Clem Brazenstar insisted that if they spoke only of these trivialities, if they did not mention the more lusty violence in the South, such as a returned Negro soldier’s having his eyes gouged out with a policeman’s night-stick, their new white friend would be bored, and Clem’s own virility as a Southerner would be slighted.
They all laughed again, but now Neil shuddered.
He insisted, “But there’s no such violence against the Negroes in any Northern state.”
“Sure there is, in race riots,” Clem said placidly. “But the job-ceiling is more important; trained brownskin teachers and stenographers flatly told they can’t have the job, not because they’re incapable but because they’re beige. And restaurants that, in this state, are compelled by law to admit Negroes, so a lot of them either keep the smokes waiting or else salt their food so much that they can’t eat it. And Negroes doing war-work in factories not allowed to drink from the same bubbling fountains as the sacred whites. It certainly makes an ardent patriot out of a guy who happens to like bathing every night to be told he can’t even share the same running stream of water with a Yankee farmer or a Tennessee hillbilly who earnestly believes that a bath-tub was invented to keep angleworms in.
“No, get it straight, Little White Father; in this democratic Northern town, they don’t lynch Negroes — not often — but they tell us every day that we’re all diseased and filthy and criminal. And do they believe it? Hell, no! But they make themselves believe it and then they make other people believe it and so they get rid of us as rivals for the good jobs that they’d like themselves.
“But what inspires us here in Grand Republic is that the vile Ethiope is not allowed to join the Y.M.C.A., the very well-endowed association to spread the example of Christ, so that his brown body won’t contaminate the swimming pool and poison the feeble little sons of sons of so and so of white contributors to African missions. The Y.M.C.A.! The Yes–Men’s Crawling Arena!”
“I didn’t know there were discriminations like that in Grand Republic,” said Neil meekly.
“The thing that got me most,” said Ryan, “was that when I was a little kid in school here, I was friendly with all the whites, boys and girls; swam with ’em and built mud forts and skated and went on the same toboggan, and so I came to believe they really were my chums, and then when we got to puberty, they discovered I was ‘colored,’ and said so frankly, and when I went to see a girl with whom I’ve played for years, right in their front yard, I was told she ‘wasn’t home,’ and then I saw her come out of the house with a white pimple-face that we all despised. Segregation here, Cap? No. Just quarantine!”
John Woolcape said gently, “Mary and I don’t run into much discrimination. It does irritate me sometimes, in my basement, to have some twelve-year-old white child bellow, ‘Here you, Johnny, where the hell are you?’ But that’s what any janitor expects. And as far as having our feelings hurt in restaurants and movie theaters goes, we just feel it’s better not to take a chance on them. We stay home evenings and read or listen to the radio or play cards with our friends, and never, never go outside. Mary and I don’t like squabbling and screaming, and we feel it’s safer so. Then nobody can say we’re bad people, and try to run us out of our home. Yes, we love our home, and here we’re safe.”
“So far you are!” said Clem rudely. “But the South is getting better — less lynching, more of us voting, equal pay for teachers in some places. So the North is getting worse, very obligingly, just to keep my job going.”
“Yes,” said Ash Davis, “the Northerner has a great future as a synthetic Lee. Take Mr. Pete Snitch, of the Snitch Brothers Steel Company of Illinois. He buys a winter home in South Carolina, and inside of two years he is more Southern-born than any born Southerner.
“He’s been an iron-puddler but now he has a million, and so he and the little woman long for an aristocratic tradition, the real Walter Scott pawing charger and ivy. And there in the South he has it — magnolias and mocking birds and white columns and the glen where the gallants used to duel and the respectful poor — at least they sound respectful. The only known living descendant of the family whose house the Snitches cuckooed into is working on a newspaper in Birmingham, so Mr. Snitch feels he’s taken over the family ghosts, in crinoline, along with the title-deed.
“He’s a gent by purchase and a Southerner by linguaphone. But he has to prove his gentility, and the best way to do that, obviously, is to be insulting to his inferiors, and as we Africans lack his fine, Anglo–Saxon beer-flush, we’re elected as the inferiors, and he yells at us even louder than a Carolina jailer, and in any conversation at Bollington Hall, Colonel Peterborough Snitch will be the first to be heard screaming, ‘You wouldn’t want your daughter to marry a nigger, would you?’ Oh, yes, you Northerners have a great future in the chivalry and blacksnake business.
