III: Black Renaissance

Old Hat

While we were in Georgia, I visited the plantation where Jean Toomer had lived, and, so we were told, had got much of his material for Cane. We talked with some of his distant relatives. One of the old men there had on his head a marvelous patchwork hat of felt, patched over and over with varicolored bits of leather, linoleum, canvas, and baize where the holes of time had worn through. The entire hat was wonderfully weather-stained and dirty. The old Negro looked like something out of Uncle Remus. Indeed like Uncle Remus himself.

I coveted his hat. It seemed to me like the quaint soul of labor in the Old South, “caroling softly souls of slavery.” It seemed to me like early dawn on the Georgia plum trees and sunlight in the cotton fields. So, after much dignified bargaining (for I had to overcome his entrenched resistance), I traded my new straw hat for it and brought the octogenarian’s hat back with me to New York. There I put it in a safe-deposit vault in a Fifth Avenue bank, where, thanks to a patron, my manuscripts were stored, and also my grandmother’s shawl, in which Sheridan Leary had been killed with John Brown at Harpers Ferry.

I don’t know now why I considered that old hat so valuable—except that it was quaint and folk-like in the manner of the spirituals and the blues. So I wrapped it in tissue and put it securely in my locked suitcase in the vault.

That winter I had no reason to go to the safe-deposit for anything. But the following spring I went there to look up some notes in the suitcase for my first novel. It was Saturday morning and the elegant, guarded, triple-locked chamber was crowded with well-dressed people, inspecting securities or getting out their week-end jewels. The attendant handed me my suitcase. As I opened it, to my utter consternation, out came a great cloud of moths, filling the room! They rose in a dusty horde toward the ceiling and then gradually began to settle in flocks on the astonished heads and fashionable fur-pieces of the fine ladies in the vault and to get into the hair of various old gentlemen cutting coupons. Other insects merely drifted toward the guards.

As the bank’s clients fought off the moths in indignant amazement, I quickly closed the suitcase, rushed out and took a taxi to the middle of Central Park. There I dumped everything on the grass and backed away as more and more insects continued to flutter into space.

Then I had to go over each leaf in every notebook, and each sheet of paper piece by piece, brushing off moth eggs for fear they would turn to eating up the manuscripts next—for they had eaten my old hat to a powder, leaving only a varicolored dust.

It was weeks before I took that suitcase back to the bank. I was ashamed! And when I did take it, redolent with camphor balls, I took it very early in the morning, sneaking in, lest I see some of the ladies and gentlemen there who might remember my moths and cower in panic.


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