Dr. Marvellus Djinn's Odd Scholars: Chapters 1 - 3

The Negro World

Four Lucky Winners to Tour Dr. Marvellus Djinn’s Colored Theme Park

April 1, 1920

Dr. Marvellus Djinn, internationally known Scholar of Sorcery, will award exclusive passes to The Motherland, her theme park of magic and mythological creatures in Hampton, VA in June. In addition to the tour, the winners will receive full financial support to attend Hampton Institute.

The odd scholarships will be awarded to four teens (ages 13-19) who prove victorious in competitions in the following categories: Strength, Ingenuity, Chemistry, and Magical Prowess. All who are interested should meet Dr. Djinn in the following cities: Altamonte Springs, FL (Mighty Biceps-Strength Competition May 2, 1920); Charleston, SC (Juvenile Ingenuity Competition May 5, 1920); Washington, DC (Boys Chemistry Competition May 10, 1920); and Charleston, SC (Dueling Crystal Balls-Magical Prowess Competition May 5, 1920). For more information on how to register, see page E5.

One Strength is the Family Business

Altamonte Springs, FL 1920

In a mere thirty minutes, the gathering of a few strapping workers assembling the stage swelled to over one hundred onlookers. Everyone within a twenty-mile radius of Altamonte Springs was in attendance to see if Omen could redeem himself after last year’s defeat. His eyes roved over the audience of familiar faces. Sisters, brothers, wives, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, neighbors—they’d all made the trip to see this year’s Mighty Bicep Competition, the premier event to begin the summer.

“You beat Cairo once; you can beat him again. Still don’t look to me like the boy’s got it all up here.” Omen’s father, Ivan Crow, tapped his forehead. “Remember boy, strength is ninety percent mental.”

“I know Pop, I know.” Beads of sweat gathered at Omen’s temples. He snatched a red checkered kerchief from his back pocket and dabbed at his hairline.

This was the ritual every year: the same crowd ripe with excitement, the same split of loyalty down the middle, and the same bad blood. Omen’s father paced back and forth with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his overalls. Though there had always been twenty contestants, everyone knew the Crows and Armwoods were the only ones who mattered. The rivalry dated back to 1820 when Omen and Cairo’s great-great grandfathers found themselves at odds over a red-bone gal with green eyes on the plantation on Fort George Island. According to the old folks, the dispute was settled over an arm-wrestling match. And ever since Omen’s great-great grandfather’s win, the scales had been slightly tipped in the Crow family’s favor.

One by one, the competitors lined up for the announcement of the draw. Omen leaned against a curtain. A rumble of gator-mating calls traveled along the breeze from a patch of swamp across the clearing. His line of vision drifted to the crates and barrels enveloping the stage. Painted black, the red and green letters screamed the contents inside: Biceps Galore, Love at First Kiss, Far East Trinkets and Charms, Salves for Spirit Sicknesses, Back to Africa Talismans. An upright piano decorated with black and green symbols stood in the corner. The back wall had been covered with pictures of Marcus Garvey and clippings from The Negro World newspaper. Three iguanas moseyed around their cages on a table nearest the audience. Each lizard changed its color from red to black to green in unexpected synchronicity. For the first time ever, the Mighty Biceps Competition had partnered with a celebrity. He whistled to himself and turned to his competition. Cairo. From his calves as big around as tree trunks to his barrel chest, the boy looked burlier and more clueless than Omen remembered. Altamonte’s old folks said the Armwood boys had never been babies. They were born big and stayed that way ‘til they died.

“Yup, he’s big alright, but don’t let that fool ya,” Uncle Dwight chimed in as if he’d been reading Omen’s mind. “It’s the skill that matters.” He mopped his protruding brow with a bandana.

For 365 days straight Omen had heard the boos and whispers. They’d stuck to him like a wart no one knew how to remove. Sometimes, the will skips a generation. Might be the mighty Crows are finally stepping aside for another family to take the crown. Ever seen that boy’s arms? They right scrawny. He ain’t got the genes. I’m tellin’ ya he’s a wee bit too small to challenge anybody. Ivan done trained the boy soft. I know Ole Fitzgerald is turnin’ over in his grave.

