He found himself sitting at a lunch-counter, gravely staring at the wet slab of wood, the catsup bottle, the tricky nickel holder of paper napkins. He was vague, but he did remember that Dr. Werweiss was to make further search for him, that he was to return to the Society at two, and that he had not admitted anything.
He was in a still horror, beyond surprise now, like a man who has learned that last night, walking in his sleep, he murdered a man, that the police are looking for him.
He was apparently eating a sandwich. He regarded it with astonishment. How had he ever ordered a thing like that, dirty hunks of bread piled around flat-tasting ham? And the lunchroom was stinking, an offense against God and the sweet May afternoon.
— Why did I ever come in here? But I better try and like it. This is the kind of dump I’ll get from now on. Or worse. Probably even this joint thinks it’s too elegant to serve us niggers.
It was the first time that he had put what he was into a word, and he was too sick to soften it to “Negroes,” and anyway, the word seemed so trivial beside the fact. He was protesting that he should be called a black man or a green man or any kind of a man except the plain human and multicolored kind of man that, as Neil Kingsblood, he always had been and always would be.
But THEY would say that he was a black man, a Negro.
To Neil, to be a Negro was to be a Belfreda Gray or a Borus Bugdoll; to be Mac the porter, obsequious to white pawnbrokers; to be a leering black stevedore on the docks at Naples, wearing an American uniform but not allowed to have a gun, allowed only to stagger and ache with shouldering enormous boxes; to be a field-hand under the Delta sun, under the torchlight in salvation orgies, an animal with none of the animal freedom from shame; to be an assassin on Beale Street or a clown dancing in a saloon for pennies and humiliation.
To be a Negro was to live in a decaying shanty or in a frame tenement like a foul egg-crate, and to wear either slapping old shoes or the shiny toothpicks of a procurer; to sleep on unchanged bedclothes that were like funguses, and to have for spiritual leader only a howling and lecherous swindler.
There were practically no other kinds of Negroes. Had he not heard so from his Georgia army doctor?
To be a Negro, once they found you out, no matter how pale you were, was to work in kitchens — always in other people’s thankless kitchens — or in choking laundries or fever-hot foundries or at shoeshine stands where the disdainful white gentry thought about spitting down on you.
To be a Negro was to be unable — biologically, fundamentally, unchangeably unable — to grasp any science beyond addition and plain cooking and the driving of a car, any philosophy beyond comic dream-books. It was to be mysteriously unable ever to take a bath, so that you were more offensive than the animals who clean themselves.
It was to have such unpleasant manners, invariably, that you were never admitted to the dining-table of any decent house nor to the assemblies of most labor unions which, objectionable though they were to a conscientious banker like himself, still did have enough sense to see that all Negroes are scabs and spies and loafers.
It was to be an animal physically. It was to be an animal culturally, deaf to Beethoven and St. Augustine. It was to be an animal ethically, unable to keep from stealing and violence, from lying and treachery. It was literally and altogether to be an animal, somewhere between human beings and the ape.
It was to know that your children, no matter how much you loved them or strove for them, no matter if they were fair as Biddy, were doomed to be just as ugly and treacherous and brainless and bestial as yourself, and their children’s children beyond them forever, under the curse of Ezekiel.
— But I’m not like that — Mum isn’t — Biddy isn’t — old Julie isn’t. We’re decent, regular people. So there’s some mistake. We aren’t Negroes, not one drop, and there were two Xavier Pics.
— You know that’s phony, Kingsblood. Somehow, you know, way down, that he was your ancestor. Oh, damn him for being black! Poor sweet Biddy!
— All right. If Bid is a Negro, then everything I’ve ever heard about the Negroes — yes, and maybe everything I’ve heard about the Jews and the Japs and the Russians, about religion and politics — all of that may be a lie, too.
— If you ARE a Negro, you be one and fight as one. See if you can grow up, and then fight.
— But I’ve got to learn what a Negro is; I’ve got to learn, from the beginning, what I am!
Behind his struggle to think rationally there was a picture of the pert and candid face of Biddy — the little Duchess of Picardy, royal heir of Catherine of Aragon — and of her being unmasked by jeering neighbors as a Negro — a nigger, a zigaboo, a disgusting imitation of a real human child, flat-headed and obscenely capering, something to be driven around to the back door.
— She’s not like that. We’re not like that. Negroes are not like that. Are we?
Dr. Werweiss, he informed Neil, had found an original letter from Xavier Pic to General Henry Sibley, and he handed it over.
The paper had turned brown, but the ink was unfaded and the script delicate and precise, the writing of a literate man. Neil wondered if he was not the first, except for Dr. Werweiss and his assistant and General Sibley, who had touched this letter since Xavier had written it, by candlelight or northern sun, on a puncheon table or the side of a birch canoe, a hundred dead years ago:
“When you were here, honored General, and I had the priviledge to entertain you with a little fish and tea, more worthy fare being beyond my powers in the wilderness, I told you I am to all intent a full-blooded negro born in Martinique, though maybe I have a very little French and Portuguese and Spanish blood, too, not much.
“My wife was a good Ojibway woman and now my dear dauter Sidonie has married a Frenchman, Louis Payzold, and while I am proud of the negroes, they are such a brave passionat people, the Southern States have made a curse of life to the dark people and I do not want to have Sidonie or her children to be known as blacks and to suffer as my people do suffer there and planely told they are beasts. I ask for her little ones only a chance. So please always refer to me now as French.
“I am getting a little old for wilderness work and my purposes are almost done and do not want to think of my grandchildren under the lash, so please not say anything about my color and how black it is, honored General Sibley.
“Though Indian ladies seem to admire the color very much and all the warriors say I am first white man ever come to their country. Mes estimes les plus distinguees.
Dr. Werweiss spoke:
“He sounds like a grand old fellow — lot nobler than the Sieur de Saint Lusson or any of the other Parisian courtiers who showed up on the frontier. If your soldier friend has the guts to take it, and the imagination, he can be pretty proud of his ancestor.
“You know, it’s true, what he says. Only red men and white men were recognized by the Indians on the Northern frontier, and so Negroes like Xavier and the Bongas were the first ‘white men’ to carry civilization — meaning the bottle, the bomb, and the Bible — to the poor heathen. They were like Perry opening up Japan, and if the results have been just as disastrous, that wasn’t their fault.
“What a kingly set of names the whole bunch of them had: Sidonie marrying a Louis, and we found that their son, though we found nothing more about him, was royally named Alexandre!”
It was the chain as Gramma Julie had given it to him: Xavier, Sidonie, Louis Payzold, Alexandre, and, if he told the world of it, that chain bound him, bound Biddy.
IF he told.
— And I was so certain (he thought on the interurban car back to Minneapolis) that Xavier had a short, golden beard!
— Me, with my red hair, even a drop of blackness? Or Biddy? Still, Gramma Julie is dark enough. O God, even to have to think about it!
— What’s this about colored people “passing,” if they’re light enough? I certainly shall. Why should I be so conceited as to imagine that God has specially called me to be a martyr? And pretty vicious kind of a martyr, that would sacrifice his mother and his daughter to his holy vanity! Everything can be just as it was. It HAS to be, for Biddy’s sake. You wouldn’t deliberately turn your own mother into an outcast, would you?
— A man couldn’t do that!
— But what if a lot of people know it already? Or can detect the Negro in me? I hear lots of Southerners claim they can do that. That man goggling at me down the car — can he see I’m part Negro? Has everybody always guessed it?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57