A Mess Of Pottage by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Story type: Literature

It was because the Democratic candidate for Governor was such an energetic man that he had been able to stir Little Africa, which was a Republican stronghold, from centre to circumference. He was a man who believed in carrying the war into the enemy’s country. Instead of giving them a chance to attack him, he went directly into their camp, leaving discontent and disaffection among their allies. He believed in his principles. He had faith in his policy for the government of the State, and, more than all, he had a convincing way of making others see as he saw.

No other Democrat had ever thought it necessary to assail the stronghold of Little Africa. He had merely put it into his forecast as “solidly against,” sent a little money to be distributed desultorily in the district, and then left it to go its way, never doubting what that way would be. The opposing candidates never felt that the place was worthy of consideration, for as the Chairman of the Central Committee said, holding up his hand with the fingers close together: “What’s the use of wasting any speakers down there? We’ve got ’em just like that.”

It was all very different with Mr. Lane.

“Gentlemen,” he said to the campaign managers, “that black district must not be ignored. Those people go one way because they are never invited to go another.”

“Oh, I tell you now, Lane,” said his closest friend, “it’ll be a waste of material to send anybody down there. They simply go like a flock of sheep, and nothing is going to turn them.”

“What’s the matter with the bellwether?” said Lane sententiously.

“That’s just exactly what is the matter. Their bellwether is an old deacon named Isham Swift, and you couldn’t turn him with a forty-horsepower crank.”

“There’s nothing like trying.”

“There are many things very similar to failing, but none so bad.”

“I’m willing to take the risk.”

“Well, all right; but whom will you send? We can’t waste a good man.”

“I’ll go myself.”

“What, you?”

“Yes, I.”

“Why, you’d be the laughing-stock of the State.”

“All right; put me down for that office if I never reach the gubernatorial chair.”

“Say, Lane, what was the name of that Spanish fellow who went out to fight windmills, and all that sort of thing?”

“Never mind, Widner; you may be a good political hustler, but you’re dead bad on your classics,” said Lane laughingly.

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So they put him down for a speech in Little Africa, because he himself desired it.

Widner had not lied to him about Deacon Swift, as he found when he tried to get the old man to preside at the meeting. The Deacon refused with indignation at the very idea. But others were more acquiescent, and Mount Moriah church was hired at a rental that made the Rev. Ebenezer Clay and all his Trustees rub their hands with glee and think well of the candidate. Also they looked at their shiny coats and thought of new suits.

There was much indignation expressed that Mount Moriah should have lent herself to such a cause, and there were murmurs even among the congregation where the Rev. Ebenezer Clay was usually an unquestioned autocrat. But, because Eve was the mother of all of us and the thing was so new, there was a great crowd on the night of the meeting. The Rev. Ebenezer Clay presided. Lane had said, “If I can’t get the bellwether to jump the way I want, I’ll transfer the bell.” This he had tried to do. The effort was very like him.

The Rev. Mr. Clay, looking down into more frowning faces than he cared to see, spoke more boldly than he felt. He told his people that though they had their own opinions and ideas, it was well to hear both sides. He said, “The brothah,” meaning the candidate, “had a few thoughts to pussent,” and he hoped they’d listen to him quietly. Then he added subtly: “Of co’se Brothah Lane knows we colo’ed folks ‘re goin’ to think our own way, anyhow.”

The people laughed and applauded, and Lane went to his work. They were quiet and attentive. Every now and then some old brother grunted and shook his head. But in the main they merely listened.

Lane was pleasing, plausible and convincing, and the brass band which he had brought with him was especially effective. The audience left the church shaking their heads with a different meaning, and all the way home there were remarks such as, “He sholy tol’ de truth,” “Dat man was right,” “They ain’t no way to ‘ny a word he said.”

Just at that particular moment it looked very dark for the other candidate, especially as the brass band lingered around an hour or so and discoursed sweet music in the streets where the negroes most did congregate.

