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[1 of 5] Invisible Man, Prologue to Chapter 5, by Ralph Ellison (1947)

Author: Ralph Ellison

“Prologue to Chapter 5.” Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, Random House, 1952.

“You are saved,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained;
“you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?”
–Herman Melville, Benito Cereno

HARRY: I tell you, it is not me you are looking at,
Not me you are grinning at, not me your confidential looks
Incriminate, but that other person, if person,
You thought I was: let your necrophily
Feed upon that carcase. . .
–T. S. Eliot, Family Reunion


I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

One night I accidentally bumped into a man, and perhaps because of the near darkness he saw me and called me an insulting name. I sprang at him, seized his coat lapels and demanded that he apologize. He was a tall blond man, and as my face came close to his he looked insolently out of his blue eyes and cursed me, his breath hot in my face as he struggled. I pulled his chin down sharp upon the crown of my head, butting him as I had seen the West Indians do, and I felt his flesh tear and the blood gush out, and I yelled, “Apologize! Apologize!” But he continued to curse and struggle, and I butted him again and again until he went down heavily, on his knees, profusely bleeding. I kicked him repeatedly, in a frenzy because he still uttered insults though his lips were frothy with blood. Oh yes, I kicked him! And in my outrage I got out my knife and prepared to slit his throat, right there beneath the lamplight in the deserted street, holding him by the collar with one hand, and opening the knife with my teeth — when it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare! And I stopped the blade, slicing the air as I pushed him away, letting him fall back to the street. I stared at him hard as the lights of a car stabbed through the darkness. He lay there, moaning on the asphalt; a man almost killed by a phantom. It unnerved me. I was both disgusted and ashamed. I was like a drunken man myself, wavering about on weakened legs. Then I was amused. Something in this man’s thick head had sprung out and beaten him within an inch of his life. I began to laugh at this crazy discovery. Would he have awakened at the point of death? Would Death himself have freed him for wakeful living? But I didn’t linger. I ran away into the dark, laughing so hard I feared I might rupture myself. The next day I saw his picture in the Daily News, beneath a caption stating that he had been “mugged.” Poor fool, poor blind fool, I thought with sincere compassion, mugged by an invisible man!

Most of the time (although I do not choose as I once did to deny the violence of my days by ignoring it) I am not so overtly violent. I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers. I learned in time though that it is possible to carry on a fight against them without their realizing it. For instance, I have been carrying on a fight with Monopolated Light & Power for some time now. I use their service and pay them nothing at all, and they don’t know it. Oh, they suspect that power is being drained off, but they don’t know where. All they know is that according to the master meter back there in their power station a hell of a lot of free current is disappearing somewhere into the jungle of Harlem. The joke, of course, is that I don’t live in Harlem but in a border area. Several years ago (before I discovered the advantage of being invisible) I went through the routine process of buying service and paying their outrageous rates. But no more. I gave up all that, along with my apartment, and my old way of life: That way based upon the fallacious assumption that I, like other men, was visible. Now, aware of my invisibility, I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century, which I discovered when I was trying to escape in the night from Ras the Destroyer. But that’s getting too far ahead of the story, almost to the end, although the end is in the beginning and lies far ahead.

The point now is that I found a home — or a hole in the ground, as you will. Now don’t jump to the conclusion that because I call my home a “hole” it is damp and cold like a grave; there are cold holes and warm holes. Mine is a warm hole. And remember, a bear retires to his hole for the winter and lives until spring; then he comes strolling out like the Easter chick breaking from its shell. I say all this to assure you that it is incorrect to assume that, because I’m invisible and live in a hole, I am dead. I am neither dead nor in a state of suspended animation. Call me Jack-the-Bear, for I am in a state of hibernation.

My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway. Or the Empire State Building on a photographer’s dream night. But that is taking advantage of you. Those two spots are among the darkest of our whole civilization — pardon me, our whole culture (an important distinction, I’ve heard) — which might sound like a hoax, or a contradiction, but that (by contradiction, I mean) is how the world moves: Not like an arrow, but a boomerang. (Beware of those who speak of the spiral of history; they are preparing a boomerang. Keep a steel helmet handy.)

I know; I have been boomeranged across my head so much that I now can see the darkness of lightness. And I love light. Perhaps you’ll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form. A beautiful girl once told me of a recurring nightmare in which she lay in the center of a large dark room and felt her face expand until it filled the whole room, becoming a formless mass while her eyes ran in bilious jelly up the chimney. And so it is with me. Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility.

That is why I fight my battle with Monopolated Light & Power. The deeper reason, I mean: It allows me to feel my vital aliveness. I also fight them for taking so much of my money before I learned to protect myself. In my hole in the basement there are exactly 1,369 lights. I’ve wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it. And not with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more-expensive-to-operate kind, the filament type. An act of sabotage, you know. I’ve already begun to wire the wall. A junk man I know, a man of vision, has supplied me with wire and sockets. Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and light is the truth. When I finish all four walls, then I’ll start on the floor. Just how that will go, I don’t know. Yet when you have lived invisible as long as I have you develop a certain ingenuity. I’ll solve the problem. And maybe I’ll invent a gadget to place my coffeepot on the fire while I lie in bed, and even invent a gadget to warm my bed — like the fellow I saw in one of the picture magazines who made himself a gadget to warm his shoes! Though invisible, I am in the great American tradition of tinkers. That makes me kin to Ford, Edison and Franklin. Call me, since I have a theory and a concept, a “thinker-tinker.” Yes, I’ll warm my shoes; they need it, they’re usually full of holes. I’ll do that and more.

Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” — all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. I pour the red liquid over the white mound, watching it glisten and the vapor rising as Louis bends that military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound. Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music. Once when I asked for a cigarette, some jokers gave me a reefer, which I lighted when I got home and sat listening to my phonograph. It was a strange evening. Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music.

Once I saw a prizefighter boxing a yokel. The fighter was swift and amazingly scientific. His body was one violent flow of rapid rhythmic action. He hit the yokel a hundred times while the yokel held up his arms in stunned surprise. But suddenly the yokel, rolling about in the gale of boxing gloves, struck one blow and knocked science, speed and footwork as cold as a well-digger’s posterior. The smart money hit the canvas. The long shot got the nod. The yokel had simply stepped inside of his opponent’s sense of time. So under the spell of the reefer I discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths. And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco, and beneath that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory pleading in a voice like my mother’s as she stood before a group of slave owners who bid for her naked body, and below that I found a lower level and a more rapid tempo and I heard someone shout:

“Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the ‘Blackness of Blackness.’ “M
And a congregation of voices answered: “That blackness is most black, brother, most black . . .
“In the beginning . . .”
“At the very start,” they cried.
“. . . there was blackness . . .”
“Preach it . . .”
“. . . and the sun . . .”” The sun, Lawd . . .”
“. . . was bloody red . . .”
“Red . . .”
“Now black is . . .” the preacher shouted.
“Bloody . . .”
“I said black is . . .”
“Preach it, brother . . .”
“. . . an’ black ain’t . .
“Red, Lawd, red: He said it’s red!”
“Amen, brother . . .”
“Black will git you . . .”
“Yes, it will . . .”
“. . . an’ black won’t . . .”
“Naw, it won’t!”
“It do . . .”
“It do, Lawd . . .”
“. . . an’ it don’t.”
“Halleluiah . . .”
“. . . It’ll put you, glory, glory, Oh my Lawd, in the WHALE’S BELLY.”
“Preach it, dear brother . . .”
“. . . an’ make you tempt . . .” “Good God a-mighty!”
“Old Aunt Nelly!”
“Black will make you . . .” “Black . . .”
“. . . or black will un-make you.”
“Ain’t it the truth, Lawd?”
And at that point a voice of trombone timbre screamed at me, “Git out of, here, you fool! Is you ready to commit treason?” And I tore myself away, hearing the old singer of spirituals moaning,
“Go curse your God, boy, and die.”
I stopped and questioned her, asked her what was wrong.
“I dearly loved my master, son,” she said.
“You should have hated him,” I said.
“He gave me several sons,” she said, “and because I loved my sons I learned to love their father though I hated him too.”
“I too have become acquainted with ambivalence,” I said. “That’s why I’m here.”
“What’s that?”
“Nothing, a word that doesn’t explain it. Why do you moan?”
“I moan this way ’cause he’s dead,” she said.
“Then tell me, who is that laughing upstairs?”
“Them’s my sons. They glad.”
“Yes, I can understand that too,” I said.
“I laughs too, but I moans too. He promised to set us free but he never could bring hisself to do it. Still I loved him . . .”
“Loved him? You mean . . .”
“Oh yes, but 1 loved something else even more.”
“What more?”
“Freedom,” I said. “Maybe freedom lies in hating.”
“Naw, son, it’s in loving. I loved him and give him the poison and he withered away like a frost-bit apple. Them boys woulda tore him to pieces with they homemake knives.” “A mistake was made somewhere,” I said, “I’m confused.” And I wished to say other things, but the laughter upstairs became too loud and moan-like for me and I tried to break out of it, but I couldn’t. Just as I was leaving I felt an urgent desire to ask her what freedom was and went back. She sat with her head in her hands, moaning softly; her leather-brown face was filled with sadness.
“Old woman, what is this freedom you love so well?” I asked around a corner of my mind.
She looked surprised, then thoughtful, then baffled. “I done forgot, son. It’s all mixed up. First I think it’s one thing, then I think it’s another. It gits my head to spinning. I guess now it ain’t nothing but knowing how to say what I got up in my head. But it’s a hard job, son. Too much is done happen to me in too short a time. Hit’s like I have a fever. Ever’ time I starts to walk my head gits to swirling and I falls down. Or if it ain’t that, it’s the boys; they gits to laughing and wants to kill up the white folks. They’s bitter, that’s what they is . . .”
“But what about freedom?”
“Leave me ‘lone, boy; my head aches!”
I left her, feeling dizzy myself. I didn’t get far. Suddenly one of the sons, a big fellow six feet tall, appeared out of nowhere and struck me with his fist. “What’s the matter, man?” I cried.
“You made Ma cry!”
“But how?” I said, dodging a blow.
“Askin’ her them questions, that’s how. Git outa here and stay, and next time you got questions like that, ask yourself!”
He held me in a grip like cold stone, his fingers fastening upon my windpipe until I thought I would suffocate before he finally allowed me to go. I stumbled about dazed, the music beating hysterically in my ears. It was dark. My head cleared and I wandered down a dark narrow passage, thinking I heard his footsteps hurrying behind me. I was sore, and into my being had come a profound craving for tranquillity, for peace and quiet, a state I felt I could never achieve. For one thing, the trumpet was blaring and the rhythm was too hectic. A tomtom beating like heart-thuds began drowning out the trumpet, filling my ears. I longed for water and I heard it rushing through the cold mains my fingers touched as I felt my way, but I couldn’t stop to search because of the footsteps behind me.
“Hey, Ras,” I called. “Is it you, Destroyer? Rinehart?” No answer, only the rhythmic footsteps behind me. Once I tried crossing the road, but a speeding machine struck me, scraping the skin from my leg as it roared past. Then somehow I came out of it, ascending hastily from this underworld of sound to hear Louis Armstrong innocently asking,
What did I do
To be so black
And blue?

At first I was afraid; this familiar music had demanded action, the kind of which I was incapable, and yet had I lingered there beneath the surface I might have attempted to act. Nevertheless, I know now that few really listen to this music. I sat on the chair’s edge in a soaking sweat, as though each of my 1,369 bulbs had everyone become a klieg light in an individual setting for a third degree with Ras and Rinehart in charge. It was exhausting — as though I had held my breath continuously for an hour under the terrifying serenity that comes from days of intense hunger. And yet, it was a strangely satisfying experience for an invisible man to hear the silence of sound. I had discovered unrecognized compulsions of my being — even though I could not answer “yes” to their promptings. I haven’t smoked a reefer since, however; not because they’re illegal, but because to see around corners is enough (that is not unusual when you are invisible). But to hear around them is too much; it inhibits action. And despite Brother Jack and all that sad, lost period of the Brotherhood, I believe in nothing if not in action.

Please, a definition: A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.

Besides, the drug destroys one’s sense of time completely. If that happened, I might forget to dodge some bright morning and some cluck would run me down with an orange and yellow street car, or a bilious bus! Or I might forget to leave my hole when the moment for action presents itself.

Meanwhile I enjoy my life with the compliments of Monopolated Light & Power. Since you never recognize me even when in closest contact with me, and since, no doubt, you’ll hardly believe that I exist, it won’t matter if you know that I tapped a power line leading into the building and ran it into my hole in the ground. Before that I lived in the darkness into which I was chased, but now I see. I’ve illuminated the blackness of my invisibility — and vice versa. And so I play the invisible music of my isolation. The last statement doesn’t seem just right, does it? But it is; you hear this music simply because music is heard and seldom seen, except by musicians. Could this compulsion to put invisibility down in black and white be thus an urge to make music of invisibility? But I am an orator, a rabble rouser — Am? I was, and perhaps shall be again. Who knows? All sickness is not unto death, neither is invisibility.

I can hear you say, “What a horrible, irresponsible bastard!” And you’re right. I leap to agree with you. I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived. Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility; any way you face it, it is a denial. But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me? And wait until I reveal how truly irresponsible I am. Responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement. Take the man whom I almost killed: Who was responsible for that near murder — I? I don’t think so, and I refuse it. I won’t buy it. You can’t give it to me. He bumped me, he insulted me. Shouldn’t he, for his own personal safety, have recognized my hysteria, my “danger potential”? He, let us say, was lost in a dream world. But didn’t he control that dream world — which, alas, is only too real! — and didn’t he rule me out of it? And if he had yelled for a policeman, wouldn’t I have been taken for the offending one? Yes, yes, yes! Let me agree with you, I was the irresponsible one; for I should have used my knife to protect the higher interests of society. Some day that kind of foolishness will cause us tragic trouble. All dreamers and sleepwalkers must pay the price, and even the invisible victim is responsible for the fate of all. But I shirked that responsibility; I became too snarled in the incompatible notions that buzzed within my brain. I was a coward . . .

But what did I do to be so blue? Bear with me.

Chapter 1

It goes a long way back, some twenty years. All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was na?e. I was looking for myself

and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!

And yet I am no freak of nature, nor of history. I was in the cards, other things having been equal (or unequal) eighty-five years ago. I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed. About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand. And they believed it. They exulted in it. They stayed in their place, worked hard, and brought up my father to do the same. But my grandfather is the one. He was an odd old guy, my grandfather, and I am told I take after him. It was he who caused the trouble. On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, “Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” They thought the old man had gone out of his mind. He had been the meekest of men. The younger children were rushed from the room, the shades drawn and the flame of the lamp turned so low that it sputtered on the wick like the old man’s breathing. “Learn it to the younguns,” he whispered fiercely; then he died.

But my folks were more alarmed over his last words than over his dying. It was as though he had not died at all, his words caused so much anxiety. I was warned emphatically to forget what he had said and, indeed, this is the first time it has been mentioned outside the family circle. It had a tremendous effect upon me, however. I could never be sure of what he meant. Grandfather had been a quiet old man who never made any trouble, yet on his deathbed he had called himself a traitor and a spy, and he had spoken of his meekness as a dangerous activity. It became a constant puzzle which lay unanswered in the back of my mind. And whenever things went well for me I remembered my grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable. It was as though I was carrying out his advice in spite of myself. And to make it worse, everyone loved me for it. I was praised by the most lily-white men of the town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct — just as my grandfather had been. And what puzzled me was that the old man had defined it as treachery. When I was praised for my conduct I felt a guilt that in some way I was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks, that if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been sulky and mean, and that that really would have been what they wanted, even though they were fooled and thought they wanted me to act as I did. It made me afraid that some day they would look upon me as a traitor and I would be lost. Still I was more afraid to act any other way because they didn’t like that at all. The old man’s words were like a curse. On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed this — how could I, remembering my grandfather? — I only believed that it worked.) It was a great success. Everyone praised me and I was invited to give the speech at a gathering of the town’s leading white citizens. It was a triumph for our whole community.

It was in the main ballroom of the leading hotel. When I got there I discovered that it was on the occasion of a smoker, and I was told that since I was to be there anyway I might as well take part in the battle royal to be fought by some of my schoolmates as part of the entertainment. The battle royal came first.

All of the town’s big shots were there in their tuxedoes, wolfing down the buffet foods, drinking beer and whiskey and smoking black cigars. It was a large room with a high ceiling. Chairs were arranged in neat rows around three sides of a portable boxing ring. The fourth side was clear, revealing a gleaming space of polished floor. I had some misgivings over the battle royal, by the way. Not from a distaste for fighting, but because I didn’t care too much for the other fellows who were to take part. They were tough guys who seemed to have no grandfather’s curse worrying their minds. No one could mistake their toughness. And besides, I suspected that fighting a battle royal might detract from the dignity of my speech. In those pre-invisible days I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington. But the other fellows didn’t care too much for me either, and there were nine of them. I felt superior to them in my way, and I didn’t like the manner in which we were all crowded together into the servants’ elevator. Nor did they like my being there. In fact, as the warmly lighted floors flashed past the elevator we had words over the fact that I, by taking part in the fight, had knocked one of their friends out of a night’s work.

We were led out of the elevator through a rococo hall into an anteroom and told to get into our fighting togs. Each of us was issued a pair of boxing gloves and ushered out into the big mirrored hall, which we entered looking cautiously about us and whispering, lest we might accidentally be heard above the noise of the room. It was foggy with cigar smoke. And already the whiskey was taking effect. I was shocked to see some of the most important men of the town quite tipsy. They were all there — bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants. Even one of the more fashionable pastors. Something we could not see was going on up front. A clarinet was vibrating sensuously and the men were standing up and moving eagerly forward. We were a small tight group, clustered together, our bare upper bodies touching and shining with anticipatory sweat; while up front the big shots were becoming increasingly excited over something we still could not see. Suddenly I heard the school superintendent, who had told me to come, yell, “Bring up the shines, gentlemen! Bring up the little shines!”

We were rushed up to the front of the ballroom, where it smelled even more strongly of tobacco and whiskey. Then we were pushed into place. I almost wet my pants. A sea of faces, some hostile, some amused, ringed around us, and in the center, facing us, stood a magnificent blonde — stark naked. There was dead silence. I felt a blast of cold air chill me. I tried to back away, but they were behind me and around me. Some of the boys stood with lowered heads, trembling. I felt a wave of irrational guilt and fear. My teeth chattered, my skin turned to goose flesh, my knees knocked. Yet I was strongly attracted and looked in spite of myself. Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have looked. The hair was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll, the face heavily powdered and rouged, as though to form an abstract mask, the eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue, the color of a baboon’s butt. I felt a desire to spit upon her as my eyes brushed slowly over her body. Her breasts were firm and round as the domes of East Indian temples, and I stood so close as to see the fine skin texture and beads of pearly perspiration glistening like dew around the pink and erected buds of her nipples. I wanted at one and the same time to run from the room, to sink through the floor, or go to her and cover her from my eyes and the eyes of the others with my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V. I had a notion that of all in the room she saw only me with her impersonal eyes.

And then she began to dance, a slow sensuous movement; the smoke of a hundred cigars clinging to her like the thinnest of veils. She seemed like a fair bird-girl girdled in veils calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and threatening sea. I was transported. Then I became aware of the clarinet playing and the big shots yelling at us. Some threatened us if we looked and others if we did not. On my right I saw one boy faint. And now a man grabbed a silver pitcher from a table and stepped close as he dashed ice water upon him and stood him up and forced two of us to support him as his head hung and moans issued from his thick bluish lips. Another boy began to plead to go home. He was the largest of the group, wearing dark red fighting trunks much too small to conceal the erection which projected from him as though in answer to the insinuating low-registered moaning of the clarinet. He tried to hide himself with his boxing gloves.

And all the while the blonde continued dancing, smiling faintly at the big shots who watched her with fascination, and faintly smiling at our fear. I noticed a certain merchant who followed her hungrily, his lips loose and drooling. He was a large man who wore diamond studs in a shirtfront which swelled with the ample paunch underneath, and each time the blonde swayed her undulating hips he ran his hand through the thin hair of his bald head and, with his arms upheld, his posture clumsy like that of an intoxicated panda, wound his belly in a slow and obscene grind. This creature was completely hypnotized. The music had quickened. As the dancer flung herself about with a detached expression on her face, the men began reaching out to touch her. I could see their beefy fingers sink into the soft flesh. Some of the others tried to stop them and she began to move around the floor in graceful circles, as they gave chase, slipping and sliding over the polished floor. It was mad. Chairs went crashing, drinks were spilt, as they ran laughing and howling after her. They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys. As I watched, they tossed her twice and her soft breasts seemed to flatten against the air and her legs flung wildly as she spun. Some of the more sober ones helped her to escape. And I started off the floor, heading for the anteroom with the rest of the boys.

Some were still crying and in hysteria. But as we tried to leave we were stopped and ordered to get into the ring. There was nothing to do but what we were told. All ten of us climbed under the ropes and allowed ourselves to be blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth. One of the men seemed to feel a bit sympathetic and tried to cheer us up as we stood with our backs against the ropes. Some of us tried to grin. “See that boy over there?” one of the men said. “I want you to run across at the bell and give it to him right in the belly. If you don’t get him, I’m going to get you. I don’t like his looks.” Each of us was told the same. The blindfolds were put on. Yet even then I had been going over my speech. In my mind each word was as bright as flame. I felt the cloth pressed into place, and frowned so that it would be loosened when I relaxed.

But now I felt a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness. It was as though I had suddenly found myself in a dark room filled with poisonous cottonmouths. I could hear the bleary voices yelling insistently for the battle royal to begin.

“Get going in there!”

“Let me at that big nigger!”

I strained to pick up the school superintendent’s voice, as though to squeeze some security out of that slightly more familiar sound.

“Let me at those black sonsabitches!” someone yelled.

“No, Jackson, no!” another voice yelled. “Here, somebody, help me hold Jack.”

“I want to get at that ginger-colored nigger. Tear him limb from limb,” the first voice yelled.

I stood against the ropes trembling. For in those days I was what they called ginger-colored, and he sounded as though he might crunch me between his teeth like a crisp ginger cookie.

Quite a struggle was going on. Chairs were being kicked about and I could hear voices grunting as with a terrific effort. I wanted to see, to see more desperately than ever before. But the blindfold was as tight as a thick skin-puckering scab and when I raised my gloved hands to push the layers of white aside a voice yelled, “Oh, no you don’t, black bastard! Leave that alone!”

“Ring the bell before Jackson kills him a coon!” someone boomed in the sudden silence. And I heard the bell clang and the sound of the feet scuffling forward.

A glove smacked against my head. I pivoted, striking out stiffly as someone went past, and felt the jar ripple along the length of my arm to my shoulder. Then it seemed as though all nine of the boys had turned upon me at once. Blows pounded me from all sides while I struck out as best I could. So many blows landed upon me that I wondered if I were not the only blindfolded fighter in the ring, or if the man called Jackson hadn’t succeeded in getting me after all.

Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man. The smoke had become thicker and with each new blow it seemed to sear and further restrict my lungs. My saliva became like hot bitter glue. A glove connected with my head, filling my mouth with warm blood. It was everywhere. I could not tell if the moisture I felt upon my body was sweat or blood. A blow landed hard against the nape of my neck. I felt myself going over, my head hitting the floor. Streaks of blue light filled the black world behind the blindfold. I lay prone, pretending that I was knocked out, but felt myself seized by hands and yanked to my feet. “Get going, black boy! Mix it up!” My arms were like lead, my head smarting from blows. I managed to feel my way to the ropes and held on, trying to catch my breath. A glove landed in my mid-section and I went over again, feeling as though the smoke had become a knife jabbed into my guts. Pushed this way and that by the legs milling around me, I finally pulled erect and discovered that I could see the black, sweat-washed forms weaving in the smoky-blue atmosphere like drunken dancers weaving to the rapid drum-like thuds of blows.

Everyone fought hysterically. It was complete anarchy. Everybody fought everybody else. No group fought together for long. Two, three, four, fought one, then turned to fight each other, were themselves attacked. Blows landed below the belt and in the kidney, with the gloves open as well as closed, and with my eye partly opened now there was not so much terror. I moved carefully, avoiding blows, although not too many to attract attention, fighting from group to group. The boys groped about like blind, cautious crabs crouching to protect their mid-sections, their heads pulled in short against their shoulders, their arms stretched nervously before them, with their fists testing the smoke-filled air like the knobbed feelers of hypersensitive snails. In one corner I glimpsed a boy violently punching the air and heard him scream in pain as he smashed his hand against a ring post. For a second I saw him bent over holding his hand, then going down as a blow caught his unprotected head. I played one group against the other, slipping in and throwing a punch then stepping out of range while pushing the others into the melee to take the blows blindly aimed at me. The smoke was agonizing and there were no rounds, no bells at three minute intervals to relieve our exhaustion. The room spun round me, a swirl of lights, smoke, sweating bodies surrounded by tense white faces. I bled from both nose and mouth, the blood spattering upon my chest.

The men kept yelling, “Slug him, black boy! Knock his guts out!” “Uppercut him! Kill him! Kill that big boy!”

Taking a fake fall, I saw a boy going down heavily beside me as though we were felled by a single blow, saw a sneaker-clad foot shoot into his groin as the two who had knocked him down stumbled upon him. I rolled out of range, feeling a twinge of nausea.

The harder we fought the more threatening the men became. And yet, I had begun to worry about my speech again. How would it go? Would they recognize my ability? What would they give me?

I was fighting automatically when suddenly I noticed that one after another of the boys was leaving the ring. I was surprised, filled with panic, as though I had been left alone with an unknown danger. Then I understood. The boys had arranged it among themselves. It was the custom for the two men left in the ring to slug it out for the winner’s prize. I discovered this too late. When the bell sounded two men in tuxedoes leaped into the ring and removed the blindfold. I found myself facing Tatlock, the biggest of the gang. I felt sick at my stomach. Hardly had the bell stopped ringing in my ears than it clanged again and I saw him moving swiftly toward me. Thinking of nothing else to do I hit him smash on the nose. He kept coming, bringing the rank sharp violence of stale sweat. His face was a black blank of a face, only his eyes alive — with hate of me and aglow with a feverish terror from what had happened to us all. I became anxious. I wanted to deliver my speech and he came at me as though he meant to beat it out of me. I smashed him again and again, taking his blows as they came. Then on a sudden impulse I struck him lightly and as we clinched, I whispered, “Fake like I knocked you out, you can have the prize.”

“I’ll break your behind,” he whispered hoarsely.

“For them?”

“For me, sonofabitch!”

They were yelling for us to break it up and Tatlock spun me half around with a blow, and as a joggled camera sweeps in a reeling scene, I saw the howling red faces crouching tense beneath the cloud of blue-gray smoke. For a moment the world wavered, unraveled, flowed, then my head cleared and Tatlock bounced before me. That fluttering shadow before my eyes was his jabbing left hand. Then falling forward, my head against his damp shoulder, I whispered,

“I’ll make it five dollars more.”

“Go to hell!”

But his muscles relaxed a trifle beneath my pressure and I breathed,


“Give it to your ma,” he said, ripping me beneath the heart.

And while I still held him I butted him and moved away. I felt myself bombarded with punches. I fought back with hopeless desperation. I wanted to deliver my speech more than anything else in the world, felt that only these men could judge truly my ability, and now this stupid clown was ruining my chances. I began fighting carefully now, moving in to punch him and out again with my greater speed. A lucky blow to his chin and I had him going too — until I heard a loud voice yell, “I got my money on the big boy.”

Hearing this, I almost dropped my guard. I was confused: Should I try to win against the voice out there? Would not this go against my speech, and was not this a moment for humility, for nonresistance? A blow to my head as I danced about sent my right eye popping like a jack-in-the-box and settled my dilemma. The room went red as I fell. It was a dream fall, my body languid and fastidious as to where to land, until the floor became impatient and smashed up to meet me. A moment later I came to. An hypnotic voice said FIVE emphatically. And I lay there, hazily watching a dark red spot of my own blood shaping itself into a butterfly, glistening and soaking into the soiled gray world of the canvas.

When the voice drawled TEN I was lifted up and dragged to a chair. I sat dazed. My eye pained and swelled with each throb of my pounding heart and I wondered if now I would be allowed to speak. I was wringing wet, my mouth still bleeding. We were grouped along the wall now. The other boys ignored me as they congratulated Tatlock and speculated as to how much they would be paid. One boy whimpered over his smashed hand. Looking up front, I saw attendants in white jackets rolling the portable ring away and placing a small square rug in the vacant space surrounded by chairs. Perhaps, I thought, I will stand on the rug to deliver my speech.

Then the M.C. called to us, “Come on up here boys and get your money.”

We ran forward to where the men laughed and talked in their chairs, waiting. Everyone seemed friendly now.

“There it is on the rug,” the man said. I saw the rug covered with coins of all dimensions and a few crumpled bills. But what excited me, scattered here and there, were the gold pieces.

“Boys, it’s all yours,” the man said. “You get all you grab.”

“That’s right, Sambo,” a blond man said, winking at me confidentially.

I trembled with excitement, forgetting my pain. I would get the gold and the bills, I thought. I would use both hands. I would throw my body against the boys nearest me to block them from the gold.

“Get down around the rug now,” the man commanded, “and don’t anyone touch it until I give the signal.”

“This ought to be good,” I heard.

As told, we got around the square rug on our knees. Slowly the man raised his freckled hand as we followed it upward with our eyes.

I heard, “These niggers look like they’re about to pray!”

Then, “Ready,” the man said. “Go!”

I lunged for a yellow coin lying on the blue design of the carpet, touching it and sending a surprised shriek to join those rising around me. I tried frantically to remove my hand but could not let go. A hot, violent force tore through my body, shaking me like a wet rat. The rug was electrified. The hair bristled up on my head as I shook myself free. My muscles jumped, my nerves jangled, writhed. But I saw that this was not stopping the other boys. Laughing in fear and embarrassment, some were holding back and scooping up the coins knocked off by the painful contortions of the others. The men roared above us as we struggled.

“Pick it up, goddamnit, pick it up!” someone called like a bass-voiced parrot. “Go on, get it!”

I crawled rapidly around the floor, picking up the coins, trying to avoid the coppers and to get greenbacks and the gold. Ignoring the shock by laughing, as I brushed the coins off quickly, I discovered that I could contain the electricity — a contradiction, but it works. Then the men began to push us onto the rug. Laughing embarrassedly, we struggled out of their hands and kept after the coins. We were all wet and slippery and hard to hold. Suddenly I saw a boy lifted into the air, glistening with sweat like a circus seal, and dropped, his wet back landing flush upon the charged rug, heard him yell and saw him literally dance upon his back, elbows beating a frenzied tattoo upon the floor, his muscles twitching like the flesh of a horse stung my many flies. When he finally rolled off, his face was gray and no one stopped him when he ran from the floor amid booming laughter.

“Get the money,” the M.C. called. “That’s good hard American cash!”

And we snatched and grabbed, snatched and grabbed. I was careful not to come too close to the rug now, and when I felt the hot whiskey breath descend upon me like a cloud of foul air I reached out and grabbed the leg of a chair. It was occupied and I held on desperately.

“Leggo, nigger! Leggo!”

The huge face wavered down to mine as he tried to push me free. But my body was slippery and he was too drunk. It was Mr. Colcord, who owned a chain of movie houses and “entertainment palaces.” Each time he grabbed me I slipped out of his hands. It became a real struggle. I feared the rug more than I did the drunk, so I held on, surprising myself for a moment by trying to topple him upon the rug. It was such an enormous idea that I found myself actually carrying it out. I tried not to be obvious, yet when I grabbed his leg, trying to tumble him out of the chair, he raised up roaring with laughter, and, looking at me with soberness dead in the eye, kicked me viciously in the chest. The chair leg flew out of my hand and I felt myself going and rolled. It was as though I had rolled through a bed of hot coals. It seemed a whole century would pass before I would roll free, a century in which I was seared through the deepest levels of my body to the fearful breath within me and the breath seared and heated to the point of explosion. It’ll all be over in a flash, I thought as I rolled clear. It’ll all be over in a flash.

But not yet, the men on the other side were waiting, red faces swollen as though from apoplexy as they bent forward in their chairs. Seeing their fingers coming toward me I rolled away as a fumbled football rolls off the receiver’s fingertips, back into the coals. That time I luckily sent the rug sliding out of place and heard the coins ringing against the floor and the boys scuffling to pick them up and the M.C. calling, “All right, boys, that’s all. Go get dressed and get your money.”

I was limp as a dish rag. My back felt as though it had been beaten with wires.

When we had dressed the M.C. came in and gave us each five dollars, except Tatlock, who got ten for being last in the ring. Then he told us to leave. I was not to get a chance to deliver my speech, I thought. I was going out into the dim alley in despair when I was stopped and told to go back. I returned to the ballroom, where the men were pushing back their chairs and gathering in groups to talk.

The M.C. knocked on a table for quiet. “Gentlemen,” he said, “we almost forgot an important part of the program. A most serious part, gentlemen. This boy was brought here to deliver a speech which he made at his graduation yesterday . . .”


“I’m told that he is the smartest boy we’ve got out there in Greenwood. I’m told that he knows more big words than a pocket-sized dictionary.” Much applause and laughter.

“So now, gentlemen, I want you to give him your attention.”

There was still laughter as I faced them, my mouth dry, my eye throbbing. I began slowly, but evidently my throat was tense, because they began shouting, “Louder! Louder!”

“We of the younger generation extol the wisdom of that great leader and educator,” I shouted, “who first spoke these flaming words of wisdom: ‘A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal: “Water, water; we die of thirst!” The answer from the friendly vessel came back: “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River.’ And like him I say, and in his words, ‘To those of my race who depend upon bettering their condition in a foreign land, or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is his next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are” — cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded . . .’

I spoke automatically and with such fervor that I did not realize that the men were still talking and laughing until my dry mouth, filling up with blood from the cut, almost strangled me. I coughed, wanting to stop and go to one of the tall brass, sand-filled spittoons to relieve myself, but a few of the men, especially the superintendent, were listening and I was afraid. So I gulped it down, blood, saliva and all, and continued. (What powers of endurance I had during those days! What enthusiasm! What a belief in the rightness of things!) I spoke even louder in spite of the pain. But still they talked and still they laughed, as though deaf with cotton in dirty ears. So I spoke with greater emotional emphasis. I closed my ears and swallowed blood until I was nauseated. The speech seemed a hundred times as long as before, but I could not leave out a single word. All had to be said, each memorized nuance considered, rendered. Nor was that all. Whenever I uttered a word of three or more syllables a group of voices would yell for me to repeat it. I used the phrase “social responsibility” and they yelled:

“What’s that word you say, boy?” “Social responsibility,” I said. “What?”
“Social . . .”


“. . . responsibility.”


“Respon –“


“– sibility.”

The room filled with the uproar of laughter until, no doubt, distracted by having to gulp down my blood, I made a mistake and yelled a phrase I had often seen denounced in newspaper editorials, heard debated in private.

“Social . . .”

“What?” they yelled.

“. . . equality –“

The laughter hung smokelike in the sudden stillness. I opened my eyes, puzzled. Sounds of displeasure filled the room. The M.C. rushed forward. They shouted hostile phrases at me. But I did not understand.

A small dry mustached man in the front row blared out, “Say that slowly, son!”

“What sir?”

“What you just said!”

“Social responsibility, sir,” I said.

“You weren’t being smart, were you, boy?” he said, not unkindly.

“No, sir!”

“You sure that about ‘equality’ was a mistake?”

“Oh, yes, sir,” I said. “I was swallowing blood.”

“Well, you had better speak more slowly so we can understand. We mean to do right by you, but you’ve got to know your place at all times. All right, now, go on with your speech.”

I was afraid. I wanted to leave but I wanted also to speak and I was afraid they’d snatch me down.

“Thank you, sir,” I said, beginning where I had left off, and having them ignore me as before.

Yet when I finished there was a thunderous applause. I was surprised to see the superintendent come forth with a package wrapped in white tissue paper, and, gesturing for quiet, address the men.

“Gentlemen, you see that I did not overpraise this boy. He makes a good speech and some day he’ll lead his people in the proper paths. And I don’t have to tell you that that is important in these days and times. This is a good, smart boy, and so to encourage him in the right direction, in the name of the Board of Education I wish to present him a prize in the form of this . . .”

He paused, removing the tissue paper and revealing a gleaming calfskin brief case.

“. . . in the form of this first-class article from Shad Whitmore’s shop.”

“Boy,” he said, addressing me, “take this prize and keep it well. Consider it a badge of office. Prize it. Keep developing as you are and some day it will be filled with important papers that will help shape the destiny of your people.”

I was so moved that I could hardly express my thanks. A rope of bloody saliva forming a shape like an undiscovered continent drooled upon the leather and I wiped it quickly away. I felt an importance that I had never dreamed.

“Open it and see what’s inside,” I was told.

My fingers a-tremble, I complied, smelling the fresh leather and finding an official-looking document inside. It was a scholarship to the state college for Negroes. My eyes filled with tears and I ran awkwardly off the floor.

I was overjoyed; I did not even mind when I discovered that the gold pieces I had scrambled for were brass pocket tokens advertising a certain make of automobile.

When I reached home everyone was excited. Next day the neighbors came to congratulate me. I even felt safe from grandfather, whose deathbed curse usually spoiled my triumphs. I stood beneath his photograph with my brief case in hand and smiled triumphantly into his stolid black peasant’s face. It was a face that fascinated me. The eyes seemed to follow everywhere I went.

That night I dreamed I was at a circus with him and that he refused to laugh at the clowns no matter what they did. Then later he told me to open my brief case and read what was inside and I did, finding an official envelope stamped with the state seal; and inside the envelope I found another and another, endlessly, and I thought I would fall of weariness. “Them’s years,” he said. “Now open that one.” And I did and in it I found an engraved document containing a short message in letters of gold. “Read it,” my grandfather said. “Out loud.”

“To Whom It May Concern,” I intoned. “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”

I awoke with the old man’s laughter ringing in my ears.

(It was a dream I was to remember and dream again for many years after. But at that time I had no insight into its meaning. First I had to attend college.)

Chapter 2

It was a beautiful college. The buildings were old and covered with vines and the roads gracefully winding, lined with hedges and wild roses that dazzled the eyes in the summer sun. Honeysuckle and purple wisteria hung heavy from the trees and white magnolias mixed with their scents in the bee-humming air. I’ve recalled it often, here in my hole: How the grass turned green in the springtime and how the mocking birds fluttered their tails and sang, how the moon shone down on the buildings, how the bell in the chapel tower rang out the precious short-lived hours; how the girls in bright summer dresses promenaded the grassy lawn. Many times, here at night, I’ve closed my eyes and walked along the forbidden road that winds past the girls’ dormitories, past the hall with the clock in the tower, its windows warmly aglow, on down past the small white Home Economics practice cottage, whiter still in the moonlight, and on down the road with its sloping and turning, paralleling the black powerhouse with its engines droning earth-shaking rhythms in the dark, its windows red from the glow of the furnace, on to where the road became a bridge over a dry riverbed, tangled with brush and clinging vines; the bridge of rustic logs, made for trysting, but virginal and untested by lovers; on up the road, past the buildings, with the southern verandas half-a-city-block long, to the sudden forking, barren of buildings, birds, or grass, where the road turned off to the insane asylum.

I always come this far and open my eyes. The spell breaks and I try to re-see the rabbits, so tame through having never been hunted, that played in the hedges and along the road. And I see the purple and silver of thistle growing between the broken glass and sunheated stones, the ants moving nervously in single file, and I turn and retrace my steps and come back to the winding road past the hospital, where at night in certain wards the gay student nurses dispensed a far more precious thing than pills to lucky boys in the know; and I come to a stop at the chapel. And then it is suddenly winter, with the moon high above and the chimes in the steeple ringing and a sonorous choir of trombones rendering a Christmas carol; and over all is a quietness and an ache as though all the world were loneliness. And I stand and listen beneath the high-hung moon, hearing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” majestically mellow on four trombones, and then the organ. The sound floats over all, clear like the night, liquid, serene, and lonely. And I stand as for an answer and see in my mind’s eye the cabins surrounded by empty fields beyond red clay roads, and beyond a certain road a river, sluggish and covered with algae more yellow than green in its stagnant stillness; past more empty fields, to the sun-shrunk shacks at the railroad crossing where the disabled veterans visited the whores, hobbling down the tracks on crutches and canes; sometimes pushing the legless, thighless one in a red wheelchair. And sometimes I listen to hear if music reaches that far, but recall only the drunken laughter of sad, sad whores. And I stand in the circle where three roads converge near the statue, where we drilled four-abreast down the smooth asphalt and pivoted and entered the chapel on Sundays, our uniforms pressed, shoes shined, minds laced up, eyes blind like those of robots to visitors and officials on the low, whitewashed reviewing stand.

It’s so long ago and far away that here in my invisibility I wonder if it happened at all. Then in my mind’s eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding. And as I gaze, there is a rustle of wings and I see a flock of starlings flighting before me and, when I look again, the bronze face, whose empty eyes look upon a world I have never seen, runs with liquid chalk — creating another ambiguity to puzzle my groping mind: Why is a bird-soiled statue more commanding than one that is clean?

Oh, long green stretch of campus, Oh, quiet songs at dusk, Oh, moon that kissed the steeple and flooded the perfumed nights, Oh, bugle that called in the morning, Oh, drum that marched us militarily at noon — what was real, what solid, what more than a pleasant, time-killing dream? For how could it have been real if now I am invisible? If real, why is it that I can recall in all that island of greenness no fountain but one that was broken, corroded and dry? And why does no rain fall through my recollections, sound through my memories, soak through the hard dry crust of the still so recent past? Why do I recall, instead of the odor of seed bursting in springtime, only the yellow contents of the cistern spread over the lawn’s dead grass? Why? And how? How and why?

The grass did grow and the green leaves appeared on the trees and filled the avenues with shadow and shade as sure as the millionaires descended from the North on Founders’ Day each spring. And how they arrived! Came smiling, inspecting, encouraging, conversing in whispers, speechmaking into the wide-open ears of our black and yellow faces — and each leaving a sizeable check as he departed. I’m convinced it was the product of a subtle magic, the alchemy of moonlight; the school a flower-studded wasteland, the rocks sunken, the dry winds hidden, the lost crickets chirping to yellow butterflies.

And oh, oh, oh, those multimillionaires!

THEY were all such a part of that other life that’s dead that I can’t remember them all. (Time was as I was, but neither that time nor that “I” are any more.) But this one I remember: near the end of my junior year I drove for him during the week he was on the campus. A face pink like St. Nicholas’, topped with a shock of silk white hair. An easy, informal manner, even with me. A Bostonian, smoker of cigars, teller of polite Negro stories, shrewd banker, skilled scientist, director, philanthropist, forty years a bearer of the white man’s burden, and for sixty a symbol of the Great Traditions.

We were driving, the powerful motor purring and filling me with pride and anxiety. The car smelled of mints and cigar smoke. Students looked up and smiled in recognition as we rolled slowly past. I had just come from dinner and in bending forward to suppress a belch, I accidentally pressed the button on the wheel and the belch became a loud and shattering blast of the horn. Folks on the road turned and stared.

“I’m awfully sorry, sir,” I said, worried lest he report me to Dr. Bledsoe, the president, who would refuse to allow me to drive again.

“Perfectly all right. Perfectly.”

“Where shall I drive you, sir?”

“Let me see . . .”

Through the rear-view mirror I could see him studying a wafer-thin watch, replacing it in the pocket of his checked waistcoat. His shirt was soft silk, set off with a blue-and-white polka-dotted bow tie. His manner was aristocratic, his movements dapper and suave.

“It’s early to go in for the next session,” he said. “Suppose you just drive. Anywhere you like.”

“Have you seen all the campus, sir?”

“Yes, I think so. I was one of the original founders, you know.”

“Gee! I didn’t know that, sir. Then I’ll have to try some of the roads.”

Of course I knew he was a founder, but I knew also that it was advantageous to flatter rich white folks. Perhaps he’d give me a large tip, or a suit, or a scholarship next year.

“Anywhere else you like. The campus is part of my life and I know my life rather well.”

“Yes, sir.”

He was still smiling.

In a moment the green campus with its vine-covered buildings was behind us. The car bounded over the road. How was the campus part of his life, I wondered. And how did one learn his life “rather well”?

“Young man, you’re part of a wonderful institution. It is a great dream become reality . . .”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“I feel as lucky to be connected with it as you no doubt do yourself. I came here years ago, when all your beautiful campus was barren ground. There were no trees, no flowers, no fertile farmland. That was years ago before you were born . . .”

I listened with fascination, my eyes glued to the white line dividing the highway as my thoughts attempted to sweep back to the times of which he spoke.

“Even your parents were young. Slavery was just recently past. Your people did not know in what direction to turn and, I must confess, many of mine didn’t know in what direction they should turn either. But your great Founder did. He was my friend and I believed in his vision. So much so, that sometimes I don’t know whether it was his vision or mine . . .”

He chuckled softly, wrinkles forming at the corners of his eyes.

“But of course it was his; I only assisted. I came down with him to see the barren land and did what I could to render assistance. And it has been my pleasant fate to return each spring and observe the changes that the years have wrought. That has been more pleasant and satisfying to me than my own work. It has been a pleasant fate, indeed.”

