Today I read Richard Wright’s essay: ‘The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.’ This essay was in his book Uncle Tom’s Children published in 1938.
Uncle Tom’s Children was Richard Wrights first book, released when he was 30 years old.
One of the powerful things about literature is that you are able, for a short time, to be someone who you are not… and by doing so you can gain an understanding or insight that you had not previously had. As a white male, born in 1963 who grew up in Southern California, I was able to experience life as an African American youth/young man in the United States South. A life before Martin Luther King, Jr or Malcom X… life before I was ever born.
The sad thing is that this mentality still exists today, and it does not just follow racial lines.
Over the next couple of days I am going to share this essay by Richard Wright.
THE ETHICS OF LIVING JIM CROW
An Autobiographical Sketch
Richard Wright, Chicago
My first lesson in how to live as a Negro came when I was quite small. We were living in Arkansas. Our house stood behind the railroad tracks. Its skimpy yard was paved with black cinders. Nothing green ever grew in that yard. The only touch of green we could see was far away, beyond the tracks, over where the white folks lived. But cinders were good enough for me, and I never missed the green growing things. And anyhow, cinders were fine weapons. You could always have a nice hot war with huge black cinders. All you had to do was crouch behind the brick pillars of a house with your hands full of gritty ammunition. And the first woolly black head you saw pop out from behind another row of pillars was your target. You tried your very best to knock it off. It was great fun.
I never fully realized the appalling disadvantages of a cinder environment till one day the gang to which I belonged found itself engaged in a war with the white boys who lived beyond the tracks. As usual we laid down our cinder barrage, thinking that this would wipe the white boys out. But they replied with a steady bombardment of broken bottles. We doubled our cinder barrage, but they hid behind trees, hedges, and the sloping embankments of their lawns. Having no such fortifications, we retreated to the brick pillars of our homes. During the retreat a broken milk bottle caught me behind the ear, opening a deep gash which bled profusely. The sight of blood pouring over my face completely demoralized our ranks. My fellow-combatants left me standing paralyzed in the center of the yard, and scurried for their homes. A kind neighbor saw me and rushed me to a doctor, who took three stitches in my neck.
I sat brooding on my front steps, nursing my wound and waiting for my mother to come from work. I felt that a grave injustice had been done me. It was all right to throw cinders. The greatest harm a cinder could do was leave a bruise. But broken bottles were dangerous; they left you cut, bleeding, and helpless.
When night fell, my mother came from the white folks’ kitchen. I raced down the street to meet her. I could just feel in my bones that she would understand. I knew she would tell me exactly what to do next time. I grabbed her hand and babbled out the whole story. She examined my wound, then slapped me.
“How come yuh didn’t hide?” she asked me. “How come yuh awways fightin’?”
I was outraged, and bawled. Between sobs I told her that I didn’t have any trees or hedges to hide behind. There wasn’t a thing I could have used as a trench. And you couldn’t throw very far when you were hiding behind the brick pillars of a house. She grabbed a barrel stave, dragged me home, stripped me naked, and beat me till I had a fever of one hundred and two. She would smack my rump with the stave, and, while the skin was still smarting, impart to me gems of Jim Crow wisdom. I was never to throw cinders any more. I was never to fight any more wars. I was never, never, under any conditions, to fight white folks again. And they were absolutely right in clouting me with the broken milk bottle. Didn’t I know she was working hard every day in the hot kitchens of the white folks to make money to take care of me? When was I ever going to learn to be a good boy? She couldn’t be bothered with my fights. She finished by telling me that I ought to be thankful to God as long as I lived that they didn’t kill me.
All that night I was delirious and could not sleep. Each time I closed my eyes I saw monstrous white faces suspended from the ceiling, leering at me.
From that time on, the charm of my cinder yard was gone. The green trees, the trimmed hedges, the cropped lawns grew very meaningful, became a symbol. Even today when I think of white folks, the hard, sharp outlines of white houses surrounded by trees, lawns, and hedges are present somewhere in the background of my mind. Through the years they grew into an overreaching sym- bol of fear.
It was a long time before I came in close contact with white folks again. We moved from Arkansas to Mississippi. Here we had the good fortune not to live behind the railroad tracks, or close to white neighborhoods. We lived in the very heart of the local Black Belt. There were black churches and black preachers; there were black schools and black teachers; black groceries and black clerics. In fact, everything was so solidly black that for a long time I did not even think of white folks, save in remote and vague terms. But this could not last forever. As one grows older one eats more. One’s clothing costs more. When I finished grammar school I had to go to work. My mother could no longer feed and clothe me on her cooking job.
There is but one place where a black boy who knows no trade can get a job. And that’s where the houses and faces are white, where the trees, lawns, and hedges are green. My first job was with an optical company in Jackson, Mississippi. The morning I applied I stood straight and neat before the boss, answering all his questions with sharp yessirs and nosirs. I was very careful to pronounce my sirs distinctly, in order that he might know that I was polite, that I knew where I was, and that I knew he was a white man. I wanted that job badly.
