While schools, community centers, literary prizes, and other institutions carry Paul Laurence Dunbar’s name, his reputation has suffered from critics labeling him an accomidationist who rather than opposing white-supremacy and racism reinforced it with stereotypical images of African American characters who spoke in dialect and appeared to long for a bygone past in the Old South. Critics such as Charles T. Davis and Sterling A. Brown noted a sign of literary genius in Dunbar; however, they also saw Dunbar “misreading” African American history and culture. Dunbar came of age and wrote during the period of regionalism and the plantation tradition, a literary genre deployed by authors such as Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris that reinforced racist stereotypes of African Americans.
Critics like Davis and Brown perceived Dunbar as placating, and not transcending, the plantation tradition, thus buttressing up the ideas purported by authors such as Harris and Page. On the surface, dialect poems such as “The Banjo Song” and “The Deserted Plantation” are pieces that, as Joanna Brookes notes, “must have appealed to white Southerners who wanted to see blacks back in their place.” The poems do not lament the passing of the genteel, Old South; rather, the emancipated slaves encompass “an Afrocentric environment and enjoy each other’s company,” as Brooks continues, instead of becoming stereotypical representations of the plantation tradition.
A poet, essayist, novelist, short story writer, songwriter, playwright, and literary innovator Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872 to former slaves Joshua and Matilda from Kentucky. Joshua served in the Massachusetts 55th Regiment during the Civil War, and Matilda instilled within her son a love of literature and taught him how to read. Both of his parents told him about their lives and the lives of others, teaching him about the oral tradition and the African American experience. During his time at Dayton’s Central High School, Dunbar wrote for school’s newspaper, its humor magazine, and served as the class poet.
As a senior in 1890, Dunbar published the Dayton Tattler, a weekly, African American newspaper, with the assistance of Orville Wright. The paper only lasted for three issues because of a lack of subscriptions, but the contents of the Dayton Tattler highlight some of Dunbar’s earliest work in the form of his unfinished play The Gambler’s Wife and a poem modeled after the dialect poetry of the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Reilly entitled “Lager Beer.” Amongst the literary pieces, Dunbar’s “Saluatory” for the paper calls upon readers to, “for the sake of Heaven and the race, stop saying, and go to doing.” Instead of accommodating, Dunbar calls for action, and his work heeds that call. At times, Dunbar confronts racial injustice head on as he does in his newspaper writings such as his 1903 New York Times piece “The Fourth of July and Race Outrages” which echoes Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, commenting on the peonage system in the South and lynchings across the nation. At other times, Dunbar subverts popular beliefs about the Old South and African Americans in poems like “The Deserted Plantation.”
Partly due to the literary landscape of the period, a milieu that featured authors such as Page, Harris, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, and other regionalists, Dunbar worked within the period in which he lived, writing dialect poems and constructing characters that appeared similar to the ones those authors working in the plantation tradition deployed. However, Dunbar’s subversion works to undercut the veneer of adhering to the plantation tradition by portraying “the mask that grins and lies” while all the while destabilizing that perception by presenting his African American characters with humanity and life. Reviewing Dunbar’s second collection of poetry, Majors and Minors (1895), William Dean Howells noted Dunbar’s literary talent, but Howells also silenced African American writers who were either contemporaries with Dunbar or who came before him. Howells calls Dunbar “the first man of his color to study his race objectively, to analyze it to himself, and then to represent it in art as he felt it and found it to be.” This is the space that Dunbar entered into, a space that did not recognize or acknowledge an African American literary tradition and a space that portrayed African Americans as caricatures and stereotypes. Dunbar knew about the history of the African American press and papers such as Freedoms Journal, Ram’s Horn, and Douglass’ The North Star; he knew about the work Albery Allson Whitman, James D. Carruthers, George Martin McClellan, and his own wife Alice Dunbar-Nelson; he knew about the struggles regarding education, politics, and economics through his relationships with African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington; he knew about the struggles of slavery and life on the plantation from his parents who were enslaved in Kentucky.
The works collected here highlight the dual nature of Dunbar’s writing, existing within a literary tradition of caricatures while subverting those stereotypes from within. We need to think about Dunbar in relation to an African American literary tradition that includes authors such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Frederick Douglass, David Walker, Charles Chesnutt, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson. We also need to consider him within the context of poets such as John Greenleaf Whitter, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Whitcomb Riley; and in connection to regional authors who tackle “the problem of the color line” in America such as Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, and Kate Chopin. Taken together, the short stories and poems presented here show Dunbar working within the literary confines of his period and also confronting, through his fiction, those who heaped praise upon his dialect poems while devaluing his standard verse.
Booker T. Washington called Dunbar “the poet laureate of the Negro race,” and nearly a century later, poet Nikki Giovanni provided a description of Dunbar’s dual position: “Every artist, should he create long enough, will come full cycle again and again. The artist is a political animal as well as a sensitive being. Like any person the artist is a contradiction. Dunbar will speak of the good ole days, then say ‘We Wear the Mask.’ The message is clear and available to us if we invest in Dunbar the integrity we hope others will give us.”
