Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 21

Sergeant Ryan Woolcape, in uniform, could have been taken for a typical Anglo–Saxon collegian in the Army. He was six-two or — three, with a proud back and a head rearing as haughtily as his father’s. He was snarling, “What is all this junk about you pinks not wanting discrimination?”

John spoke sharply: “That’ll do, Ryan. This is a friend of ours — Captain Kingsblood, of the Second National Bank.”

“I’m aware of that noble fact, Dad. I’ve seen him captaining in the bank. . . . Cap, excuse me for my bumptiousness. I have some reason for being in a temper. I’ve just been in God’s holy temple, listening to the Reverend Dr. Jat Snood, that Kansas Fundamentalist Evangelist and all-around bastard. I doubt if I’d ever have gotten in if the ushers had known I’m a spook, blast their worm-eaten souls and slimy handshakes. But I did, and I heard Snood explain that Jesus wants the frozen-toed Christians up here in Minnesota to chase all us niggers back to Georgia. So the Captain must excuse me if I get rough when I find one of the pious ofays here in this low shack.”

“Ryan,” said Mr. Woolcape, “shut up!”

“Ryan,” said Mrs. Woolcape, “Mr. Kingsblood is not a white man, legally.”

(— I knew I shouldn’t ‘ve told!)

“He is one of us, Ryan. He’s just found it out. You’re under pledge of complete secrecy, by the way. He came to us for advice and friendship, and then you go and talk like a Texas sheriff!”

Ryan held out his heavy paw to Neil, smiled like a happy giant, and grunted, “I don’t know whether to be pleased or sympathetic, but I always thought you looked like a good guy, for an officer, and now I understand why. Welcome! Sure, I’ll say nothing, and I’m sorry I shot my mouth off. But in the Army you get to hate all white officers.”

Neil demanded, “Why? Did you really run into much discrimination? It happens I didn’t serve with any colored troops.”

“I’ll tell you, Cap. One camp where I was in the South, the white G.I.‘s had movies or U.S.O. shows every night, in a big theater, and swell rooms for playing cards and writing letters, and all the buses they wanted into town, and dozens of bars. We had movies only once a week, no place to write letters, and we had to walk two miles to a bus, and not enough buses and no bars, and the white M.P.‘s watching you, making you feel like a criminal.

“And our colored officers had no power — they were just token officers, to keep the black vote happy. Colored colonels on shaky old jimcrow cars. One colored captain, in uniform, traveling on official business, was thrown into a civilian jail because there was no phone in the colored waiting-room, so he had to step into the white waiting-room to telephone — to his commanding officer!

“But I did get one thing out of it: a trip to Burma and Java, where I learned what the local boys thought about THEIR being jimcrowed and how glad they’ll be to join us American untouchables against the whole damn world oligarchy of whites!”

Ryan stopped, a stricken giant. “I’ve been hypnotized into another race-tirade! Blame it on Reverend Snood!”

He beamed at Neil as at his best friend, while Neil was appalled at so devastating a hatred of the whites. He wanted to get out of this. It wasn’t HIS race-problem!

Mrs. Woolcape tried to soothe everybody by purring, “We ran into Mr. Kingsblood at church, this morning, Ryan. He thinks Evan is a fine preacher.”

Ryan grinned. “Any dinner left? I will not be trapped into my Number 5B speech — about all the Negro churches being even deader than the white ones. The young spooks that would have taught Sunday school a generation ago are working for the N. Double-A C.P., and all the hot ones, that would have become hell-roaring deacons once, have joined the Communist Party. Brewster is a nice guy, but he’s still the favorite of a lot of foot-kissing Uncle Toms, and he’s capable of preaching a sermon where a sinful white man — but smart and rich — is converted by a dumb woolly-head that can’t pay his poll-tax. No, Mum, you shouldn’t have told me the news about Simon Legree, if you wanted me to stick to Christianity and mild manners.”

