Show Us Brave: All Men But Tomba (1969)
This story is the second installment of the Young Catholic Messenger’s Show Us Brave series, the title of which is borrowed from the poem “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay (1889–1948). Tomba is a character introduced in Episode One, “Part II: The Longest Night.” He was kidnapped from Africa in 1776 at the age of 17, sold into slavery, and shipped across the Atlantic. In Episode Two, “All Men Tomba,” the reader finds Tomba sitting “alone on the dirt floor of the bare hut which was his home now” on Christmas Eve in 1779. Please read the excerpts below.
- Many years later a young African who had secretly learned to read told Tomba about the famous words of the Declaration of Independence. Tomba only cursed and then spat out the bitter words: “All men are equal? Oh yes... all men but Shano [Tomba’s friend who recently committed suicide]! All men but Tomba!” And he cursed again.
- On that Christmas Day, Tomba would have been totally bewildered had he known that about 5,000 Afro-Americans would help the white-Americans fight and win the Revolutionary War.
- Tomba knew nothing of this. [...] The police-state code of the South deliberately kept him ignorant; his owners would not allow him to learn to read or write. The white men beat and brainwashed Tomba, until in time he almost came to believe that he was nothing but a nigger, a piece of property that God had created to work for the superior white man.
But he never really accepted that. Not by any means. For Tomba never lost his bravery of spirit. Nothing ever quite conquered him.
- When his son [Raphe] was old enough and strong enough, the two of them fled and began the long, harrowing, dangerous trip to freedom.
- Finally Tomba and Raphe made it to Pittsburgh—and liberty. But in the North too their freedom was limited; they could not live anywheere they chose, for example. And for a while there was the fear of being caught and returned to the plantation, the way Anthony Burns had been. Other free Negroes such as Solomon Northup were kidnapped and sold into slavery.
- Tomba managed to earn a living as a carpenter, a skill he had acquired on the plantation, and he did this kind of work for many years. He also saw to it that Raphe learned to read and write. And on one unforgettable night Raphe came home with a pamphlet written by an Afro-American named David Walker.
- The years rushed by, and on a hot summer day in 1844, Tomba, now old and bent, suffered a heart attack in a dingy alley in downtown Pittsburgh. He slumped to the ground, unnoticed by anyone. He knew he was dying, and he thought first of Raphe. But then another image came to his mind, the picture that had never really left him, the face of his young friend Shano, eyes buldging, his spirit crushed at the end of a rope in a barn.
- And three blocks away a group of young white men, taking part in a Fourth of July celebration, sang out loud and strong, My country, ’tis of thee, / Sweet land of liberty...
1. What recurring themes from the story stand out to you?
2. The Teacher’s Edition for this issue of Young Catholic Messenger asks that students “contrast the ease with which they acquire an education with the impossibility of most slaves even learning to read. Be sure they understand why the master wanted his slaves to be ignorant. This can be compared to the modern era when the so-called ‘separate but equal’ schools deliberately provided poorer facilities for the Negro students.” Do you think such comparisons are dated, or could they still be relevant today?
3. Stylistically, the story is very blunt. How effective do you find this approach?
4. Do any of the excerpts surprise you? If so, why?