4. H. Rap Brown, 1969.
Numero Uno—“WHO is it that can tell me why my bed seems so is hard and why the bedclothes will not stay upon it? Wherefore has this night–and oh, how long it was!–dragged on, bringing no sleep to my eyes? Why are my weary limbs visited with restlessness and pain? If it were Love that had come to make me suffer, surely I should know it. Or stay, what if he slips in like a thief, what if he comes, without a word of warning, to wound me with his cruel arts? Yes, ’tis he! His slender arrows have pierced my heart, and fell Love holds it like a conquered land. Shall I yield me to him? Or shall I strive against him, and so add fuel to this sudden flame? Well, I will yield; burdens willingly borne do lighter weigh. I know that the flames will leap from the shaken torch and die away in the one you leave alone. The young oxen which rebel against the yoke are more often beaten than those which willingly submit. And if a horse be fiery, harsh is the bit that tames him. When he takes to the fray with a will, he feels the curb less galling. And so it is with Love; for hearts that struggle and rebel against him, he is more implacable and stern than for such as willingly confess his sway.
Ah well, be it so, Cupid; thy prey am I. I am a poor captive kneeling with suppliant hands before my conqueror. What is the use of fighting? Pardon and peace is what I ask. And little, I trow, would it redound to your glory, armed as you are, to strike down a defenceless man. Crown thy brows with myrtle and thy mother’s doves yoke to thy car. Thy step-father will give thee the chariot that befits thee, and upon that chariot, amid the acclamations of the throng, thou shalt stand a conqueror, guiding with skill thy harnessed birds. Captives in thy train, youths and maidens shall follow, and splendid shall be thy triumph. And I, thy latest victim, shall be there with my fresh wound, and with submissive mien I will bear my new-wrought fetters. Prudence shall be led captive with hands bound behind her back, and Modesty, and whatsoever else is an obstacle to Love. All things shall be in awe of thee, and stretching forth their arms towards thee the throng with mighty voice shall thunder ‘Io Triumphe!’ Caresses shall be thy escort, and Illusion and Madness, a troop that ever follows in thy train. With these fighting on thy side, nor men nor gods shall stand against thee; but if their aid be lacking, naked shalt thou be. Proud to behold thy triumph, thy mother will applaud thee from High Olympus and scatter roses on thy upturned face. Thy wings and thy locks shall be adorned with precious stones, and all with gold resplendent shalt thou drive thy golden car. Then too, if I know thee well, thou wilt set countless other hearts on fire, and many a wound shalt deal as thou passest on thy way. Repose, even when thou art fain to rest, cometh not to thine arrows. Thy ardent flame turns water itself to vapour. Such was Bacchus when he triumphed over the land of the Ganges. Thou art drawn along by doves; his car was drawn by tigers. Since, then, I am to have a part in thy godlike triumph, lose not the rights which thy victory gives thee over me. Bethink thee of the victories of thy kinsman Cæsar; he shields the conquered with the very hand that conquers them. …
My prayer is just: let the fair one who has so lately captivated my heart love me ever, or so act that I shall love her ever. Nay, but ’tis too much I ask! Only let her suffer herself to be loved. May Cytherea incline her ear to all my prayers. Vouchsafe thy favours to a lover who swears that he will serve thee through the years, who knows how to love with pure and lasting fidelity. If I have no long line of famous ancestors to recommend me, if the founder of our family is but a simple Knight; if innumerable ploughs be not required to till my fields; if my father and mother are constrained to husband our resources, at least let Apollo and his choir the Nine, and the discoverer of the vine, plead with thee in my behalf and Love who gives me unto thee, and faith that shall fail not, irreproachable morals, guileless sincerity and modesty that knows how to blush. I am none of those who love a hundred women at a time; I am no fickle philanderer. Thou and only thou, believe me, wilt ever be beloved by me. Whatsoever the tale of years the fates may spin for me, I will pass them at thy side, and, dying, be lamented by thee.
Vouchsafe to be the joyful subject of my song, and my songs shall be worthy their theme. ’Twas poesy that gave renown to the nymph Io, affrighted at her horns, and to the fair Leda whom the divine adulterer seduced by taking on the semblance of a swan, and to Europa who, carried off by a fictitious bull, traversed the sea, grasping in her virgin hands the wide horns of her captor. We too shall be sung throughout the world, and ever my name shall be united with thine own. …
THY lover is a soldier, and Cupid hath his camp. Aye, believe me, Atticus, every lover is a soldier. The age which suiteth war is also favourable to Venus. A fig for an elderly soldier! A fig for an elderly lover! The age which generals demand in a brave soldier is the age which a fair young woman demands in the possessor of her charms. Soldier and lover have, each, their vigil to keep; both couch upon the hard ground; both have their watch to keep, the one at the door of his mistress, the other at the door of his general. What a weary way the soldier hath to march! And the lover, when his mistress is exiled, will follow her, with a stout heart, to the uttermost limits of the world. He will fare over the loftiest mountains and over rivers swollen with rains; he will cleave his way through the snowdrifts. Is he compelled to cross the seas? He will not plead that the tempests are let loose; nor will he wait till the weather be propitious for setting sail. Who but a soldier or a lover will brave the chill nights and the torrents of mingled snow and rain? The one is sent forward as a scout towards the enemy; the other keepeth watch upon his rival as upon a foe. The one lays siege to warlike cities, the other to the dwelling of his inexorable mistress. One beats down gates, the other doors.
Oftentimes it hath brought victory to catch the foe asleep, and to slaughter, sword in hand, an unarmed host. Thus did the fierce battalions of Thracian Rhesus fall and you, ye captured steeds, forsook your lord. So, too, a lover oft is able to profit by the husband’s slumbers and to turn his arms against the sleeping foe. To elude the vigilance of watchmen and sentinels is ever the perilous task alike of the soldier and the lover.
Mars is uncertain and in Venus there is nothing sure. The conquered rise up again, and those you would deem could never be o’erthrown, fall in their turn. No longer then let love be held a little thing. Love demandeth a resourceful mind. Achilles burns for Briseis torn from his embraces. Trojans, while his grief allows, smite ye the Grecian host. Fresh from Andromache’s embraces, Hector went forth to battle. ’Twas his spouse who placed his helmet on his head. When he beheld the daughter of Priam, her tresses floating in the wind, the son of Atreus, the first of all the Grecian chiefs, stood, they say, lost in admiration. Mars himself was caught in the chains which Vulcan had forged. No tale made a greater stir in heaven than this. I myself was slothful and not born for work. My bed and sleep had softened my spirit. But love for a comely young woman set a term to my indolence. She enjoined me to make my first campaign in her service. Since then, thou seest. me ever active and always busy with some nocturnal adventure. Thou wouldst not be a sluggard? Well then, love a woman.” Ovid, The Love Books of Ovid; translated by William H. May, 1930–Elegy II, III, & IX
Numero Dos—“CHAPTER I
In Which the Reader Is Introduced to a Man of Humanity
Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P——, in Kentucky. There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.
For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two gentlemen. One of the parties, however, when critically examined, did not seem, strictly speaking, to come under the species. He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped gayly with yellow spots, and arranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping with the general air of the man. His hands, large and coarse, were plentifully bedecked with rings; and he wore a heavy gold watch-chain, with a bundle of seals of portentous size, and a great variety of colors, attached to it,—which, in the ardor of conversation, he was in the habit of flourishing and jingling with evident satisfaction. His conversation was in free and easy defiance of Murray’s Grammar, and was garnished at convenient intervals with various profane expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our account shall induce us to transcribe. …
His companion, Mr. Shelby, had the appearance of a gentleman; and the arrangements of the house, and the general air of the housekeeping, indicated easy, and even opulent circumstances. As we before stated, the two were in the midst of an earnest conversation.
‘That is the way I should arrange the matter,’ said Mr. Shelby.
‘I can’t make trade that way—I positively can’t, Mr. Shelby,’ said the other, holding up a glass of wine between his eye and the light.
‘Why, the fact is, Haley, Tom is an uncommon fellow; he is certainly worth that sum anywhere,—steady, honest, capable, manages my whole farm like a clock.’
‘You mean honest, as niggers go,’ said Haley, helping himself to a glass of brandy.
‘No; I mean, really, Tom is a good, steady, sensible, pious fellow. He got religion at a camp-meeting, four years ago; and I believe he really did get it. I’ve trusted him, since then, with everything I have,—money, house, horses,—and let him come and go round the country; and I always found him true and square in everything.’
‘Some folks don’t believe there is pious niggers Shelby,’ said Haley, with a candid flourish of his hand, ‘but I do. I had a fellow, now, in this yer last lot I took to Orleans—‘t was as good as a meetin, now, really, to hear that critter pray; and he was quite gentle and quiet like. He fetched me a good sum, too, for I bought him cheap of a man that was ‘bliged to sell out; so I realized six hundred on him. Yes, I consider religion a valeyable thing in a nigger, when it’s the genuine article, and no mistake.’
‘Well, Tom’s got the real article, if ever a fellow had,’ rejoined the other. ‘Why, last fall, I let him go to Cincinnati alone, to do business for me, and bring home five hundred dollars. ‘Tom,’ says I to him, ‘I trust you, because I think you’re a Christian—I know you wouldn’t cheat.’ Tom comes back, sure enough; I knew he would. Some low fellows, they say, said to him—Tom, why don’t you make tracks for Canada?’ ‘Ah, master trusted me, and I couldn’t,’—they told me about it. I am sorry to part with Tom, I must say. You ought to let him cover the whole balance of the debt; and you would, Haley, if you had any conscience.’
“Well, I’ve got just as much conscience as any man in business can afford to keep,—just a little, you know, to swear by, as ‘t were,” said the trader, jocularly; “and, then, I’m ready to do anything in reason to ‘blige friends; but this yer, you see, is a leetle too hard on a fellow—a leetle too hard.” The trader sighed contemplatively, and poured out some more brandy.
“Well, then, Haley, how will you trade?” said Mr. Shelby, after an uneasy interval of silence.
“Well, haven’t you a boy or gal that you could throw in with Tom?”
“Hum!—none that I could well spare; to tell the truth, it’s only hard necessity makes me willing to sell at all. I don’t like parting with any of my hands, that’s a fact.”
Here the door opened, and a small quadroon boy, between four and five years of age, entered the room. There was something in his appearance remarkably beautiful and engaging. His black hair, fine as floss silk, hung in glossy curls about his round, dimpled face, while a pair of large dark eyes, full of fire and softness, looked out from beneath the rich, long lashes, as he peered curiously into the apartment. A gay robe of scarlet and yellow plaid, carefully made and neatly fitted, set off to advantage the dark and rich style of his beauty; and a certain comic air of assurance, blended with bashfulness, showed that he had been not unused to being petted and noticed by his master.
“Hulloa, Jim Crow!” said Mr. Shelby, whistling, and snapping a bunch of raisins towards him, “pick that up, now!”
The child scampered, with all his little strength, after the prize, while his master laughed.
“Come here, Jim Crow,” said he. The child came up, and the master patted the curly head, and chucked him under the chin.
“Now, Jim, show this gentleman how you can dance and sing.” The boy commenced one of those wild, grotesque songs common among the negroes, in a rich, clear voice, accompanying his singing with many comic evolutions of the hands, feet, and whole body, all in perfect time to the music.
“Bravo!” said Haley, throwing him a quarter of an orange.
“Now, Jim, walk like old Uncle Cudjoe, when he has the rheumatism,” said his master.
Instantly the flexible limbs of the child assumed the appearance of deformity and distortion, as, with his back humped up, and his master’s stick in his hand, he hobbled about the room, his childish face drawn into a doleful pucker, and spitting from right to left, in imitation of an old man.
Both gentlemen laughed uproariously.
“Now, Jim,” said his master, “show us how old Elder Robbins leads the psalm.” The boy drew his chubby face down to a formidable length, and commenced toning a psalm tune through his nose, with imperturbable gravity.
“Hurrah! bravo! what a young ‘un!” said Haley; “that chap’s a case, I’ll promise. Tell you what,” said he, suddenly clapping his hand on Mr. Shelby’s shoulder, “fling in that chap, and I’ll settle the business—I will. Come, now, if that ain’t doing the thing up about the rightest!”
At this moment, the door was pushed gently open, and a young quadroon woman, apparently about twenty-five, entered the room.
There needed only a glance from the child to her, to identify her as its mother. There was the same rich, full, dark eye, with its long lashes; the same ripples of silky black hair. The brown of her complexion gave way on the cheek to a perceptible flush, which deepened as she saw the gaze of the strange man fixed upon her in bold and undisguised admiration. Her dress was of the neatest possible fit, and set off to advantage her finely moulded shape;—a delicately formed hand and a trim foot and ankle were items of appearance that did not escape the quick eye of the trader, well used to run up at a glance the points of a fine female article.
“Well, Eliza?” said her master, as she stopped and looked hesitatingly at him.
“I was looking for Harry, please, sir;” and the boy bounded toward her, showing his spoils, which he had gathered in the skirt of his robe.
“Well, take him away then,” said Mr. Shelby; and hastily she withdrew, carrying the child on her arm.
“By Jupiter,” said the trader, turning to him in admiration, “there’s an article, now! You might make your fortune on that ar gal in Orleans, any day. I’ve seen over a thousand, in my day, paid down for gals not a bit handsomer.”
“I don’t want to make my fortune on her,” said Mr. Shelby, dryly; and, seeking to turn the conversation, he uncorked a bottle of fresh wine, and asked his companion’s opinion of it.
“Capital, sir,—first chop!” said the trader; then turning, and slapping his hand familiarly on Shelby’s shoulder, he added—
“Come, how will you trade about the gal?—what shall I say for her—what’ll you take?”
“Mr. Haley, she is not to be sold,” said Shelby. “My wife would not part with her for her weight in gold.”
“Ay, ay! women always say such things, cause they ha’nt no sort of calculation. Just show ‘em how many watches, feathers, and trinkets, one’s weight in gold would buy, and that alters the case, I reckon.”
“I tell you, Haley, this must not be spoken of; I say no, and I mean no,” said Shelby, decidedly.
“Well, you’ll let me have the boy, though,” said the trader; “you must own I’ve come down pretty handsomely for him.”
“What on earth can you want with the child?” said Shelby.
“Why, I’ve got a friend that’s going into this yer branch of the business—wants to buy up handsome boys to raise for the market. Fancy articles entirely—sell for waiters, and so on, to rich ‘uns, that can pay for handsome ‘uns. It sets off one of yer great places—a real handsome boy to open door, wait, and tend. They fetch a good sum; and this little devil is such a comical, musical concern, he’s just the article!’
“I would rather not sell him,” said Mr. Shelby, thoughtfully; “the fact is, sir, I’m a humane man, and I hate to take the boy from his mother, sir.”
“O, you do?—La! yes—something of that ar natur. I understand, perfectly. It is mighty onpleasant getting on with women, sometimes, I al’ays hates these yer screechin,’ screamin’ times. They are mighty onpleasant; but, as I manages business, I generally avoids ‘em, sir. Now, what if you get the girl off for a day, or a week, or so; then the thing’s done quietly,—all over before she comes home. Your wife might get her some ear-rings, or a new gown, or some such truck, to make up with her.”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Lor bless ye, yes! These critters ain’t like white folks, you know; they gets over things, only manage right. Now, they say,” said Haley, assuming a candid and confidential air, “that this kind o’ trade is hardening to the feelings; but I never found it so. Fact is, I never could do things up the way some fellers manage the business. I’ve seen ‘em as would pull a woman’s child out of her arms, and set him up to sell, and she screechin’ like mad all the time;—very bad policy—damages the article—makes ‘em quite unfit for service sometimes. I knew a real handsome gal once, in Orleans, as was entirely ruined by this sort o’ handling. The fellow that was trading for her didn’t want her baby; and she was one of your real high sort, when her blood was up. I tell you, she squeezed up her child in her arms, and talked, and went on real awful. It kinder makes my blood run cold to think of ‘t; and when they carried off the child, and locked her up, she jest went ravin’ mad, and died in a week. Clear waste, sir, of a thousand dollars, just for want of management,—there’s where ‘t is. It’s always best to do the humane thing, sir; that’s been my experience.” And the trader leaned back in his chair, and folded his arm, with an air of virtuous decision, apparently considering himself a second Wilberforce.
The subject appeared to interest the gentleman deeply; for while Mr. Shelby was thoughtfully peeling an orange, Haley broke out afresh, with becoming diffidence, but as if actually driven by the force of truth to say a few words more.
“It don’t look well, now, for a feller to be praisin’ himself; but I say it jest because it’s the truth. I believe I’m reckoned to bring in about the finest droves of niggers that is brought in,—at least, I’ve been told so; if I have once, I reckon I have a hundred times,—all in good case,—fat and likely, and I lose as few as any man in the business. And I lays it all to my management, sir; and humanity, sir, I may say, is the great pillar of mymanagement.”
Mr. Shelby did not know what to say, and so he said, “Indeed!”
“Now, I’ve been laughed at for my notions, sir, and I’ve been talked to. They an’t pop’lar, and they an’t common; but I stuck to ‘em, sir; I’ve stuck to ‘em, and realized well on ‘em; yes, sir, they have paid their passage, I may say,” and the trader laughed at his joke.
There was something so piquant and original in these elucidations of humanity, that Mr. Shelby could not help laughing in company. Perhaps you laugh too, dear reader; but you know humanity comes out in a variety of strange forms now-a-days, and there is no end to the odd things that humane people will say and do.
