Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 19

During the sermon, Neil had noticed, in the pew across the aisle, a family of father, who was a man of sixty or so, mother, a son who was in uniform as a captain, a young woman holding a baby who was being extraordinarily good, and a girl of perhaps seventeen. All of them were serious, capable-looking people, and all of them, except for the darkish young wife and her baby, might unquestionably have been taken for white, if they had not seemed so habitual here.

Where had he seen that captain?

He realized that this was the “colored boy” who had been in his class all through school, respected and ignored. Some of the white girls had even pretended to like him, and he had once been elected class secretary. Now what was his name? Oh. Emerson Woolcape.

Neil had heard that the fellow had become a dentist, with an office in the Five Points, with a regular chair and X-ray outfit and even a uniformed girl assistant, just like a regular practitioner. As the son of a real dentist, Neil had found this slightly comic.

He did not, just now, find it so comic, nor the fact that Woolcape should be pretending to be a captain, like himself, and that on his collar there was no suggestion of gentlemanly guns for killing people, but merely the caduceus with a D which indicated nothing more warlike and noble than saving their teeth.

Neil recalled that as a boy he had once seen the whole Woolcape family picnicking on the bluffs of the Sorshay River, about a red and white tablecloth spread on the rocks. They had all been singing, and he had enviously thought that they were having more fun than his family ever had. He was sure that he had seen the Woolcape father around that crazy Mermaid Tavern Building, with its phony half-timbering, as janitor and handyman. But there was nothing apparent of the mop and furnace-dust about him now. His gray suit was easy, his tie was well knotted, and his face of a Roman Senator, crowned with gray-shot sable hair, was proudly back as he listened to the sermon.

Staring at the grave competence of John Woolcape, Neil felt a premonitory chill about his own future in a world, his own world of Pruttery, which had nothing more than a dirty and half-servile job for a man who looked like that. He warmly assured himself that however sympathetic he might be with these Negroes, it would not be a very bright notion financially to announce himself as one. But, “I wish I had that man’s dignity,” he sighed.

Mrs. Woolcape had an especial look of familiarity that perplexed Neil until he realized that she was surprisingly like his own mother. He denied it, and shivered, and looked again. She seemed older than “Mum,” and at once more calm and more resolute, yet in her color of pale honey, her chiseled-down nose, her small shy mouth, her eyes that asked nothing for herself, she was so like his mother that he felt bound to her and to her family by something more than a tale about a moccasined frontier rover. This was a woman whose questions he would answer gladly, and in her smile and tenderness he could find solace.

“The Lord be with us, while we are parted one from another, the Lord wash us clean of corruption, the Lord dwell in loving kindness among us —”

Evan Brewster paused, he looked straight at Neil, he had a wonderful smile of friendship, and he ended, “loving kindness among us all, rich or needy, black and white — His children.”

The African girls in the choir, who were American girls, were chanting “Blessed be the tie that binds,” but the spell was shattered as everyone rose — everyone but Neil, who sat enchanted.

When he moved toward the door with the last of the congregation, he felt their doubt whether he was friendly or just curious; whether they should bow or ignore him. But all of them who had come from the South had learned that it was safer to do both, and get away quick.

At the door, Dr. Brewster was shaking hands, and he spoke to Neil not otherwise than to the others: “It has been pleasant to have you with us this morning, Brother.”

The conventionality of it irritated Neil, yet was that not just what his own Dr. Buncer said?

Seen close, as they shook hands — and by now Neil had enough training so that he no longer made a production of it — Dr. Brewster had tiny folds of flesh over the inner corners of his eyes, he was moist as a fieldhand and had the dismaying grip of one, and in his eyes was every sorrow since Golgotha.

When Neil was rather confusedly out on the sidewalk, he was not glad that the ordeal was finished; he was lost and puzzled in a common world where neither the hard-faced whites whom he saw now on the street nor the tough and lounging Negro gamblers could conceivably have any of Evan Brewster’s patience for his quandary.

For a long time he stared at the Ethiopia Motion Picture Playhouse, across the way, as though it were Chartres Cathedral. He did not realize that he was standing beside the Woolcape family, who were in after-church gossip with neighbors. Captain Emerson Woolcape looked as though he recognized Neil but did not expect to be recognized himself, and he was surprised when Neil half bowed, and babbled, “I thought that was you, o’ man. Haven’t seen you since high school.”

The Woolcapes stared at him with a silence that could become either welcome or hostility. He rushed on, longing, for reasons not too clear to him, to be accepted by them:

“In fact, years ago, I saw all of you having a grand picnic together, and I wished I were with you.”