For more on Paul Laurence Dunbar, see Joanna Braxton’s The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1993); Herbert Woodward Martin and Ronald Primeau’s In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar (2002); Herbert Woodward Martin, Gene Andrew Jarrett, and Ronald Primeau’s The Collected Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar (2009); Willie J. Harrell, Jr.’s edited collection We Wear the Mask: Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Politics of Representative Reality (2010)
Nelse Hatton’s Vengeance
It was at the close of a summer day, and the sun was sinking dimly red over the hills of the little Ohio town which, for convenience, let us call Dexter.
The people had eaten their suppers, and the male portion of the families had come out in front of their houses to smoke and rest or read the evening paper. Those who had porches drew their rockers out on them, and sat with their feet on the railing. Others took their more humble positions on the front steps, while still others, whose houses were flush with the street, went even so far as to bring their chairs out upon the sidewalk, and over all there was an air of calmness and repose save when a glance through the open doors revealed the housewives busy at their evening dishes, or the blithe voices of the children playing in the street told that little Sally Waters was a-sitting in a saucer or asserted with doubtful veracity that London Bridge was falling down. Here and there a belated fisherman came straggling up the street that led from the river, every now and then holding up his string of slimy, wig gling catfish in answer to the query ” Wha’ ‘d you ketch? ”
To one who knew the generous and unprejudiced spirit of the Dexterites, it was no matter of wonder that one of their soundest and most highly respected citizens was a coloured man, and that his home should nestle unrebuked among the homes of his white neighbours.
Nelse Hatton had won the love and respect of his fellow-citizens by the straightforward honesty of his conduct and the warmth of his heart. Everybody knew him. He had been doing chores about Dexter, — cutting grass in summer, cleaning and laying carpets in the spring and fall, and tending furnaces in the winter, — since the time when, a newly emancipated man, he had passed over from Kentucky into Ohio. Since then through thrift he had attained quite a competence, and, as he himself expressed it, “owned some little propity.” He was one among the number who had arisen to the dignity of a porch; and on this evening he was sitting thereon, laboriously spelling out the sentences in the Evening News — his reading was a post-bellum accomplishment — when the oldest of his three children, Theodore, a boy of twelve, interrupted him with the intelligence that there was an ” old straggler at the back door.”
After admonishing the hope of his years as to the impropriety of applying such a term to an unfortunate, the father rose and sought the place where the “straggler” awaited him.
Nelse’s sympathetic heart throbbed with pity at the sight that met his eye. The ” straggler,” a ” thing of shreds and patches,” was a man about his own age, nearing fifty; but what a contrast he was to the well-preserved, well-clothed black man! His gray hair straggled carelessly about his sunken temples, and the face beneath it was thin and emaciated. The hands that pulled at the fringe of the ragged coat were small and bony. But both the face and the hands were clean, and there was an open look in the bold, dark eye.
In strong contrast, too, with his appearance was the firm, well-modulated voice, somewhat roughened by exposure, in which he said, “I am very hungry; will you give me something to eat ? ” It was a voice that might have spoken with authority. There was none of the beggar’s whine in it. It was clear and straight forward; and the man spoke the simple sentence almost as if it had been a protest against his sad condition.
“Jes’ set down on the step an’ git cool,” answered Nelse, ” an’ I ‘ll have something put on the table.” The stranger silently did as he was bidden, and his host turned into the house. Eliza Hatton had been quietly watching proceedings, and as her husband entered the kitchen she said, ” Look a-here, Nelse, you shorely ain’t a-goin’ to have that tramp in the kitchen a-settin’ up to the table \? ”
“Why, course,” said Nelse; “he’s human, ain’t he?”
“That don’t make no difference. I bet none of these white folks round here would do it.”
“That ain’t none of my business,” answered her husband. ” I believe in every person doin’ their own duty. Put somethin’ down on the table; the man ‘s hungry. An’ don’t never git stuck up, ‘Lizy; you don’t know what our children have got to come to.”
Nelse Hatton was a man of few words; but there was a positive manner about him at times that admitted of neither argument nor resistance.
His wife did as she was bidden, and then swept out in the majesty of wounded dignity, as the tramp was ushered in and seated before the table whose immaculate white cloth she had been prudent enough to change for a red one.
The man ate as if he were hungry, but always as if he were a hungry gentleman. There was something in his manner that impressed Nelse that he was not feeding a common tramp as he sat and looked at his visitor in polite curiosity. After a somewhat continued silence he addressed the man: ” Why don’t you go to your own people when you ‘re hungry instead of coming to us coloured folks?”
There was no reproof in his tone, only inquiry.
The stranger’s eyes flashed suddenly.
