THERE is a quality in the Negro that has been rarely noticed, and perhaps never adequately described. I mean his psychic power, his almost constant spiritual awareness, the beauty of his recognition of mystery, and the dark poesy of his sayings. It is only plain truth to declare that in my lifelong and affectionate association with the plantation Negro, who is, I think, the American Negro at his very best, I frequently feel inferior to these humble and beloved people; inferior in the most important thing in life: in matters pertaining to the human spirit, both here and hereafter. In books and on the stage I find the ludicrous, the childish, and the pathetic characteristics of the Negro displayed; but this matter of his rich quality of soul, lying profoundly hidden, his genius for apprehending the Unseen, and his ingenuous obeisance to it, — his capacity to express in a few unpremeditated words the deepest truths of the heart, — these things have somehow escaped both the writers of fiction and the writers of drama. While I do not feel capable of doing justice to this subject, perhaps a few stories out of my plantation life may at least serve to arrest the attention of those who laugh at the Negro, pity him, or ignore him.
One day I visited a wild sandy hummock in the immense wilderness of the great Santee Delta. London Legree and his wife lived there — all alone and many miles from the nearest human habitation. Cleanly, thrifty, self-sustaining, they lived like pioneers amid that vast solitude, surrounded by primeval wilds, a paradise for game.
Entertained with graceful courtesy by these old friends of mine, I marveled at the simplicity and the contentment of their lives. On the eve of my departure, a heavy thunderstorm rolled up, its solemn panoply investing the heavens. Darkness was under it and before it. Standing in the door of his cabin, I was lamenting to London that I should be long delayed in my return home.
‘Never mind, Cap’n,’ he said in words which always have seemed to me occult in their dim infallible wisdom, ‘Hanna is stronger than the storm.’ Hanna is a pure African word, personifying the sun. In that brief sentence, what faith, what hope! How applicable it is to all the storms of life! How positive in its affirmation of a philosophy of optimism! In the years that have followed my first hearing of those words from London, I have found them of power to comfort and console me. A saying of that kind is akin to the magic of the Welsh bards, who used to ‘call spirits from the vasty deep.’
On a magnificent mausoleum in the cemetery at Winchester, Virginia, are these sad words: ‘The shadow was greater than the sunlight.’ And I contrast them with the brave words of London Legree, ‘Hanna is stronger than the storm.’
The plantation Negro has a characteristic that I cannot recall ever having seen mentioned; yet it is a salient manifestation of his faith. It is that he rarely criticizes the weather, and he does not like to hear it criticized. This is because he accepts all natural phenomena as God’s work. Often I have been gently rebuked by a Negro for complaining of heat or cold, rain or wind. Once when I said to old Rose, ‘This is a terrible day,’ she, a certain eerie and ancient wisdom glinting in her eyes, replied, ‘We must not forget that God made it, sah.’ One steaming July day I was talking idly with a group of Negroes when the question arose as to which was better, hot weather or cold, and Flora, as if the question were a reflection on the Creator, said, ‘Well, as for me, I bless God for both.’
This spirit of quiet acceptance of nature’s moods and changes is widened and deepened into an equally calm acceptance of the chances of life. When we say, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away,’ we are usually thinking of the person who has lived and died; but a Negro would mean the life, the vital spark. The innate poetry in him compels him to assign all power to the Mystery that is God.
And not alone is the Negroes’ attitude toward life and death reverent: this soul equanimity manifests itself in their voices, than which I know none more gentle, more melodious, more attuned to the sea wind in the yellow pines, to rain on scented moss, to the muted songs of mated birds. Plantation Negroes not only accept life, but do so with a profound grace of heart, a spiritual poise, and with that moral beauty that perhaps alone distinguishes man from the lower orders of creation.
We used to have on our place a former slave named Galboa. When I knew him he was very old, and certainly the most aboriginal human being I ever encountered. We took care of him in a little cabin near the river; and sometimes, on bright days, he used to walk up to the house to visit us. One day, near the outer gate, I found the aged Negro lying sprawled in the road. Getting some cold water from a near-by pond, I bathed his face, saw him open his eyes, and at last got him on his feet again. As I helped him back toward his cabin he said, ‘God gwine take me soon. You know, sah, God is good enough to do anything.’