“And I have revised the old rule, to read, ‘In Rome, do as the Romans do, but you don’t have to claim that you invented it.’”
Then the race-talk became a little hysterical, to Neil a little confusing. It was broken by the arrival of Sugar Gowse, with lunch-pail.
Sugar had been born to the Louisiana canefields, but he had picked up a knowledge of tools and lathes. He was on his way now to the Wargate plant, where he was a machinist on the graveyard shift. Since his work was faultless, he believed that Wargate’s would keep him on in peace time and, as naive as Ash Davis, he had bought a two-room shack where he “bached it” with his motherless son, Bobby, the fleet-footed and antic dancer, the boogie-woogie wizard of the Five Points.
His Black Belt accent was like blackjack molasses and Neil could but half understand him. He looked like an Indian, with thin lips, thin black hawk nose; tall and straight; an impression of Judge Cass Timberlane cut in basalt. He was wearing now the blue-denim blouse and overalls that were romantic as all work-clothes are.
When they tried to drag him into the race-talk, Sugar said, no, he knew nothing about discrimination, except that here or any other place, the colored folks were always the last to be hired and the first to be fired, so why worry?
Neil wondered, “But can you stand our cold winters?”
“Mister, it’s colder in a Louisiana shack, full of holes, at forty above than it is here in my plastered house at forty below.”
“Sugar just wants room to rest his hat. He’s sensible enough not to have the constant feeling of insecurity and futility that gets Martha and me down,” said Ash.
“You educated fellows are too touchy, Doc. You don’t know how a worker feels,” said Sugar.
“Worker!” Ash protested. “When I got out of college, I was cook on a private car — that ineffable official and his booze! — and when I finished graduate work in chemistry, my first job was in a patent-medicine dump, where I packed boxes and loaded ’em on trucks when I wasn’t making up formulae.”
Clem Brazenstar argued with Sugar, “You get touchy, too, when some woman changes her seat because you sit next to her in a bus. Sophie! My eagle!”
A brownskin girl had slipped into the room, and Mary announced to Neil, “This is Sophie Concord. She’s a district nurse. . . . Mr. Kingsblood, a new friend.”
“I’ve seen Mr. Kingsblood in the bank,” said Sophie, and added, as though she was trying not to, “being efficient and handsome!” She looked at him with no signs of anesthesia, and he was certain that she was the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen and the least frigid.
Sophie Concord, Alabama-born and Neil’s own age, was tall, like Vestal, and frank-faced like her, but more endowed with curves and long sweet lines that interested even a sober carthorse like Neil. She had a generous mouth and a skin nearly as dark as Ash Davis’s, a rich brown skin that was incredibly satin-smooth, and her bare arms were the color of a polished dry fig against the white rayon of her rather ancient party-dress.
Sophie had once been a torch-singer in minor night clubs in New York; she had been accepted in sequin and champagne circles in Harlem; but she had resented having to clown for gap-mouthed white patrons. She had turned flippantly pious, taken a knight’s oath sung to jazz, and after three hard years had become a nurse, well trained, patiently consecrated, and very pert.
She preferred, she mockingly asserted, the care of infants afflicted with nits to the care of white gentlemen patrons with leers. The exacting Ryan Woolcape admitted, “Sophie is a hardboiled nurse even if she does look like Cobra perfume and lace pillows.”
“Our new white friend seems to be a good guy,” Clem explained publicly to Sophie. “We’ve been giving him Second Year Subversive Doctrine, and he hasn’t blinked yet. He must have a little drop of chocolate in him, I guess!”
Everybody laughed — except the Woolcapes, and Neil, who felt frozen.
“You WOULD drag out the propaganda, to entertain a poor man that wants to know about Joe Louis. He must by this time be as sick of your racial soapboxing as I am,” protested Sophie, climbing on her own soapbox. “Tell me, Mr. Kingsblood, are you another white slummer, or a real friend of our race?”
“You have no idea how real!” said Neil.
“He is a sweet, fine man,” insisted Mother Woolcape.
“Goody, goody!” Sophie’s voice, Neil thought, even when she was lamentably trying to be cute, was like summer dusk quick with fireflies. “Lots of white people think we’re suspicious and hard to get acquainted with. And maybe we are. We’ve all had the most shaming experiences with apparently friendly whites who come around and tell us ‘You’re just dandy’ and then go home and make a funny story out of it.
