It was not that Winthrop and Thankful were much less black than their father, or had straighter hair or beakier noses, but they had even more assurance as American citizens. The easy confidence with which they looked at Neil, the straightness with which they carried their shoulders, made them seem not like products of the slave-block and the cotton-field, but like what they were — American school children, unusual only in unusual gentleness.
You cannot hear constantly at school that Americans are the bravest, richest and most generous people in history without absorbing a certain pride, which is not too objectionable if it be tempered by a more serene and informed culture at home.
Neil lumbered in, explaining that he had never forgotten Dr. Brewster’s sermon. “Just thought — coming past this way — might drop in and say hello.” Winthrop took to him as to a robust older brother, and Thankful rather considered him the type of man she had been thinking of marrying but hadn’t noticed around here anywhere.
Out of pulpit clothes, in a brown jacket, a soft white shirt and an insignificant blue bow-tie, Dr. Brewster was as much the post-office worker as he was the clergyman, and if his grammar persisted in being more accurate than Neil’s (or Rod Aldwick’s) and his vocabulary more flexible, he was much jollier. His laughter came from a huge chest, a large mouth, a tolerant heart. His wife was more watchful of the intruding white man, more suspicious, less willing to risk the security of the family. She was a more delicate image than Dr. Brewster, with a thin nose carved in brown agate.
Neil suspected that both of them nervously wanted to know what he had come for, and he understood that very well, since he rather wanted to know it himself. They chatted about the weather and city politics, in that small room that was the more cramped with a venerable typewriter sitting on a homemade and unpainted table, and books of history and theology and anthropology on seismographic old chairs.
Winthrop was glad to see a male visitor who might know something about electricity. He demanded, “Were you ever a radio ham?”
“No, but I used to sit in with a friend who was.”
“Come down to the basement and see my set.”
Neil regretted that to him the collection of wires and tubes in that tiny cellar looked like a junk pile, and when Winthrop boasted, “I get Miami, right along!” he was impressed.
“Have you any favorite ham that you talk to?”
“Yeh, a fellow in Dallas, Texas.”
“Is he colored?”
“I’ve never asked! I guess maybe he’s white — anyway, he’s silly about the Civil War. But what difference does it make?” Winthrop rebuked, and Neil felt humble.
“What do you and he chat about?”
“Mostly about jai alai. I want to learn it, some day. But naturally, what I’m really interested in now is radar. Don’t you think that’s the coming thing?”
“I certainly do,” said Neil, who knew of radar only that it had something to do with fooling icebergs.
Winthrop rattled, “I want to get into electricity as soon as they’ll let me, at the U. I’m going there this fall.”
“I went to the University, too,” said Neil.
“Aren’t you a little young for it?”
“Golly no! Why, I’m seventeen! Did you know I was salutatorian in high school this spring?” Winthrop spoke not priggishly but with artless pride. “But of course I was lucky, having Dad to coach me. We did four years math in two. Say, look, Mr. Kingsblood, you must do a lot of fishing in the Arrowhead country.”
“I used to. Northern pike in Sawbill Lake.”
“If I could only do that — camp and swim and fish — zowie! Instead of having to sit around and listen to all this race-talk. What’s the use of it? These days, everybody except a hillbilly knows that colored and white folks are exactly alike, same as black and white kittens are. Didn’t you always know that?”
“No, not — uh — not entirely.” Neil hastily tried to get out of his examination with an enthusiastic, “Why don’t you spend a summer in the Arrowhead? I could tell you some fine places.”
The boy turned his face away, and muttered, “You forget. None of these summer places will take in colored folks. Not even Dad and Mother. Oh, gee, I guess we still do have to go on with this race-business and all the talk, talk. . . . And then, we haven’t much money. I have to work all summer, and save for the U.”
“What are you doing, Win?”
“Well — it was all I could get — I asked at the electric company but they turned me down hard — same at the radio stores. I’m scrubbing floors in the waiting-room and the men’s toilet at the railway station.”
Neil had to knock together some explanation of his intrusion. When he came up with Winthrop, he said to Mrs. Brewster, “Will you let me tell you something you already know? Win has most unusual talent. I’m proud to know him. And he represents something I’m trying to find out, on behalf of both the bank and myself: the progress of all the so-called minorities here — the Finns and Poles and Negroes and, uh, the Lithuanians and —” His geography was running out. “And everybody! I hope you’ll accept me as a student.”