“Go to them up here? ” he said; “never. They would give me my supper with their hypocritical patronage and put it down to charity. You give me something to eat as a favour. Your gift proceeds from disinterested kindness; they would throw me a bone because they thought it would weigh something in the balance against their sins. To you I am an unfortunate man; to them I am a tramp.”
The stranger had spoken with much heat and no hesitation; but his ardour did not take the form of offence at Nelse’s question. He seemed perfectly to comprehend the motive which actuated it.
Nelse had listened to him with close attention, and at the end of his harangue he said, ” You had n’t ought to be so hard on your own people; they mean well enough.” ” My own people!” the stranger flashed back. “My people are the people of the South, — the people who have in their veins the warm, generous blood of Dixie!”
“I don’t see what you stay in the North fur ef you don’t like the people.”
” I am not staying; I ‘m getting away from it as fast as I can. I only came because I thought, like a lot of other poor fools, that the North had destroyed my fortunes and it might restore them; but five years of fruitless struggle in different places out of Dixie have shown me that it is n’t the place for a man with blood in his veins. I thought that I was reconstructed; but I ‘m not. My State did n’t need it, but I did.”
did.” ” Where ‘re you from? ”
“Kentucky ; and there’s where I ‘m bound for now. I want to get back where people have hearts and sympathies.”
The coloured man was silent. After a while he said, and his voice was tremulous as he thought of the past, “I ‘m from Kintucky, myself.”
“I knew that you were from some place in the South. There’s no mistaking our people, black or white, wherever you meet them. Kentucky ‘s a great State, sir. She did n’t secede; but there were lots of her sons on the other side. I was; and I did my duty as clear as I could see it.”
“That’s all any man kin do,” said Nelse ; ” an’ I ain’t a-blamin’ you. I lived with as good people as ever was. I know they would n’t ‘a’ done nothin’ wrong ef they ‘d ‘a’ knowed it; an’ they was on the other side.”
“You ‘ve been a slave, then? ”
“Oh, yes, I was born a slave; but the War freed me.”
” I reckon you would n’t think that my folks ever owned slaves; but they did. Everybody was good to them except me, and I was young and liked to show my authority. I had a little black boy that I used to cuff around a good deal, altho’ he was near to me as a brother. But sometimes he would turn on me and give me the trouncing that I deserved. He would have been skinned for it if my father had found it out; but I was always too much ashamed of being thrashed to tell.”
The speaker laughed, and Nelse joined him. ” Bless my soul! ” he said, ” ef that ain’t jes’ the way it was with me an’ my Mas’ Tom — ”
” Mas’ Tom! ” cried the stranger; ” man, what’s your name? ”
” Nelse Hatton,” replied the Negro.
“Heavens, Nelse! I ‘m your young Mas’ Tom. I ‘m Tom Hatton; don’t you know me, boy?”
“You can’t be — you can’t be!” exclaimed the Negro.
“I am, I tell you. Don’t you remember the scar I got on my head from falling off old Baldy’s back? Here it is. Can’t you see?” cried the stranger, lifting the long hair away from one side of his brow. ” Does n’t this convince you?”
“It’s you — it’s you; ‘t ain’t nobody else but Mas’ Tom! ” and the ex-slave and his former master rushed joyously into each other’s arms.
There was no distinction of colour or condi tion there. There was no thought of superior ity on the one hand, or feeling of inferiority on the other. They were simply two loving friends who had been long parted and had met again.
After a while the Negro said, ” I ‘m sure the Lord must ‘a’ sent you right here to this house, so ‘s you would n’t be eatin’ off o’ none o’ these poor white people ’round here.”
“I reckon you ‘re religious now, Nelse; but I see it ain’t changed your feeling toward poor white people.”
“I don’t know about that. I used to be purty bad about ’em.”
“Indeed you did. Do you remember the time we stoned the house of old Nat, the white wood-sawyer?”
“Well, I reckon I do! Was n’t we awful, them days? ” said Nelse, with forced contrition, but with something almost like a chuckle in his voice.
And yet there was a great struggle going on in the mind of this black man. Thirty years of freedom and the advantages of a Northern State made his whole soul revolt at the word ” master.” But that fine feeling, that tender sympathy, which is natural to the real Negro, made him hesitate to make the poor wreck of former glory conscious of his changed estate by using a different appellation. His warm sympathies conquered.
“I want you to see my wife and boys, Mas’ Tom,” he said, as he passed out of the room.
Eliza Hatton sat in her neatly appointed little front room, swelling with impotent rage.
If this story were chronicling the doings of some fanciful Negro, or some really rude plantation hand, it might be said that the ” front room was filled with a conglomeration of cheap but pretentious furniture, and the walls covered with gaudy prints ” — this seems to be the usual phrase. But in it the chronicler too often for gets how many Negroes were house-servants, and from close contact with their master’s families imbibed aristocratic notions and quiet but elegant tastes.
