Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 23

Mr. Prutt noticed his mooning at the bank, and in his joky, pecking way he tittered, “You look so absent-minded, you must be in love, Neil.” Yet through these days of wandering destiny, Neil was still one of our most trusty young executives, and the Veterans’ Center was bringing in desirable new accounts of discharged soldiers, who might be wearing greasy tunics now, but later might become obstetricians or juke-box lessees or manufacturers of candy bars.

An unexpected number of the veterans who consulted him were Negroes, and Neil wondered uneasily if Ryan had sent them, and what Ryan had told them, and just how safe he was. But he dared ask nothing.

All this meditation was prelude to his Friday evening among the colored intellectuals.

He insisted on Vestal’s taking the car that evening, because “he was going to another veterans’ organization,” and by bus and foot, he went to John Woolcape’s.

Emerson had gone back to army duty, but Neil was greeted by John, Mary, Ryan, and by Ash and Martha Davis. To the surprise of everybody, including himself, he hailed Dr. Davis as a friend long trusted and eagerly found again.

With his fluid way of moving, with the woven gold chain of his wrist-watch against a skin dark-brown and smooth, Ash Davis had more an air of Parisian boulevards than of anything American, and his small black mustache suggested the French artillerist. You saw him in horizon blue. If his fellow laboratory-workers considered Ash a somewhat fancy fellow in his tastes for tennis, the piano, and amateur botanizing, they admitted that he was a solid research chemist, with a respectable knowledge of plastics. He had had three years in laboratories in Paris, Zurich, and Moscow, and in Europe he had almost forgotten that he was a Colored Man and come to consider himself a Man.

If he had hated to return to the great gray republic, yet he had returned resolutely. He was no rhapsodist about the joys of being an exile among the tables of the Cafe Select and the white hobohemians. The shortage of chemists in the war had given him the chance of a superior job at the Wargate Corporation. He had naively believed that he could stay there permanently, and instead of going on living out of a trunk, Martha and he had bought an ugly cottage on Canoe Heights and remodeled it.

His was a busy, useful and innocent life, and, except for Martha and their daughter Nora, he was a little lonely. He respected the Woolcapes and Evan Brewster as fighters and solid citizens, but they had no liking for the frivolous and learned conversation that was his cake.

Martha, the plump and lovely Martha with the radiant, dark-brown skin, was Kentucky-born, daughter of a Negro lawyer. In college she had been earnest about the drama, and her Nora was named in memory of A Doll’s House. Martha never could understand that her husband was a Fresh Nigger Who Didn’t Know His Place. To her he was the most exact scholar, the most honorable man, the gayest companion, and the tenderest lover of whom she had ever heard.

She gave some effort to trying to keep the poorer members of the Negro Community from considering them as just another family of social climbers. For this suspicion the poor had some precedent. In every city they had seen too many Negroes who, prosperous with hair-tonics or portentous with jobs in the court house, forgot the cabins of their grandfathers and chased something called the Best Colored Society, with its coffee-colored debutantes and coffee-colored limousines, its sweetmen and kept poets and white pansies in the salon of Mme. Noire–Mozambique, and its hunt-breakfasts complete with red jackets and mention in the society columns (colored).

But Neil did not know that there was any Best Colored Society for Martha Davis to dislike. He was making the inevitable mistake of all converts and assuming that Negroes cannot be as smug and trivial as the whites. Why, bless their souls, they can put on frilled shirts and a thirty per cent. solution of a London accent and be just as tedious as Park Avenue any time. Neil had so much to learn about colored people and then, under this revelation, about white people.

The Woolcapes and the Davises and Neil sat around and sat around and picked up pieces of conversation and looked at them and dropped them. Everyone was being too polite for comfort when the door banged and into the room came a man like a skilled and enchanting little comedian, and they all yelled, “Hey, CLEM!”

Clement Brazenstar, the notorious field-agent of the Urban League, was the son of a dirt-common, black, Mississippi Delta sharecropper, whose very surname came from that of a plantation. Clem had had no college. He snatched his books (but so many of them!) out of the air when, as a youngster, he had flashed all over the country as bell-boy, cook, fertilizer-salesman, newspaperman, organizer. His mission now was to find more tolerable jobs for Negroes, to denounce black farmers who were too lazy to study gas motors and co-operative buying and (the office did not assign him to this; it was just his own notion) to bedevil white college presidents who approved of jimcrowing. He was a lover of whisky, peanuts, Tolstoy, and prizefighting. His French, which he got in Marseilles during World War I, was fair, but his Italian and Yiddish were only utilitarian.

