Ronald L. Fair: Many Thousand Gone: An American Fable (Library of America, 2023 - originally published by Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965)

No more auction-block for me,/ No more, no more;/ No more auction-block for me,/ Many thousand gone” – from the Negro Spiritual, quoted in the epigraph to Ronald L. Fair’s ‘American Fable’  

The late Ronald L. Fair (1932-2018) grew up in Chicago. His parents came to Chicago in the 1930s. They were among an estimated more than half a million African Americans from places like Mississippi and other southern states that eventually ended up in Chicago during the so-called Great Migration between 1919 and 1970, fleeing poverty, Jim Crow, and white supremacist violence.

In his Introduction to Library of America’s reprint of Many Thousand Gone, praised by The New York Times as “one of the most beautifully written books” of the 1960s, W. Ralph Eubanks, currently at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, writes:

“What if Black people in an isolated corner of Mississippi were removed from the influence of three wars (the Civil War, WWI and II), migration, and modern broadcasting? What if slavery had not ended there in 1865 but persisted for another one hundred years into the 1960s? That premise stands as the basis of the nightmarish tale Ronald L. Fair weaves together in the pages of his first novel.”

Jacobs County. Fair has divided his short novel of about a hundred pages into two parts. Part One begins with the story of the fictive Jacobsville in Jacobs County in the state of Mississippi, founded by a Mr. Samuel Jacobs, an adventurer who with the aid of shrewd lawyers, a bribed judge, and crooked politicians had secured a piece of land in return for services rendered the government in the removal of the Chickasaw Indians from the territory, following the signing of the Treaty of 1832.

After the Civil War Mr. Jacobs, with the aid of his son, Sam, Jr., and working closely with Yankee officers, succeeded in isolating Jacobs County from the rest of the world. Only one well-hidden dirt road was leading into and out of the county. Schooling of Blacks was forbidden. And by the time the Reconstruction period ended in 1877 with the removal of the last federal troops from the south, Blacks found themselves slaves once again, unable to flee Mr. Jacobs and his army of fifty guards.

“The residents of Mississippi delighted in seeing the white-shirted guards returning from a successful hunt, the limp body of a Negro dragging behind a horse. To them Jacobs County was the south as it should have remained, and they kept their secret well,” Fair writes.

The “Black Prince.” The story of the “Black Prince” stands at the center of Ronald L. Fair’s American fable: “No one remembered how the custom had started, but down the years it had become firmly established, and they continued to celebrate joyously for the increasingly rare first-borns who were genuinely Negro,” Black women and girls long exploited sexually by white men.

Granny Jacobs is the moral consciousness of Jacobs County. She had helped raise many of the white children in Jacobsville, even Mr. Sam, Jr.’s Clyde: “Almost everyone in town grew to respect her, as much as they could ever respect a Negro, because of the way she was with their children.”

But most important to her is her great-grandson, little Jesse. Granny Jacobs believes that the gifted boy is the “Black Prince” who will help to set his people free. A few years earlier Jesse’s father at 18 had killed a deputy sheriff. To escape a lynching he had had to flee Jacobs County, making his way to Chicago, but having to leave his newborn child behind in the care of Granny Jacobs.

Granny Jacobs raised little Jesse as if he were a white boy. But when one day he began talking back to white people, like his father, she decided it was time for Jesse to join his father in Chicago.

A letter to the President. Part Two brings the story forward to the civil rights era, and suddenly things moves fast forward:  Jesse has written a book exposing the truth about life in Jacobs County to the world; he is interviewed in Ebony with pictures of his family and Black life in Chicago; when a copy of the magazine reaches Jacobs County sheriff Pitch loses his cool: “It’s a lie. It’s a goddamn lie. Ain’t no niggers nowhere ever lived bettern me.” Josh, the sheriff’s protégé, joins forces with his Black brothers; Preacher Harris, one of a few Blacks in the county who can read and write, writes a letter for Granny Jacobs to the President who sends his federal marshals down south to investigate; when the first marshal drives into Jacobsville, an attendant at the filling station issues a veiled threat: “You best talk to him (the sheriff) because you might end up on somebody’s property and find yourself in jail.” Which is exactly what happens. And all hell breaks loose.

IN FAIR’S NOVEL it is the federal marshals, and not the white perpetrators of violence, who find themselves jailed: “The vulgar, illiterate sheriff had outwitted the entire United States government because all the time he had known something they didn’t know. He knew he was at war with the Yankee forces; he knew he was fighting the same war his great-grandfather had fought.”     

Eubanks notes that Fair’s novel in 1965 – a period still dominated by the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative – reminded us that Black Americans after the Civil War and Reconstruction era from 1865 to 1877, just twelve years, had been abandoned in the rush to unify the North and the South: “The rebuilding of the Union meant the loss of freedom for the very people the North had emancipated. Northern blindness to the injustices of the South was just as harmful as the actions of white southerners.”

“Significantly,” Eubanks writes, “it is not the power of the federal government that inspires the Black majority of Jacobs County to resist their white oppressors; rather, it is the people themselves who take responsibility for their liberation. Fair reminds us that the story of the civil rights movement is largely that of the assertion of Black power and Black determination … a force strong enough to break the yoke of white supremacy that had long reigned over their lives.”

AS THE NOVEL ends, the Jacobs County jail is set on fire. The last words read: “Josh waited until the flames had consumed one whole side of the building. Then he casually reached into his pocket, took out a set of keys, unlocked the door, and hurried inside to set his emancipators free.”

Warren Ralph Eubanks, Jr., a Mississippi native (b. 1957), is the author of three books on the American South, its history, its culture, and its literature: Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey into Mississippi’s Dark Past, A Memoir (2003), The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South (2009), A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape (2021), and other works.

The title Ever Is a Long Time, we should note, refers to a statement made by then Mississippi governor James Coleman at a press conference in 1957, following the United States Supreme Court ruling of 1954 that the ‘separate but equal’ practice was unconstitutional. Asked whether the public schools would ever be integrated, Coleman had replied: “Well, ever is a long time (but) I would say that a baby born in Mississippi today will never live long enough to see an integrated school.”

It will come as no surprise, then, that Eubanks in his Introduction will focus on what Ronald L. Fair’s fable, set in a Mississippi both ‘real and imagined’, can tell us about America’s ‘dark past’.

But we should also note its lyricism, and Fair’s effective use of parody and satire, qualities that made New York Times hail it as “one of the most beautifully written books” of the decade.

A ‘racial revolution’. In a letter published in Chicago Daily Defender in 1963, Ronald Fair wrote: “The racial revolution taking place in our country is a warming and inspiring thing to most Americans … The Negro is fighting for his share of this great country that he helped make.”

Less than a year later, Eubanks writes, events of the civil rights movement’s fight for equal rights and the end of racial segregation were being broadcast daily on the nightly news and appeared in national newspapers. Freedom Summer volunteers came to Mississippi to register Black voters, three of them – activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner – subsequently murdered by a group of Klansmen that included members of the county sheriff’s department.

Two months later the Democratic National Convention refused to seat the integrated delegation sent by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, once again demonstrating the limits of northern support for Black liberation. But the push for civil rights did prevail:

Just before Ronald L. Fair’s novel came out in January 1965, the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A few months later Congress signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

UFI // 23 January 2024  

Note: In a forthcoming Random Notes article We Can’t Breathe; or, Remembering Ronald Fair we will look briefly at Fair’s two Chicago novels: Hog Butcher (1966) and We Can’t Breathe (1972).