THE JOYS OF BEING A NEGRO

by Edward E. Wilson


Taken from the Atlantic Monthly (Boston, Mass), v. 97, February 1906. pp. 245-250.

Some time ago I received a beautifully engraved card inviting me to spend my winter at a certain aristocratic Southern hotel. In I know not what way - perhaps because I was duly enrolled among the lawyers of a Northern city - my name had drifted with a few others into the hands of the proprietor of this hostelry. I am sure there was no intention either on my part or on the part of my name to impose on any one. In America, one may have whatever name he chooses, and mine was of the plainest kind; it was neither parted in the middle nor preceded by de or von; it had, indeed, an absolute and hopeless democracy in sound and meaning.

But to the point. When I received the above invitation, flinging off realities for a moment, I yielded to my fancy and began forthwith to imagine myself, after collecting from every conceivable source overdue fees, and after such extensive borrowing as my credit would allow, going to this exclusive winter resort and offering myself as a guest thereof. Fancy was not so extravagant, however, as to allow me to ride thither in a Pullman, because not even fancy could evade certain laws enacted by fastidious legislators preventing person of my ancestry from so traveling. Nor, as being beneath the dignity of a select resorter, did I care to try the delights of a ride in a freight car; although such a ride was most ingratiatingly recommended by a writer in the Atlantic a short time since. Arrived, in imagination, at my destination, I look up the broad shrubbery-fringed esplanade leading to the hotel; but I see no black servitor with shining ivories hastening to meet me. As I enter the hotel I am sensible of an excitement - the mixture of curiosity and consternation - created by my coming; the factotums of my own race about the hotel gaze at me in speechless wonder, or else whisper meaningly to one another; as I stalk to the clerk's desk and ask to register, I gorgonize that hitherto unabashed individual; the loungers, amazed, sit upright, like statues in the Hall of Silence. Imagination picturing true, I will not dwell upon what happens thereafter. Suffice to say, that if I escape unbruised and unarrested, and can make my way with the aid of freight car or any other vehicle through the dark and tortuous ways of a hostile country to that city of the North whence I came, I shall ever afterwards recall my safe return with soul-sincere thanksgiving.

Now I ask in all seriousness, what member of any race could have such a thrilling experience in his imagination, from the mere imaginary acceptance of an invitation duly directed and solemnly sent to him?

Such an experience in reality at a Northern hotel or in a Northern Young Men's Christian Association would, in some quarters, call forth a deal of gratuitous sympathy. An idea has unfortunately got abroad that being Negro is like being in solitary confinement, - away from the rest of the world. It is though, indeed, that there could be no place chosen so gloomy or so hopeless in which to be born as among this race composed to some extent of descendants of Ham. Yet the whole question depends - as all other things do in life - on the point of view and the state of mind. I can never forget how near I came once, at a certain institution of learning, to rustication, because I insisted, in the face of frequent and emphatic asseverations of the Professor of Philosophy to the contrary, that objects were objects and things existed outside of the mind. Since then I have seen how cheerful was the view of the good professor, and how a Negro adopting it can experience joys such as no white man can ever know.

Worn as is the saying that life's happiness lies in anticipation, it is a truism that perfectly fits the Negro's case. So much lies before him, the things he can hope to achieve are so much more numerous than those which the Aryans can look forward to, that his pleasures of hope are endless. And why should he end them? why seek disillusion in attainment? Was Sancho Panza happier when he was hoping for, or when he had come into his government? With the Negro it is but seldom that delights grow stale by being transformed from the imaginary to the real. He may have suffered here and there such disillusioning, but not enough to render him cynical. He had faith, it is true, that the coming of his freedom would solve all questions for him; yet he found it but broadened his field of anticipation. He as firmly believed that his advance in education would help him, but this merely served to show the measureless distance between him and satiety. He is in position to pity the self-extolled Aryan who, if American, thinks himself nearing the limits of perfection.

In fact the Negro is the rustic of America. Of the doings of this great and busy nation he is but a spectator. He stands as the procession passes, with mouth agape. He imagines that ever new wonders are to arrive, and his fancy creates a veritable Arabian Nights. What is common to others is a source of admiration to him.