Mr. Shelby’s laugh encouraged the trader to proceed.
“It’s strange, now, but I never could beat this into people’s heads. Now, there was Tom Loker, my old partner, down in Natchez; he was a clever fellow, Tom was, only the very devil with niggers,—on principle ‘t was, you see, for a better hearted feller never broke bread; ‘t was his system, sir. I used to talk to Tom. ‘Why, Tom,’ I used to say, ‘when your gals takes on and cry, what’s the use o’ crackin on’ em over the head, and knockin’ on ‘em round? It’s ridiculous,’ says I, ‘and don’t do no sort o’ good. Why, I don’t see no harm in their cryin’,’ says I; ‘it’s natur,’ says I, ‘and if natur can’t blow off one way, it will another. Besides, Tom,’ says I, ‘it jest spiles your gals; they get sickly, and down in the mouth; and sometimes they gets ugly,—particular yallow gals do,—and it’s the devil and all gettin’ on ‘em broke in. Now,’ says I, ‘why can’t you kinder coax ‘em up, and speak ‘em fair? Depend on it, Tom, a little humanity, thrown in along, goes a heap further than all your jawin’ and crackin’; and it pays better,’ says I, ‘depend on ‘t.’ But Tom couldn’t get the hang on ‘t; and he spiled so many for me, that I had to break off with him, though he was a good-hearted fellow, and as fair a business hand as is goin’.”
“And do you find your ways of managing do the business better than Tom’s?” said Mr. Shelby.
“Why, yes, sir, I may say so. You see, when I any ways can, I takes a leetle care about the onpleasant parts, like selling young uns and that,—get the gals out of the way—out of sight, out of mind, you know,—and when it’s clean done, and can’t be helped, they naturally gets used to it. ‘Tan’t, you know, as if it was white folks, that’s brought up in the way of ‘spectin’ to keep their children and wives, and all that. Niggers, you know, that’s fetched up properly, ha’n’t no kind of ‘spectations of no kind; so all these things comes easier.”
“I’m afraid mine are not properly brought up, then,” said Mr. Shelby.
“S’pose not; you Kentucky folks spile your niggers. You mean well by ‘em, but ‘tan’t no real kindness, arter all. Now, a nigger, you see, what’s got to be hacked and tumbled round the world, and sold to Tom, and Dick, and the Lord knows who, ‘tan’t no kindness to be givin’ on him notions and expectations, and bringin’ on him up too well, for the rough and tumble comes all the harder on him arter. Now, I venture to say, your niggers would be quite chop-fallen in a place where some of your plantation niggers would be singing and whooping like all possessed. Every man, you know, Mr. Shelby, naturally thinks well of his own ways; and I think I treat niggers just about as well as it’s ever worth while to treat ‘em.”
“It’s a happy thing to be satisfied,” said Mr. Shelby, with a slight shrug, and some perceptible feelings of a disagreeable nature.
“Well,” said Haley, after they had both silently picked their nuts for a season, “what do you say?”
“I’ll think the matter over, and talk with my wife,” said Mr. Shelby. “Meantime, Haley, if you want the matter carried on in the quiet way you speak of, you’d best not let your business in this neighborhood be known. It will get out among my boys, and it will not be a particularly quiet business getting away any of my fellows, if they know it, I’ll promise you.”
“O! certainly, by all means, mum! of course. But I’ll tell you. I’m in a devil of a hurry, and shall want to know, as soon as possible, what I may depend on,” said he, rising and putting on his overcoat.
“Well, call up this evening, between six and seven, and you shall have my answer,” said Mr. Shelby, and the trader bowed himself out of the apartment.
“I’d like to have been able to kick the fellow down the steps,” said he to himself, as he saw the door fairly closed, “with his impudent assurance; but he knows how much he has me at advantage. If anybody had ever said to me that I should sell Tom down south to one of those rascally traders, I should have said, ‘Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?’ And now it must come, for aught I see. And Eliza’s child, too! I know that I shall have some fuss with wife about that; and, for that matter, about Tom, too. So much for being in debt,—heigho! The fellow sees his advantage, and means to push it.”
Perhaps the mildest form of the system of slavery is to be seen in the State of Kentucky. The general prevalence of agricultural pursuits of a quiet and gradual nature, not requiring those periodic seasons of hurry and pressure that are called for in the business of more southern districts, makes the task of the negro a more healthful and reasonable one; while the master, content with a more gradual style of acquisition, has not those temptations to hardheartedness which always overcome frail human nature when the prospect of sudden and rapid gain is weighed in the balance, with no heavier counterpoise than the interests of the helpless and unprotected.
Whoever visits some estates there, and witnesses the good-humored indulgence of some masters and mistresses, and the affectionate loyalty of some slaves, might be tempted to dream the oft-fabled poetic legend of a patriarchal institution, and all that; but over and above the scene there broods a portentous shadow—the shadow of law. So long as the law considers all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master,—so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil,—so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery.
Mr. Shelby was a fair average kind of man, good-natured and kindly, and disposed to easy indulgence of those around him, and there had never been a lack of anything which might contribute to the physical comfort of the negroes on his estate. He had, however, speculated largely and quite loosely; had involved himself deeply, and his notes to a large amount had come into the hands of Haley; and this small piece of information is the key to the preceding conversation.
Now, it had so happened that, in approaching the door, Eliza had caught enough of the conversation to know that a trader was making offers to her master for somebody.
She would gladly have stopped at the door to listen, as she came out; but her mistress just then calling, she was obliged to hasten away.
Still she thought she heard the trader make an offer for her boy;—could she be mistaken? Her heart swelled and throbbed, and she involuntarily strained him so tight that the little fellow looked up into her face in astonishment.
“Eliza, girl, what ails you today?” said her mistress, when Eliza had upset the wash-pitcher, knocked down the workstand, and finally was abstractedly offering her mistress a long nightgown in place of the silk dress she had ordered her to bring from the wardrobe.
Eliza started. “O, missis!” she said, raising her eyes; then, bursting into tears, she sat down in a chair, and began sobbing.
“Why, Eliza child, what ails you?” said her mistress.
“O! missis, missis,” said Eliza, “there’s been a trader talking with master in the parlor! I heard him.”
“Well, silly child, suppose there has.”
“O, missis, do you suppose mas’r would sell my Harry?” And the poor creature threw herself into a chair, and sobbed convulsively.
“Sell him! No, you foolish girl! You know your master never deals with those southern traders, and never means to sell any of his servants, as long as they behave well. Why, you silly child, who do you think would want to buy your Harry? Do you think all the world are set on him as you are, you goosie? Come, cheer up, and hook my dress. There now, put my back hair up in that pretty braid you learnt the other day, and don’t go listening at doors any more.”
“Well, but, missis, you never would give your consent—to—to—”
“Nonsense, child! to be sure, I shouldn’t. What do you talk so for? I would as soon have one of my own children sold. But really, Eliza, you are getting altogether too proud of that little fellow. A man can’t put his nose into the door, but you think he must be coming to buy him.”
Reassured by her mistress’ confident tone, Eliza proceeded nimbly and adroitly with her toilet, laughing at her own fears, as she proceeded.
Mrs. Shelby was a woman of high class, both intellectually and morally. To that natural magnanimity and generosity of mind which one often marks as characteristic of the women of Kentucky, she added high moral and religious sensibility and principle, carried out with great energy and ability into practical results. Her husband, who made no professions to any particular religious character, nevertheless reverenced and respected the consistency of hers, and stood, perhaps, a little in awe of her opinion. Certain it was that he gave her unlimited scope in all her benevolent efforts for the comfort, instruction, and improvement of her servants, though he never took any decided part in them himself. In fact, if not exactly a believer in the doctrine of the efficiency of the extra good works of saints, he really seemed somehow or other to fancy that his wife had piety and benevolence enough for two—to indulge a shadowy expectation of getting into heaven through her superabundance of qualities to which he made no particular pretension.
The heaviest load on his mind, after his conversation with the trader, lay in the foreseen necessity of breaking to his wife the arrangement contemplated,—meeting the importunities and opposition which he knew he should have reason to encounter.
Mrs. Shelby, being entirely ignorant of her husband’s embarrassments, and knowing only the general kindliness of his temper, had been quite sincere in the entire incredulity with which she had met Eliza’s suspicions. In fact, she dismissed the matter from her mind, without a second thought; and being occupied in preparations for an evening visit, it passed out of her thoughts entirely.
Eliza had been brought up by her mistress, from girlhood, as a petted and indulged favorite.
The traveller in the south must often have remarked that peculiar air of refinement, that softness of voice and manner, which seems in many cases to be a particular gift to the quadroon and mulatto women. These natural graces in the quadroon are often united with beauty of the most dazzling kind, and in almost every case with a personal appearance prepossessing and agreeable. Eliza, such as we have described her, is not a fancy sketch, but taken from remembrance, as we saw her, years ago, in Kentucky. Safe under the protecting care of her mistress, Eliza had reached maturity without those temptations which make beauty so fatal an inheritance to a slave. She had been married to a bright and talented young mulatto man, who was a slave on a neighboring estate, and bore the name of George Harris.
This young man had been hired out by his master to work in a bagging factory, where his adroitness and ingenuity caused him to be considered the first hand in the place. He had invented a machine for the cleaning of the hemp, which, considering the education and circumstances of the inventor, displayed quite as much mechanical genius as Whitney’s cotton-gin.*
* A machine of this description was really the invention of a young colored man in Kentucky. [Mrs. Stowe’s note.]
He was possessed of a handsome person and pleasing manners, and was a general favorite in the factory. Nevertheless, as this young man was in the eye of the law not a man, but a thing, all these superior qualifications were subject to the control of a vulgar, narrow-minded, tyrannical master. This same gentleman, having heard of the fame of George’s invention, took a ride over to the factory, to see what this intelligent chattel had been about. He was received with great enthusiasm by the employer, who congratulated him on possessing so valuable a slave.
He was waited upon over the factory, shown the machinery by George, who, in high spirits, talked so fluently, held himself so erect, looked so handsome and manly, that his master began to feel an uneasy consciousness of inferiority. What business had his slave to be marching round the country, inventing machines, and holding up his head among gentlemen? He’d soon put a stop to it. He’d take him back, and put him to hoeing and digging, and “see if he’d step about so smart.” Accordingly, the manufacturer and all hands concerned were astounded when he suddenly demanded George’s wages, and announced his intention of taking him home.
“But, Mr. Harris,” remonstrated the manufacturer, “isn’t this rather sudden?”
“What if it is?—isn’t the man mine?”
“We would be willing, sir, to increase the rate of compensation.”
“No object at all, sir. I don’t need to hire any of my hands out, unless I’ve a mind to.”
“But, sir, he seems peculiarly adapted to this business.”
“Dare say he may be; never was much adapted to anything that I set him about, I’ll be bound.”
“But only think of his inventing this machine,” interposed one of the workmen, rather unluckily.
“O yes! a machine for saving work, is it? He’d invent that, I’ll be bound; let a nigger alone for that, any time. They are all labor-saving machines themselves, every one of ‘em. No, he shall tramp!”
George had stood like one transfixed, at hearing his doom thus suddenly pronounced by a power that he knew was irresistible. He folded his arms, tightly pressed in his lips, but a whole volcano of bitter feelings burned in his bosom, and sent streams of fire through his veins. He breathed short, and his large dark eyes flashed like live coals; and he might have broken out into some dangerous ebullition, had not the kindly manufacturer touched him on the arm, and said, in a low tone,
“Give way, George; go with him for the present. We’ll try to help you, yet.”
The tyrant observed the whisper, and conjectured its import, though he could not hear what was said; and he inwardly strengthened himself in his determination to keep the power he possessed over his victim.
George was taken home, and put to the meanest drudgery of the farm. He had been able to repress every disrespectful word; but the flashing eye, the gloomy and troubled brow, were part of a natural language that could not be repressed,—indubitable signs, which showed too plainly that the man could not become a thing.
It was during the happy period of his employment in the factory that George had seen and married his wife. During that period,—being much trusted and favored by his employer,—he had free liberty to come and go at discretion. The marriage was highly approved of by Mrs. Shelby, who, with a little womanly complacency in match-making, felt pleased to unite her handsome favorite with one of her own class who seemed in every way suited to her; and so they were married in her mistress’ great parlor, and her mistress herself adorned the bride’s beautiful hair with orange-blossoms, and threw over it the bridal veil, which certainly could scarce have rested on a fairer head; and there was no lack of white gloves, and cake and wine,—of admiring guests to praise the bride’s beauty, and her mistress’ indulgence and liberality. For a year or two Eliza saw her husband frequently, and there was nothing to interrupt their happiness, except the loss of two infant children, to whom she was passionately attached, and whom she mourned with a grief so intense as to call for gentle remonstrance from her mistress, who sought, with maternal anxiety, to direct her naturally passionate feelings within the bounds of reason and religion.
After the birth of little Harry, however, she had gradually become tranquillized and settled; and every bleeding tie and throbbing nerve, once more entwined with that little life, seemed to become sound and healthful, and Eliza was a happy woman up to the time that her husband was rudely torn from his kind employer, and brought under the iron sway of his legal owner.
The manufacturer, true to his word, visited Mr. Harris a week or two after George had been taken away, when, as he hoped, the heat of the occasion had passed away, and tried every possible inducement to lead him to restore him to his former employment.
“You needn’t trouble yourself to talk any longer,” said he, doggedly; “I know my own business, sir.”
“I did not presume to interfere with it, sir. I only thought that you might think it for your interest to let your man to us on the terms proposed.”
“O, I understand the matter well enough. I saw your winking and whispering, the day I took him out of the factory; but you don’t come it over me that way. It’s a free country, sir; the man’s mine, and I do what I please with him,—that’s it!”
And so fell George’s last hope;—nothing before him but a life of toil and drudgery, rendered more bitter by every little smarting vexation and indignity which tyrannical ingenuity could devise.
A very humane jurist once said, The worst use you can put a man to is to hang him. No; there is another use that a man can be put to that is WORSE!
The Husband and Father
Mrs. Shelby had gone on her visit, and Eliza stood in the verandah, rather dejectedly looking after the retreating carriage, when a hand was laid on her shoulder. She turned, and a bright smile lighted up her fine eyes.
“George, is it you? How you frightened me! Well; I am so glad you ‘s come! Missis is gone to spend the afternoon; so come into my little room, and we’ll have the time all to ourselves.”
Saying this, she drew him into a neat little apartment opening on the verandah, where she generally sat at her sewing, within call of her mistress.
“How glad I am!—why don’t you smile?—and look at Harry—how he grows.” The boy stood shyly regarding his father through his curls, holding close to the skirts of his mother’s dress. “Isn’t he beautiful?” said Eliza, lifting his long curls and kissing him.
“I wish he’d never been born!” said George, bitterly. “I wish I’d never been born myself!”
Surprised and frightened, Eliza sat down, leaned her head on her husband’s shoulder, and burst into tears.
“There now, Eliza, it’s too bad for me to make you feel so, poor girl!” said he, fondly; “it’s too bad: O, how I wish you never had seen me—you might have been happy!”
“George! George! how can you talk so? What dreadful thing has happened, or is going to happen? I’m sure we’ve been very happy, till lately.”
“So we have, dear,” said George. Then drawing his child on his knee, he gazed intently on his glorious dark eyes, and passed his hands through his long curls.
“Just like you, Eliza; and you are the handsomest woman I ever saw, and the best one I ever wish to see; but, oh, I wish I’d never seen you, nor you me!”
“O, George, how can you!”
“Yes, Eliza, it’s all misery, misery, misery! My life is bitter as wormwood; the very life is burning out of me. I’m a poor, miserable, forlorn drudge; I shall only drag you down with me, that’s all. What’s the use of our trying to do anything, trying to know anything, trying to be anything? What’s the use of living? I wish I was dead!”
“O, now, dear George, that is really wicked! I know how you feel about losing your place in the factory, and you have a hard master; but pray be patient, and perhaps something—”
“Patient!” said he, interrupting her; “haven’t I been patient? Did I say a word when he came and took me away, for no earthly reason, from the place where everybody was kind to me? I’d paid him truly every cent of my earnings,—and they all say I worked well.”
“Well, it is dreadful,” said Eliza; “but, after all, he is your master, you know.”
“My master! and who made him my master? That’s what I think of—what right has he to me? I’m a man as much as he is. I’m a better man than he is. I know more about business than he does; I am a better manager than he is; I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand,—and I’ve learned it all myself, and no thanks to him,—I’ve learned it in spite of him; and now what right has he to make a dray-horse of me?—to take me from things I can do, and do better than he can, and put me to work that any horse can do? He tries to do it; he says he’ll bring me down and humble me, and he puts me to just the hardest, meanest and dirtiest work, on purpose!”
“O, George! George! you frighten me! Why, I never heard you talk so; I’m afraid you’ll do something dreadful. I don’t wonder at your feelings, at all; but oh, do be careful—do, do—for my sake—for Harry’s!”
“I have been careful, and I have been patient, but it’s growing worse and worse; flesh and blood can’t bear it any longer;—every chance he can get to insult and torment me, he takes. I thought I could do my work well, and keep on quiet, and have some time to read and learn out of work hours; but the more he sees I can do, the more he loads on. He says that though I don’t say anything, he sees I’ve got the devil in me, and he means to bring it out; and one of these days it will come out in a way that he won’t like, or I’m mistaken!”
“O dear! what shall we do?” said Eliza, mournfully.
