The Wisdom of Silence by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Jeremiah Anderson was free. He had been free for ten years, and he
was proud of it. He had been proud of it from the beginning, and that
was the reason that he was one of the first to cast off the bonds of
his old relations, and move from the plantation and take up land for
himself. He was anxious to cut himself off from all that bound him to
his former life. So strong was this feeling in him that he would not
consent to stay on and work for his one-time owner even for a full
To the proposition of the planter and the gibes of some of his more
dependent fellows he answered, No, suh, I's free, an' I sholy is able
to tek keer o' myse'f. I done been fattenin' frogs fu' othah people's
snakes too long now.
But, Jerry, said Samuel Brabant, I don't mean you any harm. The
thing's done. You don't belong to me any more, but naturally, I take an
interest in you, and want to do what I can to give you a start. It's
more than the Northern government has done for you, although such wise
men ought to know that you have had no training in caring for
There was a slight sneer in the Southerner's voice. Jerry perceived
it and thought it directed against him. Instantly his pride rose and
his neck stiffened.
Nemmine me, he answered, nemmine me. I's free, an' w'en a man's
free, he's free.
All right, go your own way. You may have to come back to me some
time. If you have to come, come. I don't blame you now. It must be a
great thing to you, this dreamthis nightmare. Jerry looked at him.
Oh, it isn't a nightmare now, but some day, maybe, it will be, then
come to me.
The master turned away from the newly made freeman, and Jerry went
forth into the world which was henceforth to be his. He took with him
his few belongings; these largely represented by his wife and four
lusty-eating children. Besides, he owned a little money, which he had
got working for others when his master's task was done. Thus, bur'dened
and equipped, he set out to tempt Fortune.
He might do one of two thingsfarm land upon shares for one of his
short-handed neighbours, or buy a farm, mortgage it, and pay for it as
he could. As was natural for Jerry, and not uncommendable, he chose at
once the latter course, bargained for his twenty acresfor land was
cheap then, bought his mule, built his cabin, and set up his household
Now, slavery may give a man the habit of work, but it cannot imbue
him with the natural thrift that long years of self-dependence brings.
There were times when Jerry's freedom tugged too strongly at his easy
inclination, drawing him away to idle when he should have toiled. What
was the use of freedom, asked an inward voice, if one might not rest
when one would? If he might not stop midway the furrow to listen and
laugh at a droll story or tell one? If he might not go a-fishing when
all the forces of nature invited and the jay-bird called from the tree
and gave forth saucy banter like the fiery, blue shrew that she was?
There were times when his compunction held Jerry to his task, but
more often he turned an end furrow and laid his misgivings snugly under
it and was away to the woods or the creek. There was joy and a loaf for
the present. What more could he ask?
The first year Fortune laughed at him, and her laugh is very
different from her smile. She sent the swift rains to wash up the new
planted seed, and the hungry birds to devour them. She sent the fierce
sun to scorch the young crops, and the clinging weeds to hug the fresh
greenness of his hope to death. She sentcruellest jest of
allanother baby to be fed, and so weakened Cindy Ann that for many
days she could not work beside her husband in the fields.
Poverty began to teach the unlessoned delver in the soil the thrift
which he needed; but he ended his first twelve months with barely
enough to eat, and nothing paid on his land or his mule. Broken and
discouraged, the words of his old master came to him. But he was proud
with an obstinate pride and he shut his lips together so that he might
not groan. He would not go to his master. Anything rather than that.
In that place sat certain beasts of prey, dealers, and lenders of
money, who had their lairs somewhere within the boundaries of that wide
and mysterious domain called The Law. They had their risks to run, but
so must all beasts that eat flesh or drink blood. To them went Jerry,
and they were kind to him. They gave him of their store. They gave him
food and seed, but they were to own all that they gave him from what he
raised, and they were to take their toll first from the new crops.
Now, the black had been warned against these same beasts, for others
had fallen a prey to them even in so short a time as their emancipation
measured, and they saw themselves the re-manacled slaves of a hopeless
and ever-growing debt, but Jerry would not be warned. He chewed the
warnings like husks between his teeth, and got no substance from them.
Then, Fortune, who deals in surprises, played him another trick. She
smiled upon him. His second year was better than his first, and the
brokers swore over his paid up note. Cindy Ann was strong again and the
oldest boy was big enough to help with the work.
Samuel Brabant was displeased, not because he felt any malice toward
his former servant, but for the reason that any man with the natural
amount of human vanity must feel himself agrieved just as his cherished
prophecy is about to come true. Isaiah himself could not have been
above it. How much less, then, the uninspired Mr. Brabant, who had his
I told you so, all ready. He had been ready to help Jerry after
giving him admonitions, but here it was not needed. An unused I told
you so, however kindly, is an acid that turns the milk of human
Jerry went on gaining in prosperity. The third year treated him
better than the second, and the fourth better than the third. During
the fifth he enlarged his farm and his house and took pride in the fact
that his oldest boy, Matthew, was away at school. By the tenth year of
his freedom he was arrogantly out of debt. Then his pride was too much
for him. During all these years of his struggle the words of his master
had been as gall in his mouth. Now he spat them out with a boast. He
talked much in the market-place, and where many people gathered, he was
much there, giving himself as a bright and shining example.
