It was accident — there had been no conscious plan in it. He met Sophie Concord on the street, invited her to lunch, and she nodded Yes. He did not feel that they were “compromised” till he had hesitated, “Where do you suppose we can go?”
Then he saw all that his question meant, and that it was horrible to him to have said, to a woman more intelligent and better-bred than any he knew, what amounted to, “You must not forget that you are a colored wench, and what dive is so slatternly that it will admit a monstrosity like you? And it is probable that even my asking you amounts to rape.”
But there was no guilty coyness in her matter-of-fact “We might go to the Shaker Shicken Shack. That’s a sepia joint — out on the Old North Military Road — on the left-hand side just after you turn away from the Big Eagle River. Meet you there? One o’clock tomorrow?”
There was no reason why he should have been as jittery as though he were going to be married or hanged the next day. He was a steady man, a married man, and a banker sans peur, and he was merely going to take lunch with a high-minded district nurse. Yet all afternoon, all evening, he felt guilty toward Vestal, he felt that he would probably be fired if he were seen at a colored resort, he felt as sickeningly loose as Curtiss Havock.
When he put it to himself frankly, “Just what are your intentions toward this young woman, if you can get away with them?” he had no answer except a shaky explanation that if he ever did come out as a Negro, he would need some one more friendly than Ash Davis, more courageous than Vestal.
Would, in fact, need Sophie.
The Shicken Shack was a streakily whitewashed shanty of old boards, low and unsteady, and when this white man parked his car and ventured in, the small old Negro proprietor, the two bulky Negro waiters, the half-dozen Negro guests, all stared at him, waiting for something unpleasant. To their primitive experience, the white man’s burden always consisted of bills, writs, and trouble.
“Uh — I’m to meet Miss Sophie Concord here,” he tried.
“You know Miss Concord?” the proprietor said grudgingly.
“Yes, I suppose —”
“Never heard of her. You got the wrong place, Mister!”
There was a hissing of small laughter around him, behind him, all through the place, but before he had time to get angry at this gross instance of race-prejudice, Sophie blew in, panting with being late, throwing “H’are you, Punty?” at the proprietor, and having for Neil nothing more compromising than “Wonderful September day.”
Punty reluctantly gave them a table in a distinctly segregated corner at the far end of the bar, in an alcove with portraits of Count Basie and Kid Chocolate, and assumed, “You’ll have the Fresh Southern Terrapin, folks?”
“Two Maryland fry and beat it, Punt,” said Sophie. To Neil, then, “This is a horrible little hole, isn’t it?”
“It’s not so bad.”
“Oh, yes, it is. It’s worse. But I’m used to it, and anyway, this is the sort of place where you white gentlemen expect to work your will on us poor, beautiful girls.”
“Sophie! I know you’re being highly humorous and so on, but you don’t seriously mean that you think I invited you to lunch with any — uh —”
“Evil intentions? I have some such skittish idea.”
“Honestly, you make me sore! Why should you think that?”
“Isn’t it the only thing that would bring the two of us together? We don’t belong in the same room. Oh, I don’t mean any nonsense about difference in shades. Only a bumpkin with a mental age of ten thinks anything about that, nowadays. I mean, I’m the working woman and I’m the uplifter, worse than a nobody — I’m the pest that constantly buzzes around and annoys the prosperous somebodies like you. We don’t harmonize. Any more than a cat and a dog.”
“Cats and dogs do sometimes like each other and even lie down together, Sophie.”
“Hey, less of that discussion of lying down together, my worldly friend!”
“Worldly, hell! I’m a back-street suburbanite, with much less experience of the bright lights than you have. I’m so unworldly and such a backwoodsman that, I give you my word, I hadn’t thought about it till now. But I see no basic reason why I shouldn’t fall in love with you, and make all the low gentlemanly proposals. What reason is there?”
“Let’s see. One: you don’t know me.”
“You and I knew each other five minutes after we’d met.”
“Two: I don’t especially like you.”
“That’s another lie. You look right now as if you liked me.”
“Oh, that? That’s just playing the game — sort of expression a good-natured gal is expected to put on, in a fly-by-night joint like this.”
“Oh, God, Sophie, you know I’d much rather take you to the Fiesole Room —”
“Or to your home?”
A metallic silence, before he said, rather coldly, “You know that would take me a little time — entirely aside from the ethics of introducing one’s love to one’s wife. I can’t jump from being a cash-register to being a raceman on a soap-box in six months. It took too long to build the register. I can’t take you home till I can take my own self there.”
