J. Poindexter, Colored - Irvin S Cobb - ebook

Okay, let’s confront the elephant in the room and get this out of the way so we can talk about Irvin S. Cobb, J. Exodus Poindexter, and this remarkable book.The title, J. Poindexter, Colored, is politically incorrect. The novel is written from Poindexter’s viewpoint and in his voice, using the period dialect of an uneducated black man from Kentucky in the 1920s. Also, politically incorrect. If you’re willing to deal with these facts and read this book you are in for a pleasant surprise. Your preconceptions will almost certainly be turned on their head, and you will probably come away from the experience with a changed attitude toward its author, Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb, if indeed you’ve ever heard of him before, no less had an attitude toward him.Richard Lupoff

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Irvin S Cobb

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This book is a work of fiction; its contents are wholly imagined.

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Chapter I: Down Yonder

Chapter II: North Bound

Chapter III: Manhattan Isle

Chapter IV: Harlem Heights

Chapter V: Local Colored

Chapter VI: Gold Coast

Chapter VII: Country Side

Chapter VIII: Dark Secrets

Chapter IX: Movie-Land

Chapter X: Black Belt

Chapter XI: Afric Shores

Chapter XII: Business Deals

Chapter XIII: Private Life

Chapter XIV: Oiled Skids

Chapter XV: Vet to Zym

Chapter XVI: Lady-Like!

