16 February 2020

Great Moments in Entitlement: “The N—” [1876]


[Okay, this piece is actually titled “A Black Bird That Could Sing But Wouldn’t Sing: A Lyric of the American Southern States.” It was first published in The Figaro, 16 February 1876. The author’s sense of entitlement to the labor of the handicapped former slave who shows up at his house in this burlesque of Poe’s “The Raven” is priceless, Notice especially how it was in this poet’s view the plantation owner who “paid the piper in the good old days of yore,” not the enslaved laborer. And it is the freed slave who will “revel in [those days] no more!”]

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
O’er the War of the Rebellion and the things that were before;
While I sat absorbed in thinking, brandy cocktails slowly drinking,
Suddenly I saw a blinking, one-eyed figure at my door—
Saw a nasty, stinking, blinking, one-eyed figure at my door,
Standing up as stiff as steel-yards, just across my chamber floor,
Peeping in, and—nothing more.

Ah ! I never shall forget it, how in glancing round I met it,
And I ever shall regret it that I looked towards that door,
For I saw a monstrous figure—like a giant, only bigger,
And there stood a big buck n――r, with his back against the door,
Darting, with a hideous snigger, glances right across my floor,
A reeking, lantern-jaw’d buck n――r bolt upright against my door,
Glancing in, and—nothing more.

Quick instinctively espying where my ham and eggs were frying,
There I saw a poker lying near the hearth upon the floor,
And with most determined vigor seized and hurled it at the n――r.
But so quick was he on the trigger, as he jump’d it struck the door,
Struck beneath him, as he bounded just like lightning from the floor,
As like a tarr’d and feather’d Mercury, up he bounded from the floor,
Grazed his heel, and—nothing more.

Back toward my hearth-stone looking, where my ham and eggs were cooking,
Shaking, quaking as no mortal ever shaked or quaked before,
Soon I heard the ugly sinner mutter forth these words, “Some dinner,”
Looking still more gaunt and thinner, even than he looked before,
These the words the heathen mutter’d—the sole and only sound then uttered,
As down from his high jump he flutter’d ’lighting on his major toe,
“Dinner,” said he, nothing more.

Then his impudence beginning, he displayed his gums in grinning,
And with eyes aught else but winning, leer’d upon me from the door,
Speaking thusly: “’Tis your treat, man, I’ll never go into the street, man,
Till I get some grub to eat, man, I shall never leave your door,
Never quit them aigs and bacon, now just done, I’m very sure,
Never till I’ve cleaned the platter, though you beat me till I roar,
Treat me, or I’ll charge ’em sure.”

Then toward the fireplace marching, where my coffee too was parching,
Boldly stalked this sassy n――r right across my chamberfloor,
Never stopped to bend or bow, sir, then I knew there’d be a row, sir,
For I made a solemn vow, sir, he should soon recross that floor,
And I kicked him through the room, sir, back again toward the door,
Kick’d and cuffed him, in my anger, back against my chamber-door,
Then I kicked him yet once more.

But this midnight bird beguiling my stirr’d spirit into smiling.
By the wretched, rabid, ravenous look his hungry visage wore,
“Tho’,” I said, “thou art a freedman, thou hast gone so much to seed, man,
So I’ll give you one good feed, man, as you seem to be so poor—
One good feed in your sore need, man, as you seem so very poor;
The eggs and meat shall be my treat, if with light work you'll pay the score.”
Quoth the n――r, “Work no more.”

Much I marveled this ungainly n――r should refuse so plainly
Just to do a little work, for food he craved and needed sore,
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Should decline to labor seeing that he was so deuced poor;
Should refuse to earn a dinner, which he hungered for I’m sure,
And would have damned his soul by stealing had he hoped to make the door;
Escaping thence to—work no more.

Awhile I sat absorbed in musing, what meant he by this refusing,
Till, mad, I turned into abusing the odious, odorous blackamoor.
“Sure,” said I, “you must be crazy, to be so infernal lazy,
So cussedly, outrageous lazy, as to want to work no more;
You ugly, grim, ungainly, ghastly, heathen, savage blackamoor,
Will you even work for wages—food and clothes and payment sure?"
Quoth the n――r—“Work no more.”

“N――r," said I, "horrid demon! N――r still if slave or freeman,
Pause and ponder ere you answer this one question, I implore:
Have you got no sense of feeling? do you mean to live by stealing?
Or by working and fair dealing; tell me truly, I implore,
On your honor as a n――r, will you ever labor more?
Plough in corn or hoe in cotton, as you did in days of yore?”
Quoth the N――r—“Nevermore!”

Startled by the stillness broken by reply so flatly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “this big n――r once could eat enough for four,
When on some grand rice plantation, he could out-eat all creation,
Until his corporal situation warned him he could eat no more;
Scorning any calculation of how much cash it cost I’m sure,
For the master paid the piper in the good old days of yore,
Days he’ll revel in no more!”

“N――r,” said I, “thing of evil! quit my sight! go to the devil!
Or even yet, pause, reconsider terms I’ll offer you no more,
Tell me truly, I implore you, for the last time I conjure you,
If good wages I ensure you, and clothes the best you ever wore,
Will you work three days in seven, at tasks far lighter than of yore?
Only three short days in seven—labor light and payment sure?”
Quoth the n――r—“Work no more.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, n――r man,” I said upstarting,
“Get you gone to where you came from, let me see your face no more.
Quick, vamose, cut dirt—skedaddle—seek some far-off, distant shore,
Haste, relieve me of that visage—darken not again my door,
Join the army—go to Texas! Never come back here to vex us,
Take your gaze from off my victuals—take your carcase from my door”—
Quoth the n――r—“Nevermore.”

And the n――r, never working, still is shirking—still is shirking
Every kind of honest labor, in the house or out of door,
And his eye has all the seeming of a vulture’s starved and dreaming,
And my bacon, gently steaming tempts him still to cross my floor.
But I’ll gamble with that poker that I hurled at him before,
That I’ll maul his very lights out, if he dares to pass that door,
He shall work or—eat no more!

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