They all widened their mouths in forbidding politeness, and Neil urged, as one who would be loved even if he had to kill them for it, “Sorry I never had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Brewster before. Uh — did you get over to the other side, Captain — Emerson?”

“I saw a little of the show there.” Reluctantly, Emerson did what was necessary. “Captain Kingsblood, this is my wife — I imagine you know her father, Drexel Greenshaw of the Fiesole Room — and our baby. My father and mother, and this young lady is my niece, Phoebe. . . . Mother, you’ve heard me speak of Mr. Kingsblood — we were in school together.”

The Woolcapes all looked like children who have done their politenesses to the nosey deacon and feel that they may sneak away now and be happy. But, at whatever risk of being snubbed, Neil wasn’t having it. This family had become immensely important to him. When a man is born a Negro at thirty-one, he needs a family.

He had never done much in the youthfully-beseeching line; yet, he was solicitous now with Emerson.

“Which way you going, Captain? I don’t know this part of town very well.”

It was not Emerson but his mother who rose to a hearty, “Oh, wouldn’t you like to walk along with us, Captain?”

John and Mary Woolcape lived a block from the church, with Emerson next door. As they trudged, John pointed out the dwarf parsonage of Evan Brewster, and tried, “Did you enjoy the sermon, Captain Kingsblood? We think quite highly of Dr. Brewster.”

The Woolcapes were surprised by the ardor with which this white banker — probably down here on some regrettable piece of financial spying — answered, “Seriously, I thought he had a remarkable combination of power and gentleness. A saint — but smart!”

“He’s too good a bowler and much too good a cook to be classed as a saint, but we’re very fond of Dr. Brewster,” said Mrs. Woolcape, and Neil felt that she was faintly laughing at him and his status of amateur critic. But he would not be smiled down. He studied the parsonage, shabby white, one-story, three or four small rooms, the whole thing not much larger than his own modest living-room. There were prim curtained windows, and on the pocket-handkerchief porch were three jars of geraniums.

“Rather small house for a man as big as he is. And I suppose he’s married?”

“Yes, and two children. Dr. Brewster says they manage by sleeping on top of the cook-stove and keeping the bathtub and the cat underneath it, and his library — BOTH books!” said Mr. Woolcape.

His wife rose to it. “Now John, you know perfectly well that Evan has a splendid library for a man on his salary — hundreds of books — all the important new ones — Myrdal and Wright and Langston Hughes and Alain Locke and everything!”

They laughed at her like a family who love one another.

Neil found some more conversation to offer: “Small church — don’t suppose you can possibly pay him a high salary. Seems a shame.”

John said proudly, “No, we can’t. None of us make very much ourselves, you know. So Evan — Dr. Brewster — has to work nights in the post office, to make both ends meet, as his children are still young. But he just laughs about it. He says we’re lucky to have a preacher that’s a civil-service employee and not a panhandler. And,” boastfully, “he’s a supervisor, and he has quite a few white men working under him!”

“Yet for a man like that,” offered Neil, “college degrees and all, to have to waste his time sorting circulars —”

“We don’t think so,” Mr. Woolcape insisted. “We’re glad Reverend Brewster is willing to work with common people like ourselves, and not soak away in dreams in a pastor’s study. Especially my son Ryan feels that — he’s home on leave from the Army but he didn’t come with us today. He’s a little leftwing, I’m afraid.”

“My, my, my, Captain Kingsblood must be simply fascinated by our family history. Do tell him about the pup we had once that had six toes on each foot!” Mary Woolcape scoffed, and stretched out her hand to Neil in farewell.

He wilfully did not see it.

They were standing in front of the Woolcape house, which was not much larger than Evan Brewster’s, one-storied, white, immaculate; they were standing there, and Neil just stood there, till John Woolcape could scarce escape saying, “Won’t you come in?” And Neil did come in; he stepped right in after them, like it or not, and he was determined that nothing so petty as good manners should keep him from a chance of enlightenment.

He saw the shared glance of Emerson and his father which meant, “What does this loan-shark from the bank want? What sort of a crooked white-man’s trick is he up to?”

He tried to set up an old-schoolmates-together atmosphere with, “Do you remember that funny old hen we had in algebra, Captain?”

Emerson chuckled. “She was a crank, all right.”

“But she had a good heart. One time after class she said to me, ‘Neil, if you would do your algebra better, you might become Governor of the State.’”

