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									Do Sumthin’ BIG!                             1
Autumn Robinson

              Hold fast to dreams
                For if dreams die
         Life is a broken-winged bird
                 That cannot fly.
              Hold fast to dreams
             For when dreams go
              Life is a barren field
               Frozen with snow.
                  —Langston Hughes, "Dreams"

               HARLEM, 1928

        IT was summertime in Harlem and
Lucy Little was out past her curfew again.
        “C’mon, Lucy! We already late an’ you
know yo momma gonna be mad atchoo!”
        Lucy stood mesmerized at the foot of
the door to the Cotton Club at the northeast
corner of 142nd and Lenox.
        The sign bearing the club’s name shone
brilliantly from the protruding façade and
hung between Buckley Beauty Salon and
Thelma’s Frocks. The metal and glass double
doors were guarded by a stoic colored man,
dressed in a long black button up cloak and a
matching peaked cap. He was showered by the
dozens of white lights on the under part of the
façade. Next to him stood a board of images of
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Autumn Robinson

some of the club’s entertainers, including Cab
Calloway in his signature white suit!
       Standing there in her high heels and
the flowery blue gingham dress her momma
made her, Lucy could only imagine what was
on the other side of that door: jazzy numbers
sung by a stunning singer dressed in a
beautifully     beaded     shift    dress     with
accompaniment by a ten-piece big band,
expensive drinks and fancy cuisine at every
elegantly decorated table, sensational dancers
in revealing costumes, and dancing busboys
popping bottles of champagne high into the
       What I woul’ give tuh jus’ be in that
room fouh sekin! If Daddy could jus’ lemme slip
in the back doh, I coul’ jus’ git up on that stage
an’ show ‘em…
       And so, Lucy stood, daydreaming and
thinking all of these things.
       “Lucy, c’mon girl!” Abraham exclaimed
while doubling back to the club. He was
dressed in his black peg top trousers and a
short-sleeved dress shirt. He was the smartest
colored boy Lucy knew. “You know that ain’t a
place fuh cullud peoples ‘less you workin’ up
in theah!” he said in a lower voice, so only
Lucy could hear.
       Lucy didn’t budge. She couldn’t take
her eyes off of the club.
       Abraham yanked Lucy’s arm. “Lu-cy—”
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Autumn Robinson

       “Ok. I’m comin’,” she said softly, as if
floating on a cloud. “If I could jus’ git in theah
an’ peoples ain’t have tuh see me. If they
could jus’ heeah me—”
       “That ain’t how it is an’ you know it,”
said Abraham flatly while reluctantly letting go
of her arm. “You gotta have the right stuff.
You gotta have kuhnekshins if you evah
wanna git in theah.”
       “Don’t I know it,” said Lucy in a low
       They caught up to Maxine.
        “Whatchy’all lookin’ all sad fah?”
shouted Maxine. She was a high yella1 beauty
known for her selfish ways and her mean
streak. She probably got it from being spoiled
rotten by her momma, one of Harlem’s finest
singers passin’2 for white. Maxine’s smooth,
brown hair lay in two pin coiled braids on
both sides of her head. Her lavender drop
waist tunic dress fell to the middle of her
calves and flowed when she walked in her
black high heels. She folded her arms and
smirked at Lucy and Abraham.
       “Ain’t we jus’ have the best time
tuhnight? I ain’t nevah had such a good time
as that! Did y’all see me an’ Jimmy out on that

1a light-skinned Negro, esp. female
2pretending to be white to gain social and economic
opportunities more readily available to white people
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floh? We was cuttin’ a rug3!” As she said this,
Maxine raised her arms high in the air and
bumped hips with Lucy, who bumped into
        “Hey!” said Lucy and Abraham
simultaneously. Abraham grabbed Lucy by the
arms to break her fall. They both scowled and
rolled their eyes at Maxine.
        They trucked4 down Lenox side by side,
passing though crowds of people minutes from
casting their cares away at a club, a
speakeasy, a dancehall, or some other form of
nighttime entertainment.
        “Yeah, that was a mighty good time,”
Lucy said smiling. She looked from Abraham
to Maxine. “I wish tuhnight didn’t have tuh
end, y’all.”
        They were all still high from their night
at the Savoy, one of the few places where
dancin’ on a dime5 didn’t mean you had to be
a certain color.
        “Girl, tuhnight don’t have tuh end!”
Maxine cried. “Jimmy an’ them say they
gonna be up at Roscoe’s foh a lil while—”
        “Yeah, well some peoples gotta git up
an’ go tuh chuch in the A.M.,” said Abraham.
“I gotta git home.”

