We looked up from our desk and he was standing before us, tall, gaunt and middle-aged. In his hand was one of those tin receptacles for charity-begging. Like all other long-suffering Harlemites we shuddered. Beggars with tin cups are so numerous. He smiled and stood there. We tried to look austere—some money-seekers may be easily intimidated—but not so our hero.
“Well, what can I do for you?” we asked, looking the visitor in the face for the first time.
“A few pennies for homeless children,” he answered.
We felt that it was useless to struggle so we donated a dime. No sooner had the coin rattled to the bottom of the cup than we received a hearty “Thank yuh. God will shorely bless yuh.”
We looked closely at his face this time and saw fanatic fires burning in the small eyes set in a thin freckled face. But our eyes rested longest on the mouth and environs.
The short, thin upper-lip showed his Caucasian admixture, but a full drooping under-lip spoke for the Negro blood in him. A fringe of scrubby rusty-red hair completely encircled the whole. When he spoke, four teeth showed forlornly in the bottom jaw. We are still wondering if there were any others scattered about in his aging gums.
“You don’t know me, do you?” he asked.
“I am afraid I haven’t had the pleasure,” we answered.
“Well, they calls me th’ black Longfellow.”1
We brightened. “These be gray days, and a sweet singer in Israel is to be highly honored. Would you favor us with a selection or two?”
“Shorely, shorely; but drop in a few mo’ pennies, please.”
What are a few pennies against the songs of an immortal bard? We dropped in six cents.
The poet cleared his throat and sang:
“God Shall Without a Doubt Heal Every Nation”
“There shall be no sickness, no sorrow after while,
There shall be no sickness, no sorrow, after while,
There wil’ be no more horror,
Watch for joy and not for sorrow,
God shall heal up every nation tomorrow, after while.
God will bring good things to view after while,
God shall make all things new,
Every child of God will without a doubt be called a Jew,
God will make us all one nation, after while.”
“Ain’t that beautiful, now?” the poet asked. I’ll recite yuh another one.”
Before we could protest he was in the midst of
“Once horses and camels was the style,
Now they fly ’round in automobile,
They don’t look at a policeman’s sign,
Sometimes they run over chillun,
Sometimes over a divine,
When they are drunk with devils’ wine,
But we had fled into the inner office with our fingers in our ears.
* * *
The hurly-burly of Lenox Avenue fretted our soul.2
The dirty corpses of yesterday’s newspapers, flapping upon the pavement or lying supine in the gutter, together with the host of the unwashed and washed but glaringly painted, was too unlovely and we fled up 181st Street.3
We were not really hungry but we longed for rest.
A little sign caught our eyes. “Odds and Ends,” it read. A yellowish teapot was depicted in the midst of the inscription. A little hunger, a great weariness of spirit, and a sufficient amount of curiosity drew us into the basement dining room.
A raucous bell rang when we opened the door and a soft-footed attendant instantly appeared to take charge of our wraps.
Back of a green screen was a snug room full of odds and ends. Chairs from Colonial New England, bits of pottery from France and Spain, candlesticks from China, bric-a-brac from Nippon, samplers from England—the ends of the world brought together in a basement. The effect was pleasing, very pleasing.
And the guests. At one table was a woman writer of some ability in company with a wealthy realtor. In a corner, dining alone, a lawyer of national fame slowly sipped his coffee behind a red candle and nodded to a world-famous baritone and composer. A widely discussed editor was dining with a young woman who hopes to be an editor some day.
But the atmosphere is the most attractive thing about “Odds and Ends.” We do not know whether it is the subtle lighting, the ingenious arrangement of the furnishings, or the spirit of the great number of celebrities that frequent the place. There IS a peace, a calm that falls like a benediction upon the guest who enters there. The food was delicious, but mere food does not create atmosphere. Perhaps it is the kindly spirit of the proprietor—we do not know him yet—that bids the weary rest.
Maybe, now, we used-to-be black African folks can be of some help to our brothers and sisters who have always been white. You will take another look at us and say that we are still black and, ethnologically speaking, you will be right. But nationally and culturally, we are as white as the next one. We have put our labor and our blood into the common causes for a long time. We have given the rest of the nation song and laughter. Maybe now, in this terrible struggle, we can give something else—the source and soul of our laughter and song.1
We offer you our hope-bringer, High John de Conquer.
High John de Conquer came to be a man, and a mighty man at that. But he was not a natural man in the beginning. First off, he was a whisper, a will to hope, a wish to find something worthy of laughter and song. Then the whisper put on flesh. His footsteps sounded across the world in a low but musical rhythm as if the world he walked on was a singing-drum. The black folks had an irresistible impulse to laugh. High John de Conquer was a man in full, and had come to live and work on the plantations, and all the slave folks knew him in the flesh.