“Did she, Captain?” Emerson spoke with a drawl that was on the insulting side. “What she said to ME, one time after class, was that she was considering only my welfare, and for a boy of my race to learn algebra instead of short-order cooking was ‘my, such a waste of time!’”

All the classmate cordiality was frozen. The Woolcapes were looking at Neil bleakly, they were waiting for his real mission. . . . Did bank clerks sell burial insurance?

“Please, I don’t intend to intrude. I know that you want to get your Sunday dinner, and I’m going to skip right along, but there’s a few things I earnestly want to know about — I mean, I don’t know much of anything about — uh — about this part of town, and I simply must have a better understanding of — OF THIS PART OF TOWN.”

What Neil was trying to say, without offense, was “better understanding of Negroes.” But did one say TO them “Negroes” or “colored people” or “Ethiopians” or that cumbersome “Afro–Americans” or what? What would offend them least? Once, in Italy, he had heard a Negro soldier bawl at another, “Hustle up, nigger,” and yet he knew now that they were not fond of the word. It was confusing.

They looked more cordial. “What can we tell you, Captain Kingsblood?” asked Emerson.

(How did they know he had been a captain? Was it true, as some people said, that the whole dark world was a conspiracy planning the destruction of all the white people, viciously clever yet jungle-mad, wild as smoke-blackened midnight fires for human sacrifice; a cabal that spied on every white person’s acts and noted them in little books audited by witch-doctors and Communist agents?)

Now the one thing he yearned to say was “Shall I, who am a Negro, become a Negro?” While he struggled to phrase it, he looked about.

There was no reason why a man of average perception should have been astonished that the house of middle-class Negroes with ordinary good taste and neatness should be exactly like the house of any other middle-class Americans with ordinary taste and neatness. What, Neil taxed himself, did he expect? A voodoo altar? Drums and a leopard skin? A crap-game and a demijohn of corn liquor? Or an Eldzier Cortor painting and signed photographs of Haile Selassie, Walter White and Pushkin? Yes, probably he HAD expected something freakish.

But, if they were janitors, instead of lawyers and salesmen, he and all of his friends would have living-rooms exactly like this: the same worn carpet-rug, tapestry chair with foot-rest, love seat, ornamented ash-trays, satinwood radio-cabinet, women’s magazines, and not very good reproductions of not very good floral pieces!

— Vestal would approve of this room and point out that Mrs. Woolcape keeps it better than Shirley does ours.

Then he stopped lying to himself and with a pang he admitted how impossible it would be to conceive of Vestal as ever being here and being natural with these, his own people.

Well, they were waiting, and he tried to speak out.

“What I wanted to ask — I don’t quite know how to express it, but certain things have happened, and they make me feel that I ought to know you, uh —”

“‘Negroes’ is the word,” said John Woolcape.

“Or ‘colored people.’ We don’t mind either,” said his wife, and they were both suave about it and rather tolerant.

“What Mother means,” Emerson explained, “is that we dislike both terms intensely, but we consider them slightly less ruffling than ‘nigger’ or ‘coon’ or ‘jig’ or ‘spade’ or ‘smoke’ or any of the other labels by which white ditch-diggers indicate their superiority to Negro bishops. We expect it to take a few more decades before we’re simply called ‘Americans’ or ‘human beings.’”

“Don’t be so damn smug!” Emerson’s father threw at him. “You’re right about the unpleasantness of the labels, but when did a ditch-digger get to be so inferior to a bishop? I’m an ash-shoveler myself! But if Captain Kingsblood would like to ask about the Negroes — that’s the word that I happen to use — we’d be glad to tell him anything we can.”

Emerson hastened, “Of course we will. I didn’t mean to be smug. I just don’t like being branded as a kind of barnyard animal. But Captain, if you’d really enjoy a red-hot race-talk, wait till my brother Ryan comes in. He’s only twenty-three, but he can be as wonderful and wrong as if he were ninety. He’s on leave — hopes to be out soon, but he’s still in the service, as I am; he’s a sergeant, and how he does look down on us captains! Ryan’s been out in India, and way he tells it, he was hobnobbing with Gandhi and Nehru, though THEY may not have noticed it. And Burma.”

The reference to foreign service sent the two soldiers off on the shop-talk of veterans. Captain and Doctor Emerson Woolcape looked like a soldier, sounded like a soldier, had the very tune of it, and Neil reflected that if Emerson had little of the magic of that great leader, Major Rodney Aldwick, he seemed no less professional, as they traded opinions of B-29’s, rations, colonels and seasickness.