“It was only yesterday,” said George, “as I was busy loading stones into a cart, that young Mas’r Tom stood there, slashing his whip so near the horse that the creature was frightened. I asked him to stop, as pleasant as I could,—he just kept right on. I begged him again, and then he turned on me, and began striking me. I held his hand, and then he screamed and kicked and ran to his father, and told him that I was fighting him. He came in a rage, and said he’d teach me who was my master; and he tied me to a tree, and cut switches for young master, and told him that he might whip me till he was tired;—and he did do it! If I don’t make him remember it, some time!” and the brow of the young man grew dark, and his eyes burned with an expression that made his young wife tremble. “Who made this man my master? That’s what I want to know!” he said.
“Well,” said Eliza, mournfully, “I always thought that I must obey my master and mistress, or I couldn’t be a Christian.”
“There is some sense in it, in your case; they have brought you up like a child, fed you, clothed you, indulged you, and taught you, so that you have a good education; that is some reason why they should claim you. But I have been kicked and cuffed and sworn at, and at the best only let alone; and what do I owe? I’ve paid for all my keeping a hundred times over. I won’t bear it. No, I won’t!” he said, clenching his hand with a fierce frown.
Eliza trembled, and was silent. She had never seen her husband in this mood before; and her gentle system of ethics seemed to bend like a reed in the surges of such passions.
“You know poor little Carlo, that you gave me,” added George; “the creature has been about all the comfort that I’ve had. He has slept with me nights, and followed me around days, and kind o’ looked at me as if he understood how I felt. Well, the other day I was just feeding him with a few old scraps I picked up by the kitchen door, and Mas’r came along, and said I was feeding him up at his expense, and that he couldn’t afford to have every nigger keeping his dog, and ordered me to tie a stone to his neck and throw him in the pond.”
“O, George, you didn’t do it!”
“Do it? not I!—but he did. Mas’r and Tom pelted the poor drowning creature with stones. Poor thing! he looked at me so mournful, as if he wondered why I didn’t save him. I had to take a flogging because I wouldn’t do it myself. I don’t care. Mas’r will find out that I’m one that whipping won’t tame. My day will come yet, if he don’t look out.”
“What are you going to do? O, George, don’t do anything wicked; if you only trust in God, and try to do right, he’ll deliver you.”
“I an’t a Christian like you, Eliza; my heart’s full of bitterness; I can’t trust in God. Why does he let things be so?”
“O, George, we must have faith. Mistress says that when all things go wrong to us, we must believe that God is doing the very best.”
“That’s easy to say for people that are sitting on their sofas and riding in their carriages; but let ‘em be where I am, I guess it would come some harder. I wish I could be good; but my heart burns, and can’t be reconciled, anyhow. You couldn’t in my place,—you can’t now, if I tell you all I’ve got to say. You don’t know the whole yet.”
“What can be coming now?”
“Well, lately Mas’r has been saying that he was a fool to let me marry off the place; that he hates Mr. Shelby and all his tribe, because they are proud, and hold their heads up above him, and that I’ve got proud notions from you; and he says he won’t let me come here any more, and that I shall take a wife and settle down on his place. At first he only scolded and grumbled these things; but yesterday he told me that I should take Mina for a wife, and settle down in a cabin with her, or he would sell me down river.”
“Why—but you were married to me, by the minister, as much as if you’d been a white man!” said Eliza, simply.
“Don’t you know a slave can’t be married? There is no law in this country for that; I can’t hold you for my wife, if he chooses to part us. That’s why I wish I’d never seen you,—why I wish I’d never been born; it would have been better for us both,—it would have been better for this poor child if he had never been born. All this may happen to him yet!”
“O, but master is so kind!”
“Yes, but who knows?—he may die—and then he may be sold to nobody knows who. What pleasure is it that he is handsome, and smart, and bright? I tell you, Eliza, that a sword will pierce through your soul for every good and pleasant thing your child is or has; it will make him worth too much for you to keep.”
The words smote heavily on Eliza’s heart; the vision of the trader came before her eyes, and, as if some one had struck her a deadly blow, she turned pale and gasped for breath. She looked nervously out on the verandah, where the boy, tired of the grave conversation, had retired, and where he was riding triumphantly up and down on Mr. Shelby’s walking-stick. She would have spoken to tell her husband her fears, but checked herself.
“No, no,—he has enough to bear, poor fellow!” she thought. “No, I won’t tell him; besides, it an’t true; Missis never deceives us.”
“So, Eliza, my girl,” said the husband, mournfully, “bear up, now; and good-by, for I’m going.”
“Going, George! Going where?”
“To Canada,” said he, straightening himself up; “and when I’m there, I’ll buy you; that’s all the hope that’s left us. You have a kind master, that won’t refuse to sell you. I’ll buy you and the boy;—God helping me, I will!”
“O, dreadful! if you should be taken?”
“I won’t be taken, Eliza; I’ll die first! I’ll be free, or I’ll die!”
“You won’t kill yourself!”
“No need of that. They will kill me, fast enough; they never will get me down the river alive!”
“O, George, for my sake, do be careful! Don’t do anything wicked; don’t lay hands on yourself, or anybody else! You are tempted too much—too much; but don’t—go you must—but go carefully, prudently; pray God to help you.”
“Well, then, Eliza, hear my plan. Mas’r took it into his head to send me right by here, with a note to Mr. Symmes, that lives a mile past. I believe he expected I should come here to tell you what I have. It would please him, if he thought it would aggravate ‘Shelby’s folks,’ as he calls ‘em. I’m going home quite resigned, you understand, as if all was over. I’ve got some preparations made,—and there are those that will help me; and, in the course of a week or so, I shall be among the missing, some day. Pray for me, Eliza; perhaps the good Lord will hear you.”
“O, pray yourself, George, and go trusting in him; then you won’t do anything wicked.”
“Well, now, good-by,” said George, holding Eliza’s hands, and gazing into her eyes, without moving. They stood silent; then there were last words, and sobs, and bitter weeping,—such parting as those may make whose hope to meet again is as the spider’s web,—and the husband and wife were parted.
An Evening in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
The cabin of Uncle Tom was a small log building, close adjoining to “the house,” as the negro par excellence designates his master’s dwelling. In front it had a neat garden-patch, where, every summer, strawberries, raspberries, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, flourished under careful tending. The whole front of it was covered by a large scarlet bignonia and a native multiflora rose, which, entwisting and interlacing, left scarce a vestige of the rough logs to be seen. Here, also, in summer, various brilliant annuals, such as marigolds, petunias, four-o’clocks, found an indulgent corner in which to unfold their splendors, and were the delight and pride of Aunt Chloe’s heart.
Let us enter the dwelling. The evening meal at the house is over, and Aunt Chloe, who presided over its preparation as head cook, has left to inferior officers in the kitchen the business of clearing away and washing dishes, and come out into her own snug territories, to “get her ole man’s supper”; therefore, doubt not that it is her you see by the fire, presiding with anxious interest over certain frizzling items in a stew-pan, and anon with grave consideration lifting the cover of a bake-kettle, from whence steam forth indubitable intimations of “something good.” A round, black, shining face is hers, so glossy as to suggest the idea that she might have been washed over with white of eggs, like one of her own tea rusks. Her whole plump countenance beams with satisfaction and contentment from under her well-starched checked turban, bearing on it, however, if we must confess it, a little of that tinge of self-consciousness which becomes the first cook of the neighborhood, as Aunt Chloe was universally held and acknowledged to be.
A cook she certainly was, in the very bone and centre of her soul. Not a chicken or turkey or duck in the barn-yard but looked grave when they saw her approaching, and seemed evidently to be reflecting on their latter end; and certain it was that she was always meditating on trussing, stuffing and roasting, to a degree that was calculated to inspire terror in any reflecting fowl living. Her corn-cake, in all its varieties of hoe-cake, dodgers, muffins, and other species too numerous to mention, was a sublime mystery to all less practised compounders; and she would shake her fat sides with honest pride and merriment, as she would narrate the fruitless efforts that one and another of her compeers had made to attain to her elevation.
The arrival of company at the house, the arranging of dinners and suppers “in style,” awoke all the energies of her soul; and no sight was more welcome to her than a pile of travelling trunks launched on the verandah, for then she foresaw fresh efforts and fresh triumphs.
Just at present, however, Aunt Chloe is looking into the bake-pan; in which congenial operation we shall leave her till we finish our picture of the cottage.
In one corner of it stood a bed, covered neatly with a snowy spread; and by the side of it was a piece of carpeting, of some considerable size. On this piece of carpeting Aunt Chloe took her stand, as being decidedly in the upper walks of life; and it and the bed by which it lay, and the whole corner, in fact, were treated with distinguished consideration, and made, so far as possible, sacred from the marauding inroads and desecrations of little folks. In fact, that corner was the drawing-room of the establishment. In the other corner was a bed of much humbler pretensions, and evidently designed for use. The wall over the fireplace was adorned with some very brilliant scriptural prints, and a portrait of General Washington, drawn and colored in a manner which would certainly have astonished that hero, if ever he happened to meet with its like.
On a rough bench in the corner, a couple of woolly-headed boys, with glistening black eyes and fat shining cheeks, were busy in superintending the first walking operations of the baby, which, as is usually the case, consisted in getting up on its feet, balancing a moment, and then tumbling down,—each successive failure being violently cheered, as something decidedly clever.
A table, somewhat rheumatic in its limbs, was drawn out in front of the fire, and covered with a cloth, displaying cups and saucers of a decidedly brilliant pattern, with other symptoms of an approaching meal. At this table was seated Uncle Tom, Mr. Shelby’s best hand, who, as he is to be the hero of our story, we must daguerreotype for our readers. He was a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man, of a full glossy black, and a face whose truly African features were characterized by an expression of grave and steady good sense, united with much kindliness and benevolence. There was something about his whole air self-respecting and dignified, yet united with a confiding and humble simplicity.
He was very busily intent at this moment on a slate lying before him, on which he was carefully and slowly endeavoring to accomplish a copy of some letters, in which operation he was overlooked by young Mas’r George, a smart, bright boy of thirteen, who appeared fully to realize the dignity of his position as instructor.
“Not that way, Uncle Tom,—not that way,” said he, briskly, as Uncle Tom laboriously brought up the tail of his g the wrong side out; “that makes a q, you see.”
“La sakes, now, does it?” said Uncle Tom, looking with a respectful, admiring air, as his young teacher flourishingly scrawled q’s and g’s innumerable for his edification; and then, taking the pencil in his big, heavy fingers, he patiently recommenced.
“How easy white folks al’us does things!” said Aunt Chloe, pausing while she was greasing a griddle with a scrap of bacon on her fork, and regarding young Master George with pride. “The way he can write, now! and read, too! and then to come out here evenings and read his lessons to us,—it’s mighty interestin’!”
“But, Aunt Chloe, I’m getting mighty hungry,” said George. “Isn’t that cake in the skillet almost done?”
“Mose done, Mas’r George,” said Aunt Chloe, lifting the lid and peeping in,—“browning beautiful—a real lovely brown. Ah! let me alone for dat. Missis let Sally try to make some cake, t’ other day, jes to larn her, she said. ‘O, go way, Missis,’ said I; ‘it really hurts my feelin’s, now, to see good vittles spilt dat ar way! Cake ris all to one side—no shape at all; no more than my shoe; go way!”
And with this final expression of contempt for Sally’s greenness, Aunt Chloe whipped the cover off the bake-kettle, and disclosed to view a neatly-baked pound-cake, of which no city confectioner need to have been ashamed. This being evidently the central point of the entertainment, Aunt Chloe began now to bustle about earnestly in the supper department.
“Here you, Mose and Pete! get out de way, you niggers! Get away, Polly, honey,—mammy’ll give her baby some fin, by and by. Now, Mas’r George, you jest take off dem books, and set down now with my old man, and I’ll take up de sausages, and have de first griddle full of cakes on your plates in less dan no time.”
“They wanted me to come to supper in the house,” said George; “but I knew what was what too well for that, Aunt Chloe.”
“So you did—so you did, honey,” said Aunt Chloe, heaping the smoking batter-cakes on his plate; “you know’d your old aunty’d keep the best for you. O, let you alone for dat! Go way!” And, with that, aunty gave George a nudge with her finger, designed to be immensely facetious, and turned again to her griddle with great briskness.
“Now for the cake,” said Mas’r George, when the activity of the griddle department had somewhat subsided; and, with that, the youngster flourished a large knife over the article in question.
“La bless you, Mas’r George!” said Aunt Chloe, with earnestness, catching his arm, “you wouldn’t be for cuttin’ it wid dat ar great heavy knife! Smash all down—spile all de pretty rise of it. Here, I’ve got a thin old knife, I keeps sharp a purpose. Dar now, see! comes apart light as a feather! Now eat away—you won’t get anything to beat dat ar.”
“Tom Lincon says,” said George, speaking with his mouth full, “that their Jinny is a better cook than you.”
“Dem Lincons an’t much count, no way!” said Aunt Chloe, contemptuously; “I mean, set along side our folks. They ‘s ‘spectable folks enough in a kinder plain way; but, as to gettin’ up anything in style, they don’t begin to have a notion on ‘t. Set Mas’r Lincon, now, alongside Mas’r Shelby! Good Lor! and Missis Lincon,—can she kinder sweep it into a room like my missis,—so kinder splendid, yer know! O, go way! don’t tell me nothin’ of dem Lincons!”—and Aunt Chloe tossed her head as one who hoped she did know something of the world.
“Well, though, I’ve heard you say,” said George, “that Jinny was a pretty fair cook.”
“So I did,” said Aunt Chloe,—“I may say dat. Good, plain, common cookin’, Jinny’ll do;—make a good pone o’ bread,—bile her taters far,—her corn cakes isn’t extra, not extra now, Jinny’s corn cakes isn’t, but then they’s far,—but, Lor, come to de higher branches, and what can she do? Why, she makes pies—sartin she does; but what kinder crust? Can she make your real flecky paste, as melts in your mouth, and lies all up like a puff? Now, I went over thar when Miss Mary was gwine to be married, and Jinny she jest showed me de weddin’ pies. Jinny and I is good friends, ye know. I never said nothin’; but go ‘long, Mas’r George! Why, I shouldn’t sleep a wink for a week, if I had a batch of pies like dem ar. Why, dey wan’t no ‘count ‘t all.”
“I suppose Jinny thought they were ever so nice,” said George.
“Thought so!—didn’t she? Thar she was, showing em, as innocent—ye see, it’s jest here, Jinny don’t know. Lor, the family an’t nothing! She can’t be spected to know! ‘Ta’nt no fault o’ hem. Ah, Mas’r George, you doesn’t know half ‘your privileges in yer family and bringin’ up!” Here Aunt Chloe sighed, and rolled up her eyes with emotion.
“I’m sure, Aunt Chloe, I understand my pie and pudding privileges,” said George. “Ask Tom Lincon if I don’t crow over him, every time I meet him.”
Aunt Chloe sat back in her chair, and indulged in a hearty guffaw of laughter, at this witticism of young Mas’r’s, laughing till the tears rolled down her black, shining cheeks, and varying the exercise with playfully slapping and poking Mas’r Georgey, and telling him to go way, and that he was a case—that he was fit to kill her, and that he sartin would kill her, one of these days; and, between each of these sanguinary predictions, going off into a laugh, each longer and stronger than the other, till George really began to think that he was a very dangerously witty fellow, and that it became him to be careful how he talked “as funny as he could.”
“And so ye telled Tom, did ye? O, Lor! what young uns will be up ter! Ye crowed over Tom? O, Lor! Mas’r George, if ye wouldn’t make a hornbug laugh!”
“Yes,” said George, “I says to him, ‘Tom, you ought to see some of Aunt Chloe’s pies; they’re the right sort,’ says I.”
“Pity, now, Tom couldn’t,” said Aunt Chloe, on whose benevolent heart the idea of Tom’s benighted condition seemed to make a strong impression. “Ye oughter just ask him here to dinner, some o’ these times, Mas’r George,” she added; “it would look quite pretty of ye. Ye know, Mas’r George, ye oughtenter feel ‘bove nobody, on ‘count yer privileges, ‘cause all our privileges is gi’n to us; we ought al’ays to ‘member that,” said Aunt Chloe, looking quite serious.
“Well, I mean to ask Tom here, some day next week,” said George; “and you do your prettiest, Aunt Chloe, and we’ll make him stare. Won’t we make him eat so he won’t get over it for a fortnight?”
“Yes, yes—sartin,” said Aunt Chloe, delighted; “you’ll see. Lor! to think of some of our dinners! Yer mind dat ar great chicken pie I made when we guv de dinner to General Knox? I and Missis, we come pretty near quarrelling about dat ar crust. What does get into ladies sometimes, I don’t know; but, sometimes, when a body has de heaviest kind o’ ‘sponsibility on ‘em, as ye may say, and is all kinder ”seris’ and taken up, dey takes dat ar time to be hangin’ round and kinder interferin’! Now, Missis, she wanted me to do dis way, and she wanted me to do dat way; and, finally, I got kinder sarcy, and, says I, ‘Now, Missis, do jist look at dem beautiful white hands o’ yourn with long fingers, and all a sparkling with rings, like my white lilies when de dew ‘s on ‘em; and look at my great black stumpin hands. Now, don’t ye think dat de Lord must have meant me to make de pie-crust, and you to stay in de parlor? Dar! I was jist so sarcy, Mas’r George.”
“And what did mother say?” said George.
