Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Going Back to Mount Vernon, N.Y.

This is the house where I grew up;
sketch from a 1920s architectural journal

During the 1970s, A Separate Peace by John Knowles became a mainstay of the U.S. high school English curriculum. It is a tale of male adolescence, namely the complicated relationship between two boys who attend a New England college preparatory school. All of the action occurs on campus between the summers of 1942 and 1943.

A Separate Peace is sad and introspective. The death of one of the boys creates moral uncertainty against the backdrop of World War II. That probably explains the book’s continuing presence in the syllabus, although whether it merits that place is debatable. 

Regardless, its first sentence always had, for me, a singular resonance.

I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.

With this opening John Knowles performs the work of any good writer, which is to say he puts his arm around the reader and invites her in.

Of course the book isn’t about the school looking newer than the grown man recalled. It’s about the experience of revisiting the past. 

It reminds me of the late 1980s, returning to the area where I grew up, now with a husband and children.

The boys were a toddler and a baby. They would spend their childhood, and a bit more, in a place infinitely recognizable to me. They went to nursery school at the Mt. Vernon Y and children’s hour at the Mt. Vernon Public Library. Their favorite cookies came from a Mt. Vernon bakeshop. They ate their first pizza in Mt. Vernon.

Mt. Vernon Public Library, 1920s

Many times I showed them the house where I grew up and the houses where my friends had lived and the streets along which we walked everywhere.

They came to watch out for the gazebo in Hartley Park, which looks like an illustration in a children’s book, and the turret of the Victorian house where E.B. White kept a mouse when he was growing up in Mt. Vernon. They saw the sights!

Childhood home of author E. B. White,
Mt. Vernon, N.Y.

When the children were young, every tale I told would elicit enthusiasm. One of their favorites involved driving home from a friend’s house during the 1977 blackout.  

              When the lights went out, my friend and I were sitting on a flat part of the roof of his house, having crawled out a window into the hot night. It’s actually more of a shock to be outside than inside at the moment when the lights go out. We made our way back into the house and down the stairs and I got in the car to drive home.

I followed the familiar streets, now pitch-black like country roads. Within ten minutes, I pulled up in front of our house where my father stood on the front lawn, waiting.

It’s a simple story that the boys found exciting and comforting at the same time. They were transported to a place where their mother was young and faced something slightly daunting that worked out happily in the end.  

Nearly 40 years later, I remember a feeling of absolute calm riding through the dark streets.

Sometimes, not always, that’s what you get for going back.


Gazebo in Hartley Park,
Mt. Vernon, N.Y.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

O Cruel Roanoke


Edward Dwight Walker, 1880s

He may, in fact, have tipped out of the canoe and become entangled in the fishing line. After two men found his body floating in the Roanoke River, a coroner examined it right there on the shore and ruled the death accidental. 

But a few people who saw him after he arrived at Weldon, N.C., told a reporter that Mr. Walker “acted rather strangely and as if partly insane.”

A 30-year old magazine writer and editor, Edward Dwight Walker had left Brooklyn, where he lived with his mother, and headed South in March 189o. His colleagues at The Cosmopolitan said that he sought rest from a grueling schedule. He also may have been collecting material for a story about fishing.

If so, he came to the right place. The town of Weldon is known as the “Rockfish Capital of the World” during early spring when striped bass swarm the Roanoke River to spawn. As the stripers run the river, anglers flock to the beautiful mid-Atlantic wilderness and its blue waters.

In those days, the opening of the season didn’t cause traffic jams on I-95. Besides, Mr. Walker would have arrived by train, possibly with fishing paraphernalia. He stopped overnight at the Coast Line Hotel. The next morning, he brushed off the offer of a guide and walked away with his stuff.

He set off on the river in a log canoe.

 
Roanoke River, around 1900

Born in New Haven in 1859, Walker graduated from Williams College in 1876 and went to work at Harper’s Weekly, an influential political magazine whose editors subtitled it A Journal of Civilization. After the Civil War, Harper’s became widely known for publishing cartoons of Tammany Hall boss William Tweed by Thomas Nast.

Although it is hard to believe, by the 1880s the U.S. had a self-reported literacy rate of 90%. Therefore it makes sense that the country experienced a magazine boom during this decade. Among the many periodicals that came into being, The Cosmopolitan started publishing in 1886 as a “family magazine.”

Edward Walker joined the staff soon after, working as a writer and editor. The magazine survived bankruptcy and reinvented itself twice before the dynamo entrepreneur and inventor John Brisben Walker became editor in 1889. (The two men were not related.)

