InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Dec 2003

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"Uh Knock 'Em Ef Uh Dead!": 
A Reference to African American Fighting Methods in Gullah Literature

Edited and introduced by Joe Long. Introduction and notes copyright © EJMAS 2003. All rights reserved.


The following anecdote first appeared under the title "A Short Cut to Justice" in Ambrose E. Gonzales' Tales of the Black Border: Gullah Stories of the Carolina Coast (Columbia: The State Company, 1922).

Ambrose Gonzales (1857-1926) was the son of an exiled Cuban rebel who had married the daughter of a wealthy Carolina planter. In 1891, Gonzales and his two brothers founded The State newspaper in Columbia, and in 1903, one of these brothers was shot to death, in broad daylight, in the streets of Columbia, by the state's Lieutenant Governor, James Tillman.

Besides publishing a newspaper, Ambrose was also a student of Carolina low country dialects, particularly the Gullah creole, which he compared and contrasted with the Georgia slave speech recorded by Joel Chandler Harris in his Uncle Remus tales. The subject of this outtake is Paul Harris, defendant in an aggravated assault and battery case. The date is sometime between 1868 and 1876.

Harris was a Democrat during Reconstruction. This was an unorthodox and provocative politics for a "wiry, coal black Negro," as Gonzales describes him, but perhaps unsurprising considering his property-owning status. Harris, according to Gonzales' account, had been accosted and beaten by "several members of the Grant family, 'Free-Issue' mulatto Republicans." Records of the period indicate that the Republican Party resorted to such tactics with some frequency, apparently to enforce party discipline among the newly freed slaves. A Republican club in Charleston was known as the "Live Oaks" for their cudgel of choice, and witnesses before Congress in the wake of the 1876 election reported numerous threats and beatings.

Harris, believing his case hopeless in the "Radical" courts, "bided his time and, meeting one of the Grants alone, retaliated so vigorously that the mulatto was laid up for a week." Although this got Harris his day in court, now he was constrained to defend his retaliation.

His defense team, shrewdly noting that the jury were very dark-complexioned men who shared Harris' background of slavery, took care to emphasize caste solidarity, thereby forestalling possible political animus. Hacklus Manigo, Harris' spokesman, even appealed to class divisions by suggesting that slaves who had belonged to wealthy planters need take no abuse from former free blacks. Why? Because, through the convoluted logic often found during discussions of race, the free blacks had "owned themselves." Thus, they had "belonged to" Africans, which meant that they had less status than did people who had belonged to some wealthy planter.

Manigo knew his jury, and these tactics proved effective.

Manigo also showed familiarity with "knockin', " which was a kind of fighting done by Carolina blacks. He wanted to get the jurors to put themselves in Paul Harris' place, and so he called upon their common cultural notions of a justified and manly fighter, and of effective tactics. Before going further, some explanations are in order. In his Gullah dictionary, Gonzales defined "alltwo" as "both, also each." Thus, the description "Alltwo one time" in relation to shin kicking while striking toward the eyes seems to hint at a combination move. Equally ambiguous is Manigo's declaration that he wouldn't wait for an opponent to strike first. This may describe a common "all's fair" attitude toward combat, or it might be meant to justify Harris for taking action that might have been seen as "out of bounds." Lawyers are pretty slippery that way.

Anyway, here are excerpts from Harris's defense, as recorded by Ambrose Gonzales, followed by my translation, which was written with the aid of Gonzales' dictionary. In these PC times, it is necessary to remind readers that these words were originally written a long time ago, in a time when everyone used racial slurs freely. From an editorial standpoint, censoring such remarks would seriously compromise the authenticity of the narrative, especially since recognizing the prejudices between dark-skinned African Carolinians and lighter-skinned Carolinians of mixed racial descent is crucial to understanding the appeal -- and, in all likelihood, the original incident.

Hacklus Manigo speaks

"De debble! Punkin skin' nigguh fuh beat black nigguh en' black nigguh ent fuh beat'um back, enty? Oonuh ebbuh yeddy 'bout shishuh t'ing sence you bawn? Me fuh 'low yalluh nigguh fuh knock me en' me yent fuh knock'um back! No, man! Uh knock'um ef uh dead!"

"Yaas, man, knock'um, knock'um!" came the cries of approval…

"Uh yent fuh wait 'tell 'e knock me fus'. Uh gwine knock'um befo' 'e hice 'e han'! Uh knock'um een 'e yeye, uh kick'um on 'e shin, alltwo one time. Den uh butt'um een 'e belly. Uh double'um up 'cause 'e too swonguh, 'e too 'laagin'! Cap'n, who dis yalluh nigguh nyuse to blonx to een slabery time?" he asked the foreman.

"To nobody. He was free. He belonged to himself."

"Great Gawd! Cap'n, all dese'yuh mans blonx to quality! … En' da' yalluh t'ing wuh blonx to nigguh tek 'to'ruhty 'puntop 'eself fuh knock nigguh wuh blonx to juntlemun, en bex w'en de nigguh knock'um back! No, suh, 'e mus be fool! Leh we tu'n Bredduh Paul loose!"

"Yaas, man, tu'n'um loose, tu'n'um loose!" came the chorus…


"The devil! Is a pumpkin-skinned mulatto to beat a black man and the black man not to beat him back, is that it? Have you ever heard such a thing since you were born? To allow a mulatto to 'knock' me and me not to 'knock' him! No, sir! I'd knock him if it KILLED me!"

(Jury agrees.)

"I wouldn't wait until he hit me first. I'd knock him before he lifted ("hice" = "hoisted") a hand! I'd knock him in the eye, kick him in the shin a couple of times. Then I'd butt him in the belly. I'd double him up for swaggering and boasting! Captain, who did this mulatto belong to during slavery times?"

(Jury foreman: "To nobody. He was free. He belonged to himself.")

"Great God! Captain, all these men in the jury belonged to aristocrats! ... And this mulatto who 'belonged to himself,' takes authority upon himself to 'knock' a black man who belonged to an aristocrat, and gets angry when he gets 'knocked' back?! No, sir, he must be a fool! Let's turn Brother Paul loose!"


Not only was Harris turned loose, he was even elected County Commissioner after the Democrats returned to power. On the interesting question of whether his involvement in the hotly (and sometimes physically) contested 1876 election resulted in further "knockin'," history is silent.

For Further Reading

Rath, Richard Cullen. "Drums and Power: Ways of Creolizing Music in Coastal South Carolina and Georgia, 1730-1790,"

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InYo Dec 2003