Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 18

The sermon of Dr. Brewster was long and stately. Under divine law and divine love, he lectured, there can be no corruption save by the will of the corrupted.

It did not mean very much to a young man who wanted to know what was the right course for a person whom God had made white but whom the legislative enactments of many God-fearing States of the Union had made black. It was such a sermon as might have been preached in any Rockefeller–Gothic church on Fifth Avenue, Michigan Avenue, or Hollywood Boulevard. In Neil’s waxing desire to know how real was reality, it was too collegiate and cultured and generally white. He could have done with more tom-toms and jungle-dancing, more samples of what his darker ancestors might have been, and through the whole sermon, the congregation showed unction with not more than two or three dehydrated Hallelujahs and one “Praise God, ain’t it de trufe!”

Neil was rather comforted when the Harvard–Columbia-Union Seminary superiority broke down, and Dr. Brewster was guilty of “My brethrens” and of “cherubims,” and not only confided that for one summer he had “pastored” a church in St. Joe, but that its members had enthusiastically “brotherhooded.”

That was more like it, Neil thought gleefully. That was getting nearer to the Southern darky sermons reported by the Southern-gent-journalists and joyfully quoted by Rod Aldwick, in which all Tinted Men of God invariably spout, “Mah bretherens and sisterens, Ah absqualulates dat dis-here congoleum of crapshooters is powuhful lakly to perish in dat ole lake of fire.”

— If I AM going to be a Negro, I want my sermons hot. I might as well enjoy getting away from certifying checks and playing bridge, and roll the bones in the jook.

— Quit being sentimental, Kingsblood. If you get caught and publicly turn Negro, you’re going to play it just as safe and respectable as you can, and hope that the kind white folks won’t mind your nasty little Biddy being in school with their darlings.

— And it comes to me that I’ve heard my own white Baptist preacher, Doc Buncer, say “cherubims” and “to pastor.” This is plain hell, to get myself nerved up to being a Negro and then find there aren’t any special Negro things TO be. Wouldn’t it be flat for an enthusiastic martyr to find that the fire just warmed him pleasantly?

— Don’t worry. It won’t feel flat when Biddy and I get kicked off a Tennessee bus by a Mick conductor and a hillbilly cop breaks my jaw while a Wop detective grabs Biddy and snickers and begins — Oh, stop tormenting yourself. Stop it!

If he had criticized Dr. Brewster for an address that was pretentious in that humble chapel, he was stirred when Brewster read the Scripture. Neil was no judge of drama, but he felt a high moment like King Lear’s madness as the pastor read, tenderly and movingly, the eternal cry of all dark peoples, all Orientals, all women, all men sick and bewildered and lame with poverty:

“I did mourn as a dove; mine eyes fail with looking upward. O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me. . . . I shall go softly all my days in the bitterness of my soul. . . . Behold, for peace I had great bitterness, but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption. . . . The grave cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee; they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day.”

The audience were softly moaning, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and they leaped to sudden cheerful jazz in “Just a little talk with Jesus makes it right, all right!” and Neil saw a turpentine camp and men molded in copper and ebony singing slow and stopping to laugh under the chains of the white men as they swaggered, bound, into the swamps, into the sunrise.

— This is my history, thought Neil; this is my people; I must come out.

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