The arrival of John Brisben Walker may have caused some stress for Edward, who had served as editor in 1888 and clearly was passed over.  

You have to hand it to Brisben Walker. He increased The Cosmopolitan’s circulation to 400,000 from 16,000 between 1890 and 1905, when he sold the magazine to William Randolph Hearst for $1 million.


First issue of The Cosmopolitan, March 1886

To build circulation, the magazine sought more attention-grabbing stories. That left less room for the type of stories that Edward wrote; for example, a feature about the New England Conservatory of Music which The Cosmopolitan published posthumously.

Several days before he drowned, Edward Walker sent an inquiry to Jefferson Davis.

Cosmopolitan planned a series of articles “to form a complete history of the contest about slavery which preceded the war,” Edward wrote to the former president of the Confederacy. He offered $150 for Davis’s “pro-slavery side of the struggle.”

Along with the letter to Davis, Edward wrote rapturously about the Roanoke River to several friends while traveling in North Carolina during the last month of his life.

And as a Theosophist, Edward probably spent a lot of time reflecting on life and death. Theosophy (derived from “wisdom-religion”) is a kind of spiritualism. Its believers reach for divinity by learning the hidden truths that lie in the past and in the world of nature. Theosophy became very popular during the Victorian Era, and Brooklyn had a large, active community of Theosophists.   

In 1888, Edward had published Reincarnation, a study of forgotten truth, a 325-page study with an exhaustive bibliography. The book started as a lecture to a group of Theosophists.

“Reincarnation illuminates the darkest passages in the murky road of life,” Edward wrote. He argued that materialism is the cause of all the evils in modern society: “Reincarnation combats that foe by a subtle and deadly warfare.”      

***

In Mrs. Walker’s crowded parlor, the Reverend John Malcolm of the Park Congregational Church conducted a brief service and led an Episcopal prayer. Then everyone went to Green-Wood Cemetery, which is famous as the resting place of Samuel Morse, Horace Greeley, the aforementioned Boss Tweed, and many others.

There, a friend read a sentimental poem.

Lone youth: to lay thy weary thought upon the river’s tide,
Thou camest in a southern clime
A stranger to its side;
The pine tree put its finger forth
And beckoned to thee there. . .
What last imploring words went out
When the rude billow broke, -
Though wilt not tell, save to the
Sea, O heartless Roanoke,
O cruel Roanoke.


This is one of those impossibly opaque stories.


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Kansas: a 9/11 story

Sky over Kansas, 2001                                                                            cjk

A clear blue sky arched over Kansas on the morning of September 11, 2001. I know that, can still see it, because driving home from an early trip to the grocery I glanced up at the white paths of exhaust left by planes curving back toward the airport.

We were expatriate New Yorkers living with our two sons in suburban Johnson County, where fields of hay bales and meandering horses lay incongruously across the road from supermarkets, high schools, and corporate headquarters with their vast parking lots.    

Leaving New York had made us unhappy. But in my memory Kansas is always becoming a fonder place. I am trying to say that I am glad we lived there, especially on 9/11.

At first we were shocked by the streetscape, juxtaposed with the quiet village of tall green trees and winding streets from which we had arrived about a year earlier. Here, busy streets bound by sprawling church complexes and condominium developments headed south in four lanes, dwindled to two and then one skinny road ending finally in a little town with dust kicking up around the edges.

And circling perpetually overhead, the hawks and turkey vultures in the astonishing sky where wind and light shifted constantly, patterned intricately with clouds; sunrise or sunset always visible at the end of the flat land beyond the next shopping center.

By September 11, 2001, these things had become very familiar yet I did not feel an affinity with this place. Uneasily, I compared my life to that of a young bride in mid-nineteenth century Kansas Territory, waiting for the minister to pay a visit. Certainly I was still waiting that morning at 8:15 Central Time, pulling into the garage to find the television uncharacteristically on and the telephone ringing.  

For many New Yorkers who had boarded early morning flights to the West Coast, Kansas City would be where the planes set down. There were so many that the airport became entirely compacted.

Among the passengers on these planes was a good friend whose twin brother had called, panicking, to say that Chris had been able to reach him and thought they would be landing in a few minutes. My husband immediately left for the airport to get him. Then another friend got through – her husband and two associates had also landed in Kansas City and here was his information. I called my husband and he connected with Tom.

The car filled with passengers, Jeffrey drove everyone to our home in Kansas. Tumbling out, bewildered and frightened, we hugged and shivered in the noon sun.