His voice was mellow and loaded with more meaning than I could fathom. As I drove, faded and yellowed pictures of the school’s early days displayed in the library flashed across the screen of my mind, coming fitfully and fragmentarily to life — photographs of men and women in wagons drawn by mule teams and oxen, dressed in black, dusty clothing, people who seemed almost without individuality, a black mob that seemed to be waiting, looking with blank faces, and among them the inevitable collection of white men and women in smiles, clear of features, striking, elegant and confident. Until now, and although I could recognize the Founder and Dr. Bledsoe among them, the figures in the photographs had never seemed actually to have been alive, but were more like signs or symbols one found on the last pages of the dictionary . . . But now I felt that I was sharing in a great work and, with the car leaping leisurely beneath the pressure of my foot, I identified myself with the rich man reminiscing on the rear seat . . .

“A pleasant fate,” he repeated, “and I hope yours will be as pleasant.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” I said, pleased that he wished something pleasant for me.

But at the same time I was puzzled: How could anyone’s fate be pleasant? I had always thought of it as something painful. No one I knew spoke of it as pleasant — not even Woodridge, who made us read Greek plays.

We were beyond the farthest extension of the school-owned lands now and I suddenly decided to turn off the highway, down a road that seemed unfamiliar. There were no trees and the air was brilliant. Far down the road the sun glared cruelly against a tin sign nailed to a barn. A lone figure bending over a hoe on the hillside raised up wearily and waved, more a shadow against the skyline than a man.

“How far have we come?” I heard over my shoulder.

“Just about a mile, sir.”

“I don’t remember this section,” he said.

I didn’t answer. I was thinking of the first person who’d mentioned anything like fate in my presence, my grandfather. There had been nothing pleasant about it and I had tried to forget it. Now, riding here in the powerful car with this white man who was so pleased with what he called his fate, I felt a sense of dread. My grandfather would have called this treachery and I could not understand in just what way it was. Suddenly I grew guilty at the realization that the white man might have thought so too. What would he have thought? Did he know that Negroes like my grandfather had been freed during those days just before the college had been founded?

As we came to a side road I saw a team of oxen hitched to a broken-down wagon, the ragged driver dozing on the seat beneath the shade of a clump of trees.

“Did you see that, sir?” I asked over my shoulder.

“What was it?”

“The ox team, sir.”

“Oh! No, I can’t see it for the trees,” he said looking back. “It’s good timber.”

“I’m sorry, sir. Shall I turn back?”

“No, it isn’t much,” he said. “Go on.”

I drove on, remembering the lean, hungry face of the sleeping man.

He was the kind of white man I feared. The brown fields swept out to the horizon. A flock of birds dipped down, circled, swung up and out as though linked by invisible strings. Waves of heat danced above the engine hood. The tires sang over the highway. Finally I overcame my timidity and asked him:

“Sir, why did you become interested in the school?”

“I think,” he said, thoughtfully, raising his voice, “it was because I felt even as a young man that your people were somehow closely connected with my destiny. Do you understand?”

“Not so clearly, sir,” I said, ashamed to admit it. “You have studied Emerson, haven’t you?” “Emerson, sir?”
“Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

I was embarrassed because I hadn’t. “Not yet, sir. We haven’t come to him yet.”

“No?” he said with a note of surprise. “Well, never mind. I am a New Englander, like Emerson. You must learn about him, for he was important to your people. He had a hand in your destiny. Yes, perhaps that is what I mean. I had a feeling that your people were somehow connected with my destiny. That what happened to you was connected with what would happen to me . . .”

I slowed the car, trying to understand. Through the glass I saw him gazing at the long ash of his cigar, holding it delicately in his slender, manicured fingers.

“Yes, you are my fate, young man. Only you can tell me what it really is. Do you understand?”

“I think I do, sir.”

“I mean that upon you depends the outcome of the years I have spent in helping your school. That has been my life’s work, not my banking or my researches, but my first-hand organizing of human life.”

I saw him now, leaning toward the front seat, speaking with an intensity which had not been there before. It was hard not to turn my eyes from the highway and face him.

“There is another reason, a reason more important, more passionate and, yes, even more sacred than all the others,” he said, no longer seeming to see me, but speaking to himself alone. “Yes, even more sacred than all the others. A girl, my daughter. She was a being more rare, more beautiful, purer, more perfect and more delicate than the wildest dream of a poet. I could never believe her to be my own flesh and blood. Her beauty was a well-spring of purest water-of-life, and to look upon her was to drink and drink and drink again . . . She was rare, a perfect creation, a work of purest art. A delicate flower that bloomed in the liquid light of the moon. A nature not of this world, a personality like that of some biblical maiden, gracious and queenly. I found it difficult to believe her my own . . .”

Suddenly he fumbled in his vest pocket and thrust something over the back of the seat, surprising me.

“Here, young man, you owe much of your good fortune in attending such a school to her.”

I looked upon the tinted miniature framed in engraved platinum. I almost dropped it. A young woman of delicate, dreamy features looked up at me. She was very beautiful, I thought at the time, so beautiful that I did not know whether I should express admiration to the extent I felt it or merely act polite. And yet I seemed to remember her, or someone like her, in the past. I know now that it was the flowing costume of soft, flimsy material that made for the effect; today, dressed in one of the smart, well-tailored, angular, sterile, streamlined, engine-turned, air-conditioned modern outfits you see in the women’s magazines, she would appear as ordinary as an expensive piece of machine-tooled jewelry and just as lifeless. Then, however, I shared something of his enthusiasm.

“She was too pure for life,” he said sadly; “too pure and too good and too beautiful. We were sailing together, touring the world, just she and I, when she became ill in Italy. I thought little of it at the time and we continued across the Alps. When we reached Munich she was already fading away. While we were attending an embassy party she collapsed. The best medical science in the world could not save her. It was a lonely return, a bitter voyage. I have never recovered. I have never forgiven myself. Everything I’ve done since her passing has been a monument to her memory.”

He became silent, looking with his blue eyes far beyond the field stretching away in the sun. I returned the miniature, wondering what in the world had made him open his heart to me. That was something I never did; it was dangerous. First, it was dangerous if you felt like that about anything, because then you’d never get it or something or someone would take it away from you; then it was dangerous because nobody would understand you and they’d only laugh and think you were crazy.

“So you see, young man, you are involved in my life quite intimately, even though you’ve never seen me before. You are bound to a great dream and to a beautiful monument. If you become a good farmer, a chef, a preacher, doctor, singer, mechanic — whatever you become, and even if you fail, you are my fate. And you must write me and tell me the outcome.”

I was relieved to see him smiling through the mirror. My feelings were mixed. Was he kidding me? Was he talking to me like someone in a book just to see how I would take it? Or could it be, I was almost afraid to think, that this rich man was just the tiniest bit crazy? How could I tell him his fate? He raised his head and our eyes met for an instant in the glass, then I lowered mine to the blazing white line that divided the highway.

The trees along the road were thick and tall. We took a curve. Flocks of quail sailed up and over a field, brown, brown, sailing down, blending.

“Will you promise to tell me my fate?” I heard. “Sir?”

“Will you?”

“Right now, sir?” I asked with embarrassment.

“It is up to you. Now, if you like.”

I was silent. His voice was serious, demanding. I could think of no reply. The motor purred. An insect crushed itself against the windshield, leaving a yellow, mucous smear.

“I don’t know now, sir. This is only my junior year . . .”

“But you’ll tell me when you know?”

“I’ll try, sir.”


When I took a quick glance into the mirror he was smiling again. I wanted to ask him if being rich and famous and helping to direct the school to become what it was, wasn’t enough; but I was afraid.

“What do you think of my idea, young man?” he said.

“I don’t know, sir. I only think that you have what you’re looking for. Because if I fail or leave school, it doesn’t seem to me it would be your fault. Because you helped make the school what it is.”

“And you think that enough?”

“Yes, sir. That’s what the president tells us. You have yours, and you got it yourself, and we have to lift ourselves up the same way.”

“But that’s only part of it, young man. I have wealth and a reputation and prestige — all that is true. But your great Founder had more than that, he had tens of thousands of lives dependent upon his ideas and upon his actions. What he did affected your whole race. In a way, he had the power of a king, or in a sense, of a god. That, I’ve come to believe, is more important than my own work, because more depends upon you. You are important because if you fail I have failed by one individual, one defective cog; it didn’t matter so much before, but now I’m growing old and it has become very important . . .”

But you don’t even know my name, I thought, wondering what it was all about.

“. . . I suppose it is difficult for you to understand how this concerns me. But as you develop you must remember that I am dependent upon you to learn my fate. Through you and your fellow students I become, let us say, three hundred teachers, seven hundred trained mechanics, eight hundred skilled farmers, and so on. That way I can observe in terms of living personalities to what extent my money, my time and my hopes have been fruitfully invested. I also construct a living memorial to my daughter. Understand? I can see the fruits produced by the land that your great Founder has transformed from barren clay to fertile soil.”

His voice ceased and I saw the strands of pale blue smoke drifting across the mirror and heard the electric lighter snap back on its cable into place behind the back of the seat.

“I think I understand you better, now, sir,” I said.

“Very good, my boy.”

“Shall I continue in this direction, sir?”

“By all means,” he said, looking out at the countryside. “I’ve never seen this section before. It’s new territory for me.”

Half-consciously I followed the white line as I drove, thinking about what he had said. Then as we took a hill we were swept by a wave of scorching air and it was as though we were approaching a desert. It almost took my breath away and I leaned over and switched on the fan, hearing its sudden whirr.

“Thank you,” he said as a slight breeze filled the car.

We were passing a collection of shacks and log cabins now, bleached white and warped by the weather. Sun-tortured shingles lay on the roofs like decks of water-soaked cards spread out to dry. The houses consisted of two square rooms joined together by a common floor and roof with a porch in between. As we passed we could look through to the fields beyond. I stopped the car at his excited command in front of a house set off from the rest.

“Is that a log cabin?”

It was an old cabin with its chinks filled with chalk-white clay, with bright new shingles patching its roof. Suddenly I was sorry that I had blundered down this road. I recognized the place as soon as I saw the group of children in stiff new overalls who played near a rickety fence.

“Yes, sir. It is a log cabin,” I said.

It was the cabin of Jim Trueblood, a sharecropper who had brought disgrace upon the black community. Several months before he had caused quite a bit of outrage up at the school, and now his name was never mentioned above a whisper. Even before that he had seldom come near the campus but had been well liked as a hard worker who took good care of his family’s needs, and as one who told the old stories with a sense of humor and a magic that made them come alive. He was also a good tenor singer, and sometimes when special white guests visited the school he was brought up along with the members of a country quartet to sing what the officials called “their primitive spirituals” when we assembled in the chapel on Sunday evenings. We were embarrassed by the earthy harmonies they sang, but since the visitors were awed we dared not laugh at the crude, high, plaintively animal sounds Jim Trueblood made as he led the quartet. That had all passed now with his disgrace, and what on the part of the school officials had been an attitude of contempt blunted by tolerance, had now become a contempt sharpened by hate. I didn’t understand in those pre-invisible days that their hate, and mine too, was charged with fear. How all of us at the college hated the black-belt people, the “peasants,” during those days! We were trying to lift them up and they, like Trueblood, did everything it seemed to pull us down.

“It appears quite old,” Mr. Norton said, looking across the bare, hard stretch of yard where two women dressed in new blue-and-white checked ginghams were washing clothes in an iron pot. The pot was soot-black and the feeble flames that licked its sides showed pale pink and bordered with black, like flames in mourning. Both women moved with the weary, full-fronted motions of far-gone pregnancy.

“It is, sir,” I said. “That one and the other two like it were built during slavery times.”

“You don’t say! I would never have believed that they were so enduring. Since slavery times!”

“That’s true, sir. And the white family that owned the land when it was a big plantation still lives in town.”

“Yes,” he said, “I know that many of the old families still survive. And individuals too, the human stock goes on, even though it degenerates. But these cabinsl” He seemed surprised and confounded.

“Do you suppose those women know anything about the age and history of the place? The older one looks as though she might.”

“I doubt it, sir. They — they don’t seem very bright.”

“Bright?” he said, removing his cigar. “You mean that they wouldn’t talk with me?” he asked suspiciously.

“Yes, sir. That’s it.”

“Why not?”

I didn’t want to explain. It made me feel ashamed, but he sensed that I knew something and pressed me.

“It’s not very nice, sir. But I don’t think those women would talk to us.”

“We can explain that we’re from the school. Surely they’ll talk then. You may tell them who I am.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, “but they hate us up at the school. They never come there . . .”


“No, sir.”

“And those children along the fence down there?”

“They don’t either, sir.”

“But why?”

“I don’t really know, sir. Quite a few folks out this way don’t, though. I guess they’re too ignorant. They’re not interested.”

“But I can’t believe it.”

The children had stopped playing and now looked silently at the car, their arms behind their backs and their new over-sized overalls pulled tight over their little pot bellies as though they too were pregnant.

“What about their men folk?”

I hesitated. Why did he find this so strange?

“He hates us, sir,” I said.

“You say he; aren’t both the women married?”

I caught my breath. I’d made a mistake. “The old one is, sir,” I said reluctantly.

“What happened to the young woman’s husband?”

“She doesn’t have any — That is . . . I –“

“What is it, young man? Do you know these people?”

“Only a little, sir. There was some talk about them up on the campus a while back.”

“What talk?”

“Well, the young woman is the old woman’s daughter . . .”


“Well, sir, they say . . . you see . . . I mean they say the daughter doesn’t have a husband.”

“Oh, I see. But that shouldn’t be so strange. I understand that your people — Never mind! Is that all?” “Well, sir . . .”

“Yes, what else?”

“They say that her father did it.”


“Yes, sir . . . that he gave her the baby.”

I heard the sharp intake of breath, like a toy balloon suddenly deflated. His face reddened. I was confused, feeling shame for the two women and fear that I had talked too much and offended his sensibilities.

“And did anyone from the school investigate this matter?” he asked at last.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“What was discovered?”

“That it was true — they say.”

“But how does he explain his doing such a — a — such a monstrous thing?”

He sat back in the seat, his hands grasping his knees, his knuckles bloodless. I looked away, down the heat-dazzling concrete of the highway. I wished we were back on the other side of the white line, heading back to the quiet green stretch of the campus.

“It is said that the man took both his wife and his daughter?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And that he is the father of both their children?”

“Yes, sir.”

“No, no, no!”

He sounded as though he were in great pain. I looked at him anxiously. What had happened? What had I said?

“Not that! No . . .” he said, with something like horror.

I saw the sun blaze upon the new blue overalls as the man appeared around the cabin. His shoes were tan and new and he moved easily over the hot earth. He was a small man and he covered the yard with a familiarity that would have allowed him to walk in the blackest darkness with the same certainty. He came and said something to the women as he fanned himself with a blue bandanna handkerchief. But they appeared to regard him sullenly, barely speaking, and hardly looking in his direction.

“Would that be the man?” Mr. Norton asked.

“Yes, sir. I think so.”

“Get out!” he cried. “I must talk with him.”

I was unable to move. I felt surprise and a dread and resentment of what he might say to Trueblood and his women, the questions he might ask. Why couldn’t he leave them alone!


I climbed from the car and opened the rear door. He clambered out and almost ran across the road to the yard, as though compelled by some pressing urgency which I could not understand. Then suddenly I saw the two women turn and run frantically behind the house, their movements heavy and flatfooted. I hurried behind him, seeing him stop when he reached the man and the children. They became silent, their faces clouding over, their features becoming soft and negative, their eyes bland and deceptive. They were crouching behind their eyes waiting for him to speak — just as I recognized that I was trembling behind my own. Up close I saw what I had not seen from the car: The man had a scar on his right cheek, as though he had been hit in the face with a sledge. The wound was raw and moist and from time to time he lifted his handkerchief to fan away the gnats.

“I, I –” Mr. Norton stammered, “I must talk with you!”

“All right, suh,” Jim Trueblood said without surprise and waited.

“Is it true . . . I mean did you?”

“Suh?” Trueblood asked, as I looked away.

“You have survived,” he blurted. “But is it true . . .?”

“Suh?” the farmer said, his brow wrinkling with bewilderment.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, “but I don’t think he understands you.”
He ignored me, staring into Trueblood’s face as though reading a message there which I could not perceive.

“You did and are unharmed!” he shouted, his blue eyes blazing into the black face with something like envy and indignation. Trueblood looked helplessly at me. I looked away. I understood no more than he.

“You have looked upon chaos and are not destroyed!”

“No suh! I feels all right.”

“You do? You feel no inner turmoil, no need to cast out the offending eye?” “Suh?”

“Answer me!”

“I’m all right, suh,” Trueblood said uneasily. “My eyes is all right too. And when I feels po’ly in my gut I takes a little soda and it goes away.”

“No, no, no! Let us go where there is shade,” he said, looking about excitedly and going swiftly to where the porch cast a swath of shade. We followed him. The farmer placed his hand on my shoulder, but I shook it off, knowing that I could explain nothing. We sat on the porch in a semicircle in camp chairs, me between the sharecropper and the millionaire. The earth around the porch was hard and white from where wash water had long been thrown.

“How are you faring now?” Mr. Norton asked. “Perhaps I could help.”

“We ain’t doing so bad, suh. ‘Fore they heard ’bout what happen to us out here I couldn’t git no help from nobody. Now lotta folks is curious and goes outta they way to help. Even the biggity school folks up on the hill, only there was a catch to it! They offered to send us clean outta the county, pay our way and everything and give me a hundred dollars to git settled with. But we likes it here so I told ’em No. Then they sent a fellow out here, a big fellow too, and he said if I didn’t leave they was going to turn the white folks loose on me. It made me mad and it made me scared. Them folks up there to the school is in strong with the white folks and that scared me. But I thought when they first come out here that they was different from when I went up there a long time ago looking for some book learning and some points on how to handle my crops. That was when I had my own place. I thought they was trying to he’p me, on accounta I got two women due to birth ’bout the same time.

“But I got mad when I found they was tryin’ to git rid of us ’cause they said we was a disgrace. Yessuh, I got real mad. So I went down to see Mr. Buchanan, the boss man, and I tole him ’bout it and he give me a note to the sheriff and tole me to take it to him. I did that, jus’ like he tole me. I went to the jailhouse and give Sheriff Barbour the note and he ask me to tell him what happen, and I tole him and he called in some more men and they made me tell it again. They wanted to hear about the gal lots of times and they gimme somethin’ to eat and drink and some tobacco. Surprised me, ’cause I was scared and spectin’ somethin’ different. Why, I guess there ain’t a colored man in the county who ever got to take so much of the white folkses’ time as I did. So finally they tell me not to worry, that they was going to send word up to the school that I was to stay right where I am. Them big nigguhs didn’t bother me, neither. It just goes to show yuh that no matter how biggity a nigguh gits, the white folks can always cut him down. The white folks took up for me. And the white folks took to coming out here to see us and talk with us. Some of ’em was big white folks, too, from the big school way cross the State. Asked me lots ’bout what I thought ’bout things, and ’bout my folks and the kids, and wrote it all down in a book. But best of all, suh, I got more work now than I ever did have before . . .”
He talked willingly now, with a kind of satisfaction and no trace of hesitancy or shame. The old man listened with a puzzled expression as he held an unlit cigar in his delicate fingers.

“Things is pretty good now,” the farmer said. “Ever time I think of how cold it was and what a hard time we was having I gits the shakes.”

I saw him bite into a plug of chewing tobacco. Something tinkled against the porch and I picked it up, gazing at it from time to time. It was a hard red apple stamped out of tin.

“You see, suh, it was cold and us didn’t have much fire. Nothin’ but wood, no coal. I tried to git help but wouldn’t nobody help us and I couldn’t find no work or nothin’. It was so cold all of us had to sleep together; me, the ole lady and the gal. That’s how it started, suh.”

He cleared his throat, his eyes gleaming and his voice taking on a deep, incantatory quality, as though he had told the story many, many times. Flies and fine white gnats swarmed about his wound.

“That’s the way it was,” he said. “Me on one side and the ole lady on the other and the gal in the middle. It was dark, plum black. Black as the middle of a bucket of tar. The kids was sleeping all together in they bed over in the corner. I must have been the last one to go to sleep, ’cause I was thinking ’bout how to git some grub for the next day and ’bout the gal and the young boy what was startin’ to hang ’round her. I didn’t like him and he kept comin’ through my thoughts and I made up my mind to warn him away from the gal. It was black dark and I heard one of the kids whimper in his sleep and the last few sticks of kindlin’ crackin’ and settlin’ in the stove and the smell of the fat meat seemed to git cold and still in the air just like meat grease when it gits set in a cold plate of molasses. And I was thinkin’ ’bout the gal and this boy and feelin’ her arms besides me and hearing the ole lady snorin’ with a kinda moanin’ and a-groanin’ on the other side. I was worryin’ ’bout my family, how they was goin’ to eat and all, and I thought ’bout when the gal was little like the younguns sleepin’ over in the corner and how I was her favorite over the ole lady. There we was, breathin’ together in the dark. Only I could see ’em in my mind, knowin’ ’em like I do. In my mind I looked at all of ’em, one by one. The gal looks just like the ole lady did when she was young and I first met her, only better lookin’. You know, we gittin’ to be a better-lookin’ race of people . . .

“Anyway, I could hear ’em breathin’ and though I hadn’t been it made me sleepy. Then I heard the gal say, ‘Daddy,’ soft and low in her sleep and I looked, tryin’ to see if she was still awake. But all I can do is smell her and feel her breath on my hand when I go to touch her. She said it so soft I couldn’t be sure I had heard anything, so I just laid there listenin’. Seems like I heard a whippoorwill callin’, and I thought to myself, Go on away from here, we’ll whip ole Will when we find him. Then I heard the clock up there at the school strikin’ four times, lonesome like.

“Then I got to thinkin’ ’bout way back when I left the farm and went to live in Mobile and ’bout a gal I had me then. I was young then — like this young fellow here. Us lived in a two-story house ‘longside the river, and at night in the summertime we used to lay in bed and talk, and after she’d gone off to sleep I’d be awake lookin’ out at the lights comin’ up from the water and listenin’ to the sounds of the boats movin’ along. They used to have musicianers on them boats, and sometimes I used to wake her up to hear the music when they come up the river. I’d be layin’ there and it would be quiet and I could hear it comin’ from way, way off. Like when you quail huntin’ and it’s getting dark and you can hear the boss bird whistlin’ tryin’ to get the covey together again, and he’s coming toward you slow and whistlin’ soft, cause he knows you somewhere around with your gun. Still he got to round them up, so he keeps on comin’. Them boss quails is like a good man, what he got to do he do.

