Two cases show how vast our racial divide remains

Gregory Kane

HOW DID Marylanders end up with two poignant moments in race relations in just one week?

Well, it can't be because we're lucky, because one of those moments involves the death of Noah Jamahl Jones, a black teenager who died last year after a melee outside of a house in Pasadena. Six white men were initially charged with Jones' death. One, Jacob Tyler Fortney, was charged with manslaughter and acquitted by an all-white jury last week. Joshua David Bradley cut a deal to testify against Fortney and had charges dropped.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee dropped charges against the remaining four this week, saying that convictions weren't likely. Many blacks in Anne Arundel County were upset, which brings us to our first poignant moment.

We should not compound the tragedy of Jones' death by comparing it to the Emmett Till case of 50 years ago, not even to suggest the former should not have the "legacy" of the latter, as black activist Carl Snowden did in an article in The Sun this week. Jones and Till were black. Both were killed. White men were charged with the crime. Each trial ended in acquittal by all-white juries. There the similarity ends.

Till's murderers beat him so badly his face was unrecognizable when he was eventually pulled from a Mississippi river. They shot him in the head with a .45-caliber handgun and tied him to a cotton gin fan before dumping him in that river. Till's murder was perhaps the most horrendous American crime of the 20th century, which is saying something considering the competition.

You'd have to be spending too much time in an alternate universe of your own creation to think the facts of Till's murder even remotely resemble those of Jones' death. Jones had the bad luck to be with three other guys. At least one of those guys, Marion Shepherd, was allegedly spoiling for a fight when all four went to that house in Pasadena. Jones died during a melee that started when Shepherd reportedly hit someone with a gun. That strikes me as being an entirely different set of circumstances.

Our next poignant moment concerns a matter much less serious but just as controversial. Jay Frisby and Nick Lehan, two students at Glenelg Country School in Howard County, found themselves in the middle of a brouhaha over a musical adaptation of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Frisby, who is black, played Huck. Lehan, who is white, played the slave Jim.

Frisby and Lehan were supposed to perform a song - in character - on C-Span. R&H Theatricals, the company that holds the copyright to the musical, nixed the idea.

"In the books, Jim is a runaway slave," sniffed a spokesman for R&H. "He is clearly in the novel an African-American man. And Huck is a free white man. ... To ignore that component or to comment on it by switching is not faithful to the story that the musical's authors are trying to tell."

Let me give these R&H folks a little history. Even during slavery, there were free blacks in America. And there also were white indentured workers who were sometimes treated as badly as slaves.

In my own family tree, there is at least one white indentured worker: a French woman who married one of my great-great-great-grandfathers who was a free black man living in St. Mary's County about 1852. About nine years ago, someone told me that in the 1850s in Southern Maryland, it was common for free black men to marry white indentured servants.

In one bizarre case, a white woman was enslaved in New Orleans. Author John Bailey wrote about her in a recently published book, The Lost German Slave Girl. The book focuses on the litigation surrounding, Sally Miller, who was enslaved in New Orleans. Published by Atlantic Monthly Press, the widely acclaimed book explores the 1843 legal case and the Southern obsession over whiteness. A white woman could not legally be enslaved, but if Miller had mixed blood - no matter how white she looked - she could be held in bondage.

We've only scratched the surface of who was enslaved in America and what they looked like. Twain wrote a novel - The Adventures of Puddn'head Wilson -about a "black" slave who was white in appearance, though it's a safe bet the folks at R&H haven't read it.

It's not a stretch for Lehan to play Jim. And Huck Finn is an American boy out looking for fun and mischief.

Any American boy, of any race, can play Huck.
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