Evan Brewster had accepted him before he was born. Corinne Brewster began to look as if she might accept him after he was grown up.
“I wish you’d let me do something: get hold of Dr. Ash Davis and Mrs. Davis and maybe Miss Sophie Concord, and let me take you all to dinner at this Bar-B-Q place I’ve noticed. I’m afraid it’s a little impertinent to ask you so late, but if you could manage it —”
They could but encourage so earnest a disciple.
On their way to the Bar-B-Q, Winthrop and Thankful, the raceless and young, each clung to an arm of their burly new banker friend, and interrupted each other in stories about their collie pup, Algernon C. Swinburne.
— But what would happen if we met Rod Aldwick on the way?
The Bar-B-Q was almost filled with a long lunch-counter, but there were tables, like card-tables, with twisted-wire chairs. The napkins were of paper. The bill of fare featured spare-ribs, ham, hamburg steak, and tenderloin — which was out; and the waitresses were young women with good will, gum, and no training. It was like any other cheap restaurant in the entire land, where democracy has begun with food and clothing and adjectives, and often promises to end there.
Most of the diners were black workmen, a few of them in overalls. But, with a feeling of having neighbors now in the Negro world, Neil saw John and Mary Woolcape and greeted them more readily than he ever had S. Ashiel Denver & wife. And in the village talk with the Brewsters and Sophie and Ash and Martha, over the ham and cabbage, he could join more familiarly now.
It is not, perhaps, a remarkable fact that a good deal of that talk should have been concerned with the woes of Negroes. Well, and if Neil had heard a good deal of it before, he had also repeatedly heard everything that Mr. Prutt and Mr. Denver had to say about the woes of bankers and Rod Aldwick about the woes of serious lawyers and duck-hunters.
The liveliest topic tonight was the Reverend Dr. Jat Snood, who was probably the nastiest piece of goods in Grand Republic.
With the drifting of the great denominations, the Methodists and Baptists and Presbyterians, from moaning and hallelujahs to indirectly-lighted Gothic and pulpit book-reviews, the job-tortured masses in America had dribbled into new churches which promised that they should have salvation if they could not have larger paychecks, and which encouraged them to howl publicly at the Devil, the Pope, and Wall Street, in recompense for not daring to howl publicly at the Boss. In lofts and empty store-buildings there had been organized such wondrous new creeds as The Church of God in Christ Through Bible Salvation, and The Assembly of the Divinely Appointed Saints, which signified ten tired men and women, eight hymn-books, and four benches.
With true American enterprise, spiritual leaders who in less cultivated days would have been Indian-medicine showmen or itinerant lady milliners had seen that they could make a tidy living by appointing themselves ministers or even bishops, renting a hall and setting up a church, with no annoying work except yelling loud and mourning low, and taking up three collections at every meeting.
Among these latter-day Barnums in Grand Republic was one Jat Snood, who had not finished high school but who was a Doctor of Divinity. He was the owner and chief ballyhooer of a vast shed down on South Champlain Avenue and East Winchell Street, in the South End, and he had romantically named it “God’s Prophecy Tabernacle: Founded on the Book: Christ for All and All for Christ.”
It is true that the Reverend Doctor had never been able to stay in any one town for more than five years, because he knew only fifteen sermons and fifty vaudeville tricks, and even his faded and gnarled and gum-chewing audiences got sick of him. But while it lasted, he did very well financially, because he titillated his crowds with ginger and hell-fire and made Swedish hired girls and German grocery-clerks and Yankee linemen feel that if they could not meet Hiram Sparrock at the Federal Club, they could meet God and His angels and the souls of the elect at God’s Prophecy Tabernacle: contributions voluntary (but frequent). Jat screamed at them, in high-toned polysyllables flavored with jazz and slang, that, if they were ill-used by the snobs among the Old Americans, still they could be snobs themselves, and he invited them to look down, contemptuously, upon all Jews, Negroes, Catholics, and Socialists.
Ash Davis explained to Neil, at the Bar-B-Q, “There’s two or three Snoods in this town, though Jat runs the biggest crap-game of them all, and they’ve trained their congregations as perfect recruits for the Ku Klux Klan. They aren’t so comic when their gangs of Christian knights beat up frightened little brownskins and burn their houses. As a friend of our race, do you think there’s anything you can do with Mr. Snood?”
