Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 20

“You say you’re part Negro? That’s not our idea of a joke.”

John Woolcape, who was less ruddy than Neil and therefore more “white,” was stern.

“It’s not my idea of a joke, either! I never knew it till recently.” He felt trapped. Oh, these Woolcapes were admirable people, but he did not want to be in their power. He urged them, “Maybe I shouldn’t have blurted it out. Nobody knows it, not even my parents or my wife, but I’m afraid it’s true. Only a small percentage, but legally, so many places, I’m afraid I’m a colored man.”

He was surprised that they did not look more surprised. They looked, indeed, rather hard. He tried to be airy:

“Well, I suppose I’ll just have to face it.”

John Woolcape said evenly, “Don’t be so sorry for yourself. Don’t be so childish. I’ve ‘faced’ being a Negro for sixty-five years now, and my wife and children and a few million other decent folks have managed to ‘face it’!”

They glared at each other, but it was Neil’s arrogance that was broken.

“You’re entirely right, Mr. Woolcape. I guess I’ll have to apologize again. It’s just that the idea is so new that I haven’t been able to get used to it. Not even Dad and Mum know it. I was looking up my ancestry and I ran into a — well —”

“You white folks would call it a ‘touch of the tar brush,’” Emerson said sardonically. “Not so easy, eh?”

“Well, God Almighty, you two ought to know whether it’s easy or not!” Neil snarled.

“John and you, Emerson, both of you, you quit badgering that boy!” Mary Woolcape’s voice had a mother’s tenderness and a mother’s sharpness. “Of course he’s upset. Poor boy!” Her arm was about Neil’s shoulder and she lightly kissed his cheek. It was his own mother comforting him.

“How old are you, son?” she murmured.

“Thirty-one, nearly, Mrs. Woolcape.”

He had almost said “Mum.”

“It’s tough to wake up to what the world’s really like as late as that. We colored have to understand both our own world and the white folks’ world, to be safe. But I tell you what!” Mrs. Woolcape sounded practical and bustling. “You stay and have dinner with us. Will your wife let you? You sit right down and telephone her.”

Vestal said Okay, and was he enjoying his spree with the veterans?

He found that Mary Woolcape carried out the myth of the “typical Negress” in one detail: she was an excellent cook. But he was still novice enough to marvel that they did not have fried chicken and watermelon for Sunday dinner, but a quite Aryan roast of beef.

Emerson had gone to his own house for dinner. He had said, “I won’t repeat anything at all about — uh — about what you told us, Captain, unless or until you want me to. But welcome to our club. Swell membership, even if we haven’t a pool.” They shook hands. They were friends, as they might have been twenty years before.

John sighed, “Ryan late again. These young revolutionists are going to be late at the barricades. We’ll start without him. . . . Mary! Let’s feed!”

So for the first time Neil sat down and ate with his new friends: that most ancient and universal symbol of equality.

He thought that it was to make him feel at home that the Woolcapes told him their stories.

John Woolcape was a “colored man,” and he was entirely “white,” which means pink and brown and gray, and he had never in his life been south of Iowa or east of Chicago. He was born in North Dakota, his family the only “Negroes” in their county. His father was a railroad section-gang foreman; his father’s father had been a slave in Georgia and, after the Civil War, had been a farmhand in Florida, which he had apparently not viewed as a paradise of roulette wheels and beach umbrellas.

John himself had worked on farms, had hoped for college or school of agriculture, but when he was a freshman in the village high school, his father had been killed by a runaway box car, and he had apprenticed himself to the local barber. As a barber, he had come to Grand Republic, in 1902, and there, at twenty-two, he had first learned what it is to be a Negro.

Till then he had known little more of the diplomatic art of being colored than had a Neil Kingsblood. Perceiving that his father was a good Baptist and a good boss of Irish and Swedish section-hands, John had never heard the news that he was biologically inferior, and his untutored white playmates, boys and girls, had not known that the touch of his hands was pollution.

Especially the girls.

There had been a few people in that Dakota village who had muttered something unpleasant about “tar-brushes,” but they had been “cranks” and “grouches,” and to John their venom had been incomprehensible.

Accepted in Grand Republic as a white man and a sound barber, he had forgotten the infrequent hints from his father that connected with his family was a mystery called “the race problem.” At that time it would have seemed to John just as reasonable for anyone to say to him “You’re a Hydrangean Polypus” as to say “You’re a black man.” Not being black. And not caring a hang whether he was “black” or “white,” so long as his customers and his Swiss sweetheart liked him.