“For one white like Sweeney Fishberg or Cope Anderson, that never even notices your color if you’re a friend, any more than he especially notices whether you’re black-headed or red-headed, there’s ten ofays who pretend they want to be chummy but are either on the make, trying to sell us something — a sewing machine or a church or Communist doctrine — or else they’re taking up Social Equality for the Poor Colored Brethren, in between Bundles for Britain and Thomas Wolfe, between Dali and Monsignor Sheean. Or else they’re failures in their own white world, frustrated women and reporters without a job and preachers without pews, who believe they can be important and get loved hot in our world, which they think is just panting to be patronized by some gray that once read a life of Booker T. Washington. They make us awful leery of our dear white friends. So you see, Mr. Kingsblood, we’ll be examining you as cautiously as you will us.”
While she was lecturing as a missionary, Neil was looking at her as a woman. She was a soft-moving cat, a bronze cat whose bronze would turn into soft flesh under the fingertips. Her breasts were firm like bronze and softer, he speculated, than the sides of a cat.
Then he shook his head fretfully.
— Don’t you think you could love the race without wanting to pet its representative, Kingsblood, you frustrated white man?
Sugar Gowse got up, lunch-pail in hand, and drawled, “I reckon I like the white fellows I work with better than the biggety guys Miss Sophie talks about. At the factory, they either divvy their beer and bolony with you, or they hate you and tell you so with a crowbar. Good night.”
Sugar’s pronunciation was as thick as gumbo; he said “excusing” for “except,” and he remarked that when the foreman “lowrated him,” he had “paid him no mind.” But Neil saw that Sugar had ceased to be a Nigra, a half-human creature who, had he remained in the South, would by even the kindliest whites have been rated as “pretty decent, for a darky.” He had become a human being here, like Webb Wargate or John Woolcape. Only, more gay!
Neil noticed that he had not heard tonight the wild picturesqueness of speech that he had found in fiction about Southern Negroes, nor the gilded perversions of the stories about Harlem and dope and creepers. Except for an occasional self-consciously used word like “ofay,” these people — it was another shock — talked like the people he knew, like all the people he had ever known, in the bank or the army or the university. Only, more gaily!
Clem was holding forth:
“Uncle Bodacious — I want to tell Mr. Kingsblood about Uncle Bodacious. He’s the guy — he’s white but he has some cullud cousins across the tracks — he’s the clothhead that first invented ‘Some of my best friends are Jews’ and ‘I’m all for unions but I hate these outside agitators.’ And Uncle Bodacious is the authority who explains that the reason for segregation is that otherwise the blues would marry all the white women, and with a jackass like that, there’s no use pointing out that most of us sables would rather marry a gal like Sophie than a chalkette.
“My own frau, bless her, is none of your high yallas. She’s a high patent-leather. But if I wanted to marry a pink who wanted to marry me, I sure would.
“When anybody hollers that there’s any importance to the amount of marriage between blacks and whites, you can be sure that he’s trying to find a good, pious, obscene reason for low-grading his colored help, so he’ll feel virtuous in underpaying them.
“But Uncle Bodacious’s prime cackle is, ‘There is no solution of the Negro Problem.’ That sounds learned and ethnological as hell, but all it means is that there is no solution, this side of a nice tomb in Forest Lawn, for Uncle Bodacious! . . . And now, for the Lord’s sake, Mary, do we get coffee and doughnuts?”
And coffee and doughnuts were what Mary did serve. They were wonderful.
Holding his cup and leaning over a youngish colored woman, Neil may not have appeared as a man in a dramatic crisis, but Sophie Concord and her sliding eyes and her tawny voice embodied for him all the tempting strangeness of a mythical Africa, and he felt that she should be chanting a voodoo charm instead of being emphatic about funds for the treatment of infantile paralysis.
As a recent convert, Neil longed to be close to these initiates; he wished they would call him by his first name as they did one another, but they went on gravely Mistering him. Even when he slipped and absently spoke to Dr. Davis as “Ash,” he was put in his place by a Mister. He politely said “Miss Concord,” but that way of addressing her seemed like the damp saucer of a women’s club teacup, as he watched her throw back her head, shake her dark hair, and mutter “De Lawd!” He longed to see her in the steaming lushness of her Broadway night-spots, not eating doughnuts on Mayo Street.
