Another Yarn for a Cold Night

If you are entertained by any of the stories I have shared with you in the last couple of weeks, I hope that you will consider reading one aloud, or better yet retelling it with your own embellishments. Tell it to your child or your mother or a friend over coffee. There?s a reason why lies are sometimes called ?tellling a story? and why it is said that there is a kernel of truth in every lie. When we speak, we sometimes even surprise ourselves with what comes out of our mouths. That?s because our hearts don?t always listen to our minds. Even when we know we are spinning yarn, there is a hidden message of truth in the journey of the telling and the plot of the story.

Last Saturday a young girl got up to tell a story during the [tag]storytelling circle[/tag] that I am hosting on Saturday afternoons at Listen & Be Heard Poetry Caf?. She surprised even her parents with her professional manner in the telling of her story and held the attention of everyone in the room. There are now more ways than ever to be entertained, but the story is still what lies at the heart of song, movie, book and even video game. Here?s one more from me. I hope when you gather for the holidays with family and friends, that you won?t forget to take a little time to pass some stories and family history on to the children.

[tag]Little Tumpy and the Great Lord[/tag]
by Martha Cinader Mims
copyright ?1997, 2006

The Great Lord was listening to heavenly music on a hallelujah morning, while angels danced around him singing and clapping their hands, when he happened to look down. He observed in a dark, moldy, cold, insect infested cellar of a great, white mansion, a little black girl about seven years old.

The Great Lord watched her rise from the floor and climb the cold stairs. He watched her sop and dop, she flopped the mop. She cleaned the chicken coop, the fireplace, bedpans and dishes. She chopped wood and fetched coal and did not know a single soul she could call her friend. Late at night she was sent back down to the cellar to sleep with the dog.

She made friends with that dog. Sharing her meager portion of food with him and cuddling up to him for warmth at night. That’s how she got fleas.

“Stop that scratching!” Mean old Mistress yelled at her.

“I told you not to scratch in the house. Bring me my whip. And take off your clothes so I don’t have to buy you any new ones.”

The little girl’s family called her Tumpy. They were so poor they had been forced to send her away to work for her clothes. One evening Little Tumpy put some water on the fire for Mean Old Mistress’ tea. Little Tumpy was so tired she fell asleep in the chair, waiting for the water to boil.

“Wake up you lazy no good girl!” she yelled at her. “I’ll put your hands in this boiling water. That’ll teach you a lesson!”

Little Tumpy ran down to the cellar and prayed to the Great Lord.

“Dear Lord please let me die. I’m too miserable to live.”

Little Tumpy saw a shining light. Inside the light she saw the Great Lord with his arms out stretched. He was smiling at her and he pinned a golden crown to her head with a star.

Little Tumpy woke up in the hospital with her mother crying at her bedside. She went home with her to the ghetto of St. Louis, Missouri. Little Tumpy was the oldest. It was her job to lead her siblings in scavenger hunts through the garbage cans of St. Louis for their dinners. They were bringing home some chicken heads and rotten pears to their mother one night when Tumpy’s little sister pulled on her arm.

“Look Tumpy, the houses are burning. Look Tumpy, those white men are beating old Joe. He can’t get up. Tumpy, look, Elanor! Her baby!”

They were surrounded by sobbing and moaning. An old woman started to howl. Then Tumpy’s mother pointed to the sky.

“It’s The Great Lord. The Great Lord will avenge us.”

“Aah, that’s nothin’ but smoke,” someone muttered.

“No it’s the Great Lord,” someone else insisted.

Little Tumpy knew it was true, because she had seen the Great Lord before, like I explained to you. She fell to her knees right then and there. “Dear Lord, I swear from the bottom of my heart that one day, I, Little Tumpy, will help to make a change in this world.”

Little Tumpy looked every day for a sign from the Great Lord. She waited for days, for months, for years. But finally the day came when she perked her ears to an unusual wind. This was no ordinary wind blowing in the trees. This wind originated from deep down in the soul of a band led by an individual named Eubie Blake. The trumpets, the trombones, the clarinets, were the instruments which gave this wind its’ voice. Little Tumpy crawled under the tent flap and witnessed the spontaneous combustion when Eubie’s fingers made contact with the ivory keys. The dancers on the stage looked like princesses in a magical kingdom of bright lights and happy applause. Little Tumpy knew instantly that this was the sign she had been praying for and waiting for. She decided she was going to ride this wind to its’ final destination known only by the Great Lord himself. The next afternoon she marched backstage during rehearsal.

“I wanna speak to the director.”

“You’re speakin’ to the director.”

“I wanna be in the show.”

“You’re too young to be in the show.”

“I might look young but I’m really fifteen.”

She was lying. She was really thirteen.

“Well we do need a dresser to help the dancers with their costumes.”

That was all Little Tumpy wanted to hear. She worked very hard and when the show left town, she hit the road with them. Little Tumpy watched the show every night and memorized all the songs and dance routines. One night, when they were traveling between cities she saw the director pacing back and forth twenty minutes before show time.

“These darn women. Always one of ’em gotta go an’ get themselves pregnant. She had to wait to tell me ’till I could see it for my own self. Ain’t no real dancers out here in the sticks, nowhere.”

