Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 17

If he could not believe that many of his own race were as Rod Aldwick had found them, he had to see something of what they actually were. Where could he look at a gathering of them? In a movie theater? In a church?

There must be a Negro church in Grand Republic, now that it had a couple of thousand black inhabitants; there must be Negroes who went to church, wouldn’t you think? (His mother did!)

When he was having his shoes shined in the basement washroom of the Hotel Pineland, he looked down more gently than had been his custom at old Wash, the shine-boy, whose name was not Wash, but George Gray, and who was not a boy but a man aged and tiny and infinitely patient. He was the one Negro whom Randy Spruce most favored, as “knowing his place and taking his cap off to us white gents.” He was also the grandfather of Belfreda Gray.

There was something shameful in Wash, bent and spiderlike and more gray than black. He peered up at Neil and out of his ancient dusty memories he picked an unclean one about Belfreda, and he sniggered tinily, “Well, Cap’n, suh, you suttinly done right when you kicked Belfreda’s tail outa yo’ house. She’s a little slut. I can’t do nothin’ with huh.” He giggled. “She sleeps with every no-count niggah in town. Can’t do nothin’ with these biggity young No’th’n niggahs, no suh!”

Neil said genially, as the young prince, “Oh, Belfreda wasn’t so bad. She’s just young. Uh, Wash — uh — where is there a colored church in this town?”

Wash turned rigid. He looked up painfully, his filmy eyes were grim and discerning, and most of his “cullud” stage dialect dropped as he demanded, “What you want to know for?”

“I’d like to attend one.”

“We don’t like white folks coming to laugh at us — not when we’re praying.”

“Honestly, Wash, I had no idea of laughing.”

“What else man like you want to come for?”

“I just felt I ought to understand your part of town better.”

“We don’t like gang of people slumming.”

“I’d be alone, and perfectly reverent, I hope.”

Neil was not conscious of how humble he had become to this venerable elder of his race. Wash said grudgingly, “Well, Mister, they’s fo’ or five, but you might try the Ebenezer Baptist — Reverend Brewster’s church — in the Five Points, Mayo Street and Omaha Avenue. I go there. We think Reverend Brewster is real smart.”

Neil knew vaguely that the Darktown of Grand Republic was called the “Five Points,” and had Mayo Street as its principal thoroughfare. His bank held mortgages there, and he had driven through it, but eyelessly. Of “Reverend Brewster” he had never heard, and with a white man’s matey joviality, as Wash returned to shining his shoes, Neil crowed, “Isn’t Brewster kind of a Yankee name, for a colored preacher?”

“He is a Yankee.”

“Oh!”

“He’s what they call a Doctor of Philosophy.”

Neil could not but chuckle at this darky malapropism. “You mean Doctor of Divinity.”

Something of Wash’s professional Dixie dialect crept back into humble speech as he insisted, “No, SUH! He got one these Doctor Philosophy degrees from this Columbia University, in Harlem.”

“And DOCTOR Davis. Has everybody on Mayo Street got a college degree?”

“No, suh, there’s a few of us come along too early.”

The white man in Captain Kingsblood wondered, “Is this old devil kidding me?”

He had lied to Vestal.

On that June Sunday morning he had told her that he was going to lunch with a Veterans’ Association in the South End. He recalled the fictions he had produced at the State Historical Society, and reflected that he was becoming only too good a liar.

He went by bus to the Five Points, and walked westward on Mayo Street. It was like any other lower-middle-class shopping center, in its flabby look, its tawdry wooden store buildings plastered with home-painted signs. In the block between Denver Avenue and Omaha, there were two drugstores not so unlike the domestic treasure-houses of Sylvan Park in their displays of waterbottles, prayer-books, aspirin, douches, and piles of the Sunday Frontier–Banner. The Co-op Food Store, the Old English Grocery, the Electric Shop, with “reconditioned radios” in the show-window, all reminded him of that Anglo–Saxon city, Grand Republic, and so did the Lustgarten Meat Market, which was in an old residence with a new shop-front carelessly slapped on the ground floor and family washing still flourishing above. Yet this familiar huddle became strange to Neil as he realized that he did not see one white face on the crowded sidewalk.

In front of shuttered doors, over each of which was the sign “Beds 75 cents,” were groups of burly Negro workers staring at him as though he was the intruder that he was, and most of them were talking in dialect from the Deep South so thick that he could not understand them. He saw a young blade in a zoot-suit: yellow sports jacket, flaring lavender trousers, toothpick-toed shoes, and a broad black hat edged with white. He saw a couple rolling up the middle of the street, arms entwined, singing, and, as advertised, he saw one “colored mammy,” fat ebon face grinning under a red and yellow bandanna.

And when he looked down a side street he saw that behind neat stucco cottages, with tidy small lawns, there was such a diminutive jungle slum as he had not known could exist in the enlightened Northern States: shacks one behind another, three deep, in the center of the block, tilted doghouses such as no truly enterprising dog would have endured, each with a couple of inches of stove pipe for chimney. The whole ground between the shacks was a maggot-heap of dogs, chickens, and bare brown babies.