Chapter XVII: Sable Plots

Chapter XVIII: White Hopes

Chapter XIX: Pistol Plays

Chapter XX: Piebald Joys

Chapter XXI: Headed Home

Chapter XXII: Last Words



MY NAME IS J. POINDEXTER. But the full name is Jefferson Exodus Poindexter, Colored. But most always in general I has been known as Jeff, for short. The Jefferson part is for a white family which my folks worked for them one time before I was born, and the Exodus is because my mammy craved I should be named after somebody out of the Bible. How I comes to write this is this way: It seems like my experiences here in New York is liable to be such that one of my white gentleman friends he says to me I should take pen in hand and write them out just the way they happen and at the time they is happening, or right soon afterwards, whilst the memory of them is clear in my brain; and then he’ll see if he can’t get them printed somewheres, which on top of the other things which I now is, will make me an author with money coming in steady. He says to me he will fix up the spelling wherever needed and attend to the punctuating; but all the rest of it will be my own just like I puts it down. I reads and writes very well but someway I never learned to puncture. So the places where it is necessary to be punctual in order to make good sense and keep everything regulation and make the talk sound natural is his doings and also some of the spelling. But everything else is mine and I asks credit. My coming to New York, in the first place, is sort of a sudden thing which starts here about a month before the present time. I has been working for Judge Priest for going on sixteen years and is expecting to go on working for him as long as we can get along together all right, which it seems like from appearances that ought to be always. But after he gives up being circuit judge on account of him getting along so in age he gets sort of fretful by reasons of him not having much to do any more and most of his own friends having died off on him. When the state begins going Republican about once in so often, he says to me, kind of half joking, he’s a great mind to pull up stakes and move off and go live somewheres else. But pretty soon after that the whole country goes dry and then he says to me there just naturally ain’t no fitten place left for him to go to without he leaves the United States. The old boss-man he broods a right smart over this going-dry business. Being a judge and all, he’s always been a great hand for upholding the law. But this here is one law which he cannot uphold and yet go on taking of his sweetening drams steady the same as he’s been used to doing all his life. And from the statements which he lets fall from time to time I gleans that he can’t hardly make up his mind which one of the two of them—law or liquor—he’s going to favor the most when the pinch comes and the supply in the dineroom cupboard begins running low. Every time he starts off for a little trip somewheres and has to tote a bottle along in his hip pocket instead of being able to walk into a grocery and refresh himself over the bar like he’s been doing for mighty nigh sixty years, I hears him speaking mumbling[1] words to himself. I hears him saying it’s come to a pretty pass when a Kentucky gentleman has either got to compromise with his conscience or play a low-down trick on his appetite. Off and on it certainly does pester him mightily. But just about the middle of the present summer he gets a letter from his married niece, her which used to be Miss Sally Fanny Priest but is now married to a Yankee gentleman named Fairchild and living in Denver, Colorado. Miss Sally Fanny is the closest kin-folks the old judge has got left in the world; and she ups and writes to him and invites him to come on out there where she lives and stay a spell with them and then toward winter go along with her to a place called Bermuda which it seems like from what she says in the letter, Bermuda is one of these here localities where you can still keep on having a toddy when you feels like it without breaking the law. So he studies about it awhile and then he says to me one night he believes he’ll go, which he does along about four weeks ago, leaving me behind to sort of look out for the home place out on Clay Street. My wages goes on the same as if he was there, and I has but little to do, but the place seems mighty lonesome to me without the old boss-man pottering ‘round doing this and that and the other thing. I certainly does miss seeing the sight of him. Every time I walks through the front part of the house, and it all empty and closed up and smelling kind of musted, and sees his old umbrella hanging on the front hall hat-rack where he forgot and left it there the day he went away, I gets a sort of a low feeling in my mind. It’s like having the toothache in a place where there ain’t no tooth to have it in. And I keeps on thinking about the old days when he’d be setting out on the front porch as night-time come on, with some of them old-time friends of his dropping in on him, and me bringing them drinks from the sideboard, and them laughing and smoking and joking and carrying on; or else maybe talking about the Confederate War and the Battle of Shiloh and all. But most of them is now dead and gone and the old judge is away out yonder in Denver, Colorado, a-many and a-many a mile from me; and all I can hear as I comes up the walk from the front gate after dark is the katy-dids calling in the silver-leaf trees and all I can hear when I unlocks the door and goes inside is one of them old chimney swifts up the chimney, going: “_Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh!_” I’ve took notice before now that an empty house which it has always been empty ain’t half so lonesome for you to be in it as one which has been lived in by people you knowed but they have now gone entirely away. So, after about two weeks of being alone, I gets so restless I feels like I can’t stand it very much longer without breaking loose someway. So one Sunday about half past two o’clock in the evening, I’m going on past a young white gentleman by the name of Mr. Dallas Pulliam’s house and he comes out on his front porch and calls over to me and tells me to come on in there ‘cause he wants to talk to me about something. So I crosses over from the other side of the street and walks up to the porch steps and takes off my hat and asks him how he is getting along and he says he ain’t got no complaint and he asks me how is I getting along my own self and I tells him just sort of toler’ble so-and-so, and then he says to me how would I like to take a trip to New York City? I thinks he must be funning. But I says to him, I says: “How come New York City, Mr. Dallas?” So he tells me that here lately he’s been studying a right smart about going to New York and staying there a spell on a sort of a vacationlike, and if he likes it maybe he’ll settle there and go into business. He says he’s about made up his mind to take some likely black boy along with him for to be his body-servant and look after his clothes and things and everything and he’s thinking that maybe I might be the one to fill the bill; and then he says to me: “How about it, Jeff—want to go along and give the big town the once-over or not?” I then sees he is not funning but is making me a straight business proposition. I thanks him and says to him that I has ever had the crave to travel far and wide and that I likewise has often heard New York spoke of as a very pleasant place to go to, by them which has done so, and also a place where something or other is going on most of the time. But I says to him I’m afraid I can’t go on account I’m under obligations to Judge Priest by reasons of us having been together so long and him having left me in complete utter charge of our house. He says, though, he thinks maybe he can attend to that part of it all right; he says he’ll write a letter to the Judge specifying about what’s come up and he’s pretty sure it can be fixed up so’s I can go. He says if I don’t like the job after I gets there, he’ll pay my way back home again any time I wants to come, or when the old judge needs me, either one. He says he ain’t