“Say?—why, she kinder larfed in her eyes—dem great handsome eyes o’ hern; and, says she, ‘Well, Aunt Chloe, I think you are about in the right on ‘t,’ says she; and she went off in de parlor. She oughter cracked me over de head for bein’ so sarcy; but dar’s whar ‘t is—I can’t do nothin’ with ladies in de kitchen!”
“Well, you made out well with that dinner,—I remember everybody said so,” said George.
“Didn’t I? And wan’t I behind de dinin’-room door dat bery day? and didn’t I see de General pass his plate three times for some more dat bery pie?—and, says he, ‘You must have an uncommon cook, Mrs. Shelby.’ Lor! I was fit to split myself.
“And de Gineral, he knows what cookin’ is,” said Aunt Chloe, drawing herself up with an air. “Bery nice man, de Gineral! He comes of one of de bery fustest families in Old Virginny! He knows what’s what, now, as well as I do—de Gineral. Ye see, there’s pints in all pies, Mas’r George; but tan’t everybody knows what they is, or as orter be. But the Gineral, he knows; I knew by his ‘marks he made. Yes, he knows what de pints is!”
By this time, Master George had arrived at that pass to which even a boy can come (under uncommon circumstances, when he really could not eat another morsel), and, therefore, he was at leisure to notice the pile of woolly heads and glistening eyes which were regarding their operations hungrily from the opposite corner.
“Here, you Mose, Pete,” he said, breaking off liberal bits, and throwing it at them; “you want some, don’t you? Come, Aunt Chloe, bake them some cakes.”
And George and Tom moved to a comfortable seat in the chimney-corner, while Aunte Chloe, after baking a goodly pile of cakes, took her baby on her lap, and began alternately filling its mouth and her own, and distributing to Mose and Pete, who seemed rather to prefer eating theirs as they rolled about on the floor under the table, tickling each other, and occasionally pulling the baby’s toes.
“O! go long, will ye?” said the mother, giving now and then a kick, in a kind of general way, under the table, when the movement became too obstreperous. “Can’t ye be decent when white folks comes to see ye? Stop dat ar, now, will ye? Better mind yerselves, or I’ll take ye down a button-hole lower, when Mas’r George is gone!”
What meaning was couched under this terrible threat, it is difficult to say; but certain it is that its awful indistinctness seemed to produce very little impression on the young sinners addressed.
“La, now!” said Uncle Tom, “they are so full of tickle all the while, they can’t behave theirselves.”
Here the boys emerged from under the table, and, with hands and faces well plastered with molasses, began a vigorous kissing of the baby.
“Get along wid ye!” said the mother, pushing away their woolly heads. “Ye’ll all stick together, and never get clar, if ye do dat fashion. Go long to de spring and wash yerselves!” she said, seconding her exhortations by a slap, which resounded very formidably, but which seemed only to knock out so much more laugh from the young ones, as they tumbled precipitately over each other out of doors, where they fairly screamed with merriment.
“Did ye ever see such aggravating young uns?” said Aunt Chloe, rather complacently, as, producing an old towel, kept for such emergencies, she poured a little water out of the cracked tea-pot on it, and began rubbing off the molasses from the baby’s face and hands; and, having polished her till she shone, she set her down in Tom’s lap, while she busied herself in clearing away supper. The baby employed the intervals in pulling Tom’s nose, scratching his face, and burying her fat hands in his woolly hair, which last operation seemed to afford her special content.
“Aint she a peart young un?” said Tom, holding her from him to take a full-length view; then, getting up, he set her on his broad shoulder, and began capering and dancing with her, while Mas’r George snapped at her with his pocket-handkerchief, and Mose and Pete, now returned again, roared after her like bears, till Aunt Chloe declared that they “fairly took her head off” with their noise. As, according to her own statement, this surgical operation was a matter of daily occurrence in the cabin, the declaration no whit abated the merriment, till every one had roared and tumbled and danced themselves down to a state of composure.
“Well, now, I hopes you’re done,” said Aunt Chloe, who had been busy in pulling out a rude box of a trundle-bed; “and now, you Mose and you Pete, get into thar; for we’s goin’ to have the meetin’.”
“O mother, we don’t wanter. We wants to sit up to meetin’,—meetin’s is so curis. We likes ‘em.”
“La, Aunt Chloe, shove it under, and let ‘em sit up,” said Mas’r George, decisively, giving a push to the rude machine.
Aunt Chloe, having thus saved appearances, seemed highly delighted to push the thing under, saying, as she did so, “Well, mebbe ‘t will do ‘em some good.”
The house now resolved itself into a committee of the whole, to consider the accommodations and arrangements for the meeting.
“What we’s to do for cheers, now, I declar I don’t know,” said Aunt Chloe. As the meeting had been held at Uncle Tom’s weekly, for an indefinite length of time, without any more “cheers,” there seemed some encouragement to hope that a way would be discovered at present.
“Old Uncle Peter sung both de legs out of dat oldest cheer, last week,” suggested Mose.
“You go long! I’ll boun’ you pulled ‘em out; some o’ your shines,” said Aunt Chloe.
“Well, it’ll stand, if it only keeps jam up agin de wall!” said Mose.
“Den Uncle Peter mus’n’t sit in it, cause he al’ays hitches when he gets a singing. He hitched pretty nigh across de room, t’ other night,” said Pete.
“Good Lor! get him in it, then,” said Mose, “and den he’d begin, ‘Come saints—and sinners, hear me tell,’ and den down he’d go,”—and Mose imitated precisely the nasal tones of the old man, tumbling on the floor, to illustrate the supposed catastrophe.
“Come now, be decent, can’t ye?” said Aunt Chloe; “an’t yer shamed?”
Mas’r George, however, joined the offender in the laugh, and declared decidedly that Mose was a “buster.” So the maternal admonition seemed rather to fail of effect.
“Well, ole man,” said Aunt Chloe, “you’ll have to tote in them ar bar’ls.”
“Mother’s bar’ls is like dat ar widder’s, Mas’r George was reading ‘bout, in de good book,—dey never fails,” said Mose, aside to Peter.
“I’m sure one on ‘em caved in last week,” said Pete, “and let ‘em all down in de middle of de singin’; dat ar was failin’, warnt it?”
During this aside between Mose and Pete, two empty casks had been rolled into the cabin, and being secured from rolling, by stones on each side, boards were laid across them, which arrangement, together with the turning down of certain tubs and pails, and the disposing of the rickety chairs, at last completed the preparation.
“Mas’r George is such a beautiful reader, now, I know he’ll stay to read for us,” said Aunt Chloe; “‘pears like ‘t will be so much more interestin’.”
George very readily consented, for your boy is always ready for anything that makes him of importance.
The room was soon filled with a motley assemblage, from the old gray-headed patriarch of eighty, to the young girl and lad of fifteen. A little harmless gossip ensued on various themes, such as where old Aunt Sally got her new red headkerchief, and how “Missis was a going to give Lizzy that spotted muslin gown, when she’d got her new berage made up;” and how Mas’r Shelby was thinking of buying a new sorrel colt, that was going to prove an addition to the glories of the place. A few of the worshippers belonged to families hard by, who had got permission to attend, and who brought in various choice scraps of information, about the sayings and doings at the house and on the place, which circulated as freely as the same sort of small change does in higher circles.
After a while the singing commenced, to the evident delight of all present. Not even all the disadvantage of nasal intonation could prevent the effect of the naturally fine voices, in airs at once wild and spirited. The words were sometimes the well-known and common hymns sung in the churches about, and sometimes of a wilder, more indefinite character, picked up at camp-meetings.
The chorus of one of them, which ran as follows, was sung with great energy and unction:
“Die on the field of battle, Die on the field of battle, Glory in my soul.”
Another special favorite had oft repeated the words—
“O, I’m going to glory,—won’t you come along with me? Don’t you see the angels beck’ning, and a calling me away? Don’t you see the golden city and the everlasting day?”
There were others, which made incessant mention of “Jordan’s banks,” and “Canaan’s fields,” and the “New Jerusalem;” for the negro mind, impassioned and imaginative, always attaches itself to hymns and expressions of a vivid and pictorial nature; and, as they sung, some laughed, and some cried, and some clapped hands, or shook hands rejoicingly with each other, as if they had fairly gained the other side of the river.
Various exhortations, or relations of experience, followed, and intermingled with the singing. One old gray-headed woman, long past work, but much revered as a sort of chronicle of the past, rose, and leaning on her staff, said—“Well, chil’en! Well, I’m mighty glad to hear ye all and see ye all once more, ‘cause I don’t know when I’ll be gone to glory; but I’ve done got ready, chil’en; ‘pears like I’d got my little bundle all tied up, and my bonnet on, jest a waitin’ for the stage to come along and take me home; sometimes, in the night, I think I hear the wheels a rattlin’, and I’m lookin’ out all the time; now, you jest be ready too, for I tell ye all, chil’en,” she said striking her staff hard on the floor, “dat ar glory is a mighty thing! It’s a mighty thing, chil’en,—you don’no nothing about it,—it’s wonderful.” And the old creature sat down, with streaming tears, as wholly overcome, while the whole circle struck up—
“O Canaan, bright Canaan I’m bound for the land of Canaan.”
Mas’r George, by request, read the last chapters of Revelation, often interrupted by such exclamations as “The sakes now!” “Only hear that!” “Jest think on ‘t!” “Is all that a comin’ sure enough?”
George, who was a bright boy, and well trained in religious things by his mother, finding himself an object of general admiration, threw in expositions of his own, from time to time, with a commendable seriousness and gravity, for which he was admired by the young and blessed by the old; and it was agreed, on all hands, that “a minister couldn’t lay it off better than he did; that ‘t was reely ‘mazin’!”
Uncle Tom was a sort of patriarch in religious matters, in the neighborhood. Having, naturally, an organization in which the morale was strongly predominant, together with a greater breadth and cultivation of mind than obtained among his companions, he was looked up to with great respect, as a sort of minister among them; and the simple, hearty, sincere style of his exhortations might have edified even better educated persons. But it was in prayer that he especially excelled. Nothing could exceed the touching simplicity, the childlike earnestness, of his prayer, enriched with the language of Scripture, which seemed so entirely to have wrought itself into his being, as to have become a part of himself, and to drop from his lips unconsciously; in the language of a pious old negro, he “prayed right up.” And so much did his prayer always work on the devotional feelings of his audiences, that there seemed often a danger that it would be lost altogether in the abundance of the responses which broke out everywhere around him.
While this scene was passing in the cabin of the man, one quite otherwise passed in the halls of the master.
The trader and Mr. Shelby were seated together in the dining room afore-named, at a table covered with papers and writing utensils.
Mr. Shelby was busy in counting some bundles of bills, which, as they were counted, he pushed over to the trader, who counted them likewise.
“All fair,” said the trader; “and now for signing these yer.”
Mr. Shelby hastily drew the bills of sale towards him, and signed them, like a man that hurries over some disagreeable business, and then pushed them over with the money. Haley produced, from a well-worn valise, a parchment, which, after looking over it a moment, he handed to Mr. Shelby, who took it with a gesture of suppressed eagerness.
“Wal, now, the thing’s done!” said the trader, getting up.
“It’s done!” said Mr. Shelby, in a musing tone; and, fetching a long breath, he repeated, “It’s done!”
“Yer don’t seem to feel much pleased with it, ‘pears to me,” said the trader.
“Haley,” said Mr. Shelby, “I hope you’ll remember that you promised, on your honor, you wouldn’t sell Tom, without knowing what sort of hands he’s going into.”
“Why, you’ve just done it sir,” said the trader.
“Circumstances, you well know, obliged me,” said Shelby, haughtily.
“Wal, you know, they may ‘blige me, too,” said the trader. “Howsomever, I’ll do the very best I can in gettin’ Tom a good berth; as to my treatin’ on him bad, you needn’t be a grain afeard. If there’s anything that I thank the Lord for, it is that I’m never noways cruel.”
After the expositions which the trader had previously given of his humane principles, Mr. Shelby did not feel particularly reassured by these declarations; but, as they were the best comfort the case admitted of, he allowed the trader to depart in silence, and betook himself to a solitary cigar.
Showing the Feelings of Living Property on Changing Owners
Mr. and Mrs. Shelby had retired to their apartment for the night. He was lounging in a large easy-chair, looking over some letters that had come in the afternoon mail, and she was standing before her mirror, brushing out the complicated braids and curls in which Eliza had arranged her hair; for, noticing her pale cheeks and haggard eyes, she had excused her attendance that night, and ordered her to bed. The employment, naturally enough, suggested her conversation with the girl in the morning; and turning to her husband, she said, carelessly,
“By the by, Arthur, who was that low-bred fellow that you lugged in to our dinner-table today?”
“Haley is his name,” said Shelby, turning himself rather uneasily in his chair, and continuing with his eyes fixed on a letter.
“Haley! Who is he, and what may be his business here, pray?”
“Well, he’s a man that I transacted some business with, last time I was at Natchez,” said Mr. Shelby.
“And he presumed on it to make himself quite at home, and call and dine here, ay?”
“Why, I invited him; I had some accounts with him,” said Shelby.
“Is he a negro-trader?” said Mrs. Shelby, noticing a certain embarrassment in her husband’s manner.
“Why, my dear, what put that into your head?” said Shelby, looking up.
“Nothing,—only Eliza came in here, after dinner, in a great worry, crying and taking on, and said you were talking with a trader, and that she heard him make an offer for her boy—the ridiculous little goose!”
“She did, hey?” said Mr. Shelby, returning to his paper, which he seemed for a few moments quite intent upon, not perceiving that he was holding it bottom upwards.
“It will have to come out,” said he, mentally; “as well now as ever.”
“I told Eliza,” said Mrs. Shelby, as she continued brushing her hair, “that she was a little fool for her pains, and that you never had anything to do with that sort of persons. Of course, I knew you never meant to sell any of our people,—least of all, to such a fellow.”
“Well, Emily,” said her husband, “so I have always felt and said; but the fact is that my business lies so that I cannot get on without. I shall have to sell some of my hands.”
“To that creature? Impossible! Mr. Shelby, you cannot be serious.”
“I’m sorry to say that I am,” said Mr. Shelby. “I’ve agreed to sell Tom.”
“What! our Tom?—that good, faithful creature!—been your faithful servant from a boy! O, Mr. Shelby!—and you have promised him his freedom, too,—you and I have spoken to him a hundred times of it. Well, I can believe anything now,—I can believe now that you could sell little Harry, poor Eliza’s only child!” said Mrs. Shelby, in a tone between grief and indignation.
“Well, since you must know all, it is so. I have agreed to sell Tom and Harry both; and I don’t know why I am to be rated, as if I were a monster, for doing what every one does every day.”
“But why, of all others, choose these?” said Mrs. Shelby. “Why sell them, of all on the place, if you must sell at all?”
“Because they will bring the highest sum of any,—that’s why. I could choose another, if you say so. The fellow made me a high bid on Eliza, if that would suit you any better,” said Mr. Shelby.
“The wretch!” said Mrs. Shelby, vehemently.
“Well, I didn’t listen to it, a moment,—out of regard to your feelings, I wouldn’t;—so give me some credit.”
“My dear,” said Mrs. Shelby, recollecting herself, “forgive me. I have been hasty. I was surprised, and entirely unprepared for this;—but surely you will allow me to intercede for these poor creatures. Tom is a noble-hearted, faithful fellow, if he is black. I do believe, Mr. Shelby, that if he were put to it, he would lay down his life for you.”
“I know it,—I dare say;—but what’s the use of all this?—I can’t help myself.”
“Why not make a pecuniary sacrifice? I’m willing to bear my part of the inconvenience. O, Mr. Shelby, I have tried—tried most faithfully, as a Christian woman should—to do my duty to these poor, simple, dependent creatures. I have cared for them, instructed them, watched over them, and know all their little cares and joys, for years; and how can I ever hold up my head again among them, if, for the sake of a little paltry gain, we sell such a faithful, excellent, confiding creature as poor Tom, and tear from him in a moment all we have taught him to love and value? I have taught them the duties of the family, of parent and child, and husband and wife; and how can I bear to have this open acknowledgment that we care for no tie, no duty, no relation, however sacred, compared with money? I have talked with Eliza about her boy—her duty to him as a Christian mother, to watch over him, pray for him, and bring him up in a Christian way; and now what can I say, if you tear him away, and sell him, soul and body, to a profane, unprincipled man, just to save a little money? I have told her that one soul is worth more than all the money in the world; and how will she believe me when she sees us turn round and sell her child?—sell him, perhaps, to certain ruin of body and soul!”
“I’m sorry you feel so about it,—indeed I am,” said Mr. Shelby; “and I respect your feelings, too, though I don’t pretend to share them to their full extent; but I tell you now, solemnly, it’s of no use—I can’t help myself. I didn’t mean to tell you this Emily; but, in plain words, there is no choice between selling these two and selling everything. Either they must go, or all must. Haley has come into possession of a mortgage, which, if I don’t clear off with him directly, will take everything before it. I’ve raked, and scraped, and borrowed, and all but begged,—and the price of these two was needed to make up the balance, and I had to give them up. Haley fancied the child; he agreed to settle the matter that way, and no other. I was in his power, and had to do it. If you feel so to have them sold, would it be any better to have all sold?”
Mrs. Shelby stood like one stricken. Finally, turning to her toilet, she rested her face in her hands, and gave a sort of groan.