“And how would Vestal like it? Aah, you see! You wince when I call that woman ‘Vestal!’ Of course you do, Neil. Poor baby, you’ve been brought up to the strongest superstitions since Feudalism. I think maybe I could be reasonably in love with you, because you’re broad and red and white and meaty and honest, just as I loved my last man because he was slim and dark and devious. But no more hole-and-corner loves for me. I’m a nurse, and a good one. And I’m an American and blatantly proud of it. When I look at Lake Superior or the Root River Valley or the Mississippi bluffs below Red Wing, I get all trembly, and I mutter, ‘Breathes there a girl with soul so dead!’ And I remember that I’ve been an American for eight generations! And we Old Families are very snooty about our loves.
“If you did have the courage to come out as a Negro, and so got turned down by that ice-water woman, Vestal — oh, I’ve seen her, at public-health meetings, at a distance — and if you came running to me, hurt, then I might love you — hot, baby! But you’ll never do it. Something will give you a scare, and you’ll yell for Mother Vestal, and go back to being a super-banker and whiter than Stonewall Jackson on Sunday.”
“You may be right — you may be right, Sophie.”
He was staring at her dark-red lips, at the curve of her bosom under the jacket of her utilitarian suit. He thought of her as a woman, warm and enveloping; he thought of her as a fiercely competent human being who knew the evil of the world and fought it with laughter. He admired the humor of her mouth, which was never tight with meanness, admired the cinnamon of her cheeks, which made the women of Sylvan Park seem washed-out sacrifices. But more than her bodily magic, he admired her resoluteness.
“No,” he was grumbling, “I don’t know that I can come out. The cards are stacked against me. And you’re right. I do love Vestal.”
“You’re telling ME!”
“But maybe she won’t be able to stand by, if I get in trouble. How could she? She’s been educated to believe that God’s purpose in creating the universe was to lead gently up to the Junior League. But — so — when — if I need you, will you be there?”
“I doubt it.”
“Darling, the loyalty to the good white massa during his critical struggle to get elected representative from Plantagenet County is clean gone out of me. I could love you like a lady Casanova — I even like to contemplate kissing you and having those Norse God arms around me — but I don’t get any farther with such unworthy thoughts than you do with a like fancy for Nurse Concord. Our last great kiss has done been kissed. Oh, Neil, darling, darling one-per-cent-solution lover, you might have been a grand New Negro if you hadn’t been brought up as a suburban Christian white gentleman! But as it is — farewell forever, for maybe a couple of weeks.”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Kingsblood!”
“The fact that we’ve been honest — and I think quite caddish — about Vestal has pulled down the blinds between you and me. You’ll always have me on your conscience now.”
“No, just on my phone-list. Dear Neil, good luck. . . . Hang it, I wonder if I ever WILL fall in love with you, you blasted Yorktown drill-sergeant!”
Fondness for Sophie and Ash had fixed in him a partisan view of the whites’ mouthings about the Negro, and he heard plenty of such mouthings now, with the increasing dislike among the citizens of Grand Republic for the colored factory-workers who, during the war, had been tolerated as patriots.
These were the great days of gold and crimson October weather before the long Northern winter set in. Once, Neil would have devoted the enchanted season to golf and shooting, but now he seized the last free afternoons before the invasion of ice to hobble rapidly about the courts of the Sylvan Park Tennis Club with Vestal, the fleet and silver-armed.
There was no real clubhouse but only a cabin like a white country schoolhouse, for balls and rackets and lockers of liquor.
That afternoon gave pure zest of living — the white flannels and shorts of the players, the twang of the rackets, the lively scoring, sun and air and motion and the autumn leaves. After the game they sat beside the courts on camp chairs, attentive to highballs: the veterans Eliot Hansen and Judd Browler, with wives, Curtiss Havock, Neil’s brother, Robert, and his Alice, Rita Kamber, wife of the cranky doctor, and Lieutenant–Colonel Tom Crenway, who had recently returned to his printing-business, with his Violet, who took her melting eyes into all sorts of reforms and charities and then froze them.
They were generous friends and neighbors, reflected Neil, and he was grateful for the loving kindness with which they had let his lameness cramp their games. Nowhere in the world was there such neighborliness as here in the Middlewest. There was none of the obsequiousness of the humble toward the gentry, of the fight for precedence among the wives of doctors and lawyers and merchants that staled the air of Europe and Great Britain and the British colonies — including New England. These were his affectionate friends, and the standard-bearers of democracy.