3   dancing, esp. the jitterbug
4   walked, went
5   dancing in place at a crowded venue
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        Maxine sucked her teeth and rolled her
eyes at Abraham. She grabbed Lucy’s
shoulder. “Whatcha, say, girl? Les go meet up
wit Jimmy an’ them! Ill be fun!”
        “I cain’t, you know how my momma git!
Plus I gotta go tuh chuch, too.”
        “All right,” breathed Maxine. “Catch
y’all laytah,” she said with a frown. She ran off
down Lenox, shouting out to someone too far
away to see.
        “That Maxine be a hot mess,” said
Abraham, shaking his head. “Huh momma
know she need tuh take that girl tuh chuch!”
        “I been knowin’ that girl all my life an’ I
ain’t know if God could fix that,” Lucy
        Lucy and Abraham slowed their pace,
gravitating towards the center of the sidewalk
filled with people milling around on the
lamppost-lit streets. Abraham fell silent and
listened to Lucy sing amidst the chaos of the
lively night:
              Nobody knows my name
              Nobody knows what I’ve done
              I’m as good as any woman
              In your town
              I ain’t no high yeller
              I’m a deep killer of brown
        “I loves tuh heeah you sang,” Abraham
said. It do suhum heeah.” Abraham placed his
palm on his heart. “God done gave you a gift,
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       Lucy shrugged her shoulders. “It cheer
me up tuh sang. I love how I feels when I
sangs an’ I jus’ wanna sang foh ev’rybody!”
       A warm breeze filled the air and the
stars twinkled high in the sky while Lucy and
Abraham strolled back home, caught up their
own thoughts.

       The two made it back to Striver’s Row,
the place Lucy, Abraham and their folks had
called home for the past seven years. They
lived in attractive Victorian-style brownstones
with good plumbing, iron railings, basements
and oak doors. Their part of town became a
place for hard-working coloreds, and even
famous ones, like Fletcher Henderson and
W.C. Handy.
       Abraham and Lucy stopped in front of
the stoop at 232 West 139th.
        “G’night, Abraham.” Lucy grinned at
him while she smoothed out the bottom of her
dress. Her pearly whites shone through the
black night and her eyes glittered like the
       “G’night, Lucy.” Abraham nervously
cleared his throat.
       Before he knew what was coming, Lucy
leaned in towards him and planted a quick
peck on his cheek.
       Abraham was rooted to the spot, his
eyes as wide as two full moons.
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       Grinning from ear to ear, Lucy did a
quick pivot in her high heels and bounced up
the steps. She twisted the knob to 232 and as
soon as her feet reached the other side of the
threshold, a lamplight shot on, like clockwork.
       Lucy dashed inside, but not before
turning around to whisper “See ya at chuch!”
to Abraham, who could do nothing but nod
with the same wide-eyed gaze. Eventually, he
ran home to 221 West 138th and disappeared
out of sight.
       “Hey, Momma!” Lucy shouted as she
slowly turned around. She froze on the spot.
       Lucy’s momma Diana stood, one hand
on her hip, the other holding an incomplete
shift dress. Even in her house clothes and a
head wrap, Lucy’s momma looked beautiful.
Her smooth ochre skin glowed and the
lamplight danced off of her high cheek bones.
       Diana dropped her needlework and the
unfinished dress. She folded her arms and
scowled at Lucy with her full lips pursed and
her fine eyebrows furrowed.
       “Don’tchoo Hey, Momma me! Comin’ up
in heah like it ain’t no thang tuh be out aftah
dark! You know you ain’t got no bidness bein’
out all times uh night, like that lil high yellah
girl you be wit! I knowed I done teached you
bettah, Lucy!”
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       “Sorry, Momma!”
       Lucy ran to her momma and trapped
her in a tight embrace. She was almost as tall
as her momma by then, and kissed her on the
       “Git ovah heeah an’ hep me finish up
dis dress,” said Diana, forgetting she was
angry. “Miss Mary comin’ foh it sumtime dis
       “Yes, Momma.”