“This is God’s curse on slavery!—a bitter, bitter, most accursed thing!—a curse to the master and a curse to the slave! I was a fool to think I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil. It is a sin to hold a slave under laws like ours,—I always felt it was,—I always thought so when I was a girl,—I thought so still more after I joined the church; but I thought I could gild it over,—I thought, by kindness, and care, and instruction, I could make the condition of mine better than freedom—fool that I was!”
“Why, wife, you are getting to be an abolitionist, quite.”
“Abolitionist! if they knew all I know about slavery, they might talk! We don’t need them to tell us; you know I never thought that slavery was right—never felt willing to own slaves.”
“Well, therein you differ from many wise and pious men,” said Mr. Shelby. “You remember Mr. B.‘s sermon, the other Sunday?”
“I don’t want to hear such sermons; I never wish to hear Mr. B. in our church again. Ministers can’t help the evil, perhaps,—can’t cure it, any more than we can,—but defend it!—it always went against my common sense. And I think you didn’t think much of that sermon, either.”
“Well,” said Shelby, “I must say these ministers sometimes carry matters further than we poor sinners would exactly dare to do. We men of the world must wink pretty hard at various things, and get used to a deal that isn’t the exact thing. But we don’t quite fancy, when women and ministers come out broad and square, and go beyond us in matters of either modesty or morals, that’s a fact. But now, my dear, I trust you see the necessity of the thing, and you see that I have done the very best that circumstances would allow.”
“O yes, yes!” said Mrs. Shelby, hurriedly and abstractedly fingering her gold watch,—“I haven’t any jewelry of any amount,” she added, thoughtfully; “but would not this watch do something?—it was an expensive one, when it was bought. If I could only at least save Eliza’s child, I would sacrifice anything I have.”
“I’m sorry, very sorry, Emily,” said Mr. Shelby, “I’m sorry this takes hold of you so; but it will do no good. The fact is, Emily, the thing’s done; the bills of sale are already signed, and in Haley’s hands; and you must be thankful it is no worse. That man has had it in his power to ruin us all,—and now he is fairly off. If you knew the man as I do, you’d think that we had had a narrow escape.”
“Is he so hard, then?”
“Why, not a cruel man, exactly, but a man of leather,—a man alive to nothing but trade and profit,—cool, and unhesitating, and unrelenting, as death and the grave. He’d sell his own mother at a good percentage—not wishing the old woman any harm, either.”
“And this wretch owns that good, faithful Tom, and Eliza’s child!”
“Well, my dear, the fact is that this goes rather hard with me; it’s a thing I hate to think of. Haley wants to drive matters, and take possession tomorrow. I’m going to get out my horse bright and early, and be off. I can’t see Tom, that’s a fact; and you had better arrange a drive somewhere, and carry Eliza off. Let the thing be done when she is out of sight.”
“No, no,” said Mrs. Shelby; “I’ll be in no sense accomplice or help in this cruel business. I’ll go and see poor old Tom, God help him, in his distress! They shall see, at any rate, that their mistress can feel for and with them. As to Eliza, I dare not think about it. The Lord forgive us! What have we done, that this cruel necessity should come on us?”
There was one listener to this conversation whom Mr. and Mrs. Shelby little suspected.
Communicating with their apartment was a large closet, opening by a door into the outer passage. When Mrs. Shelby had dismissed Eliza for the night, her feverish and excited mind had suggested the idea of this closet; and she had hidden herself there, and, with her ear pressed close against the crack of the door, had lost not a word of the conversation.
When the voices died into silence, she rose and crept stealthily away. Pale, shivering, with rigid features and compressed lips, she looked an entirely altered being from the soft and timid creature she had been hitherto. She moved cautiously along the entry, paused one moment at her mistress’ door, and raised her hands in mute appeal to Heaven, and then turned and glided into her own room. It was a quiet, neat apartment, on the same floor with her mistress. There was a pleasant sunny window, where she had often sat singing at her sewing; there a little case of books, and various little fancy articles, ranged by them, the gifts of Christmas holidays; there was her simple wardrobe in the closet and in the drawers:—here was, in short, her home; and, on the whole, a happy one it had been to her. But there, on the bed, lay her slumbering boy, his long curls falling negligently around his unconscious face, his rosy mouth half open, his little fat hands thrown out over the bedclothes, and a smile spread like a sunbeam over his whole face.
“Poor boy! poor fellow!” said Eliza; “they have sold you! but your mother will save you yet!”
No tear dropped over that pillow; in such straits as these, the heart has no tears to give,—it drops only blood, bleeding itself away in silence. She took a piece of paper and a pencil, and wrote, hastily,
“O, Missis! dear Missis! don’t think me ungrateful,—don’t think hard of me, any way,—I heard all you and master said tonight. I am going to try to save my boy—you will not blame me! God bless and reward you for all your kindness!”
Hastily folding and directing this, she went to a drawer and made up a little package of clothing for her boy, which she tied with a handkerchief firmly round her waist; and, so fond is a mother’s remembrance, that, even in the terrors of that hour, she did not forget to put in the little package one or two of his favorite toys, reserving a gayly painted parrot to amuse him, when she should be called on to awaken him. It was some trouble to arouse the little sleeper; but, after some effort, he sat up, and was playing with his bird, while his mother was putting on her bonnet and shawl.
“Where are you going, mother?” said he, as she drew near the bed, with his little coat and cap.
His mother drew near, and looked so earnestly into his eyes, that he at once divined that something unusual was the matter.
“Hush, Harry,” she said; “mustn’t speak loud, or they will hear us. A wicked man was coming to take little Harry away from his mother, and carry him ‘way off in the dark; but mother won’t let him—she’s going to put on her little boy’s cap and coat, and run off with him, so the ugly man can’t catch him.”
Saying these words, she had tied and buttoned on the child’s simple outfit, and, taking him in her arms, she whispered to him to be very still; and, opening a door in her room which led into the outer verandah, she glided noiselessly out.
It was a sparkling, frosty, starlight night, and the mother wrapped the shawl close round her child, as, perfectly quiet with vague terror, he clung round her neck.
Old Bruno, a great Newfoundland, who slept at the end of the porch, rose, with a low growl, as she came near. She gently spoke his name, and the animal, an old pet and playmate of hers, instantly, wagging his tail, prepared to follow her, though apparently revolving much, in this simple dog’s head, what such an indiscreet midnight promenade might mean. Some dim ideas of imprudence or impropriety in the measure seemed to embarrass him considerably; for he often stopped, as Eliza glided forward, and looked wistfully, first at her and then at the house, and then, as if reassured by reflection, he pattered along after her again. A few minutes brought them to the window of Uncle Tom’s cottage, and Eliza stopping, tapped lightly on the window-pane.
The prayer-meeting at Uncle Tom’s had, in the order of hymn-singing, been protracted to a very late hour; and, as Uncle Tom had indulged himself in a few lengthy solos afterwards, the consequence was, that, although it was now between twelve and one o’clock, he and his worthy helpmeet were not yet asleep.
“Good Lord! what’s that?” said Aunt Chloe, starting up and hastily drawing the curtain. “My sakes alive, if it an’t Lizy! Get on your clothes, old man, quick!—there’s old Bruno, too, a pawin round; what on airth! I’m gwine to open the door.”
And suiting the action to the word, the door flew open, and the light of the tallow candle, which Tom had hastily lighted, fell on the haggard face and dark, wild eyes of the fugitive.
“Lord bless you!—I’m skeered to look at ye, Lizy! Are ye tuck sick, or what’s come over ye?”
“I’m running away—Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe—carrying off my child—Master sold him!”
“Sold him?” echoed both, lifting up their hands in dismay.
“Yes, sold him!” said Eliza, firmly; “I crept into the closet by Mistress’ door tonight, and I heard Master tell Missis that he had sold my Harry, and you, Uncle Tom, both, to a trader; and that he was going off this morning on his horse, and that the man was to take possession today.”
Tom had stood, during this speech, with his hands raised, and his eyes dilated, like a man in a dream. Slowly and gradually, as its meaning came over him, he collapsed, rather than seated himself, on his old chair, and sunk his head down upon his knees.
“The good Lord have pity on us!” said Aunt Chloe. “O! it don’t seem as if it was true! What has he done, that Mas’r should sell him?”
“He hasn’t done anything,—it isn’t for that. Master don’t want to sell, and Missis she’s always good. I heard her plead and beg for us; but he told her ‘t was no use; that he was in this man’s debt, and that this man had got the power over him; and that if he didn’t pay him off clear, it would end in his having to sell the place and all the people, and move off. Yes, I heard him say there was no choice between selling these two and selling all, the man was driving him so hard. Master said he was sorry; but oh, Missis—you ought to have heard her talk! If she an’t a Christian and an angel, there never was one. I’m a wicked girl to leave her so; but, then, I can’t help it. She said, herself, one soul was worth more than the world; and this boy has a soul, and if I let him be carried off, who knows what’ll become of it? It must be right: but, if it an’t right, the Lord forgive me, for I can’t help doing it!”
“Well, old man!” said Aunt Chloe, “why don’t you go, too? Will you wait to be toted down river, where they kill niggers with hard work and starving? I’d a heap rather die than go there, any day! There’s time for ye,—be off with Lizy,—you’ve got a pass to come and go any time. Come, bustle up, and I’ll get your things together.”
Tom slowly raised his head, and looked sorrowfully but quietly around, and said,
‘No, no—I an’t going. Let Eliza go—it’s her right! I wouldn’t be the one to say no—‘tan’t in natur for her to stay; but you heard what she said! If I must be sold, or all the people on the place, and everything go to rack, why, let me be sold. I s’pose I can bar it as well as any on ‘em,’ he added, while something like a sob and a sigh shook his broad, rough chest convulsively. ‘Mas’r always found me on the spot—he always will. I never have broke trust, nor used my pass no ways contrary to my word, and I never will. It’s better for me alone to go, than to break up the place and sell all. Mas’r an’t to blame, Chloe, and he’ll take care of you and the poor—’
Here he turned to the rough trundle bed full of little woolly heads, and broke fairly down. He leaned over the back of the chair, and covered his face with his large hands. Sobs, heavy, hoarse and loud, shook the chair, and great tears fell through his fingers on the floor; just such tears, sir, as you dropped into the coffin where lay your first-born son; such tears, woman, as you shed when you heard the cries of your dying babe. For, sir, he was a man,—and you are but another man. And, woman, though dressed in silk and jewels, you are but a woman, and, in life’s great straits and mighty griefs, ye feel but one sorrow!
‘And now,’ said Eliza, as she stood in the door, ‘I saw my husband only this afternoon, and I little knew then what was to come. They have pushed him to the very last standing place, and he told me, today, that he was going to run away. Do try, if you can, to get word to him. Tell him how I went, and why I went; and tell him I’m going to try and find Canada. You must give my love to him, and tell him, if I never see him again,’ she turned away, and stood with her back to them for a moment, and then added, in a husky voice, ‘tell him to be as good as he can, and try and meet me in the kingdom of heaven.’
‘Call Bruno in there,’ she added. ‘Shut the door on him, poor beast! He mustn’t go with me!’
A few last words and tears, a few simple adieus and blessings, and clasping her wondering and affrighted child in her arms, she glided noiselessly away.” Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly;” Chapters I-V, 1852
We had to admit we could not imagine this. The man paid some capital into my uncle’s business and we were converted. Our family were the first Purifiers — as they were called — in the town. Soon a congregation of fifty or more was meeting every Sunday in a room at the Corn Exchange.
At once we found ourselves isolated and hated people. Everyone made jokes about us. We had to stand together because we were sometimes dragged into the courts. What the unconverted could not forgive in us was, first, that we believed in successful prayer and, secondly, that our revelation came from Toronto.
The success of our prayers had a simple foundation. We regarded it as ‘Error’ — our name for Evil — to believe the evidence of our senses and if we had influenza or consumption, or had lost our money or were unemployed, we denied the reality of these things. We said that since God could not have made them, they therefore did not exist. It was exhilarating to look at our congregation and to know that what the vulgar would call miracles were performed among us, almost as a matter of routine, every day. Not very big miracles, perhaps; but up in London and out in Toronto, we knew that deafness and blindness, cancer and insanity, the great scourges, were constantly vanishing before the prayers of the more advanced Purifiers.
‘What?’ said my schoolmaster, an Irishman who had eyes like broken glass and a sniff of irritability in the bristles of his nose. ‘What! Do you have the impudence to tell me that if you fell off the top floor of this building and smashed your head in, you would say you hadn’t fallen and were not injured?’
I was a small boy and very afraid of everybody, but not when it was a question of my religion. I was used to the kind of conundrum the Irishman had set. It was useless to argue, though our religion had already developed an interesting casuistry.
‘I would say so,’ I replied with coldness and some vanity. ‘And my head would not be smashed.’
‘You would not say so,’ answered the Irishman. ‘You would not say so.’ His eyes sparkled with pure pleasure. ‘You’d be dead.’
The boys laughed, but they looked at me with admiration.
Then — I do not know how or why — I began to see a difficulty. Without warning and as if I had gone into my bedroom at night and had found a gross ape seated in my bed and thereafter following me about with his grunts and his fleas and a look, relentless and ancient, scored on his brown face, I was faced with the problem which prowls at the centre of all religious faith. I was faced by the difficulty of the origin of evil. Evil was an illusion, we were taught. But even illusions have an origin. The Purifiers denied this.
I consulted my uncle. Trade was bad at the time and this made his faith abrupt. He frowned as I spoke.
“When did you brush your coat last?” he said. “You’re getting slovenly about your appearance. If you spent more time studying books” — that is to say, the Purification literature — “and less with your hands in your pockets and playing about with boats on the river, you wouldn’t be letting Error in.”
All dogmas have their jargon; my uncle as a business man loved the trade terms of the Purification. “Don’t let Error in,” was a favorite one. The whole point about the Purification, he said, was that it was scientific and therefore exact; in consequence it was sheer weakness to admit discussion. Indeed, betrayal. He unpinched his pince-nez, stirred his tea and indicated I must submit or change the subject. Preferably the latter. I saw, to my alarm, that my arguments had defeated my uncle. Faith and doubt pulled like strings round my throat.
“You don’t mean to say you don’t believe that what our Lord said was true?” my aunt asked nervously, following me out of the room. “Your uncle does, dear.”
I could not answer. I went out of the house and down the main street to the river where the punts were stuck like insects in the summery flash of the reach. Life was a dream, I thought; no, a nightmare, for the ape was beside me.
I was still in this state, half sulking and half exalted, when Mr. Hubert Timberlake came to the town. He was one of the important people from the headquarters of our Church and he had come to give an address on the Purification at the Coin Exchange. Posters announcing this were everywhere. Mr. Timberlake was to spend Sunday afternoon with us. It was unbelievable that a man so eminent would actually sit in our dining room, use our knives and forks, and eat our food. Every imperfection in our home and our characters would jump out at him. The Truth had been revealed to man with scientific accuracy — an accuracy we could all test by experiment — and the future course of human development on earth was laid down, finally. And here in Mr. Timberlake was a man who had not merely performed many miracles — even, it was said with proper reserve, having twice raised the dead — but who had actually been to Toronto, our headquarters, where this great and revolutionary revelation had first been given.
“This is my nephew,” my uncle said, introducing me. “He lives with us. He thinks he thinks, Mr. Timberlake, but I tell him he only thinks he does. Ha, ha.” My uncle was a humorous man when he was with the great. “He’s always on the river,” my uncle continued. “I tell him he’s got water on the brain. I’ve been telling Mr. Timberlake about you, my boy.”
A hand as soft as the best quality chamois leather took mine. I saw a wide upright man in a double-breasted navy blue suit. He had a pink square head with very small ears and one of those torpid, enameled smiles which were said by our enemies to be too common in our sect.
“Why, isn’t that just fine?” said Mr. Timberlake who, owing to his contacts with Toronto, spoke with an American accent. “What say we tell your uncle it’s funny he thinks he’s funny.”
The eyes of Mr. Timberlake were direct and colorless. He had the look of a retired merchant captain who had become decontaminated from the sea and had reformed and made money. His defense of me had made me his at once. My doubts vanished. Whatever Mr. Timberlake believed must be true and as I listened to him at lunch, I thought there could be no finer life than his.
“I expect Mr. Timberlake’s tired after his address,” said my aunt.
“Tired?” exclaimed my uncle, brilliant with indignation. “How can Mr. Timberlake be tired? Don’t let Error in!”
For in our faith, the merely inconvenient was just as illusory as a great catastrophe would have been, if you wished to be strict, and Mr. Timberlake’s presence made us very strict.
I noticed then that, after their broad smiles, Mr. Timberlake’s lips had the habit of setting into a long depressed sarcastic curve.
“I guess,” he drawled, “I guess the Almighty must have been tired sometimes, for it says He relaxed on the seventh day. Say, do you know what I’d like to do this afternoon,” he said, turning to me. “While your uncle and aunt are sleeping off this meal, let’s you and me go on the river and get water on the brain. I’ll show you how to punt.”
Mr. Timberlake, I saw to my disappointment, was out to show he understood the young. I saw he was planning a “quiet talk” with me about my problems.
“There are too many people on the river on Sundays,” said my uncle uneasily.
“Oh, I like a crowd,” said Mr. Timberlake, giving my uncle a tough look: “This is the day of rest, you know.” He had had my uncle gobbling up every bit of gossip from the sacred city of Toronto all the morning.
My uncle and aunt were incredulous that a man like Mr. Timberlake should go out among the blazers and gramophones of the river on a Sunday afternoon. In any other member of our church, they would have thought this sinful.
