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

Langston Hughes, "Those Who Have No Turkey" (1921)

A STRETCH of farm land gray in the dawning, a flash of blue water, then long lines of freight cars, the sound of many whistles and the shrill shriek of the brakes, while the sleepy voice of the porter called the station, told the girl that she had arrived at the end of he journey. One big pull, a final jolt and the long train came to a stop. Clasping her old traveling bag in one hand, a bundle under her arm and a shawl over her shoulders, fourteen-year-old Diane Jordan stepped to the platform, for the first time in her life in a large city.

It was on Thanksgiving morning, sometimes called the Day of Big Dinners, that Diane got her first view of the metropolis. Of course, her two cousins with Aunt Ruth were at the station to meet her. After many kisses and exclamations of welcome they guided the rather dazed little country girl to their big car and whirled away uptown. Diane looked out of the automobile and enjoyed the ride, while Aunt Ruth asked about her only sister, Diane's mother and her activities in the country, for Mrs. Wilson had not been to visit her relative for some years.

The Jordan family and the Wilson family, it must be explained, were in no wise alike. The two sisters had married into vastly different positions in life. One went with her husband to a farm down in the southern part of the State, where they tilled the soil for a living. Their crops were usually good and they did well, but their customs remained those of simple, generous-hearted country folk. The other girl married Lawrence Wilson, who became one of the wealthy and well known colored doctors in his city. His wife gained an enviable social position, lived in a beautiful house on a shady street and sent her daughters to a private school. Mrs. Wilson, busy with her social duties, seldom saw her country sister, but since her two children had spent a summer on the farm she had always intended to have her niece, Diane, visit in the city, so this accounts for the presence of this countrified, tomboyish little girl seated in an expensive car between the stylishly clad daughters of Mrs. Lawrence Wilson. But Diane liked the ride and admired her aunt's skill in driving.

"Father's been called out of town," her cousins explained, "and mother always runs the car when he's away."

Soon the big automobile rolled up a cement drive and stopped under the porte-cochere of the largest house Diane had ever visited. She marvelled at its size, but the inside was still more wonderful. It is useless to attempt to describe her feelings upon entering this home so different from her rural one, as only a Dickens could do it.

However, after an hour or so of this indoor splendor and her doll-like cousins, Diane, a hardy child of the out-of-doors, grew a bit tired and decided to inspect the yard, since Aunt Ruth would not let her help get dinner. Once in a while the scent of turkey floated in from the kitchen. In the country she always helped her mother cook, but here they seemed to hire folks to do the work. Well, city people were queer. Even their yards were not the same. Why, in the country one had a whole farm to play in, but here the houses took up all the room; so, finding the space between the wall and the fence too small, Diane's adventurous feet led her to examine the neighborhood.

She had walked a block or two, stopping now and then to stare at some strange new object, when she reached a corner where two car lines crossed and many automobiles were passing in all directions. The scene was interesting, so she leaned against a lamp post and watched the city folk go by until her attention was attracted to a small, dark brown boy, yelling at the top of his voice, "Papers! Extra papers, just out!" He reminded Diane of little brother at home. Her gaze must have attracted his attention, too, for he demanded. "Paper, lady?" Perhaps he called her lady because her dresses were unusually long for a girl of fourteen, but on the farm, clothes are not of the latest fashion.

"What kind o' paper you got?" asked the girl.

"Post or Herald," replied the little urchin.

Diane pondered. "Well, give me the best one," she said, " 'cause Pa told me to bring him a city daily."

"I've only got two left and if you take 'em both you'll be sure and get the best," urged the little newsie, anxious to sell out.

"All right, I'll take them," she agreed. "You're in a hurry to get home and eat some turkey, aren't you?"

"Turkey! What do you mean?" asked the boy to whom the word was but a name. "We ain't got no turkey."

This answer was surprising to Diane. The girl could not imagine any one not having turkey for Thanksgiving. All the people in the country had one. Truly, city ways were strange! Why, she had never known anybody to be without a turkey on Thanksgiving day, except once when her uncle George said that he was "just darned tired of having what other folks have," so his wife cooked two ducks and a chicken instead. Perhaps this boy's mother intended to have duck.