They mentioned the newspaper account of a mild stabbing at the Jumpin’ Jive, last evening, and the increased Negro migration to Grand Republic. Colonel Crenway said that he wanted to define the present place of the Negroes in our civilization, and they were glad to help him. Curtiss Havock had learned “the real truth about the niggers” from fellow-marines who came from the South, and Colonel Crenway, invited to dinners at plantation-houses near his training-camp in Mississippi, had acquired such secrets as are rarely divulged to Northerners.
Most of the neighbors accepted the Crenway–Havock report, though Rita Kamber and Neil Kingsblood said nothing at all, and Violet Crenway flirtatiously questioned a few clauses. Violet often observed, looking into the bulging eyes of philanthropic and otherwise guilty old gentlemen, that she just couldn’t help being a liberal and a highbrow. She was on all known committees, for and against practically any Cause, though she was not distinguished so much for action as for displaying her neat little bust and drowning eyes. Violet also explained that she “knew the Negroes first-hand, thoroughly,” which meant that she had once had a colored cook.
Thus the group worked out an American Credo about the Negroes which is here presented in summary:
No person has the right to judge or even to talk about Negroes except a born Southerner or a Northerner who owns a winter home in the South. But all Southerners, whether they be professors at Chapel Hill or pious widows in Blackjack Hollow, are authorities upon all phases of Negro psychology, biology and history. But the term “all Southerners” does not include any Southern Negroes.
As infants, all (white) Southerners, including cotton-mill hands, had colored Mammies, of whom they and their fathers, all of whom were Colonels, were almost excessively fond.
All Negroes, without exception, however pale, are lazy but good-natured, thieving and lecherous and murderous but very kind to children, and all of them are given to singing merry lyrics about slavery. These are called Spirituals, and they are beautiful but funny.
All Negroes so revere the godlike white man that no Negro wants to be mistaken for a white man, and all Negroes (which is pronounced Nigras) want to pass and be taken for white. This is called Logic, a favorite subject in Southern (white) colleges.
Any Southern white man, upon meeting any Negro, including judges and congressmen, invariably says, “Here’s a dollar, Jim, you black rascal, and you go around to my back door and get a big meal of vittles.” Indeed, Negro welfare is the sole interest of all white Southerners, and since it is also the chief desire of the Negroes, we have the agreeable spectacle of the Southern Negroes as the best-paid, best-housed, and most extensively and intensively educated group in all history. This is known as the New Industrialism in the Sunny South.
Negroes are not human beings but a cross between the monkey and the colonel. This is proven by their invariably having skulls so thick that, as experiments at the University of Louisiana have conclusively shown, cocoanuts, sledge-hammers and very large rocks may be dropped upon their heads without their noticing anything except that they have been kissed by butterflies. This is called Science.
(But what it really all comes down to is, would you want your daughter to marry a nigger?)
All Negroes, including college presidents and bio-physicists, spend all of their lives, when they are not hanging around white folks’ kitchens, in drunkenness, dice, funny camp-meetings, and the sale of marihuana.
Persons who maintain, that, psychologically, socially, industrially, Negroes are exactly like the whites are technically called “troublemakers,” and their heresies are “a lot of confused, half-baked ideas,” and all pretty women should answer them by saying, “If my husband were here, he would horsewhip you for trying to give the Nigras a lot of false ideas.” This is officially known as Loyalty, or The Heritage of Our Gallant Defenders, and is particularly prized by the Lees and Jacksons who produce our patriotic Confederate films in Hollywood.
Even if these cranks that go round criticizing the white attitude toward the darkies are partly right, they don’t provide any Solution, and I make it a rule to never pay any attention to these cynics that don’t Furnish a Practical Solution to the Whole Problem. “You’re very smart,” I always tell them, “but what do you expect ME to do?”
All Negroes constantly indulge in ferocious fighting with knives, but all Negro soldiers are afraid of and abstain from ferocity, fighting and all forms of cold steel. This is the branch of wisdom called Folk Ways.
Since they are all indolent, no Negro ever earns more than eleven dollars a week, but since they are all extravagant, out of that sum each of them spends eighty dollars every week in the purchase of silk shirts, radios, and the premiums of the Big Creek & Hallelujah Burial Society.
(It ain’t a question of prejudice; it’s just a matter of freedom to choose your own associates; and let me ask you this: would you like your daughter, sister or aunt to marry a colored man, now answer me honestly.)