While the affable assassin gobbled cold roast beef, Mrs. Woolcape explained that Ryan’s particular hope was to organize a Negro cooperative farm. But Neil could not be interested, could not take any more revolution and race-doctrine that day.

He promised that he would come back on Friday. Ryan said heartily, “I’m not sure we’ll let you join us Senegambians. You’ll be too shocked when you find out what our real opinions are — the ones we don’t tell any white man. Why, we don’t even believe in dressing for dinner every evening!”

Neil decided that Ryan was being humorous, and that it was but manners to smile and look gratified. But as he walked to the bus, loathing the Sunday-afternoon colored loafers strutting their stuff on Mayo Street, he was raging.

“So, my fine young sergeant, you’re not sure whether you’re going to allow me to join your race! Oh, I might ‘ve known! Why am I such a fool? Well, here I am back in the unfortunate plight of being a future bank-president — white!”

It was no go. He could not escape. The eyes of Mary Woolcape were sorrowfully rebuking him now, as they had comforted him when he had been a new-found son in tribulation.

He came into his house unknowing what and where and how Neil Kingsblood was going to be.

Vestal was easy on him. “How were the veterans? Did you boys all tell one another how brave you were?”

“Now I want to tell you I learned something!” he said stoutly. “The Negro troops never got enough credit — building airfields and driving trucks under fire, and no decorations.”

“My, my, did I fall down on that, too, and not give ’em any medals? I’ll call in Congress and tell ’em to fix that up right away. The poor darkies! I’ll give ’em all Purple Hearts and Rosy Crosses and Orders of the Emerald Watermelon, Second Class.”

“You ought to take ’em more seriously, and I’m going to take a nap,” he complained.

“Take it seriously?” she jeered.

Before he slept, he had to look at Biddy’s new design for a bomb-carrying airplane.

He had forgotten to open the windows, that afternoon in early summer, and he slept heavily.

He was running in terror through a midnight wood, staggering through bogs, colliding with tree-trunks, branches slashing at his forward-thrust face. He was panting so that his lungs were seared, and a cavern of thirst was in his mouth. He did not know who were pounding after him, but they loathed him, they would knee him in the groin, smash his jaw, tear out his eyes.

He was stopped by a circle of small flashing lights. He saw that they were the eyes of bloodhounds, on their haunches. Behind the hounds he made out, as torches were kindled, a semicircle of men, such horrible men as he had never seen, wrinkled like the bloodhounds, puckered of neck, snake-cold of eye, and these men were moving toward him, moving, coming, close.

Somebody said, quite conversationally, “God damned raping nigger, I bet this brush-hook will go right through his shinbone, one nip.”

He was on the ground, and a big boot — he could distinctly catch its reek of manure — was kicking him in the side of the head, but he was no longer lying on the forest leaf-mold, he was lying on a cement floor, dirty and bloody, and the boot was going thump, thump, and the intolerable pain went through to the center of his skull.

They were lifting him up, while he struggled; a rope was lifting him up, slowly up, choking him; then he was standing in a boggy woods aisle and looking up at himself, hanging and kicking, and he saw that while his face was his own white-man’s face, ruddy and freckled, his naked body was iron-black, black iron radiant with sweat in the jagged torch-light, while his black limbs kicked, mechanically, grotesquely, and he and all the other white men stood and laughed, “Look at the nigger kick, will yuh! He looks like a damn frog kicking, black frog, lookit him kick, the black nigger. And they claim to be human, like us! Haw — haw!”

He lay in unrelieved terror.

— This could be me. They have lynched Negroes, even in Minnesota. They would hate me even more than they do fellows that have always been colored. I could feel that rope.

— I can’t come out and take that. But if it’s that urgent with my people, I’ve got to.

— But I can’t do that to Biddy. She mustn’t be sick with remembering a murdered father, way Phoebe Woolcape is. But maybe she wants to fight for her own. Maybe even the small girls are like that now, designers of bombers, ruthless.

— Look at the nigger frog kicking, and they claim to be human! He caught himself wanting to run to the Woolcapes, to Mary Woolcape, but most of all to Ryan.

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