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Alfred Kreymborg, ed. Others for 1919. 1920.

Fenton Johnson

African Nights


I AM tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.

Let us take a rest, M’Lissy Jane.

I will go down to the Last Chance Saloon, drink a gallon or two of gin, shoot a game or two of dice and sleep the rest of the night on one of Mike’s barrels.

You will let the old shanty go to rot, the white people’s clothes turn to dust, and the Calvary Baptist Church sink to the bottomless pit.

You will spend your days forgetting you married me and your nights hunting the warm gin Mike serves the ladies in the rear of the Last Chance Saloon.

Throw the children into the river; civilization has given us too many. It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored.

Pluck the stars out of the heavens. The stars mark our destiny. The stars marked my destiny.

I am tired of civilization.


Despite her sixty years Aunt Hannah Jackson rubs on other people’s clothes.

Time has played havoc with her eyes and turned to gray her parched hair.

But her tongue is nimble as she talks to herself.

All day she talks to herself about her neighbors and her friends and the man she loved.

Yes, Aunt Hannah Jackson loved even as you and I and Wun Hop Sing.

“He was a good man,” she says, “but a fool.”

“So am I a fool and Mrs. Lee a fool and this Mrs. Goldstein that I work for a fool.”

“All of us are fools.”

For rubbing on other people’s clothes Aunt Hannah Jackson gets a dollar and fifty cents a day and a worn out dress on Christmas.

For talking to herself Aunt Hannah Jackson gets a smile as we call her a good natured fool.


State Street is lonely to-day. Aunt Jane Allen has driven her chariot to Heaven.

I remember how she hobbled along, a little woman, parched of skin, brown as the leather of a satchel and with eyes that had scanned eighty years of life.

Have those who bore her dust to the last resting place buried with her the basket of aprons she went up and down State Street trying to sell?

Have those who bore her dust to the last resting place buried with her the gentle word Son that she gave to each of the seed of Ethiopia?


I wield the razor, sling hot towels and talk.

My daily newspaper is the racing chart and my pastime making bets on fleet-footed horses.

Whatever is left from betting I divide with my wife and a yellow woman who lives in an apartment on Wabash Avenue.

(Poor Wife! She gets very little.)

I love gay clothes, a good supply of Fatimas and the fire in gin and whiskey.

I love life. Who doesn’t?


I had a wife, but she is gone. She left me a week ago. God bless her!

I married another in the rear of Mike’s saloon. It was a gallon jug of the reddest liquor that ever burned the throat of man. I will be true to my new wife. You can have the other.


There is music in me, the music of a peasant people.

I wander through the levee, picking my banjo and singing my songs of the cabin and the field. At the Last Chance Saloon I am as welcome as the violets in March; there is always food and drink for me there, and the dimes of those who love honest music. Behind the railroad tracks the little children clap their hands and love me as they love Kris Kringle.

But I fear that I am a failure. Last night a woman called me a troubadour. What is a troubadour?


I mastered pastoral theology, the Greek of the Apostles, and all the difficult subjects in a minister’s curriculum.

I was as learned as any in this country when the Bishop ordained me.

And I went to preside over Mount Moriah, largest flock in the Conference.

I preached the Word as I felt it, I visited the sick and dying and comforted the afflicted in spirit.

I loved my work because I loved my God.

But I lost my charge to Sam Jenkins, who has not been to school four years in his life.

I lost my charge because I could not make my congregation shout.

And my dollar money was small, very small.

Sam Jenkins can tear a Bible to tatters and his congregation destroys the pews with their shouting and stamping.

Sam Jenkins leads in the gift of raising dollar money.

Such is religion.


Once I was good like the Virgin Mary and the Minister’s wife.

My father worked for Mr. Pullman and white people’s tips; but he died two days after his insurance expired.

I had nothing, so I had to go to work.

All the stock I had was a white girl’s education and a face that enchanted the men of both races.

Starvation danced with me.

So when Big Lizzie, who kept a house for white men, came to me with tales of fortune that I could reap from the sale of my virtue I bowed my head to Vice.

Now I can drink more gin than any man for miles around.

Gin is better than all the water in Lethe.