MAXWELL:  Was I afraid of the ghost? Just a little

10/31/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

When I was growing up in rural Florida, Halloween was black children’s favorite holiday. For many older black adults, however, it was a time of fear and trembling. In general, it was when the entire black community came together as a family, when we celebrated our good “luck.”

We were careful not to mistake good luck for good “fortune” because, to us, fortune suggested a ton of money, big cars, travel to exotic locales, fine booze, luxurious pads and romance. We knew precious few black folk who owned more than two decent slop jars, a No. 10 cast iron frying pan, a ‘lectric washing machine, a gas stove, a Frigidaire and a reliable car.

Luck, on the other hand, meant that, as blacks in the anti-black South of the 1950s and early 1960s, we had managed to survive for another year without too many physical or psychological wounds.

We kids, boys and girls, thoroughly enjoyed Halloween. The main building of our all-black school campus in Crescent City, which doubled as the community center, became the place of an event that would have made All Hallows Day progenitors Guy Fawkes and Muck Olla proud.

Mrs. Iona Burney, our principal’s wife, would organize an indoor carnival. Every organized event was held inside. My friends and I were in heaven.

We ducked our heads in tubs of water to grab apples between our teeth. Blindfolded, we tried to pin tails on poster-board donkeys. We threw darts at balloons. We squaredanced. We played Simon Says. We had a spelling bee _ the most creative phonetic spelling the winner. We had a kissing booth. We had a worst-dressed contest, an ugly-mask contest, a worst-singing-voice contest and a dumbest-answer contest. I won the dumbest-answer contest three years in a row. Pete White won the kissing contest. The girls in the booth loved his big lips. They said Pete had sweet lips.

The Halloween bash would last from 7 in the evening to well past midnight. Most people never stayed out this late any other night of the year.

Around 9, a few boys and I would sneak out of the building and go into the nearby neighborhood to pull a few practical jokes and pranks. Our favorite antic was tipping over the outhouse of an old hermit near campus. One time, he was in the loo when we toppled it. Feeling guilty, I never went to his place again after that Halloween.

We would sneak back into the school building just in time for the hayride on a real wagon pulled by two real mules. Our route took us through Babylon, the black neighborhood that was home to the cemetery. The wagon did not go through the graveyard because that would have been a sacrilege. We did, however, rumble and bump on the dirt road circling the site. We made the hourlong trip in silence, wondering if the stories of horror we had heard over the years were true.

What if Bone, the headless red mule suddenly appeared in front of us? What if Bo Bo, the boar hog with that yellow cross on his back, plunged out of the shadows of the oaks and Spanish moss. Would these possessed animals kill us? The old folks said they would. Most of all, though, I wondered what would happen if the “hant in the feedsack frock” came out of the graveyard? If this hant appeared, we knew we would die a horrible death.

One year, I realized that no older people came on the hayride. Everyone in the wagon, including the driver, was a teen or a preteen.

Why?

I did not learn the answer until years later, after researching the history of Bone, Bo Bo and the hant in the feedsack frock: Many of the older black people of my childhood were born before the turn of the century, had barely missed slavery and were trapped in the superstitiousness that had arrived to the colonies in the holds of ships.

Many slave owners knew about African supernaturalism and invented ways to terrorize their chattel. In other words, a scared slave was a good slave. Many non-slave-owning whites in Florida who wanted to control blacks also adopted the campaign of fear.

Indeed, a few blacks did see something that looked like a mule without a head, and others saw what resembled a hog with a cross embossed in its back. Blacks did not know, however, that these apparitions were hoaxes staged by white people. As frightening tales will, these were passed on to future generations.

Many older blacks in Crescent City, who spent their lives using one form of voodoo or another, really did believe in Bone and Bo Bo and welcomed a safe, indoor place on the last day of October where they and their loved ones could get out of harm’s way. No headless red mule or evil hog in his right mind, after all, would come inside a well-lighted schoolhouse.

But the specter of Bone and Bo Bo did not strike fear like that of “the hant in the feedsack frock,” a vengeful black witch who brought year-round grief to certain individuals, especially to adulterers of both sexes and those who were obnoxiously vain.

Recently, I was thrilled to discover Lorraine Johnson-Coleman’s book Just Plain Folks that explains the significance of the hant: “The hant is a woman who moves normally throughout the community during the day and then sheds her skin in the evening and terrorizes man and beast alike during the midnight hours. She slips through keyholes and under door cracks, and she sneaks into your room and “rides you till you ’bout smother.”

“The hant is really more mischievous than dangerous, but to keep her away there are some things you can do. You can keep a Bible underneath your pillow or a broom across your door.”

My grandparents and their neighbors used a Bible and a broom. My friends and I did not believe any of the nonsense. But, just to be safe, we boys never left the Halloween fair without an amulet that would keep the hant in the feedsack frock at bay until next Halloween.

By the way, one of my childhood friends still has the goofer-bag he bought nearly 40 years ago at a Halloween carnival. It contains the same grave dust and petrified frog’s leg the local root worker put in it more than 40 years ago.