“Waal, what say?” said Mr. Timberlake. I could only murmur.
“That’s fixed,” said Mr. Timberlake. And on came the smile as simple, vivid and unanswerable as the smile on an advertisement. “Isn’t that just fine?”
Mr. Timberlake went upstairs to wash his hands. My uncle was deeply offended and shocked, but he could say nothing. He unpinched his glasses.
“A very wonderful man,” he said. “So human,” he apologized.
“My boy,” my uncle said. “This is going to be an experience for you. Hubert Timberlake was making a thousand a year in the insurance business ten years ago. Then he heard of the purification. He threw everything up, just like that. He gave up his job and took up the work. It was a struggle, he told me so himself this morning. Many’s the time,’ he said to me this morning, when I wondered where my next meal was coming from.’ But the way was shown. He came down from Worcester to London and in two years he was making fifteen hundred a year out of his practice.”
To heal the sick by prayer according to the tenets of the Church of the Last Purification was Mr. Timberlake’s profession.
My uncle lowered his eyes. With his glasses off, the lids were small and uneasy. He lowered his voice too.
“I have told him about your little trouble,” my uncle said quietly, with emotion. I was burned with shame. My uncle looked up and stuck out his chin confidently.
“He just smiled,” my uncle said. “That’s all.”
Then we waited for Mr. Timberlake to come down.
I put on white flannels and soon I was walking down to the river with Mr. Timberlake. I felt that I was going with him under false pretenses. He would begin explaining to me the origin of evil and I would have to pretend politely that he was converting me when, already, at the first sight of him, I had believed. A stone bridge, whose two arches were like an owlish pair of eyes gazing up the reach, was close to the landing-stage. I thought what a pity it was the flanneled men and the sunburned girls there did not know I was getting a ticket for the Mr. Timberlake who had been speaking in the town that very morning. I looked round for him and when I saw him, I was a little startled. He was standing at the edge of the water looking at it with an expression of empty incomprehension. Among the white crowds, his air of brisk efficiency had dulled. He looked middle-aged, out of place and insignificant. But when he saw me, the smile switched back on.
“Ready?” he called. “Fine!”
I had the feeling that inside him there must be a gramophone record going round and round, stopping at that word.
He stepped into the punt and took charge.
“Now I just want you to paddle us over to the far bank,” he said, “and then I’ll show you how to punt.”
Everything Mr. Timberlake said still seemed unreal to me. The fact that he was sitting in a punt — of all commonplace material things — was incredible. That he should propose to pole us up the river was terrifying. Suppose he fell into the river? At once I checked that thought. A leader of our Church under the direct guidance of God could not possibly fall into a river.
The stream is wide and deep in this reach, but on the southern bank there is a manageable depth and a hard bottom. Over the clay banks the willows hang, making their basket-work print of sun and shadow on the water, while under the gliding boats lie cloudy, chloride caverns. The hoop-like branches of the trees bend down until their tips touch the water like fingers making musical sounds. Ahead in midstream, on a day sunny as this one was, there is a path of strong light which is hard to look at unless you half close your eyes. Down this path on the crowded Sundays, go the launches with their parasols and their pennants; and also the rowing boats with their beetle-leg oars, which seem to dig the sunlight out of the water as they rise. Upstream one goes, on and on between the gardens and then between fields kept for grazing. On the afternoon when Mr. Timberlake and I went out to settle the question of the origin of evil, the meadows were packed densely with buttercups.
“Now,” said Mr. Timberlake decisively when I had paddled to the other side. “Now I’ll take her.”
He got over the seat into the well at the stern.
“I’ll just get you clear of the trees,” I said.
“Give me the pole,” said Mr. Timberlake, standing up on the little platform and making a squeak with his boots as he did so. “Thank you, sir. I haven’t done this for eighteen years, but I can tell you, brother, in those days I was considered some poler.”
He looked around and let the pole slide down through his hands. Then he gave the first difficult push. The punt rocked pleasantly and we moved forward. I sat facing him, paddle in hand, to check any inward drift of the punt.
“How’s that, you guys?” said Mr. Timberlake, looking round at our eddies and drawing in the pole. The delightful water swished down it.
“Fine,” I said. Deferentially I had caught the word.
He went on to his second and his third strokes, taking too much water on his sleeve, perhaps, and uncertain in his steering, which I corrected, but he was doing well.
“It comes back to me,” he said. “How am I doing?”
“Just keep her out from the trees,” I said.
“The trees?” he said.
“The willows,” I said.
“I’ll do it now,” he said. “How’s that? Not quite enough? Well, how’s this?”
“Another one,” I said. “The current runs strong this side.”
“What? More trees?” he said. He was getting hot.
“We can shoot out past them,” I said. “I’ll ease over with the paddle.”
Mr. Timberlake did not like this suggestion.
“No, don’t do that. I can manage it,” he said. I did not want to offend one of the leaders of our Church. So I put the paddle down, although I felt I ought to have taken him farther along away from the irritation of the trees.
“Of course,” I said. “We could go under them. It might be nice.”
“I think,” said Mr. Timberlake, “that would be a very good idea.”
He lunged hard on the pole and took us toward the next archway of willow branches.
“We may have to duck a bit, that’s all,” I said.
“Oh, I can push the branches up,” said Mr. Timberlake.
“It is better to duck,” I said.
We were gliding now quickly toward the arch, in fact I was already under it.
“I think I should duck,” I said. “Just bend down for this one”
“What makes the trees lean over the water like this?” asked Mr. Timberlake. “Weeping willows? I’ll give you a thought there. Now Error likes to make us dwell on sorrow. Why not call, ahem, laughing willows?” discoursed Mr. Timberlake as the branch passed over my head.
“Duck,” I said.
“Where? I don’t see them,” said Mr. Timberlake turning round.
“No, your head,” I said. “The branch,” I called.
“Oh, the branch. This one?” said Mr. Timberlake, finding a branch just against his chest, and he put out a hand to lift it. It is not easy to lift a willow branch and Mr. Timberlake was surprised. He stepped back as it gently and firmly leaned against him. He leaned back and pushed from his feet. He pushed too far, and the boat went on. I saw Mr. Timberlake’s boots leave the stern as he took an unthoughtful step backward. He made a last-minute grasp at a stronger and higher branch, and then, there he hung a yard above the water, round as a blue damson that is ripe and ready, waiting only for a touch to make it fall. Too late with the paddle and shot ahead by the force of his thrust, I could not save him.
For a full minute I did not believe what I saw. Indeed, our religion taught us never to believe what we saw. Unbelieving, I could not move. I gaped. The impossible had happened. Only a miracle, I found myself thinking, could save him.
What was the most striking was the silence of Mr. Timberlake as he hung from the tree. I was lost between gazing at him and trying to get the punt out of the small branches of the tree. By the time I had got the punt out, there were several yards of water between us and the soles of his boots were very near the water as the branch bent under his weight. Boats were passing at the time, but no one seemed to notice us. I was glad about that. This was a private agony.
A double chin had appeared on the face of Mr. Timberlake and his head was squeezed between his shoulders and his hanging arms. I saw him blink and look up at the sky. His eyelids were pale like a chicken’s. He was tidy and dignified as he hung there. The hat was not displaced and the top button of his coat was done up. He had a blue silk handkerchief in his breast pocket. So unperturbed and genteel he seemed that, as the tips of his shoes came nearer and nearer to the water, I became alarmed. He could perform what are called miracles. He would be thinking at this moment that only in an erroneous and illusory sense was he hanging from the branch of the tree over six feet of water. He was probably praying one of the closely reasoned prayers of our faith which were more like conversations with Euclid than appeals to God. The calm of his face suggested this.
Was he, I asked myself, within sight of the main road, the town Recreation Ground and the landingstage crowded with people? Was he about to re-enact a well-known miracle? I hoped that he was not. I prayed that he was not. I prayed with all my will that Mr. Timberlake would not walk upon the water. It was my prayer and not his that was answered.
I saw the shoes dip, water rise above his ankles and up his socks. He tried to move his grip now to a yet higher branch. He did not succeed, and in making this effort, his coat and waist-coat rose and parted from his trousers. One seam of shirt with its pant-loops and brace-tabs broke like a crack across the middle of Mr. Timberlake. It was like a fatal flaw in a statue, an earthquake crack which made the monumental mortal. The last Greeks must have felt as I felt then, when they saw a crack across the middle of some statue of Apollo. It was at this moment I realized that the final revelation about man and society on earth had come to nobody and that Mr. Timberlake knew nothing at all about the origin of evil.
All this takes long to describe, but it happened in a few seconds as I paddled toward him. I was too late to get his feet on the boat and the only thing to do was to let him sink until his hands were nearer the level of the punt and then to get him to change hand-holds. Then I would paddle him ashore. I did this. Amputated by the water, first a torso, then a bust, then a mere head and shoulders, Mr. Timberlake, I noticed, looked sad and lonely as he sank. He was a declining dogma.
As the water lapped his collar — for he hesitated to let go of the branch to hold the punt — I saw a small triangle of deprecation and pathos between his nose and the corners of his mouth. The head resting on the platter of water had the sneer of calamity on it, such as one sees in the pictures of a beheaded saint.
“Hold on to the punt, Mr. Timberlake,” I said urgently. “Hold on to the punt.”
He did so.
“Push from behind,” he directed in a dry businesslike voice.
They were his first words. I obeyed him. Carefully I paddled him toward the bank. He turned and, with a splash, climbed ashore. There he stood, raising his arms and looking at the water running down his swollen suit and making a puddle at his feet.
“Say,” said Mr. Timberlake coldly, “we let some Error in that time.”
How much he must have hated our family.
“I am sorry, Mr. Timberlake,” I said. “I am most awfully sorry. I should have paddled. It was my fault. I’ll get you home at once. Let me wring out your coat and waist-coat. You’ll catch your death . . .”
I stopped. I had nearly blasphemed. I had nearly suggested that Mr. Timberlake had fallen into the water and that to a man of his age that might be dangerous.
Mr. Timberlake corrected me. His voice was impersonal, addressing the laws of human existence, rather than myself.
“If God made water, it would be ridiculous to suggest He made it capable of harming His creatures. Wouldn’t it?”
“Yes,” I murmured hypocritically.
“OK,” said Mr. Timberlake. “Let’s go.”
“I’ll soon get you across,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I mean let’s go on. We’re not going to let a little thing like this spoil a beautiful afternoon. Where were we going? You spoke of a pretty landing-place farther on. Let’s go there.”
“But I must take you home. You can’t sit there soaked to the skin. It will spoil your clothes.”
“Now, now,” said Mr. Timberlake. “Do as I say. Go on.”
There was nothing to be done with him. I held the punt into the bank and he stepped in. He sat like a bursting and sodden bolster in front of me while I paddled. We had lost the pole of course.
For a long time I could hardly look at Mr. Timberlake. He was taking the line that nothing had happened and this put me at a disadvantage. I knew something considerable had happened. That glaze — which so many of the members of our sect had on their faces and persons, their minds and manners — had been washed off. There was no gleam for me from Mr. Timberlake.
“What’s the house over there?” he asked. He was making conversation. I had steered into the middle of the river to get him into the strong sun. I saw steam rise from him.
I took courage and studied him. He was a man, I realized, in poor physical condition, unexercised and sedentary. Now that the gleam had left him, one saw the veined, empurpled skin of the stoutish man with a poor heart. I remember he had said at lunch: “A young woman I know said, `Isn’t it wonderful. I can walk thirty miles in a day without being in the least tired.’ I said, ‘I don’t see that bodily indulgence is anything a member of the Church of the Last Purification should boast about.’”
Yes, there was something flaccid, passive and slack about Mr. Timberlake. Bunched in swollen clothes, he refused to take them off. It occurred to me, as he looked with boredom at the water, the passing boats and the country, that he had not been in the country before. It was something he had agreed to do but wanted to get over quickly. He was totally uninterested. By his questions — What is that church? Are there any fish in this river? Is that a wireless or a gramophone? — I understood that Mr. Timberlake was formally acknowledging a world he did not live in. It was too interesting, too eventful a world. His spirit, inert and preoccupied, was elsewhere in an eventless and immaterial habitation. He was a dull man, duller than any man I have ever known; but his dullness was a sort of earthly deposit left by a being whose diluted mind was far away in the effervescence of metaphysical matters. There was a slightly pettish look on his face as (to himself, of course) he declared he was not wet and that he would not have a heart attack or catch pneumonia.
Mr. Timberlake spoke little. Sometimes he squeezed water out of his sleeve. He shivered a little. He watched his steam. I had planned when we set out to go up as far as the lock but now the thought of another two miles of this responsibility was too much. I pretended I wanted to go only as far as the bend which we were approaching, where one of the richest buttercup meadows was. I mentioned this to him. He turned and looked with boredom at the field. Slowly we came to the bank.
We tied up the punt and we landed.
“Fine,” said Mr. Timberlake. He stood at the edge of the meadow, just as he had stood at the landing-stage — lost, stupefied, uncomprehending.
“Nice to stretch our legs,” I said. I led the way into the deep flowers. So dense were the buttercups there was hardly any green. Presently I sat down. Mr. Timberlake looked at me and sat down also. Then I turned to him with a last try at persuasion. Respectability, I was sure, was his trouble.
“No one will see us,” I said. “This is out of sight of the river. Take off your coat and trousers and wring them out.”
Mr. Timberlake replied firmly: “I am satisfied to remain as I am.”
“What is this flower?” he asked to change the subject.
“Buttercup,” I said.
“Of course,” he replied.
I could do nothing with him. I lay down full length in the sun; and, observing this and thinking to please me, Mr. Timberlake did the same. He must have supposed that this was what I had come out in the boat to do. It was only human. He had come out with me, I saw, to show me that he was only human.
But as we lay there I saw the steam still rising. I had had enough.
“A bit hot,” I said getting up.
He got up at once.
“Do you want to sit in the shade?” he asked politely.
“No,” I said. “Would you like to?”
“No,” he said. “I was thinking of you.”
“Let’s go back,” I said. We both stood up and I let him pass in front of me. When I looked at him again I stopped dead. Mr. Timberlake was no longer a man in a navy blue suit. He was blue no longer. He was transfigured. He was yellow. He was covered with buttercup pollen, a fine yellow paste of it made by the damp, from head to foot.
‘Your suit,’ I said.
He looked at it. He raised his thin eyebrows a little, but he did not smile or make any comment.
The man is a saint, I thought. As saintly as any of those gold-leaf figures in the churches of Sicily. Golden, he sat in the punt. Golden, he sat for the next hour as I paddled him down the river. Golden and bored. Golden as we landed at the town and as we walked up the street back to my uncle’s house. There he refused to change his clothes or to sit by a fire. He kept an eye on the time for his train back to London. By no word did he acknowledge the disasters or the beauties of the world. If they were printed upon him, they were printed upon a husk.
Sixteen years have passed since I dropped Mr. Timberlake in the river and since the sight of his pant-loops destroyed my faith. I have not seen him since, and today I heard that he was dead. He was fifty-seven. His mother, a very old lady with whom he had lived all his life, went into his bedroom when he was getting ready for church and found him lying on the floor in his shirt-sleeves. A stiff collar with the tie half inserted was in one hand. Five minutes before, she told the doctor, she had been speaking to him.
The doctor who looked at the heavy body lying on the single bed saw a middle-aged man, wide rather than stout and with an extraordinary box-like thick-jawed face. He had got fat, my uncle told me, in later years. The heavy, liver-colored cheeks were like the chaps of a hound. Heart disease, it was plain, was the cause of the death of Mr. Timberlake. In death, the face was lax, even coarse and degenerate. It was a miracle, the doctor said, that he had lived so long. Any time during the last twenty years the smallest shock might have killed him.
I thought of our afternoon on the river. I thought of him hanging from the tree. I thought of him, indifferent and golden in the meadow. I understood why he had made for himself a protective, sedentary blandness, an automatic smile, a collection of phrases. He kept them on like the coat after his ducking. And I understood why — though I had feared it all the time we were on the river — I understood why he did not talk to me about the origin of evil. He was honest. The ape was with us. The ape that merely followed me was already inside Mr. Timberlake eating out his heart.” V.S. Pritchett, “The Saint;” reprinted with permission from Harper’s Magazine, 1947
Numero Cuatro—“My first contact with white america was marked by her violence, for when a white doctor pulled me from between my mother’s legs and slapped my wet ass, I, as every other negro in america, reacted to this man-inflicted pain with a cry. A cry that america has never allowed to cease; a cry that gets louder and more intense with age; a cry that can only be heard and understood by others who live behind the color curtain. A cry? Or was it a scream? Whatever it was, we accepted it.
I had been born in ‘america, the land of the free.’ To insure my country’s freedom, my father was somewhere fighting, for this was a year of the second war to end all wars — World War II. This was October 4, 1943, and victory was in the air. The world would now be safe for democracy.
But who would insure my freedom? Who would make democracy safe for Black people? America recognized long ago what negroes now examine in disbelief: every Black birth in america is political. With each new birth comes a potential challenge to the existing order. Each new generation brings forth untested militancy. America’s ruling class now experiences what Herod must have at the birth of ‘Christ:’ ‘Go and search . . . and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.’ America doesn’t know which Black birth is going to be the birth that will overthrow this country.
The threat to america, however, does not exist in negro america, but rather as a result of negro america. If one examines the structure of this country closely he will note that there are three basic categories: they are white america, negro america, and Black america. The threat to the existing structure comes from Black america, which exists in contradiction to both white and negro america. It is the evolution of these contradictions that has given rise to the present revolutionary conditions. Revolution is indeed inevitable, and, as the cycle of change closes around america’s racist environment, the issue of color becomes more pertinent.
