A Summer Tragedy

by Arna Bontemps

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Jeff and Jennie Patton are the main characters in Arna Bontemps' "A Summer Tragedy." Jeff and Jennie are an elderly black couple. Jennie is blind, Jeff has had a stroke, and both are declining physically as they age. Even minor daily tasks are becoming more difficult for them. For example, Jeff has trouble tying his bow tie.

In addition to the burdens of their physical infirmities, they carry emotional burdens as well. Jeff and Jennie's five adult children have died within two years. The pain from this loss is so raw that they do not discuss these events. When Jeff has thoughts of his offspring or their deaths, he willfully pushes those thoughts away. He is afraid that he will accidentally say something aloud that will cause Jennie to cry.

Not only do they experience emotional pain and physical frailty, but Jeff and Jennie have lost hope for the future. Although they love the land they call home, it belongs to someone else. Jeff is a sharecropper on land belonging to Major Stevenson.

Typically, sharecroppers receive credit to buy supplies for their daily needs from the landowner before the crop is made. Sharecroppers then work for a percentage of the profit from the crop less the money they have borrowed from the landowner. Jeff and Jennie have realized that as sharecroppers, they will never be able to accumulate enough money to own their own land. "If we get much or if we get little, we still gunna be in debt to old man Stevenson when he gets through counting up agin us. It's took us a long time to learn that," Jeff says.

Jeff and Jennie Patton have no reason to believe their future will improve and every reason to believe that life will become more and more difficult for them as they face the physical deterioration that is sure to come as they grow older. As a result, the two decide to end their lives by driving their car into the river.

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