But a man moved in from his boyhood village in North Dakota and whispered something to the boss barber, who said to John, “Why, you’re part nigger, ain’t you?”

“I suppose so. What of it?”

“Don’t know ‘s it makes any difference to me, personally, but the customers don’t like it. They’ll all kick, and leave me.”

“Have any of them kicked yet?”

“No, but they might. Can’t take no chances. I will say for you, you’re the best barber I got, but can’t take no chances.”

Back in 1904 they were already using this formula of caution which, unchanged in its massive dignity, imbecility and cowardice, was to go down to the middle of the Century of Democracy and Enlightenment.

John was discharged from shop after shop, and never because he was incompetent or because the customers disliked him — at least, they never disliked him till the Great Fact was whispered to them. Sometimes John himself flung the Fact at them, for he had no taste for the rancid butter of uncle-tomming, and in that two minutes of accusation by the first boss barber who had fired him, he had become “Negro” and “race-conscious.”

His Swiss girl, a rosy chambermaid to whom he had been teaching English, had thought nothing about it when she learned the Great Fact, but her Irish and Scandinavian colleagues taught her that if she was to belong to this Land of Democracy, she must drive him away.

John was the first raceman in Grand Republic to hear of the founding of the N.A.A.C.P. — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Grand Army of the Negroes — and at its convention in Minneapolis, he met Mary, who, like himself, was imperceptibly “colored.”

She was a graduate of Oberlin College, the daughter of a prosperous and rather scientific experimenter with turkeys and chickens and geese in Iowa. John and Mary disliked each other when they met, because they were both white and resented the swank of whiteness. But the fact that both of them refused to be anything so tyrannical as white drew them together. What had kept them together since was a common liking for integrity and humor.

John set up his own barber shop, and it failed, not because he was a Negro, since few of the customers seemed to object to his Ethiopian touch, but because he would not jimcrow it and bar out Negro customers, and the whites felt they had a social duty to be nasty about that.

Then, with his natural skill with tools, John had tried to become a mechanic. But he had little training, and technical schools then were distant and segregated. Mary and he wanted to go off to a larger, more mechanized city, where he could learn, but they had been so foolish as to believe the white real-estate men’s slogan that a community honors any worker who shows his faith in it by buying his own home and having a nice little family.

They had bought the home, and they had the nice little family in the person of Bayard, and so they were stuck here, and always would be, and John became a janitor and was glad to get the job, and Mary helped him out by baking cakes for sale and by working as extra-waitress at party-dinners.

“Yes, I’ve seen you several times, Captain, when I’ve helped wait on table at the Havocks’ and Mrs. Dedrick’s, but you never saw me, I imagine,” she said, and though she was too maternal and sensible to mean it that way, Neil was shamed.

He was certain that with white for a label and some Morton Beehouse as father-inlaw, John Woolcape might now be president of the Second National Bank, and that with an equal adjustment, John William Prutt might be a janitor. But while it would work out admirably, in so far as Mr. Prutt would be a methodical furnace-tender and a passionate sweeper and remover of old bottles, Mr. Woolcape would be less happy and certainly less dignified in flattering large depositors than he was now.

Through most of dinner, they discussed, with few reticences, the propriety of the Negro Neil becoming a Negro.

“The only thing I’m sure of is that you mustn’t do anything hasty, Mr. Kingsblood,” said John.

Neil felt as near to them as to his own father and mother, of whose lives and purposes he now knew less than of the Woolcapes’. He would have been comforted if they had called him “Neil,” but they had only softened the Captain to Mister, with an occasional affectionate Son.

“Don’t take martyrdom as a game,” John insisted. “Before you can know what you ought to do, or at least want to do, you must read the great books about my race, as I’ve been trying to do, with my defective education, these thirty years. But I reckon I’m lucky. A janitor’s chair by the furnace is the perfect place for study.

“When you have read a lot and thought a lot, you may decide you don’t want to come over. It might not do any good to our race, and it might be horrible for your mother and wife and little girl. I’m proud of being a Negro. I know so many plain, ordinary folks among my race that are like the great poets and heroes in the Bible. But white businessmen don’t like it when humble people are heroic — black OR white. They claw us down. Anyway, you have no right to expect your ladies to enjoy sharing your sacrifices. I wonder do many women enjoy martyrdom? Maybe they got too much sense.”

Mary complained, “I never can make John understand about Joan of Arc — or, to take a much more sensible person, Harriet Tubman. He just won’t get the feminist point of view. It’s that old barbershop training.”