One who basks in the sunshine of adulation, who is constantly told or constantly telling himself that his is the very climax of civilization, the heir of all the ages, knows not what it is to feel the heart beat quickly at a word of praise. Heap abuse upon one, however, misrepresent his every action, call his assertion of his ordinary rights insolence, scoff at his efforts at deference and politeness as servility, and then a kind word to him is as a grateful palm in the midst of a desert.

While in particular instances a chance encomium may reach a Negro, yet on the whole he is little subject to that soul-deadening anaesthetic, - flattery. With him plain speaking is the vogue; a spade is a spade, however black; and consequently he is not led by ill-advised laudations to look upon himself as perfect, - a boon which will forever keep him struggling forward, and because of which he ought, without ceasing, to rejoice. A few, indeed, are so constituted that this plain-speaking frequently directed at them reduces them to a pachydermatous state (which if reached by philosophers would be called the Centre of Indifference), wherein they remain unmoved by calumny even. The dullest can see the advantage of such a condition. A few others, all too sensitive, wilt and wither under this hard candor; but the great world cannot stop to care for the few.

To attract attention - >monstrari digito< - has, since the existence of man, been the chief support of his vanity and ambition. Herostratus, in olden times, burned Diana's Temple to become immortal. And to what shifts have not men resorted to gain a modicum of notoriety, to stand for a moment in the limelight? How happy, then, must the Negro be, when, if fairly dressed, entering a public place with wife or sweetheart, he, without effort on his part, arouses a bustling curiosity that good manners, even, do not restrain! he is stared at, whispered about, - becoming the centre of all glances; and despite the fact that a little scantness of morals - a little illegal Mormonism - has left many Negroes with features scarcely distinguishable from those of the most rampant Anglo-Saxons, if his companion happens to be light of color, fair-haired and blue-eyed, yet having either a bar sinister or an African ancestor somewhere in the far-off past, the attention he receives is riotous.

But all things have their recompense. Does a theatre refuse to sell me a first class seat? or rather, not refusing because of the law; falsely pretend that all such seats are sold? Does a heartless real estate dealer decline to sell me a house outside of the slums? - I simply call on a white Negro to buy one for me, and go off, gloating over the fact that the proud Aryan has put it in my power to triumph over his unrighteous exclusiveness. More than once Negroes have, because of what is known as their "white reinforcement," moved along in intimate relations side by side with those the very breath of whose lives was the hatred of anything African: Now I challenge the world to show me an Aryan who can successfully pass for a Negro.

Moreover, it is a great wonder that the blacks have so little haughtiness when they find themselves the topic for magazine and newspaper articles, the inspiration for many marvelous songs, the subject on innumerable discussions in the very Congress of the United States, and not seldom the moving spirit in those latter-day gems of literature, - race novels.

Many have thought the common belief that all Negroes are alike was a fact much to be deplored; but here again is an almost universal mistake. The surprise, the pleasant shock, that the Aryan gets when now and again he finds this belief upset, in no small measure atones for any injury done to the less fortunate race. I remember once upon a time meeting on a railroad train an elderly gentleman full of good intentions toward the heathen and downtrodden, and somewhat officious withal. I had in my hand a score of the opera _Rigoletto_, which had been sung in my city the night before. A book in the hands of a Negro quickly attracted the benevolent gentleman's attention. he then perused me from head to foot, as though I was the strangest of creatures. I could see condescension oozing from every pore. "Young man," he said, "I see you are trying to elevate yourself. This is a glorious country, where every man has a chance. The nation shed its blood for you. What book have you there?" I meekly showed it to him. "Ah, music - opera - you enjoy that! You are different from the rest of your people. My family was at that opera. I know very little about music myself." Not less than the writer; but here was my chance for revenge. I dragged forth and criticised out of hand musician after musician (my knowledge of them having been obtained much after the manner of Pendennis's acquaintance with things while working with Warrington on the Pall Mall Gazette), - Wagner, Verdi, Bach, Bizet, Strauss, Donizetti, Gounod, and such others as my ransacked memory afforded. My new-found acquaintance was the very picture of amazement, - began to retreat when I appealed to him to decide whether the world was most indebted to Mozart or Wagner for dramatic music; but I was unrelenting, and, pursuing, poured upon him such volleys of "counterpoint," "arias," "ensembles," "phrasings," that he dropped into his seat mute and helpless. Should any one object that I was guilty of pretentiousness, even of deception, I admit it, but plead self-defense, which justifies extreme measures, - even to the taking of human life. What right had he to assume because I had a book in my hand that I was a prodigy, and to affront me by telling me so?