One of the passengers had no personal or professional connection to the others in the group. An executive in the construction business, the mother of two little girls, Denise lacked even a carry-on because she would have returned on the red-eye.

Sitting beside Chris on the descending plane, she couldn’t place a call on her cell phone and had anxiously borrowed his to call her husband. As they disembarked, Chris asked where she would stay in Kansas City and persuaded her to come with him.

Several years later Denise reflected, “Getting off a plane with a strange man in a strange city, climbing into a car driven by a strange man with other strange people to a strange house…”

Sky over Chicago, 2014                                                                            cjk

She needed some clothing. We tried a few stores before finding Wal-Mart open. Denise had never before shopped in a big-box store and initially thought that one of the salesladies was my friend because of her sweetness. Some of that was Kansas style, but also surely reflected the catastrophic events of the day.

Enabled by our hi-tech household – a phone system fitted for conference calls, plenty of computers, a fax machine – the group conducted business and tried to figure out how to get back to New York.

We watched the horror unfold, shared meals and talked about the world and ourselves, reflecting in a way that must be unique to people who are brought together randomly in the midst of fearsome events.

Nearly a week after Tuesday, the five of them drove east in what was surely the last available rental minivan for miles around. After they left, I went outside and looked up at the sky. Everything around me was my home.

Sky collage, 1974                                                                    cjk


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

James D. Corrothers, Happy at Last?

James D. Corrothers, around 1910

In 1898  . . .  “a sunburst fell upon my being.

James D. Corrothers later recalled the moment when he decided to enter the ministry of the AME Church. Upon learning his first assignment would be in New York, however, he and his wife agreed they would rather return to Michigan.

Turning back the clock, Corrothers found work unloading barrels of salt and flour from freight barges. The wet salt made the skin on his hands crack open and bleed. He switched to work on a fruit farm.

Eventually James came around to the idea of taking the offer in New York. He dropped his wife and sons with her family near Baltimore and hustled to the upstate town of Bath, where he received news that his wife and younger son had died.

Corrothers had no time to grieve. He brought his older son to Bath and worked for a pittance, supplementing his income by publishing Negro dialect verse in The Century, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Sunday Herald, and other papers.

Occasionally, Corrothers contributed to The Crisis, 
newspaper of the NAACP. His poem, "A Song of May and June,"
appeared in the June 1914 issue.


Moving on, he earned success and a good living as a pastor in the New Jersey towns of Red Bank and Hackensack, and prepared to answer the call of another congregation. But then:

The black tragedy of my life fell upon me; and I staggered and groaned, like a bludgeoned traveler in the dark. I was a stranger and nearly penniless. I had sacrificed all to do good, when, suddenly, I was accused of plotting to ruin my bishop’s good name – a thing of which I was as innocent as Heaven itself!  

The bishop brought a lawsuit against Corrothers, who was acquitted. It didn’t matter. He faced the wrath of the influential leaders of the AME church. James never recovered from their viciousness. He became an outcast immediately; no home, no congregation. He could not get another job and writing opportunities dried up. Thankfully, friends took in his son.  

Shall I tell of days of hunger, and wandering; of nights spent under the open, wintry sky? Shall I tell of rebuffs and buffetings; of “friends” who forgot or who “passed by on the other side”?

Many years later, Corrothers reflected on the black church’s domination of African-American society and culture.

No other Negro institution is so powerful; so influential. All Negro life in American centres about the church. Coloured professional and business men, as a class, find it wise and profitable to remain in the good graces of the church. Even successful race leaders, like Dunbar, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, have not disdained a hearing through the Negro church.

Sabotaged at every turn, Corrothers gave up on being a minister ever again. He returned to New York where he found a job in Brooklyn as a janitor’s assistant, working from 5am until midnight. He loved the toil, he later wrote, and relished being able to send small gifts to his son.

Then one day it came to him that he should leave AME and join the Baptist Church, which welcomed him warmly.

Eventually, Corrothers remarried; with his second wife, Rosina, he had another son. He moved his family back to South Haven, Michigan, and built a brick church with his own hands. As the area developed as a resort for whites, however, blacks felt unwelcome and left the area; so did he. 

View of the Black River, South Haven, Michigan; Corrothers
had a lifelong affinity with the area where he spent time as a child
and started a congregation around 1910.

Landing next in Lexington, Virginia, he renounced the Baptists for the Presbyterian Church over “a matter of conscience.”

In 1916, James Corrothers was ensconced as pastor of a church in Westchester, Pennsylvania. He died one year later.