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Twenty years ago such a thing could not have happened, but the ties which had bound the older generation irrevocably to one party were being loosed upon the younger men. The old men said “We know;” the young ones said “We have heard,” and so there was hardly anything of the blind allegiance which had made even free thought seem treason to their fathers.

Now all of this was the reason of the great indignation that was rife in the breasts of other Little Africans and which culminated in a mass meeting called by Deacon Isham Swift and held at Bethel Chapel a few nights later. For two or three days before this congregation of the opposing elements there were ominous mutterings. On the streets little knots of negroes stood and told of the terrible thing that had taken place at Mount Moriah. Shoulders were grasped, heads were wagged and awful things prophesied as the result of this compromise with the general enemy. No one was louder in his denunciation of the treacherous course of the Rev. Ebenezer Clay than the Republican bellwether, Deacon Swift. He saw in it signs of the break-up of racial integrity and he bemoaned the tendency loud and long. His son Tom did not tell him that he had gone to the meeting himself and had been one of those to come out shaking his head in acquiescent doubt at the truths he had heard. But he went, as in duty bound, to his father’s meeting.

The church was one thronging mass of colored citizens. On the platform, from which the pulpit had been removed, sat Deacon Swift and his followers. On each side of him were banners bearing glowing inscriptions. One of the banners which the schoolmistress had prepared read:

“His temples are our forts and towers which frown upon a tyrant foe.”

The schoolmistress taught in a mixed school. They had mixed it by giving her a room in a white school where she had only colored pupils. Therefore she was loyal to her party, and was known as a woman of public spirit.

* * * * *

The meeting was an enthusiastic one, but no such demonstration was shown through it all as when old Deacon Swift himself arose to address the assembly. He put Moses Jackson in the chair, and then as he walked forward to the front of the platform a great, white-haired, rugged, black figure, he was heroic in his very crudeness. He wore a long, old Prince Albert coat, which swept carelessly about his thin legs. His turndown collar was disputing territory with his tie and his waistcoat. His head was down, and he glanced out of the lower part of his eyes over the congregation, while his hands fumbled at the sides of his trousers in an embarrassment which may have been pretended or otherwise.

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“Mistah Cheerman,” he said, “fu’ myse’f, I ain’t no speakah. I ain’t nevah been riz up dat way. I has plowed an’ I has sowed, an’ latah on I has laid cyahpets, an’ I has whitewashed. But, ladies an’ gent’men, I is a man, an’ as a man I want to speak to you ter-night. We is lak a flock o’ sheep, an’ in de las’ week de wolf has come among ouah midst. On evah side we has hyeahd de shephe’d dogs a-ba’kin’ a-wa’nin’ unto us. But, my f’en’s, de cotton o’ p’ospe’ity has been stuck in ouah eahs. Fu’ thirty yeahs er mo’, ef I do not disremember, we has walked de streets an’ de by-ways o’ dis country an’ called ouahse’ves f’eemen. Away back yander, in de days of old, lak de chillen of Is’ul in Egypt, a deliv’ah came unto us, an Ab’aham Lincoln a-lifted de yoke f’om ouah shouldahs.” The audience waked up and began swaying, and there was moaning heard from both Amen corners.

“But, my f’en’s, I want to ax you, who was behind Ab’aham Lincoln? Who was it helt up dat man’s han’s when dey sent bayonets an’ buttons to enfo’ce his word–umph? I want to–to know who was behin’ him? Wasn’ it de ‘Publican pa’ty?” There were cries of “Yes, yes! dat’s so!” One old sister rose and waved her sunbonnet.

“An’ now I want to know in dis hyeah day o’ comin’ up ef we a-gwineter ‘sert de ol’ flag which waved ovah Lincoln, waved ovah Gin’r’l Butler, an’ led us up straight to f’eedom? Ladies an’ gent’men, an’ my f’en’s, I know dar have been suttain meetin’s held lately in dis pa’t o’ de town. I know dar have been suttain cannerdates which have come down hyeah an’ brung us de mixed wine o’ Babylon. I know dar have been dem o’ ouah own people who have drunk an’ become drunk–ah! But I want to know, an’ I want to ax you ter-night as my f’en’s an’ my brothahs, is we all a-gwineter do it–huh? Is we all a-gwineter drink o’ dat wine? Is we all a-gwineter reel down de perlitical street, a-staggerin’ to an’ fro?–hum!”