This front room was very quiet in its appointments. Everything in it was subdued except — Mrs. Hatton. She was rocking back and forth in a light little rocker that screeched the indignation she could not express. She did not deign to look at Nelse as he came into the room; but an acceleration of speed on the part of the rocker showed that his presence was known.
Her husband’s enthusiasm suddenly died out as he looked at her ; but he put on a brave face as he said, —
“‘Lizy, I bet a cent you can’t guess who that pore man in there is.”
The rocker suddenly stopped its violent motion with an equally violent jerk, as the angry woman turned upon her husband.
“No, I can’t guess,” she cried;” an’ I don’t want to. It’s enough to be settin’ an on’ry ol’ tramp down to my clean table, without havin’ me spend my time guessin’ who he is.”
“But look a-here, ‘Lizy, this is all different; an’ you don’t understand.”
“Don’t care how different it is, I do’ want to understand.” ” You ‘ll be mighty su’prised, I tell you.” “I ‘low I will; I ‘m su’prised already at you puttin’ yourself on a level with tramps.” This with fine scorn.
“Be careful, ‘Lizy, be careful ; you don’t know who a tramp may turn out to be.”
“That ol’ humbug in there has been tellin’ you some big tale, an’ you ain’t got no more sense ‘an to believe it; I ‘spect he’s crammin’ his pockets full of my things now. Ef you don’t care, I do.”
The woman rose and started toward the door, but her husband stopped her. ” You must n’t go out there that way,” he said. ” I want you to go out, you an’ the childern; but I want you to go right — that man is the son of my ol’ master, my young Mas’ Tom, as I used to call him.”
She fell back suddenly and stared at him with wide-open eyes.
“Yes, it’s young Mas’ Tom Hatton.”
“An’ you want me an’ the childern to see him, do you? ”
“Why, yes, I thought — ”
“Humph! that’s the slave in you yet,” she interrupted. “I thought thirty years had made you free! Ain’t that the man you told me used to knock you ’round so?”
“Yes, ‘Lizy ; but —”
“Ain’t he the one that made you haul him in the wheelbar’, an’ whipped you because you could n’t go fast enough?”
“Yes, yes ; but that —“
“Ain’t he the one that lef ‘ that scar there?” she cried, with a sudden motion of her hand toward his neck.
“Yes,” said Nelse, very quietly; but he put his hand up and felt the long, cruel scar that the lash of a whip had left, and a hard light came into his eyes.
His wife went on: “An’ you want to take me an’ the childern in to see that man? No!” The word came with almost a snarl. “Me an’ my childern are free born, an’, ef I kin help it, they sha’n’t never look at the man that laid the lash to their father’s back! Shame on you, Nelse, shame on you, to want your childern, that you ‘re tryin’ to raise independent,—to want ’em to see the man that you had to call ‘master’!”
The man’s lips quivered, and his hand opened and shut with a convulsive motion; but he said nothing.
“What did you tell me?” she asked. “Did n’t you say that if you ever met him again in this world you ‘d—”
“Kill him!” burst forth the man ; and all the old, gentle look had gone out of his face, and there was nothing but fierceness and bitterness there, as his mind went back to his many wrongs.
“Go on away from the house, ‘Lizy,” he said hoarsely; “if anything happens, I do’ want you an’ the childern around.”
“I do’ want you to kill him, Nelse, so you ‘ll git into trouble; but jes’ give him one good whippin’ for those he used to give you.”
“Go on away from the house;” and the man’s lips were tightly closed. She threw a thin shawl over her head and went out.
As soon as she had gone Nelse’s intense feeling got the better of him, and, falling down with his face in a chair, he cried, in the language which the Sunday sermons had taught him, “Lord, Lord, thou hast delivered mine enemy into my hands!”
But it was not a prayer; it was rather a cry of anger and anguish from an overburdened heart. He rose, with the same hard gleam in his eyes, and went back toward the kitchen. One hand was tightly clinched till the muscles and veins stood out like cords, and with the other he unconsciously fingered the lash’s scar.
“Couldn’t find your folks, eh, Nelse?” said the white Hatton.
“No,” growled Nelse; and continued hurriedly, “Do you remember that scar?”
“Well enough — well enough,” answered the other, sadly; “and it must have hurt you, Nelse.”
“Hurt me! yes,” cried the Negro.
“Ay,” said Tom Hatton, as he rose and put his hand softly on the black scar; ” and it has hurt me many a day since, though time and time again I have suffered pains that were as cruel as this must have been to you. Think of it, Nelse; there have been times when I, a Hatton, have asked bread of the very people whom a few years ago I scorned. Since the War everything has gone against me. You do not know how I have suffered. For thirty years life has been a curse to me; but I am going back to Kentucky now, and when I get there I ‘ll lay it down without a regret.”
All the anger had melted from the Negro’s face, and there were tears in his eyes as he cried, “You sha’n’t do it, Mas’ Tom,—you sha’n’t do it.”