While Corrothers figures in African-American history, his story does not resemble those of his peers who traveled a neat trajectory toward success. He moved often between triumph and despair, which may have reflected his own personality (at least in part). 

The hideous treatment of Corrothers by the elders of the AME Church is shocking, but so was Corrothers' candid denouncement of its abuse of power. While he never achieved the renown of Booker T. Washington, his clear-eyed perspective on race in America sets him apart even today. 


*This post is the last of three about James D. Corrothers; see August 17 + 24.

http://www.throughthehourglass.com/

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Summer on 53rd Street

Lillian Gish, 1919
Portrait by Hamilton King 

One summer during the mid-1970s, I had a job working for a literary publicist who was a hard-driving woman. The imperious Alice started barking orders at 8:30 in the morning, flounced out to expense account lunches, and harassed us till quittin’ time. But she deserved her excellent reputation. Her clients included the top New York publishers.

The office, located at 515 Madison Avenue, was messy and drab with old furniture. It didn’t have to look nice because no one ever saw it except for the few employees. We spent a lot of time moving around cartons of books in order to clear work space that continued to elude us.      

The agency’s tip of the hat to modernity, an enormous photo-copier, occupied center stage. It’s a dim memory now, but in those days office machines broke down often. There would be a paper jam of egregious proportions, and perhaps one employee had the magic touch, and if she failed, and we had pried open all of the wings and doors and pressed reset a thousand times, and perhaps inflicted a few whacks, it would be necessary to call a repair man who always took his own sweet time.

The books that Alice promoted tended to be how-to’s and tell-all’s; unfortunately, I can’t remember any except for Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish, the gorgeous actress whose first big film was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. Its other title was The Clansmen, but no one blamed Miss Gish for that. (However, she had been a member of the America First Committee before World War II; that ended when Hollywood blacklisted her.)

Lillian and her younger sister, Dorothy, started as child actors during the silent film era and became stars of early cinema. After Dorothy died at age 70 in 1968, Lillian decided to write a book about the two of them, more scrapbook than biography. Scribner’s published it in 1973. The book must have faded fast, because a few years later Alice was hired to get the lot sold.




Her idea was to throw a big party for Miss Gish. She invited reporters who covered culture and fashion, all kinds of book people and famous New Yorkers, and somehow this did the trick. The former star – who would live to be 99 – sat on a loveseat all evening and charmed everyone. Really, she had remained so exquisite that you couldn’t stop looking at her.   

And on top of still being beautiful, Lillian Gish quietly acknowledged that Alice was hard on us.

All of this floated back earlier this month when public radio’s “Writer’s Almanac” noted that the American poet Louise Bogan was born on August 11, 1897.

There’s a connection.

The office was located about a block away from the old Doubleday Bookstore at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street. It’s “old” because the space has been occupied by all kinds of stores since its demise about 25 years ago.

I found Bogan’s collection of poems, The Blue Estuaries, in Doubleday during that summer of 1975. The book had been published in 1968 yet still could be found in a bookstore seven years later. That’s how things used to be.



In order to reach the poetry section, you had to go upstairs. That meant climbing Doubleday’s spiral staircase. It was solidly built, but the ascent felt slightly disconcerting because the treads were wide and the steps were open.

But it was worth it for Bogan’s poems, some of which appealed to an emotional young woman, me.

              Back through smoke
              Back through noon
              Back along love
              Back through moonlight

That was my summer on 53rd Street.

Doubleday Bookstore staircase, 2016;
now sheathed in white plaster

*Of course, Louise Bogan never became as well-known as Lillian Gish. The poet won Guggenheim Fellowships in 1933 and 1937; edited fiction at The New Yorker; joined the likes of Du Bois and Faulkner in condemning Franco’s bombardment of Madrid in 1936, and became U.S. Poet Laureate in 1945. Lillian Gish rode a wave of mass culture and celebrity. Generally, critics acclaimed her work. She wielded unprecedented influence as a Hollywood actress. Playwright Tennessee Williams wrote the part of Blanche DuBois for her but she turned it down because her ailing mother required attention.  


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

James D. Corrothers Set Forth to be a Writer

Discouraged by his lack of success as a writer,
James D. Corrothers trained to be an amateur boxer. 

When it is told, the life of James D. Corrothers appears as a success story about persistence and a few fortuitous encounters with influential people.

In truth, Corrothers’ life was a zigzag of good turns and bad turns: those he chose himself and those that others dealt him. Nearly every achievement was followed by a setback. Corrothers had a hard time keeping on moving forward. 