That frightened him. “How would I like turning black, and having to bring Vestal and Biddy down here?”

And he was more certain that he could never become “colored” when he passed the Beale Street Bar-B-Q and saw the dark cloud of Negroes looking hatefully through the steamy window at the slumming white man; when he came to the Jumpin’ Jive night club which, he thought, belonged to Belfreda’s friend, the sardonic Borus Bugdoll, who had made light of the Kingsbloods in their own kitchen. It had been a store; the show-window was now filled with a gilded plaster seashell decked with silvered pine-cones and poison-green ribbons, framing the blown-up photograph of an almost naked black dancing-girl.

The street was more alien to Neil than Italy in wartime, and it seemed to him that every dusky face, every rickety wall, hated him and would always hate him, and he might as well go home.

But all of this had taken only five minutes of slow walking, and in the sixth minute the sorcery was lifted and he was among people who, though their faces were more beloved of the sun, were like any other group of middle-class church-going Americans.

They were Dr. Brewster’s congregation, enjoying their weekly gossip before the church bell should summon them in: placid and well-shaven men, wearing the kind of Sunday clothes that people do wear on Sunday; Mothers in Zion, nervously thin or comfortably buxom, talking about their sons in the service; supernaturally Sunday-neatened small boys restless in tight shoes and little girls flaunting Sunday splendor; elders with a long good life recorded in their etched faces; voluble babies who had not yet heard that they were Negroes and who assumed that they were babies.

The voices of that half of them who were Northern-born sounded like the voices of any other Minnesotans; and while they looked at Neil with a slight doubtfulness, they did not make him feel like an intruder as had the derisive loafers at the Bar-B-Q.

The Ebenezer Baptist Church was a small tidy oblong of brick, with an absurd dwarf steeple. The clear glass windows, rather narrow, with wooden frames rising to peaks that tried to suggest Gothic arches, had inserts of colored glass displaying Bible texts in script. With that, the Gothic revival ended.

The little bell quacked, and the amiable crowd bobbed slowly up the steps, shyly followed by Neil.

Inside, the church seemed to Neil less like a place of worship than a lodge room. It was lined with gray wallboard, neatly fastened with red-topped thumb-tacks, and neat and gray the straight lines of pews. Texts, gold-embossed on black placards, were on the walls, with a portrait of a black St. Augustine of Carthage. On a platform in front was a choir of nine girls in black gowns and mortar boards. Two of them were creamy white.

The surprise to Neil, himself a Baptist and brought up to denounce the heathen gauds of Rome, was that against a pathetic little reredos of wooden latticework stood a home-made altar with a lace-edged cloth on which was an imitation jeweled cross.

He had been standing as awkwardly as a new patient in a doctor’s waiting-room. Would THEY resent him; ask him to get out? But the usher who tiptoed toward him, a man black-silk black, with a flat nose and heavy lips, smiled at him as though in the House of God they were friends. He was wearing a blue-gray herring-bone suit exactly like the newest pride of Neil’s father. He touched Neil’s arm politely, led him halfway down, gravely motioned, and Neil had another First in his career as a Negro. He sat down between two colored people and they seemed to him very much like people.

On his left was a small woman who ignored him, as her lips moved in rapid silent prayer; on the other side was a large man, black as a cellar, who was probably a carpenter or a painter and who bowed good-naturedly in answer to Neil’s flustered nod.

He looked over the mimeographed church bulletin, and wondered about the title of the pastor’s sermon: “Delivered from Corruption.” Would it be something funny and inferior and Negroid, for all that doubtful pastoral Ph.D. degree, or would it be just another of the Baptist sermons that all these years (once a month or so) he had been chewing without tasting?

Then, through a narrow side door to the chancel, the Reverend Dr. Evan Brewster made entrance. For a moment he seemed to be showing off, as he halted to look over his flock, to stare doubtfully at Neil. But the theatricality, if it was such, lasted only a moment; then Dr. Brewster chatted with the choir, muttered something to an usher — Neil was afraid that it might be a scurrility about himself — and moved to the reading stand, a priest in his temple, confident and serene.

Evan Brewster was a large man, black as a japanned deed-box, with the shoulders of a roustabout and just the kinks of hair, the pushed-in nose, bulbous mouth, sloping forehead, thin legs that Neil had seen in every picture of a black dock-walloper, every primeval brute who regularly assaults fatherly white policemen. He was everything that would give a petal-pale white lady a shock, and if Neil was less delicate, still he was disapproving that this bruiser should mock the holy Baptist pulpit by wearing, over his rather shiny blue suit, the canonical primness of a Geneva gown.

Dr. Brewster was silent, looking at them, and Neil slowly permitted himself to see that never, in any human face, had he known such gentleness, such kindness, such honest and manly sweetness, such outpouring love for all living beings and all life. And when he spoke, his voice was that of any vigorous and scholarly man who had gone from a literate family to a shrewd university, the voice of a man who could also be intolerably eloquent.