Between the sublimity of Job’s ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ and old Galboa’s ‘God is good enough to do anything’ there appears no especial choice. And not only do Negroes contribute to religion the dark poesy that is its very soul, but infallibly they recognize and respond to those passages in the Bible which have about them the passionate faith that is the heart’s instinctive response to a sudden revelation of its invincible surmise. I was delighted but not amazed to discover recently that the favorite Old Testament story of the Negroes on my plantation was not a thrilling narrative such as the biography of Joseph, or the history of David; it was nothing less than the supreme vision in the whole book — that of the Prophet Fzekiel, when he tells of the dry bones. ‘Can these bones live?’ asks God.
The Prophet, covering his face, cries out: ‘O Lord God, thou knowest!’
The profound appeal that I myself have seen those stupendous words make to Negroes arises partly from the mystical poetry of them, but perhaps more from the utter abandon with which the human accepts the divine; that is to say, Ezekiel expressed exactly, in a brief sentence, the plantation Negro’s whole idea of the attitude that a mortal should take toward his Creator. And that attitude is one of instant, glad, and complete surrender to the wisdom that is infinite.
One December day I was hunting on Bull’s Island, a superb game preserve off the South Carolina coast. With me at the time was a very humble Negro named Richard. Early in the morning we took up the trail of a great stag, whose track made me know that his head would be a prize trophy. All day, through marshes, palmetto thickets, and jungles of pine and oak, we followed him. Just at sundown he left his wary meanderings in the forest and went out on the sand dunes. When we reached the verge of the woods, there he was, a superb creature, poised in the twilight on the crest of a tawny dune. At last our long labor was rewarded. At last I was within range of this old hero of the wilds. I got ready for the shot while Richard squatted by me in excited silence. But the stars that had been shining when we left home were soon obscured by a fog so dense that we could hardly see beyond the bow of our little boat. As we were going with the tide, we felt sure of our general direction, but when once or twice we came near looming shores, neither of us recognized the landscape as familiar. Then for an hour there was no land visible. I knew that we ought to be near our goal. But the waves that began to roll our canoe were suspiciously like sea waves. The roar of the surf that we had heard for a long time now became almost clamorous. Attempts to reach either shore were vain. The fact that the tide had now turned, or was about to turn, confused us still further. The canoe shipped water, gallons of it. The mist blinded us. There was no use blinking the truth: we were in immediate danger. I told Sam mildly that in case the canoe was swamped we must turn it over and cling to it. How can I ever forget what he said?
But the full moon rose over the ocean, tinging the dark momentous pines, fringing with light the maned sea breakers. It illumined the rolling dunes and the dark clusters of myrtles in their hollows. It touched the statuesque stag, and he became a silver stag with silver horns. The world went argentine, and the presence of Beauty was everywhere manifest. The sight of my rifle, which had been leveled on the deer’s heart, was lowered. I took my gun down from my shoulder. I could n’t kill amid that song and hush of beauty. But 1 fully expected my humble Richard to be dismayed and disgusted over my decision.
‘Richard,’ I said, feeling that my words would sound fantastic to him, ‘I don’t want to shoot him. The world is too beautiful.’
My tone was apologetic and conciliatory.
‘Cap’n, I understand,’ came Richard’s gentle voice. ‘You know, sah, angels walk in the moonlight.’
To comment on the loveliness of that idea is sacrilege; as it would be to speak of its poetic adequacy to the occasion. Nevertheless, I must not fail to point out that it illustrates how dangerous it is to assume a spiritual superiority over the Negro. I find that his sensitiveness in the realms of mystery usually anticipates mine. And I have heard that certain missionaries to Africa have owed all their troubles to a brash assumption that primitives are naturally spiritually inferior. They, like children, have visions that to them are real, and they live in a world that is in more direct and vital touch with Another World than ours is. Aboriginal in thought and feeling, plantation Negroes are among the most authentic and interesting of human beings. They may be as yet far from what we proudly call civilization; but to me they seem very close to God. Their religious attitude is as unfeigned as that of children. To them the rain, the wind, the thunder, the stars, sunset, and sunrise are matters of great moment. I have many a treasured recollection of what I have heard Negroes say of these unfailingly recurrent waves in the vast sea of nature’s symphony.