“Well, that’s the way the boats used to sound. Comin’ close to you from far away. First one would be comin’ to you when you almost sleep and it sounded like somebody hittin’ at you slow with a big shiny pick. You see the pick-point comin’ straight at you, comin’ slow too, and you can’t dodge; only when it goes to hit you it ain’t no pick a’tall but somebody far away breakin’ little bottles of all kindsa colored glass. It’s still comin’ at you though. Still comin’. Then you hear it close up, like when you up in the second-story window and look down on a wagonful of watermelons, and you see one of them young juicy melons split wide open a-layin’ all spread out and cool and sweet on top of all the striped green ones like it’s waitin’ just for you, so you can see how red and ripe and juicy it is and all the shiny black seeds it’s got and all. And you could hear the sidewheels splashin’ like they don’t want to wake nobody up; and us, me and the gal, would lay there feelin’ like we was rich folks and them boys on the boats would be playin’ sweet as good peach brandy wine. Then the boats would be past and the lights would be gone from the window and the music would be goin’ too. Kinda like when you watch a gal in a red dress and a wide straw hat goin’ past you down a lane with the trees on both sides, and she’s plump and juicy and kinda switchin’ her tail ’cause she knows you watchin’ and you know she know, and you just stands there and watches ’til you can’t see nothin’ but the top of her red hat and then that goes and you know she done dropped behind a hill — I seen me a gal like that once. All I could hear then would be that Mobile gal — name of Margaret — she be breathin’ beside me, and maybe ’bout that time she’d say, ‘Daddy, you still ‘wake?’ and then I’d grunt, ‘Uhhuh’ and drop on off — Gent’mens,” Jim Trueblood said, “I likes to recall them Mobile days.

“Well, it was like that when I heard Matty Lou say, ‘Daddy,’ and I knowed she musta been dreamin’ ’bout somebody from the way she said it and I gits mad wonderin’ if it’s that boy. I listen to her mumblin’ for a while tryin’ to hear if she calls his name, but she don’t, and I remember that they say if you put the hand of a person who’s talkin’ in his sleep in warm water he’ll say it all, but the water is too cold and I wouldn’t have done it anyway. But I’m realizin’ that she’s a woman now, when I feels her turn and squirm against me and throw her arm across my neck, up where the cover didn’t reach and I was cold. She said somethin’ I couldn’t understand, like a woman says when she wants to tease and please a man. I knowed then she was grown and I wondered how many times it’d done happened and was it that doggone boy. I moved her arm and it was soft, but it didn’t wake her, so I called her, but that didn’t wake her neither. Then I turned my back and tried to move away, though there wasn’t much room and I could still feel her touchin’ me, movin’ close to me. Then I musta dropped into the dream. I have to tell you ’bout that dream.”

I looked at Mr. Norton and stood up, thinking that now was a good time to leave; but he was listening to Trueblood so intensely he didn’t see me, and I sat down again, cursing the farmer silently. To hell with his dream!

“I don’t quite remember it all, but I remember that I was lookin’ for some fat meat. I went to the white folks downtown and they said go see Mr. Broadnax, that he’d give it to me. Well, he lives up on a hill and I was climbin’ up there to see him. Seems like that was the highest hill in the world. The more I climbed the farther away Mr. Broadnax’s house seems to git. But finally I do reach there. And I’m so tired and restless to git to the man, I goes through the front door! I knows it’s wrong, but I can’t help it. I goes in and I’m standin’ in a big room full of lighted candles and shiny furniture and pictures on the walls, and soft stuff on the floor. But I don’t see a livin’ soul. So I calls his name, but still don’t nobody come and don’t nobody answer. So I sees a door and goes through that door and I’m in a big white bedroom, like I seen one time when I was a little ole boy and went to the big house with my Ma. Everything in the room was white and I’m standin’ there knowin’ I got no business in there, but there anyhow. It’s a woman’s room too. I tries to git out, but I don’t find the door; and all around me I can smell woman, can smell it gittin’ stronger all the time. Then I looks over in a corner and sees one of them tall grandfather clocks and I hears it strikin’ and the glass door is openin’ and a white lady is steppin’ out of it. She got on a nightgown of soft white silky stuff and nothin’ else, and she looks straight at me. I don’t know what to do. I wants to run, but the only door I see is the one in the clock she’s standin’ in — and anyway, I can’t move and this here clock is keepin’ up a heapa racket. It’s gittin’ faster and faster all the time. I tries to say somethin’, but I caint. Then she starts to screamin’ and I thinks I done gone deef, ’cause though I can see her mouth working, I don’t hear nothin’. Yit I can still hear the clock and I tries to tell her I’m just lookin’ for Mr. Broadnax but she don’t hear me. Instead she runs up and grabs me around the neck and holds tight, tryin’ to keep me out of the clock. I don’t know what to do then, sho ‘nough. I tries to talk to her, and I tries to git away. But she’s holdin’ me and I’m scared to touch her cause she’s white. Then I gits so scared that I throws her on the bed and tries to break her holt. That woman just seemed to sink outta sight, that there bed was so soft. It’s sinkin’ down so far I think it’s going to smother both of us. Then swoosh! all of a sudden a flock of little white geese flies out of the bed like they say you see when you go to dig for buried money. Lawd! they hadn’t no more’n disappeared than I heard a door open and Mr. Broadnax’s voice said, ‘They just nigguhs, leave ’em do it.’

How can he tell this to white men, I thought, when he knows they’ll say that all Negroes do such things? I looked at the floor, a red mist of anguish before my eyes.

“And I caint stop — although I got a feelin’ somethin’ is wrong. I git loose from the woman now and I’m runnin’ for the clock. At first I couldn’t git the door open, it had some kinda crinkly stuff like steel wool on the facing. But I gits it open and gits inside and it’s hot and dark in there. I goes up a dark tunnel, up near where the machinery is making all that noise and heat. It’s like the power plant they got up to the school. It’s burnin’ hot as iffen the house was caught on fire, and I starts to runnin’, try-in’ to git out. I runs and runs till I should be tired but ain’t tired but feelin’ more rested as I runs, and runnin’ so good it’s like flyin’ and I’m flyin’ and sailin’ and floatin’ right up over the town. Only I’m still in the tunnel. Then way up ahead I sees a bright light like a jack-o-lantern over a graveyard. It gits brighter and brighter and I know I got to catch up with it or else. Then all at once I was right up with it and it burst like a great big electric light in my eyes and scalded me all over. Only it wasn’t a scald, but like I was drownin’ in a lake where the water was hot on the top and had cold numbin’ currents down under it. Then all at once I’m through it and I’m relieved to be out and in the cool daylight agin.

“I wakes up intendin’ to tell the ole lady ’bout my crazy dream. Morning done come, and it’s gettin’ almost light. And there I am, lookin’ straight in Matty Lou’s face and she’s beatin’ me and scratchin’ and tremblin’ and shakin’ and cryin’ all at the same time like she’s havin’ a fit. I’m too surprised to move. She’s cryin’, ‘Daddy, Daddy, oh Daddy,’ just like that. And all at once I remember the ole lady. She’s right beside us snorin’ and I can’t move ’cause I figgers if I moved it would be a sin And I figgers too, that if I don’t move it maybe ain’t no sin, ’cause it happened when I was asleep — although maybe sometimes a man can look at a little ole pigtail gal and see him a whore — you’all know that? Anyway, I realizes that if I don’t move the ole lady will see me. I don’t want that to happen. That would be worse than sin. I’m whisperin’ to Matty Lou, tryin’ to keep her quiet and I’m figurin’ how to git myself out of the fix I’m in without sinnin’. I almost chokes her.

“But once a man gits hisself in a tight spot like that there ain’t much he can do. It ain’t up to him no longer. There I was, tryin’ to git away with all my might, yet having to move without movin’. I flew in but I had to walk out. I had to move without movin’. I done thought ’bout it since a heap, and when you think right hard you see that that’s the way things is always been with me. That’s just about been my life. There was only one way I can figger that I could git out: that was with a knife. But I didn’t have no knife, and if you’all ever seen them geld them young boar pigs in the fall, you know I knowed that that was too much to pay to keep from sinnin’. Everything was happenin’ inside of me like a fight was goin’ on. Then just the very thought of the fix I’m in puts the iron back in me.

“Then if that ain’t bad enough, Matty Lou can’t hold out no longer and gits to movin’ herself. First she was tryin’ to push me away and I’m tryin’ to hold her down to keep from sinnin’. Then I’m pullin’ away and shushin’ her to be quiet so’s not to wake her Ma, when she grabs holt to me and holds tight. She didn’t want me to go then — and to tell the honest-to-God truth I found out that I didn’t want to go neither. I guess I felt then, at that time — and although I been sorry since — just ’bout like that fellow did down in Birmingham. That one what locked hisself in his house and shot at them police until they set fire to the house and burned him up. I was lost. The more wringlin’ and twistin’ we done tryin’ to git away, the more we wanted to stay. So like that fellow, I stayed, I had to fight it on out to the end. He mighta died, but I suspects now that he got a heapa satisfaction before he went. I know there ain’t nothin’ like what I went through, I caint tell how it was. It’s like when a real drinkin’ man gits drunk, or when a real sanctified religious woman gits so worked up she jumps outta her clothes, or when a real gamblin’ man keeps on gamblin’ when he’s losin’. You got holt to it and you caint let go even though you want to.”

“Mr. Norton, sir,” I said in a choked voice, “it’s time we were getting back to the campus. You’ll miss your appointments . . .”

He didn’t even look at me. “Please,” he said, waving his hand in annoyance.

Trueblood seemed to smile at me behind his eyes as he looked from the white man to me and continued.

“I couldn’t even let go when I heard Kate scream. It was a scream to make your blood run cold. It sounds like a woman who was watchin’ a team of wild horses run down her baby chile and she caint move. Kate’s hair is standin’ up like she done seen a ghost, her gown is hanging open and the veins in her neck is ’bout to bust. And her eyes! Lawd, them eyes. I’m lookin’ up at her from where I’m layin’ on the pallet with Matty Lou, and I’m too weak to move. She screams and starts to pickin’ up the first thing that comes to her hand and throwin’ it. Some of them misses me and some of them hits me. Little things and big things. Somethin’ cold and strong-stinkin’ hits me and wets me and bangs against my head. Somethin’ hits the wall — boom-a-loom-a-loom! — like a cannon ball, and I tries to cover up my head. Kate’s talkin’ the unknown tongue, like a wild woman.

” ‘Wait a minit, Kate,’ I says. ‘Stop it!’

“Then I hears her stop a second and I hears her runnin’ across the floor, and I twists and looks and Lawd, she done got my double-barrel shotgun!

“And while she’s foamin’ at the mouth and cockin’ the gun, she gits her speech.

” ‘Git up! Git up!’ she says.
” ‘HEY! NAW! KATE!’ I says.
” ‘Goddam yo’ soul to hell! Git up offa my chile!’
” ‘But woman, Kate, lissen . . .’
” ‘Don’t talk, MOVE!’
” ‘Down that thing, Kate!’
” ‘No down, UP!’
” ‘That there’s buckshot, woman, BUCKshot!’
” ‘Yes, it is!’
” ‘Down it, I say!”
” ‘I’m gon blast your soul to hell!’
” ‘You gon hit Matty Lou!’
” ‘Not Matty Lou — YOU!’
” ‘It spreads, Kate. Matty Lou!’
“She moves around, aimin’ at me.
” ‘I done warn you, Jim . . .’
” ‘Kate, it was a dream. Lissen to me . . .’
” ‘You the one who lissen — UP FROM THERE!’
“She jerks the gun and I shuts my eyes. But insteada thunder and lightin’ bustin’ me, I hears Matty Lou scream in my ear, ” ‘Mamma! Oooooo, MAMA!’
“I rolls almost over then and Kate hesitates. She looks at the gun, and she looks at us, and she shivers a minit like she got the fever. Then all at once she drops the gun, and ZIP! quick as a cat, she turns and grabs somethin’ off the stove. It catches me like somebody diggin’ into my side with a sharp spade. I caint breathe. She’s throwin’ and talkin’ all at the same time.
“And when I looks up, Maan, Maaan! she’s got a iron in her hand!
“I hollers, ‘No blood, Kate. Don’t spill no blood!’ ” ‘You low-down dog,’ she says, ‘it’s better to spill than to foul!’
” ‘Naw, Kate. Things ain’t what they ‘pear! Don’t make no blood-sin on accounta no dream-sin!”
” ‘Shut up, nigguh. You done fouled!’

“But I sees there ain’t no use reasonin’ with her then. I makes up my mind that I’m goin’ to take whatever she gimme. It seems to me that all I can do is take my punishment. I tell myself, Maybe if you suffer for it, it will be best. Maybe you owe it to Kate to let her beat you. You ain’t guilty, but she thinks you is. You don’t want her to beat you, but she think she got to beat you. You want to git up, but you too weak to move.

“I was too. I was frozen to where I was like a youngun what done stuck his lip to a pump handle in the wintertime. I was just like a jaybird that the yellow jackets done stung ’til he’s paralyzed — but still alive in his eyes and he’s watchin’ ’em sting his body to death.

“It made me seem to go way back a distance in my head, behind my eyes, like I was standin’ behind a windbreak durin’ a storm. I looks out and sees Kate runnin’ toward me draggin’ something behind her. I tries to see what it is ’cause I’m curious ’bout it and sees her gown catch on the stove and her hand comin’ in sight with somethin’ in it. I thinks to myself, It’s a handle. What she got the handle to? Then I sees her right up on me, big. She’s swingin’ her arms like a man swingin’ a ten-pound sledge and I sees the knuckles of her hand is bruised and bleedin’, and I sees it catch in her gown and I sees her gown go up so I can see her thighs and I sees how rusty and gray the cold done made her skin, and I sees her bend and straightenin’ up and I hears her grunt and I sees her swing and I smells her sweat and I knows by the shape of the shinin’ wood what she’s got to put on me. Lawd, yes! I sees it catch on a quilt this time and raise that quilt up and drop it on the floor. Then I sees that ax come free! It’s shinin’, shinin’ from the sharpenin’ I’d give it a few days before, and man, way back in myself, behind that windbreak, I says,

” ‘NAAW! KATE — Lawd, Kate, NAW!!!’

Suddenly his voice was so strident that I looked up startled. Trueblood seemed to look straight through Mr. Norton, his eyes glassy. The children paused guiltily at their play, looking toward their father.

“I might as well been pleadin’ with a switch engine,” he went on. “I sees it comin’ down. I sees the light catchin’ on it, I sees Kate’s face all mean and I tightens my shoulders and stiffens my neck and I waits — ten million back-breakin’ years, it seems to me like I waits. I waits so long I remembers all the wrong things I ever done; I waits so long I opens my eyes and closes ’em and opens my eyes agin, and I sees it fallin’. It’s fallin’ fast as flops from a six-foot ox, and while I’m waitin’ I feels somethin’ wind up inside of me and turn to water. I sees it, Lawd, yes! I sees it and seein’ it I twists my head aside. Couldn’t help it; Kate has a good aim, but for that. I moves. Though I meant to keep still, I moved! Anybody but Jesus Christ hisself woulda moved. I feel like the whole side of my face is smashed clear off. It hits me like hot lead so hot that insteada burnin’ me it numbs me. I’m layin’ there on the floor, but inside me I’m runnin’ round in circles like a dog with his back broke, and back into that numbness with my tail tucked between my legs. I feels like I don’t have no skin on my face no more, only the naked bone. But this is the part I don’t understand: more’n the pain and numbness I feels relief. Yes, and to git some more of that relief I seems to run out from behind the windbreak again and up to where Kate’s standin’ with the ax, and I opens my eyes and waits. That’s the truth. I wants some more and I waits. I sees her swing it, lookin’ down on me, and I sees it in the air and I holds my breath, then all of a sudden I sees it stop like somebody done reached down through the roof and caught it, and I sees her face have a spasm and I sees the ax fall, back of her this time, and hit the floor, and Kate spews out some puke and I close my eyes and waits. I can hear her moanin’ and stumblin’ out of the door and fallin’ off the porch into the yard. Then I hears her pukin’ like all her guts is coming up by the roots. Then I looks down and seen blood runnin’ all over Matty Lou. It’s my blood, my face is bleedin’. That gits me to movin’. I gits up and stumbles out to find Kate, and there she is under the cottonwood tree out there, on her knees, and she’s moanin’.

” ‘What have I done, Lawd! What have I done!’

“She’s droolin’ green stuff and gits to pukin’ agin, and when I goes to touch her it gits worse. I stands there holdin’ my face and tryin’ to keep the blood from flowin’ and wonders what on earth is gonna happen. I looks up at the mornin’ sun and expects somehow for it to thunder. But it’s already bright and clear and the sun comin’ up and the birds is chirpin’ and I gits more afraid then than if a bolt of lightnin’ had struck me. I yells, ‘Have mercy, Lawd! Lawd, have mercy!’ and waits. And there’s nothin’ but the clear bright mornin’ sun.

“But don’t nothin’ happen and I knows then that somethin’ worse than anything I ever heard ’bout is in store for me. I musta stood there stark stone still for half an hour. I was still standin’ there when Kate got off her knees and went back into the house. The blood was runnin’ all over my clothes and the flies was after me, and I went back inside to try and stop it.

“When I see Matty Lou stretched out there I think she’s dead. Ain’t no color in her face and she ain’t hardly breathin’. She gray in the face. I tries to help her but I can’t do no good and Kate won’t speak to me nor look at me even; and I thinks maybe she plans to try to kill me agin, but she don’t. I’m in such a daze I just sits there the whole time while she bundles up the younguns and takes ’em down the road to Will Nichols’. I can see but I caint do nothin’.

“And I’m still settin’ there when she comes back with some women to see ’bout Matty Lou. Won’t nobody speak to me, though they looks at me like I’m some new kinda cotton-pickin’ machine. I feels bad. I tells them how it happened in a dream, but they scorns me. I gits plum out of the house then. I goes to see the preacher and even he don’t believe me. He tells me to git out ot his house, that I’m the most wicked man he’s ever seen and that I better go confess my sin and make my peace with God. I leaves tryin’ to pray, but I caint. I thinks and thinks, until I thinks my brain go’n bust, ’bout how I’m guilty and how I ain’t guilty. I don’t eat nothin’ and I don’t drink nothin’ and caint sleep at night. Finally, one night, way early in the mornin’, I looks up and sees the stars and I starts singin’. I don’t mean to, I didn’t think ’bout it, just start singin’. I don’t know what it was, some kinda church song, I guess. All I know is I ends up singin’ the blues. I sings me some blues that night ain’t never been sang before, and while I’m singin’ them blues I makes up my mind that I ain’t nobody but myself and ain’t nothin’ I can do but let whatever is gonna happen, happen. I made up my mind that I was goin’ back home and face Kate; yeah, and face Matty Lou too.

“When I gits here everybody thinks I done run off. There’s a heap of women here with Kate and I runs ’em out. And when I runs ’em out I sends the younguns out to play and locks the door and tells Kate and Matty Lou ’bout the dream and how I’m sorry, but that what done happen is done happen.

” ‘How come you don’t go on ‘way and leave us?’ is the first words Kate says to me. ‘Ain’t you done enough to me and this chile?’
” ‘I caint leave you,’ I says. ‘I’m a man and man don’t leave his family.’
“She says, ‘Naw, you ain’t no man. No man’d do what you did.’ ” ‘I’m still a man,’ I says.
” ‘But what you gon’ do after it happens?’ says Kate.
” ‘After what happens?’ I says.
” ‘When yo black ‘bomination is birthed to bawl yo wicked sin befo the eyes of God!’ (She musta learned them words from the preacher.)
” ‘Birth?’ I says. ‘Who birth?’
” ‘Both of us. Me birth and Matty Lou birth. Both of us birth, you dirty lowdown wicked dog!’
“That liketa killed me. I can understand then why Matty Lou won’t look at me and won’t speak a word to nobody.
” ‘If you stay I’m goin’ over an’ git Aunt Cloe for both of us,’ Kate says.
She says, ‘I don’t aim to birth no sin for folks to look at all the rest of my life, and I don’t aim for Matty Lou to neither.’

“You see, Aunt Cloe is a midwife, and even weak as I am from this news I knows I don’t want her foolin’ with my womenfolks. That woulda been pilin’ sin up on toppa sin. So I told Kate, naw, that if Aunt Cloe come near this house I’d kill her, old as she is. I’da done it too. That settles it. I walks out of the house and leaves ’em here to cry it out between ’em. I wanted to go off by myself agin, but it don’t do no good tryin’ to run off from somethin’ like that. It follows you wherever you go. Besides, to git right down to the facts, there wasn’t nowhere I could go. I didn’t have a cryin’ dime! “Things got to happenin’ right off. The nigguhs up at the school come down to chase me off and that made me mad. I went to see the white folks then and they gave me help. That’s what I don’t understand. I done the worse thing a man could ever do in his family and instead of chasin’ me out of the county, they gimme more help than they ever give any other colored man, no matter how good a nigguh he was. Except that my wife an’ daughter won’t speak to me, I’m better off than I ever been before. And even if Kate won’t speak to me she took the new clothes I brought her from up in town and now she’s gettin’ some eyeglasses made what she been needin’ for so long. But what I don’t understand is how I done the worse thing a man can do in his own family and ‘stead of things gittin’ bad, they got better. The nigguhs up at the school don’t like me, but the white folks treats me fine.”

HE WAS some farmer. As I listened I had been so torn between humiliation and fascination that to lessen my sense of shame I had kept my attention riveted upon his intense face. That way I did not have to look at Mr. Norton. But now as the voice ended I sat looking down at Mr. Norton’s feet. Out in the yard a woman’s hoarse contralto intoned a hymn. Children’s voices were raised in playful chatter. I sat bent over, smelling the sharp dry odor of wood burning in the hot sunlight. I stared at the two pairs of shoes before me. Mr. Norton’s were white, trimmed with black. They were custom made and there beside the cheap tan brogues of the farmer they had the elegantly slender well-bred appearance of fine gloves. Finally someone cleared his throat and I looked up to see Mr. Norton staring silently into Jim Trueblood’s eyes. I was startled. His face had drained of color. With his bright eyes burning into Trueblood’s black face, he looked ghostly. Trueblood looked at me questioningly.

“Lissen to the younguns,” he said in embarrassment. “Playin’ ‘London Bridge’s Fallin’ Down.’

Something was going on which I didn’t get. I had to get Mr. Norton away.

“Are you all right, sir?” I asked.

He looked at me with unseeing eyes. “All right?” he said.

“Yes, sir. I mean that I think it’s time for the afternoon session,” I hurried on.

He stared at me blankly.

I went to him. “Are you sure you’re all right, sir?”

“Maybe it’s the heat,” Trueblood said. “You got to be born down here to stand this kind of heat.”

“Perhaps,” Mr. Norton said, “it is the heat. We’d better go.”
He stood shakily, still staring intently at Trueblood. Then I saw him removing a red Moroccan-leather wallet from his coat pocket. The platinum-framed miniature came with it, but he did not look at it this time.

“Here,” he said, extending a banknote. “Please take this and buy the children some toys for me.”

Trueblood’s mouth fell agape, his eyes widened and filled with moisture as he took the bill between trembling fingers. It was a hundred-dollar bill.

“I’m ready, young man,” Mr. Norton said, his voice a whisper.

I went before him to the car and opened the door. He stumbled a bit climbing in and I gave him my arm. His face was still chalk white.

“Drive me away from here,” he said in a sudden frenzy. “Away!”

“Yes, sir.”

