‘A Summer Tragedy’ by Arna Bontemps

Bontemps, Arna 1933

A Summer Tragedy by Arna Bontemps, 1933

The magic trick:

Demonstrating a tragic consequences of the sharecropping system through the story of one married couple

This is one I highly recommend. It’s the story of Jeff and Jennie Patton, two old black sharecroppers in Louisiana. As the narrative moves along, it seemed to me that the main magic trick at work was Bontemps’s withholding of the nature of the errand the married couple is tending to. But that’s not really it. There is no big surprise there. No big reveal. They have decided to “sell” their land.

The “sell” is in quotes there, though, as they really don’t have many rights or much leverage at all. Sharecropping wasn’t slavery, but it wasn’t far off. And that’s where the magic lies in this story. It’s the story of one couple, but their lives speak to a much broader problem. They should be shining examples of success. The backstory we learn of Jeff is that of a man who pushed his animals hard, worked himself half to death and felt ownership and pride as he looks about his fields. He did everything right. And still, the story painfully illustrates, look at his options. It’s a very powerful means of bringing a real piece of history to life. And that’s quite a trick on Bontemps’s part.

The selection:

He started round to the shed, limping heavily on his bad leg. There were three frizzly chickens in the yard. All his other chickens had been killed or stolen recently. But these frizzly chickens had been saved somehow. That was fortunate indeed, for these curious creatures had a way of devouring “poison” from the yard and in that way protecting against conjure and black luck and spells. But even the frizzly chickens seemed now to be in a stupor. Jeff thought they had some ailment; he expected all three of them to die shortly.

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