Sam Singleton and I left home at one o’clock one winter morning to paddle down the Santee River in South Carolina to a place appropriately called ‘Tranquillity,’ since it is as solitary as being in the heart of a wild delta can make it. Our plan was to drop down ten miles or so with the ebb tide, designing to reach at dawn the lonely hummock in the huge wasteland that stretches mistily between the two sea-reaching arms of the mighty river. We were to spend a few days duck shooting at Tranquillity, and we started at a time which would afford us sport with the morning flight.
A Southern river at night is a haunting thing, with great stars hanging like spangles in the dark pines and the ancient water oaks fringing the river shores. Wider flows the dim stream as it moves through the last reaches of the immense coastal plain. Baffling to navigate by broad daylight, the Santee at night is mysterious. And the peril of it undoubtedly was heightened by the kind of craft in which we were traveling. A dugout cypress canoe, it had as certain a tendency to roll as had its parent log, utterly lacking that virtue of stability that one relishes in a boat, especially when one is voyaging through the darkness of a huge river that seems to be wandering toward eternity.
‘Never mind, Cap’n,’ the humble boatman told me; ‘it will be daybreak soon.’
What was there in that plight of ours on which we could certainly count? Only one thing there was: the coming of light — daybreak, sunrise! It came in time to save us, though we were really on the brink of the sea when the rosy radiance over the delta disclosed our position to us. Yet it was not alone the coming of sunrise that rescued us; it was Sam’s reminding me that it was sure to come, restoring thus my courage. And even now, after all these years, whenever the shadows are deepest and most impenetrable, I seem to hear, out of the dim celestial past, the quiet voice of Sam Singleton saying to my doubting and besieged heart, ‘Never mind, Cap’n; it will be daybreak soon.’
This psychic power never manifests itself so plainly in the Negro as in his judgment, often immediate and always instinctive, of human worth, of social grace, of the strange enigma of personality. The Negro is not a severe judge, but he is often devastatingly revealing.
And his estimate is likely to be put in quaint and forest-bred language. Of a rather vulgar and blustering white woman, I once heard a Negro say simply, ‘She ain’t reg’lar.’ Of two white men, one very crude in appearance and manner and the other correspondingly suave, I heard this comment: ‘Mr. A is rough outside but smooth inside; Mr. B is smooth outside but rough inside.’ There is perhaps no more infallible judge of breeding in the world than the plantation Negro. Pomp and display are wasted upon him. Gifted spiritually to a profound degree, to him the spirit of another is transparent. Social climbers and impostors, who sometimes make considerable headway in the cities, never deceive him in his lonely wildwoods. He is too close to the real to be beguiled by the artificial; too naïve to be impressed by the magnificent. Quaint rustic phrases give a native homebred savor to his speech. To him an illegitimate child is a ‘woods colt,’ or a ‘little volunteer.’ Anything important is ‘town news.’ A long time is expressed as ‘ever since a hatchet was a hammer.’ Heaven is always the Promised Land.
On one occasion I told Charlie Lesane that he was to have the honor of acting as duck guide to a millionaire. This gentleman, who had made his wealth in shoe polish or in clothespins, was an exceedingly rough diamond. Even I was shocked by his crudity and his profanity, and I knew that Charlie would be impressed in somewhat the same manner. Amid the creeks and marshes the Negro spent the day with the millionaire. On their return to our ducking camp, when I had Charlie aside, I said, ‘Well, you paddled a millionaire to-day.’
‘But he ain’t had dat money long,’ was his significant and coolly appraising rejoinder.