All Negroes who move to Chicago are perpetually chilly there, especially on July afternoons in the rolling-mill, and they are ceaselessly homesick for the warmth, cotton blossoms, pecans, magnolias, grits, black-eyed peas, pork chops, watermelons, corn bread, banjos, jails and congressmen of the Southland, and whenever they see any real Southern white man, they rush up to him and volunteer a confession that they should never have left the South and their God-given, natural, Caucasian, meridional guardians.
All Negro males have such wondrous sexual powers that they unholily fascinate all white women and all Negro males are such uncouth monsters that no white woman whatsoever could possibly be attracted by one. This is called Biology.
All Negroes who reside in swamps are extremely happy, and laugh their heads off at the pretentiousness of Negro would-be doctors, lawyers and them phony highbrows in general.
(And just what would you do if some big black Nigra breezed up to you and said, “I’ve been necking with your daughter, and so what?” And believe me, that’s what we’d have, if them mokes made just as good dough as you or me.)
All mixed breeds are bad. This information we owe to the British, to whom we also owed the original importation of a good share of our slaves. Thus, a mulatto invariably lacks both the honor and creativeness of the whites, and the patience and merriment of the blacks. So, the reason why so many mulattoes display talent and high morality is because they have so much white blood, and the reason why so many extremely dark Negroes show just as much talent and morality is because it simply ain’t so. This is called Ethnology, Eugenics, or Winston Churchill.
The Nigra press is full of lies about injustices to the darkies, and down my way we would correct the editors by gently showing them a rope. This is called Good Breeding.
All Negroes, including Walter White, Richard Wright, and Brigadier–General Benjamin Davis, have very funny names, like Sim Sowbelly, Cleopatra Gutch, and I Will Arise Pipsqueak, which proves that all negroes are ridiculous, and how would you like your daughter to become Mrs. I. W. A. Pipsqueak? This is called Genealogy.
Any writer who portrays any Negro as acting like a normal American is either an ignorant Northerner or a traitor who is trying to destroy civilization.
In discussing the education of Negroes, it shows both profundity and originality if you start by saying, “They got to learn to walk before they learn to fly,” and, later, when the matter of Heredity has breezed into the conversation, to look pretty profound and explain “Water can’t rise higher than its source.” This is a branch of Dialectics called Argument-by-Metaphor, as favored by women and clergymen.
All Negroes are inefficient, which is the reason why, during the war, they were able to organize so efficient a movement to jostle white persons every Wednesday afternoon at 3:17, and to drive white women into the appalling horror of doing their own housework, that it was the envy of the German General Staff. For seven months, all Negro women incessantly shouted at white ladies, “You’ll be in MY kitchen, by Christmas.” I know that this is true, because my Aunt Annabel, a woman of probity, told me so.
There may be a little discrimination against Negroes in backward sections of the South, but nowhere in the North is there any discrimination whatever.
In fact, to be authoritative about it, the Negro Problem Is Insoluble.
Did I ever tell you the story about the nigger preacher that was bawling out his congregation —
When the American Credo had thus been outlined, Judd Browler doubted, “I think some of that goes a little too far.”
But Vestal Kingsblood, who had gone to college in Virginia, insisted, “No, I think it’s a fair picture generally.”
Brother Robert, great-great-great-grandson of Xavier Pic of the islands, exulted, “I’d be for a law to make it a crime for any man with a single drop of nigger blood in him to pass for a white man. If one of my girls was deceived into marrying a fellow like that, I’d kill him with my bare hands!”
But the hands that Robert held up were better fitted for signing letters than for garroting.
Neil silently looked at him, looked at his neighbors, good and kind and generous and literate.
Violet Crenway piped up then, with some enthusiasm for herself as a thinker:
“All of you miss the point. The darkies aren’t really so bad. Some of the educated ones are just like us — practically. But where they are all going haywire is in wanting to rush their advancement too fast, instead of taking it naturally and depending on their own honest, unaided efforts to so develop that eventually, SOME day, they’ll make us whites recognize their evolution.
“I always say to my colored friends, ‘Yes, yes, I know there are some talented members of your race who don’t get their due. I’m a regular rebel myself, and I believe in you coons grabbing all you can get. But let me remind you of something maybe you haven’t noticed. There’s just been a war on. Europe isn’t settled yet, and there’s a lot of labor trouble and so on and so forth in the United States, and so, while I’m all for equal rights and maybe social equality some day for you darkies, when the time is right, can’t you see that NOW ISN’T THE TIME FOR IT?”
Neil knew, without having been instructed, that this was the most vicious thing that had been said, and the most foolish.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57