“I’ll certainly try,” said Neil.
And knew that he certainly would do nothing at all.
A young man in uniform as captain in the army air corps, cinnamon-colored, erect and smiling, joined their table. He was, they explained, Captain Philip Windeck, who had been a senior in the University of Minnesota engineering school when he had enlisted, and who had flown on many missions over Italy.
“You know,” he said to Neil, “I really haven’t the right to be wearing this uniform any more, but I had a reunion with the fellows tonight. Tomorrow, I go back to overalls.”
“I’d like to earn a little money and get married and take my wife back to school with me. I thought, with some engineering and a little aviation experience, I might get a job. Well, the airfield here and the automobile dealers all turned me down, but I’ve been lucky enough to get back the job I had before I ever went to engineering school — washing and greasing cars at the O’Toole Cut Rate Garage. Drex Greenshaw — I’m engaged to his daughter — thinks he could get me on as a bus-boy. But I feel it’s better for my martial vanity — the returned hero that was going to be so modest when he was greeted by the mayor and two bands — to have white ex-privates yelling at me, ‘Here you, boy, get a hustle on, you black bastard!’”
As always, all of them, including Phil Windeck, roared at his plight. It was better to laugh at the Thankless Republic than to grow faint and whining. Only Neil looked angry. He was rather gratified when he was accepted by this fellow veteran of the Italian campaign as a friend, and it was as a friend that he greeted Ryan Woolcape when he came in-out of uniform, out of the Army.
Neil was in deep now, deeper than he knew.
Like any good woman pleased that her new beau is welcomed by the family circle, Sophie Concord watched Neil in his approach to Phil, to Ryan, to Evan’s children, and looked proud. It was Sophie who suggested to Neil, “The Brewsters and Davises have to go to a committee meeting — naturally. They couldn’t get through a night without one. Committees are the most habit-forming drug that exists. But let’s Ryan and Phil and you and I go to the Jumpin’ Jive and see the brownskins at their most uncommitteeized. You’re a typical good-hearted slummer. You meet Ash and Evan and conclude that all of us are intellectuals with pure hearts, who just lead hell out of the race. Let’s go take a look at the ones that get led — and do they hate it! I don’t know whether the dumb fieldhand or the city hep-cat or the rich sepia professional man like Dr. Melody most hates getting taken in hand and being led into the Ethiopian spiritual commonwealth. Anyway, let’s go see the flick-chicks.”
The Jumpin’ Jive was noisy enough and tinseled enough, but it was not as evil as the romantic heart of Neil had hoped. It was a large, L-shaped room decorated with pink and gilt lattice-work with artificial orchids. An orchestra of drum, piano and clarinet, manhandled by three fat merry Negroes in plum-colored dress-coats with gold derbies, gave Grand Republic versions of Duke Ellington. Colored sailors and soldiers were dancing, some of them with white factory girls, as close-packed as though this were the most expensive resort of gaiety and sweat in New York. With dark or ashen colored girls, laughing but not talking much, danced young Negroes with the elegance and suavity that seem natural to them.
Neil belatedly realized that at another table was Borus Bugdoll, proprietor of the Jive, and that the girl with him, pert in filmy green tulle, was Belfreda Gray, and that they were grinning at him. He complained to his table, “There’s a girl that used to work for us and that hates me — Belfreda. She’s a tough baby. Now don’t go and get socialistic on me, Ryan, and tell me she’s a victim of environment.”
“Why not? Let’s all go over and talk to her. I’ve known her since she was a kid. You’ve probably never had the cultural advantage of being slapped by a hired girl.”
And Neil, vastly surprised, found himself really looking at the Belfreda who for months had slept just down the hall from him, and discovering that she was a Nell Gwyn in ebony, eyes and smile and ruffles and spirited flexibility of morals. With the languidness of that lovely orange-seller insulting a lord, she drawled:
“Why, if it isn’t Mr. Kingsblood! I’m surprised, seeing you in a dump like this. I thought you never went no place except to teach Sunday school.”
“You know I never taught a Sunday-school class!” protested Neil, his manhood as a duck-hunter insulted.
“I heard diff’rent.”