The sign of this man was a laugh, and his singing-symbol was a drumbeat. No parading drum-shout like soldiers out for show. It did not call to the feet of those who were fixed to hear it. It was an inside thing to live by. It was sure to be heard when and where the work was the hardest, and the lot the most cruel. It helped the slaves endure. They knew that something better was coming. So they laughed in the face of things and sang, “I’m
so glad! Trouble don’t last always.” And the white people who heard them were struck dumb that they could laugh. In an outside way, this was Old Massa’s fun, so what was Old Cuffy laughing for?2
Old Massa couldn’t know of course, but High John de Conquer was there walking his plantation like a natural man. He was treading the sweat-flavored clods of the plantation, crushing out his drum tunes, and giving out secret laughter. He walked on the winds and moved fast. Maybe he was in Texas when the lash fell on a slave in Alabama, but before the blood was dry on the back he was there. A faint pulsing of a drum like a goatskin stretched over a heart, that came nearer and closer, then somebody in the saddened quarters would feel like laughing and say, “Now, High John de Conquer, Old Massa couldn’t get the best of him. That old John was a case!” Then everybody sat up and began to smile. Yes, yes, that was right. Old John, High John could beat the unbeatable. He was top-superior to the whole mess of sorrow. He could beat it all, and what made it so cool, finish it off with a laugh. So they pulled the covers up over their souls and kept them from all hurt, harm and danger and made them a laugh and a song. Night time was a joke, because daybreak was on the way. Distance and the impossible had no power over High John de Conquer.
He had come from Africa. He came walking on the waves of sound. Then he took on flesh after he got here. The sea captains of ships knew that they brought slaves in their ships. They knew about those black bodies huddled down there in the middle passage, being hauled across the waters to helplessness.3
John de Conquer was walking the very winds that filled the sails of the ships. He followed over them like the albatross.4
It is no accident that High John de Conquer has evaded the ears of white people. They were not supposed to know. You can’t know what folks won’t tell you. If they, the white people, heard some scraps, they could not understand because they had nothing to hear things like that with. They were not looking for any hope in those days, and it was not much of a strain for them to find something to laugh over. Old John would have been out of place for them.
Old Massa met our hope-bringer all right, but when Old Massa met
him, he was not going by his right name. He was traveling, and touristing around the plantations as the laugh-provoking Brer Rabbit. So Old Massa and Old Miss and their young ones laughed with and at Brer Rabbit and wished him well. And all the time, there was High John de Conquer playing his tricks of making a way out of no-way. Hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick. Winning the jack pot with no other stake but a laugh. Fighting a mighty battle without outside-showing force, and winning his war from within. Really winning in a permanent way, for he was winning with the soul of the black man whole and free. So he could use it afterwards. For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?5
You would have nothing but a cruel, vengeful, grasping monster come to power. John de Conquer was a bottom-fish. He was deep. He had the wisdom tooth of the East in his head. Way over there, where the sun rises a day ahead of time, they say that Heaven arms with love and laughter those it does not wish to see destroyed. He who carries his heart in his sword must perish. So says the ultimate law. High John de Conquer knew a lot of things like that. He who wins from within is in the “Be” class. Be
here when the ruthless man comes, and be
here when he is gone.
Moreover, John knew that it is written where it cannot be erased, that nothing shall live on human flesh and prosper.6
Old Maker said that before he made any more sayings. Even a man-eating tiger and lion can teach a person that much. His flabby muscles and mangy hide can teach an emperor right from wrong. If the emperor would only listen.
There is no established picture of what sort of looking-man this John de Conquer was. To some, he was a big, physical-looking man like John Henry.7
To others, he was a little, hammered-down, low-built man like the Devil’s doll-baby. Some said that they never heard what he looked like. Nobody told them, but he lived on the plantation where their old folks were slaves. He is not so well known to the present generation of colored
people in the same way that he was in slavery time. Like King Arthur of England, he has served his people, and gone back into mystery again. And, like King Arthur, he is not dead. He waits to return when his people shall call again. Symbolic of English power, Arthur came out of the water, and with Excalibur, went back into the water again. High John de Conquer went back to Africa, but he left his power here, and placed his American dwelling in the root of a certain plant.8
Only possess that root, and he can be summoned at any time.
“Of course, High John de Conquer got plenty power!” Aunt Shady Anne Sutton bristled at me when I asked her about him. She took her pipe out of her mouth and stared at me out of her deeply wrinkled face. “I hope you ain’t one of these here smart colored folks that done got so they don’t believe nothing, and come here questionizing me so you can have something to poke fun at. Done got shamed of the things that brought us through. Make out ’tain’t no such thing no more.”
When I assured her that that was not the case, she went on.
“Sho John de Conquer means power. That’s bound to be so. He come to teach and tell us. God don’t leave nobody ignorant, you child. Don’t care where He drops you down, He puts you on a notice. He don’t want folks taken advantage of because they don’t know. Now, back there in slavery time, us didn’t have no power of protection, and God knowed it, and put us under watch-care. Rattlesnakes never bit no colored folks until four years after freedom was declared. That was to give us time to learn and to know. ’Course, I don’t know nothing about slavery personal like. I wasn’t born till two years after the Big Surrender. Then I wasn’t nothing but a infant baby when I was ...