He looked me over as though he were examining a prize poodle. He questioned me closely about my schooling, being particularly insistent about how much mathematics I had had. He seemed very pleased when I told him I had had two years of algebra.
“Boy, how would you like to try to learn something around here?” he asked me.
“I’d like it fine, sir,” I said, happy. I had visions of “working my way up.” Even Negroes have those visions.
“All right,” he said. “Come on.”
I followed him to the small factory.
“Pease,” he said to a white man of about thirty-five, “this is Richard. He’s going to work for us.”
Pease looked at me and nodded.
I was then taken to a white boy of about seventeen.
“Morrie, this is Richard, who’s going to work for us.”
“Whut yuh sayin’ there, boy!” Morrie boomed at me.
“Fine!” I answered.
The boss instructed these two to help me, teach me, give me jobs to do, and let me learn what I could in my spare time.
My wages were five dollars a week.
I worked hard, trying to please. For the first month I got along O.K. Both Pease and Morrie seemed to like me. But one thing was missing. And I kept thinking about it. I was not learning anything, and nobody was volunteering to help me. Thinking they had forgotten that I was to learn something about the mechanics of grinding lenses, I asked Morrie one day to tell me about the work. He grew red.
“Whut yuh tryin’ t’ do, nigger, git smart?” he asked.
“Naw; I ain’ tryin’ t’ -it smart,” I said.
“Well, don’t, if yuh know whut’s good for yuh!”
I was puzzled. Maybe he just doesn’t want to help me, I thought. I went to Pease.
“Say, are you crazy, you black bastard?” Pease asked me, his gray eyes growing hard.
I spoke out, reminding him that the boss had said I was to be given a chance to learn something.
“Nigger, you think you’re white, don’t you?”
“Well, you’re acting mighty like it!”
“But, Mr. Pease, the boss said . . .”
Pease shook his fist in my face.
“This is a white man’s work around here, and you better watch yourself!”
From then on they changed toward me. They said good-morning no more. When I was just a bit slow in performing some duty, I was called a lazy black son-of-a-bitch.
Once I thought of reporting all this to the boss. But the mere idea of what would happen to me if Pease and Morrie should learn that I had “snitched” stopped me. And after all, the boss was a white man, too. What was the use?
The climax came at noon one summer day. Pease called me to his work-bench. To get to him I had to go between two narrow benches and stand with my back against a wall.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Richard, I want to ask you something,” Pease began pleasantly, not looking up from his work.
“Yes, sir,” I said again.
Morrie came over, blocking the narrow passage between the benches. He folded his arms, staring at me solemnly.
I looked from one to the other, sensing that something was coming.
“Yes, sir,” I said for the third time.
Pease looked up and spoke very slowly.
“Richard, Mr. Morrie here tells me you called me Pease.”
I stiffened. A void seemed to open up in me. I knew this was the show-down.
He meant that I had failed to call him Mr. Pease. I looked at Morrie. He was gripping a steel bar in his hands. I opened my mouth to speak, to protest, to assure Pease that I had never called him simply Pease, and that I had never had any intentions of doing so, when Morrie grabbed me by the collar, ramming my head against the wall.
“Now, be careful, nigger!” snarled Morrie, baring his teeth. “1 heard yuh call ‘im Pease! ‘N’ if yuh say yuh didn’t, yuh’re callin’ me a lie, see?” He waved the steel bar threateningly.
If I had said: No, sir, Mr. Pease, I never called you Pease, I would have been automatically calling Morrie a liar. And if I had said: Yes, sir, Mr. Pease, I called you Pease, I would have been pleading guilty to having uttered the worst insult that a Negro can utter to a southern white man. I stood hesitating, trying to frame a neutral reply.
“Richard, I asked you a question!” said Pease. Anger was creeping into his voice.
“I don’t remember calling you Pease, Mr. Pease,” I said cautiously. “And if I did, I sure didn’t mean . . .”
“You black son-of-a-bitch! You called me Pease, then!” he spat, slapping me till I bent sideways over a bench. Morrie was on top of me, demanding:
“Didn’t yuh call ‘im Pease? If yuh say yuh didn’t, I’ll rip yo’ gut string loose with this f–kin’ bar, yuh black granny dodger! Yuh can’t call a white man a lie ‘n’ git erway with it, you black son-of-a-bitch!”
I wilted. I begged them not to bother me. I knew what they wanted. They wanted me to leave.
“I’ll leave,” I promised. “I’ll leave right now.”
They gave me a minute to get out of the factory. I was warned not to show up again, or tell the boss.
When I told the folks at home what had happened, they called me a fool. They told me that I must never again attempt to exceed my boundaries. When you are working for white folks, they said, you got to “stay in your place” if you want to keep working.
(to be continued tomorrow)