When one desires to express a truth it is the fashion to apologize for the triteness of it; as though the extirpation of triteness from the earth would not most surely leave us without a shred of truth. It is therefore without apology that I state the world-wide axiom that altruism has been the principal factor in the advancement of true civilization. Those who exercise it are bound to have delights that the individual who cares but for himself can never hope to attain. What a scope, then, for selflessness must not the Negro have, when he is told that he must raise all of his race to a high level of respectability and intelligence before any individual thereof, whatever his merit, can hope to receive the treatment accorded to a man and a citizen! At first blush such a proposition would seem absurd, but the very fact that Aryans advance it shows that they, as a rule, regard the Negro as capable of more general cultivation than themselves. And then that responsibility of one for all and all for one, - how surely it makes each Negro his brother's keeper, and how each must tremble and deplore (and I had almost said turn pale) when hears of an offense committed by any son of Ham.

In Negroes' working for themselves alone, there would, from a larger view, be something of selfishness. Yet they can fairly claim to have lightened the burdens of myriads, and to have furnished amusement to countless thousands who could not, perhaps, have been otherwise entertained. One often wonders what would become of the cheap cartoonist and outlandish dialect-writer if the Negro were suddenly removed from American life; what untimely fate would overtake the melon joke and the chicken joke. As one contemplates the matter a real alarm is created; for what would become of certain heavy magazine writers, sensational novelists, and numberless Lilliputians in newspaper offices? How many words of detraction would lie unused and rusting thin the lexicon! How, here and there, philanthropy itself would droop and die!

Giving joy to another is a joy in itself. To keep another in a state of complacency amounts to the same thing. Of how much just pride the Aryan would be divested if he no longer had the lowly Negro to measure himself by, we can never know. Could there be nobility without commons? Could there be an indomitable Aryan race, whose matchless courage, virtue, and heroism conquered the American wilderness and overcame its savages, were there no Negro here clamoring for his share in American life? Not so; without the Negro as a foil, Americans would be nothing more than plain white men.

If the satisfaction furnished the superior race sometimes causes the less fortunate pain, the latter should remember that what benefits the majority makes for the good of the whole, and that nothing is nobler than vicarious suffering. The frogs were foolish when they cried out to the boys, "What is fun for you is death to us." The very wrongs of the oppressed have more than once called out the finest qualities in their oppressors, which might have, for the want of incitement, lain dormant forever. In compensation for injustice at home a deal of commiseration may be scattered abroad. Who can tell but that certain small, sporadic iniquities wrought against the blacks in America have so softened the consciences both of the people and of our ruling powers that they have been led to sympathize with the oppressed of all the foreign world, and to utter tearful protests against Armenian outrages and Kishenev massacres?

In this age where all is doubt, and every statement outside veracious newspapers is picked to pieces by original investigation, one may, without being liable to the charge of heresy, stick at accepting the theory that he who enjoys the highest things alone enjoys existence. It would not be fair to presume that, because one leads a lowly and unlettered life, he in his own way has not as much solid enjoyment as the greatest of philosophers, poets, or artists. The youngster, swallowing with eager gulps the contents of a detective story in which are recounted the hairbreadth escapes of some matchless sleuth, will, even though raised in afterlife above such literature, confess, if ingenuous, that he enjoyed his Old Thunderbolt as much as the Adam Bede of his later life. And what has brought more real joy to the soul of the sentimental maiden than, say, When Armor was in Fashion? It would be many a long year before she would prefer Henry Esmond to it. There is no aristocracy of enjoyment. Those who tell us that there is no music but Wagner's, and that the love of melody is an infallible sign of a vicious taste; no poetry but Browning's, - at least that part of him that must be guessed at,- thrive by assumption alone. It is impossible that any considerable portion of the human race shall be elevated to the level where these alleged highest pleasures are; and to the many,- the common people have some rights,- those things they comprehend and delight in give as true gratification as the elect enjoy.