adopting me, he’s just borrowing me. I always has liked Mr. Dallas Pulliam, him being one of the most freehanded young white gentlemen in town. Of course, off and on, I’ve heard the rest of the white folks hurrahing him behind his back about the way he’s handled all that there money which was left to him here a few years back when his paw died. There was that time when he bought a sugar plantation down in Louisiana, sight onseen, and when he went down to see it, couldn’t do so without he’d a-done a whole heap of bailing-out first, by reason of its being under three feet of standing water. Anyway, that’s what I heard tell; thought I reckon it wasn’t noways as bad as what some of the white folks let on. And there was that other time only a few months back when he decided to start up a buggy-factory. I overhears Judge Priest speaking about that one day to Dr. Lake. “That young man, Dallas Pulliam, certainly is a sagacious and a farseein’ person,” he says. “Jest when automobiles has got so cheap that every hill-billy in the county kin afford to own at least one, he’s fixin’ to go into the buggy-factory business on an extensive scale. Next time I run into him I’m goin’ to suggest to him that when the buggy trade seems to sort of slack up, ez possibly it may, that instid of layin’ off his hands he might start in to turnin’ out flint-lock muskets fur the U. S. Army.” I suspicions that Judge Priest or somebody else must have spoke to Mr. Dallas along those lines because he didn’t go into the buggy business after all. For the past several months he ain’t been doing much of anything, so far as I knows of, except pranking ‘round and courting Miss Henrietta Farrell. Well, white folks may poke their fun at him unbeknownst, but he’s got manners suitable to make him popular with me. He’s the kind of a white gentleman that’s this here way: He’ll wear a new necktie or a fancy vest about three or four times and then he’ll get tired of it and pass it on to the first one which comes along. Moreover, him and me is mighty near the same size and I knows full well in advance, just from looking at him that Sunday evening standing there on his porch, that the very same suit of clothes which he’s got on then will fit me without practically no alterations. It’s a checked suit, too, and mighty catchy to the eye. So right off I tells him if Judge Priest gives his free will and consent I’ll certainly be down at the depot when that there old engine whistle blows for to get aboard for New York City. Which he then asks me for Miss Sally Fanny’s address and promises he’ll write out there that very night to find out can I go. It’s curious how news does travel ‘round in a place that’s the right size for everybody in it to know everybody else’s business. Before night it has done leaked out somehow that I is seriously considering accepting going to New York with young Mr. Dallas Pulliam; and by next morning, lo and behold, if it ain’t all over town! Wherever I goes, pretty near everybody I meets, whites and blacks alike, asks me how about it and allows I’m powerful lucky to get such a chance. Mostly, in times gone by, when my race goes North they heads for Chicago, Illinois, or maybe Detroit, Michigan, or Indianapolis, Indiana. No sooner do they get there than they begins writing back saying that up North is the only fitten place for colored folks to be at; wages high, times easy, and white folks calling you “Mister” and everything pleasant like that. They writes that there is not no Jim Crow cars nor separate seats for colored at the moving-pictures nor nothing like that. But I has taken notice that after awhile most of ‘em quits writing back and starts coming back. Some stays but more returns—and is verging on shouting-happy when they crosses the Ohio River coming in. From what I hears some of ‘em say after they gets home and has got a full meal of vittles inside of them, and so is got more time to talk, I has made up my mind that so far as my own color is concerned, the main difference from the South is this: Up North they calls you “Mister” but they don’t feed you! Still, New York City ain’t Chicago, Illinois, nor yet it ain’t Detroit, Michigan; and besides, working for Mr. Dallas Pulliam, I won’t have to be worrying about when does I eat next. Still, even so, I says to myself that it won’t be no harm to inquire round now that the word is done leaked out anyhow, and learn something more than what little I knows about New York City. But it seems like, outside of some few white folks, there is not nobody I knows who’s ever been there, excusing a few head of draft-boys which went there enduring of the early part of the war; and they wouldn’t scarcely count neither on account of them just passing through and not staying over only just a short time whilst waiting for the boat to start. Howsomever, they tells me, one and all, that from what they did see of it they is willing to recommend it very highly. One or two of the white gentlemen which I is well acquainted with, they tells me the same, too. Mr. Jere Fairleigh he takes me into his law office when I meets him on the street and speaks to him about it; and he gets a book all about New York down off of one of his shelves and he reads to me where the book says that in New York there is more of these here Germans than there is in any German city except one, and more Russians than there is in any Russia city except none, and more Italians than there is in any Italy city except one, and more Hungarians than there is in any Hungry city at all, and so on and so forth. I says to him, I says: “Mr. Jere, it seems lak they is mo’ of ever’ nation in Noo Yawk ‘en whut they is anywhars else. But they does not ‘pear to be nothin’ said ‘bout ‘Merikins. How come, suh?” He says he reckons there’s so few of them there that the man which wrote the book didn’t figure it was worth while putting them in. Still, he says I’ll probably run into somebody once in awhile which speaks the United States language. “‘Most every policeman does,” he says, “I understand it’s the law that they have to be able to speak it before they’ll let ‘em go on the force, so as they can understand the foreigners that come over from the mainland of North America to visit in New York.” The way he looks—so sort of serious—when he says that, I can’t tell if he’s in earnest or not. I judges, though, that he’s just having his fumdiddles with me. And then he goes on and tells me that the biggest of everything and the tallest and the richest and the grandest is found there and if I don’t believe it is, I can just ask any New Yorker after I gets there and he’ll tell me the same. So, taking one thing with another, I’m mighty much pleased when the word comes along in about a week from then that the old judge says I can go and sends me his best wishes and a twenty-dollar bill as a parting gift and friendship offering. He says in the letter, which Mr. Dallas reads to me, to tell me to be sort of careful about sampling the stock of liquor and cigars on the sideboard of any New York family when I’m in their house, and also not to start in wearing a strange Yankee gentleman’s clothes without telling him about it first. He says people up there probably don’t understand local customs as they have ever prevailed down our way, and if I ain’t careful, first thing I know there’ll be a skinny black nigger named Jeff locked up in the county jail hollowing for help and not no help handy. But that’s just the old boss-man’s joke. He always is been the beatenest one for twitting me about little things around the house! Mr. Dallas he knows how to take what the Judge says and so does I and we has quite a laugh together over the letter. And lessen twenty-four hours from that time we is both all packed up and on our way, New York bound, me wearing one of Mr. Dallas’ suits of clothes which I figures he ain’t had it on his back more than five or six times before altogether. It’s a suit of a most pleasing pattern, too. And cut very stylish, with a belt in the back.


FOOTNOTE: [1] Note by Jeff’s amanuensis.—In the part of the Union from which Jeff hails and among his race the word _mumbling_ denotes complaint, peevishness, a querulous utterance.