“What are you doing now, Belfreda?”
Belfreda and Borus glanced at each other as though this was a very funny question, but she took pity on the untutored white burgher, and condescended, “I sort of got my own beauty-parlor. Me and another girl are partners. We only got choosy customers — high-class ladies and preachers’ wives — and there ain’t a bit of use your trying to date ’em up just because you know me. They already got sharp fellows, with real dough.”
She looked at Neil with defiance, she looked at Sophie with dislike, she looked at Borus and giggled.
Neil begged, “I hope you don’t remember us too badly, Belfreda.”
Airily, “Oh, that’s all right. You were dumb, but MRS. Kingsblood, she was swell. She’s got savvy. Nobody can blame a white man like you for being slow, but her, she’s so smart she could almost be colored. Well, glad to seen you, Mister.”
“Uh — Belfreda — I’m sorry we didn’t get along better. Maybe a good deal of it was my fault.”
“Yes, it was! You always acted like you was expecting me to be mean, and so I’d get mean. Jesus! I wasn’t raised in no parlor! I was raised in a shoeshine dump, with all the white guys trying to make me when I was thirteen. First, at you folks’ house, I thought I had such a nice room, but you and Vestal used to sneak in there and laugh at my stuff and the way I kept it. Listen, Mister, when you make enough beds for other people, you’re so sick of it you ain’t got much pep left for making your own, and you figure there’s ONE place where you ought to be allowed to be just as God-damn sloppy as you want to. But even there I wasn’t safe. And whisper about me — whisper, whisper, whisper!”
“Belfreda, I’m extremely sorry.”
“Okay, forget it. Well, glad to seen you.”
Our Mr. Kingsblood had the sensation of having been dismissed, and he choked and meekly followed a muted Sophie, a smiling Phil Windeck, a derisive Ryan back to their table. But before they could voice the “Well?” that was arching their lips, he burst out, “She’s magnificent!”
Miss Sophie Concord did not tease him for having been snubbed by his ex-cook. Quite the contrary. She snapped matrimonially, “Just how intimate were your relations with Miss Belfreda Blackbird, my friend? Eh? That’s what I want to know!”
In an alcove of the Jive was a table at which gathered habitually the sardonic sires of the colored colony: Drexel Greenshaw, Wash the bootblack and, when he stopped over in town to see his sister, Mac, the porter of the Borup. Sugar Gowse, the machinist, was with them tonight. Since Drexel was to be his father-inlaw, Phil Windeck tolerated the handsome old Squire of the Damask Tablecloths, and he lured Neil over to the Uncle Toms’ Stammtisch.
They looked uncomfortable at having one of the people who tipped them intrude on their private conversation as gentlemen.
“Mr. Greenshaw Captain Kingsblood is getting to be a real friend of the race, and he wants to know whether Mac and Wash and you, who have such a chance to study the white man when he’s showing off, really think all white men are stupid.”
Drexel glanced cautiously at Neil, and hemmed, “No, no, Phil. They just don’t have much chance to get on the other side of the swinging door.”
Mac the porter stared at Neil almost as at a fellow man, and held forth:
“I’m sure Captain Kingsblood will excuse me if I say — he’s one of the few SMART people that can afford to travel on the Borup — and the way I look at it, as the fellow says, white folks are awful nice, but of course they’re all babies, and have to be taken care of. They never look things over real sharp, way we colored folks have, since we were knee-high to a traveling-man. They’re like some Delta colored fellows that we all know — believe what the preachers and the law tell ’em. You can’t blame ’em, poor things.”
Drexel commented, “I think higher of the whites than you do, Mac. Now take a man like Mr. Hiram Sparrock. No colored fellow ever made as many millions as he has, and that takes brains. . . . And he give me a five-dollar tip once!”
— Already they’ve almost forgotten that I’m white. Only, I’m not! Can they see the colored blood in me?
Mac said scornfully, “Mr. Sparrock? He’s the worst baby of all. Why, them pills he takes all the time, they ain’t nothing but sugar — his doctor told me so, Dr. Drover — and he said I could give him all he wanted.”