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Cries of “No! No! No!” shook the whole church.

“Gent’men an’ ladies,” said the old man, lowering his voice, “de pa’able has been ‘peated, an’ some o’ us–I ain’t mentionin’ no names, an’ I ain’t a-blamin’ no chu’ch–but I say dar is some o’ us dat has sol’ dere buthrights fu’ a pot o’ cabbage.”

What more Deacon Swift said is hardly worth the telling, for the whole church was in confusion and little more was heard. But he carried everything with him, and Lane’s work seemed all undone. On a back seat of the church Tom Swift, the son of the presiding officer, sat and smiled at his father unmoved, because he had gone as far as the sixth grade in school, and thought he knew more.

As the reporters say, the meeting came to a close amid great enthusiasm.

The day of election came and Little Africa gathered as usual about the polls in the precinct. The Republicans followed their plan of not bothering about the district. They had heard of the Deacon’s meeting, and chuckled to themselves in their committee-room. Little Africa was all solid, as usual, but Lane was not done yet. His emissaries were about, as thick as insurance agents, and they, as well as the Republican workers, had money to spare and to spend. Some votes, which counted only for numbers, were fifty cents apiece, but when Tom Swift came down they knew who he was and what his influence could do. They gave him five dollars, and Lane had one more vote and a deal of prestige. The young man thought he was voting for his convictions.

He had just cast his ballot, and the crowd was murmuring around him still at the wonder of it–for the Australian ballot has tongues as well as ears–when his father came up, with two or three of his old friends, each with the old ticket in his hands. He heard the rumor and laughed. Then he came up to Tom.

“Huh,” he said, “dey been sayin’ ‘roun’ hyeah you voted de Democratic ticket. Go mek ’em out a lie.”

“I did vote the Democratic ticket,” said Tom steadily.

The old man fell back a step and gasped, as if he had been struck.

“You did?” he cried. “You did?”

“Yes,” said Tom, visibly shaken; “every man has a right–“

“Evah man has a right to what?” cried the old man.

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“To vote as he thinks he ought to,” was his son’s reply.

Deacon Swift’s eyes were bulging and reddening.

“You–you tell me dat?” His slender form towered above his son’s, and his knotted, toil-hardened hands opened and closed.

“You tell me dat? You with yo’ bringin’ up vote de way you think you’re right? You lie! Tell me what dey paid you, or, befo’ de Lawd, I’ll taih you to pieces right hyeah!”

Tom wavered. He was weaker than his father. He had not gone through the same things, and was not made of the same stuff.

“They–they give me five dollahs,” he said; “but it wa’n’t fu’ votin’.”

“Fi’ dollahs! fi’ dollahs! My son sell hisse’f fu’ fi’ dollahs! an’ forty yeahs ago I brung fifteen hun’erd, an’ dat was only my body, but you sell body an’ soul fu’ fi’ dollahs!”

Horror and scorn and grief and anger were in the old man’s tone. Tears trickled down his wrinkled face, but there was no weakness in the grip with which he took hold of his son’s arms.

“Tek it back to ’em!” he said. “Tek it back to ’em.”

“But, pap–“

“Tek it back to ’em, I say, or yo’ blood be on yo’ own haid!”

And then, shamefaced before the crowd, driven by his father’s anger, he went back to the man who had paid him and yielded up the precious bank-note. Then they turned, the one head-hung, the other proud in his very indignation, and made their way homeward.

There was prayer-meeting the next Wednesday night at Bethel Chapel. It was nearly over and the minister was about to announce the Doxology, when old Deacon Swift arose.

“Des’ a minute, brothahs,” he said. “I want to mek a ‘fession. I was too ha’d an’ too brash in my talk de othah night, an’ de Lawd visited my sins upon my haid. He struck me in de bosom o’ my own fambly. My own son went wrong. Pray fu’ me!”

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