If the Woolcapes were de-ebonized Northerners and the Davises just pleasantly brown, suggesting Arabs and the Alhambra gardens, in Clem Brazenstar the astonished Neil saw everything that the missionaries of hate meant by “a little Delta nigger clown.” He was a small man, grinning, monkey-faced, popping up like a jack-inthe-box. He was midnight-black; he was black and lustrous like a fresh sheet of black carbon paper; he seemed to be black not just on the surface, like Evan Brewster, but clear through to his bones. His lips were almost purple, there was a shine of black inside his ears, to his eyes there was a tint of yellow, and even the palms of his hands were darker than pink. His face was always comic, especially when he was serious, because then he laughed at himself as well as at the world.

His small but puffy mouth was always moving in derisive parentheses, his forehead was an agitated whirlpool of wrinkles. He was as enchantingly ugly as a Boston bull, yet his skin was so darkly brilliant, he had so gay and confident a manner, that he was as beautiful as a blackbird airy on a swaying reed.

His accent was a mixture of Mississippi, Harlem and the twangy Middlewest. He frequently used the word “nigger” for himself and his friends, but he never let the enemy use it without reprisals. To most people he seemed unbelievable, because he was a perfectly natural and normal man who had never been fettered by an ambitious family, a busy school or any kind of a bank-book.

“This is Captain Kingsblood, a new white friend, and a good one,” said John Woolcape.

Clem greeted Neil with the smile of a friendly workman, but he gave little effort to it. He was as accustomed to soothing or denouncing whites as he was to spurring or slapping down blacks.

“How are you, Captain? Well, my battling brethren, it’s always good to get back to Grand Republic, the Development Dainty with no Discriminations. Coming up on the bus, I sit down next to a handsome gal from Miteuropa, with her fine young Nazi boy, and he studies me and yells, ‘Maw, lookit the funny dinge!’ and she says in one of the warmest coloraturas I ever heard, ‘Id’s an outraitch and I’m goink to write to the bus company how ve Americans get crowtet in vit all kinds riff and raff.’ Mr. Riff, meet Mr. Raff!”

Clem was beaming, he was laughing audibly, at his own discomfiture. The astonished Neil was to learn that this was a habit of the most incorrigible of race-champions. They found nothing quite so funny as their own defeats.

They were merry enough, but inevitably they told the “new white friend” about certain trials in being a second-class citizen. Talking of his own Border States, Ash Davis said cheerfully:

“It’s the inconsistency of discrimination that gets the poor Sambo down. In one town in the South he can shop in any department store and ride on the front elevators and his wife can try on the clothes; and in the next one, forty miles away, he isn’t allowed to enter any decent white store at all, and gets pinched if he tries it, and the elevators are jimcrowed even in twenty-story office buildings. For years we pariahs may buy magazines in the white waiting room of a station, then suddenly we’re arrested by a big peckerwood cop for going in there at all.

“Captain Kingsblood, it isn’t only the humiliation of segregation that riles us. It’s the impossibility of telling when the simplest thing, like raising your hat to a nun, will be considered criminal, and you’ll get slugged for it. It’s that doubt that makes so many timid fellows go grab a razor.

“Oh, some cullud brethren praise the South because, under segregation, a certain number of sepia merchants get rich on the rest of us chosen people. In fact there’s a controversy now in the colored press about whether to go North and get frozen out or stay South and get burned out. Well, either way, there’s always fine conversation about being rooked.”

Clem Brazenstar raged, “Say, for God’s sake, are we going to start another all-night race-discussion?” and settled comfortably on the couch for same.

“Not for me. I never want to hear about our blasted race again!” proclaimed Ryan Woolcape, also making himself comfortable.

Neil said hastily, “Before you get entirely off the subject —” Somebody laughed. “— I would like to have your comments on a letter I got, months ago, from a classmate serving in the South Pacific. May I read part of it?”

Their grunts apparently meant Yes, he might, and he droned:

“I’ve been having a sticky job as an army criminal investigator lately and I’ve been surprised to find how differently I feel now about Negroes. They are very unpopular. The white G.I. has more friendliness toward the members of any alien race, because the Negro does not extend to white soldiers the same cheerful courtesy that the whites extend to one another, and that is important where men live so close together. No doubt there are excellent Negro soldiers. But in every stockade the Negro prisoners outnumber the whites three to one, on a percentage basis, and they are in for AWOL, disobeying direct orders, sex crimes, stabbings, and stealing from other soldiers, and in all these cases they are given to lying, freely and volubly. So our boys who before the war had no contact with Negroes will go back into civilian life with a great deal of prejudice.”