Huh, he would chuckle to any listeners he could find, Ol' Mas'
Brabant, he say, 'Stay hyeah, stay hyeah, you do' know how to tek keer
o' yo'se'f yit.' But I des' look at my two han's an' I say to myse'f,
whut I been doin' wid dese all dese yeahstekin' keer o' myse'f an'
him, too. I wo'k in de fiel', he set in de big house an' smoke. I wo'k
in de fiel', his son go away to college an' come back a graduate. Das
hit. Well, w'en freedom come, I des' bent an' boun' I ain' gwine do it
no mo' an' I didn't. Now look at me. I sets down w'en I wants to. I
does my own wo'kin' an' my own smokin'. I don't owe a cent, an' dis
yeah my boy gwine graduate f'om de school. Dat's me, an' I ain' called
on ol' Mas' yit.
Now, an example is always an odious thing, because, first of all, it
is always insolent even when it is bad, and there were those who
listened to Jerry who had not been so successful as he, some even who
had stayed on the plantation and as yet did not even own the mule they
ploughed with. The hearts of those were filled with rage and their
mouths with envy. Some of the sting of the latter got into their
retelling of Jerry's talk and made it worse than it was.
Old Samuel Brabant laughed and said, Well, Jerry's not dead yet,
and although I don't wish him any harm, my prophecy might come true
There were others who, hearing, did not laugh, or if they did, it
was with a mere strained thinning of the lips that had no element of
mirth in it. Temper and tolerance were short ten years after
The foolish farmer's boastings bore fruit, and one night when he and
his family had gone to church he returned to find his house and barn in
ashes, his mules burned and his crop ruined. It had been very quietly
done and quickly. The glare against the sky had attracted few from the
nearby town, and them too late to be of service.
Jerry camped that night across the road from what remained of his
former dwelling. Cindy Ann and the children, worn out and worried, went
to sleep in spite of themselves, but he sat there all night long, his
chin between his knees, gazing at what had been his pride.
Well, the beasts lay in wait for him again, and when he came to them
they showed their fangs in greeting. And the velvet was over their
claws. He had escaped them before. He had impugned their skill in the
hunt, and they were ravenous for him. Now he was fatter, too. He went
away from them with hard terms, and a sickness at his heart. But he had
not said Yes to the terms. He was going home to consider the almost
hopeless conditions under which they would let him build again.
They were staying with a neighbour in town pending his negotiations
and thither he went to ponder on his circumstances. Then it was that
Cindy Ann came into the equation. She demanded to know what was to be
done and how it was to be gone about.
But Cindy Ann, honey, you do' know nuffin' 'bout bus'ness.
T'ain't whut I knows, but whut I got a right to know, was her
I do' see huccome you got any right to be a-pryin' into dese hyeah
I's got de same right I had to w'ok an' struggle erlong an' he'p
you get whut we's done los'.
Jerry winced and ended by telling her all.
Dat ain't nuffin' but owdacious robbery, said Cindy Ann. Dem
people sees dat you got a little some'p'n, an' dey ain't gwine stop
ontwell dey's bu'nt an' stoled evah blessed cent f'om you. Je'miah,
don't you have nuffin' mo' to do wid 'em.
I got to, Cindy Ann.
Whut fu' you got to?
How I gwine buil' a cabin an' a ba'n an' buy a mule less'n I deal
Dah's Mas' Sam Brabant. He'd he'p you out.
Jerry rose up, his eyes flashing fire. Cindy Ann, he said, you a
fool, you ain't got no mo' pride den a guinea hen, an' you got a heap
less sense. W'y, befo' I go to ol' Mas' Sam Brabant fu' a cent, I'd
sta've out in de road.
Huh! said Cindy Ann, shutting her mouth on her impatience.
One gets tired of thinking and saying how much more sense a woman
has than a man when she comes in where his sense stops and his pride
With the recklessness of despair Jerry slept late that next morning,
but he might have awakened early without spoiling his wife's plans. She
was up betimes, had gone on her mission and returned before her spouse
It was about ten o'clock when Brabant came to see him. Jerry grew
sullen at once as his master approached, but his pride stiffened. This
white man should see that misfortune could not weaken him.
Well, Jerry, said his former master, you would not come to me,
eh, so I must come to you. You let a little remark of mine keep you
from your best friend, and put you in the way of losing the labour of
Jerry made no answer.
You've proved yourself able to work well, but Jerry, pausing, you
haven't yet shown that you're able to take care of yourself, you don't
know how to keep your mouth shut.
The ex-slave tried to prove this a lie by negative pantomime.
I'm going to lend you the money to start again.
Yes, you will, if you don't, I'll lend it to Cindy Ann, and let her
build in her own name. She's got more sense than you, and she knows how
to keep still when things go well.
Mas' Sam, cried Jerry, rising quickly, don' len' dat money to
Cindy Ann. W'y ef a ooman's got anything she nevah lets you hyeah de
las' of it.
Will you take it, then?
Yes, suh; yes, suh, an' thank 'e, Mas' Sam. There were sobs some
place back in his throat. An' nex' time ef I evah gets a sta't agin,
I'll keep my mouf shet. Fac' is, I'll come to you, Mas' Sam, an' borry
fu' de sake o' hidin'.