They were all seated now, though only Neil looked settled and comfortable.

Emerson’s niece, Phoebe, who had not yet been explained, was as bored by the droning of these venerable soldiers as any other seventeen-year-old American girl would have been. She was a graceful thing, breathless with youth; she was as gilt-headed as Biddy, as pink-and-white as Neil’s sister, Joan, and more restless. She sprang up now as a boy of her own age burst in.

He was thoroughly black, his features Negroid, yet in his blue Sunday suit and his beige sweater edged with maroon at the neck, he was completely the American High School Boy, shoulders proudly back, free and independent — probably too free and too independent, like his white classmates, who were the despair of their clucking teachers.

“This is Winthrop Brewster, our pastor’s boy. Phoebe and he are driving to Duluth for lunch,” said Mrs. Woolcape, as though that flight, seventy-odd miles each way, were a step across to the park.

Winthrop said How was he, Phoebe said Sorryhaftrunaway, with decently veiled joy at escaping from an old man of thirty-one, and they were gone in a blur, the same blur of gasoline fumes in which two other American children, Neil and Vestal, had flickered, only a dozen years ago.

And in just the tone of Vestal’s mother then, Mrs. Woolcape lamented, “I’m worried about that child. Our granddaughter Phoebe. Her mother and father have passed on, and we’re responsible for her. I’m sure I didn’t act like that when I was in high school and Oberlin. She seems to be simultaneously in love with Winthrop Brewster — he’s a wonderful boy; he’ll be a great expert in electronics or something after he goes to college, but Phoebe thinks Winthrop is too sober and fussy, and so, if you please, our young lady calmly up and announces that she is also in love with Bobby Gowse, who’s a wild stage dancer here, and with our neighboring boy, Leo Jensing. But Leo is white, so of course we wouldn’t like that.”

“Are you prejudiced against white people, then?” wondered Neil. Her husband raged, “She certainly is, and I keep telling her that with her education — I only finished grade school, myself — she has no excuse for condemning a whole race. I tell her that if she is patient and looks for it, she’ll find just as many kind-hearted and understanding people among the whites as in our own race. . . . But I’m also somewhat opposed to intermarriage, though only because there are so many people, both white and black, who have been denied the power to love and so they are envious and do all the harm they can when they see a mixed couple who love each other so much that they are willing to stand social exile. Of course this whole color code is nonsense, but it’s so tied up with the old aristocratic class myth, like the D.A.R. or the English nobility (so I read), that you can’t ignore it any more than you can syphilis, which it greatly resembles.”

“John!” said Mrs. Woolcape.

“And so,” her husband continued, “I would — well, to tell the truth, Captain Kingsblood, I’m hanged if I know whether, if Phoebe wanted to marry a white boy, I would lock her in, or throw up my janitor’s cap and shoot anybody who tried to interfere with her rights!”

“Now John, stop being so racial,” said Mrs. Woolcape, but in a strictly routine way.

Emerson’s wife had taken the baby and gone home — somewhat pointedly. Neil knew that they were waiting for him to leave.

“I mustn’t stay any longer but — Tell me. Is it hard to be a Negro? Here in the North, I mean — in Grand Republic? I’m not just being curious. I want terribly to know.”

The older Woolcapes and Emerson took wordless counsel, and Emerson answered for them:

“Yes, it is hard, unceasingly.”

His mother corrected him, “Not always. Most of the time we forget we are classed as pariahs, and go about our business without thinking of race, without thinking of ourselves as anything special. But occasionally it is intolerable, not so much for yourself as for the people you love, and I can understand the young men who talk so wildly about machine guns — wicked talk, but I understand.”

Neil worried it, “But — I’m honestly not trying to argue, Mrs. Woolcape, but I want to know. I have no doubt it’s tough in the South, but here in the North there’s certainly no prejudice — oh, maybe some individuals, but no legal bars. Why,” with pride, “I even understand there’s a Civil Rights law in this state, so Negroes can go into any restaurant! And your son and Phoebe, the way they look, they don’t seem to have suffered from any discrimination!”

“Captain,” said Emerson, “we were classmates. I thought then, and I see now I was right, that you were a frank, good-hearted fellow. You made a point of being pleasant to most of the boys, and you and I had common interests — track, mathematics, civics — and yet in twelve years, you almost never spoke to me except to say ‘Good morning’ as if you were doubtful about it.”

Neil nodded. “Yes. And too late to apologize. I wish I could. But Phoebe, her generation is different. She seems as unself-conscious as my sister.”