Sugar Gowse ventured, “You older gentlemen got to excuse a machine-hand for butting in, but way I see the white gentlemen, they’re always playing big. My foreman, he asks me can I fix a machine, and I does, and then he takes hisself a chew of tobacco and struts hisself around like a turkey gobbler and he says to the super, ‘Look what I done!’ But they ain’t so mean to you and don’t lie about you so much if you help ’em. I’m always studying on how to handle ’em, the bastards — oh, excuse me, Captain, sir.”
They looked at Neil like solemn black owls in a circle; they shifted to politics; but presently, fascinated by the unforgettable topic, Drexel went on. He had been magnificently trained in servility to white men, but also he had seen too many of them drunk and lecherous in his restaurant to have any awe of their Mumbo Jumbo; and if a white man deliberately asked for the truth — let him have it!
“Handle ’em? Ain’t but one way to handle a white man: uncle-tom him. Be humble, tell him how smart he is, tickle his shoulder-blades and pick his pockets. . . . I mean, that’s what SOME fellows says, Captain!”
Mac protested, “I don’t like this uncle-tomming. Course I CAN do it —”
The venerable Wash cackled, “You can and I does! They’s just like babies — got to have a sugar-tit. Only they’s got awful big shotguns and awful strong ropes, so I says, ‘Uncle-tomming, here we is,’ and I uncle-toms their silly, grinning heads off. . . . Course I don’t mean YOU, Mister!”
“Oh, we darkies are all notorious for humor and humility!” said Captain Philip Windeck, U.S.A.A.F. But with his smile he looked to Neil for forgiveness.
He walked with Sophie to her tenement, two blocks from Mayo Street. He said, “Lot of life and color there tonight. It makes me feel more like a real member of the race. They’re so — I don’t know anything as brave as the way they laugh at themselves.”
“My benevolent but sophomoric friend, there isn’t any They among human beings, only We!”
He was not quite sure, at her door, whether or not he was to kiss her. She was. He was not. As he limped away, for a time he thought less about Sophie than about Winthrop Brewster versus the favored son of Rodney Aldwick. Which side was he on, which side demanded the loyalty he had once sworn as a soldier? With a purpose definite but not admitted, he marched back to Evan Brewster’s parsonage. Through a window, he could see the huge shoulders humped over a desk.
Dr. Brewster came to the door looking, in his dressing-gown, like Othello played by Paul Robeson. Inside, Neil said evenly — you didn’t lie to a man like this as you did to a Buncer — “Something I would like to tell you, Dr. Brewster. I must get it off my chest quick, or I’ll turn prudent. I’ve found I have some Negro blood in me, way back. I’ve told Ash, Sophie, the Woolcapes — no whites. In your opinion, is it my duty to come out and acknowledge it to the world?”
He expected Evan to snarl, “Certainly!” whereupon he could turn angry and defend himself, but Evan gasped, “I don’t know — I don’t know.” He stared, looking more like the warlike Moor than any neat Doctor of Philosophy, in that small house of learning and post-office jobs, while Neil told about Xavier Pic, and ended with a curt, “Now how does it strike you I ought to act?”
“I’m not sure at all.” Evan was moving his vast hands curiously, as though he wanted to give a blessing. “I BELIEVE I’d say that there is no reason at all for your acknowledging something that doesn’t really exist but is just an American superstition — a theoretical kinship to my people.”
“Oh.” Neil was disappointed that no one wanted him to volunteer, disappointed and markedly relieved.
“But Neil, when I think of the growing attacks on my people by swine like Jat Snood, when I picture men lighting our torture fires with the cross of Christ, then I’m moved to say, ‘Yes, certainly, you must give up wife and father and ease and good repute and join us.’ But I don’t KNOW! . . . Confound it, let me think, before I butt in on your life, will you! Come again in a few days and — you might try praying, mightn’t you?”
Neil attempted to look as though he piously agreed, but he could hear Ryan Woolcape chuckling.
When he was safely back in Sylvan Park, where monsters of holiness like Evan Brewster were as improbable as lizards like Jat Snood, Neil tried to be defiant.
— That was the silliest thing I ever heard of: a man with some responsibility going to a black religious fanatic to whimper, “Please, sir, may I give up my wife and my daughter and my home, in order to hoist gin with Belfreda at the Jumpin’ Jive?”
It did not work. He recalled, from university days, attending a storefront church and hearing a white Okie preacher shout, “When the Lord ketches holt on you, you can kick and scream and holler, but He ain’t never going to let you go!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57