It is not unlikely that the plantation Negro acquires some of his psychic power from his intimacy with the night. No other people known to me are so familiar with darkness. They do most of their traveling then; and there appears to have come to them, from this communion, a certain identity with the forces of nature, a relation to the ancient established order of the universe. They are one with the mystery and the silence, with the primal thoughtfulness and the primal mightier movements of winds and rivers, stars and forests, life and death. Communion with darkness that is lighted only by the stars and the moon appears to confer a certain divination — a discernment, soul to soul. So real is this power that there is no living person whose approval means more to me than that of one of my own black folk. This hound was new and strange, and Prince and I took her into the woods for a ramble. Young, diffident, headstrong, she was prone to race pell-mell after any alluring scent that assailed her delicate nostrils from the damp sandy road. We were in wild country, and to have her escape on a trail would have been serious. I was about to suggest that we put her on a leash when she suddenly left the road on a dead run. A fresh buck track explained her joyous haste. At thirty yards a shout from Prince brought her to a reluctant halt. She was too far away for him to catch her, or even to threaten her effectively with the long lash that he carried. The hound did not want to come back. Yet, while ignoring me, she deigned to give Prince a bright, undetermined look, as if inquiring politely the reason for his impertinent interruption of her urgent business. Knowing that it would be a vain thing for me to try to lure the dog, I left it all to him, — as I usually did with anything that was difficult, — watching closely to discover by what mental artful sleight he would accomplish the miracle. Clearly it was to be a spiritual, not a physical, struggle. The affair had come to an impasse when Prince stepped quietly forward, while I watched, fascinated. Approaching the mule with gentle assurance, he insinuated one arm around the stubborn neck. His touch was affectionate. Puting his mouth to the mule’s left ear, he said something to the miserable statue. Instantly the creature’s rigidity relaxed, and almost blithely the mule stepped forward from the position which for more than an hour he had sullenly maintained. When Prince came back to me, I asked him what he had said to his friend. The Negro only laughed, for he never seemed to take seriously any of his feats with animals. But his must have been the magic words having the exact wave length of the dull creature’s obscure and baffled soul.
How often they go to the heart of a human problem! Their insight is poignant and profound. I remember on one occasion expressing disapprobation of Sue Alston’s ministering to a dusky Magdalene. Looking at me steadily, she said simply, ‘Jesus would.’ Once when a young couple were about to be divorced because the husband drank, Sue reconciled them by saying to the woman, ‘A woman marries the bad in a man as well as the good. She must not run away from a battle he has to fight.’ One day I was lamenting to Anthony Lee the fact that his congregation had never finished their church. The roof had been put on one slope only.
‘It does not matter,’ he assured me. Then he pointed to his heart. ‘Here is the Temple,’ he said.
Hearing one day that old Gabe had lost his house by fire, I went down to visit him. Beside the heap of ashes that had been his home stood (or staggered) his tiny forlorn stable. Into this he and his family had moved. In reporting on his loss, he told me that he had saved but one shirt out of all his possessions — ‘and dat one is raggety,’ he added cheerfully.
I looked off over the desolate wintry fields, back at the smouldering ruin, and then at old Gabe’s invincibly serene face. ‘Well,’ I said tactlessly, ‘this is what I call sure-enough depression.’
‘Oh, I ain’t got dat,’ Gabe assured me disclaimingly; ‘I ain’t got the real depression, because I still got hope.’
It took a plantation Negro to teach me that spiritual loss is the only kind which may be accounted real. Kipling tells us that triumph and disaster are impostors. Old Gabe, who never heard of Kipling, knows that truth by instinct. Indeed, it has always appeared to me that universal truths are a racial heritage, and that a lack of education should not presuppose one’s ignorance of them. The heart has its clairvoyance as well as the mind.
But it is not only to each other and to the members of my race that Negroes often speak in darkly poetic form. They use language and tones to animals that bring responses no white man could ever produce. They appear to have the wave length of the souls of the lower orders of creation.
No man who watched Prince Alston with dogs or mules could be persuaded that magic is dead. On occasions that are literally countless I have shamelessly referred to him dogs that were of the most incorrigible sort, dogs that would not make up to me. Immediately he would establish a definite relationship with them, partly by firmness, partly by kindness, but chiefly by an occult and complete fathoming of the dog’s mentality. I recall how he made Blossom mind him when she would pay me not the slightest attention.
