There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass. And there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earthward from star-heavy skies on silent nights . . .
You owe a debt you can never pay.
Being sorry can’t make that kitten live again.
I was a drunkard in my sixth year, before I had begun school. With a gang of children, I roamed the streets, begging pennies from passers-by, haunting the doors of saloons . . . .
My father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, and who had at last fled the city—that same city which had . . . borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing.
The next day Granny said emphatically that she knew who had ruined me, that she knew I had learned about “foul practices” from reading Ella’s books, and when I asked what “foul practices” were, my mother beat me afresh.
Mama, is Granny white?
If you’ve got eyes, you can see what color she is.
I mean, do the white folks think she’s white?
Why don’t you ask the white folks that?
But you know.
Why should I know? I’m not white.
Granny looks white. Then why is she living with us colored folks?
Don’t you want Granny to live with us?
There was no funeral. There was no music. There was no period of mourning. There were no flowers. There were only silence, quiet weeping, whispers, and fear.
Why are there so many black men wearing stripes?
It’s because . . . Well, they’re harder on black people.
For weeks I wondered what it was that “uncle” had done, but I was destined never to know, not even in all the years that followed.
Christmas came and I had but one orange. I was hurt and would not go out to play with the neighborhood children who were blowing horns and shooting firecrackers. . . . Just before going to bed, I ate it, first taking a bite out of the top and sucking the juice from it as I squeezed it; finally I tore the peeling into bits and munched them slowly.
Out of the family conferences it was decided that my brother and I would be separated, that it was too much of a burden for any one aunt or uncle to assume the support of both of us. Where was I to go? Who would take me?
All right, I’ll send you home Saturday. Tell me, where did you learn those words Jody heard you say?
I looked at him and did not answer . . . . How could I have told him that I had learned to curse before I had learned to read? How could I have told him that I had been a drunkard at the age of six?
You’re just mad at me for something!
Don’t tell me I’m mad!
You’re too mad to believe anything I say.
Don’t speak to me like that!
Then how can I talk to you? You beat me for throwing walnuts on the floor! But I didn’t do it!
I burned at my studies. At the beginning of the school term I read my civics and English and geography volumes through and only referred to them when in class. I solved all my mathematical problems far in advance; then, during school hours, . . . I read tattered, second-hand copies of Flynn’s Detective Weekly or the Argosy All-Story Magazine.
Uncle Tom, Granny says to come at once. Grandpa’s dead.
You certainly are a prize fool. Don’t you know that that’s no way to tell a person that his father’s dead?
I ran all the way out here . . . I’m out of breath. I’m sorry.
Son, you ought to be more serious. You’re growing up now and you won’t be able to get jobs if you let people think that you’re weak-minded. Suppose the superintendent of schools would ask you to teach here in Jackson, and he found out that you had been writing stories?
Look, Dick, you’re throwing away your future here in Jackson. Go to the principal, talk to him, take his speech and say it. I’m saying the one he wrote. So why can’t you? What the hell? What can you lose?
I reached my hands higher. They searched my pockets and packages. They seemed dissatisfied when they could find nothing incriminating.
Boy, tell your boss not to send you out in white neighborhoods at this time of night.
The words and actions of white people were baffling signs to me. I was living in a culture and not a civilization and I could learn how that culture worked only by living with it. Misreading the reactions of whites around me made me say and do the wrong things.
How in God’s name can you do that?
I needed a quarter, and I got it.
But a quarter can’t pay you for what he did to you.
. . . My ass is tough and quarters is scarce.
I wondered what on earth this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South. The only people I had ever heard denounced in the South were Negros, and this man was not a Negro. . . Undoubtedly he must be advocating ideas that the South did not like.
Yet, deep down, I knew that I could never really leave the South, for my feelings had already been formed by the South, for there had been slowly instilled into my personality and consciousness, black though I was, the culture of the South. So, in leaving, I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, and bend in strange winds . . . .
But I was aware that she was a white girl and that her body was pressed closely against mine, an incident that had never happened to me before in my life, an incident charged with the memory of dread. But she was not conscious of my blackness or of what her actions would have meant in the South.
My purpose was to capture a physical state or movement that carried a strong subjective impression, an accomplishment which seemed supremely worth struggling for. If I could fasten the mind of the reader upon words so firmly that he would forget words and be conscious only of his response, I felt that I would be in sight of knowing how to write narrative.
Each time I left her I resolved not to visit her again. I could not talk to her; I merely listened to her passionate desire to see a circus. She was not calculating; if she liked a man, she just liked him. Sex relations were the only relations she had ever had; no others were possible with her, so limited was her intelligence.
But, as I listened to the Communist Negro speakers, I wondered if the Negro, blasted by three hundred years of oppression, could possibly cast off his fear and corruption and rise to the task [of tackling America’s problems.] Could the Negro ever possess himself, learn to know what had happened to him in relation to the aspirations of Western society? It seemed to me that for the Negro to try to save himself he would have to forget himself and try to save a confused, materialistic nation from its own drift toward self-destruction.
After the meeting Comrade Young confronted me with a problem. He had no money, he said, and asked if he could sleep temporarily on the club’s premises. Believing him loyal, I gave him permission. Straightway Young became one of the most ardent members of our organization, admired by all. […] No report about Young had come from the Communist party, but since Young seemed a conscientious worker, I did not think the omission serious in any case.
Stalin’s book had showed how diverse minorities could be welded into unity, and I regarded it as a most politically sensitive volume that revealed a new way of looking upon lost and beaten peoples. Of all the developments in the Soviet Union, the method by which scores of backward peoples had been led to unity on a national scale was what had enthralled me.
Comrade Nelson ... a writer who hasn’t written anything worthwhile is a most doubtful person. Now, I’m in that category. Yet I think I can write. I don’t want to ask for special favors, but I’m in the midst of a book which I hope to complete in six months or so. Let me convince myself that I’m wrong about my hankering to write and then I’ll be with you all the way.
This, to me, was a spectacle of glory; and yet, because it had condemned me, because it was blind and ignorant, I felt that it was a spectacle of horror. The blindness of their limited lives—lives truncated and impoverished by the oppression they had suffered long before they had ever heard of Communism—made them think that I was with their enemy. American life had so corrupted their consciousness that they were unable to recognize their friends when they saw them.
I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.