"Well, you're going to have ducks for dinner, then?" Diane asked.

"Naw, we ain't got no duck," he replied.

"Poor little boy," she thought. "Why then it must be chicken, isn't it?" she suggested.

"Naw, we ain't got no chicken, either."

"Well, what in the world have you got?" she demanded of this peculiar boy who had neither turkey, duck, nor chicken for dinner on Thanksgiving.

"We ain't got nothin' yet," he said, and looking up into Diane's sympathetic face he added, "and we won't have much if dere's not enough pennies in my pocket to get somethin.' My mother's been sick."

"O-o-o," said Diane, looking down at the ragged little fellow. It took her a long time to comprehend. She had never heard of anybody having nothing for dinner except the poor war- stricken Europeans, and that was because the armies had eaten everything up. "Oh," she repeated. "Are you going to buy something?" "Sure I am," he replied proudly. "Want to help me count my change?"

He had a dollar and fifty-four cents.

"Gee, I can get a dandy dinner with this," he said. "Ma's able to cook now."

However, Diane was not very sure about how much a dollar and fifty-four cents would buy, especially for a Thanksgiving meal. Suddenly a big thought came to her. She would ask the little boy and his mother to her Aunt's house for dinner. Surely Aunt Ruth would not mind. In the country they always had lots of extra company at the Thanksgiving table.

The little brown newsie was rather puzzled at this strange girl's generosity. Nothing like it had ever happened to him before, and he had sold papers in the streets since the age of five. Finally Diane forced him to accept her invitation, the lure of unknown turkey being too much for the little fellow. He promised to come at three.

"Where do you live?" he asked skeptically.

"Down there." Diane pointed to the large house not far away. "I mean I don't live there but I'm staying there now, and you and your mother can come down today for dinner."

"But I got two sisters," said the boy.

"Oh, bring them along." What were two sisters added to a dinner party? Why, her mother's table at home could feed twenty at once, if necessary.

"And I got a little brother, too," he continued.

"Well," hesitated Diane, "bring him with you. I like babies." However, she hoped that he had no more relatives. "Now tell me your name," she demanded, "so I can tell Aunt Ruth who's coming."

"Lester Lincoln Jones," he replied, "and we'll sure be there. S' long." Off he ran down the street to deliver the invitation.

Diane went back to the great house without a doubt in the world but that her aunt would be "tickled to death" to have extra company for dinner. Mrs. Wilson had been worried about her niece for the last twenty minutes and when she learned of the invitation, that august lady was too shocked for words. At first she hotly refused to admit the coming guests to her home. However, after many hugs and kisses and tearful entreaties from her two daughters, who thought it would be great fun to have such unusual company, and from Diane who declared she would not eat unless the newsboy and his family could eat, too, the elderly lady finally consented.

About three o'clock the family came. They were from the South and the weak little mother explained in her rather broken language that she didn't understand the invitation at all, but came only because her son insisted. The small twin sisters had washed their faces until they shone, and the cute, but none too fat baby, had big black eyes and tiny, mischievous hands that kept Mrs. Wilson's nerves on edge. "Such hands," she said, "always wanted to touch something, and babies quite often break things."

During the dinner the dark faced little mother did not talk much, but the young Joneses,— they ate and jabbered to their hearts' content. They expressed a marvelous joy and delight over the turkey, as they had never even tasted that fowl before. And as for the plum pudding and large round pies, no words in the world could give vent to their feelings. But when they had finished, their stomachs were as tight as kettle drums from very fullness, and the baby resembled a pert little cherub like those that might be painted around a Negro Madonna's pictures.

After the ice cream had been eaten and each one of the children had a handful of nuts, the mother said that they must go, and not to Mrs. Wilson's sorrow. The woman thanked them very sincerely for the grand dinner and Mrs. Wilson promised to help her find work.

After the door had closed upon the departing Jones party, Mrs. Wilson declared, "Those people were the strangest dinner guests I ever entertained."

And when Diane got back to the farm, she told her mother all about it and ended her story with, "Well, Ma, I never knew before that there are people in the world who have no turkey on Thanksgiving."

Published in The Brownies' Book, November 1921

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