Color is the first thing Black people in america become aware of. You are born into a world that has given color meaning and color becomes the single most determining factor of your existence. Color determines where you live, how you live and, under certain circumstances, if you will live. Color determines your friends, your education, your mother’s and father’s jobs, where you play, what you play and, more importantly, what you think of yourself.
In and of itself, color has no meaning. But the white world has given it meaning — political, social, economic, historical, physiological and philosophical. Once color has been given meaning, an order is thereby established. If you are born Black in america, you are the last of that order. As kids we learned the formula for the structure of american society:
If you’re white,
You’re all right.
If you’re brown,
But if you’re black,
Get back, get back.
Because of the importance assigned to color, negroes choose only to legitimatize two americas: white and negro. When one examines the way in which these two americas are structured, it is obvious that the similarities between them are greater than the differences. The differences exist only in the external control of each and their internal order, which, in turn, create value contradictions. In other words, whites control both white america and negro america for the benefit of whites. And because of this kind of external control by whites in their own self-interest, negroes who structure their communities after those of whites are forced to enforce values of whites. They attempt to explain away their lack of control by saying that they are just members of the larger community of “americans.”
A monologue is perpetually expounded by white america which is echoed by negroes afflicted with white patriotism.
Think white or I’ll kill you.
And if you think too white, I’ll kill you.
Think white or I’ll kill you.
And if you think too white “the man” will kill you.
So think colored.
Imitate the white man,
but not to perfection in front of him.
As Julian Moreau says in his novel, Black Commandos:
Attitudes necessary for survival were vigorously pounded into the wooly heads of black boys and girls by their loving mothers. The boys were reared to be Negroes, not men. A Negro might survive a while, but a black “man” didn’t live very long. . . . A black boy aiming to reach “manhood” rather than “Negro-hood” rarely lived that long.
For 400 years the internal contradictions and inconsistencies of white america have been dealt with through its institutions. In regard to race or color, these contradictions have always been on a national, never a local or individual level. Whites as individuals have always loved to be thought of as superior. They have always known that if they could justify and make their actions legal, either through their religion, their courts or their history (educational system), then it would be unnecessary to actually rectify them because the negro would accept their interpretation. White america’s most difficult problem thus becomes how to justify and not rectify national inconsistencies. If white nationalism is disguised as history or religion, then it is irrefutable. White nationalism divides history into two parts, B.C. and A.D. — before the white man’s religion and after it. And “progress,” of course, is considered to have taken place only after the white man’s religion came into being. The implication is evident: God is on the white man’s side, for white Jesus was the “son” of God.
White america has used religion and history to its advantage. Thus, the North never really differed from the South for they both taught the same history. Catholics never differed from other religions for they taught from the same text. Republicans are no different from Democrats, as Democrats are no different from Dixiecrats. As for liberals, Fanon says they are “as much the enemy of oppressed people and Freedom as the self-avowed enemy, because it is impossible to be both a member of the oppressor class and a friend of the oppressed.” So we can see that for white america the only real contradictions are those that arise from the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of her Constitution. These contradictions give rise to negro america.
Most Black persons of my time were born into negro america. The first thing you learn is that you are different from whites. The next thing you learn is that you are different from each other. You are born into a world of double standards where color is of paramount importance. In your community a color pattern exists which is closely akin to the white man’s, and likewise reinforced from both ends of the spectrum. Light-skinned negroes believe they are superior and darker negroes allow them to operate on that belief. Because of the wide color range which exists in negro america, an internal color colony has been created. Dark negroes are taught that they are inferior not only to whites but to lighter-skinned negroes. And lighter-skinned negroes assume a superior attitude.
Negro america is set up the same as white america. The lighter skinned a negro, the more significant a role he can play. (It has always been the one who looked white who made it in negro america. This was the man with the position, the influence, this was the man who usually got the white man’s best job.) In between light negro america and Black negro america (in terms of color), there is a special category of people, who are assigned the name of red niggers. These are the people who are light enough to go into light negro america, but do not have caucasian characteristics. They don’t have straight hair or white features. So they can go either way, depending on them. They can operate in Black negro america or at the outer fringes of light negro america. Race prejudice in america becomes color prejudice in negro america. That which is cultural prejudice by whites against Blacks becomes class prejudice in negro america. To distinguish themselves, negroes assign class distinctions. Here we find the instituting and substituting of parallel values. Negroes assume that what is good for white america is good for negro america.
Negroes are always confined to what can be called the “shit regiment.” I first became acquainted with the shit regiment in the cub scouts. In every parade, we always marched behind the horses, which meant that we always had to march in horseshit. All the way through life there are shit regiments in the negro community and negroes adhere to them. As a matter of fact, negroes will protect these regiments. The debate was never whether or not we had to march, but whether or not the whites were going to put machines down there to wash the horseshit away before we marched in it. There was never any discussion as to whether or not we should march behind the horses. Uh-uh. Everybody accepted that. They just wanted the horseshit washed out of the way before we came through. White america’s largest shit regiment is negro america.
Given that negroes are a colonized people, the most important phase of colonization is the sub-cultural phase. In negro america, negroes relate only to negroes of the same educational background. Dr. So-and-So talks only to Dr. So-and-So and the brother on the block better not act like he thinks he can go up to Dr. So-and-So and talk to him man-to-man. To Dr. So-and-So, the brother on the block is nothing but a nigger who’s holding the race back. Dr. So-and-So goes to the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian or the Catholic Church. The brother on the block goes to the Baptist Church, the Holy Rollers or the Sanctified Church. And the Methodist Church is in between the two. It ain’t as niggerish as the Baptist Church, but it’s not as high class as the Episcopal Church. As negroes become more “white-educated,” the transition in religion begins. All of a sudden, it’s beneath them to go to church and shout and get happy. That’s not dignified. As they get more “educated,” their religion gets more like the white man’s religion as if their heaven will be segregated too. “Education” even extends down to the naming of the children. The more “educated” the negro becomes, the more European names he picks for his children. Michele, Simone, Hubert, Whitney. All of a sudden, Sam and Bertha Lee ain’t good enough anymore. In other words, values are assigned to names. Names must now be more than functional.
The poor negro doesn’t aspire to be white, he just wants to make it into negro america. So he works hard all his life and finally rents a little house and puts some furniture in it which he keeps covered with plastic so it won’t get dirty. And he gets mad if anybody sits on it, because he’s trying to imitate negro america. Once he gets into negro america, he learns of so-called middle-class values, white values. Then he wants to get into white america.
When he tries to enter white america, he is rejected. The doors are shut. Even if he has a big job in some white firm, if he’s one of those “only” negroes, he still finds out that he’s Black when it’s quitting time. The white workers go their way and leave him to go his. They’re nice and friendly on the job and all buddy-buddy, but that doesn’t go outside the office. They don’t want their friends thinking that they’re nigger lovers. So this sets up a reaction in the negro. He gets frustrated and tries to live a contradiction and that’s why when the rebellions start, he’s all for them. He doesn’t have the courage to admit it to the white man. When the white folks he works with ask him what he thinks about “the riot,” he says it’s hurting the cause and all sorts of bull like that. But that night after work, he breaks records getting home to watch it on t.v., cheering like a muthafucka the whole time. Take the Washington, D.C., rebellion, for instance. They arrested something like 3,000 people and when they booked ’em, they found out that the great majority of them worked for the government. Had jobs, making money, still these were the dudes who were out in the street. In Detroit it was the same thing. It wasn’t only the unemployed brother. It was the one who was bringing home $110 every Friday. It was the one who had a Thunderbird, and some clean vines. He was the one who had tried to enter white america and had found that no matter what he did, he was still a nigger to the white man.
Those Black people who remain in the Black community, however, remain a viable force. They don’t have the frustrations that exist in negro america. In Black america the bonds are tighter. The fight is for freedom, not whiteness.
Negroes have always been treated like wild, caged animals by the white man, and have always felt the passions of caged animals (because they were living in cages), but they would always act civilized with whites, that is, what white people told them was civilized. But inside this “civilized” negro was an undying hate. This hate, however, could only be released in negro america. If it was ever released in white america, it would prove to white people that negroes were savages. That hate became a self-hate. So to preserve their sanity, their humanity and their white civilization, negroes had to hate themselves. And when they hated, they distinguished between those who were most like white people and those who were Black. And they hated Black people and poor negroes. (Poor negroes are those Black people with the values of negro america, but not the means.)
It is clear that the revolution will not come from negro america but from Black america, and Black america is growing. Black america is important because it is here that you will find the self-imposed exiles from both white and negro america. Black america has always offered Blacks human freedoms — a humanism uncommon to white and negro america. Some enter Black america because negro america rejects darker-skinned negroes, and, of course, if a person is rejected by negro america, he is automatically rejected by white america. Other people enter Black america because of some experience they had in their childhood. Still others, because of something they may have read that was written by someone in Black america. Black america has existed ever since the first slave despised the injustice that was done to him and did not seek to accommodate himself to that injustice. Thus, there have always been people who could articulate these injustices and could discuss what the response to these injustices should be. It is self-evident that people always rebel against oppression and there has been one continuous rebellion in Black america since the first slave got here.
I was born into a family of dark-skinned negroes, but I’m what many consider a red nigger. My mother, my father, my brother Ed and my sister are all darker than I am. Because I was lighter, it meant that I was supposed to get ahead. So my mother gave me what I would call preferential treatment. Because of this there was a lot of rivalry between my brother Ed and myself. He and I weren’t “tight” when we were young. He thought that our mother treated me better than she did him. In negro america the more you look like buttermilk, the prettier you’re supposed to be. This is color prejudice. I don’t think that my mother was conscious of all this, but it happened a lot of times. So Ed and I used to have a lot of conflicts. I didn’t want it that way. Ed was my older brother and I looked up to him. But he didn’t want me hanging around him.
Ed and I are very close now and that color thing doesn’t come between us anymore. But it’s a thing which could really damage the Black community if people don’t begin to understand it. There are nationalist groups that won’t accept light-complexioned Blacks. What they’re doing is helping the white man, because they’re creating the potential for a divisive fight inside the Black community. And it’s totally unnecessary and damaging. The government is doing enough to try and divide the Black community. We shouldn’t be helping them. We must learn that Black is not a color but the way you think.
If we are to succeed in the struggle we must eliminate the significance that we have assigned to color in our community. The range of Black runs from the brother who is Black enough to poot smoke, to the blood who is pale with the rape of Mothers. Among Black people color can have no value, no significance. Commitment will determine the value of individuals. If I had identified with the attitudes of white-minded negroes and then come home to my dark-skinned brother and family, I wouldn’t have been able to accept them. But that wasn’t a problem for me, because I knew who I wanted to identify with. It was the bloods in my neighborhood, the guys who hung out down on the corner. The Black community, in other words. I always hung out with cats who had made hanging out a profession. I found that it took special skills to hang out 14 hours just laying and playing.
My first institutionalized schooling came in an orphanage — Blundon Orphanage Home. It was operated by white missionaries whose role was similar to that of whites in Africa. Civilize the savage through Christianity. Savages in this case being Black kids from families too poor to support them. The school had the look of a huge plantation with two big shabby old buildings located near the bottom of the hill and a relatively well-kept building at the top. The grounds around the building at the top of the hill were also well-kept with trees and shrubs and Keep-Off signs. More attention, in fact, was paid to the grounds on the “hill” than was paid to the two buildings in the “Bottom.” Each of the “Big Houses,” as they were called, had classrooms on the bottom floors and living quarters above. All of the teachers and students in the school were Black. The Black residents were of all ages and basically responsible for each other. The older children attended to the needs of the smaller children. Children of all ages were expected to work and were assigned jobs.
This was my first real contact with a world bigger and badder than that of my street. You had to excel in either fighting, running or tomming; I integrated the three. In this world, the heroes were bloods who will never be remembered outside our Black community. Cats like Pie-man, Ig, Yank, Smokey, Hawk, Lil Nel — all bad muthafuckas. Young bloods wanted to be like these brothers. They were the men in our community. They had all the women and had made their way to the top through sports and knowing the streets. So to us, the most important thing was to excel in athletics. Recess was the most essential part of the school day, for we could practice our skills. One play could make or break you. We all lived for the big play. For many it never came.
Once I’d established my reputation, cats respected it. “You don’t mess with Rap, cause he’s our man.” If I went out of my neighborhood, though, it was another story. I’d be on somebody else’s turf and would have to make it or take it over there. So there was always a lot of fighting and competition among the young brothers.
It really gets bad when you get to high school. In high school there’s always rivalry between the football teams of the two high schools in town or something like that. But it’s more than athletic rivalry. It may start on the football field, but it’s carried to the street. In Baton Rouge there was a rivalry between McKinley High and Capitol High. You’d think the students were two totally different races. People were perpetually at war. I mean they were really at war. Gangs from South Baton Rouge would be expected to fight dudes from the Park. Dudes from the Park couldn’t come to South Baton Rouge and vice-versa unless they were bad muthafuckas. And if they were caught, being bad didn’t make no difference.
That type of rivalry still exists. It’s perpetuated by the schools, by the negroes in authority who pretend they’re handling it, but don’t. The whole fever pitch which builds up in those gangs is transferred from the people who are being “educated” to the cats who hang around the streets.
But when most of us rivals went on to college, then college made a kind of bond between us. The athletes who had scholarships and the cats who worked during the summer to get that tuition came to college and then they became allies against dudes from other cities. Like, “you my homeboy, and the dude who ain’t from around here, he ain’t one of us.” Yeah, well that’s part of that whole primitive thing and it’s very dangerous. Given the destruction by slavery of both tribe and culture, negroes created a new kind of american tribalism. A tribalism based on the exclusion of certain types. A deliberate attempt to make race a secondary consideration. There are tribes and tribes of negroes. The A.K.A. tribe, Kappa tribe, Doctor tribe, Teacher tribe, Entertainer tribe, High School tribe, College tribe, etc. This tribalism has extended into what is called the “Movement.” “Militant” tribes compete against other “militant” tribes and “moderate” tribes, to promote tribal interests and not the interests of the race or the masses. We treat revolution as if it is an historic process rather than an evolutionary movement. In other words, we all got a monopoly on truth. Whites who consider themselves allies add to this by deciding which tribe is “correct” and which is “incorrect.” In other words, the one which best fits their needs. As a result of this kind of external control, tribes engage in fratricide (unknowingly in most cases) to gain the favor of the white “ally.” Tribe is placed above race. It is not uncommon to hear negroes say, “My loyalty is to my Frat., God, and my country, in that order.”
When a race of people is oppressed within a system that fosters the idea of competitive individualism, the political polarization around individual interests prevents group interests. Each negro prides himself on his ability to reason or think as an individual. Therefore, any gains are to the individual and not to the group. So individuals join tribes or groups to further their own personal ambitions. It’s one of the things that keeps us fighting ourselves instead of the enemy. Black people have always been ready to shoot and cut each other up. The weekend is always wartime in the Black community. Every week when Friday rolls around, you know that somebody is gon’ get killed before church time Sunday morning. But let one white man come down the street acting bad and all he got in his pocket is a toothpick, all of them bad niggers, niggers ready to kill in a minute, be hiding in the alleys or be grinning and bowing. “Yassuh, Mr. White Man.” White bleeds just as red as Black does, but you can only prove it by hearsay. And the press has done a job on negroes and whites, because it makes you think that Black people are killing 14 white folks a day. But even J. Edgar Hoover, with his faggot ass, admits that more Black folks kill Black folks than Blacks kill whites. But everybody thinks that we’re killing white folks. Uh-uh. We’re still killing off each other. Even a lot of these so-called “militants” go around pulling their 22’s on Black people and “tomming” when the white man comes around. And they supposed to be so muthafucking bad. Yeah, we are bad when it comes to us. And the white man sits back and laughs ’cause niggers ain’t got no better sense than to be fighting one another.
However, we must understand the many ways in which the white man brainwashes people into acting and thinking like he wants them to so he can continue to control them.
You grow up in Black america and it’s like living in a pressure cooker. Babies become men without going through childhood. And when you become a man, you got nothing to look forward to and nothing to look back on. So what do you make it on? The wine bottle, the reefer or Jesus. A taste of grape, the weed or the cross. These are our painkillers.
I knew dudes who were old men by the time they were seven. That’s the age when little white kids are dreaming about fairy princesses and Cinderella and playing in tree houses and wondering whether they want two cars or four cars when they grow up. We didn’t have time for all that. Didn’t even have time for childhood. If you acted like a child, you didn’t survive and that’s all there was to it. Hell, you be walking home from school and up come some high school dudes who’d jack you up and take the little dime your mama had given you to buy some candy with. So what’d you do? Jump some dude who was younger and littler than you and take his dime. And pretty soon you started carrying a razor blade, a switch blade or just a pocketful of rocks so you could protect yourself as a man. You had to if you were going to survive.
White folks get all righteous and wonder why Black people steal and gamble. Same reason white folks do. We need money, because the society says you must have it to keep from starving. If you got it, you eat. If you don’t, tough. But white people are able to make their stealing and gambling legitimate. White man’ll sell you a $20 suit for $50 and call it good business. What he actually did was steal $30. White man’ll buy a watch for $5.00 sell it for $49.95 and call the difference, profit. Profit is a nice word for stealing which the society has legitimatized. Catholics go to church every week and gamble, but they call it Bingo. The Pope blesses ’em, so it’s all right. The state of Nevada is built on a deck of cards and a roulette wheel, but that’s okay, ’cause it’s white folks that passed the law saying it was okay. But you let us get over in the corner of the alley with some dice and try to make a little profit and here come the police, the judge, the jailer and the sociology student. We get thrown into jail for gambling or stealing. White folks go to Congress for stealing and they call that democracy.