        An hour or so later, Diana and Lucy
prepared for bed. Lucy turned off all of the
lights, except for the porch light.
        “Yo daddy ain’t gonna be home til late
tuhnight,” Diana told Lucy. “He workin’
ovahtime all dis week an’ the nex’. (Lucy’s
daddy Johnnie was a busboy at the Cotton
Club, six days a week.) Lawd knows we need
whatevah extrah muney we kin git.”
         Lucy smiled solemnly at her momma
and then walked over to the edge of one of the
beds. Clad in lightweight nightgowns, mother
and daughter joined hands and knelt down
beside each other into prayer position. They
said the Lord’s Prayer in unison and then
Diana prayed:
        “Lawd, thank You fah tuhday an’ all
You done blessed us wit. Thank You fah givin’
us food, clothes, a place tuh stay, an’ payin'
jobs. We know theys peoples wit nothin’ an’
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Autumn Robinson

nobody, so thank You. Thank You fah my
fam’ly an’ thank You fah givin’ me my only
dawtah. Thank You fah keepin’ us healthy an’
outta harm’s way. Please bring my husbun
home safe an’ sound tuhnight, Lawd. Please
watch ovah us an’ bless dis fam’ly. In Jesus’
name, Amen.”
       “Amen,” echoed Lucy.
       Lucy and her folks walked down
Seventh Avenue side by side early the next
morning on their way to church. The summer
sun was already beating down on them, but
everyone was in good spirits because they
were dressed in the Sunday-go-to-the-meeting
clothes6 Lucy’s momma made: a cream colored
blouse and blue pleated skirt for Lucy, a pink
straight dress and matching cloche hat for
Diana, and cuffed gray trousers with a tie and
dress shirt for Johnnie.
       “Yo dawtah tol’ you she was late comin’
home agin?” Diana asked Johnnie, trying to
sound tough, but not really pulling it off.
       “We cain’t be so tough on ah baby,
Diana!” Johnnie beamed. “She growin’ right on
       Johnnie looked at his daughter, and it
was like looking in a mirror: same square face,

    one’s best-looking, finest garments
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stubby nose, almond-shaped eyes, heart-
shaped lips and cocoa brown skin.
        “She growin’ up, but she ain’t grown
yet!” Diana retorted. “Even you still callin’ huh
yo baby,” she teased.
       Lucy kept her lips zipped. She knew
better than to take sides, even though the
mood was light.
       “I got my favrit girls wit me, an’ we
gonna go give God some praise, my baby
gonna sang, an’ we jus’ gonna heeah a good
Word,” Johnnie declared, taking Diana and
Lucy by the hand.

        The Littles arrived at Holy Trinity
Baptist Church on Lenox and the block
between Astor Row and 129th. It used to be a
grocer jammed in between a barber shop and
a deli. When they stepped inside, they entered
a very modest space: the room was
rectangular in shape, with plain grey-brown
carpet and off-white walls. There were no
adornments on the walls, except for a portrait
of the Last Supper at the front of the room.
There were twenty wooden pews lined up in
two rows of ten that started at the back of the
room and stopped several feet in front of the
makeshift pulpit. The pulpit, made from
polished wood, had a gothic-style cross carved
into the base. To the right and left of the
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pulpit were an upright piano and an old drum
        Standing on the other side of the
threshold was Pastor Walker, speaking good-
naturedly with another church member.
Pastor Walker was a big and tall man in his
late sixties. He was the one person folks went
to when there was any sort of problem. His
peppered moustache wiggled when he laughed
heartily and his caring eyes always made
people feel special.
         “Good Moanin’, Pastah Walkuh!” the
Little family cried in unison as they entered
the church.
        “Good Moanin’!” said Pastor Walker,
wearing the warmest expression on his face.
“It’s great tuh see y’all this moanin’!” He
hugged each of them as they passed through
the door. After he greeted Lucy, Pastor Walker
said: “I’m lookin’ fowud tuh hearin’ you sang
this moanin’, Lucy! I always kin feel ‘Is
presence in this room when you sang!”
        “Thank you, Pastah,” said Lucy politely.
        Lucy’s daddy made his way to the old
drum kit. Only he could make them sound as
extraordinary as the ones at the Cotton Club.
Before he left, he whispered to Lucy, “He ain’t
the only one kin feel God’s heeah when you
sang, Lucy.”
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       “Don’t I knows I kin feel ‘Im too!” “I feels
He hear my heart when I sangs,” Lucy said
before turning away.
       Lucy and her momma took their seats
in the fourth row of pews. They scooted to the
middle of the pew.
       Lucy turned her head and scanned the
back of the room. She found Abraham, who
was sitting a few rows back with his folks. She
caught his eye and they waved to each other.

