III: Black Renaissance
Once back in New Orleans, I hated to quit the S.S. Nardo but another trip would have made me late for classes. I decided to spend the rest of August in New Orleans and was lucky enough to find a room in the old French Quarter in the home of a colored woman married to a Mexican. It was just a block from the Cathedral, in a house that must have been at least a hundred years old. All the floors were solid stone. The steps and balconies had railings of twirling ironwork, and none of the rooms had windows, only tall shuttered doors opening into the patio or onto the long balcony off the second floor.
In the center of the patio was a well with a bucket and a hand roller for pulling the water up.
It was a picturesque house. But like most picturesque things out of the past, not very comfortable, only beautiful to look at. Cockroaches as large as mice came out of the cracks of the walls after dark and scraped their rasping feet over the stone floors. The patio was airless and the heat lay like a blanket and everybody left their doors wide open at night, and some of the roomers snored like frogs. Mosquitoes zoomed and hummed. And at dawn, the lady of the house got up and began to wash and clean and sing and cook in the patio, so there was no sleeping after the sun rose.
She was a stout, dark woman, who made very good coffee and a lot of it, for everybody in the house, so with the coffee and the sun and the singing and the bustle every morning, I found myself up early and out in the street rambling through the Vieux Carée.
One day I was in the old St. Louis Cemetery, with its tombs one on top of another above ground, when a couple of dark caretakers, sitting in the shade behind one of the tombs, hailed me. In English that had a decidedly strange accent, they asked me if I wanted to go in on a bottle of wine. I said: “Sure.”
One of them scrambled up, figured out the exact amount each one had to contribute, and off he went for the wine. I noticed an empty bottle already on the ground, beside some bones from a tomb they must have been cleaning. They were short, very black fellows, who spoke Creole to each other. They were the first real Creoles I had met. In Louisiana, it seems, a Creole is anyone, white, black, brown, or mulatto, who speaks the Creole patois or who comes from certain parishes where that patois is the local language.
These grave diggers, or rather grave attendants, since they did not have to dig, were merry fellows, much in love with wine, and given to telling very funny jokes in Creole, because they would laugh and laugh. And they did not know enough English to explain to me what they were laughing about. But when the wine was drunk, they showed me all the famous tombs, including the tomb of Marie Laveau, where many black candles are burned and crosses made in memory of the high priestess of voodoo whose bones lie therein.
They had very little reverence for the tombs they were tending. One of them said to me in an attempt at English that I cannot reproduce: “All this folks got this great big tombs, they gonna have mighty hard time gettin’ out from under when de Judgement Day comes. How they gonna get out from under all this stone? Can you tell me?”
I couldn’t, so we went off to have supper in a nearby tavern for colored Creoles. I ate there often after that and came to know several Creoles pretty well. Even once or twice I was invited to their homes, and on one occasion to a party. The ordinary non-Creole colored people of New Orleans told me that was rather unusual, because the Creoles did not mix much, or show hospitality toward the English-speaking Negroes “across Canal Street.” The non-Creoles said that the Creoles were a very dangerous people, given to the use of knives, and the Creoles said the same about the others. But I had a good time with all of them.
No sooner had I got off the train than I ran into Zora Hurston, walking intently down the main street, looking just as if she was out to measure somebody’s head for an anthropological treatise. I didn’t know she was in the South, and she didn’t know I was either, so we were very glad to see each other. Right off we went to eat some fried fish and watermelon. Then she took me to see Dr. Williams and his daughter, Lucy Ariel, a talented pianist and poet.
Miss Hurston was bound North, too. She had her own car, so we decided to travel together, stopping on the way to pick up folk-songs, conjur, and big ole lies, for Miss Hurston was on a collector’s trip for one of the folk-lore societies. Blind guitar players, conjur-men, and former slaves were her quarry, small town jooks and plantation churches, her haunts. I knew it would be fun traveling with her. It was.
We stopped at Tuskegee and made speeches on writing to the summer school students—which was our only contact with formal culture all the way from Mobile to New York. Then we went to Macon, Georgia, where Bessie Smith was singing in a small theater. But you didn’t have to go near the theater to hear Bessie sing. You could hear her blocks away. Besides, she practised every morning in the hotel where we lived, so we met her and got to know her pretty well.
Bessie said: “The trouble with white folks singing blues is that they can’t get low down enough.”
From Macon we went to Savannah and met a little woman who was out shopping for a second-hand gun to “sting her husband up a bit.” She told us where the turpentine workers and the dock workers hung out, and we got acquainted with some and had supper with them. We asked them to sing some songs, but the songs they sang we had heard before and they were not very good songs. Miss Hurston said you had to live with people a long while, as a rule, before you might accidentally some day hear them singing some song you never heard before, that maybe they had learned away off in the backwoods or remembered from childhood or were right then and there engaged in making up themselves.
“You can’t just sit down and ask people to sing songs for you and expect them to be folk-songs, and good ones, and new ones,” said Miss Hurston. It seldom happens that way. But it was fun having supper with the stevedores from the Savannah docks.
In Georgia, we visited an excellent Negro school at Fort Valley and met Mr. and Mrs. Hunt in charge, but at that time the school was closed and we saw only the buildings. Then we got wind of a famous conjur-man away off in the backwoods, so we decided to go see him. We were warned not to go on a week-end, for then the cars and wagons of Negroes and whites alike filled his cabin yard, and you might wait all day and not have a chance to talk with him.
We went in the middle of the week, driving over the red clay roads. It was not hard to find his cabin, because everybody along the road seemed to know him. We drove up in the early afternoon and a tall, red-skinned, middle-aged man received us, the conjur-man himself. There was nothing especially distinguished about the man either in appearance or personality. He was quiet and pleasantly serious and asked us, in a southern drawl, what our trouble was.
Miss Hurston said that she had a cousin in Brooklyn who was working against her, trying to keep her from coming back North because that cousin feared that some of the money from a piece of property left to the family might come to her. That cousin was working to put harm in her way, and in my way, and something awful might happen to us if we did not find protection.
The conjur-man picked up his huge apocryphal Bible and began to read from it. He then rose and darkened the room, after having laid out various chalks and powders on a nearby table. When the room was quite dark, he touched Miss Hurston on the forehead and on the breast with a piece of chalk that left white marks. He sprinkled water and mumbled an incantation. Then he gave us each a small stone to hold. He struck a match and put it to the stones and each stone began to blaze. He told us to move the stones in the form of a cross. After the stones had burned a while, he spoke in tongues, performed other simple rites behind our backs, and then raised the curtains and opened the door and charged us seventy-five cents. He said everything would be all right, but if we wanted further safeguards, to give him five dollars and he would continue the rites for a month for us—until there would be no possibility of harm coming from our Brooklyn cousin. We said we did not feel we needed the additional protection, and he agreed it was not absolutely necessary, since any and all of his charms were effective. So we went away.
Miss Hurston, who had visited a great many conjur-men, said that he was a poor one without power, using tricks like the burning sulphur-stones to amaze and confound people. We did not understand why he had such a reputation in that part of Georgia, where even some of the medical doctors were complaining about his having taken their patients away from them. Yet I guess if you really believe in a burning sulphur-stone dripping a cross, it might perhaps be good for what ails you.