Little Tumpy ran to his side.

“I’ll take her place. I’ll do it!”

“You? You’re too skinny and ugly besides.”

“You might think so but I’m the only one around here who knows all the routines.”

“Well alright, but you go in at the end of the chorus line and only until I can replace you.”

Little Tumpy was so excited by the audience and the lights that she did anything she could think of to get attention. She rolled her eyes. She made funny faces. The audience laughed and wanted more and soon she was the comedy star of the show. Then one day a fashionable Frenchwoman sashayed backstage and said to Little Tumpy: Voulez vous venir ? Paris?”

Little Tumpy crossed the ocean on a big boat. In America people had seen a skinny black girl who made funny faces. But the French woman took her out to some gourmet dinners. She sent her around to the tailor. She could see that Little Tumpy moved with passion and grace.

The artists got so excited they pulled out their pencils and brushes and started to draw. They asked her to take all her clothes off, for art’s sake. They plastered her picture all over Paris. The tailors came and made a gown for the opening night festivities that looked like liquid gold poured over her nubile young body.

When the French public laid eyes on her for the first time they saw a young woman who’s every liquid movement translated her joy and excitement. At fifteen, Little Tumpy was thrilled to be loved. She knew her prayer was being answered from above.

The French were amazed by her inspirations. They saw her strolling down the Champs Elys?e with a leopard on a leash. She jumped onto the stage one night wearing nothing but bananas hanging around her hips. The story of how she shook those bananas was on everyone’s lips from Belgium to Berlin. Her fame spread far and wide. She was seen with an Italian Count by her side. The Parisian women imitated the way she talked, the way she walked, the clothes she wore, the songs she sang until . . .

Summer, 1945, Hitler marched into Paris and took over. There was no escaping the men in the brown shirts. Their control was complete. Except for the underground. While many of the French stars continued to perform for the German officers, Little Tumpy was one of the first to enlist in the underground.

She risked her life carrying vital messages to the allies in Morocco, written in invisible ink on her sheet music. She became so ill there she almost lost her life. The French were so grateful that General Charles De Gaulle personally pinned her with a golden Cross of Lorraine, the Legion of Honor and the Medal of the Resistance.

After the war she thought again about her promise to the Great Lord. “How can I make a change in this world? How can I fill the hearts of men and women with love instead of the prejudice which causes so much pain and suffering? Hmmmmm. I know! I’ll create a microworld where people can come and enjoy uplifting culture and nature. I know just the place. A beautiful chateau in the French countryside. I’ll raise a rainbow tribe of children and people will be able to see them grow up with love and in brotherhood.”

Little Tumpy knew it would take some serious finances for such an important message to the planet to be conveyed correctly. She decided she would tour the world and invest all the profits. She married a French orchestra leader and together they launched the grand mission.
They were sitting in a Cuban cafe one day, sipping cafe con leche, and basking in the warmth and admiration of the Cuban people when a telegram arrived from America.

“Your show is the best of its’ kind I’ve ever seen. Please come to my club, The Copa in Miami. Mr. Ned.”

“What sort of place is this Copa City?”

Tumpy asked the messenger.

“Only the most posh, the most elegant club you could ever imagine.”

“Do they admit people of color?”

“Of course not.”

“Then I couldn’t possibly appear there.”

Mr. Ned flew to Cuba the next day to try to personally persuade her to appear in his club. He took her out to dinner, ordered champagne, spoke to her with his utmost charm and offered her ten thousand dollars a week to appear in his club. Little Tumpy refused. Mr. Ned almost choked on his pheasant bone, and her husband gulped down his mouthful of champagne and reminded her they were going to need money for their seat of world brotherhood. Mr. Ned bought her a beautiful moneky because he knew she loved all sorts of animals, but Tumpy would not be persuaded. Mr. Ned knew that no matter what the circumstances he would make money on this woman so he finally offered Little Tumpy a contract stating that everyone would be admitted and permitted to sit wherever they chose. Little Tumpy signed the contract.

On opening night they had to turn away as many people as they let in. The press picked up on the story and soon the whole country knew about how Little Tumpy had brought together the brothers and sisters of Miami and whipped them all into a frenzy of love and admiration. The box office figures were very impressive and soon Little Tumpy launched a national tour. Every club where she appeared picked up on their cues and changed their policies. She started committees. She organized demonstrations. She went to banks and insisted they hire black tellers. She demanded black musicians on her orchestras. She extended herself to the limit for so long that the citizens of Harlem in New York City decided to honor her with her very own day.

My Lords and my Ladies, that day was a day of joy and jubilation, of nonstop celebration. Thousands of men, women and children, dressed in their very best cheered wildly at the sight of her proceeding down the boulevard. Speech after speech was made proclaiming her greatness, her independence and courage. Brass bands were blowing on every corner. Everyone was shaking everyone else’s hands. There was a huge feast. No one in Harlem went hungry that day. She changed her gown for the cocktail party and changed it one more time for a great big swinging ball where everyone had themselves a fine time continuously. And the name of that day was Josephine Baker Day.

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