the beach and back again, out there over the water, head back and wings wide to the wind, with his piercing whistle woo-hooing and woo-hooing and woo-hooing in response to the quacks and caws and hoots and chirps and tweets and kews and chup chups that embroider the air.
You have to pay attention, I remind myself every morning, not wanting to miss a moment of what I’m looking at. And day after day, I do. In fact, I find that I can’t look away. From the bouquet of herring gulls glissandoing out over the lake in response to a secret signal only they can hear, or from the flock of Canada geese shuffling itself into a V as it races with the low-hanging clouds. From the parade of blackbirds stitched into a seam at the horizon or the gang of mallards emerging from underneath the pier, their emerald heads opalescent, or the sandpiper tiptoeing along the length of the shoreline, foraging for food.
There might be a tern or two missiling head first into the water, a loon slipping beneath its surface as if sucked from beneath and a wood duck quacking up a ruckus of warnings, teaching her eight babies to swim. A willet might be settling at the tip of the jitterbugging buoy not far from where a starling is bathing in the river of amber light the rising sun has just poured and, just beyond them, a gaggle of plovers might be impersonating kites to ride the peaks of the wind. A cormorant might glitter up toward flight in a rainbow of spray while three scoters raft past atop their upside down mirrored selves and, ribboned throughout all of this will be a steady stream of robins and sparrows and cardinals and wrens, of chickadees and finches and swallows and jays, of tanagers and warblers and vireos and larks who will be making their periodic forays out into the open from the woods that line the sand, as I stand there, mesmerized, watching.
Although there will always be some mornings when the thought of Eugene Williams will come to me again, when I’ll find my eyes drawn outward, toward the distant waves, instead. At seventeen, is what I’ll find myself thinking then, he would have been at that stage of almost-man that would have made him prone to dreaming. Would have been at that stage of almost-man that – even in a world where lynchings were so commonplace nationwide that they were routinely listed in the newspaper, and where Birth of A Nation’s glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, which boasted 100,000 members in 27 states, had sent it soaring to the top of the “must see movie” charts not long before, and where the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who had come north in the Great Migration were paying higher rents for their apartments and receiving lower wages in their jobs on the railroads and in steel plants than were white Chicagoans – would have made him unable to stop himself from being a dream incubator as he floated across the balm of a chilly lake beneath the sweep of a cloudless sky on a Sunday afternoon toward a hot, itchy summer’s end, in a Chicago that was just then beginning to swoon to the purr of jazz.
And so, when my thoughts bring him back, I’ll often find that they’re doing it to the beat of a blue note, so that I’ll hear the wail of a saxophone silking its way from a murmur toward a moan, exhaling music with shivers ascending its spine and sweat beading up on the surface of its throbbing scales, until it’s giving voice to the ache of his longing and I’m imagining that what he’s thinking as he’s floating there is that he sure as anything does wish that he could rise right up into that sky. And not in the way the pastor is always talking about when he goes on and on in church about how every one of us’ll be getting on up to heaven by and by. He’s heard enough of that kind of talk to last him ‘till forever. What he wants to do is get on up there in this world, right now, the way those two guys who flew a plane the whole long way ‘cross the Atlantic Ocean last month did. First time ever anybody did it, and now he can’t stop himself from dreaming about doing it, too. Not a thing in this world wrong with him dreaming about that, is how it seems to him.
‘Cept that they were white men, he can hear his mother saying, but he flicks the thought away, along with a web of seaweed that’s gotten tangled in his fingers. She’s always going on about how he’s doing too much dreaming, but what’s the sin in dreaming anyhow? is what he wants to know. He for sure wouldn’t be making it through any of those twelve hour days toting steel, Monday to Saturday, Monday to Saturday, Monday to Saturday, if he couldn’t be doing some dreaming along with it.
Little dreams, is all some of them are. Like getting a chance to ride in a Tin Lizzie and know how it would feel to go through this world at a whole forty miles an hour. Or having enough money to buy a pack of cigarettes, one of them with those baseball cards inside. Or getting the chance to sit in the stands and see a real live baseball game, for that matter. Why not? Of course, just about everyone’s doing their dreaming about baseball these days, ever since Babe Ruth tied his own single season home run record two weeks ago, with plenty of time still left in the season to break it. Seems he’s got the whole world dreaming about what he’ll do next.
Him though? Oscar Charleston is more his man. Wouldn’t it be something to see him in action, is what he can’t stop thinking about, ‘specially now that he’s right here this summer, playing with the Chicago American Giants over there in Schorling’s Park. No doubt about it, they’re the best of the Negro league teams, and now that they’ve got Charleston, there’s not a thing to stop ‘em from winning the Colored World Series again, like they did three years ago.
The Hoosier Comet, is how they call him. That’s what he’s heard said. On account of how he’s so fast he can outrun any batted ball. But then he’s heard a lot of things said about Oscar Charleston. Like how he became a star center fielder for the Indianapolis ABCs when he was still just nineteen years old. Led them to the championship the very next year. And like how he makes one-handed catches that get the crowds to throwing money at him, and does standing back flips that leave everybody screaming.
Mostly, what he’s heard said, though, is that there’s not a thing that man’s afraid of, on or off the field. He’s always telling his brothers and sisters about that, until he has them dreaming of seeing him, too. About how, in his very first year with the ABCs, he punched out the umpire – knocked him right out – over a call at second base, and about how there are stories of him having fights with the guys on whatever team he’s playing against, and even having fights out there in the world, too, with wrestlers and with policemen and armed soldiers and the like.
Which is when his mother always tells him to hush up now, that’s enough of that kind of talk, and tells his brothers and sisters to go get themselves busy with their chores. A temper like that can get a man killed, is what she’s always saying. You have to pay attention to staying out of trouble in this world, is what she’s always saying. But he just goes on with his dreaming about having the chance to be right there in the stands, paying attention to Oscar Charleston.
Even floating here now, he can see how it would be, with him in his seat right behind the Giants’ dugout and Charleston up to bat, and the crowd already screaming. Can see him in position, with the bat to his left the way he holds it, and his feet so itching to take off that it’s almost like they’re already moving. And now there’s the pitcher winding up, and there’s the ball, whizzing toward him and the Hoosier Comet’s taking a swing at it, and then there it is. He hears it. There in his seat, and here in this lake, he hears it. The explosion of that CRACK when that bat stops that ball cold.
I hear it too, that CRACK, but I understand as soon as I do that it isn’t the percussion of bat against ball, but of rock against skull, that I’m hearing. And, after that, I’ll often find myself hearing the echo of the dreams that were left behind as Eugene Williams’ body drifted downward, and of the keening of his mother’s grieving once the news had found its way to her, until the oboe call of a duck or the laughter of a gull or the twittering of starlings calls me back.
You have to pay attention, it will be reminding me, and once again I will, taking care this time not to let my gaze shift away from the feathered professors before me. From the lesson they’re teaching in the classroom of that beach, with the we-ness with which they all take to the wind, and with the glide and the grace and the glibness with which they handle the us and the them of it all.
From the lesson they’re teaching up in that shared sky, and in the harmony on that sand and water, too. The lesson that’s out there, waiting, at the birth of each new day, interwoven with the starlight and the sunrise and the windbrush and the wavespray, to be decoded and memorized by all of us on this Earth who were unfortunate enough to have come into this world unanointed with the wisdom of the winged.