I saw Jim Trueblood wave as I threw the car into gear. “You bastard,” I said under my breath. “You no-good bastard! You get a hundred-dollar bill!”

When I had turned the car and started back I saw him still standing in the same place.

Suddenly Mr. Norton touched me on the shoulder. “I must have a stimulant, young man. A little whiskey.”

“Yes, sir. Are you all right, sir?”

“A little faint, but a stimulant . . .”

His voice trailed off. Something cold formed within my chest. If anything happened to him Dr. Bledsoe would blame me. I stepped on the gas, wondering where I could get him some whiskey. Not in the town, that would take too long. There was only one place, the Golden Day.

“I’ll have you some in a few minutes, sir,” I said.

“As soon as you can,” he said.

Chapter 3

I saw them as we approached the short stretch that lay between the railroad tracks and the Golden Day. At first I failed to recognize them. They straggled down the highway in a loose body, blocking the way from the white line to the frazzled weeds that bordered the sun-heated concrete slab. I cursed them silently. They were blocking the road and Mr. Norton was gasping for breath. Ahead of the radiator’s gleaming curve they looked like a chain gang on its way to make a road. But a chain gang marches single file and I saw no guards on horseback. As I drew nearer I recognized the loose gray shirts and pants worn by the veterans. Damn! They were heading for the Golden Day.

“A little stimulant,” I heard behind me.

“In a few minutes, sir.”

Up ahead I saw the one who thought he was a drum major strutting in front, giving orders as he moved energetically in long, hip-swinging strides, a cane held above his head, rising and falling as though in time to music. I slowed the car as I saw him turn to face the men, his cane held at chest level as he shortened the pace. The men continued to ignore him, walking along in a mass, some talking in groups and others talking and gesticulating to themselves.

Suddenly, the drum major saw the car and shook his cane-baton at me. I blew the horn, seeing the men move over to the side as I nosed the car slowly forward. He held his ground, his legs braced, hands on hips, and to keep from hitting him I slammed on the brakes.

The drum major rushed past the men toward the car, and I heard the cane bang down upon the hood as he rushed toward me.

“Who the hell you think you are, running down the army? Give the countersign. Who’s in command of this outfit? You trucking bastards was always too big for your britches. Countersign me!”

“This is General Pershing’s car, sir,” I said, remembering hearing that he responded to the name of his wartime Commander-in-Chief. Suddenly the wild look changed in his eyes and he stepped back and saluted with stiff precision. Then looking suspiciously into the back seat, he barked,

“Where’s the General?”

“There,” I said, turning and seeing Mr. Norton raising himself, weak and white-faced, from the seat.

“What is it? Why have we stopped?”

“The sergeant stopped us, sir . . .”

“Sergeant? What sergeant?” He sat up.

“Is that you, General?” the vet said, saluting. “I didn’t know you were inspecting the front lines today. I’m very sorry, sir.” “What . . . ?” Mr. Norton said.

“The General’s in a hurry,” I said quickly.

“Sure is,” the vet said. “He’s got a lot to see. Discipline is bad. Artillery’s shot to hell.” Then he called to the men walking up the road, “Get the hell out of the General’s road. General Pershing’s coming through. Make way for General Pershing!”

He stepped aside and I shot the car across the line to avoid the men and stayed there on the wrong side as I headed for the Golden Day.

“Who was that man?” Mr. Norton gasped from the back seat.

“A former soldier, sir. A vet. They’re all vets, a little shellshocked.”

“But where is the attendant?”

“I don’t see one, sir. They’re harmless though.”

“Nevertheless, they should have an attendant.”

I had to get him there and away before they arrived. This was their day to visit the girls, and the Golden Day would be pretty rowdy. I wondered where the rest of them were. There should have been about fifty. Well, I would rush in and get the whiskey and leave. What was wrong with Mr. Norton anyway, why should he get that upset over Trueblood? I had felt ashamed and several times I had wanted to laugh, but it had made him sick. Maybe he needed a doctor. Hell, he didn’t ask for any doctor. Damn that bastard Trueblood.

I would run in, get a pint, and run out again, I thought. Then he wouldn’t see the Golden Day. I seldom went there myself except with some of the fellows when word got out that a new bunch of girls had arrived from New Orleans. The school had tried to make the Golden Day respectable, but the local white folks had a hand in it somehow and they got nowhere. The best the school could do was to make it hot for any student caught going there.

He lay like a man asleep as I left the car and ran into the Golden Day. I wanted to ask him for money but decided to use my own. At the door I paused; the place was already full, jammed with vets in loose gray shirts and trousers and women in short, tight-fitting, stiffly starched gingham aprons. The stale beer smell struck like a club through the noise of voices and the juke box. Just as I got inside the door a stolid-faced man gripped me by the arm and looked stonily into my eyes.

“It will occur at 5:30,” he said, looking straight through me.


“The great all-embracing, absolute Armistice, the end of the world!” he said.

Before I could answer, a small plump woman smiled into my face and pulled him away.

“It’s your turn, Doc,” she said. “Don’t let it happen till after me and you done been upstairs. How come I always have to come get you?”

“No, it is true,” he said. “They wirelessed me from Paris this morning.”

“Then, baby, me an’ you better hurry. There’s lots of money I got to make in here before that thing happens. You hold it back a while, will you?” She winked at me as she pulled him through the crowd toward the stairs. I elbowed my way nervously toward the bar.

Many of the men had been doctors, lawyers, teachers, Civil Service workers; there were several cooks, a preacher, a politician, and an artist. One very nutty one had been a psychiatrist. Whenever I saw them I felt uncomfortable. They were supposed to be members of the professions toward which at various times I vaguely aspired myself, and even though they never seemed to see me I could never believe that they were really patients. Sometimes it appeared as though they played some vast and complicated game with me and the rest of the school folk, a game whose goal was laughter and whose rules and subtleties I could never grasp.

Two men stood directly in front of me, one speaking with intense earnestness. “. . . and Johnson hit Jeffries at an angle of 45 degrees from his lower left lateral incisor, producing an instantaneous blocking of his entire thalamic rine, frosting it over like the freezing unit of a refrigerator, thus shattering his autonomous nervous system and rocking the big brick-laying creampuff with extreme hyperspasmic muscular tremors which dropped him dead on the extreme tip of his coccyx, which, in turn, produced a sharp traumatic reaction in his sphincter nerve and muscle, and then, my dear colleague, they swept him up, sprinkled him with quicklime and rolled him away in a barrow. Naturally, there was no other therapy possible.”

“Excuse me,” I said, pushing past.

Big Halley was behind the bar, his dark skin showing through his sweat-wet shirt.

“Whatcha saying, school-boy?”

“I want a double whiskey, Halley. Put it in something deep so I can get it out of here without spilling it. It’s for somebody outside.”

His mouth shot out, “Hell, naw!”

“Why?” I asked, surprised at the anger in his thyroid eyes.

“You still up at the school, ain’t you?”


“Well, those bastards is trying to close me up agin, that’s why. You can drink till you blue in the face in here, but I wouldn’t sell you enough to spit through your teeth to take outside.”

“But I’ve got a sick man out in the car.”

“What car? You never had no car.”

“The white man’s car. I’m driving for him.”

“Ain’t you in school?”

“He’s from the school.”

“Well, who’s sick?”

“He is.”

“He too good to come in? Tell him we don’t Jimcrow nobody.” “But he’s sick.”

“He can die!”

“He’s important, Halley, a trustee. He’s rich and sick and if anything happens to him, they’ll have me packed and on my way home.”

“Can’t help it, school-boy. Bring him inside and he can buy enough to swim in. He can drink outta my own private bottle.”

He sliced the white heads off a couple of beers with an ivory paddle and passed them up the bar. I felt sick inside. Mr. Norton wouldn’t want to come in here. He was too sick. And besides I didn’t want him to see the patients and the girls. Things were getting wilder as I made my way out. Supercargo, the white-uniformed attendant who usually kept the men quiet was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t like it, for when he was upstairs they had absolutely no inhibitions. I made my way out to the car. What could I tell Mr. Norton? He was lying very still when I opened the door.

“Mr. Norton, sir. They refuse to sell me whiskey to bring out.”
He lay very still.

“Mr. Norton.”

He lay like a figure of chalk. I shook him gently, feeling dread within me. He barely breathed. I shook him violently, seeing his head wobble grotesquely. His lips parted, bluish, revealing a row of long, slender, amazingly animal-like teeth.


In a panic I ran back into the Golden Day, bursting through the noise as through an invisible wall.

“Halley! Help me, he’s dying!”

I tried to get through but no one seemed to have heard me. I was blocked on both sides. They were jammed together.


Two patients turned and looked me in the face, their eyes two inches from my nose.

“What is wrong with this gentleman, Sylvester?” the tall one said. “A man’s dying outside!” I said.

“Someone is always dying,” the other one said.

“Yes, and it’s good to die beneath God’s great tent of sky.”

“He’s got to have some whiskey!”

“Oh, that’s different,” one of them said and they began pushing a path to the bar. “A last bright drink to keep the anguish down. Step aside, please!”

“School-boy, you back already?” Halley said.

“Give me some whiskey. He’s dying!”

“I done told you, school-boy, you better bring him in here. He can die, but I still got to pay my bills.”

“Please, they’ll put me in jail.”

“You going to college, figure it out,” he said.

“You’d better bring the gentleman inside,” the one called Sylvester said. “Come, let us assist you.”

We fought our way out of the crowd. He was just as I left him.

“Look, Sylvester, it’s Thomas Jefferson!”
“I was just about to say, I’ve long wanted to discourse with him.”

I looked at them speechlessly; they were both crazy. Or were they joking?

“Give me a hand,” I said.


I shook him. “Mr. Norton!”

“We’d better hurry if he’s to enjoy his drink,” one of them said thoughtfully.
We picked him up. He swung between us like a sack of old clothes.


As we carried him toward the Golden Day one of the men stopped suddenly and Mr. Norton’s head hung down, his white hair dragging in the dust.

“Gentlemen, this man is my grandfather!”

“But he’s white, his name’s Norton.”

“I should know my own grandfather! He’s Thomas Jefferson and I’m his grandson — on the ‘field-nigger’ side,” the tall man said.

“Sylvester, I do believe that you’re right. I certainly do,” he said, staring at Mr. Norton. “Look at those features. Exactly like yours — from the identical mold. Are you sure he didn’t spit you upon the earth, fully clothed?”

“No, no, that was my father,” the man said earnestly.

And he began to curse his father violently as we moved for the door. Halley was there waiting. Somehow he’d gotten the crowd to quiet down and a space was cleared in the center of the room. The men came close to look at Mr. Norton.

“Somebody bring a chair.”

“Yeah, let Mister Eddy sit down.”

“That ain’t no Mister Eddy, man, that’s John D. Rockefeller,” someone said.

“Here’s a chair for the Messiah.”

“Stand back y’all,” Halley ordered. “Give him some room.”

Burnside, who had been a doctor, rushed forward and felt for Mr. Norton’s pulse.

“It’s solid! This man has a solid pulse! Instead of beating, it vibrates. That’s very unusual. Very.”

Someone pulled him away. Halley reappeared with a bottle and a glass. “Here, some of y’all tilt his head back.”

And before I could move, a short, pock-marked man appeared and took Mr. Norton’s head between his hands, tilting it at arm’s length and then, pinching the chin gently like a barber about to apply a razor, gave a sharp, swift movement.


Mr. Norton’s head jerked like a jabbed punching bag. Five pale red lines bloomed on the white cheek, glowing like fire beneath translucent stone. I could not believe my eyes. I wanted to run. A woman tittered. I saw several men rush for the door.

“Cut it out, you damn fool!”

“A case of hysteria,” the pock-marked man said quietly.

“Git the hell out of the way,” Halley said. “Somebody git that stool-pigeon attendant from upstairs. Git him down here, quick!”

“A mere mild case of hysteria,” the pock-marked man said as they pushed him away.

“Hurry with the drink, Halley!”

“Heah, school-boy, you hold the glass. This here’s brandy I been saving for myself.”

Someone whispered tonelessly into my ear, “You see, I told you that it would occur at 5:30. Already the Creator has come.” It was the stolid-faced man.

I saw Halley tilt the bottle and the oily amber of brandy sloshing into the glass. Then tilting Mr. Norton’s head back, I put the glass to his lips and poured. A fine brown stream ran from the corner of his mouth, down his delicate chin. The room was suddenly quiet. I felt a slight movement against my hand, like a child’s breast when it whimpers at the end of a spell of crying. The fine-veined eyelids flickered. He coughed. I saw a slow red flush creep, then spurt, up his neck, spreading over his face.

“Hold it under his nose, school-boy. Let ‘im smell it.”

I waved the glass beneath Mr. Norton’s nose. He opened his pale blue eyes. They seemed watery now in the red flush that bathed his face. He tried to sit up, his right hand fluttering to his chin. His eyes widened, moved quickly from face to face. Then coming to mine, the moist eyes focused with recognition.

“You were unconscious, sir,” I said.

“Where am I, young man?” he asked wearily.

“This is the Golden Day, sir.”


“The Golden Day. It’s a kind of sporting-and-gambling house,” I added reluctantly.

“Now give him another drinka brandy,” Halley said.e

I poured a drink and handed it to him. He sniffed it, closed his eyes as in puzzlement, then drank; his cheeks filled out like small bellows; he was rinsing his mouth.

“Thank you,” he said, a little stronger now. “What is this place?”

“The Golden Day,” said several patients in unison.

He looked slowly around him, up to the balcony, with its scrolled and carved wood. A large flag hung lank above the floor. He frowned.

“What was this building used for in the past?” he said.

“It was a church, then a bank, then it was a restaurant and a fancy gambling house, and now we got it,” Halley explained. “I think somebody said it used to be a jail-house too.”

“They let us come here once a week to raise a little hell,” someone said.

“I couldn’t buy a drink to take out, sir, so I had to bring you inside,” I explained in dread.

He looked about him. I followed his eyes and was amazed to see the varied expressions on the patients’ faces as they silently returned his gaze. Some were hostile, some cringing, some horrified; some, who when among themselves were most violent, now appeared as submissive as children. And some seemed strangely amused.

“Are all of you patients?” Mr. Norton asked.

“Me, I just runs the joint,” Halley said. “These here other fellows . . .”

“We’re patients sent here as therapy,” a short, fat, very intelligent-looking man said. “But,” he smiled, “they send along an attendant, a kind of censor, to see that the therapy fails.”

“You’re nuts. I’m a dynamo of energy. I come to charge my batteries,” one of the vets insisted.

“I’m a student of history, sir,” another interrupted with dramatic gestures. “The world moves in a circle like a roulette wheel. In the beginning, black is on top, in the middle epochs, white holds the odds, but soon Ethiopia shall stretch forth her noble wings! Then place your money on the black!” His voice throbbed with emotion. “Until then, the sun holds no heat, there’s ice in the heart of the earth. Two years from now and I’ll be old enough to give my mulatto mother a bath, the half-white bitch!” he added, beginning to leap up and down in an explosion of glassy-eyed fury.

Mr. Norton blinked his eyes and straightened up.

“I’m a physician, may I take your pulse?” Burnside said, seizing Mr. Norton’s wrist.

“Don’t pay him no mind, mister. He ain’t been no doctor in ten years. They caught him trying to change some blood into money.”

“I did too!” the man screamed. “I discovered it and John D. Rockefeller stole the formula from me.”

“Mr. Rockefeller did you say?” Mr. Norton said. “I’m sure you must be mistaken.”

“WHAT’S GOING ON DOWN THERE?” a voice shouted from the balcony. Everyone turned. I saw a huge black giant of a man, dressed only in white shorts, swaying on the stairs. It was Supercargo, the attendant. I hardly recognized him without his hard-starched white uniform. Usually he walked around threatening the men with a strait jacket which he always carried over his arm, and usually they were quiet and submissive in his presence. But now they seemed not to recognize him and began shouting curses.

“How you gon keep order in the place if you gon git drunk?” Halley shouted. “Charlene! Charlene!”

“Yeah?” a woman’s voice, startling in its carrying power, answered sulkily from a room off the balcony.

“I want you to git that stool-pigeoning, joy-killing, nut-crushing bum back in there with you and sober him up. Then git him in his white suit and down here to keep order. We got white folks in the house.”

A woman appeared on the balcony, drawing a woolly pink robe about her. “Now you lissen here, Halley,” she drawled, “I’m a woman. If you want him dressed, you can do it yourself. I don’t put on but one man’s clothes and he’s in N’Orleans.”

“Never mind all that. Git that stool pigeon sober!”

“I want order down there,” Supercargo boomed, “and if there’s white folks down there, I wan’s double order.”

Suddenly there was an angry roar from the men back near the bar and I saw them rush the stairs.

“Get him!”

“Let’s give him some order!”

“Out of my way.”

Five men charged the stairs. I saw the giant bend and clutch the posts at the top of the stairs with both hands, bracing himself, his body gleaming bare in his white shorts. The little man who had slapped Mr. Norton was in front, and, as he sprang up the long flight, I saw the attendant set himself and kick, catching the little man just as he reached the top, hard in the chest, sending him backwards in a curving dive into the midst of the men behind him. Supercargo got set to swing his leg again. It was a narrow stair and only one man could get up at a time. As fast as they rushed up, the giant kicked them back. He swung his leg, kicking them down like a fungo-hitter batting out flies. Watching him, I forgot Mr. Norton. The Golden Day was in an uproar. Half-dressed women appeared from the rooms off the balcony. Men hooted and yelled as at a football game.

“I WANT ORDER!” the giant shouted as he sent a man flying down the flight of stairs.


“That’s a order he don’t want,” someone said.

A shower of bottles and glasses splashing whiskey crashed against the balcony. I saw Supercargo snap suddenly erect and grab his forehead, his face bathed in whiskey, “Eeeee!” he cried, “Eeeee!” Then I saw him waver, rigid from his ankles upward. For a moment the men on the stairs were motionless, watching him. Then they sprang forward.

Supercargo grabbed wildly at the balustrade as they snatched his feet from beneath him and started down. His head bounced against the steps making a sound like a series of gunshots as they ran dragging him by his ankles, like volunteer firemen running with a hose. The crowd surged forward. Halley yelled near my ear. I saw the man being dragged toward the center of the room.

“Give the bastard some order!”

“Here I’m forty-five and he’s been acting like he’s my old man!”

“So you like to kick, huh?” a tall man said, aiming a shoe at the attendant’s head. The flesh above his right eye jumped out as though it had been inflated.

Then I heard Mr. Norton beside me shouting, “No, no! Not when he’s down!”

“Lissen at the white folks,” someone said. “He’s the white folks’ man!”

Men were jumping upon Supercargo with both feet now and I felt such an excitement that I wanted to join them. Even the girls were yelling, “Give it to him good!” “He never pays me!” “Kill him!”

“Please, y’all, not here! Not in my place!”

“You can’t speak your mind when he’s on duty!”

“Hell, no!”

Somehow I got pushed away from Mr. Norton and found myself beside the man called Sylvester.

“Watch this, school-boy,” he said. “See there, where his ribs are bleeding?” I nodded my head. “Now don’t move your eyes.”

I watched the spot as though compelled, just beneath the lower rib and above the hip-bone, as Sylvester measured carefully with his toe and kicked as though he were punting a football. Supercargo let out a groan like an injured horse.

“Try it, school-boy, it feels so good. It gives you relief,” Sylvester said. “Sometimes I get so afraid of him I feel that he’s inside my head. There!” he said, giving Supercargo another kick.

As I watched, a man sprang on Supercargo’s chest with both feet and he lost consciousness. They began throwing cold beer on him, reviving him, only to kick him unconscious again. Soon he was drenched in blood and beer.

“The bastard’s out cold.”

“Throw him out.”

“Naw, wait a minute. Give me a hand somebody.”

They threw him upon the bar, stretching him out with his arms folded across his chest like a corpse. “Now, let’s have a drink!”

Halley was slow in getting behind the bar and they cursed him. “Get back there and serve us, you big sack of fat!”

“Gimme a rye!”

“Up here, funk-buster!”

“Shake them sloppy hips!”

“Okay, okay, take it easy,” Halley said, rushing to pour them drinks. “Just put y’all’s money where your mouth is.”

With Supercargo lying helpless upon the bar, the men whirled about like maniacs. The excitement seemed to have tilted some of the more delicately balanced ones too far. Some made hostile speeches at the top of their voices against the hospital, the state and the universe. The one who called himself a composer was banging away the one wild piece he seemed to know on the out-of-tune piano, striking the keyboard with fists and elbows and filling in other effects in a bass voice that moaned like a bear in agony. One of the most educated ones touched my arm. He was a former chemist who was never seen without his shining Phi Beta Kappa key.

“The men have lost control,” he said through the uproar. “I think you’d better leave.”

“I’m trying to,” I said, “as soon as I can get over to Mr. Norton.”

Mr. Norton was gone from where I had left him. I rushed here and there through the noisy men, calling his name.

When I found him he was under the stairs. Somehow he had been pushed there by the scuffling, reeling men and he lay sprawled in the chair like an aged doll. In the dim light his features were sharp and white and hisclosed eyes well-defined lines in a well-tooled face. I shouted his name above the roar of the men, and got no answer. He was out again. I shook him, gently, then roughly, but still no flicker of his wrinkled lids. Then some of the milling men pushed me up against him and suddenly a mass of whiteness was looming two inches from my eyes; it was only his face but I felt a shudder of nameless horror. I had never been so close to a white person before. In a panic I struggled to get away. With his eyes closed he seemed more threatening than with them open. He was like a formless white death, suddenly appeared before me, a death which had been there all the time and which had now revealed itself in the madness of the Golden Day.

“Stop screaming!” a voice commanded, and I felt myself pulled away. It was the short fat man.

I clamped my mouth shut, aware for the first time that the shrill sound was coming from my own throat. I saw the man’s face relax as he gave me a wry smile.

“That’s better,” he shouted into my ear. “He’s only a man. Remember that. He’s only a man!”

I wanted to tell him that Mr. Norton was much more than that, that he was a rich white man and in my charge; but the very idea that I was responsible for him was too much for me to put into words.

“Let us take him to the balcony,” the man said, pushing me toward Mr. Norton’s feet. I moved automatically, grasping the thin ankles as he raised the white man by the armpits and backed from beneath the stairs. Mr. Norton’s head lolled upon his chest as though he were drunk or dead.

The vet started up the steps still smiling, climbing backwards a step at a time. I had begun to worry about him, whether he was drunk like the rest, when I saw three of the girls who had been leaning over the balustrade watching the brawl come down to help us carry Mr. Norton up.

“Looks like pops couldn’t take it,” one of them shouted.

“He’s high as a Georgia pine.”

“Yeah, I tell you this stuff Halley got out here is too strong for white drink.”

“Not drunk, ill!” the fat man said. “Go find a bed that’s not being he can stretch out awhile.”

“Sho, daddy. Is there any other little favors I can do for you?”

“That’ll be enough,” he said.