America is a country that makes you want things, but doesn’t give you the means to get those things. Little Black children sit in front of the t.v. set and all they see are fine cars, perfumes, clothes and everything else they ain’t got. They sit there and watch it, telling the rats to sit down and stop blocking their view. Ain’t nobody told them, though, that they don’t have any way of getting any of that stuff. They couldn’t even get full at supper, but that don’t matter. They want an Oldsmobile. So next day during recess, they go off in a corner of the schoolyard and pitch pennies, play Odd Man Wins, Heads-up Basketball for a quarter, Pitty-Pat for a nickel, Old Maid for a penny. Once they become pros at that, they move on up to Tonk, Black Jack and Craps. After school, there’s the pinball machines. Some of them little dudes could barely see the game board, but they would be there, jim, shoving nickels in the machine, trying to manipulate the lights into a straight line. You could win 50 cents or a dollar and if you were lucky, $5.00. Once you graduated from the pinball machine, you entered the poolroom.
America’s a bitch. Being Black in this country is like somebody asking you to play white Russian roulette and giving you a gun with bullets in all the chambers. Any way you go, jim, that’s your ass. America says you got to have money to live and to get money you got to have a job. To get a job, you got to have an education. So along comes a Black man and he gets a worse than inferior education so he can’t qualify for a job he couldn’t get because he was Black to begin with and still he’s supposed to eat, keep his family together, pay the rent and buy an Oldsmobile. And white folks wonder why niggers steel and gamble. I only wish we would stop this petty stealing and take care of Chase Manhattan Bank, Fort Knox or some armories.
There was this blood I grew up with named J.S. He was a smart dude, particularly in math. Dude would have given a computer competition. He lived with his aunt, who worked as a maid, and three sisters. Cause his aunt was a maid, she didn’t make hardly nothing. White folks love to pay their niggers in old clothes and leftovers. So he couldn’t dress like some of the other students whose parents were making it in negro america. The teachers were all trying to make it in negro america too. They took a bath once a day and wiped under their arms and between their legs twice a day and always tried to smell like they lived in perfume bottles. Well, I know how my man must’ve felt sitting in class in front of some bitch like this. He felt like a piece of shit, particularly when the teacher would stand up in front of the class and talk about him ’cause his clothes were dirty. You damned right his clothes were dirty! His aunt worked from can to can’t, and by the time she got home at night she was too tired to bend over the scrub board to wash out some clothes for J.S. to wear every day. She did the best she could.
J.S. was as smart as anybody in school and he showed it, too, but in negro america if you didn’t have the right color, the right clothes, and the right manners, sorry for you. Them teachers were slick, though, when it came to telling a kid he wasn’t shit. They were always going out of the room to stand in the hall and gossip with the other teachers. When they did, they’d leave a student in charge to sit behind the desk and take the names of the students who talked or cut up. And always, the one left in charge was light, bright and almost white. If a light-skinned student was reciting in class, the teacher had the patience of Job, the understanding of Solomon and the expectations of God Almighty himself. But you let a sho-nuf blood just pause when he was reciting and the teacher told him to sit down in a voice filled with hatred. “I didn’t expect you to know it anyway,” the teacher would sometimes say, meaning, you’re black. You’re black! You’re black!
The teachers had to tell J.S. he was smart, ’cause it was so obvious. But they made a point of letting him know that being smart wasn’t enough if your hair was uncombed, your clothes a little dirty, your skin a little ashy and your manners not the best. In other words, you may be smart, but you black! So J.S. learned pretty quick that there wasn’t no reward in being smart and that it didn’t have a damned thing to do with surviving.
But this is the kind of education we were subjected to. Education ain’t just what comes out of the books, but it’s everything that goes on in the school. And if you leave school hating yourself, then it doesn’t matter how much you know. Education in america has to be viewed as propaganda machinery. All educational systems are propaganda machines, but for Black people, the american educational system is a propaganda machine we don’t need. It propagandizes against us. It makes us hate ourselves.
I began realizing this when I was in high school. I saw no sense in reading Shakespeare. After I read Othello, it was obvious that Shakespeare was a racist. From reading his poetry, I gathered that he was a faggot. But we never discussed the racist attitude expressed in his works. This was when I really began to raise questions. I was in constant conflict with my teachers in high school. I would interpret the thing one way and they would say it’s wrong. Well, how could they tell me what Shakespeare was thinking. I knew then that something was wrong, unless the teachers had a monopoly on truth or were communicating with the dead.
Part of my mother’s whole attempt to make us a part of negro america was that she took us out of McKinley High and sent us to Southern High. Anybody who could pay $12 a year could go and that was for the activities card. So, you see how jive the thing was. It was connected with the negro college in Baton Rouge, Southern University, and it was really set up so the teachers at Southern wouldn’t have to send their children to school with Black kids. It was a crock of shit, but it had an air of “respectability.” This was where all the bourgeois negroes were supposed to go.
It could’ve created problems for me, because if I had identified with most of the white-minded negroes at school, I wouldn’t have been able to relate to brothers on the block. Worse than that, I would’ve thought that I was better than them. It’s like the whole school busing thing now. Busing Black children to schools outside the Black community is nothing but a move to divide the community. If integration is what’s wanted, then bus the whole community. But to take individuals out of the community is a very dangerous and immoral thing. The “brightest” students are taken, students who can fit into the white man’s program best, and they’re bused out of the community so they can come back and articulate the white man’s program. That splits the community. Parents who sent their children to white schools in the South made a mistake. They injured those students mentally for life. To send a Black kid to a school full of howling maniacs. Madmen! Wildmen! Animals! And those Black kids got their minds messed up. You send a student to a white school and he has to come home to a Black family and a Black community. It messes him up and it messes the community up. This is a deliberate part of “the man’s” game.
I could’ve gotten messed up like that at Southern High if I hadn’t known where it was at and what was happening. But I didn’t change myself to fit that phony-ass atmosphere and try to be respectable and all that shit. Me and Southern High had quite a few conflicts. One time I got put out of school for wearing my shirt out of my pants. Another time I got put out for cursing out a teacher.
Ed and my sister, who’re both older than I, went to the same school. So when I came along, I had to go through the same teachers they’d gone through. The teachers said I should be just like them. I should open doors for them and shit like that. Just like my family had always said I should do things like Ed. So when I wouldn’t do all these things and started raising hell, my homeroom teacher started criticizing me. One day I got sick of that shit and I cussed her out. I got put out of school for that.
I was always at odds with teachers. There are certain things in negro institutions that you have to do if you expect to make good grades and certain things you don’t do. One of those things is you don’t talk back. You don’t challenge the existing order. Well, I challenge anything that doesn’t make good sense.
Another time in high school they called my mother in about me because I got into it with one of the dudes teaching shop. I knew he was screwing my homeroom teacher, so I didn’t have no respect for him, especially since I knew his wife. Us young dudes in the Black community directed our aggression against negroes who had these positions because there was a failure on their part to take out their aggression against white people. But, these negroes in position would always direct their grievances toward Black students. They got mad at us ’cause the white man was mistreating them, and we got mad at them ’cause they let the white man mistreat ’em and then turned around and mistreated us, on top of the white man mistreating all of us.
But I stayed in school, ’cause I wasn’t willing to get caught in another trick that eventually led to long sentences in jail or ending up in the gutter one night with a knife in your back. A lot of bloods, though, couldn’t cut school. When they came, it was to practice the education they’d been getting out in the street. While we were still in elementary school, J.S. would wait for recess to get out to the playground where he’d sneak a deck of cards out of his pocket, get way off in a corner and start gambling. After school, we’d go home and J.S. would go on down to the pool hall. By the time he was fourteen, he was dealing in a gambling club in West Baton Rouge. After a while he quit school. Working at the club like he was, he was ready to go to bed when the rest of us were getting up to go to classes. We used to see him in the afternoon, though. He’d drop by the school and be vined down. He was clean, jim. Had him a conk then and he knew he was ready.
After a while the state police started cracking down on gambling and J.S. cut out of Baton Rouge and started following the action from Biloxi, Mississippi, over to Houston, Texas, and back again. He was sixteen.
It was a couple of years later when I saw him again. I’d just entered college. I was thumbing my way to school when who should I see hanging out on the corner but J.S., looking clean. I went up to him. We greeted each other like we were ol’ cut-buddies, but after all the greeting and slapping hands, we found it hard to talk to each other. Too many different kinds of experience had come between us. He was my nigger, but J.S. had made a way of life on the block which I just figured had aged him. It was a rough life. Drinking, fighting, dodging the police, gambling — it can wear a man down fast. I looked at J.S. and it was beginning to show on him. His eyes once used to shine, but they’d gotten dull and red. His face was getting tight and there were wrinkles starting to crawl across his forehead. He told me that he’d just gotten out of the joint on a concealed weapons charge. Plus he told me that when gambling and living off women wasn’t enough to survive, he’d become a cat burglar and a fence on the side. But he definitely wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. Only thing he was unhappy about was that his luck in gambling was off. We went and got some “pluck” (wine) and I told him I was in college. He asked what I wanted to be. I told him rich. He looked up at the ceiling and paused for a minute before he said, “You know, I’ve never given any thought to what I want to become.” I told him he should think about it, but I knew I was shuckin’ and jivin’. Hell, hardly any of us had ever thought about what we wanted to become. What was the future? That was something white folks had. We just lived from day to day, expecting whatever life put on us and dealing with it the best way we knew how when it came. I had accepted the big lie of a Black man succeeding.
I remembered that J.S. was always good with math. I knew how to count money and always figured I didn’t need to know no more about numbers, but I had to take math in college. So I showed J.S. some of the math problems I had been having trouble with and he looked ’em over for a short while and knocked ’em out in no time. He said he’d tutor me in math. I told him that was cool. But that was the last time I saw him. A couple of weeks later he shot and killed some dude and the judge gave him life. He was eighteen.
That’s the way the deal goes down for a lot of bloods. Wiped out by the time they’re eighteen and don’t ever really know why. He was rebelling against the way the cards were stacked against him and even his rebellion was a stacked deck. He lived his life the way he saw it, made his own laws, but what was legal in our world wasn’t “legal” in the white world and eventually he went down.
My ol’ lady wanted to keep all that away from me. Didn’t want me to know anything about it. I guess she called it protecting me, but I had to be out there where the action was. She thought I should be in the house reading books like Ed so I could make my way in negro america, but I wasn’t hearing that. I never was one for too much reading anyway. Too, how was I supposed to stay on top of what was going down if I was sitting up in the house with a book. If you were going to stay in control, you had to be in the street.
The street is where young bloods get their education. I learned how to talk in the street, not from reading about Dick and Jane going to the zoo and all that simple shit. The teacher would test our vocabulary each week, but we knew the vocabulary we needed. They’d give us arithmetic to exercise our minds. Hell, we exercised our minds by playing the Dozens.
I fucked your mama
Till she went blind.
Her breath smells bad,
But she sure can grind.
I fucked your mama
For a solid hour.
Baby came out
Screaming, Black Power.
Elephant and the Baboon
Learning to screw.
Baby came out looking
Like Spiro Agnew.
And the teacher expected me to sit up in class and study poetry after I could run down shit like that. If anybody needed to study poetry, she needed to study mine. We played the Dozens for recreation, like white folks play Scrabble.
In many ways, though, the Dozens is a mean game because what you try to do is totally destroy somebody else with words. It’s that whole competition thing again, fighting each other. There’d be sometimes 40 or 50 dudes standing around and the winner was determined by the way they responded to what was said. If you fell all over each other laughing, then you knew you’d scored. It was a bad scene for the dude that was getting humiliated. I seldom was. That’s why they call me Rap, ’cause I could rap. (The name stuck because Ed would always say, “That my nigger Rap,” “Rap my nigger.”) But for dudes who couldn’t, it was like they were humiliated because they were born Black and then they turned around and got humiliated by their own people, which was really all they had left. But that’s the way it is. Those that feel most humiliated humiliate others. The real aim of the Dozens was to get a dude so mad that he’d cry or get mad enough to fight. You’d say shit like, “Man, tell your mama to stop coming around my house all the time. I’m tired of fucking her and I think you should know that it ain’t no accident you look like me.” And it could go on for hours sometimes. Some of the best Dozens players were girls.
Signifying is more humane. Instead of coming down on somebody’s mother, you come down on them. But, before you can signify you got to be able to rap. A session would start maybe by a brother saying, “Man, before you mess with me you’d rather run rabbits, eat shit and bark at the moon.” Then, if he was talking to me, I’d tell him:
Man, you must don’t know who I am.
I’m sweet peeter jeeter the womb beater
The baby maker the cradle shaker
The deerslayer the buckbinder the women finder
Known from the Gold Coast to the rocky shores of Maine
Rap is my name and love is my game.
I’m the bed tucker the cock plucker the motherfucker
The milkshaker the record breaker the population maker
The gun-slinger the baby bringer
The hum-dinger the pussy ringer
The man with the terrible middle finger.
The hard hitter the bullshitter the poly-nussy getter
The beast from the East the Judge the sludge
The women’s pet the men’s fret and the punks’ pin-up boy.
They call me Rap the dicker the ass kicker
The cherry picker the city slicker the titty licker
And I ain’t giving up nothing but bubble gum and hard times and I’m fresh out of bubble gum.
I’m giving up wooden nickels ’cause I know they won’t spend
And I got a pocketful of splinter change.
I’m a member of the bathtub club: I’m seeing a whole lot of ass but I ain’t taking no shit.
I’m the man who walked the water and tied the whale’s tail in a knot
Taught the little fishes how to swim
Crossed the burning sands and shook the devil’s hand
Rode round the world on the back of a snail carrying a sack saying AIR MAIL.
Walked 49 miles of barbwire and used a Cobra snake for a necktie
And got a brand new house on the roadside made from a cracker’s hide,
Got a brand new chimney setting on top made from the cracker’s skull
Took a hammer and nail and built the world and calls it “THE BUCKET OF BLOOD.”
Yes, I’m hemp the demp the women’s pimp
Women fight for my delight.
I’m a bad motherfucker. Rap the rip-saw the devil’s brother ‘n law.
I roam the world I’m known to wander and this .45 is where I get my thunder.
I’m the only man in the world who knows why white milk makes yellow butter.
I know where the lights go when you cut the switch off.
I might not be the best in the world, but I’m in the top two and my brother’s getting old.
And ain’t nothing bad ’bout you but your breath.
Now, if the brother couldn’t come back behind that, I usually cut him some slack (depending on time, place and his attitude). We learned what the white folks call verbal skills. We learned how to throw them words together. America, however, has Black folk in a serious game of the Dozens. (The dirty muthafucka.) Signifying allowed you a choice — you could either make a cat feel good or bad. If you had just destroyed someone or if they were just down already, signifying could help them over. Signifying was also a way of expressing your own feelings:
Man, I can’t win for losing.
If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.
I been having buzzard luck
Can’t kill nothing and won’t nothing die
I’m living on the welfare and things is stormy
They borrowing their shit from the Salvation Army
But things bound to get better ’cause they can’t get no worse
I’m just like the blind man, standing by a broken window
I don’t feel no pain.
But it’s your world
You the man I pay rent to
If I had your hands I’d give ‘way both my arms.
Cause I could do without them
I’m the man but you the main man
I read the books you write
You set the pace in the race I run
Why, you always in good form
You got more foam than Alka Seltzer. . .
Signifying at its best can be heard when brothers are exchanging tales. I used to hang out in the bars just to hear the old men ‘talking shit.’ By the time I was nine, I could talk Shine and the Titanic, Signifying Monkey, three different ways, and Piss-Pot-Peet, for two hours without stopping.
Sometimes I wonder why I even bothered to go to school. Practically everything I know I learned on the corner. Today they’re talking about teaching sex in school. But that’s white folks for you. They got to be taught to screw. They got to intellectualize everything. Now how you gon’ intellectualize screwing? At the age when little white kids were finding out that there was something down there to play with, we knew where it went and what to do with it after it got there. You weren’t a man if you hadn’t gotten yourself a little piece by the time you were seven. When the white kids were out playing Hide and Go Seek, we were playing Hide and Go Get It. One dude would count to a hundred while the girls hid. Once the girls were hidden, you went and found one and you got it. That was the game. Hide and Go Get It. None of that ol’ simple tagging a tree and yelling, ‘I got in free.’ Yeah, we got in free.
Some of the dudes started pimping early for their sisters and, sometimes, even their mama. Survival’ll make you do anything, jim. Anything! You’d be walking down the street one night and some white dude in a car would pull up next to you and say, ‘Hey, boy, you got a sister?’ or, ‘You know any nice colored girls?’ So whitey would get him a little taste of black gold for $10 or $15 and Black people helped him. It shows you just how low you can get when you sell your own women to a white man — or any man for that matter. But it’s particularly bad when they’re sold to white men. To this day, you can find the snakes in the Black community on the weekends trying to buy some Black pussy. And Black men see ’em, know what they’re there for and don’t run ’em out. Not even the so-called big, bad militants.” H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin), Die, Nigger, Die: a Political Autobiography; 1969