Neil meditated, “As a matter of fact, I never have thought of coming out as a Negro. Do you despise Negroes that give up the fight and pass?”

The elders sighed. John pondered, “No. We’re sorry to lose them, but we know how hard they’ve found it, and I’d say there’s a general rule that if your old friend goes by you on the street, with white folks, and doesn’t know you, you don’t even wink — not public. Just as we’d cut our tongues out before we gave YOUR confidence away. So will my younger son, Ryan, if you meet him and feel like telling him. Yes, he’d be the loyalest of us all, even if he is the most leftwing and gets awful ornery, sometimes, with you white folks!

“Maybe you’d like to come here next Friday evening. Clement Brazenstar of the Urban League will be here, and Ash Davis, a chemist —”

“I’ve met Dr. Davis. In the bank.”

“And maybe Sophie Concord. She’s a very pretty colored lady, a city nurse, real smart. Those folks are all terrific race-talkers, even worse than I am. Maybe, for an evening, it might be more interesting than pinochle, or whatever game of cards it is you play.”

“BRIDGE!” said the more fashionable Mary.

“I’ll come,” said Neil.

John went on, “You won’t need to tell ’em you’re colored. In fact, Mr. Kingsblood, I don’t know as I’d go around saying that, except here with us, who feel kind of like your family — Emerson used to tell us about you, when you and him were in school together. He admired you so much.

“If you come next Friday, you’ll learn something from Clem Brazenstar. He’s as black as Tophet; by birth, he’s a real, low-down Mississippi Delta Nigra fieldhand, and he never went to college, but I doubt if there’s any of these fancy college professors that reads as much as him.

“And then Ash and Martha Davis, they’re kind of betwixt and between. They aren’t black and born between the cotton bolls, like Clem, nor yet white and born in a blizzard, like Mary and me. They’re high yella in color and border-state by family, and you know how these border white folks, Tennessee and Kentucky, never quite make up their minds. They appoint a colored fellow to the police force one day and lynch him the next and have a lovely obituary about him in the Courier–Journal the third.”

Neil sighed, “I’m not sure my own record with the Negroes is any too good.”

“Hm?”

“We recently had a colored maid, Belfreda Gray, and I got awfully prejudiced against her. I thought she was slovenly and sullen — I almost hated her, almost hated ALL Negroes, because of her. Do you know her?”

“Oh, yes, we know the little tart,” Mrs. Woolcape said serenely, and Neil was as shocked as if his official mother had said it.

Mr. Woolcape was equally placid. “Yes, Belfreda is bad medicine, a bad example for our young people. I don’t think we’ll hold that prejudice against you, except as, like most white folks, you concluded that all of us are like her. And there’s some excuse for Belfreda. Her parents are dead, her grandfather, Wash, is pretty weak, and her grandmother is a tough old devil. Belfreda is a real slick-chick. She likes to tell the Polish girls how much smarter she is than they are. Still, that’s better than being a Topsy and clowning around and eating dirt to amuse the white folks. Or getting sloppy and lazy and thieving, as the Southerners claim their colored servants do. (Why WOULDN’T they, when they have no hope at all except the kitchen!) Oh, there’s a lot of excuse for Belfreda.”

“You,” said his wife, “make me tired! I’m sick of all these environmental excuses. A cause isn’t an excuse. All these murderers, black and white, smirking, ‘It’s not my fault, because my parents didn’t understand me.’ Whose parents ever did understand them? Everybody excusing themselves that way for drinking and whoring, even here in the Five Points. I’m sick of it! I don’t think Borus Bugdoll, who sells dope and girls, is justified by having been born on a bankrupt farm!”

Her husband flared back, “Even Borus feels the discrimination against him —”

It was the first of the debates, the “race-talks,” that Neil was to hear in the Five Points: debates that continued all night, contradictory and emotional, learnedly and sometimes ungrammatically carried on by Negro tailors and waiters and oilers who never, like Oliver Beehouse or John William Prutt, bought a ranked regiment of books and put them up on oak shelves, but borrowed them, one at a time, from the public library.

Neil tried to get into the talk with an offering of “I don’t think many white people are really vicious. I don’t believe most of them know there IS any discrimination.”

Behind him, an unknown voice, somewhat youthful but somewhat basso, jeered, “Then who are the mysterious guys that start the discrimination?”

“Mr. Kingsblood, this is our son, Ryan,” said Mrs. Woolcape.

“Our son Ryan, who is always late,” said Mr. Woolcape.

“Your loving son Ryan, who is damn near always right on racial issues too. And who may our friend be?”

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