        It was well into the service, and Pastor
Walker talked to the congregation about how
life would get better for colored people in
Harlem, but colored people had to have faith
and do their part to see a change. He said
things like:
        “…An’ we gotta stop this jungle music7,
y’all! Ah yung peoples cain’t be dancin’ on a
dime ev’ry chance they git! All uh that
bumpity bump an’ slapity slap ah yung
peoples be doin’ ain’t gonna git you through
nothin’! Music foh the Lawd is good, an’
DuBois say we need tuh lift ah peoples up,
but we cain’t do it if we keep up this jazz an’
this blues! We gotta git ah peoples educated,
an’ heeah out that classics music, be what he

7   jazz and the blues
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        The room was silent, save for a select
few members encouraging Pastor Walker with
exclamations like “Preach!” or “You bettah say
so!” or other things of that nature.
        Lucy listened in dismay. She loved
singing, especially the blues, but there she
was listening to Pastor Walker denounce it!
(The truth is, almost everyone at Holy Trinity
Baptist liked jazz and the blues, and their
silence bothered her even more than Pastor
Walker’s words.)
        I have tuh do sumthin’, Lucy thought.
We cain’t jus’ sit heeah an’ preten’ we agree
wit ev’ry word he sayin’ right now! Jus’ cus
some peoples say it be bad music don’t make it
        And so, Lucy sat half-listening and
half- thinking up a plan.

       It came time to the “pass the peace”—
everyone took the time to formally greet each
other and welcome visitors to the church.
There was plenty of hugging, laughing and
utterances of “Peace Be with You” in the midst
of   longer    conversations   amongst     the
       There was usually a musical selection
to accompany passing the peace, so Lucy
made her way up to the front of the room. She
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looked at her daddy, waiting for him to count
her and the pianist, Mrs. Davis, in.
       “One! Two! One-two-three-foh!”
       Lucy shone with her rendition of “I Am
on the Battlefield for My Lord”:
             I’m on the battlefield for my Lord.
             I'm on the battlefield for my Lord,
             and I promised Him that I
             would serve Him 'til I die;
             I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.
      During an instrumental interlude, Lucy
looked around the room at the socializing
congregation while Johnnie and Mrs. Davis
played on.
      It’s now uh nevah, Lucy thought.
      Swallowing a gulp of air, she broke into
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and
Out” by Bessie Smith:
             Once I lived the life of a millionaire,
             spending my money, I didn't care.
             I carried my friends out for a good time,
             buying bootleg liquor, champagne and
             Then I began to fall so low,
             I didn't have a friend, and no place to go.
       The congregation, including Johnnie
and Mrs. Davis, fell silent.
       Lucy    looked     around  the   room
nervously. Then she looked at her daddy with
a pleading look.
       Johnnie and Mrs. Davis exchanged a
quick glance and shrugged before they started
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up again, slowing their tempo to match Lucy’s
silky smooth voice.
       Instead of singing:
            But If I ever get on my feet again,
            then I'll meet my long lost friend
            It's mighty strange, without a doubt
            Nobody knows you when you down and
      Lucy changed the words:
            But the Lord will help me to my feet
            He’s the one I can call friend
            He’s always there, without a doubt
            He’ll be there when you down and out
       Everyone started waving their hands
and swaying to the beat of the music. Even
Pastor Walker joined in, encouraging Lucy to
go on, but only because she was singing for
the Lord, of course.
       While they were walking back home,
Johnnie said to Diana and Lucy: “I knowed ah
baby kin sang, but I ain’t know you had all
that in you!” He grabbed Lucy into a tight
       Lucy’s momma said nothing at all, but
she smiled at her daughter, eyes filled with
happy tears.
       When they got home, Lucy asked:
“Momma, kin I please go wit Abraham an’
Maxine? Promise I ain’t gonna be late!”
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        Diana, unconvinced, raised her index
finger and wagged it at Lucy while saying:
“Promise you ain’t gonna be late? That ain’t
the first time I be done heard that! You done
forgot we cleans on Sundee?! An’ we fixin’
thangs up real nice round heeah foh the rent
party! Abraham an’ Maxine kin wait—you
gonna hep pick up this floh befoh you do
anythang else, you heeah me?”
        “Yes, Momma,” Lucy said obediently.
        As Diana and Lucy cleaned the main
room, Lucy hummed to herself.
        “Lucy, you hush!” You know yo daddy
need ‘is rest!”
        “Yes, Momma. Sorry, Momma.”
        Momma don’t nevah like me hummin’
when I cleans! But it make me feels I kin do
anythang when I have music, even thangs I
don’t like, Lucy thought to herself.
        An hour later, Diana looked around the
main room, satisfaction written all over her
face. “Thanks fah heppin’ me, Lucy. This place
lookin’ real good! Now, don’t be comin’ back
late an’ havin’ me worried,” Diana said.
        “I ain’t, Momma,” Lucy said. “See you
laytah. Love you.”
        Diana opened her arms to Lucy. “Love
you too, my only dawtah.”
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        Lucy walked out of the house and as
she closed the door behind her, she saw
Abraham turning the corner of Seventh and
West 139th.
        “Hey, Abraham!” Lucy waved. “How you
tuhday?” She bounced down the steps
towards him in her light-green gingham dress.
        Abraham couldn’t take his eyes off of
Lucy—her curled hair bounced on her
shoulders as she hurried down the steps. Her
dark brown eyes sparkled and her cocoa
brown skin glowed in the afternoon sun. When
she looked at Abraham, she made him feel like
he was the only one in the world that
        Lucy stood right in front of him and
whispered: “Hey Abraham, you all right?”
        “Hi Lucy,” Abraham sighed. He cleared
his throat and said in a deeper voice. “Yeah,
I’m all right.”
        “Great! Les go!” Lucy locked arms with
Abraham and they headed down Eighth. “Wait
‘til Maxine hears what done happened at
chuch tuhday! She gonna go crazy!” Lucy

