The Ethics of Living Jim Crow is an essay from the book Uncle Tom’s Children by Richard Wright.
THE ETHICS OF LIVING JIM CROW
An Autobiographical Sketch
My next job was as hall-boy in a hotel. Here my Jim Crow education broadened and deepened. When the bell-boys were busy, I was often called to assist them. As many of the rooms in the hotel were occupied by prostitutes, I was constantly called to carry them liquor and cigarettes. These women were nude most of the time. They did not bother about clothing even for bell-boys. When you went into their rooms, you were supposed to take their nakedness for granted, as though it startled you no more than a blue vase or a red rug. Your presence awoke in them no sense of shame, for you were not regarded as human. If they were alone, you could steal sidelong glimpses at them. But if they were receiving men, not a flicker of your eyelids must show. I remember one incident vividly. A new woman, a huge, snowy-skinned blonde, took a room on my floor. I was sent to wait upon her. She was in bed with a thick-set man; both were nude and uncovered. She said she wanted some liquor, and slid out of bed and waddled across the floor to get her money from a dresser drawer. I watched her.
“Nigger, what in hell you looking at?” the white man asked me, raising himself upon his elbows.
“Nothing,” I answered, looking miles deep into the blank wall of the room.
“Keep your eyes where they belong, if you want to be healthy!”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
One of the bell-boys I knew in this hotel was keeping steady company with one of the Negro maids. Out of a clear sky the police descended upon his home and arrested him, accusing him of bastardy. The poor boy swore he had had no intimate relations with the girl. Nevertheless, they forced him to marry her. When the child arrived, it was found to be much lighter in complexion than either of the two supposedly legal parents. The white men around the hotel made a great joke of it. They spread the rumor that some white cow must have scared the poor girl while she was carrying the baby. If you were in their presence when this explanation was offered, you were supposed to laugh.
One of the bell-boys was caught in bed with a white prostitute. He was castrated, and run out of town. Immediately after this all the bell-boys and hall-boys were called together and warned. We were given to understand that the boy who had been castrated was a “mighty, mighty lucky bastard.” We were impressed with the fact that next time the management of the hotel would not be responsible for the lives of “trouble-makin’ niggers.”
One night, just as I was about to go home, I met one of the Negro maids. She lived in my direction, and we fell in to walk part of the way home together. As we passed the white nightwatchman, he slapped the maid on her buttock. I turned around, amazed. The watchman looked at me with a long, hard, fixedunder stare. Suddenly he pulled his gun, and asked:
“Nigger, don’t yuh like it?”
“I asked yuh don’t yuh like it?” he asked again, stepping forward.
“Yes, sir,” I mumbled.
“Talk like it, then!”
“Oh, yes, sir!” I said with as much heartiness as I could muster.
Outside, I walked ahead of the girl, ashamed to face her. She caught up with me and said:
“Don’t be a fool; yuh couldn’t help it!”
This watchman boasted of having killed two Negroes in self-defense.
Yet, in spite of all this, the life of the hotel ran with an amazing smoothness. It would have been impossible for a stranger to detect anything. The maids, the hall-boys, and the bell-boys were all smiles. They had to be.
–to be continued–