II: Big Sea

Don’t Hit a Woman

One night there was a terrific fight in the Grand Duc.

It began like this: a little French danseuse named Annette was going to have a child. Still, to make a living, she had to come to work every night, dance with the patrons and drink as much champagne as she could, in order to get her commission. But she was not well and she shouldn’t have been there. Of course, if she had had any other way of making a living, she wouldn’t have been there, but she didn’t have any other way.

Feeling badly, no doubt, Annette began to be very spiteful to those clients who didn’t think that they could afford another bottle of champagne, so one night the owner of the place asked her not to come back any more. He was French and she was French, and they spoke the same language fluently, so Annette said some very unpleasant things to the owner. He called an attendant to eject her. Annette would not go. The attendant laid hands on her and pushed her, struggling in her satin evening gown, toward the door.

As she passed the last table, Annette seized a patron’s champagne bucket—ice, bottle, and all—and flung it straight at the proprietor at his cash desk behind the bar; whereupon the attendant slapped Annette to the floor with one blow of his hand.

Then it was that Florence, the famous entertainer, that same Florence who snubbed millionaires nightly, arose from her table near the orchestra to defend the poor little French danseuse in her troubles. Florence wore an evening gown of gold and a spray of orchids in her hair. She swept across the floor like a handsome tigress, blocking the path of the waiters, who, at the bidding of the management, rushed to eject the little danseuse.

Florence said: “Don’t touch that woman! She’s a woman and I’m a woman, and can’t nobody hit a woman in any place where I work! Don’t put your hands on that woman.”

By that time the little danseuse had risen from the floor and seized another ice bucket, which she sent whirling into space. Customers dodged behind tables. The orchestra struck up “Tuck me to sleep in my Old Kentucky Home,” to drown out the noise.

A waiter did lay hands on the danseuse, but Florence laid hands on the waiter. Then the Negro manager laid hands on Florence, and a battle royal began between the women (and those who sided with the women) and the management (and those who sided with the men).

Je suis une femme,” screamed the little French girl, hurling whatever she could lay hands on. “Je suis une femme.

“A woman and a mother,” cried Florence, “and nobody can hit a woman and a mother. I’ve got a mother and nobody can’t hit my mother.”

The orchids fell from Florence’s hair and her nails dug into the face of any man who came near her, boss, manager, waiters, or customers. But suddenly an unknown client sprang from his table to the protection of Florence and the embattled danseuse, a big man, a foreigner, never seen in the Grand Duc before or since, but who effectively defended all womankind with his fists that evening.

At that moment a strange thing happened—something you wouldn’t believe in fiction—but it’s true. A girl named Cornelia had been waiting since midnight for a fellow named Joe to arrive. He was late; in fact, he was very late, for it was now about four o’clock. (And Cornelia suspected him of going about with other women.) But just at the height of the fight, who should walk in the door but Joe, cigar in mouth.

Cornelia, already in sympathetic tears about the fate of womankind, beset on all sides by evil men, suddenly saw her lover across the room, standing by the door. Through the mêlée of fleeing guests and struggling fighters crowding the floor, Cornelia went, and with one mighty blow knocked his cigar down his throat.

Joe was taken by surprise, stunned and amazed. But he recovered himself sufficiently to slap Cornelia completely across two tables.

One of the members of the orchestra said: “Doggone if I can stand to see a colored woman abused by a colored man.” So he lit in on Joe and the two fought from the bar to the kitchen door.

By then the customers had either fled or joined the battle on one side or another—but most of them had gone, in their flight leaving wraps and unpaid checks behind. The owner quickly locked the door to keep the fight from spreading to the street, so there was now no way of getting out. Bruce had already left with the first customers, saying he would have nothing to do with such affairs—since “who hit who” was no concern of his. So he put on his street coat and went to the corner bistro for a drink. I was left alone in the kitchen, looking out through the red curtains of the serving pantry at the fray.

Detached from the rest of the fighting, Joe and the musician approached the curtain opening to the pantry, blow by blow. The musician knocked Joe through the curtains, and leaped toward him. I retreated into the kitchen. They rose, locked in struggle. They fell backward. They panted and turned, and Joe threw the musician against the hot range. His rear sizzled. I then got on top of the icebox. Pots and pans fell to the floor with a mighty clatter, eggs were broken, beans overturned. I reached down from the icebox and grabbed the two huge kitchen knives from their racks and dropped them behind the box, not wishing to view a murder before my eyes. Joe and the musician fought terrifically all over the kitchen.

Outside in the cabaret, curses, shouts, groans, grunts, cries, and the clatter of glass filled the night. No music now, only good, hard, steady fighting. The women did not even scream as they fought. Suddenly Cornelia came into the kitchen and began to pull the musician off her boyfriend, imploring him to stop before he killed Joe dead.

The two men stopped, panting and spent, so I went outside into the cabaret to see how things were there. They had finally declared a truce, due, no doubt, to exhaustion. Bedraggled, but triumphant in that she left of her own accord and nobody put her out, the little French danseuse spat a last insult at the proprietor and backed through the door on the arm of the unknown foreigner, who said, in bad French: “Faut pas frapper une femme.

Florence, saying plenty in English and loud, still occupied the center of the floor in the midst of the wreckage, hair awry, orchids gone, tears of triumph in her eyes and a run of golden sequins dripping from her dress.

“Nobody’ll mistreat a woman in front of me,” she said, “ ’cause I’m a woman, and nobody’s gonna mistreat a woman in front of me. Everybody’s got a mother.”

“Yes,” said Cornelia, “I’m a woman, too.”

“And that poor little French girl’s going to have an enfant,” said Florence. “You men ought to be proud of any woman what has an enfant, ’cause it takes guts to have an enfant. None of you men ever had a baby! Écoutez! Je dis, it takes all kinds of guts to be a mother! You hear me?”

“I got a mother, and I love her,” said Cornelia. “Mais oui, I do!”

“I love my mother, too, honey,” said Joe, emerging from the kitchen, “but she never hit me no such blow as you hit me tonight.” He rubbed a rueful hand across his face. “You mighty nigh cold-cocked me, Cornelia!”

Cornelia melted: “Aw, baby, bend down and lemme kiss it,” she said. “I didn’t really aim to hurt you.”

Chérie, you take the cake!” sighed Joe. “Sans blague.

It took the waiters and me until almost noon to clean up the place after Florence left. Bruce never came back until the following evening. He just went home. He said if he’d stayed there, he would have killed somebody sure, probably the proprietor—since he never did like a boss, nohow. Furthermore, Bruce said, half the women in this world need to be beat—not once but plenty of times.

“Women have tried my soul,” said Bruce, “so I ought to know. Somebody has to slap one down once in a while.”


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This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.