One of the girls ran up ahead. “Mine’s just been changed. Bring him down here,” she said.

In a few minutes Mr. Norton was lying upon a three-quarter bed, faintly breathing. I watched the fat man bend over him very professionally and feel for his pulse.

“You a doctor?” a girl asked.

“Not now, I’m a patient. But I have a certain knowledge.”

Another one, I thought, pushing him quickly aside. “He’ll be all right.

Let him come to so I can get him out of here.”

“You needn’t worry, I’m not like those down there, young fellow,” he said. “I really was a doctor. I won’t hurt him. He’s had a mild shock of some kind.”

We watched him bend over Mr. Norton again, feeling his pulse, pulling back his eyelid.

“It’s a mild shock,” he repeated.

“This here Golden Day is enough to shock anybody,” a girl said, smoothing her apron over the smooth sensuous roll of her stomach.

Another brushed Mr. Norton’s white hair away from his forehead and stroked it, smiling vacantly. “He’s kinda cute,” she said. “Just like a little white baby.”

“What kinda ole baby?” the small skinny girl asked.

“That’s the kind, an ole baby.”

“You just like white men, Edna. That’s all,” the skinny one said.
Edna shook her head and smiled as though amused at herself. “I sho do. I just love ’em. Now this one, old as he is, he could put his shoes under my bed any night.”

“Shucks, me I’d kill an old man like that.”

“Kill him nothing,” Edna said. “Girl, don’t you know that all these rich ole white men got monkey glands and billy goat balls? These ole bastards don’t never git enough. They want to have the whole world.”

The doctor looked at me and smiled. “See, now you’re learning all about endocrinology,” he said. “I was wrong when I told you that he was only a man; it seems now that he’s either part goat or part ape. Maybe he’s both.”

“It’s the truth,” Edna said. “I used to have me one in Chicago –“

“Now you ain’t never been to no Chicago, gal,” the other one interrupted.

“How you know I ain’t? Two years ago . . . Shucks, you don’t know nothing. That ole white man right there might have him a coupla jackass balls!”

The fat man raised up with a quick grin. “As a scientist and a physician I’m forced to discount that,” he said. “That is one operation that has yet to be performed.” Then he managed to get the girls out of the room.

“If he should come around and hear that conversation,” the vet said, “it would be enough to send him off again. Besides, their scientific curiosity might lead them to investigate whether he really does have a monkey gland. And that, I’m afraid, would be a bit obscene.”

“I’ve got to get him back to the school,” I said.

“All right,” he said, “I’ll do what I can to help you. Go see if you can find some ice. And don’t worry.”

I went out on the balcony, seeing the tops of their heads. They were still milling around, the juke box baying, the piano thumping, and over at the end of the room, drenched with beer, Supercargo lay like a spent horse upon the bar.

Starting down, I noticed a large piece of ice glinting in the remains of an abandoned drink and seized its coldness in my hot hand and hurried back to the room.

The vet sat staring at Mr. Norton, who now breathed with a slightly irregular sound.

“You were quick,” the man said, as he stood and reached for the ice. “Swift with the speed of anxiety,” he added, as if to himself. “Hand me that clean towel — there, from beside the basin.”

I handed him one, seeing him fold the ice inside it and apply it to Mr. Norton’s face.

“Is he all right?” I said.

“He will be in a few minutes. What happened to him?”

“I took him for a drive,” I said.

“Did you have an accident or something?”

“No,” I said. “He just talked to a farmer and the heat knocked him out . . . Then we got caught in the mob downstairs.”

“How old is he?”

“I don’t know, but he’s one of the trustees . . .”

“One of the very first, no doubt,” he said, dabbing at the blue-veined eyes. “A trustee of consciousness.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“Nothing . . . There now, he’s coming out of it.”

I had an impulse to run out of the room. I feared what Mr. Norton would say to me, the expression that might come into his eyes. And yet, I was afraid to leave. My eyes could not leave the face with its flickering lids. The head moved from side to side in the pale glow of the light bulb, as though denying some insistent voice which I could not hear. Then the lids opened, revealing pale pools of blue vagueness that finally solidified into points that froze upon the vet, who looked down unsmilingly.

Men like us did not look at a man like Mr. Norton in that manner, and I stepped hurriedly forward.

“He’s a real doctor, sir,” I said.

“I’ll explain,” the vet said. “Get a glass of water.”

I hesitated. He looked at me firmly. “Get the water,” he said, turning to help Mr. Norton to sit up.

Outside I asked Edna for a glass of water and she led me down the hall to a small kitchen, drawing it for me from a green old-fashioned cooler. “I got some good liquor, baby, if you want to give him a drink,” she said.

“This will do,” I said. My hands trembled so that the water spilled. When I returned, Mr. Norton was sitting up unaided, carrying on a conversation with the vet.

“Here’s some water, sir,” I said, extending the glass.

He took it. “Thank you,” he said.

“Not too much,” the vet cautioned.

“Your diagnosis is exactly that of my specialist,” Mr. Norton said, “and I went to several fine physicians before one could diagnose it. How did you know?”

“I too was a specialist,” the vet said.

“But how? Only a few men in the whole country possess the knowledge –“

“Then one of them is an inmate of a semi-madhouse,” the vet said.

“But there’s nothing mysterious about it. I escaped for a while — I went to France with the Army Medical Corps and remained there after the Armistice to study and practice.”

“Oh yes, and how long were you in France?” Mr. Norton asked.

“Long enough,” he said. “Long enough to forget some fundamentals which I should never have forgotten.”

“What fundamentals?” Mr. Norton said. “What do you mean?”

The vet smiled and cocked his head. “Things about life. Such things as most peasants and folk peoples almost always know through experience, though seldom through conscious thought . . .”

“Pardon me, sir,” I said to Mr. Norton, “but now that you feel better, shouldn’t we go?”

“Not just yet,” he said. Then to the doctor, “I’m very interested. What happened to you?” A drop of water caught in one of his eyebrows glittered like a chip of active diamond. I went over and sat on a chair. Damn this vet to hell!

“Are you sure you would like to hear?” the vet asked.

“Why, of course.”

“Then perhaps the young fellow should go downstairs and wait . . .” The sound of shouting and destruction welled up from below as I opened the door.

“No, perhaps you should stay,” the fat man said. “Perhaps had I overheard some of what I’m about to tell you when I was a student up there on the hill, I wouldn’t be the casualty that I am.”

“Sit down, young man,” Mr. Norton ordered. “So you were a student at the college,” he said to the vet.

I sat down again, worrying about Dr. Bledsoe as the fat man told Mr. Norton of his attending college, then becoming a physician and going to France during the World War.

“Were you a successful physician?” Mr. Norton said.

“Fairly so. I performed a few brain surgeries that won me some small attention.”

“Then why did you return?”

“Nostalgia,” the vet said.

“Then what on earth are you doing here in this . . . ?” Mr. Norton said, “With your ability . . .”

“Ulcers,” the fat man said.

“That’s terribly unfortunate, but why should ulcers stop your career?” “Not really, but I learned along with the ulcers that my work could bring me no dignity,” the vet said.

“Now you sound bitter,” Mr. Norton said, just as the door flew open. A brown-skinned woman with red hair looked in. “How’s white-folks making out?” she said, staggering inside. “White-folks, baby, you done come to. You want a drink?”

“Not now, Hester,” the vet said. “He’s still a little weak.”

“He sho looks it. That’s how come he needs a drink. Put some iron in his blood.”

“Now, now, Hester.”

“Okay, okay . . . But what y’all doing looking like you at a funeral? Don’t you know this is the Golden Day?” she staggered toward me, belching elegantly and reeling. “Just look at y’all. Here school-boy looks like he’s scared to death. And white-folks here is acting like y’all two strange poodles. Be happy y’all! I’m going down and get Halley to send you up some drinks.” She patted Mr. Norton’s cheek as she went past and I saw him turn a glowing red. “Be happy, white-folks.”

“Ah hah!” the vet laughed, “you’re blushing, which means that you’re better. Don’t be embarrassed. Hester is a great humanitarian, a therapist of generous nature and great skill, and the possessor of a healing touch. Her catharsis is absolutely tremendous — ha, ha!”

“You do look better, sir,” I said, anxious to get out of the place. I could understand the vet’s words but not what they conveyed, and Mr. Norton looked as uncomfortable as I felt. The one thing which I did know was that the vet was acting toward the white man with a freedom which could only bring on trouble. I wanted to tell Mr. Norton that the man was crazy and yet I received a fearful satisfaction from hearing him talk as he had to a white man. With the girl it was different. A woman usually got away with things a man never could.

I was wet with anxiety, but the vet talked on, ignoring the interruption.

“Rest, rest,” he said, fixing Mr. Norton with his eyes. “The clocks are all set back and the forces of destruction are rampant down below. They might suddenly realize that you are what you are, and then your life wouldn’t be worth a piece of bankrupt stock. You would be canceled, perforated, voided, become the recognized magnet attracting loose screws. Then what would you do? Such men are beyond money, and with Supercargo down, out like a felled ox, they know nothing of value. To some, you are the great white father, to others the lyncher of souls, but for all, you are confusion come even into the Golden Day.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, thinking: Lyncher? He was getting wilder than the men downstairs. I didn’t dare look at Mr. Norton, who made a sound of protest.

The vet frowned. “It is an issue which I can confront only by evading it. An utterly stupid proposition, and these hands so lovingly trained to master a scalpel yearn to caress a trigger. I returned to save life and I was refused,” he said. “Ten men in masks drove me out from the city at midnight and beat me with whips for saving a human life. And I was forced to the utmost degradation because I possessed skilled hands and the belief that my knowledge could bring me dignity — not wealth, only dignity — and other men health!”

Then suddenly he fixed me with his eyes. “And now, do you understand?”

“What?” I said.

“What you’ve heard!”

“I don’t know.”


I said, “I really think it’s time we left.”

“You see,” he said turning to Mr. Norton, “he has eyes and ears and a good distended African nose, but he fails to understand the simple facts of life. Understand. Understand? It’s worse than that. He registers with his senses but short-circuits his brain. Nothing has meaning. He takes it in but he doesn’t digest it. Already he is — well, bless my soul! Behold! a walking zombie! Already he’s learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He’s invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man!” Mr. Norton looked amazed.

“Tell me,” the vet said, suddenly calm. “Why have you been interested in the school, Mr. Norton?”

“Out of a sense of my destined role,” Mr. Norton said shakily. “I felt, and I still feel, that your people are in some important manner tied to my destiny.”

“What do you mean, destiny?” the vet said.

“Why, the success of my work, of course.”

“I see. And would you recognize it if you saw it?”

“Why, of course I would,” Mr. Norton said indignantly. “I’ve watched

it grow each year I’ve returned to the campus.” “Campus? Why the campus?”

“It is there that my destiny is being made.”

The vet exploded with laughter. “The campus, what a destiny!” He stood and walked around the narrow room, laughing. Then he stopped as suddenly as he had begun.

“You will hardly recognize it, but it is very fitting that you came to the Golden Day with the young fellow,” he said.

“I came out of illness — or rather, he brought me,” Mr. Norton said. “Of course, but you came, and it was fitting.”

“What do you mean?” Mr. Norton said with irritation.” A little child shall lead them,” the vet said with a smile. “But seriously, because you both fail to understand what is happening to you. You cannot see or hear or smell the truth of what you see — and you, looking for destiny! It’s classic! And the boy, this automaton, he was made of the very mud of the region and he sees far less than you. Poor stumblers, neither of you can see the other. To you he is a mark on the score-card of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less — a black amorphous thing. And you, for all your power, are not a man to him, but a God, a force –“

Mr. Norton stood abruptly. “Let us go, young man,” he said angrily.

“No, listen. He believes in you as he believes in the beat of his heart. He believes in that great false wisdom taught slaves and pragmatists alike, that white is right. I can tell you his destiny. He’ll do your bidding, and for that his blindness is his chief asset. He’s your man, friend. Your man and your destiny. Now the two of you descend the stairs into chaos and get the hell out of here. I’m sick of both of you pitiful obscenities! Get out before
I do you both the favor of bashing in your heads!”

I saw his motion toward the big white pitcher on the washstand and stepped between him and Mr. Norton, guiding Mr. Norton swiftly through the doorway. Looking back, I saw him leaning against the wall making a sound that was a blending of laughter and tears.

“Hurry, the man is as insane as the rest,” Mr. Norton said.

“Yes, sir,” I said, noticing a new note in his voice.

The balcony was now as noisy as the floor below. The girls and drunken vets were stumbling about with drinks in their hands. Just as we went past an open door Edna saw us and grabbed my arm.

“Where you taking white-folks?” she demanded.

“Back to school,” I said, shaking her off.

“You don’t want to go up there, white-folks, baby,” she said. I tried to push past her. “I ain’t lying,” she said. “I’m the best little home-maker in
the business.”

“Okay, but please let us alone,” I pleaded. “You’ll get me into trouble.”

We were going down the stairs into the milling men now and she started to scream, “Pay me then! If he’s too good for me, let him pay!”

And before I could stop her she had pushed Mr. Norton, and both of us were stumbling swiftly down the stairs. I landed against a man who looked up with the anonymous familiarity of a drunk and shoved me hard away. I saw Mr. Norton spin past as I sank farther into the crowd. Somewhere I could hear the girl screaming and Halley’s voice yelling, “Hey! Hey! Hey, now!” Then I was aware of fresh air and saw that I was near the door and pushed my way free and stood panting and preparing to plunge back for Mr. Norton — when I heard Halley calling, “Make way y’all!” and saw him piloting Mr. Norton to the door.

“Whew!” he said, releasing the white man and shaking his huge head.

“Thanks, Halley –” I said and got no further.

I saw Mr. Norton, his face pale again, his white suit rumpled, topple and fall, his head scraping against the screen of the door.


I opened the door and raised him up.

“Goddamit, out agin,” Halley said. “How come you bring this white man here, school-boy?”

“Is he dead?”

“DEAD!” he said, stepping back indignantly. “He caint die!”

“What’ll I do, Halley?”

“Not in my place, he caint die,” he said, kneeling.

Mr. Norton looked up. “No one is dead or dying,” he said acidly. “Remove your hands!”

Halley fell away, surprised. “I sho am glad. You sho you all right? I thought sho you was dead this time.”

“For God’s sake, be quiet!” I exploded nervously. “You should be glad that he’s all right.”

Mr. Norton was visibly angry now, a raw place showing on his forehead,and I hurried ahead of him to the car. He climbed in unaided, andI got under the wheel, smelling the heated odor of mints and cigar smoke.He was silent as I drove away.

Chapter 4

The wheel felt like an alien thing in my hands as I followed the white line of the highway. Heat rays from the late afternoon sun arose from the gray concrete, shimmering like the weary tones of a distant bugle blown upon still midnight air. In the mirror I could see Mr. Norton staring out vacantly upon the empty fields, his mouth stern, his white forehead livid where it had scraped the screen. And seeing him I felt the fear balled coldly
within me unfold. What would happen now? What would the school officials say? In my mind I visualized Dr. Bledsoe’s face when he saw Mr. Norton. I thought of the glee certain folks at home would feel if I were expelled. Tatlock’s grinning face danced through my mind. What would the white folks think who’d sent me to college? Was Mr. Norton angry at me? In the Golden Day he had seemed more curious than anything else — until the vet had started talking wild. Damn Trueblood. It was his fault. If we hadn’t sat in the sun so long Mr. Norton would not have needed whiskey and I wouldn’t have gone to the Golden Day. And why would the vets act that way with a white man in the house?

I headed the car through the red-brick campus gateposts with a sense of cold apprehension. Now even the rows of neat dormitories seemed to threaten me, the rolling lawns appearing as hostile as the gray highway with its white dividing line. As of its own compulsion, the car slowed as we passed the chapel with its low, sweeping eaves. The sun shone coolly through the avenue of trees, dappling the curving drive. Students strolled through the shade, down a hill of tender grass toward the brick-red stretch of tennis courts. Far beyond, players in whites showed sharp against the red of the courts surrounded by grass, a gay vista washed by the sun. In the brief interval I heard a cheer arise. My predicament struck me like a stab. I had a sense of losing control of the car and slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road, then apologized and drove on. Here within this quiet greenness I possessed the only identity I had ever known, and I was losing it. In this brief moment of passage I became aware of the connection between these lawns and buildings and my hopes and dreams. I wanted to stop the car and talk with Mr. Norton, to beg his pardon for what he had seen; to plead and show him tears, unashamed tears like those of a child before his parent; to denounce all we’d seen and heard; to assure him that far from being like any of the people we had seen, I hated them, that I believed in the principles of the Founder with all my heart and soul, and that I believed in his own goodness and kindness in extending the hand of his benevolence to helping us poor, ignorant people out of the mire and darkness. I would do his bidding and teach others to rise up as he wished them to, teach them to be thrifty, decent, upright citizens, contributing to the welfare of all, shunning all but the straight and narrow path that he and the Founder had stretched before us. If only he were not angry with me! If only he would give me another chance!

Tears filled my eyes, and the walks and buildings flowed and froze for a moment in mist, glittering as in winter when rain froze on the grass and foliage and turned the campus into a world of whiteness, weighting and bending both trees and bushes with fruit of crystal. Then in the twinkling of my eyes, it was gone, and the here and now of heat and greenness returned. If only I could make Mr. Norton understand what the school meant to me.

“Shall I stop at your rooms, sir?” I said. “Or shall I take you to the administration building? Dr. Bledsoe might be worried.”

“To my rooms, then bring Dr. Bledsoe to me,” he answered tersely.

“Yes, sir.”

In the mirror I saw him dabbing gingerly at his forehead with a crinkled handkerchief. “You’d better send the school physician to me also,” he said.

I stopped the car in front of a small building with white pillars like those of an old plantation manor house, got out and opened the door.

“Mr. Norton, please, sir . . . I’m sorry . . . I –“

He looked at me sternly, his eyes narrowed, saying nothing.

“I didn’t know . . . please . . .”

“Send Dr. Bledsoe to me,” he said, turning away and swinging up the graveled path to the building.

I got back into the car and drove slowly to the administration building. A girl waved gaily as I passed, a bunch of violets in her hand. Two teachers in dark suits talked decorously beside a broken fountain.

The building was quiet. Going upstairs I visualized Dr. Bledsoe, with his broad globular face that seemed to take its form from the fat pressing from the inside, which, as air pressing against the membrane of a balloon, gave it shape and buoyancy. “Old Bucket-head,” some of the fellows called him. I never had. He had been kind to me from the first, perhaps because of the letters which the school superintendent had sent to him when I arrived. But more than that, he was the example of everything I hoped to be: Influential with wealthy men all over the country; consulted in matters concerning the race; a leader of his people; the possessor of not one, but two Cadillacs, a good salary and a soft, good-looking and creamy-complexioned wife. What was more, while black and bald and everything white folks poked fun at, he had achieved power and authority; had, while black and wrinkle-headed, made himself of more importance in the world than most Southern white men. They could laugh at him but they couldn’t ignore him.

“He’s been looking all over for you,” the girl at the desk said.

When I walked in he looked up from the telephone and said, “Never mind, he’s here now,” and hung up. “Where’s Mr. Norton?” he demanded excitedly. “Is he all right?”

“Yes, sir. I left him at his rooms and came to drive you down. He wishes to see you.”

“Is anything wrong?” he said, getting up hurriedly and coming around the desk. I hesitated.

“Well, is there!”

The panicky beating of my heart seemed to blur my vision.

“Not now, sir.”

“Now? What do you mean?”

“Well, sir, he had some kind of fainting spell.”

“Aw, my God! I knew something was wrong. Why didn’t you get in touch with me?” He grabbed his black homburg, starting for the door.

“Come on!”

I followed him, trying to explain. “He’s all over it now, sir, and we were too far away for me to phone . . .”

“Why did you take him so far?” he said, moving with great bustling energy.

“But I drove him where he wanted to go, sir.”

“Where was that?”

“Back of the slave-quarter section,” I said with dread.

“The quarters! Boy, are you a fool? Didn’t you know better than to take a trustee out there?”

“He asked me to, sir.”

We were going down the walk now, through the spring air, and he stopped to look at me with exasperation, as though I’d suddenly told him black was white.

“Damn what he wants,” he said, climbing in the front seat beside me.

“Haven’t you the sense God gave a dog? We take these white folks where we
want them to go, we show them what we want them to see. Don’t you know
that? I thought you had some sense.”

Reaching Rabb Hall, I stopped the car, weak with bewilderment.

“Don’t sit there,” he said. “Come with me!”

Just inside the building I got another shock. As we approached a mirror Dr. Bledsoe stopped and composed his angry face like a sculptor, making it a bland mask, leaving only the sparkle of his eyes to betray the emotion that I had seen only a moment before. He looked steadily at himself for a moment; then we moved quietly down the silent hall and up the stairs.

A co-ed sat at a graceful table stacked with magazines. Before a great window stood a large aquarium containing colored stones and a small replica of a feudal castle surrounded by goldfish that seemed to remain motionless despite the fluttering of their lacy fins, a momentary motionful suspension of time.

“Is Mr. Norton in his room?” he said to the girl.

“Yessir, Dr. Bledsoe, sir,” she said. “He said to tell you to come in when you got here.”

Pausing at the door I heard him clear his throat, then rap softly upon the panel with his fist.

“Mr. Norton?” he said, his lips already a smile. And at the answer I followed him inside.

It was a large light room. Mr. Norton sat in a huge wing chair with his jacket off. A change of clothing lay on the cool bedspread. Above a spacious fireplace an oil portrait of the Founder looked down at me remotely, benign, sad, and in that hot instant, profoundly disillusioned. Then a veil seemed to fall.

“I’ve been worried about you, sir,” Dr. Bledsoe said. “We expected you at the afternoon session . . .”

Now it’s beginning, I thought. Now —

And suddenly he rushed forward. “Mr. Norton, your head!” he cried, a strange grandmotherly concern in his voice. “What happened, sir?”

“It’s nothing.” Mr. Norton’s face was immobile. “A mere scratch.”

Dr. Bledsoe whirled around, his face outraged. “Get the doctor over here,” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me that Mr. Norton had been injured?”

“I’ve already taken care of that, sir,” I said softly, seeing him whirl back.

“Mr. Norton, Mister Norton! I’m so sorry,” he crooned. “I thought I had sent you a boy who was careful, a sensible young man! Why we’ve never had an accident before. Never, not in seventy-five years. I assure you, sir, that he shall be disciplined, severely disciplined!”

“But there was no automobile accident,” Mr. Norton said kindly, “nor was the boy responsible. You may send him away, we won’t need him now.”

My eyes suddenly filled. I felt a wave of gratitude at his words.

“Don’t be kind, sir,” Dr. Bledsoe said. “You can’t be soft with these people. We mustn’t pamper them. An accident to a guest of this college while he is in the charge of a student is without question the student’s fault. That’s one of our strictest rules!” Then to me: “Return to your dormitory and remain there until further notice!”

