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Live Stream: Jimsella by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Written by Rachael Norris, 20th October 2020

For today's Shared Reading live stream, Head of Publications at The Reader, Grace Frame, reads Jimsella by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Check out the rest of our readings for Black History Month and download our calendar here.



No one could ever have accused Mandy Mason of being thrifty. For the first twenty years of her life conditions had not taught her the necessity for thrift. But that was before she had come North with Jim. Down there at home one either rented or owned a plot of ground with a shanty set in the middle of it, and lived off the products of one’s own garden and coop. But here it was all very different: one room in a crowded tenement house, and the necessity of grinding day after day to keep the wolf – a very terrible and ravenous wolf – from the door. No wonder that Mandy was discouraged and finally gave up to more than her old shiftless ways.
Jim was no less disheartened. He had been so hopeful when he first came, and had really worked hard. But he could not go higher than his one stuffy room, and the food was not so good as it had been at home. In this state of mind, Mandy’s shiftlessness irritated him. He grew to look on her as the source of all his disappointments. Then, as he walked Sixth or Seventh Avenue, he saw other coloured women who dressed gayer than Mandy, looked smarter, and did not wear such great shoes. These he contrasted with his wife, to her great disadvantage.
“Mandy,” he said to her one day, “why don’t you fix yo’se’f up an’ look like people? You go ’roun’ hyeah lookin’ like I dunno what.”
“Why n’t you git me somep’n to fix myse’f up in?” came back the disconcerting answer.
“Ef you had any git up erbout you, you’d git somep’n fu’ yo’se’f an’ not wait on me to do evahthing.”
“Well, ef I waits on you, you keeps me waitin’, fu’ I ain’ had nothin’ fit to eat ner waih since I been up hyeah.”
“Nev’ min’! You’s mighty free wid yo’ talk now, but some o’ dese days you won’t be so free. You ’s gwine to wake up some mo’nin’ an’ fin’ dat I ’s lit out; dat’s what you will.”
“Well, I ’low nobody ain’t got no string to you.”
Mandy took Jim’s threat as an idle one, so she could afford to be independent. But the next day had found him gone. The deserted wife wept for a time, for she had been fond of Jim, and then she set to work to struggle on by herself. It was a dismal effort, and the people about her were not kind to her. She was hardly of their class. She was only a simple, honest countrywoman, who did not go out with them to walk the avenue.
When a month or two afterward the sheepish Jim returned, ragged and dirty, she had forgiven him and taken him back. But immunity from punishment spoiled him, and hence of late his lapses had grown more frequent and of longer duration.
He walked in one morning, after one of his absences, with a more than usually forbidding face, for he had heard the news in the neighbourhood before he got in. During his absence a baby had come to share the poverty of his home. He thought with shame at himself, which turned into anger, that the child must be three months old and he had never seen it.
“Back ag’in, Jim?” was all Mandy said as he entered and seated himself sullenly.
“Yes, I ’s back, but I ain’t back fu’ long. I jes’ come to git my clothes. I ’s a-gwine away fu’ good.”
“Gwine away ag’in! Why, you been gone fu’ nigh on to fou’ months a’ready. Ain’t you nevah gwine to stay home no mo’?”
“I tol’ you I was gwine away fu’ good, did n’t I? Well, dat ’s what I mean.”
“Ef you did n’t want me, Jim, I wish to Gawd dat you ’d ’a’ lef’ me back home among my folks, whaih people knowed me an’ would ’a’ give me a helpin’ han’. Dis hyeah No’f ain’t no fittin’ place fu’ a lone colo’ed ooman less ’n she got money.”
“It ain’t no place fu’ nobody dat ’s jes’ lazy an’ no ’count.”
“I ain’t no ’count. I ain’t wuffless. I does de bes’ I kin. I been wo’kin’ like a dog to try an’ keep up while you trapsein’ ’roun’, de Lawd knows whaih. When I was single I could git out an’ mek my own livin’. I did n’t ax nobody no odds; but you wa’n’t satisfied ontwell I ma’ied you, an’ now, when I ’s tied down wid a baby, dat ’s de way you treats me.”
The woman sat down and began to cry, and the sight of her tears angered her husband the more.
