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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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Mississippi Legend

By James Baldwin

The Magpie, Spring 1941, v. 25, n. 2, p. 42.

It was Annie Simpson as tol' me this here story, an' I ain't a-sayin' as it's the truth or a lie. Annie Simpson's a real respectable woman, an' she ain't got no cause to lie to me. I been knowin' her all my life an' she's one o' the sweetest chillun I know.

Annie used to live down on a farm in Mississippi. 'Twant her farm, but she used to work it on a sharecroppin' basis—you know, that means she was workin' for somebody else an' givin' them half o' the crops at the end o' the year.

Annie says that everybody down there was real religious, but she says she never seen a woman as religious as Mattie Jones before. She says Mattie was so blame holy that she wouldn't even straighten her hair, or light her stove on Sunday. Said Sunday was a day of rest an' that folks oughtn't to do no work atall on that day. On Sundays Mattie went to church real early in the mornin' an' stayed there all day, singin' an' shoutin' an' praisin' God. Sometimes she stayed there till way early Monday mornin'. Annie says she was as pious as anybody, but she couldn't never stay there that long. She says she had to get some sleep some time. Anyway, Mattie was always the leader in somethin' like that.

Well, as I said, they was all mostly sharecroppers down that-a-way, but this year the crops hadn't been so good. To tell the truth, there was reports of a blight about ten miles away from where they was, but that didn't scare them none, 'cause the blight was almost always down that way, but it hardly ever bothered them. The folks who lived down where the blight was, used to come up Annie's way beggin' them for a loan of flour, or sugar or fatback, or sometimes even money. Annie says they never had much, but they would give them what they could.

Well, Annie tells me that one day Mattie Jones came a-runnin' over to her house all excited an' everything, an' her face an' her eyes was shinin', an' the first thing she says is, "Annie Simpson, what you think is goin' to happen?"

Annie says she was so surprised she couldn't say a word. She stares at Mattie, en' then she says: "No, Sister Jones. What's de matter?"

Mattie jes' looks at her for a minute, an' then she says, almost in a whisper: "Chile, de Lawd done tol' me that a terrible plague gon' come on us."

Annie says she jes' sinks down on a chair. "On us?" she says. "Why?"

"De Lawd says He's angry at our backslidin'," Mattie says, her eyes shinin'. "He says He's gonna punish us an' make us behave ourselfs."

Annie says she jes' sat there, an' she couldn't say nothin'. It sounded jes' like something you read in the Bible about the children of Israel. It didn't sound like nothin' that would happen now in times like these. Annie says she didn't know what to think.

"Maybe de Lawd'll stay His hand if we repents an' fasts an' pray," says Mattie gloomily. "Anyway, dat's what I'se a-gwine ter do."

"You gon' tell de rest o' de folks?" Annie asks her.

Mattie jes' looks at her. "Yeh, I'll tell 'em. Ain't gon' do no good, though."

Well, after awhile Mattie went, an' Annie sat there thinkin' for awhile, an' then she got up, an' started cookie' supper.

* * *

The next day the rest o' the folks got wind o' Mattie's revelation, an' all you could see anywhere was gangs o' people all huddled together, an' excited, talkin' about it. Most of 'em was kinder skeptical. "Dat Mattie Jones!" says Sister Williams. "She's always seein' somethin'."

"Lawd got anything to tell me, He sho knows where I lives," says Mamie Wilson, tossin' her head.

"I knows I ain't done nothin'," drones Deacon Jones. "Main life is clean."

"Ef de Lawd say we done backslid, we musta done backslid, Deacon Jones," says Brother John, kinder strict-like. "It doan do us no good ter boast ourselfs."

"I got somethin' to boast about," says Deacon Jones. "More'n I kin say fer some people."

"What you talkie' 'bout?" says Brother John, gittin' mad.

"You knows what Ise talkie' about," says D e a c o n Jones. "What was you doin' in de fills wif Martha Lee de udder night?"

"Now look a-here!" says Johnnie, flashin' fire, "you keep dat gal's name out yo' mouf!"

"Now brudders be nice," says Mamie. "We ain't gonna fight. We wants ter fin' out ef what Mattie Jones says is true."

"Ise de Deacon," says Deacon Jones. " Look like ef de Lawd had somethin' to tell de church, He'd tell me."

"Doan fergit we got a pastor," says Sister Mary. "You ain't everything, Deacon Jones!"

"I knows dat, daughter," says Deacon Jones, kinder hurt-like. "But de Lawd might show me somethin', too. Ise next to de pastor."

"Seems mighty funny ter me, dat de Lawd would show Mattie somethin' He didn't show de pastor," says Sister Williams.

"It sho do," says Brother John.

"Here comes de pastor, now," says Sister Lizzie. And sure enough, down the road, they saw the pastor comin'.

And then, from her house, they saw Mattie comin' too.

"Jesus!" whispers Brother John.

Mattie reached them first. Her comin' made them quiet and fidgety.

"Praise de Lawd," she says.

"Praise de Lawd," they says, not lookin' at her. The pastor was comin' closer. Sister Lizzie coughs an' says, "Sister Jones, what's dis we hears about some plague de Lawd done showed you?"

Mattie looked tired an' kinder washed out. Her voice was hoarse, "De Lawd done showed me," she says, "cat y'all ain't livin' right."

They didn't say nothin', but Annie says you could see they didn't like that a bit.

"He says y'all done backslid," Mattie says. "He says dat ef y'all doan repent, He gonna smite de crops wif a plague."

The pastor joined them. When Mattie saw him, she got quiet an' her eyes got big.

"Praise de Lawd, chillun," says the pastor. "What's de matter here?"

They jes' stood there an' fidgeted, an' looked from Mattie to the pastor, an' from the pastor to Mattie. They didn't say nothin'.

"Well?" says the pastor, smilin' and frownin' a little, too, "what's happened?"

Deacon Jones coughs. "I thinks," he says, slow-like, "dat de Lawd done showed our Sister Mattie sumpthin'."

* * *

Annie says that Mattie talked an awful long time, an' she said a lot of terrible things. Then they all got real mad an' the pastor says ef Mattie don't take back what she said, they's gonna put her out the church.

"Dese things ain't true," he says. "De Lawd got anything to show de church, He'd show me."

"De Lawd done tol' me," says Mattie. "Ain't no devil."

"You got a devil," says the pastor. "Ef you doan take back what you done said, we is gonna put you out de church."

"De Lawd done tol' me," she says doggedly, "dat y'all ain't livin' right."

"Dat's a lie," says the pastor.

Mattie jes' stood there an' licked her lips an' didn't say nothin'. Tears started rollin' down her cheeks.

They jes' stood there lookin' at her an' sayin' nothin'. After a minute Mattie turns an' cryin' quiet-like, walks across the fields, back to her house.

* * *

About a week later the blight came. Every crop in the region was ruined. Folks went out to the fields an' the fields stank, an' the plants fell apart in their hands. Folks looked at each other, a-feared an' puzzled an' nobody says nothin'. There wasn't nothin' they could say.

But Annie says that Mattie's piece o' ground seemed to be almos' shinin' an' her crops wasn't touched. An' Mattie, head an' arms raised to heaven, walked through the fields, a-cryin' an' apraisin' the only God she knew.

* * *

'Twas Annie Simpson as tol' me this here story, an' I ain't a-sayin' as it's the truth or a lie. But Annie's a real respectable woman an' she ain't got no cause to lie to me.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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