His destructive instinct had turned to one of preservation.
“But, Nelse, I have no further hopes,” said the dejected man.
“You have, and you shall have. You ‘re goin’ back to Kintucky, an’ you ‘re goin’ back a gentleman. I kin he’p you, an’ I will; you ‘re welcome to the last I have.”
“God bless you, Nelse —”
“Mas’ Tom, you used to be jes’ about my size, but you ‘re slimmer now ; but — but I hope you won’t be mad ef I ask you to put on a suit o’ mine. It’s put’ nigh brand-new, an’ —”
“Nelse, I can’t do it ! Is this the way you pay me for the blows —”
“Heish your mouth; ef you don’t I ‘ll slap you down!” Nelse said it with mock solemnity, but there was an ominous quiver about his lips.
“Come in this room, suh; ” and the master obeyed. He came out arrayed in Nelse’s best and newest suit. The coloured man went to a drawer, over which he bent laboriously. Then he turned and said: “This ‘ll pay your passage to Kintucky, an’ leave somethin’ in your pocket besides. Go home, Mas’ Tom, — go home!”
“Nelse, I can’t do it ; this is too much!”
“Doggone my cats, ef you don’t go on —”
The white man stood bowed for a moment; then, straightening up, he threw his head back. ” I ‘ll take it, Nelse ; but you shall have every cent back, even if I have to sell my body to a medical college and use a gun to deliver the goods ! Good-bye, Nelse, God bless you! good bye.”
“Good-bye, Mas’ Tom, but don’t talk that way; go home. The South is changed, an’ you ‘ll find somethin’ to suit you. Go home — go home; an’ ef there’s any of the folks a-livin’, give ’em my love, Mas’ Tom — give ’em my love — good-bye — good-bye!”
The Negro leaned over the proffered hand, and his tears dropped upon it. His master passed out, and he sat with his head bowed in his hands.
After a long while Eliza came creeping in.
“Wha’ ‘d you do to him, Nelse — wha’ ‘d you do to him?” There was no answer. “Lawd, I hope you ain’t killed him,” she said, looking fearfully around. “I don’t see no blood.”
” I ain’t killed him,” said Nelse. ” I sent him home—back to the ol’ place.”
“You sent him home! how ‘d you send him, huh?”
“I give him my Sunday suit and that money—don’t git mad, ‘Lizy, don’t git mad—that money I was savin’ for your cloak. I could n’t help it, to save my life. He’s goin’ back home among my people, an’ I sent ’em my love. Don’t git mad an’ I ‘ll git you a cloak anyhow.”
“Pleggone the cloak !” said Mrs. Hatton, suddenly, all the woman in her rising in her eyes. ” I was so ‘fraid you ‘d take my advice an’ do somethin’ wrong. Ef you ‘re happy, Nelse, I am too. I don’t grudge your master nothin’—the ol’ devil! But you ‘re jes’ a good-natured, big-hearted, weak-headed ol’ fool!” And she took his head in her arms.
Great tears rolled down the man’s cheeks, and he said: “Bless God, ‘Lizy, I feel as good as a young convert.”
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
The Deserted Plantation
The Hampton Institute Camera Club illustrated this poem in their collection of Dunbar’s poetry entitled Poems of Cabin and Field. Link here: http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/187/lyrics-of-lowly-life/3803/the-deserted-plantation/
The text or section of text to be included (lightly edited and formatted as necessary)
Oh, de grubbin’–hoe ’s a–rustin’ in de co’nah,
An’ de plow ’s a–tumblin’ down in de fiel’,
While de whippo’will ’s a–wailin’ lak a mou’nah
When his stubbo’n hea’t is tryin’ ha’d to yiel’.
In de furrers whah de co’n was allus wavin’,
Now de weeds is growin’ green an’ rank an’ tall;
An’ de swallers roun’ de whole place is a–bravin’
Lak dey thought deir folks had allus owned it all.
An’ de big house stan’s all quiet lak an’ solemn,
Not a blessed soul in pa’lor, po’ch, er lawn;
Not a guest, ner not a ca’iage lef’ to haul ‘em,
Fu’ de ones dat tu’ned de latch–string out air gone.
An’ de banjo’s voice is silent in de qua’ters,
D’ ain’t a hymn ner co’n–song ringin’ in de air;
But de murmur of a branch’s passin’ waters
Is de only soun’ dat breks de stillness dere.
Whah ’s de da’kies, dem dat used to be a–dancin’
Evry night befo’ de ole cabin do’?
Whah ’s de chillun, dem dat used to be a–prancin’
Er a–rollin’ in de san’ er on de flo’?
Whah ’s ole Uncle Mordecai an’ Uncle Aaron?
Whah ’s Aunt Doshy, Sam, an’ Kit, an’ all de res’?
Whah ’s ole Tom de da’ky fiddlah, how ’s he farin’?
Whah ’s de gals dat used to sing an’ dance de bes’?