       They met Maxine at Roscoe’s on the
northwest corner of Lenox and 137th, the best
place to get a cheap plate of fried catfish and
grits or chicken and waffles.
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       “Hey y’all, what took y’all so long tuh git
heeah? I bin waitin’ fah evah,” Maxine
complained. She turned on her heel into
Roscoe’s, letting her yellow pleated drop-waist
dress swish behind her.
       Abraham and Lucy followed.
       “Whussup       wit    huh?”      Abraham
       “You know she be cranky sometimes.”
       Roscoe’s was full of young people
gobbling8 and eating with friends at red wood
tables and matching red cushioned wood
chairs. The linoleum tiles were fashioned into
a black-and-white checkerboard style and
there were framed photographs of dishes
served at Roscoe’s all around the room.
       As soon as Lucy, Maxine and Abraham
walked in, they could see the tiny kitchen
bustling with cooks behind the ordering
counter and the display of soul food side
dishes behind a glass window.
       One boy called out: “Hey Maxine, you
lookin’ real nice tuhday!” and Maxine just
smiled coolly, blowing a kiss to the boy. She
knew how to work a crowd and she loved
being the center of attention.
       The three sat down at a booth in the
back of the room. Maxine sat on one bench

8   talking
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while Abraham and Lucy faced her on the
        “So, why y’all kep’ me waitin’, huh?”
Maxine asked.
        “Momma an’ me had tuh clean up foh
the rent party,” Lucy said.
        “An’ by the time she had left, I was jus’
passin’ through, too,” said Abraham.
        Maxine never had to clean a day in her
life. She just rolled her eyes.
        “Whatevah,” she said with a wave of her
hand. “Lucy, when you havin’ that rent party?
Anybody gonna be theah?” By “anybody,”
Maxine meant “someone noteworthy,” like
Florence Mills, or Chick Webb.
        “We havin’ it Thursdee, but Daddy ain’t
tell me who comin’,” Lucy said. “He say it be a
        Abraham interrupted, “Well, whoevah
gonna come, it’s shoh gonna be a good time!
Lucy, tell Maxine whatchoo done at chuch
        “I sanged “Nobody Know You When You
Down and Out” an’ I done changed it up tuh
be a jubilee9! I wish I coul’ jus git up an’ do it
fah them ofays10 up in the Cotton Club.”

9    gospel song
10   white people
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       “Yeah, you shouldah been theah,
Maxine,” Abraham added. "Lucy was the
       Maxine made a big deal of talking
loudly then and she became impatient with
Lucy. “You still talkin’ that jive12!? Well, you
kin give that up, girl!”
       The crowd at Roscoe’s stopped to look
at Maxine, Abraham and Lucy. Then they
went back to what they were doing.
       Maxine leaned in towards Lucy and
whispered, with a smirk: “Don’t nobody wanna
see some lil darkie13 sangin’ up in that club. If
anybody should be trying tuh get up in theah,
should be me!”
       Lucy stared at Maxine with tears
welling in her eyes. She slapped Maxine in the
       The room fell silent again. Everyone
around them was staring, waiting.
       Lucy ran out of the joint14, but not
before she heard Maxine cry out in pain.
       “Lucy,    wait!”   Abraham      shouted.
Abraham motioned to leave.
       Maxine grabbed him just in time.
“Don’tchoo leave me heeah!” Maxine said

   attractive, pleasing or great
   worthless/crazy talk
   derogatory term for black people
   any place or venue, including a home
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through clenched teeth. “Walk me home!” she
       Abraham sighed, and held his arm out
for an angry Maxine to grab onto.
       That Lucy be the bee’s knees. She
deserve to git her chance an’ share that voice,
Abraham thought to himself.