If this be true, the Negro, presumed by the thoughtless majority, because of his environment, to be the most joyless of creatures, has a much larger share of happiness than many who outwardly appear more fortunate. (Here we speak of the typical Negro, not the late, revised, Aryanized one.) First of all he has what satisfaction there is in knowing that the theory of things is right. In theory he has whatever any other man has; just as in theory all men are created equal, - the law is impartially administered, - we are a Christian nation. Though the Negro is actually excluded from the social, political, and industrial life of America, there is comfort in the fact that he is not the least of the non-Aryans in this country. He has been theoretically placed on equal footing with the great white man by the great white man himself. Mongolians cannot become citizens of the United States, while the African from any part of the world and his descendant have this glorious privilege. It is interesting to note that members of the race that has so lately flung the proud Aryan into the dust in the Far East have, on several occasions, once in enlightened Massachusetts (In Re Saito, 62 Fed. Rep. 126), been refused the citizenship which a Negro may have for the asking. But after all, such discrimination as is practiced against him gives him leisure to develop, undisturbed by outside cares, those things in him worth cultivating. While a German, Irishman, Frenchman, and even the proud Englishman, who comes to this country, pools each his individuality in Americanism, the Negro, developing independence, stands aloof, with a determination to yield only when longer resistance would be criminal folly.

The negative pleasures of the Negro are not few. He has none of the burdens of governing, being relieved therefrom by his altruistic Aryan fellow-citizens. He has none of the troubles and temptations of millionaires; he expects but little and hence is seldom disappointed. He carries no revenges concealed in his bosom. He forgives his enemies easily. Do him a grievous injury, and a modicum of kindness removes resentment therefor. Bastinado his sensibilities to-day; he will salve them with biblical quotations, and to-morrow go on his way rejoicing.

From the Bible, indeed, the Negro draws no small portion of his philosophy of life; and while he may take a passage here and there too literally, yet he derives such satisfaction from this book that he would probably assail more truculently an enemy thereof than one who had done him personal wrong. "Take no thought for the morrow;" "The Lord will provide;" "Lay ye not up treasures on earth," "Consider the lilies how they grow, they toil not neither do they spin;" "Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble," - these and such passages are unction to his soul.

From the Bible, likewise, the Negro draws justification for his failure to be actively resentful of his wrongs. And who best represents the Christian spirit, the Aryan raging over the loss of a tooth, demanding a tooth in return and refusing to be comforted without it, or the humble black, who hardly smitten on one cheek, meekly present the other to the smiter? In the lowliness of the Founder of his faith the Negro finds comfort for his own poverty. He is not so engrossed with earthly things, but he has a constant eye on Paradise. he believes that like Lazarus he will recline on Abraham's bosom; while those who enjoyed without stint this world's goods squirm amidst brimstone with no drop of water to cool their quenchless thirst.

The contemplation of death, which brings terror to many and to almost all men sadness, brings to the Negro the idea of rest from labor and surcease of sorrow. Hence one finds more preparation by him for that fatal last event than for living, moving, and having his being on earth. Death, too, is a certain vindicator of equality; not that the Negro is glad when an Aryan, though a hostile one, goes to the land of darkness; but he points significantly and with melancholy satisfaction to the fact that poor Mose, who died a social pariah only yesterday, occupies as much of his mother earth as the dead colonel who lorded it over him so haughtily but a short fortnight ago.

Through all his vicissitudes hope is the black man's priceless asset. This he never loses, how gloomy soever the way. For him there is always something in the future, no matter how distant. A Negro of uncommon ability, the advocate of a new education for Negroes, has told them that in a thousand years they would be fitted to partake of the things the Aryan now enjoys, and this promise of remote enjoyment the blacks hail with enthusiasm. Was there ever sublimer faith? The very heart-wailings of the Negro speak of a brighter beyond. Of joy he cannot be bereft; his buoyancy overtops any sorrow. Pessimism seldom knows him. One miracle of deliverance has been performed for him, and he is confidently expecting another.

Should any question my authority to speak as above for the Negro, I reply that I became a Negro above thirty years ago; and, being initiated into all the mysterious rites of the race, have remained one ever since.