“Greetings, Gentlemen. I greet you here on the bank of the James River in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and twelve. First, I shall thank you, the gentlemen of the Colony of Virginia, for bringing me here. I am here to help you solve some of your problems with slaves. Your invitation reached me on my modest plantation in the West Indies, where I have experimented with some of the newest, and still the oldest, methods for control of slaves. Ancient Rome would envy us if my program is implemented. As our boat sailed south on the James River, named for our illustrious King, whose version of the Bible we cherish, I saw enough to know that your problem is not unique. While Rome used cords of wood as crosses for standing human bodies along its highways in great numbers, you are here using the tree and the rope on occasions. I caught the whiff of a dead slave hanging from a tree, a couple miles back . . .”
Three hundred years ago a slave owner by the name of Willie Lynch supposedly delivered the above speech providing a blue print for how Americans could better control their slaves.
Researchers have since proved that the letter/speech is nothing more than an urban legend.
However, many people feel that whether the letter is authentic or not, the divisive tactics detailed must be addressed.
Jermaine Harris, founder of the organization Black Family United, is one of those people. An economics professor at Long Beach City College who began teaching after working 15 years in corporate America, he created a nonprofit organization in 1991 designed to serve as a think tank and come up with ideas to impact Black culture, and reduce some of the negative qualities he feels African Americans have taken on over the last 300 years.
He is doing this by using his organization to produce educational materials in all forms, including a textbook, workbook, play and movie in order to create a paradigm shift in the African American cultural community. The current effort is the production of the play, “Torn,” which is on stage at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, March 3, 4, 10 and 11. Tickets for the play are $35 and $50, and can be purchased at the website www.thewillielynchletter.com. The theater is located at 514 S. Spring St. in downtown Los Angeles.
“‘Torn’ looks at the Willie Lynch letter. We’re trying to get the word out about who Willie Lynch was, even though it [the letter] may or may not be true. The Willie Lynch syndrome and ideology behind (the letter) lives on in the community. The play addresses that,” explains Harris.
The syndrome Harris refers to is the practice Lynch urged slave owners to use on slaves of pitting old versus young; male versus female; dark versus light; fine versus coarse hair; field versus house slaves and more.
The drama features professional actors and incorporates a 45-minute film that Harris and his cast shot. The film focuses on four siblings–Derek, Tamera, Jarrell and Cody–and the struggles they encounter in life. In the film, they are taken back into time to four different vignettes in four periods of history (1610, 1712, 1865, and a timeless segment). What happens there is juxtaposed against their contemporary life, which includes street violence and drug life, family financial struggles, unwed child bearing and womanizing.
Among the other themes explored in the production are ma’at [truth, balance, order, justice] versus materialism.
“Torn” recently debuted in two local high schools–Long Beach Jordan and Dorsey–as a result of a long-term relationship Harris developed with the schools.
Long Beach Unified bought 55 copies of a textbook he published last August to use in February for Black History Month.
“It talks about what every teen should be aware of, if they are in certain social situations,” said Harris, whose plainspoken textbook might seem shocking to some. That includes the definition of manhood and womanhood.
“For example we talk about ‘hos’ versus housewives. Girls have a choice,” Harris pointed out.
The professor said they can be housewives who will respect another woman’s relationship; be exclusive and be the type of woman you take home to meet mom or they can be the opposite.
The play was born out of brainstorming session Harris had with the board of directors for Black Families United.
” . . . someone suggested we do a play in the high schools. We put that on the potential list of to-dos. Someone else mentioned we reclaim our heritage.”
Obviously Harris’ brain was working on the problem without his knowledge, because one Sunday he woke up at 4 a.m., and four hours later, he had a full script.
“I didn’t know I was going to write a play the night before. I consider it a gift from God to deliver. I’m just acting in his will at this point,” Harris said.
L.A. is only the first stop for “Torn.” Harris said he intends to take the production on a five-city tour in honor of the 300th anniversary of the so-called Willie Lynch letter. Those cities include Atlanta, Chicago, D.C., Baltimore and New York.
And when audiences leave the theater, Harris said, they will take away more than just information and an entertainment experience. They will also walk away with some solutions to problems he has inserted into the play as food for thought and possibly taking action on.