THE ETHICS OF LIVING JIM CROW
An Autobiographical Sketch
by Richard Wright, published 1938
My Jim Crow education continued on my next job, which was portering in a clothing store. One morning, while polishing brass out front, the boss and his twenty-year-old son got out of their car and half dragged and half kicked a Negro woman into the store. A policeman standing at the corner looked on, twirling his nightstick. I watched out of the corner of my eye, never slackening the strokes of my chamois upon the brass. After a few minutes, I heard shrill screams coming from the rear of the store. Later the woman stumbled out, bleeding, crying, and holding her stomach. When she reached the end of the block, the policeman grabbed her and accused her of being drunk. Silently I watched him throw her into a patrol wagon.
When I went to the rear of the store, the boss and his son were washing their hands at the sink. They were chuckling. The floor was bloody, and strewn with wisps of hair and clothing. No doubt I must have appeared pretty shocked, for the boss slapped me reassuringly on the back.
“Boy, that’s what we do to niggers when they don’t want to pay their bills,” he said, laughing.
His son looked at me and grinned.
“Here, hava cigarette,” he said.
Not knowing what to do, I took it. He lit his and held the match for me. This was a gesture of kindness, indicating that even if they had beaten the poor old woman, they would not beat rif I knew enough to keep my mouth shut.
“Yes, sir,” I said, and asked no questions.
After they had gone, I sat on the edge of a packing box and stared at the bloody floor till the cigarette went out.
That day at noon, while eating in a hamburger joint, I told my fellow Negro porters what had happened. No one seemed surprised. One fellow, after swallowing a huge bite, turned to me and asked
“Huh. Is tha’ all they did t’ her?”
“Yeah. Wasn’t tha’ enough?” I asked.
“Shucks! Man, she’s a lucky bitch!” he said, burying his lips deep into a juicy hamburger. “Hell, it’s a wonder they didn’t lay her when they got through.”
I was learning fast, but not quite fast enough. One day, while I was delivering packages in the suburbs, my bicycle tire was punctured. I walked along the hot, dusty road, sweating and leading my bicycle by the handle-bars.
A car slowed at my side.
“What’s the matter, boy?” a white man called.
I told him my bicycle was broken and I was walking back to town.
“That’s too bad,” he said. “Hop on the running board.”
He stopped the car. I clutched hard at my bicycle with one hand and clung to the side of the car with the other.
“Yes, sir,” I answered. The car started.
It was full of young white men. They were drinking. I watched the flask pass from mouth to mouth.
“Wanna drink, boy?” one asked.
I laughed, the wind whipping my face. Instinctively obeying the freshly planted precepts of my mother, I said:
The words were hardly out of my mouth before I felt something hard and cold smash me between the eyes. It was an empty whisky bottle. I saw stars, and fell backwards from the speeding car into the dust of the road, my feet becoming entangled in the steel spokes of my bicycle. The white men piled out, and stood over me.
“Nigger, ain’ yuh learned no better sense’n tha’ yet?” asked the man who hit me. “Ain’ yuh learned t’ say sir t’ a white man yet?”
Dazed, I pulled to my feet. My elbows and legs were bleeding. Fists doubled, the white man advanced, kicking my bicycle out of the way.
“Aw, leave the bastard alone. He’s got enough,” said one.
They stood looking at me. I rubbed my shins, trying to stop the flow of blood. No doubt they felt a sort of contemptuous pity, for one asked:
“Yuh wanna ride t’ town now, nigger? Yuh reckon yuh know enough t’ ride now?”
“I wanna walk,” I said, simply.
Maybe it sounded funny. They laughed.
“Well, walk, yuh black son-of-a-bitch!”
When they left they comforted me with:
“Nigger, yuh sho better be damn glad it wuz us yuh talked t’ tha’ way. Yuh’re a lucky bastard, ’cause if yuh’d said tha’ t’ somebody else, yuh might’ve been a dead nigger now.”
–to be continued–