“But it was out of my control, sir,” I said, “just as Mr. Norton said . . .”

“I’ll explain, young man,” Mr. Norton said with a half-smile.

“Everything will be explained.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, seeing Dr. Bledsoe looking at me with no change of expression.

“On second thought,” he said, “I want you to be in chapel this evening, understand me, sir?”

“Yes, sir.”

I opened the door with a cold hand, bumping into the girl who had been at the table when we went inside.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Looks like you have old Bucket-head kind of mad.”

I said nothing as she walked beside me expectantly. A red sun cast its light upon the campus as I started for my dormitory.

“Will you take a message to my boy friend for me?” she said.

“Who is he?” I said, trying hard to conceal my tension and fear.

“Jack Maston,” she said.

“Okay, he’s in the room next to mine.”

“That’s swell,” she said with a big smile. “The dean put me on duty so I missed him this afternoon. Just tell him that I said the grass is green . . .”


“The grass is green. It’s our secret code, he’ll understand.”

“The grass is green,” I said.

“That’s it. Thank you, lover,” she said.

I felt like cursing as I watched her hurrying back into the building, hearing her flat-heeled shoes crunching the graveled walk. Here she was playing with some silly secret code at the very minute my fate for the rest of my life was being decided. The grass was green and they’d meet and she’d be sent home pregnant, but even so, in less disgrace than I . . . If only I knew what they were saying about me . . . Suddenly I had an idea and ran after her, into the building and up the stairs.

In the hall, fine dust played in a shaft of sunlight, stirred by her hurried passing. But she had disappeared. I had thought to ask her to listen at the door and tell me what was said. I gave it up; if she were discovered, I’d have that on my conscience too. Besides, I was ashamed for anyone to know of my predicament, it was too stupid to be believed. Down the long length of the wide hall I heard someone unseen skipping down the stairs singing. A girl’s sweet, hopeful voice. I left quietly and hurried to my dorm. I lay in my room with my eyes closed, trying to think. The tension gripped my insides. Then I heard someone coming up the hall and stiffened. Had they sent for me already? Nearby a door opened and closed, leaving me as tense as ever. To whom could I turn for help? I could think of no one. No one to whom I could even explain what had happened at the Golden Day. Everything was upset inside me. And Dr. Bledsoe’s attitude toward Mr. Norton was the most confusing of all. I dared not repeat what he’d said, for fear that it would lessen my chances of remaining in school. It just wasn’t true, I had misunderstood. He couldn’t have said what I thought he had said. Hadn’t I seen him approach white visitors too often with his hat in hand, bowing humbly and respectfully? Hadn’t he refused to eat in the dining hall with white guests of the school, entering only after they had finished and then refusing to sit down, but remaining standing, his hat in his hand, while he addressed them eloquently, then leaving with a humble bow? Hadn’t he, hadn’t he? I had seen him too often as I peeped through the door between the dining room and the kitchen, I myself. And wasn’t his favorite spiritual “Live-a-Humble”? And in the chapel on Sunday evenings upon the platform, hadn’t he always taught us to live content in our place in a thousand unambiguous words? He had and I had believed him. I had believed without question his illustrations of the good which came of following the Founder’s path. It was my affirmation of life and they couldn’t send me away for something I didn’t do. They simply couldn’t. But that vet! He was so crazy that he corrupted sane men. He had tried to turn the world inside out, goddamn him! He had made Mr. Norton angry. He had no right to talk to a white man as he had, not with me to take the punishment . . .

Someone shook me and I recoiled, my legs moist and trembling. It was my roommate.

“What the hell, roomy,” he said. “Let’s go to chow.”

I looked at his confident mug; he was going to be a farmer.

“I don’t have an appetite,” I said with a sigh.

“Okay now,” he said, “you can try to kid me but don’t say I didn’t wake you.”

“No,” I said.

“Who’re you expecting, a broad-butt gal with ballbearing hips?”

“No,” I said.

“You’d better stop that, roomy,” he grinned. “It’ll ruin your health, make you a moron. You ought to take you a gal and show her how the moon rises over all that green grass on the Founder’s grave, man . . .”

“Go to hell,” I said.

He left laughing, opening the door to the sound of many footsteps from the hall: supper time. The sound of departing voices. Something of my life seemed to retreat with them into a gray distance, moiling. Then a knock
sounded at the door and I sprang up, my heart tense.

A small student wearing a freshman’s cap stuck his head in the door, shouting, “Dr. Bledsoe said he wants to see you down at Rabb Hall.” And
then he was gone before I could question him, his footsteps thundering down the hall as he raced to dinner before the last bell sounded.

AT MR. NORTON’S door I stopped with my hand on the knob, mumbling a prayer.

“Come in, young man,” he said to my knock. He was dressed in fresh linen, the light falling upon his white hair as upon silk floss. A small piece of gauze was plastered to his forehead. He was alone.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I apologized, “but I was told that Dr. Bledsoe wanted to see me here . . .”

“That’s correct,” he said, “but Dr. Bledsoe had to leave. You’ll find him in his office after chapel.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said and turned to go. He cleared his throat behind me. “Young man . . .”

I turned hopefully.

“Young man, I have explained to Dr. Bledsoe that you were not at fault. I believe he understands.”

I was so relieved that at first I could only look at him, a small silken-haired, white-suited St. Nicholas, seen through misty eyes.

“I certainly do thank you, sir,” I managed finally.

He studied me silently, his eyes slightly narrowed.

“Will you need me this evening, sir?” I asked.

“No, I won’t be needing the machine. Business is taking me away
sooner than I expected. I leave late tonight.”

“I could drive you to the station, sir,” I said hopefully.

“Thank you, but Dr. Bledsoe has already arranged it.”

“Oh,” I said with disappointment. I had hoped that by serving him the rest of the week I could win back his esteem. Now I would not have the opportunity.

“Well, I hope you have a pleasant trip, sir,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said, suddenly smiling.

“And maybe next time you come I’ll be able to answer some of the questions you asked me this afternoon.”

“Questions?” His eyes narrowed.

“Yes, sir, about . . . about your fate,” I said.

“Ah, yes, yes,” he said.

“And I intend to read Emerson, too . . .”

“Very good. Self-reliance is a most worthy virtue. I shall look forward with the greatest of interest to learning your contribution to my fate.” He motioned me toward the door. “And don’t forget to see Dr. Bledsoe.”

I left somewhat reassured, but not completely. I still had to face Dr. Bledsoe. And I had to attend chapel.

Chapter 5

At the sound of vespers I moved across the campus with groups of students, walking slowly, their voices soft in the mellow dusk. I remember the yellowed globes of frosted glass making lacy silhouettes on the gravel and the walk of the leaves and branches above us as we moved slow through the dusk so restless with scents of lilac, honeysuckle and verbena, and the feel of spring greenness; and I recall the sudden arpeggios of laughter lilting across the tender, springtime grass — gay-welling, far-floating, fluent, spontaneous, a bell-like feminine fluting, then suppressed; as though snuffed swiftly and irrevocably beneath the quiet solemnity of the vespered air now vibrant with somber chapel bells. Dong! Dong! Dong! Above the decorous walking around me, sounds of footsteps leaving the verandas of far-flung buildings and moving toward the walks and over the walks to the asphalt drives lined with whitewashed stones, those cryptic messages for men and women, boys and girls heading quietly toward where the visitors waited, and we moving not in the mood of worship but of judgment; as though even here in the filtering dusk, here beneath the deep indigo sky, here, alive with looping swifts and darting moths, here in the hereness of the night not yet lighted by the moon that looms blood-red behind the chapel like a fallen sun, its radiance shedding not upon the here-dusk of twittering bats, nor on the there-night of cricket and whippoorwill, but focused short-rayed upon our place of convergence; and we drifting forward with rigid motions, limbs stiff and voices now silent, as though on exhibit even in the dark, and the moon a white man’s bloodshot eye.

And I move more rigid than all the others with a sense of judgment; the vibrations of the chapel bells stirring the depths of my turmoil, moving toward its nexus with a sense of doom. And I remember the chapel with its sweeping eaves, long and low as though risen bloody from the earth like the rising moon; vine-covered and earth-colored as though more earth-sprung than man-sprung. And my mind rushing for relief away from the spring dusk and flower scents, away from the time-scene of the crucifixion to the time-mood of the birth; from spring-dusk and vespers to the high, clear, lucid moon of winter and snow glinting upon the dwarfed pines where instead of the bells, the organ and the trombone choir speak carols to the distances drifted with snow, making of the night air a sea of crystal water lapping the slumbering land to the farthest reaches of sound, for endless miles, bringing the new dispensation even to the Golden Day, even unto the house of madness. But in the hereness of dusk I am moving toward the doomlike bells through the flowered air, beneath the rising moon.

Into the doors and into the soft lights I go, silently, past the rows of puritanical benches straight and torturous, finding that to which I am assigned and bending my body to its agony. There at the head of the platform with its pulpit and rail of polished brass are the banked and pyramided heads of the student choir, faces composed and stolid above uniforms of black and white; and above them, stretching to the ceiling, the organ pipes looming, a gothic hierarchy of dull gilded gold.

Around me the students move with faces frozen in solemn masks, and I seem to hear already the voices mechanically raised in the songs the visitors loved. (Loved? Demanded. Sung? An ultimatum accepted and ritualized, an allegiance recited for the peace it imparted, and for that perhaps loved. Loved as the defeated come to love the symbols of their conquerors. A gesture of acceptance, of terms laid down and reluctantly approved.) And here, sitting rigid, I remember the evenings spent before the sweeping platform in awe and in pleasure, and in the pleasure of awe; remember the short formal sermons intoned from the pulpit there, rendered in smooth articulate tones, with calm assurance purged of that wild emotion of the crude preachers most of us knew in our home towns and of whom we were deeply ashamed, these logical appeals which reached us more like the thrust of a firm and formal design requiring nothing more than the lucidity of uncluttered periods, the lulling movement of multisyllabic words to thrill and console us. And I remember, too, the talks of visiting speakers, all eager to inform us of how fortunate we were to be a part of the “vast” and formal ritual. How fortunate to belong to this family sheltered from those lost in ignorance and darkness.

Here upon this stage the black rite of Horatio Alger was performed to God’s own acting script, with millionaires come down to portray themselves; not merely acting out the myth of their goodness, and wealth and success and power and benevolence and authority in cardboard masks, but themselves, these virtues concretely! Not the wafer and the wine, but the flesh and the blood, vibrant and alive, and vibrant even when stooped, ancient and withered. (And who, in face of this, would not believe? Could even doubt?)

And I remember too, how we confronted those others, those who had set me here in this Eden, whom we knew though we didn’t know, who were unfamiliar in their familiarity, who trailed their words to us through blood and violence and ridicule and condescension with drawling smiles, and who exhorted and threatened, intimidated with innocent words as they described to us the limitations of our lives and the vast boldness of our aspirations, the staggering folly of our impatience to rise even higher; who, as they talked, aroused furtive visions within me of blood-froth sparkling their chins like their familiar tobacco juice, and upon their lips the curdled milk of a million black slave mammies’ withered dugs, a treacherous and fluid knowledge of our being, imbibed at our source and now regurgitated foul upon us. This was our world, they said as they described it to us, this our horizon and its earth, its seasons and its climate, its spring and its summer, and its fall and harvest some unknown millennium ahead; and these its floods and cyclones and they themselves our thunder and lightning; and this we must accept and love and accept even if we did not love. We must accept — even when those were absent, and the men who made the railroads and ships and towers of stone, were before our eyes, in the flesh, their voices different, unweighted with recognizable danger and their delight in our songs more sincere seeming, their regard for our welfare marked by an almost benign and impersonal indifference. But the words of the others were stronger than the strength of philanthropic dollars, deeper than shafts sunk in the earth for oil and gold, more awe-inspiring than the miracles fabricated in scientific laboratories. For their most innocent words were acts of violence to which we of the campus were hypersensitive though we endured them not.

And there on the platform I too had stridden and debated, a student leader directing my voice at the highest beams and farthest rafters, ringing them, the accents staccato upon the ridgepole and echoing back with a tinkling, like words hurled to the trees of a wilderness, or into a well of slate-gray water; more sound than sense, a play upon the resonances of buildings, an assault upon the temples of the ear:

Ha! to the gray-haired matron in the final row. Ha! Miss Susie, Miss Susie Gresham, back there looking at that co-ed smiling at that he-ed — listen to me, the bungling bugler of words, imitating the trumpet and the trombone’s timbre, playing thematic variations like a baritone horn. Hey! old connoisseur of voice sounds, of voices without messages, of newsless winds, listen to the vowel sounds and the crackling dentals, to the low harsh gutturals of empty anguish, now riding the curve of a preacher’s rhythm I heard long ago in a Baptist church, stripped now of its imagery: No suns having hemorrhages, no moons weeping tears, no earthworms refusing the sacred flesh and dancing in the earth on Easter morn. Ha! singing achievement, Ha! booming success, intoning, Ha! acceptance, Ha! a river of word-sounds filled with drowned passions, floating, Ha! with wrecks of unachievable ambitions and stillborn revolts, sweeping their ears, Ha! ranged stiff before me, necks stretched forward with listening ears, Ha! a-spraying the ceiling and a-drumming the dark-stained after rafter, that seasoned crossarm of torturous timber mellowed in the kiln of a thousand voices; playing Ha! as upon a xylophone; words marching like the student band, up the campus and down again, blaring triumphant sounds empty of triumphs. Hey, Miss Susie! the sound of words that were no words, counterfeit notes singing achievements yet unachieved, riding upon the wings of my voice out to you, old matron, who knew the voice sounds of the Founder and knew the accents and echo of his promise; your gray old head cocked with the young around you, your eyes closed, face ecstatic, as I toss the word sounds in my breath, my bellows, my fountain, like bright-colored balls in a water spout — hear me, old matron, justify now this sound with your dear old nod of affirmation, your closed-eye smile and bow of recognition, who’ll never be fooled with the mere content of words, not my words, not these pinfeathered flighters that stroke your lids till they flutter with ecstasy with but the mere echoed noise of the promise. And after the singing and outward marching, you seize my hand and sing out quavering, “Boy, some day you’ll make the Founder proud.” Ha! Susie Gresham, Mother Gresham, guardian of the hot young women on the puritan benches who couldn’t see your Jordan’s water for their private steam; you, relic of slavery whom the campus loved but did not understand, aged, of slavery, yet bearer of something warm and vital and all-enduring, of which in that island of shame we were not ashamed — it was to you on the final row I directed my rush of sound, and it was you of whom I thought with shame and regret as I waited for the ceremony to begin.

The honored guests moved silently upon the platform, herded toward their high, carved chairs by Dr. Bledsoe with the decorum of a portly head waiter. Like some of the guests, he wore striped trousers and a swallow-tail coat with black-braided lapels topped by a rich ascot tie. It was his regular dress for such occasions, yet for all its elegance, he managed to make himself look humble. Somehow, his trousers inevitably bagged at the knees and the coat slouched in the shoulders. I watched him smiling at first one and then another of the guests, of whom all but one were white; and as I saw him placing his hand upon their arms, touching their backs, whispering to a tall angular-faced trustee who in turn touched his arm familiarly, I felt a shudder. I too had touched a white man today and I felt that it had been disastrous, and I realized then that he was the only one of us whom I knew — except perhaps a barber or a nursemaid — who could touch a white man with impunity. And I remembered too that whenever white guests came upon the platform he placed his hand upon them as though exercising a powerful magic. I watched his teeth flash as he took a white hand; then, with all seated, he went to his place at the end of the row of chairs.

Several terraces of students’ faces above them, the organist, his eyes glinting at the console, was waiting with his head turned over his shoulder, and I saw Dr. Bledsoe, his eyes roaming over the audience, suddenly nod without turning his head. It was as though he had given a downbeat with an invisible baton. The organist turned and hunched his shoulders. A high cascade of sound bubbled from the organ, spreading, thick and clinging, over the chapel, slowly surging. The organist twisted and turned on his bench, with his feet flying beneath him as though dancing to rhythms totally unrelated to the decorous thunder of his organ.

And Dr. Bledsoe sat with a benign smile of inward concentration. Yet his eyes were darting swiftly, first over the rows of students, then over the section reserved for teachers, his swift glance carrying a threat for all. For he demanded that everyone attend these sessions. It was here that policy was announced in broadest rhetoric. I seemed to feel his eyes resting upon my face as he swept the section in which I sat. I looked at the guests on the platform; they sat with that alert relaxation with which they always met our upturned eyes. I wondered to which of them I might go to intercede for me with Dr. Bledsoe, but within myself I knew that there was no one.

In spite of the array of important men beside him, and despite the posture of humility and meekness which made him seem smaller than the others (although he was physically larger), Dr. Bledsoe made his presence felt by us with a far greater impact. I remembered the legend of how he had come to the college, a barefoot boy who in his fervor for education had trudged with his bundle of ragged clothing across two states. And how he was given a job feeding slop to the hogs but had made himself the best slop dispenser in the history of the school; and how the Founder had been impressed and made him his office boy. Each of us knew of his rise over years of hard work to the presidency, and each of us at some time wished that he had walked to the school or pushed a wheelbarrow or performed some other act of determination and sacrifice to attest his eagerness for knowledge. I remembered the admiration and fear he inspired in everyone on the campus; the pictures in the Negro press captioned “EDUCATOR,” in type that exploded like a rifle shot, his face looking out at you with utmost confidence. To us he was more than just a president of a college. He was a leader, a “statesman” who carried our problems to those above us, even unto the White House; and in days past he had conducted the President himself about the campus. He was our leader and our magic, who kept the endowment high, the funds for scholarships plentiful and publicity moving through the channels of the press. He was our coal-black daddy of whom we were afraid.

As the organ voices died, I saw a thin brown girl arise noiselessly with the rigid control of a modern dancer, high in the upper rows of the choir, and begin to sing a cappella. She began softly, as though singing to herself of emotions of utmost privacy, a sound not addressed to the gathering, but which they overheard almost against her will. Gradually she increased its volume, until at times the voice seemed to become a disembodied force that sought to enter her, to violate her, shaking her, rocking her rhythmically, as though it had become the source of her being, rather than the fluid web of her own creation.

I saw the guests on the platform turn to look behind them, to see the thin brown girl in white choir robe standing high against the organ pipes, herself become before our eyes a pipe of contained, controlled and sublimated anguish, a thin plain face transformed by music. I could not understand the words, but only the mood, sorrowful, vague and ethereal, of the singing. It throbbed with nostalgia, regret and repentance, and I sat with a lump in my throat as she sank slowly down; not a sitting but a controlled collapsing, as though she were balancing, sustaining the simmering bubble of her final tone by some delicate rhythm of her heart’s blood, or by some mystic concentration of her being, focused upon the sound through the contained liquid of her large uplifted eyes.

There was no applause, only the appreciation of a profound silence. The white guests exchanged smiles of approval. I sat thinking of the dread possibility of having to leave all this, of being expelled; imagining the return home and the rebukes of my parents. I looked out at the scene now from far back in my despair, seeing the platform and its actors as through a reversed telescope; small doll-like figures moving through some meaningless ritual. Someone up there, above the alternating moss-dry and grease-slick heads of the students rowed before me, was making announcements from a lectern on which a dim light shone. Another figure rose and led a prayer. Someone spoke. Then around me everyone was singing Lead me, lead me to a rock that is higher than I. And as though the sound contained some force more imperious than the image of the scene of which it was the living connective tissue, I was pulled back to its immediacy.

One of the guests had risen to speak. A man of striking ugliness; fat, with a bullet-head set on a short neck, with a nose much too wide for its face, upon which he wore black-lensed glasses. He had been seated next to Dr. Bledsoe, but so concerned had I been with the president that I hadn’t really seen him. My eyes had focused only upon the white men and Dr. Bledsoe. So that now as he arose and crossed slowly to the center of the platform, I had the notion that part of Dr. Bledsoe had arisen and moved forward, leaving his other part smiling in the chair.

He stood before us relaxed, his white collar gleaming like a band between his black face and his dark garments, dividing his head from his body; his short arms crossed before his barrel, like a black little Buddha’s. For a moment he stood with his large head lifted, as though thinking; then he began speaking, his voice round and vibrant as he told of his pleasure in being allowed to visit the school once more after many years. Having been preaching in a northern city, he had seen it last in the final days of the Founder, when Dr. Bledsoe was the “second in command.” “Those were wonderful days,” he droned. “Significant days. Days filled with great portent.”

As he talked he made a cage of his hands by touching his fingertips, then with his small feet pressing together, he began a slow, rhythmic rocking; tilting forward on his toes until it seemed he would fall, then back on his heels, the lights catching his black-lensed glasses until it seemed that his head floated free of his body and was held close to it only by the white band of his collar. And as he tilted he talked until a rhythm was established.

Then he was renewing the dream in our hearts:

“. . . this barren land after Emancipation,” he intoned, “this land of darkness and sorrow, of ignorance and degradation, where the hand of brother had been turned against brother, father against son, and son against father; where master had turned against slave and slave against master; where all was strife and darkness, an aching land. And into this land came a humble prophet, lowly like the humble carpenter of Nazareth, a slave and a son of slaves, knowing only his mother. A slave born, but marked from the beginning by a high intelligence and princely personality; born in the lowest part of this barren, war-scarred land, yet somehow shedding light upon it where’er he passed through. I’m sure you have heard of his precarious infancy, his precious life almost destroyed by an insane cousin who splashed the babe with lye and shriveled his seed and how, a mere babe, he lay nine days in a deathlike coma and then suddenly and miraculously recovered. You might say that it was as though he had risen from the dead or been reborn.

“Oh, my young friends,” he cried, beaming, “my young friends, it is indeed a beautiful story. I’m sure you’ve heard it many times: Recall how he came upon his initial learning through shrewd questioning of his little masters, the elder masters never suspecting; and how he learned his alphabet and taught himself to read and solve the secret of words, going instinctively to the Holy Bible with its great wisdom for his first knowledge. And you know how he escaped and made his way across mountain and valley to that place of learning and how he persisted and worked noontimes, nights and mornings for the privilege of studying, or, as the old folk would say, of ‘rubbing his head against the college wall.’ You know of his brilliant career, how already he was a moving orator; then his penniless graduation and his return after years to this country.

“And then his great struggle beginning. Picture it, my young friends: The clouds of darkness all over the land, black folk and white folk full of fear and hate, wanting to go forward, but each fearful of the other. A whole
region is caught in a terrible tension. Everyone is perplexed with the question of what must be done to dissolve this fear and hatred that crouched over the land like a demon waiting to spring, and you know how he came and showed them the way. Oh, yes, my friends. I’m sure you’ve heard it time and time again; of this godly man’s labors, his great humility and his undimming vision, the fruits of which you enjoy today; concrete, made flesh; his dream, conceived in the starkness and darkness of slavery, fulfilled now even in the air you breathe, in the sweet harmonies of your blended voices, in the knowledge which each of you — daughters and granddaughters, sons and grandsons, of slaves — all of you partaking of it in bright and well-equipped classrooms. You must see this slave, this black Aristotle, moving slowly, with sweet patience, with a patience not of mere man, but of God-inspired faith — see him moving slowly as he surmounts each and every opposition. Rendering unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s, yes; but steadfastly seeking for you that bright horizon which you now enjoy . . .