A shrill whistle pulled him back to the present and a shirtless man in a red vest stood before the crowd. Silver armbands choked his forearms as his silk pants flapped in the breeze.

“Welcome one and all to the Annual Juvenile Mighty Biceps Arm Wrestling Competition! I am Professor Bartholomew Blue and before I introduce our illustrious judge for today’s contest, I’d like to announce the competitors!”

His accent was difficult to place. West Indian perhaps? Last year he’d met a man from the Bahaman islands off Florida's coast. Omen never forgot the ease of his words. Once they left the stranger’s lips, they floated on the wind like a magic carpet in the stories his younger sister liked to read.

As one of the previous year’s finalists, he and Cairo’s names were the first to be called. After Cairo posed for the audience, Omen flashed a grin and waved to the cheering crowd.

Professor Blue rattled off the names quickly; all were familiar: King Tyrone, Donnie Dumbbell, John the Menace, Duke the Rude, Big Glen. If a family had a boy who could beat a Crow or an Armwood, they had something good going.

“Allen the Outcast, Good Eatin’ Gilbert, Smashmouth Steve,” the man shouted among the cheers. “Chuck the Wailer, Hilliard the Wrench, and last, but certainly not least, Helena Hightower!”

Omen froze as his gaze swung to a girl with deep dimples and a long, onyx braid. Thickset and half his size, it didn’t take long to determine she was strong—and beautiful.

A hush fell over the crowd. Omen glanced at his father. “Since when they allow girls to compete?” he asked out of the side of his mouth and stuffed his thumbs under the bib of his overalls.

“They been hollerin’ ‘bout girls bein’ good as boys for a while now. Since Dr. Djinn is here, I reckon this gal,” Ivan motioned toward Helena, “is tryna get her hands on a scholarship.” He shrugged. “And who can blame her?”

It made perfect sense. He wasn’t the only one who wanted the chance to see the world beyond Altamonte. There was so much more to life than gators and swamps. He’d promised himself when the opportunity came, he’d snatch it up.

“We took a vote the other day,” his father continued.

Omen folded his arms across his chest, eyes glued to Helena. “How’d you vote, Pop?”

Ivan Crow tossed a towel over his shoulder. “I voted ‘gainst it. Imagine if your mama had been demandin’ she wrestle gators and lift dumbbells? You might not have been born.” He cracked his knuckles above his head. “Never mind that though. Keep your eyes on the prize. That Dr. Djinn is a legend in her own right. You wait and see.” He pulled a newspaper clipping from one of his pockets. “Your Uncle Dwight got a hold of this a few months back while handlin’ business down in the bayou. Take a gander.”

Omen unfolded the clipping and peered at the article.

The Times Picayune

Race Riot near Lake Pontchartrain Leads to Lynching

New Orleans, LA

August 9, 1919

A disturbance at an outdoor market led to a lynching on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain on Saturday afternoon. Eyewitnesses say a group of vendors had been selling their wares peacefully when a scuffle broke out. According to Laura Lafayette of 21 Rue Charles, “an irate Colored woman refused to return the money of a White man who had bought one of her items and politely requested an exchange. The crowd dissolved into chaos as the Colored woman was carried off and hanged.”

Diane LaFleur of Rue Dauphine, who witnessed the quarrel, furthered that it was for good reason as the Colored woman, since identified as Marvellus Djinn, “began chanting spells and hexes and foaming at the mouth with the intention of ridding New Orleans of its good White folks.”

When authorities arrived to assess the damage, a single braid that looked to have come from the head of a Colored had been left behind, but no remains or body had been found. Nothing more is known at this time as the NOPD continues its investigation.

Omen folded the article, handed it to his father, and turned his attention to the stage.

“On behalf of The Motherland, the country’s first Colored Amusement Park, I present to you the Mentor of Magic, the Scholar of Sorcery herself, Dr. Marvellus Djinn!” He raised his arms with a flourish.

In an instant, the crowd split down the middle and Dr. Djinn entered like the prophet Moses parting the Red Sea. Omen watched as she twirled a cane with a gem encrusted handle like a majorette.