Gone! not one o’ dem is lef’ to tell de story;
Dey have lef’ de deah ole place to fall away.
Could n’t one o’ dem dat seed it in its glory
Stay to watch it in de hour of decay?
Dey have lef’ de ole plantation to de swallers,
But it hol’s in me a lover till de las’;
Fu’ I fin’ hyeah in de memory dat follers
All dat loved me an’ dat I loved in de pas’.
So I’ll stay an’ watch de deah ole place an’ tend it
Ez I used to in de happy days gone by.
‘Twell de othah Mastah thinks it’s time to end it,
An’ calls me to my qua’ters in de sky.
The Tragedy at Three Forks
It was a drizzly, disagreeable April night. The wind was howling in a particularly dismal and malignant way along the valleys and hollows of that part of Central Kentucky in which the rural settlement of Three Forks is situated. It had been “trying to rain” all day in a half-hearted sort of manner, and now the drops were flying about in a cold spray. The night was one of dense, inky blackness, occasionally relieved by flashes of lightning. It was hardly a night on which a girl should be out. And yet one was out, scudding before the storm, with clenched teeth and wild eyes, wrapped head and shoulders in a great blanket shawl, and looking, as she sped along like a restless, dark ghost. For her, the night and the storm had no terrors; passion had driven out fear. There was determination in her every movement, and purpose was apparent in the concentration of energy with which she set her foot down. She drew the shawl closer about her head with a convulsive grip, and muttered with a half sob, “‘Tain’t the first time, ’tain’t the first time she’s tried to take me down in comp’ny, but–” and the sob gave way to the dry, sharp note in her voice, “I’ll fix her, if it kills me. She thinks I ain’t her ekals, does she? ‘Cause her pap’s got money, an’ has good crops on his lan’, an’ my pap ain’t never had no luck, but I’ll show ‘er, I’ll show ‘er that good luck can’t allus last. Pleg-take ‘er, she’s jealous, ’cause I’m better lookin’ than she is, an’ pearter in every way, so she tries to make me little in the eyes of people. Well, you’ll find out what it is to be pore–to have nothin’, Seliny Williams, if you live.”
The black night hid a gleam in the girl’s eyes, and her shawl hid a bundle of something light, which she clutched very tightly, and which smelled of kerosene.
The dark outline of a house and its outbuildings loomed into view through the dense gloom; and the increased caution with which the girl proceeded, together with the sudden breathless intentness of her conduct, indicated that it was with this house and its occupants she was concerned.
The house was cellarless, but it was raised at the four corners on heavy blocks, leaving a space between the ground and the floor, the sides of which were partly closed by banks of ashes and earth which were thrown up against the weather-boarding. It was but a few minutes’ work to scrape away a portion of this earth, and push under the pack of shavings into which the mysterious bundle resolved itself. A match was lighted, sheltered, until it blazed, and then dropped among them. It took only a short walk and a shorter time to drop a handful of burning shavings into the hay at the barn. Then the girl turned and sped away, muttering: “I reckon I’ve fixed you, Seliny Williams, mebbe, next time you meet me out at a dance, you won’t snub me; mebbe next time, you’ll be ez pore ez I am, an’ll be willin’ to dance crost from even ole ‘Lias Hunster’s gal.”
The constantly falling drizzle might have dampened the shavings and put out the fire, had not the wind fanned the sparks into too rapid a flame, which caught eagerly at shingle, board and joist until house and barn were wrapped in flames. The whinnying of the horses first woke Isaac Williams, and he sprang from bed at sight of the furious light which surrounded his house. He got his family up and out of the house, each seizing what he could of wearing apparel as he fled before the flames. Nothing else could be saved, for the fire had gained terrible headway, and its fierceness precluded all possibility of fighting it. The neighbors attracted by the lurid glare came from far and near, but the fire had done its work, and their efforts availed nothing. House, barn, stock, all, were a mass of ashes and charred cinders. Isaac Williams, who had a day before, been accounted one of the solidest farmers in the region, went out that night with his family–homeless.
Kindly neighbors took them in, and by morning the news had spread throughout all the country-side. Incendiarism was the only cause that could be assigned, and many were the speculations as to who the guilty party could be. Of course, Isaac Williams had enemies. But who among them was mean, ay, daring enough to perpetrate such a deed as this?
Conjecture was rife, but futile, until old ‘Lias Hunster, who though he hated Williams, was shocked at the deed, voiced the popular sentiment by saying, “Look a here, folks, I tell you that’s the work o’ niggers, I kin see their hand in it.”
“Niggers, o’ course,” exclaimed every one else. “Why didn’t we think of it before? It’s jest like ’em.”
Public opinion ran high and fermented until Saturday afternoon when the county paper brought the whole matter to a climax by coming out in a sulphurous account of the affair, under the scarehead:
A TERRIBLE OUTRAGE!