The quiet mother, Mary Woolcape, cried out, “That child is just beginning to learn the humiliation that every Negro feels every day, particularly in our self-satisfied North Middlewest. In the South, we’re told we’re dogs who simply have to get used to our kennels, and then we’ll get a nice bone and a kind word. But up here we’re told that we’re complete human beings, and encouraged to hope and think, and as a consequence we feel the incessant little reminders of supposed inferiority, the careless humiliations, more than our Southern cousins do the fear of lynching. Humiliation! That’s a word you white people ought to know about!

“Especially we who look white get humiliated here. We’re constantly meeting people who don’t know about It and who take to us, so that we drop our defenses — like fools. Then one day they snub us or glare at us or run away from meeting us, and we know that THEY know, and the pleasant times with them are over.

“But those who are visibly black — No discrimination in the North? No, merely looked at like rattlesnakes by all the mean-tempered people on trains and buses and in stores. Rarely get jobs better than the kitchen, no matter what our ability. Ambitious colored boys becoming gamblers or hoboes because no one will try them at responsible work. Admitted grudgingly to restaurants because of the law, and then insulted or neglected there, so that next time we’d rather go hungry — so that we’d rather walk the streets all of a winter night than ask for a room in what you’d call a good hotel. So that John and I, who WOULD be admitted, hate to take a hotel room when we travel, with our own brothers driven to the streets.

“Humiliated till we get broken or else, like John and me, prefer to stay home, always, always, and not take a chance on meeting any white man, any time. And we’re not bad, oh, we’re not, and when I think how good and courageous my husband is, and my children, and my father, the zoologist that —

“Oh, sorry. Being sentimental. I know you white people think it’s very funny for a black woman to praise her men like that!”

“No — please!” Neil was extraordinarily moved and shaky.

“Don’t you read the humorous stories about pretentious darkies in the magazines, hear the jokes about Mandy and Rastus at banquets? And Phoebe — you spoke of her new generation. Just the other day, a fifty-year-old white garage attendant, and Phoebe is much whiter than he is, told her that he would be willing to sleep with her, if he could only get used to her being a nigger. That’s not as bad as the South, where a friend of ours, a colored woman, was hurt in an automobile accident, bleeding to death, and they turned her away from white hospital after hospital, and she died in the street — murdered.

“But still, when Phoebe went out for the school play, at your own Hamilton High, before she had a chance to read at the try-out, they told her the cast was already chosen, but they told a white friend of hers that nobody had been chosen. And one of her teachers this year keeps looking at her and at the Greek and Italian and Russian youngsters, and then she says something like ‘those of us who have New England ancestors will not need to be told that so-and-so is a point of honor.’

“But that won’t break her bones, as it did her father’s. He was our oldest son, Bayard. He would have become a fine economics teacher. He graduated from Carleton — earned his way through, doing chores, but he was summa cum laude — and he married a wonderful girl.

“He was brought up entirely in the North — yes, yes, I know I’m inconsistent; I admit the South IS worse, even worse! He was brought up here, and he’d never experienced one minute of LEGAL segregation, and he just couldn’t believe that a decent, educated Negro would ever run into violence in the South.

“He went to teach in a Negro college in Georgia, where his great-grandfather had been a slave. The first time he saw that hideous sign ‘For colored only,’ he wrote me, he felt so angry and so scared, as if a man were coming at him with a knife, that he had to draw the car up beside the road and be sick.

“But he tried to do what his Southern acquaintances advised and to ‘play the game’— a game in which the other side always makes the rules. Then when he’d been there only a month, a policeman stopped his car and acted as if he’d stolen it. This man had seen Bayard around the college — he knew that though he was so pale, he was classed as ‘colored.’ He was so vicious that Bayard forgot and talked back, and they took him to the police-station and said he was drunk — he never even touched beer — and he got angry and they beat him. They beat him to death. My son.

“They beat him a long time. Till he died there on the cement floor. He was a handsome boy. And they told his wife that she’d better keep still or she’d never get to bear her baby — who was our Phoebe.

“After the baby came, she escaped North, all day and all night in the jimcrow coach, and she died within a year. He really was a handsome boy, and they kept kicking his head, on the cement floor, all dirty and bloody, and he died there.”

Mary Woolcape was crying, and it was the more racking that she was not hysterical but hopeless. Neil wanted to make her the greatest offering he could, and he heard himself saying, “I understand, because I’ve found out that I am part Negro myself.”

— Good Lord, I’ve done it! How could I be such a fool?

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57