“Those are real ruby and emerald stones in that topper.” His father leaned in close. “She’s one of the richest Colored Women in the country. No man in his right mind would be okay with a woman having all that power. And them pants—I reckon it’s why she ain’t married.” He tugged at his beard.

Despite the Florida heat, Dr. Marvellus Djinn wore a green tuxedo with a matching top hat and tails. A black boa constrictor wound around her arms and its tongue slipped in and out of its mouth like flashes of pink lightning. She climbed the risers with outstretched arms.

“Thank you, Professor Blue.” She spun back to her audience. “Greetings one and all and welcome to this year’s Mighty Biceps Juvenile Arm-Wrestling Competition!”

Omen joined the crowd’s whistles and chants.

“The Honorable Marcus Garvey says if you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life!” She spoke in a syncopated voice that matched her odd get-up. “I am Dr. Marvellus Djinn and today I offer one of you an Odd Scholarship which includes a fully-funded education at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute and a once in a lifetime opportunity to tour my magical amusement park! Without further ado, let’s get this show on the road!”

Quickly, the contestants descended the risers and huddled with their teams.

“This is it, Omen. You get that scholarship; you write your ticket. With a little education, I reckon we may be able to incorporate the family business. Push us into the big leagues.” Ivan Crow’s eyes shifted. “Now, this is where you make your mark. Give ‘em some leeway the first few seconds, feel ‘em out. Then, move in for the kill.”

Omen returned to the stage as his uncle thumped him between the shoulder blades. His heartbeat quickened. This was it. He figured he was about ninety minutes away from redemption. Somehow, he summoned calm as the audience rushed forward, choking the edges of the stage. A group of men dressed similarly to Professor Blue stepped in to secure the area.

The rules were simple: two preliminary rounds, a semifinal, and a final. Best two out of three in each. The winner would move on to the next round. For the preliminary bouts, two matches would take place at once. Omen took a look at his first opponent. Allen the Outcast. As good a warm-up as any. Six-feet- two-inch frame. Solid build. Despite it all, Allen had never been all that sure of himself and it showed. To him, losing wasn’t a lesson; it was the end of the world. Losses came with the territory. It's the response to the loss that makes a champion. Allen wouldn’t last in the Strength Business. Everyone knew it.

The two boys took their seats on a pair of stools. Omen craned his neck to make out the other two competitors. Cairo sat across from Good Eatin’ Gilbert, the 300-pound hammer. Rolls of flesh strained against the gaps in Gilbert’s overalls. Don’t you go puttin' the cart before the horse! Omen’s father’s voice echoed inside his head. You beat him once. You’ll beat him again. It’s your time. Omen looked toward the heavens and mouthed a silent prayer.

“Let’s get ready now,” Professor Blue shouted over the excited crowd.

Omen and Allen set their elbows on the barrel, each flexing their fingers and rotating their wrists in preparation. They locked hands as Blue cupped his palm over theirs.

“On the count of three. One. Two. Three!"

Omen gazed into Allen’s eyes. Already, tiny lines of exertion had formed across the boy’s forehead. He counted to three silently, then tightened his grip, crushing the boy’s hand in his. Allen’s eyes grew from slits to saucers. Slam! Omen forced Allen’s arm to the barrel in record time.

The crowd went wild. A smile stretched across his face. The second game ended quicker than the first. Allen stared at the floor as Professor Blue held Omen’s arm high in the air.

The preliminary bouts sped by in a blur. Cairo won easily. Then, King Tyrone took out John the Menace, two to nothing. Big Glen forced Chuck the Wailer to forfeit in a puddle of tears. Omen stood aside as Chuck’s father, Big Lung Bruce, led him down the dirt road in shame. After the commotion of Chuck’s exit, Donnie Dumbbell bested Hilliard Hard Hitter in a nail biter, two to one. But the biggest surprise of the day was Helena Hightower’s decisive win over Smashmouth Steve.

“Whatever you do, you best not lose to no girl,” Cairo’s father shouted for all to hear. “You’ll never live that down. Never.”

Steve’s dad, Bugsy Knuckles, wore a tight scowl as he steered Steve away from the crowd. By the end of the early rounds, four were left standing: Omen, Cairo, Donnie Dumbbell, and Helena Hightower. Dr. Djinn announced a fifteen-minute intermissio