Callie House, racial austerity, and the “fluidity of movement” in African American Action

Mary Frances Berry’s My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations recounts an early struggle for reparations and collective acceptance of individual freedoms in addition to a story of collective healing. The text recounts organized meetings, in one case, 

The oldest member present was 101 years old; the youngest was thirty-nine. It was a sadly impoverished group that the federal government had declared war on: small sects like those at the Boone County [Missouri] meeting. But the power of the idea of reparations and the growing number of supporters scared government officials, even though they had the group under surveillance and knew that they were nothing more than ex-slaves and their families meeting to commiserate and work peacefully to achieve economic justice. (2005, 93-94)   

House has gathered ten of thousands of dues paying members into her efforts to achieve reparations. Not only did they welcome ex-slaves, but whites as well; anyone who believed in their cause. The meetings were not only occasions for collective political action, but shared experiences and of communal growth as these meeting gave former slaves and opportunity to recount and exhume their personal endurance as “the telling and retelling of their slavery, hard work, poverty, and the condition of their relatives, neighbors, and friends, association members reinforced the commitment that kept the organization together and growing” (Berry 2005, 95). Through sharing of the personal, the political became manifest as an realized entity and prescribed doctrine.

The projection of witnessing from the Black community onto white enslavement and cordial, commensurate complicity is not subtle in social action as it is a projection of personal liberty. An outward parsing distinction into the social fabric of white, rigid institutions. The reflection of inner life is a collection of recoil into a larger communal activity. This is true of the African American community as well as white stagnant solidity. We all contribute to social growth or social stagnation through our inner lives. Our souls parse the intended development and regroup or restate what direction we find ourselves cornered into as opposed to ideal (re)constructions toward healthy and intellectual placement. 

It is not unlike a dance. One group may move along the rhythms of a multi-parlayed direction while another group may move in place, too restricted to feel the scene. Consider this excerpt from Tera Hunter’s To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War,

African-American dance emphasized the movement of body parts, often asymmetrically and independent of one another, whereas Euro-American dance demanded rigidity to migrate its amorous implications. Black dance generally exploded outward from the hips; it was performed from a crouching position with the knees flexed and the body bent at the waist, which allowed a fluidity of movement in a propulsive rhythmic fashion. This reinforced the sense of the dancer’s glee. (1997, 175)

The ontological action of dance is a personal recollection of the freedom of movement and the aspiration to be released from the broadly enforced stillness of white disenfranchisement; oppression of stillness and rigidity being a reflection and manifestation of white enforced oppression. However, African American dance with its “fluidity of movement” is a declaration of independence and the joy of liberation.  

Callie House’s productivity and industriousness reflected not only a “fluidity of movement,” but also an elasticity of action. It may not be especially commonly known that elasticity is a scientific term with large metaphorical overtones. It refers to brain growth and redevelopment after a cause of damage. It has been shown that after trauma the brain has the elasticity, the ability, to reconnect its mental highway of activity and learn again both basic and complex skills. On a wider note elasticity is not just cognitive but a realized reflective symbol of achievement under duress. After devastation comes growth and this is a natural attainment and fostering of personal, independent reality. 

The reality of our communal sphere is a reflection of the inner lives of our citizens; both individually and as a network. As Berry recounts, “Mrs. House collected funds personally at local meetings and carefully stretched whatever she received to pay her fare to the next place. She met with agents and supervised their work. She stayed with local chapter members and had them send correspondence to her family. The group also had to hold more frequent meetings to share information, instead of distributing flyers and other material because of government harassment” (2005, 167). The clear, fervent “fluidity of movement” demonstrated by Callie House is not only a testament to her personal character but the larger motions of the community, reflected in her, and a bout of interpersonal, intra-communal distillation of elasticity of self-determination under the flagrant racial austerity towards collective and individual Action. 

What are reflections, but ontological stirs of motivational witnessing? What is the course of independent disclosure of character, but a dance of the kind of wealth that is not monetary. As we seek our way forward into the future we can recall the liberty of strength of the individual, not as a personal action, but as a projection of witnessed movement towards collective good. The good of innate rejection of oppression and a solidarity among the whole is a goal we continuously find ourselves in want of. For just a moment, we can hear the memory of the pulsation of movement; the dance that recollects freedom and does not digress in the face of forced redirection.