There are some discernible reasons. He hampered himself; he slammed into the poisonous racism of his time, and he was victimized by powerful black clergymen. It may be useful to say that he felt optimistic about the future of black Americans. Actually, he never strayed from the harsh view he expressed in 1894:

. . . that the race question would never be definitely settled in America; that the whites would never extend to us the full social and commercial privileges which other races enjoy here; that all we had suffered and done in this country was merely disciplinary and temporary, and that the Negro’s destiny was AFRICA.  

Born in 1869, neglected by his parents, and raised in Michigan, James had a close relationship with his grandfather. From a young age, he wanted to be a writer.

As the only black boy growing up in the lumber town of South Haven, Michigan, Corrothers got in the middle of a race riot that started during a July 4th celebration when visitors came from neighboring towns. He was unhurt but did have to fight every white boy in order to take a place at school. The teachers whipped and punished him.

Harder times came. James and his grandfather moved to Muskegon where the 15-year old worked an 11-hour day in a lumber mill.  He went from the mill to a skating rink to a farm; survived typhoid fever, returned to the mill. Living in a freight car, James got to know an Irish sailor named Jack who persuaded him to go to Chicago where they would work together on a boat. Unsurprisingly, they could not get a berth together.

The men soon met a “brisk quick-spoken chap who had a foreign accent.” He told them there was work to be found on canal boats in upstate New York. James decided to go with him. But he ended up by the side of the road, the stranger having “borrowed” all of his money.

Next James found work at a hotel in Liberty, Indiana; this time a 17-hour day spent scrubbing floors and waiting tables. He still found time to read the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley, Longfellow, and Tennyson. A few months later, as a field-hand on an Ohio farm, he thought about attending Wilberforce University (the oldest African-American university in the U.S.).

"Yes James," she repeatedly protested to me, "you wrote it
but who was the author of it?"

Instead he became a coachman in Springfield, Michigan, where the editor of the local newspaper published one of his poems. The wife of his employer did not believe that it was Corrothers’ work:

              “Yes James,” she repeatedly protested to me, “you wrote it but who was the author of it?” 

Finally, Corrothers got work on the Peerless, one of the freight boats that plied the Great Lakes. By the time he arrived in Chicago, he had saved $90. He bought a suit and was hired as a porter in a barber shop. One day the muckraking journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd walked in and they got to talking about literature. Through his wife, Lloyd had a connection to the Chicago Tribune. When he left, Lloyd took a few of James’ poems which were published in the paper. 

Elated, Corrothers accepted an offer to be a porter in the Tribune’s counting room.* He had never earned so much money. He also became a frequent guest at the Lloyds’ home, where he met Jane Addams, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Booker T. Washington.

A Tribune editor, Robert W. Patterson, invited Corrothers to write a story “about the progress of the coloured people of Chicago.” After considerable research and interviews conducted during his time off, Corrothers produced the article. Patterson assigned a white reporter to edit it. The reporter rewrote it entirely in what was called “Negro dialect.” Corrothers was mortified. When he complained, Patterson laughed in his face. Then Patterson fired him from the counting room.

After the Civil War, many black men found work as “dinner waiters” in Northern hotels, where they fought for stale bread and the leftover meat on diners’ plates. Joining the ranks, Corrothers decided that he would never have a career as a writer and should become an amateur boxer. He trained, but he never got there.

Instead, Corrothers was invited to recite his poem, “The Psalm of the Race,” at the first meeting of the National Afro-American League in Chicago in 1890. The League, established by Timothy Thomas Fortune, editor of the black newspaper, the New York Age, preceded the NAACP by two decades.

Now hailed as “Chicago’s coloured poet” and “the coming poet of the race,” Corrothers ran into a long-lost aunt who, with Henry Demarest Lloyd, provided money for him to enter Northwestern University. Later, James met WCTU president Frances Willard, who also helped fund his education. He studied there from 1890 to 1893.

Then along came the Reverend Dr. Charles Nelson Grandison, purportedly the grandson of an African king, who dreamed of starting a Christian Negro Republic in Africa (a decade before Marcus Garvey launched the Back to Africa Movement). He persuaded Corrothers to join him on a tour of the South – at the height of Jim Crow – and stay on at Bennett College in North Carolina to study and teach.

Corrothers detested the South although he readily acknowledged that African-Americans who lived in the North encountered just as much racism.

Back in Chicago, Corrothers married
Fannie Clemens, with whom he had two sons.
  