MOST DASTARDLY DEED EVER COMMITTED IN THE HISTORY OF
BARLOW COUNTY. A HIGHLY RESPECTED, UNOFFENDING
AND WELL-BELOVED FAMILY BURNED OUT OF HOUSE
AND HOME. NEGROES! UNDOUBTEDLY THE
PERPETRATORS OF THE DEED!
The article went on to give the facts of the case, and many more supposed facts, which had originated entirely in the mind of the correspondent. Among these facts was the intelligence that some strange negroes had been seen lurking in the vicinity the day before the catastrophe and that a party of citizens and farmers were scouring the surrounding country in search of them. “They would, if caught,” concluded the correspondent, “be summarily dealt with.”
Notwithstanding the utter falsity of these statements, it did not take long for the latter part of the article to become a prophecy fulfilled, and soon, excited, inflamed and misguided parties of men and boys were scouring the woods and roads in search of strange “niggers.” Nor was it long, before one of the parties raised the cry that they had found the culprits. They had come upon two strange negroes going through the woods, who seeing a band of mounted and armed men, had instantly taken to their heels. This one act had accused, tried and convicted them.
The different divisions of the searching party came together, and led the negroes with ropes around their necks into the centre of the village. Excited crowds on the one or two streets which the hamlet boasted, cried “Lynch ’em, lynch ’em! Hang the niggers up to the first tree!”
Jane Hunster was in one of the groups, as the shivering negroes passed, and she turned very pale even under the sunburn that browned her face.
The law-abiding citizens of Barlow County, who composed the capturing party, were deaf to the admonitions of the crowd. They filed solemnly up the street, and delivered their prisoners to the keeper of the jail, sheriff, by courtesy, and scamp by the seal of Satan; and then quietly dispersed. There was something ominous in their very orderliness.
Late that afternoon, the man who did duty as prosecuting attorney for that county, visited the prisoners at the jail, and drew from them the story that they were farm-laborers from an adjoining county. They had come over only the day before, and were passing through on the quest for work; the bad weather and the lateness of the season having thrown them out at home.
“Uh, huh,” said the prosecuting attorney at the conclusion of the tale, “your story’s all right, but the only trouble is that it won’t do here. They won’t believe you. Now, I’m a friend to niggers as much as any white man can be, if they’ll only be friends to themselves, an’ I want to help you two all I can. There’s only one way out of this trouble. You must confess that you did this.”
“But Mistah,” said the bolder of the two negroes, “how kin we ‘fess, when we wasn’ nowhahs nigh de place?”
“Now there you go with regular nigger stubbornness; didn’t I tell you that that was the only way out of this? If you persist in saying you didn’t do it, they’ll hang you; whereas, if you own, you’ll only get a couple of years in the ‘pen.’ Which ‘ud you rather have, a couple o’ years to work out, or your necks stretched?”
“Oh, we’ll ‘fess, Mistah, we’ll ‘fess we done it; please, please don’t let ’em hang us!” cried the thoroughly frightened blacks.
“Well, that’s something like it,” said the prosecuting attorney as he rose to go. “I’ll see what can be done for you.”
With marvelous and mysterious rapidity, considering the reticence which a prosecuting attorney who was friendly to the negroes should display, the report got abroad that the negroes had confessed their crime, and soon after dark, ominous looking crowds began to gather in the streets. They passed and repassed the place, where stationed on the little wooden shelf that did duty as a doorstep, Jane Hunster sat with her head buried in her hands. She did not raise up to look at any of them, until a hand was laid on her shoulder, and a voice called her, “Jane!”
“Oh, hit’s you, is it, Bud,” she said, raising her head slowly, “howdy?”
“Howdy yoreself,” said the young man, looking down at her tenderly.
“Bresh off yore pants an’ set down,” said the girl making room for him on the step. The young man did so, at the same time taking hold of her hand with awkward tenderness.
“Jane,” he said, “I jest can’t wait fur my answer no longer! you got to tell me to-night, either one way or the other. Dock Heaters has been a-blowin’ hit aroun’ that he has beat my time with you. I don’t believe it Jane, fur after keepin’ me waitin’ all these years, I don’t believe you’d go back on me. You know I’ve allus loved you, ever sence we was little children together.”
The girl was silent until he leaned over and said in pleading tones, “What do you say, Jane?”
“I hain’t fitten fur you, Bud.”
“Don’t talk that-a-way, Jane, you know ef you jest say ‘yes,’ I’ll be the happiest man in the state.”
“Well, yes, then, Bud, for you’re my choice, even ef I have fooled with you fur a long time; an’ I’m glad now that I kin make somebody happy.” The girl was shivering, and her hands were cold, but she made no movement to rise or enter the house.
Bud put his arms around her and kissed her shyly. And just then a shout arose from the crowd down the street.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s the boys gittin’ worked up, I reckon. They’re going to lynch them niggers to-night that burned ole man Williams out.”