‘Blossom,’ he called, ‘come here, chile. Here, Blossom, come here to me. You is the pretties’, fines’, mos’ ’bedient houn’
I ever did see. That’s a good girl; come on now. Come on, honey Blossom. I know you would n’t leave me here in the road all by myself. That’s a sweet Blossom.’
Flattering wiles, couched in tones that reached the hound’s very sold, accomplished what force and anger and less delicate deception could never have done. But there was more than that to the performance. Into the immense solitude environing the individual, Prince had suavely obtruded himself. All creatures will, I suppose, respond to blandishments; but they must be of the intimate and understanding variety. The hound Blossom was completely taken by Prince’s tones. She turned toward us; then she approached step by step, a little contritely. At last she made a little run, frisked about Prince, leaped up on him affectionately, licked his hand. I had had, in college, a course in practical psychology, and one in animal psychology. But my knowledge had left me helpless, whereas Prince knew what to do without ever having been taught.
Watching Prince handle the biggest, stubbornest mules in a timber camp, I have come to believe that the secret of his mastery over them arose from his ability subtly to establish in them a definite conception of their inferiority. He would then take it for granted that they would work, his attitude being objective, hale, and natural. He talked to them also, as it were, in their own tongue, and to his raillery they responded with astonishing willingness. To manage mules should be accounted something of an artistic tour de force.
I remember the first time I ever saw Prince operate on a stubbornly planted mule. It happened down in a little seacoast village near home. A farmer’s mule, hitched to an infirm and staggering wagon, loaded heavily with a Saturday’s purchases, had made up his mind that the prospect of seven long sandy miles ahead did not appeal to him. The animal balked in the middle of the village street, right between the post office and the general store, so that the performance created a considerable stir. At such a time, all local loafing celebrities are exceedingly fertile in advice. Upon this scene of hopeless status quo Prince and I arrived after some very heroic measures had been used without the slightest response on the part of the immobile mule. He had been cruelly beaten; his harness had been taken off. The wagon had been rolled back. But there he stood violently rooted, with a certain exasperatingly virtuous expression on his countenance. Curses and shouts left him unmoved. Even a small fire built under him had had no effect as a persuader to progress. The city fathers had become less assured of tone as one after another of their solvents for balkiness failed.
One day I went with Prince to rescue some of our stock in time of flood. He began by saying that he would take the sheep first, as they had the least sense, and the goats last, as they would climb on stumps above the freshet tide. This opinion proved to be true. The sheep we found pitifully bleating in a flooded headland of marsh. Prince, speaking to them in a tone which animals understand and obey, told them to go on home across the river, and he supplemented his order with the pushing of two old rams out into the current. The flock followed, and they crossed the river in safety. After that we passed goats perched, their four feet drawn closely under them, on stumps over the hurrying tide. We went on after the hogs, for these, Prince declared, would swim farthest, and were likely to scatter more quickly than the cattle. From canebrake to hummock, from hummock to pine ridges that were fast being submerged, from pine ridges to the flooded depths of mouldering haunted swamps, indefatigably we pursued our game.
I say ‘game,’ for all these creatures, because of their wild free range and because the primal terror of the flood was upon them, were essentially fugitive. Indeed, many of them were worse than wild; they were frantic. To herd them, to turn them homeward, to persuade them to leave their narrow ledges of footing, to impart to them a sense of safety — all these things Prince did. It is true that we found the great herd bull recalcitrant; but while he was swimming, heading manfully out to sea, we paddled up to him, and Prince asked me to manage the boat while he did something. Lying in the boat, he reached out over the gunwale, caught the bull by the ear, and over the side of the boat he ‘chastised him with the valor of his tongue.’ He talked about home; he cajoled him; he called him by pet names that he had used to him since that great creature’s calfhood. Thus, and only thus, we turned him. We could not do it by physical strength. But it was done; and when the leader was turned across the river all the others followed in his wake.
All of us treasure the dark poesy of the valor of our race: the silence of doomed heroes; the unfaltering steps of Queen Mary of Scotland and of Marie Antoinette; Joan saying amid the consuming flames only ‘Blessed Jesus.’ To this glorious company I am not ashamed to add some humble friends of mine.