Talking to her alone, he got out, “How do you feel about the future of the race?” and was fairly proud of himself for being professional.
Sophie was as crisp as Vestal. “Just what does that mean, Mr. Kingsblood? That’s one of those insurance-man-on-the-telephone questions, like ‘How did you sleep last night?’ or ‘Well, well, well, how’s every lil thing this morning?’”
“Maybe it is, except I do want to know.”
“It’s — Miss Concord, I have such a liking for your friends here — and you.”
“Mister, I haven’t had a white banker so attentive since I worked in the Tiger Divan, in Harlem, and an ofay high financier, a jig-chaser from Bismarck, wanted to come up to my flat and look at etchings, and he was willing to bring the etchings, done by the Government, and —”
“I really want to learn about Negroes. I’m a humble student.”
“Laws amassy, listen at the man!”
“What was your college, Sophie?”
“You’re just another educated Alabama girl trying to be African.”
“Mister, you’re learning! I only had a year, and I spent all my time studying French history, God help me!”
“I didn’t expect tonight that I’d find quite so many of your race that are better-read than I am.”
“Don’t get fooled. Mostly, they ain’t!”
“The bunch here are. Don’t make fun of the poor dumb whites like me. Tell me about yourself.”
“Mister, don’t you realize what I am? I’m that beautiful convent-trained New Orleans octoroon, that passionate slave-girl with the lambent eyes and long raven tresses, standing on the block with hot blushes, and practically nothing else on, before the leering planters (or theatrical agents) with their beaver hats and beaver watch-chains. But one young man there, young Nevil Calhoun Kingsblood of Kingsblood Corners, Kentucky, pities her, and soon, along the gal’ry of a mysterious old mansion nigh Lexington, there is to be seen a veiled figure gliding — lookit her glide, lookit her, the nebig!
“Now, dear Mr. Kingsblood, don’t try to find any of us romantic. We’re a bunch of hard-working people who believe in just one thing — getting the job ceiling raised for the whole race, so that a highly competent colored girl will have a chance at a $32.75 job as a filing-clerk instead of working in the laundry all her life. That’s all we are!”
But as she said it, they were friends.
He was at last noticing what she wore: a white long dress with a barbaric gold jacket, a huge topaz ring that questioned her plain-talk.
“I must be sure and remember what she has on, to tell Vestal,” he had dutifully recorded before he realized that he was unlikely to tell Vestal about Sophie’s costume or anything else regarding that statistical hoyden.
When the race-talk, which was resistless to them as a ball of paper to a kitten, started all over again, Neil learned that whenever a well-meaning white asks, “Wouldn’t the Negroes be satisfied with —” the answer is No. He learned that a Southern Liberal is a man who explains to a Northern Liberal that Beale Street has been re-christened Beale Avenue.
He heard of colored judges, surgeons, war correspondents for the Negro press. Odd things he heard of: black Buddhists and black Orthodox Jews, colored Communists and colored Masons and Odd-fellows and Elks and Greek-letter fraternities, lowly Negroes who hated all Jewish shopkeepers and Negroes so highly placed that they hated all lowly Negroes.
They came, inevitably, to the Second Question, and Neil said awkwardly to Dr. Davis, “It’s probably old stuff to you, but what about this argument that the Negroes must be inferior because they didn’t build a lot of cathedrals and Parthenons in Africa?”
Everybody laughed, but Dr. Davis answered gravely:
“Did you ever try building a Parthenon among the tse-tse flies? As a matter of fact, our people have built their share — along with the other slaves in Egypt and Rome. And who do you suppose built our plantation houses? The owners? And do you know how many young colored architects there are now?
“Mr. Kingsblood, you can’t count on the Negroes remaining less architectural than the whites, despite the eloquence of the peckerwood preacher who talks, in an unpainted plank chapel, about ‘The Nigras that the myster’ous han’ of God done fix so they cain’t nevuh build no Pa’thenonses.’ It’s one o’clock! I’m going home!”
He felt that he had come on a new world that was stranger than the moon, darker than the night, brighter than morning hills, a world exciting and dangerous.
“I love these people!” he thought.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57