“Oh, cry!” he exclaimed. “Cry all you want to. I reckon you ’ll cry yo’ fill befo’ you gits me back. What do I keer about de baby! Dat ’s jes’ de trouble. It wa’ n’t enough fu’ me to have to feed an’ clothe you a-layin' ’roun’ doin’ nothin’, a baby had to go an’ come too.”
“It’s yo’n, an’ you got a right to tek keer of it, dat ’s what you have. I ain’t a-gwine to waih my soul-case out a-tryin' to pinch along an’ sta’ve to def at las’. I’ll kill myse’f an’ de chile, too, fus.”
The man looked up quickly. “Kill yo’se’f,” he said. Then he laughed. “Who evah hyeahed tell of a niggah killin’ hisse’f?”
“Nev’ min’, nev’ min’, you jes’ go on yo’ way rejoicin’. I ’spect you runnin’ ’roun’ aftah somebody else – dat ’s de reason you cain’t nevah stay at home no mo’.”
“Who tol’ you dat?” exclaimed the man, fiercely. “I ain’t runnin’ aftah nobody else - ’t ain’t none o’ yo’ business ef I is.”
The denial and implied confession all came out in one breath.
“Ef hit ain’t my bus’ness, I’d like to know whose it gwine to be. I ’s yo’ lawful wife an’ hit ’s me dat ’s a-sta'vin’ to tek keer of yo’ chile.”
“Doggone de chile; I ’s tiahed o’ hyeahin’ ’bout huh.”
“You done got tiahed mighty quick when you ain’t nevah even seed huh yit. You done got tiahed quick, sho.”
“No, an’ I do’ want to see huh, neithah.”
“You do’ know nothin’ ’bout de chile, you do’ know whethah you wants to see huh er not.”
“Look hyeah, ooman, don’t you fool wid me. I ain’t right, nohow!”
Just then, as if conscious of the hubbub she had raised, and anxious to add to it, the baby awoke and began to wail. With quick mother instinct, the black woman went to the shabby bed, and, taking the child in her arms, began to croon softly to it: “Go s’eepy, baby; don’ you be ’f’aid; mammy ain’ gwine let nuffin’ hu’t you, even ef pappy don’ wan’ look at huh li’l face. Bye, bye, go s’eepy, mammy’s li’l gal.” Unconsciously she talked to the baby in a dialect that was even softer than usual. For a moment the child subsided, and the woman turned angrily on her husband: “I don’ keer whethah you evah sees dis chile er not. She ’s a blessed li’l angel, dat ’s what she is, an’ I ’ll wo’k my fingahs off to raise huh, an’ when she grows up, ef any nasty niggah comes erroun’ mekin’ eyes at huh, I’ll tell huh ’bout huh pappy an’ she ’ll stay wid me an’ be my comfo’t.”
“Keep yo’ comfo’t. Gawd knows I do’ want huh.”
“De time ’ll come, though, an’ I kin wait fu’ it. Hush-a-bye, Jimsella.”
The man turned his head slightly.
“What you call huh?”
“I calls huh Jimsella, dat ’s what I calls huh, ’ca’se she de ve’y spittin’ image of you. I gwine to jes’ lun to huh dat she had a pappy, so she know she ’s a hones’ chile an’ kin hol’ up huh haid.”
They were both silent for a while, and then Jim said, “Huh name ought to be Jamsella – don't you know Jim ’s sho’t fu’ James?”
“I don’t keer what it ’s sho’t fu’.” The woman was holding the baby close to her breast and sobbing now. “It was n’t no James dat come-a-cou'tin’ me down home. It was jes’ plain Jim. Dat ’s what de mattah, I reckon you done got to be James.” Jim didn’t answer, and there was another space of silence, only interrupted by two or three contented gurgles from the baby.
“I bet two bits she don’t look like me,” he said finally, in a dogged tone that was a little tinged with curiosity.
“I know she do. Look at huh yo’se’f.”
“I ain’ gwine look at huh.”
“Yes, you ’s ’fraid - dat ’s de reason.”
“I ain’ ’fraid nuttin’ de kin’. What I got to be ’fraid fu’? I reckon a man kin look at his own darter. I will look jes’ to spite you.”
He couldn’t see much but a bundle of rags, from which sparkled a pair of beady black eyes. But he put his finger down among the rags. The baby seized it and gurgled. The sweat broke out on Jim’s brow.
“Cain’t you let me hold de baby a minute?” he said angrily. “You must be ’fraid I’ll run off wid huh.” He took the child awkwardly in his arms.
The boiling over of Mandy’s clothes took her to the other part of the room, where she was busy for a few minutes. When she turned to look for Jim, he had slipped out, and Jimsella was lying on the bed trying to kick free of the coils which swaddled her.
At supper-time that evening Jim came in with a piece of “shoulder-meat” and a head of cabbage.
“You’ll have to git my dinnah ready fu’ me to ca’y to-morrer. I ’s wo’kin’ on de street, an’ I cain’t come home twell night.”
“Wha, what!” exclaimed Mandy, “den you ain’ gwine leave, aftah all.”
“Don’t bothah me, ooman,” said Jim. “Is Jimsella ’sleep?”

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

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