        Lucy ran home, wiping the tears from
her eyes along the way.
        She walked in on her momma making
Sunday dinner. She could smell the savory
ham bone soup her momma was stirring up
and the sweet golden cornbread baking in the
        “Hey Momma,” Lucy said, her voice
        “You back early…,” Diana said
distractedly. She turned her head slightly, but
not enough to see Lucy’s face.
        “I’m gonna go wash up fah dinnah,
        “Okay, jus’ keeps quiet. Yo daddy still
        “Yes, Momma.”
        Lucy shut the bathroom door behind
her and ran bathwater in the old cast iron tub
as quietly as she could. She looked around the
tiny room, waiting for the water to fill the tub.
Lucy’s eyes found the bleach sitting in the
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corner with the rest of the cleaning supplies.
She turned the spigot off and poured nearly a
gallon of bleach into the bathwater. She
stripped down and stepped in to the tub,
grabbing a wash cloth from the edge. She
closed her eyes and slowly sank down.
        The bathroom door creaked open.
        Lucy’s momma peeked in through the
slit in the door. “Lucy—? LUCY!” Diana threw
open the door. “What’s that I smell?”
        Lucy’s eyes shot open. She looked at
her momma and tears began to roll down her
        Diana grabbed a towel hanging from
the wall and rushed to Lucy.
        “Lucy, what in Heaven’s name—?” She
unplugged the drain and wrapped Lucy in the
towel, holding her in a tight embrace on the
edge of the tub.
        “Why peoples gotta look at me an’
thank they knows me? I jus’ wanna sang,
Momma! Why it matter how I look? Don’t
nobody wanna see me up in the Apollo o’ the
Cotton Club jus’ cuzza how I look? It don’t
make no kinda sense tuh me.” Lucy buried
her head into the crook of her momma’s neck
and wept.
        “Oh, Lucy,” Diana sighed, rubbing
Lucy’s shoulder. “You know, with God, it ain’t
nevah ‘bout the outside. God done made all
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His chil’rens beautiful—so why you wanna
change how He made you, huh? Member what
Pastah Walkuh say: if God want you tuh have
it, He gonna make a way fah you. An’ you
have a gift,” Diana smiled. “You jus’ gotta wait
on Him.”
        Lucy sniffled and hugged her momma.
        “Git dressed sos you kin come git
sumthin’ tuh eat.” Yo daddy should be gittin’
up soon, too.”
        Diana started to walk out of the
bathroom, but right before she left, she turned
and said: “God done blessed you already. You
jus’ ain’t seen it yet, baby.”
        Finally, it was Thursday, the night of
the rent party! That night, Lucy’s momma and
daddy didn’t have to work, so they were
having a party to raise rent money and keep
from getting evicted. Their jobs didn’t pay well,
but the rent parties always got them through
each month. Everybody up and down Seventh
and Eighth knew about their parties.
        Everyone was excited because someone
special was performing that night, but Lucy’s
daddy wouldn’t say any more than that.
        “I cain’t wait tuh see y’alls faces
tuhnigh when the special guest come!” he said
ecstatically. We gonna let the good times roll15

15   to enjoy oneself
Do Sumthin’ BIG!
Autumn Robinson

tuhnight!” He grabbed Diana and led her in a
mock waltz around the main room.
       “Daddy, stop talkin’ ‘bout it if y’ain’t
gonna tell us who comin’,” Lucy whined
       “Yeah and don’t shout so!” Diana said,
out of breath.
       “Sorry, y’all. Les jus git this place ready!
The guests gonna be comin’ real soon! Lucy,
come hep me moo dis table, then you kin hep
yo momma.”
       “Yes, Daddy.”
       The Littles cleared the main room of
their belongings, putting most of them in the
bathroom. What remained sat around the
perimeter of the main room with the borrowed
party chairs.
       The food was prepared and sat on the
dinner table and countertop: chitlins16, corn
bread, dumplings, fried chicken and tripe, and
cracklin’ bread17. It was time to have a party!
       Lucy’s job was to greet the guests as
they came in, so she made her way to the
front door with a tin can to collect admission
money. She opened the door to a warm
summer breeze and twilight settling over

     cooked pig intestines
     a cornmeal-based bread made with fried pork skins
Do Sumthin’ BIG!
Autumn Robinson

