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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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The Woman at the Well

By James Baldwin

The Magpie, Spring 1941, v. 25, n. 2, p. 26.

Oh Lawd I want . . ."

Jeems walked along the hot, dusty road, heart alive with song. His faded blue dungarees flapped in the still, oppressive air. Rivulets of water ran down the dusky cheeks gathering under his chin to form large, hesitant beads. The rough, wooly hair glistened in the sunlight; the eyes, large and eager, surveyed the world peacefully from beneath the shining, heavy brows. Under one forearm he carried a Bible.

"Two wings . . ."

Dog, but he was tired! It was a long journey, the way he was going. He had been travelling all day, and though he had often made the journey before, this time it seemed slower than usual.

"Dis rate I'll jes' git to de church Sunday mo'nin' in time to walk right in an' preach," he grumbled. "Won't hate time to wash or nothin'." This was immediately followed by the consoling thought: "It doan matter so long's dey git de Word; Eben Jesus was ragged sometime." Heaven and earth contained no greater honor than to do as Jesus might have done.

"To veil my face . . ."

He thought of the time he had first "got religion"—two weeks after his thirteenth birthday. He thought of the ramshackle, wooden "praise-house" with the rough, splintery benches, and the hard, gray floor. They met there almost every night—his father and mother and most of their friends and neighbors. It was their life. They prayed and sang, testified to each other of their trials and tribulations, and what the Lord had brought them through. They used to have a good time in the Lord, he recollected. Every night there was a "shout"—that fervid, exhibition of religious enthusiasm so dear and peculiar to the Negro heart. He remembered the ecstasy that had filled his being and how bright the stars had seemed to be, and how all the earth had seemed to be reborn. He could not forget the w ay God had walked and talked with him, bore his burdens, quelled his fears, gave him peace in his heart. Tears filled his eyes, and he clenched the Bible tighter.

"An' de world can't do me no harm . . ."

He was mighty thirsty. He hoped he'd reach someplace soon, where he could stop and get a drink. Water made him think of his text for Sunday: " . . . whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him, shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be . . . a well of water springing up into everlasting life." Everlasting life, bless God! Living forever with Jesus and His Angels! No more troubles. No more dying. No boss-men to knock you around. Just righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.

He was approaching a house and there was a well in the yard. He hoped he'd be able to get a drink. Didn't know, though. That was a white woman standing by the well. Sometimes folks was mighty funny about a black man talking to a white woman.

The woman's copper hair shot little sparks into the sunlight. She was just standing there, sort of leaning on the well, staring off into space.

Jeems quickened his step. He felt elated. Maybe if this woman was friendly he'd have a chance to tell her about the Lord. Maybe she might get saved. He reached the yard, and stopped. He heard his voice, hoarse, beseeching:

"Please ma'am kin I git a drink?" The woman looked at him and smiled. "Of course," she said. "Help yourself."

* * *

"Niggers gettin' too uppity," grunted Frank Johnson, chief deputy of Cullen County, Alabama, and member of the K.K.K. "Gotta do sumpthin' to keep 'em down."

He was alone in the small, hot room. A fly buzzed around his head. He struck at it. Damn niggers was gittin' too smart, that was the trouble. Got to thinkin' they was just as good as a white man. Got so some of 'em would even talk to a white woman. He heard that in some places they was even allowed to marry. He grunted again, disgustedly. Let him catch a black man botherin' a white woman. He'd show him. He spat and walked out into the blinding sunshine.

* * *

This woman was surprisingly friendly. Jeems had drank and thanked her. He started off. She noted the Bible under his arm. "Goin' to preach somewhere?" she asked him.

He looked at her, flattered that she should be interested. "Yes ma'am," he stammered.

She smiled a friendly smile. "Is it far from here?"

"No'm," he said. "Not so fur."

"What are you goin' to preach about? Heaven an' hell an' all God's angels?" He sensed that she was laughing at him.

"No'm," he said. Suddenly he thought of his father; and the way he talked and something bubbled within him, and loosened his tongue. His shyness left him. "Ise gwine talk about water."

"What?" she gasped. She seemed to be struggling for breath.

"About de wells of water springin' up inter everlastin' life," he explained. "What Jesus talked about when he was here. Ya see—" he opened his Bible, began thumbing pages—"Jesus, one day He let' Jerusalem to go to Jericho, an' he goes through Samaria. An' on de way He meets a woman standin' by a well an' after she gives Him some water, He tells her about dis livin' water dat He kin give her, an' ef she drinks it, she won't thirst no mo'. An' she says, 'Master gimme dis livin' water dat I might not thirst again . . ."

"Livin' water?" she said.

"It's Jesus," he said. "When you git Jesus in yo' heart, an' yo' sins done been fo'given, den you has a peace an' a joy can't nothin' destroy. No matter what happens you kin sing an' praise de Lawd, cause you got dat livin' water on de inside!" His eyes flashed, his face shone. He was warming to his subject. She watched him, fascinated.

"Dis livin' water," he chanted, "bless God, it make you see everybody alike. You love ev'rybody. You b'leeves a black man as good as a white man, cause you got Jesus on de inside. Bless God, you don't see nobody's color, you don't hate nobody, ef you got dis livin' waters Trouble wit de world today dey ain't got dis livin' water. An' we needs it. Wouldn't be no wars ef—"

There was a stunning blow on the back of his neck. He heard the woman scream.

"I'll show ye' what we give to niggers fer molestin' white wimmen!" a voice yelled. His head reeled with another blow. Dimly, he saw a flabby face, insane with fury. "Please suh, I wasn't..." He felt blood on his lips, and the woman screamed again. The man kicked him in the stomach, and he crumpled. The world swam before his eyes. "Please . . . " he gasped.

The heavy foot beat in his face, his eyes, his nose. Blood trickled down his shirt. "O Lawd," he wept, "O Lawd . . . " The foot came again and again. Desperate, Jeems grabbed the ankle, and turned. The man fell beside him. His face was wet and white. "Nigger," he cursed, and raised his hand.

Jeems saw the glint of metal in the sun, and cried out. The cry gurgled in his throat.

The sun became dazzling. And the well of water became a fountain, leaping up and springing into everlasting life.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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