“No,” Neil said to Vestal, “I’ve always considered Mr. Prutt too conservative. He thinks that only people like us, from British and French and Heinie stock, amount to anything. He’s prejudiced against Scandinavians and the Irish and Hunkies and Polacks. He doesn’t understand that we have a new America. Still and all, even hating prejudice, I do see where the Negroes are inferior and always will be. I realized that when I saw them unloading ships in Italy, all safe, while we white soldiers were under fire. And Belfreda expecting to get paid like a Hollywood star — and still out, at midnight!”
They were having a highball in their wondrous kitchen, with its white enamel electric stove and refrigerator and dishwasher and garbage-disposer, seated on crimson metal chairs at the deep-blue metal table — the Model Kitchen that had replaced the buffalo and the log cabin as a symbol of America.
It was one of Vestal’s nights for being advanced and humanitarian.
“I don’t see that, Neil. I don’t see that Belfreda is any more demanding than these white bobby-soxers that are only fifteen years old and have to have the family car every evening. I wouldn’t like it if I had to spend all day in somebody else’s kitchen, in the grease and cabbage-smell. Would you like it, you bloated financier?”
“No, I don’t guess I would. But still: private bath, and no six in a room, like I hear there are in the nigger quarter, on Mayo Street; chance to sleep quiet and alone. At least, I hope Belfreda sleeps alone, but I always wonder about those back stairs. And a rest every afternoon from two to four-thirty, just when we’re going crazy in the bank over the books. Free board and room and eighteen dollars a week to put away.”
“Well, you make eighty!”
“But I’ve got to support you — and Belfreda!”
“But she tells me she has to help her granddad — you know, that old colored bootblack at the Pineland, old Wash.”
“Oh, I know.” Neil was reasonably tender-hearted. “She probably doesn’t have much fun, always taking care of some other girl’s baby. Charley Sayward claims the time will come when nobody will do domestic work for strangers except as a specialist, at fifty dollars a week, and go home every night like a banker — or a plumber. But I wouldn’t like it! I liked it when the hired girl worked all week for eight dollars and did the washing and baked cookies for the little massa — that was me. Won’t it be a hell of a joke on the returned heroes if all the subject peoples that we fought to free, GET free, and grab our jobs? Oh, Vestal, this world is getting too much for a poor rifleman!”
She had been inspecting a cupboard. She wailed, “That dratted girl has gone and made two pies again, to save herself trouble, and the second one will get soggy before we eat it! I swear, I’m going to fire her and do my own work.”
“Aren’t you busting down in your defense of the downtrodden?”
“Grrrr! Let’s take a look at her room, while she’s out.”
Feeling like spies, they tiptoed upstairs and into Belfreda’s boudoir. Her bed was not made — it never was made — and over it were scattered shoes and pink-ribboned underwear and movie magazines, and the pillow was black with hair-grease. Upon her Bible, on the night-table, was a pamphlet labeled, “High John the Conqueror Magic Catalogue: Lodestones, Hoodoo Bags, Jickey Perfume, Mo–Jo Salts, Adam and Eve Roots, Ancient Seal of Shemhamforas.” An odor of incense and perfume was solid in the room.
“And it was such a sweet room when we gave it to her,” mourned Vestal.
“Let’s get out of this. I feel as if we were in a conjuh den and somebody’s likely to sneak out from under the bed and start cutting.”
As they came to the head of the back stairs, Belfreda was skipping up. She stopped to stare at them, malevolently.
“Oh, uh — good evening,” said Neil, with a sound of guilt and idiocy.
Belfreda’s face was very dark, with round little cheeks and a mouth of humor, but it was rigid as she looked at them, and they fled to their bedroom.
Neil mumbled, “She was plenty sore at our snooping. Do you suppose she’ll burn a wax image of us? The lives and ideas of these niggers are certainly incomprehensible to our kind of people.”
“Neil, I think they like you to say ‘Negro,’ not ‘nigger.’”
“Okay, okay! Anything to oblige. These Negresses, then.”
“But Belfreda says that ‘Negress’ is the one word that you must never use.”
“Oh, for God’s sake! Why are all these — uh — Negroes so touchy? What difference does it make what they’re called? As I say: we don’t know where Belfreda goes or what she does — rug-cutting or witchcraft or maybe she belongs to some colored leftwing political gang that’s planning to take this house away from us. One thing is obvious: the whole biological and psychological make-up of the Negroes is different from that of white people, especially from us Anglo–Saxons (course I have some French blood, too).
“It’s too bad, but you have to face facts and it’s evident that the niggers — all right, the Negroes — don’t quite belong to the same human race with you and me and Biddy. I used to laugh at the Southern fellows in the Army who said that, but I guess they were right. Look at that trapped-animal glare that Belfreda gave us. Still, I’m glad that in the North there’s no discrimination against ’em — going to the same public schools with our own white kids. Some day I suppose Biddy might have a desk right next to a little pickaninny.”
“I don’t know that it will hurt that little snob particularly!” sniffed Vestal.
“No, no, sure it won’t, as long as it’s only in school, but how would you like it if your own daughter married a Negro?”
“Well, so far, even at the enticing age of four, I don’t notice that she’s bothered by any very big gang of dusky suitors!”
“Sure — sure — I just mean — I mean —”
The struggle of the honest and innocent Neil to express his racial ideas was complicated by the fact that he had no notion what these ideas were.
“I mean, up North here, we been proceeding on the idea that a Negro is just as good as we are and has just as much chance to be President of the United States. But maybe we’ve been on the wrong track.
“I met a doctor from Georgia in the Army, and he assured me — and good Lord, he certainly ought to know, he’s lived down there among the darkies all his life, and him a doctor and a scientist — and he told me that it’s been proven that all Negroes have smaller brain-capacity than we have, and the sutures in their skulls close up earlier, so even if they start well in school, pretty soon they drop out and spend the rest of their lives loafing, and if that isn’t inferior — Oh, nuts! I guess the fact is I hate to hate anybody. I never hated the Italians or the Krauts, but I do hate Belfreda. Damn her, she’s always laughing at me, right here in our own house. Doing as little as she can and getting as much as she can out of us, and sneering at us for giving it to her; never taking any pride in cooking decent meals, but just thinking how many evenings she can get off, and always watching us, and snickering at us and trying to get something on us, hating us!”
He meditated, after Vestal had gone to sleep:
— That colored fellow in my class all through school — what was his name? — Emerson Woolcape, was it? — he always seemed quiet and decent enough and yet it always irritated me to see that black face of his among all the nice white girls.
— Come to think of it, his face wasn’t black. It was as fair as mine; we’d ‘ve all thought he was white if they hadn’t TOLD us he was part Negro. Still and all, when you knew that, you THOUGHT of him as being black, and it made you sore to see him showing off and answering questions when Judd and Eliot had failed on ’em.
— Those black roustabouts in uniform in Italy — I never really talked to any of ’em, but they always seemed so different — the standoffish way they stared at us — I wouldn’t ‘ve stood for a three-star general looking at me like those boogies did. Yessir, if we want to preserve our standards of civilization, we got to be firm and keep the niggers in their place. Though I guess I’m not so hot in being firm with Belfreda, the little monkey!
The great young banker-warrior, legitimate heir of the sword-swallowers of Dumas, the princely puzzlers of Tolstoy, the brave young gentlemen of Kipling, twisted in bed, not altogether happy.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11