        A growing line of friends, neighbors and
strangers had formed outside.
        “G’devenin’, ev’rybody! I hope y’all enjoy
y’allselves tuhnigh! You kin come on in!”
        The small space quickly filled with
people chattering and lining up for food and
        Lucy closed the door behind her and
joined the group. She found Abraham in the
        “Hey, Abraham…,” Lucy said hesitantly.
        “Hey, Lucy, how you?”
        “Bettah, now.”
        “Lissen,    fahget    what     went     on
yestuhday. Real friends treat you bettah than
        “Thanks, Abraham,” she smiled.
        “Ain’t nothin’ gonna spoil tuhnight. Les
jus’ have a good time!” He grabbed her hand.
        “’Ey Johnnie, when the surprise guest
        Lucy and Abraham looked to where the
voice came from, waiting for an answer.
        “Real soon, jus’ you wait!” Johnnie
shouted. “Have some food, ev’rybody! The
music gonnna be heeah real—!”
        There was a knock on the door.
Do Sumthin’ BIG!
Autumn Robinson

       Lucy went to open it and she couldn’t
believe her eyes. She was speechless.
       Everyone else was speechless too.
       “Come on in, Mistah Ellintin! Glad tuh
have y’all!”
       Duke Ellington and half of his Cotton
Club band stood in the doorway.
       Johnnie walked over and shook Duke’s
       “Hello, Mistah Little, glad tuh be
heeah!” Duke waved to everyone else. “Hello,
ev’rybody! Ready to get this thang goin’?”
       “Yeah!” everyone shouted excitedly.
       “Les git y’all set up, then!” said
       Everyone watched for a moment and
they fell back in to an excited chatter.
       After a few maneuvers, the band was in
place at the center of the main room.
       “All right y’all! We ready, y’all ready?”
Duke bellowed.
       “Yeah!” everyone shouted again.
       Duke counted his band off and they did
several recent numbers, including “Creole
Love Call,” “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Diga
Diga Doo.”
       Everyone was having the best time
cuttin’ a rug, laughing and forgetting their
troubles in the dimly lit red room.
Do Sumthin’ BIG!
Autumn Robinson

        Lucy was drunk with excitement from
listening to the band get hot18. The trombone,
trumpeter, saxophonist, drummer and bassist
all got a chance to show their skills and the
crowd egged them on, shouting out things like
“Git it!” or “Play on!”
        After watching everyone          enjoying
themselves, Lucy said: “Abraham, les dance!”
        Before he could say anything, she
grabbed him by the hand and they fell into the
rhythm of the music, the beat leading their
every move. They did the breakdown and the
cake walk. They shuffled, shimmied, strutted
and scrunched. They did the lindy, they
messed around, they toddled and they turkey
trotted. On top of all of that, there was a Black
Bottom and Charleston competition.
        Everyone danced around them in the
tight space, danced like there was no
        “Lucy, les take a break!” Abraham said,
out of breath.
        What remained of the party food sat on
the kitchen table and Lucy and Abraham
made their way towards it.
        She poured two cups of water for each
of them.

     to play with great excitement
Do Sumthin’ BIG!
Autumn Robinson

       Abraham took a long drink and said:
“Lucy, I been thankin’ you kin ask Mistah
Ellintin tuh sang with his band! This might
could be yo chance tuh do sumthin’ big!”
       Lucy’s face lit up. “I been thankin’ ‘bout
it too!” She hesitated, looking worried. “But
what if he say no?”
       Abraham looked Lucy in the eye. “If you
worryin’ ‘bout that, you ain’t nevah gonna
know what he gonna say! Sometimes, you jus’
gotta try.”
       Lucy looked at Abraham. She grabbed
his face and kissed him. And then she pulled
away, leaving him mesmerized.
        “Okay, I’m jus’ gonna do it!”
       Lucy smoothed out her dress and
zigzagged       through     the    dancing    mass
surrounding Duke and his band. She tapped
Duke on the shoulder, motioned for him to
bend down, and she said into his ear: “Mistah
Ellintin, if it ain’t no trouble, kin I sang a tune
witcho band? I promise it ain’t gonna take up
no time…”
       “Yo daddy done tol’ me you gotta
mighty fine voice, young lady,” he responded
graciously. “Jus’ tell me whatchoo wanna sang
an’ we gonna do it next.”
       Lucy couldn’t believe her ears! “I’d love
tuh do “’Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”!”
Do Sumthin’ BIG!
Autumn Robinson

      Duke raised his eyebrows in surprise
and chuckled before saying: “Okay, we’ll take
a quick break and I’ll tell the boys.”
      Lucy moved through the crowd, back to
      “Well, what he say?”
      She held his hands. “He say yes!”