“All this,” he said, spreading his fingers palm down before him, “has been told and retold throughout the land, inspiring a humble but fast-rising people. You have heard it, and it — this true story of rich implication, this living parable of proven glory and humble nobility — and it, as I say, has made you free. Even you who have come to this shrine only this semeste>know it. You have heard his name from your parents, for it was he who led them to the path, guiding them like a great captain; like that great pilot of ancient times who led his people safe and unharmed across the bottom of the blood-red sea. And your parents followed this remarkable man across the black sea of prejudice, safely out of the land of ignorance, through the storms of fear and anger, shouting, LET MY PEOPLE GO! when it was necessary, whispering it during those times when whispering was wisest. And he was heard.”

I listened, my back pressing against the hard bench, with a numbness, my emotions woven into his words as upon a loom.

“And remember how,” he said, “when he entered a certain state at cotton-picking time, his enemies had plotted to take his life. And recall how during his journey he was stopped by the strange figure of a man whose pitted features revealed no inkling of whether he was black or white . . . Some say he was a Greek. Some a Mongolian. Others a mulatto — and others still, a simple white man of God. Whoever, and whatsoever, and we must not rule out the possibility of an emissary direct from above — oh, yes! — and remember how he appeared suddenly, startling both Founder and horse as he gave warning, telling the Founder to leave the horse and buggy there in theroad and proceed immediately to a certain cabin, then slipped silently away, so silently, my young friends, that the Founder doubted his very existence. And you know how the great man continued through the dusk, determined though puzzled as he approached the town. He was lost, lost in reverie until the crack of the first rifle sounded, then the almost fatal volley that creased his skull — oh my! — and left him stunned and apparently lifeless.

“I have heard him tell with his own lips how consciousness returned while they were still upon him examining their foul deed, and how he lay biting his heart lest they hear it and wipe out their failure with a coup-de-grace, as the French would say. Ha! And I’m sure you’ve each of you lived with him through his escape,” he said, seeming to look directly into my watered eyes. “You awakened when he awakened, rejoiced when he rejoiced at their leaving without further harm; arising when he arose; seeing with his eyes the prints of their milling footsteps and the cartridges dropped in the dust about the imprint of his fallen body; yes, and the cold, dust-encrusted, but not quite fatal blood. And you hurried with him full of doubt to the cabin designated by the stranger, where he met that seemingly demented black man . . . You remember that old one, laughed at by the children in the town’s square, old, comic-faced, crafty, cotton-headed. And yet it was he who bound up your wounds with the wounds of the Founder. He, the old slave, showing a surprising knowledge of such matters — germology and scabology — ha! ha! — he called it, and what a youthful skill of the hands! For he shaved our skull, and cleansed our wound and bound it neat with bandages stolen from the home of an unsuspecting leader of the mob, ha! And you recall how you plunged with the Founder, the Leader, deep into the black art of escape, guided at first, indeed, initiated, by the seemingly demented one who had learned his craft in slavery. You left with the Founder in the black of night, and I know it. You hurried silently along the river bottom, stung by mosquitoes, hooted by owls, zoomed by bats, buzzed by snakes that rattled among the rocks, mud and fever, darkness and sighing. You hid all the following day in the cabin where thirteen slept in three small rooms, standing until darkness in the fireplace chimney, back in all the soot and ashes — ha! ha! — guarded by the granny who dozed at the hearth seemingly without a fire. You stood in the blackness and when they came with their baying hounds they thought her demented. But she knew, she knew! She knew the fire! She knew the fire! She knew the fire that burned without consuming! My God, yes!”

“My God, yes!” a woman’s voice responded, adding to the structure of his vision within me.

“And you left with him in the morning, hidden in a wagonload of cotton, in the very center of the fleece, where you breathed the hot air through the barrel of the emergency shotgun; the cartridges, which thank God it was unnecessary to use, held fanwise and ready between the spread fingers of your hand. And you went into this town with him and were hidden by the friendly aristocrat one night, and on the next by the white blacksmith who held no hatred — surprising contradictions of the underground. Escaping, yes! helped by those who knew you and those who didn’t know. Because for some it was enough to see him; others helped without even that, black and white. But mostly it was our own who aided, because you were their own and we have always helped our own. And so, my young friends, my sisters and brothers, you went with him, in and out of cabins, by night and earlyblack hand and some white hands, and all the hands molding the Founder’s freedom and our own freedom like voices shaping a deep-felt song. And you, each of you, were with him. Ah, how well you know it, for it was you who escaped to freedom. Ah, yes, and you know the story.”

I saw him resting now, and beaming out across the chapel, his huge head turning to all its corners like a beacon, his voice still echoing as I fought back my emotion. For the first time the evocation of the Founder saddened me, and the campus seemed to rush past me, fast retreating, like the fading of a dream at the sundering of slumber. Beside me, the student’s eyes swam with a distorting cataract of tears, his features rigid as though he struggled within himself. The fat man was playing upon the whole audience without the least show of exertion. He seemed completely composed, hidden behind his black-lensed glasses, only his mobile features gesturing his vocal drama. I nudged the boy beside me.

“Who is he?” I whispered.

He gave me a look of annoyance, almost of outrage. “Reverend Homer A. Barbee, Chicago,” he said.

Now the speaker rested his arm upon the lectern and turned toward Dr. Bledsoe:

“You’ve heard the bright beginning of the beautiful story, my friends. But there is the mournful ending, and perhaps in many ways the richer side.
The setting of this glorious son of the morning.”

He turned to Dr. Bledsoe, “It was a fateful day, Dr. Bledsoe, sir, if I may recall it to you, for we were there. Oh yes, my young friends,” he said, turning to face us again with a sad proud smile. “I knew him well and loved
him, and I was there.

“We had toured through several states to which he was carrying the message. The people had come to hear the prophet, the multitude had responded. The old-fashioned people; women in aprons and Mother Hubbards of calico and gingham, men in their overalls and patched alpacas; a sea of upturned and puzzled faces looking out from beneath old battered straw hats and limp sunbonnets. They who had come by oxen and mule team and by walking long distances. It was the month of September and unseasonably cold. He had spoken peace and confidence into their troubled souls, had set a star before them and we were passing on to other scenes, still carrying the message.

“Ah, those days of ceaseless travel, those youthful days, those springtime days; fertile, blossomy, sun-filled days of promise. Ah, yes, those indescribably glorious days, in which the Founder was building the dream not only here in this then barren valley, but hither and yonder throughout the land, instilling the dream in the hearts of the people. Erecting the scaffolding of a nation. Broadcasting his message that fell like seed on tallow ground, sacrificing himself, fighting and forgiving his enemies of both complexions-oh yes, he had them, of both complexions. But going forward filled with the importance of his message, filled with his dedicated mission; and in his zeal, perhaps in his mortal pride, ignoring the advice of his physician. I see in my mind’s eye the fatal atmosphere of that jam packed auditorium: The Founder holds the audience within the gentle palm of his eloquence, rocking it, soothing it, instructing it; and there below, the rapt faces blushed by the glow of the big pot-bellied stove now turned cherry-red with its glowing; yes, the spellbound rows caught in the imperious truth of his message. And I hear now, again, the great humming hush as his voice reached the end of a mighty period, and one of the listeners, a snowy-headed man, leaps to his feet crying out, ‘Tell us what is to be done, sir! For God’s sake, tell us! Tell us in the name of the son they snatched from me last week!’ And all through the room the voices arising, imploring, ‘Tell us, tell us!’ And the Founder is suddenly mute with tears.”

Old Barbee’s voice rang out, as suddenly he made charged and incomplete movements about the platform, acting out his words. And I watched with a sick fascination, knowing part of the story, yet a part of me fighting against its sad inevitable conclusion.

“And the Founder pauses, then steps forward with his eyes spilling his great emotion. With his arm upraised, he begins to answer and totters. Then all is commotion. We rush forward and lead him away.

“The audience leaps to its feet in consternation. All is terror and turmoil, a moan and a sighing. Until, like a clap of thunder, I hear Dr. Bledsoe’s voice ring out whip-like with authority, a song of hope. And as we stretch the Founder upon a bench to rest, I hear Dr. Bledsoe stomping out the time with mighty strokes upon the hollow platform, commanding not in words but in the great gut-tones of his magnificent basso — oh, but wasn’t he a singer? Isn’t he a singer still today? — and they stand, they calm, and with him they sing out against the tottering of their giant. Sing out their long black songs of blood and bones:

“Meaning HOPE!

“Of hardship and pain:

“Meaning FAITH!

“Of humbleness and absurdity:


“Of ceaseless struggle in darkness, meaning:

“TRIUMPH . . .

“Ha!” Barbee cried, slapping his hands, “Ha! Singing verse after verse, until the leader revived!” (Slap, slap of his hands.)

“Addressed them” —

(Slap!) “My God, my God!

“Assured them” — (Slap!)

“That” — (Slap!)

“He was only tired of his ceaseless efforts.” (Slap!) “Yes, and dismisses them, sending each on his way rejoicing, giving each a parting handshake of fellowship . . .”

I watched Barbee pace in a semicircle, his lips compressed, his face working with emotion, his palms meeting but making no sound.

“Ah, those days in which he tilled his mighty fields, those days in which he watched the crops take hold and grow, those youthful, summery, sun-bright days . . .”

Barbee’s voice sighed off in nostalgia. The chapel hardly breathed as he sighed deeply. Then I watched him produce a snowy handkerchief, remove his dark glasses and wipe his eyes, and through the increasing distance of my isolation, I watched the men in the seats of honor slowly shake their spellbound heads. Then Barbee’s voice began again, disembodied now, and it was as though he had never paused, as though his words, reverberating within us, had continued their rhythmic flow though their source was for a moment stilled:

“Oh, yes, my young friends, oh, yes,” he continued with a great sadness. “Man’s hope can paint a purple picture, can transform a soaring vulture into a noble eagle or a moaning dove. Oh, yes! But I knew,” he shouted, startling me. “In spite of that great, anguished hope within me, I knew — knew that the great spirit was declining, was approaching its lonely winter; the great sun going down. For sometimes it is given one to know these things . . . And I staggered under the awful burden of that knowledge and I cursed myself because I bore it. But such was the Founder’s enthusiasm– oh, yes! — that as we sped from country town to country town through the glorious Indian summer, I soon forgot. And then . . . And then . . . and . . . then . . .”

I listened to his voice fall to a whisper; his hands were outspread as though he were leading an orchestra into a profound and final diminuendo. Then his voice rose again, crisply, almost matter-of-factly, accelerated:

“I remember the start of the train, how it seemed to groan as it started up the steep grade into the mountain. It was cold. Frost formed its icy patterns upon the window’s edges. And the whistle of the train was long-drawn and lonely, a sigh issuing from the depths of the mountain.

“In the car up ahead, in the Pullman assigned him by the very president of the line, the Leader lay tossing. He had been struck with a sudden and mysterious sickness. And I knew in spite of the anguish within me that the sun goeth down, for the heavens themselves conveyed that knowledge. The rush of the train, the clicking of wheels upon the steel. I remember how I looked out of the frosted pane and saw the looming great North Star and lost it, as though the sky had shut its eye. The train was curving the mountain, the engine loping like a great black hound, parallel with the last careening cars, panting forth its pale white vapor as it hurled us ever higher. And shortly the sky was black, without a moon . . .”

As his “mooo-o-on” echoed over the chapel, he drew his chin against his chest until his white collar disappeared, leaving him a figure of balanced unbroken blackness, and I could hear the rasp of air as he inhaled.

“It was as though the very constellations knew our impending sorrow,” he bugled, his head raised to the ceiling, his voice full-throated. “For against that great — wide — sweep of sable there came the burst of a single jewel-like star, and I saw it shimmer, and break, and streak down the cheek of that coal-black sky like a reluctant and solitary tear . . .”

He shook his head with great emotion, his lips pursed as he moaned,”Mmmmmmmmmm,” turning toward Dr. Bledsoe as though he did not quite see him. “At that fateful moment . . . Mmmmmm, I sat with your great president . . . Mmmmmmmmmm! He was deep in meditation as we awaited word from the men of science, and he said to me of that dying star,

” ‘Barbee, friend, did you see?’

“And I answered, ‘Yes, Doctor, I saw.’

“And at our throats already we felt the cold hands of sorrow. And I said to Dr. Bledsoe, ‘Let us pray.’ And as we knelt there on the swaying floor our words were less prayers than sounds of mute and terrible sorrow. And it was then, as we pulled to our feet, staggering with the motion of that speeding train, that we saw the physician moving toward us. And we looked with bated breath into the blank and expressionless features of the man of science, asking with our total beings: Do you bring us hope or disaster? And it was then and there he informed us that the Leader was nearing his destination . . .

“It was said, the cruel blow had fallen and we were left numb, but the Founder was still for the moment with us and still in command. And, of all in the traveling party, he sent for him who sits there before you, and for me as a man of God. But he wanted mainly his friend of midnight consultations, his comrade of many battles, who over the weary years had remained steadfast in defeat as in victory.

“Even now I can see it, the dark passage lit with dim lights and Dr. Bledsoe swaying as he went before me. At the door stood the porter and the conductor, a black man and a white man of the South, both crying. Both weeping. And he looked up as we entered, his great eyes resigned but still aflame with nobility and courage against the white of his pillow; and he looked at his friend and smiled. Smiled warmly at his old campaigner, his loyal champion, his adjunct, that marvelous singer of the old songs who had rallied his spirit during times of distress and discouragement, who with his singing of the old familiar melodies soothed the doubts and fears of the multitude; he who had rallied the ignorant, the fearful and suspicious, those still wrapped in the rags of slavery; him, there, your leader, who calmed the children of the storm. And as the Founder looked up at his companion, he smiled. And reaching out his hand to his friend and companion as I now stretch out my hand to you, he said, ‘Come closer. Come closer.’ And he moved closer, until he stood beside the berth, and the light slanting across his shoulder as he knelt beside him. And the hand reached out and gently touched him and he said, ‘Now, you must take on the burden. Lead them the rest of the way.’ And oh, the cry of that train and the pain too big for tears!

“When the train reached the summit of the mountain, he was no longer with us. And as the train dropped down the grade he had departed.

“It had become a veritable train of sorrow. Dr. Bledsoe there, sat weary in mind and heavy of heart. What should he do? The Leader was dead and he thrown suddenly at the head of the troops like a cavalryman catapulted into the saddle of his general felled in a charge of battle-vaulted onto the back of his fiery and half-broken charger. Ah! And that great, black, noble beast, wall-eyed with the din of battle and twitching already with its sense of loss. What command should he give? Should he return with his burden, home, to where already the hot wires were flashing, speaking, rattling the mournful message? Should he turn and bear the fallen soldier down the cold and alien mountain to this valley home? Return with the dear eyes dulled, the firm hand still, the magnificent voice silent, the Leader cold? Return to the warm valley, to the green grounds he could no longer light with his mortal vision? Should he follow his Leader’s vision though he had now himself departed?

“Ah, of course you know the story: How he bore the body into the strange city, and the speech he made as his Leader lay in state, and how when the sad news spread, a day of mourning was declared for the whole municipality. Oh, and how rich and poor, black and white, weak and powerful, young and old, all came to pay their homage-many realizing the< Leader’s worth and their loss only now with his passing. And how, with his mission done, Dr. Bledsoe returned, keeping his sorrowful vigil with his friend in an humble baggage car; and how the people came to pay their respects at the stations . . . A slow train. A sorrowful train. And all along the line, in mountain and valley, wherever the rails found their fateful course, the people were one in their common mourning, and like the cold steel rails, were spiked down to their sorrow. Oh, what a sad departure!

“And what an even sadder arrival. See with me, my young friends, hear with me: The weeping and wailing of those who shared his labors. Their sweet Leader returned to them, rock-cold in the iron immobility of death. He who had left them quick, in the prime of his manhood, author of their own fire and illumination, returned to them cold, already a bronzed statue. Oh, the despair, my young friends. The black despair of black people! I see them now; wandering about these grounds, where each brick, each bird, each blade of grass was a reminder of some precious memory; and each memory a hammer stroke driving home the blunt spikes of their sorrow. Oh, yes, some now are here gray-haired among you, still dedicated to his vision, still laboring in the vineyard. But then with the black-draped coffin lying in state among them — inescapably reminding them — they felt the dark night of slavery settling once more upon them. They smelt that old obscene stink of darkness, that old slavery smell, worse than the rank halitosis of hoary death. Their sweet light enclosed in a black-draped coffin, their majestic sun snatched behind a cloud.

“Oh, and the sad sound of weeping bugles! I can hear them now, stationed at the four corners of the campus, sounding taps for the fallen general; announcing and re-announcing the sad tidings, telling and retelling the sad revelation one to the other across the still numbness of the air, as though they could not believe it, could neither comprehend nor accept it; bugles weeping like a family of tender women lamenting their loved one. And the people came to sing the old songs and to express their unspeakable sorrow. Black, black, black! Black people in blacker mourning, the funeral crape hung upon their naked hearts; singing unashamedly their black folk’s songs of sorrow, moving painfully, overflowing the curving walks, weeping and wailing beneath the drooping trees and their low murmuring voices like the moans of winds in a wilderness. And finally they gathered on the hill slope and as far as the tear-wet eyes could see, they stood with their heads bowed, singing.

“Then silence. The lonesome hole banked with poignant flowers. The dozen white-gloved hands waiting taut upon the silken ropes. That awful silence. The final words are spoken. A single wild rose tossed farewell, bursts slowly, its petals drifting snowlike upon the reluctantly lowered coffin. Then down into the earth; back to the ancient dust; back to the cold black clay . . . mother . . . of us all.”

As Barbee paused the silence was so complete that I could hear the power engines far across the campus throbbing the night like an excited pulse. Somewhere in the audience an old woman’s voice began a plaintive wail; the birth of a sad, untormulated song that died stillborn in a sob.

Barbee stood with his head thrown back, his arms rigid at his sides, his fists clenched as though fighting desperately for control. Dr. Bledsoe sat with his face in his hands. Near me someone blew his nose. Barbee took a tottering step forward.

“Oh, yes. Oh, yes,” he said. “Oh, yes. That too is part of the glorious story. But think of it not as a death, but as a birth. A great seed had been planted. A seed which has continued to put forth its fruit in its season as surely as if the great creator had been resurrected. For in a sense he was, if not in the flesh, in the spirit. And in a sense in the flesh too. For has not your present leader become his living agent, his physical presence? Look about you if you doubt it. My young friends, my dear young friends! How can I tell you what manner of man this is who leads you? How can I convey to you how well he has kept his pledge to the Founder, how conscientious has been his stewardship?

“First, you must see the school as it was. Already a great institution, to be sure; but then the buildings were eight, now they are twenty; then the faculty was fifty, now it is two hundred; then the student body was a few hundred, where now I’m told you are three thousand. And now where you have roads of asphalt for the passage of rubber tires, then the roads were of crushed stone for the passage of oxen, and mule teams, and horse-drawn wagons. I have not the words to tell you how my heart swelled to return to this great institution after so great a while to move among its wealth of green things, its fruitful farmland and fragrant campus. Ah! and the marvelous plant supplying power to an area larger than many towns — all operated by black hands. Thus, my young friends, does the light of the Founder still burn. Your leader has kept his promise a thousandfold. I commend him in his own right, for he is the co-architect of a great and noble experiment. He is a worthy successor to his great friend and it is no accident that his great and intelligent leadership has made him our leading statesman. This is a form of greatness worthy of your imitation. I say to you, pattern yourselves upon him. Aspire, each of you, to some day follow in his footsteps. Great deeds are yet to be performed. For we are a young, though a fast-rising, people. Legends are still to be created. Be not afraid to undertake the burdens of your leader, and the work of the Founder will be one of ever unfolding glory, the history of the race a saga of mounting triumphs.”

Barbee stood with his arms outstretched now, beaming over the audience, his Buddha-like body still as an onyx boulder. There was sniffling throughout the chapel. Voices murmured with admiration and I felt more lost than ever. For a few minutes old Barbee had made me see the vision and now I knew that leaving the campus would be like the parting of flesh. I watched him lower his arms now and start back to his chair, moving slowly with his head cocked as though listening to distant music. I had lowered my head to wipe my eyes when I heard the shocked gasp arise.

Looking up, I saw two of the white trustees moving swiftly across the platform to where Barbee floundered upon Dr. Bledsoe’s legs. The old man slid forward upon his hands and knees as the two white men took his arms; and now as he stood I saw one of them reach for something on the floor and place it in his hands. It was when he raised his head that I saw it. For a swift instant, between the gesture and the opaque glitter of his glasses, I saw the blinking of sightless eyes. Homer A. Barbee was blind.

Uttering apologies, Dr. Bledsoe helped him to his chair. Then as the old man rested back with a smile, Dr. Bledsoe walked to the edge of the platform and lifted his arms. I closed my eyes as I heard the deep moaning sound that issued from him, and the rising crescendo of the student body joining in. This time it was music sincerely felt, not rendered for the guests, but for themselves; a song of hope and exaltation. I wanted to rush from the building, but didn’t dare. I sat stiff and erect, supported by the hard bench, relying upon it as upon a form of hope.

I could not look at Dr. Bledsoe now, because old Barbee had made me both feel my guilt and accept it. For although I had not intended it, any act that endangered the continuity of the dream was an act of treason.

I did not listen to the next speaker, a tall white man who kept dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief and repeating his phrases in an emotional and inarticulate manner. Then the orchestra played excerpts from Dvorak’s New World Symphony and I kept hearing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” resounding through its dominant theme — my mother’s and grandfather’s favorite spiritual. It was more than I could stand, and before the next speaker could begin I hurried past the disapproving eyes of teachers and matrons, out into the night.

A mockingbird trilled a note from where it perched upon the hand of the moonlit Founder, flipping its moon-mad tail above the head of the eternally kneeling slave. I went up the shadowy drive, heard it trill behind me. The street lamps glowed brilliant in the moonlit dream of the campus, each light serene in its cage of shadows.

I might well have waited until the end of the services, for I hadn’t gone far when I heard the dim, bright notes of the orchestra striking up a march, followed by a burst of voices as the students filed out into the night. With a feeling of dread I headed for the administration building, and upon reaching it, stood in the darkened doorway. My mind fluttered like the moths that veiled the street lamp which cast shadows upon the bank of grass below me. I would now have my real interview with Dr. Bledsoe, and I recalled Barbee’s address with resentment. With such words fresh in his mind, I was sure Dr. Bledsoe would be far less sympathetic to my plea. I stood in that darkened doorway trying to probe my future if I were expelled. Where would I go, what would I do? How could I ever return home?

DMU Timestamp: November 12, 2020 20:50