Neil expected rage, but he was answered only by a silence with no particular emphasis in it, and the belligerent Sergeant Ryan Woolcape commented uninterestedly:

“Your friend is a typical cop. He isn’t interested in finding good soldiers, only bad ones. He doesn’t know one thing about the innumerable colored outfits — like, say, the 761st Tank Battalion — that had great records. But I will hand it to him he probably knows the effect of the story that guys like him spread all over Asia and Europe — that all of us colored fellows have tails! Did THAT make us cheerfully courteous!”

They laughed, and Clem Brazenstar ruled, “Come off the soapbox, Ryan, and let a professional talk! . . . Cap, what that fellow said is part true, and the truer it is, the more you whites have to do something drastic, for your own sake.

“The old Uncle Toms lifted up their voices in hallelujahs if they got treated as well as the livestock, but not the young tribesmen. They’ve read a book. Get it clear — the New Negro demands every right of the New White Man, every one, and he doesn’t whine for them now; he’ll fight for them. You white iagos have built up a revolutionary army of thirteen million Othellos, male and female. Of course the colored boys are impolite to the white gemmuns, in a war they never wanted to fight. Their own war was closer.

“The boys that were brought up as I was, in shacks beside cricks where dead dogs and human waste floated, shacks without even a privy, where the plantation storekeepers or the cotton-buyers all stole from us and wouldn’t even let us look at our accounts — some of these boys steal back. What a haunt you whites have built up!

“Segregated! John and Mary, Ash and Martha, segregated just as much as an old boot like me. Segregated! Told that we’re like hogs, not fit to mix with human beings, and then your military gumshoe friend expects us to be obedient — and chummy!

“Segregated! ‘Separate but equal accommodations’— new coaches for the whites and pest-houses on wheels for the happy jigs! New brick schools for your kids — see pictures in the Atlanta Sunday paper — and unpainted barns for us, and benches without backs and no desks, no desks at all, for our pickaninnies, as you would call ’em. Let the little bastards write on their knees, if they have to write — which sensible folks gravely question.

“Segregated! School buses for your darling chicks, but ours can hoof it five miles. Marble-floored hospitals for you and slaughterhouses for us. No jobs except the hard work, the dirty work, the dangerous work, and the white cops making their own laws to use against us and acting as provocateurs and our judges and our executioners all put together. And then your classmate complains that we won’t whisper our secrets in his dainty ears! I’ll say!”

And Clem yelled with laughter and looked at Neil affectionately. And affectionately Martha Davis crooned at Neil:

“Mr. Kingsblood, the Southern white man invariably tells you that when he was a boy, his best friend was a lil black rascal who was his guide and bootlegger and pimp and pal. Good Ole Jim! He never tells you he was friendly with a black boy who was studious and sober. He didn’t know there WERE any colored boys like that — he still doesn’t!

“And really kind, sweet Southern women who give the tenderest care to a cullud wench if she takes typhoid but are offended if she takes psychology.

“It isn’t merely the major horrors that oppress us in the South — the fear of being lynched, burnt, beaten. We can forget those things, except on sultry nights with heat lightning like the flash of guns. Then you lie rigid in the dark and listen and you’re terrified when you hear a car, a footstep, a whisper, terrified that the whites may be coming, and they never come for any good.

“But it’s not that fear so much as the constant, quiet slaps. It’s the little things, in a South that cherishes the little things — roses and Grandfather’s sword and Lanier’s verses and the joyful controversy between bruising and crushing the mint for a julep. It’s the signs ‘For colored only,’ that tell a pretentious Negro female like me that she’s unclean.

“I taught for a year in the Deep South, after college. I believed the story that the whites liked to have the colored teachers be extra clean and neat as an example to the children. I had a funny, rickety little old car, and I painted it white, myself. One Saturday I was coming into town, and I washed the car — it was like glass — and I was so proud of my new white suit and white shoes. And new white gloves! I got out at a drugstore, and there was a horrible old peckerwood farmer — yellow as an angleworm — and he walked over and deliberately spat a huge gob of tobacco juice right on the door of my clean car. And the other white men all laughed. Then I knew that Hell has the sign ‘For colored only.’”

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