There used to be a Negro on our place by the name of Ogechee. He was always a cheerful and willing workman, and I found that he excelled in paddling a canoe after wild ducks. Not only was he a good boatman, but he had that one indispensable quality necessary to a hunter: he possessed a genuine game sense. He knew how to find game; he knew how to stalk it. And many a day he and I spent together in the tortuous lonely creeks of the Santee Delta, taking toll of the myriad wild fowl that swarm into those placid hidden waters in the winter. One summer I noticed that my paddler had acquired a hacking cough, but he appeared to be otherwise in normal health. I went away for several months; and on my return — it then being autumn — I sent for Ogechee to have a talk with him about our future hunting plans.
He came to see me, and I noticed that he was not the same man. But I tried to take up our hunting comradeship just where we had left it. He, however, knew that my hope and his was a vain thing. ‘Cap’n,’ he said, ‘I mustn’t paddle you no mo’. You see, my coughing would scare the duck. You could n’t get up to them like we used to.
These were simple yet fateful words. They told the whole story. And Ogechee knew exactly what they signified. He was telling me that he had not long to live; and, instead of bewailing his fate, he apologized because my sport was likely to suffer! He made no complaint; he asked no questions. He quietly accepted his fate; and to his last moment he was the most patient and resigned of men. I am not unread in the old lore concerning martyrs, and I think this humble Negro’s spirit may well claim high fellowship with theirs.
Until his affliction fell upon him, Peter Small was an Esau of the finest order. The world is full of incipient and spurious woodcrafters; but this hunting comrade of mine was a genuine woodsman. Such, indeed, was my respect for his opinion in these matters that for years I seldom accepted as final any statement concerning wild life until I had had upon it the opinion of Peter. He taught me more about trapping the red fox, finding the home of the otter, finding the master bull among the alligators, and a hundred other curious matters of nature, than all the books I had ever read. Other Negroes might tell me of having seen droves of forty wild turkeys, or of having seen ten deer in one herd; but I would not be satisfied until I had consulted with Peter. He is a man of few and final words. He always thinks carefully before answering; but the answer will be a genuine reply. Well, not long ago I heard that Peter was sick; and the report made me fear that something ominous was wrong.
After three miles of walking through dank watercourses, over airy pine ridges, and along old hedged plantation roads, I came to the Negro’s solitary cabin; and in the sunshine before it sat my old friend. He observed me coming, and he tried to smile a welcome; yet he could not rise to greet me. Nothing could have more deeply emphasized the grievousness of his trouble.
‘Why, Peter,’ I said, ‘I had been hoping you would run an old buck over me this Christmas. What is the meaning of that bandage on your head?’
‘I have a little trouble, sir,’ he said; and his voice was full of suppressed pain. He said no more.
I sat down on the bench beside him in the sun, and for a time I told him of what I had been doing since last we had met. Then I asked him about himself.
‘The doctor says I’se gwine leave you, he said. His tone was one of simple resignation; but on his face was a bleak wistfulness as he gazed off over his home fields. From him was no complaint; he did not even discuss the details of his illness in the manner characteristic of Main Streets and small towns. He bore and was silent.
The case of Peter Small illustrates the Negro’s quiet and uncomplaining acceptance of hardships that would make many a soldier quail. Perhaps he does not have those sensitive spirit wings, so easily crushed by life, that lift one perilously into ethereal realms; but he has an ascent of spirit sufficient to make him see certain of the fundamental truths of life; to make him steadfast in affliction, courageous in pain, stoical in cruel suffering. These qualities of heart must not be denied the Negro; only by an assured acceptance of them as genuine possessions of his can we approach an understanding of his character.
In a deep and real sense, poetry is more true than truth. Elemental and instinctive, it gushes from the heart in a pure and melodious stream. And among the high gifts of the plantation Negro as I have known him is this native poesy, breathing into life something of the divine spirit, shining in darkness as a star above the looming cypresses and the lonely yellow pines in those wildwoods where he has his home.