African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Langston Hughes, "The Childhood of Jimmy: Six Pictures in the Head of a Negro Boy" (1927)

Note: This poem contains offensive racial slurs. 

The Childhood of Jimmy
Six pictures in the Head of a Negro Boy
By Langston Hughes

The Town

I lived with my aunt in a small town. There were lots of colored people there. It was a nice town with trees in it and at the end of our street a river and a little house where a colored man sold whisky and sometimes beer .   .   .   My aunt liked our town. She said she always lived there. My uncle liked our town, too .  .  .  He washed his overalls in the backyard on Sundays .   .   .  There were two churches in our town.

The School

There were colored children in the town school. All the little colored children were in one room and the teacher was colored, too. I don’t think she liked the school.   .   .  When I was in the third grade I went into another room with the white children and the teacher was white, too. I don’t think she liked the school either. She said we were all bad children.  .   .   Sometimes they slapped me in the school.

The Difference

You’re a nigger. You ain’t as good as I am ‘cause you're a nigger.  .  . Paul said that to me but he didn’t mean to hurt me when he said it. He was my friend. We played games together all the time and we went to the woods on Saturdays to look for May apples and birds . . . He said you ain’t as good as I am. You're a nigger, but he didn’t mean to hurt me.   .   .  I asked my aunt what I should say when Paul said you're a nigger. I liked Paul so I asked my aunt what I should say.

The Soul

God! I ain’t afraid of God! Earl said, and God didn’t strike him dead.  .  .  Come all ye who love the Lord and lay your burdens down. They sang slow in church Sunday morning. It was Revival Day and Earl went up and sat on the mourner’s bench.  .  .  And I went up, too, ashamed . . . Come all ye who love the Lord . . . and my aunt was kneeling down beside me praying.  .  .   and the old folks in the amen-corner were praying .  .  . And the preacher said do you love God? And I said yes. And the preacher said do you accept Him? And I said yes. And I was converted . . . And my aunt got up and the old folks screamed hallelujah and sang glory to the name of the Lord.  .  .  And I went home and cried in bed because I was ashamed.  .  . I didn’t love God . . . And I was ashamed to lie about I didn’t love God.

The Body

My aunt said be careful about girls.  . . Clarence, next door, was the father of a baby.  .  . Clarence was sixteen years old.  .  .  Clarence was arrested and had to marry the mother of his baby.  .  .  My aunt said be careful about girls.  .  . I went to her house at four o'clock in the afternoon. She said I should come.  .  . My aunt said be careful about girls.  .  . I didn’t know much about girls.  .  . Her mother worked all day in Mrs. Ronnermann’s kitchen. Her mother didn’t get home until after supper.  .  . My aunt said be careful about girls . . . She said I should come. Her mother didn’t get home until after supper . . . Be careful about girls.

Death

My grandmother died on Thursday.  .  . Grandmother.  .  . I didn’t want her to die on Thursday.  .  . Every Thursday I sold papers and I missed selling papers because she died on Thursday.  .  . Somebody woke me up at three o'clock in the morning because my grandmother was dead. I went outdoors looking for my grandmother.  .  . She wasn’t there. The moon was there, cold and ugly, but no ghost of my grandmother . . . They wrapped her up in sheets and sent her away to the undertaker’s. I didn’t sell any papers on Thursday.  .  .  missed my grandmother . . . We moved away to another town. I went to another school. I didn’t sell any more papers on Thursdays. I went to work in a big hotel.  .  . I missed my grandmother.


Published in The Crisis, May 1927

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