        After the short break, Duke introduced
       Diana turned the lights off and lit some
candles, to set the mood.
       “We have Lucy Little perfomin’ this next
numbah with us. Les have some applause for
Miss Lucy Little, ev’ryone!”
       Everyone faced the center of the room
and clapped and cheered.
       Lucy’s momma caught her eye; she
winked and nodded. “Tol’ you so,” she
mouthed with her arms wrapped around
Lucy’s daddy.
       Duke counted the band in: “Five-Six-
       The music was slow and steady. Lucy
waited for her cue and when she came in, her
voice was clear and strong and smooth:
        There ain’t nothin’ I can do
        Or nothin’ I can say
        That folks don’t criticize me
        But I’m going to do just as I want to anyway
Do Sumthin’ BIG!
Autumn Robinson

      The crowd broke off into partners
swaying sensually by candlelight and Lucy
kept singing, becoming more confident with
each word:
           And I don’t care if they all despise me
           If I should take a notion
           To jump into the ocean
           ‘Tain’t nobody’s business if I do, do, do do
        Lucy’s performance was the last one of
the night and when it ended, everyone was
still swaying, as if in a trance.
        Duke broke the silence in a low,
audible voice: “That was Miss Lucy Little,
ev’ryone! Wasn’t she outta this world19?” Duke
started clapping for Lucy and soon the whole
room was filled with a deafening applause.
        Lucy beamed.
        Duke looked to Lucy and to her parents
across the room. “Thank you, Little family,
this was a pleasure! Thank y’all for havin’ me!”
he said to the crowded room.

      The guests had already cleared out and
while the band was packing up to go, Lucy
and her parents began putting the main room
back to its original state.
      “Lucy!” Duke waved her over. “Where’d
you learn tuh sing like that, young lady?
Bessie would be proud.”

     extremely exciting
Do Sumthin’ BIG!
Autumn Robinson

        “I ain’t nevah had no teachin’, Mistah
Ellintin. I jus’ feels sumthin’ an’ I sangs how I
        “Tell you what, you kin come down to
the Cotton Club and do that number with me
an’ my band, if it’s okay with your folks! What
do you say, young lady?”
    “Oh, it’s my dream tuh sang at yo club,
Mistah Ellintin! I know Momma an’ Daddy
gonna say yes!”
    “Well, it’s settled then! Mistah an’ Missus
Little,” Duke projected, “I’d be honored if Lucy
could sang with me an’ the band at the Cotton
Club one night. I think she’d be a hit!”

   A few nights later, Diana was helping Lucy
take the rollers out of her freshly hot combed
hair. She already had on her makeup and the
long, violet drop-waist dress her momma
made just for that night.
   “I’m so proudah you, Lucy!” Diana
exclaimed, hugging her daughter at the
shoulders. “See theah? You done waited on
God an’ now you bin blessed! Now, cumon foh
you be late!” Diana kissed her daughter on the
cheek, took one last approving look and sent
her out the door.
   Lucy was bubbling over with excitement.
She met Abraham at the bottom of her stoop.
Do Sumthin’ BIG!
Autumn Robinson

    Abraham held his arm out for Lucy to
hold. He was in his navy peg tops and a white
spread collar shirt.
    Lucy was surprised. “Abraham, why you in
yo Sunday-go-to-the-meetin’ clothes? You
know you ain’t comin’ in wit me?”
    “I know, but it’s a special day an’ I wanna
look nice. I gotta take you theah, might as well
look nice doin’ it!”
    Lucy laughed, “Thanks, Abraham, you so
    They kissed.
    “Really, it don’t make me no nevermind. If
you happy, that’s all I care ‘bout. You livin’ yo
dreams, Lucy! We part of these changin’ times
where cullud folks is doin’ music an’ writin’
an’ makin’ art!”
    “They     be     callin’ it   the    Harlem
Renaissance,” Lucy said with a smile.
    And so, they walked down Seventh, hand
in hand, stepping in unison and sharing
words we’ll never know on their way to the
Cotton Club.

  She stood there where the spotlight focused
         And the hushed, expectant throng
 Felt the unstudied grace of her form and face
           As they waited for her song.

    She sang, and the distilled sweetness
Do Sumthin’ BIG!
Autumn Robinson

           Of each lilting, liquid note
Bore our hearts along with the quaint old song
       That flowed from her dusky throat.

      But my fancy tricked me strangely:
              I closed my weary eyes
 And the lights became the shadow and flame
            Of Southern twilight skies;

    And my head once more was pillowed
          On a softly sheltering breast
 And a sweet low voice made my heart rejoice
        As it lulled me to childhood’s rest.

              —Sarah Fernandis Collins, “Her

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