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Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Safe, Some Thoughts

January 23, 2008
Thanks again to Verging Writer for introducing me to Georgia Douglas Johnson. I just read Johnson’s play, Safe, a Play on Lynching (C. 1929). It is one play in a series of lynching plays that Johnson wrote as “dedication to both the anti-lynching struggle and the artistic development of the genre in the New Negro era” (Stephens, 33). Here is some of my first thoughts right after a quick plot summary. Do not read further if you do not like spoilers:

The setting is a southern town in 1893. Liza Pettigrew lives with her husband John and her mother Mandy. They live in a three-room cottage, a living room (where Mandy sleeps on a cot), a kitchen, and Liza and John’s bedroom. At nine months pregnant, Liza is sewing the last of the baby clothes in preparation for her confinement. John is reading the paper. Liza urges a tired Mandy to submit to a rest. John reads in the paper that Sam Hosea is in jail for hitting his white boss, who slapped Sam first during a dispute over wages. Hannah Wiggins, a neighbor runs over and informs the family that white men are in an angry tizzy downtown. John leaves to see what is happening. Liza begins to worry more about what may happen to Sam. A lynch mob is heard outside. Liza gets a glimpse of Sam who is about to be lynched and goes into labor. The doctor is called. Mandy unwittingly refers to Liza’s unborn child as a boy. John comes back. The baby is born. Learning the baby is a boy, Liza kills him when she is alone and the doctor is not looking.
Safe is a play that demonstrates an actualisation of pure empathy. A fervent racial and maternal bond is awakened in Liza the second she hears Sam cry out for his mother. The erratic and unjust persecution blacks receive because of their blackness infuses her and her unborn child with Sam. Every boy and man  lynched are more than just someone’s son or husband, he is the son and/or husband of all the people in the community. No one’s husband or son is safe. Black women are not safe either. However, the probability of males being lynched more often than females proportions Liza’s empathy in the moment. The possibility of her unborn child being male overwhelms Liza’s empathy in such a way that Sam becomes her unborn son. Therefore, in Liza’s mind, Sam’s fate inevitably becomes her baby’s fate.When Liza hears Sam crying for his mother, immediately she becomes fixated on his suffering and what is happening to him, “Oh, my God, did you hear that poor boy crying for his mother—He’s jest a boy—jest a boy—jest a little boy!” At that very instance she becomes Sam, she feels his helplessness, his anguish and the inescapability of what is happening. Their shared blackness makes him her, and it is their sameness and her ability to give birth (currently at its height) that transforms him into her unborn child as well.
Regardless of what Mandy or Hannah are doing or saying around Liza, she stays focused on what is happening to Sam. Her thoughts are not divided, but remain concentrated on Sam’s fate, “Oh, where is John—Where is John?—What you reckon has happened? Oh, that poor boy—poor little N—– boy! […] “Did you hear him cry for his mother? Did you?” The fusion of blackness and motherhood comes together. Innocently, or perhaps instinctively, Mandy refers to the unborn child as a him and how there is a need to born him safe. Hearing this causes Liza to fall into a state of full-blown hysteria. Asking Liza to birth her son safe is asking Liza to perform an impossible task. How can Liza protect her child from angry lynchers in power? Even though Mandy is referring to a safe birth, having Sam’s lynching fresh on her mind, Liza surrenders to the reality that she cannot keep him safe in life. Birthing him safe is not even a consideration in Liza’s mind because Liza is not her son’s enemy. The white lynchers are the enemy. The baby has no need to fear his mother, —-her birth canal, her birthing, but what awaits him after birth in a hostile world. Therefore, the safe that Mandy is literally talking about does not register with Liza.

The prospect of a changed future, a different future with a different outcome is nowhere in Liza’s mind because the reality she is living at that very moment is one in which blacks (boys) are lynched. She sees this reality with her own eyes and hears it with her own ears. This reality is what dominates her after giving birth. After she kills her son, she tells Dr. Jenkins, ‘“Now he’s safe—safe from the lynchers! Safe!”’

Also, there are no signs of change evident in the here and now. Before John left he wondered out loud “Ain’t they gointer call out the soldiers, did he say?” Witnessing lynching after lynching with no soldiers called out, and no signs of the atrocities stopping, creates a feeling of living in a never-ending unsafe environment. John expects change, but, history has taught him not to really believe it will come. If he really believes the soldiers were going to be called out, he would not leave the house, but he does leave.

In Safe, Johnson captures one of those slice of life moments. Unfortunately for the community she writes about, that example of a slice of life is a veritable living hell.

2 Comments
  1. Rent Party permalink
    January 23, 2008 10:44 pm

    Fascinating – thanks for letting us know about this play, I wasn’t familiar with it or the author.

  2. Anna permalink
    January 24, 2008 10:10 pm

    Well done, Kitty. A passionate response to a passionate play. I especially liked how you explored her relationship with Sam. I’ve always thought her mother’s response was interesting as well – as a counterpoint to hers. 2 different “motherly” responses.

    My students are reading Safe & 2 others of GDJ next week. I will be curious to hear their responses. If you’d like – I’ll e-mail you a copy of my paper when I get it finished.

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