They shouldn’t be disrespectful or violent. That won’t make people listen to what they have to say. They need to wait patiently for change. They need to behave better.
That’s the rhetoric I keep hearing anytime a non-white person voices a protest against injustice. It doesn’t matter if it’s a peaceful protest or a riot, they always do it wrong.
Maybe I’d be more inclined to agree with my own people, the whites who are so concerned about everybody following all the rules, if I hadn’t come across a couple of relevant bits of cultural history.
DJ, in an ongoing attempt to expose the kids to poetry (they got my genetic indisposition to non-prose expression) tapes up poems all over the house. This month we’re surrounded by one of his favorite poets, Langston Hughes. A black poet and leader of the “Harlem Renaissance” in the 20s, Hughes’ poems read like a blend of Psalms and old Negro spirituals. The one on our refrigerator is titled Democracy:
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
On my two feet
And own the land.
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.
But thirty years after he wrote this, “the Negros” were still living on tomorrow’s bread… and white people were still lecturing them on the right way to behave.
Incident on a Train by Mabel Cleland Widdemer (a white woman) was written between 1954 and 1959; I found it in a collection of magazine stories called Stories to Live By. I’d read through the collection in years past—maybe before I got married?—and had tabbed the stories that I particularly liked. When I reread the collection a few weeks ago, Train wasn’t tabbed. I began the story without remembering much about it, and as I got into it, I wondered what about it had turned me off from marking it as “liked.”
It’s a vignette about Annette Marie, who attends a “large Eastern college” and boards the Southern Local train to go home for break. She’s a Negro, but at a glance passes for white. The porter puts her in the wrong car. He leads her to a seat in the white section instead of the colored section farther back. She doesn’t have a chance to protest, but is increasingly uncomfortable. She feels she deserves to sit wherever she wants to, but knows it’s against the law and that she’s courting trouble.
Two people notice her. One is the blond-haired, blue-eyed governor’s daughter who attends the same college. The other is a shriveled-up, sharp-eyed old woman who isn’t fooled by Annette Marie’s white-like looks. About the time that the old woman fetches the porter to have Annette Marie evicted from the car, the governor’s daughter leaps in and greets Annette Marie as if they’re good friends—offering her the protection of a powerful white person.
It’s a fascinating setup.
Then the story implodes. I can’t decide if the author lost her nerve, or if the story was “cleaned up” for publication.
Annette Marie recalls a speech given by the president of their college. He seemed aware that there was only one Negro in the audience, that being Annette Marie herself. He reminded the students “of different nationalities and races”:
I want you to remember that it will be up to you to make others respect and admire you. Not only you, as an individual, but the nationality or race which you represent… It isn’t always going to be easy for you. You will meet old prejudices. Sometime you may find yourself in a situation where it might be easier to repudiate your nationality or race. Never do this… We, at this college… hope to build in you a pride in yourself as an individual… and for your people. It is a heavy burden to carry on your shoulders. We hope that you will make yourselves worthy to carry it…
So Annette Marie, bolstered by the inspiring words of her college president who wasn’t talking to his fellow white people, lifts her chin and admits she’s black and doesn’t belong in the train car. She tells the governor’s daughter that she “hated herself for being a coward and not admitting at once to the porter than I was a Negro and under present regulations I didn’t belong in that car. …As a good representative of my race, I should abide by the rules. They may be changed someday, but until they are, I shall obey them.”
The governor’s daughter assures her that things will change, and can’t express her respect for Annette Marie enough. Annette Marie picks up her suitcase and heads back for the colored car.
The… end? That was the point of the story, to make sure you behave properly when somebody forces you outside the camp, so that they will think well of all the people they already consider inferior?
I guess I have to add the disclaimer, for people who always seem to wonder, that obviously I’m afraid of riots and looting, and obviously I think highly of honor and dignity. I respect Martin Luther King, Jr. and his peaceful stance. Of course, he got shot and killed by a white person who hated his protests, but oh well, it’s hard to please everybody.
I’m happy to live in a world where, officially, a non-white friend has the same status that I do. But a great deal still needs to be done. And I find it exhausting that the whites’ answer to cries for justice is exactly the same as it was 90 years ago.
It’s high time we stop offering tomorrow’s bread to today’s people. Justice and compassion are much more nourishing for a healthy society. Besides, by now that bread is stale. That’s why nobody’s swallowing it anymore.