• The Civil War: High John the Conqueror

    Originally retold by Steve Sanfield in From Sea to Shining Sea, compiled by Amy L. Cohn.

    The slaves had little control over their own lives. They had no choice over where they lived, what they ate, what they wore, or even whether they got to stay with their own families.

    But they did have something the landowners couldn’t take away: spirit, imagination, and the gift of story. They used tall tales to find comfort, hope, and humor. Here’s one story:

    They say High John was a big man who had come across the ocean from Africa. He hated being a slave and was wily clever at getting out of work. If he went to the field with a shovel, the shovel broke. If he went to the toolshed for a tool, the shed burned down.

    One time he took mules to the field and tromped down four rows of cotton. All of this was accidental, maybe. But High John was crafty. Just when the master was ready to whip him or sell him off, High john would work in earnest.

    And when he set his mind to it, he could work harder and faster than anybody else in the county. And seeing his good work, the master would calm down and let John live to see another day.

    High John was good at fishing too. One day, the master went fishing with him, hoping to learn a few things. The master had a shiny, new walking stick that he was mighty proud of. He strutted along the path with that stick, but John never said a word until they reached the fishing hole.

    Then John said, “Why that’s the finest walking stick with three ends I’ve ever seen.” Master thought about it, and said, “John, this stick doesn’t have three ends. It’s only got two ends, just like any walking stick. I’ll bet you a chicken that it’s only got two ends.”

    John replied, “No sir, Massa, it’s got three ends.” He took the walking stick and pointed to the end with the silver hand. “See, this here is one end.” Then he pointed to the silver tip. “That’s two ends, right?” Massa nodded his head.

    Then John took that walking stick and chucked it into the pond where it sank to the bottom. “That’s the third end of your walking stick,” said John laughing. Massa knew he’d been tricked by John and would have to give him a chicken.

    Well, John’s best trick came at Christmas. Every year, it was his job to catch a wild turkey and prepare it for Thanksgiving dinner. This year, his master said, “Get the turkey ready and just know that whatever you do to it, we’re gonna do to you.”

    John was worried. He knew Massa would keep his word. If John cut the turkey’s head off, he’d lose his own head. If he plucked the turkey’s feathers, Massa would probably skin him alive. John thought and thought and finally came up with a plan.

    On Christmas morning, he headed to the plantation house where Massa’s family was sitting on the porch, waiting for a good laugh. Behind John walked a turkey on a red string. John came up to the porch and greeted Massa. Then he turned to the turkey, kneeled behind it, and kissed it square on the butt.

    Well, what do you think of that? Massa’s eyes bulged, his face turned red, and he didn’t say a word. John chuckled to himself. He turned his back on Old Master and leaned over. He said, “Take your time, folks, take your time. I’ve got all day.”



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