“Friends — and especially the new friends whom we welcome here this morning — may we start with singing How Firm a Foundation, Ye Saints of the Lord? It is a Battle Hymn of the Republic for these days of battle.”

Evan Brewster — and he really was a Ph.D. of Columbia — had also attended Harvard College and the Union Theological Seminary, where the students believe in a trinity of Father, Son and Sociology — the Father as a symbol, the Son as a poetic myth, and Sociology with a pink halo. But after that, Evan got religion and race.

He had been born in a Massachusetts village of elms and white steeples, his father a tailor with white patrons. He was something over forty now, with a quiet wife, a daughter named Thankful, and a son named Winthrop, who now in high school was showing talent for physics. When he had first come to Grand Republic, as a missionary to his people, his church had been a shanty in Swede Hollow. In his dozen years here he had seen the Negro island expand from three or four hundred to two thousand; had seen over-timid or over-bumptious dark immigrants from the Carolinas and Texas turn into citizens; seen the young people going to college, becoming army officers, writing for the Defender, the Courier, the Spokesman.

Swede Hollow became overcrowded with Finns and Poles and Scandinavians; rents were grossly raised (by favorite customers of the Second National Bank); and Dr. Brewster led his own flock and most of the other Negroes from Swede Hollow to the brick-fields and swamps where the Five Points was to rise. When his new church was built, he worked with his members in laying brick, while his doe-like wife, Corinne, served coffee and brought the hymn-books to the men and lent her lipstick to the sisters.

Judge Cass Timberlane had once said that Dr. Evan Brewster was the most intelligent person in Grand Republic. That was doubtful, when you considered Sweeney Fishberg or Dr. and Mrs. Kamher or a couple of Wargate chemists named Ash Davis and Cope Anderson, or possibly Judge Timberlane himself. But none of these competent people had Evan Brewster’s love for all suffering human beings.

Neil Kingsblood’s friends had never heard of Dr. Brewster.

During the hymn, which the congregation sang with neither a comic swing nor any of the richness fictionally associated with spirituals, but like any other evangelical Americans, Neil looked at the people about him.

Except for four or five of whom he was in doubt, they all seemed “colored.” He recognized only two: Wash, the bootblack-sage, who now, in a double-breasted blue jacket, looked like a tiny, secret, fatherly old Jewish international banker, and Judge Timberlane’s cook-general, Mrs. Higbee.

When they had finished singing and sat listening to the gospel, Neil discovered that his sense of their being “colored,” being alien, being fundamentally different from himself, had evaporated. Their similarity to one another in duskiness and fuzzy hair was so much less than their individual differences that they had already ceased being Negroes and become People, to wonder about, to love and hate.

Evan Brewster was no longer ugly to him, in his thick virility, but noble as a grizzly is noble, and Neil saw dimly what a piece of impertinence it had been for the Caucasians to set up their own anemic dryness as the correct standard of beauty.

He was not an amused tourist; it was desperate for him to know his own people. His vision was magnified, and he was able to see how these Negroes varied in complexion, from black-glass to vellum and cream and copper and lemon-yellow; and there was one man, pale and heavily freckled and almost as red-headed as Neil himself, about whom you nevertheless felt certain that he was a “Negro.”

He began to identify them with the white people he knew. The large and probably bad-tempered woman who had been singing with such powerful unction was unquestionably Mrs. Boone Havock. The dashing lady, slender, amiable but aloof, whose face was shadowed by a tilted black hat dripping with lilac net, with pearl earrings clear against her dark neck, was Mrs. Don Pennloss, and a proud woman who was more white than any white person and yet obviously was not “white,” could be no one but the exclusive Eve Champeris.

The workman beside him, who had smiled and offered him an opened hymn-book, was the old Scotch–Irish carpenter who used to give him, as a small boy, the long sweet shavings for use as beards and wigs and kindling for Indian camp-fires.

Neil had never seen how beautiful hands can be till now, when he was sensitively aware of the carpenter’s palms. The backs of his hands were dark gray, a weary color, but the palms were worn pink as Neil’s own, except in the creases, where there still clung a dark tint, and his nails were pink as Neil’s. They were hands competent to rip off old boards, to grasp a hammer, to guide a chisel, to bless a child.

“Maybe hands like that do something better than make figures in ledgers,” sighed Neil.

He tried to find out whether they DID smell like that.

Like most Americans, he had always touchingly believed that all Negroes have an especial and detestable savor, and he could be seen now earnestly sniffing. He did catch a distinct odor, but it was the aroma of soap, moth balls, and laundry which is peculiar to all church congregations, white, black, yellow, or magenta, on any warm Sunday morning. Indeed his exploration into the mysteries of his own people was a failure insofar as he expected to find them different from that other caste, equally his own people, who were called whites.

He, the customary even if not very credulous Baptist, felt at home in this Baptist church.

As he had begun to find in Dr. Brewster the harsh beauty of a rough bronze statue and the spiritual beauty of a Coptic saint beneath the desert sun, so he began to relish the leopard beauty in the woman with the pearl earrings, and the healthy, flapper-and-bobby-sox beauty of these appallingly typical American schoolgirls about him.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38