The girl leaped to her feet, “They mustn’t do it,” she cried. “They ain’t never been tried!”
“Set down, Janey,” said her lover, “they’ve owned up to it.”
“I don’t believe it,” she exclaimed, “somebody’s jest a lyin’ on ’em to git ’em hung because they’re niggers.”
“Sh–Jane, you’re excited, you ain’t well; I noticed that when I first come to-night. Somebody’s got to suffer fur that house-burnin’, an’ it might ez well be them ez anybody else. You mustn’t talk so. Ef people knowed you wuz a standin’ up fur niggers so, it ‘ud ruin you.”
He had hardly finished speaking, when the gate opened, and another man joined them.
“Hello, there, Dock Heaters, that you?” said Bud Mason.
“Yes, it’s me. How are you, Jane?” said the newcomer.
“Oh, jest middlin’, Dock, I ain’t right well.”
“Well, you might be in better business than settin’ out here talkin’ to Bud Mason.”
“Don’t know how as to that,” said his rival, “seein’ as we’re engaged.”
“You’re a liar!” flashed Dock Heaters.
Bud Mason half rose, then sat down again; his triumph was sufficient without a fight. To him “liar” was a hard name to swallow without resort to blows, but he only said, his flashing eyes belying his calm tone, “Mebbe I am a liar, jest ast Jane.”
“Is that the truth, Jane?” asked Heaters, angrily.
“Yes, hit is, Dock Heaters, an’ I don’t see what you’ve got to say about it; I hain’t never promised you nothin’ shore.”
Heaters turned toward the gate without a word. Bud sent after him a mocking laugh, and the bantering words, “You’d better go down, an’ he’p hang them niggers, that’s all you’re good fur.” And the rival really did bend his steps in that direction.
Another shout arose from the throng down the street, and rising hastily, Bud Mason exclaimed, “I must be goin’, that yell means business.”
“Don’t go down there, Bud!” cried Jane. “Don’t go, fur my sake, don’t go.” She stretched out her arms, and clasped them about his neck.
“You don’t want me to miss nothin’ like that,” he said as he unclasped her arms; “don’t you be worried, I’ll be back past here.” And in a moment he was gone, leaving her cry of “Bud, Bud, come back,” to smite the empty silence.
When Bud Mason reached the scene of action, the mob had already broken into the jail and taken out the trembling prisoners. The ropes were round their necks and they had been led to a tree.
“See ef they’ll do anymore house-burnin’!” cried one as the ends of the ropes were thrown over the limbs of the tree.
“Reckon they’ll like dancin’ hemp a heap better,” mocked a second.
“Justice an’ pertection!” yelled a third.
“The mills of the gods grind swift enough in Barlow County,” said the schoolmaster.
The scene, the crowd, the flaring lights and harsh voices intoxicated Mason, and he was soon the most enthusiastic man in the mob. At the word, his was one of the willing hands that seized the rope, and jerked the negroes off their feet into eternity. He joined the others with savage glee as they emptied their revolvers into the bodies. Then came the struggle for pieces of the rope as “keepsakes.” The scramble was awful. Bud Mason had just laid hold of a piece and cut it off, when some one laid hold of the other end. It was not at the rope’s end, and the other man also used his knife in getting a hold. Mason looked up to see who his antagonist was, and his face grew white with anger. It was Dock Heaters.
“Let go this rope,” he cried.
“Let go yoreself, I cut it first, an’ I’m a goin’ to have it.”
They tugged and wrestled and panted, but they were evenly matched and neither gained the advantage.
“Let go, I say,” screamed Heaters, wild with rage.
“I’ll die first, you dirty dog!”
The words were hardly out of his mouth before a knife flashed in the light of the lanterns, and with a sharp cry, Bud Mason fell to the ground. Heaters turned to fly, but strong hands seized and disarmed him.
“He’s killed him! Murder, murder!” arose the cry, as the crowd with terror-stricken faces gathered about the murderer and his victim.
“Lynch him!” suggested some one whose thirst for blood was not yet appeased.
“No,” cried an imperious voice, “who knows what may have put him up to it? Give a white man a chance for his life.”
The crowd parted to let in the town marshal and the sheriff who took charge of the prisoner, and led him to the little rickety jail, whence he escaped later that night; while others improvised a litter, and bore the dead man to his home.
The news had preceded them up the street, and reached Jane’s ears. As they passed her home, she gazed at them with a stony, vacant stare, muttering all the while as she rocked herself to and fro, “I knowed it, I knowed it!”
The press was full of the double lynching and the murder. Conservative editors wrote leaders about it in which they deplored the rashness of the hanging but warned the negroes that the only way to stop lynching was to quit the crimes of which they so often stood accused. But only in one little obscure sheet did an editor think to say, “There was Salem and its witchcraft; there is the south and its lynching. When the blind frenzy of a people condemn a man as soon as he is accused, his enemies need not look far for a pretext!”
We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!