He decided to return to Chicago where he married and had two sons. He got by writing articles for the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Daily Record, Chicago Journal, and Chicago Times-Herald. His earnings picked up when he started to write in Negro dialect. At this time, he began to write the stories that would be collected in his 1902 book, The Black Cat Club.

But still he despaired of ever making a living from writing.


*In the newspaper business during the late 19th century, advertising and sales were managed in the counting rooms. “Counting-room journalism” referred to papers where the goal of increasing circulation drove the editorial content. Joseph Pulitzer was considered its greatest exponent; later it would be known as “yellow journalism.”

To be continued; see August 17, 2016 post.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

By Way of an Introduction to James D. Corrothers

James D. Corrothers, 1890s

Around 1900 while James D. Corrothers was the pastor of a Methodist church in Red Bank, N.J., he attended a banquet at a New York hotel.

The dinner honored Elbert Hubbard, a socialist, writer, self-improvement fiend, and adherent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, now largely lost to history.

In his autobiography, Rev. Corrothers described how he stood out as the sole black person among 250 dinner guests. He sat near a woman journalist who wrote for the New York Times. She tried to guess his identity, he recalled years later.

“I know that coloured man!” she exclaimed. “It’s Booker T. Washington!”

But she learned her mistake.

“Oh, I know now whom he is! It’s Paul Laurence Dunbar!” she declared.

Then somebody told her my name and calling.

“Oh, I know whom he is now, she explained. “He’s only a darky minister from Red Bank!”

In Reverend Corrothers’ autobiography, In Spite of the Handicap, he noted that the journalist, a Southerner named Zoe Anderson Norris, and the man she married, the illustrator J. K. Bryans, would become warm personal friends.

Indeed, Bryans, who specialized in comics and silhouettes, drew the pictures for Corrothers’ book, The Black Cat Club, Negro humor & folklore, published in 1902.

That book is a bit of a surprise, written as it is entirely in Negro dialect.

“I have grown to consider the book a very poor one, and regret exceedingly that it was published,” Corrothers reflected in 1916.

But he explained that his inspiration lay in the work of the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who popularized the use of Negro dialect.* In fact, some black authors embraced “dialect literature” until the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance around 1920. And black intellectuals of the day, including Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, lauded it. **

Historians and critics have analyzed this phenomenon. Was it a satirical device? A roundabout way for the black elite to distinguish itself from less sophisticated brethren? A means to preserve black folklore after the Civil War? Various interpretations exist.

Illustration, The Black Cat Club
(by J. K. Bryans)

It appears that Rev. Corrothers intended The Black Cat Club to be a send-up of the pretensions of well-educated blacks and their delusions about assimilation. The book opens as its main character, Sandy Jenkins, nicknamed “Doc,” exults in his newly established Black Cat Literary Club in Chicago. Doc celebrates with a drink:

“You black people been raisin’ san’ wid yo’ Shakespeare ack,” observed Billy “Spooks,” the bartender, pouring out Doc’s drinks. . . “See whut de papahs said ‘bout you dis mo’nin’?”

“Nevah pays no ‘tention to such small mattahs,” answered Sandy; “might, ef I wuz raised pickin’ cotton in de backwoods down South lak you. I’se a genamun ma’safe.”

The Black Cat Club is an interesting artifact.

However, a poem entitled “An Indignation Dinner,” which Corrothers published in The Century Magazine in 1915, is far more compelling. It starts:

              Dey was hard times jes fo’ Christmas round our neighborhood one year;
              So we held a secret meetin’, whah de white folks couldn’t hear,
              To ‘scuss de situation, an’ to see what could be done
              Towa’d a fust-class Christmas dinneh an’ a little Christmas fun.

As the meeting progresses, the men become increasingly angry about the deprivation they routinely endure, and decide to steal a turkey, chickens, hogs, and sweet potatoes from a nearby farm. The last stanza:

              Well, we lit right in an’ voted dat it was a gran’ idee,
              An’ de dinner we had Christmas was worth trabblin’ miles to see;
              An’ we eat a full an’ plenty, big an’ little, great an’ small,
              Not beca’se we was dishonest, but indignant, suh.  Dat’s all.




*Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), the son of slaves, began writing at an early age and published books, stories, and poems although he was never able to support himself. His work, while admired widely, has been criticized for promoting racial stereotypes.

**During these years, white writers and artists also employed Negro dialect in books, songs, and plays for white audiences. Its use by whites was considered deeply derogatory.

Continued in August 24, 2016 post.