Birthright/Chapter XVI

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CHAPTER XVI


ON the corner, against the blank south wall of Hobbett's store, Peter Siner saw the usual crowd of negroes warming themselves in the soft sunshine. They were slapping one another, scuffling, making feints with knives or stones, all to an accompaniment of bragging, profanity, and loud laughter. Their behavior was precisely that of adolescent white boys of fifteen or sixteen years of age.

Jim Pink Staggs was furnishing much amusement with an impromptu sleight-of-hand exhibition. The black audience clustered around Jim Pink in his pinstripe trousers and blue-serge coat. They exhibited not the least curiosity as to the mechanics of the tricks, but asked for more and still more, with the naïve delight of children in the mysterious.

Peter Siner walked down the street with his Messianic impulse strong upon him. He was in that stage of feeling toward his people where a man's emotions take the color of religion. Now, as he approached the crowd of negroes, he wondered what he could say, how he could transfer to them the ideas and the emotion that lifted up his own heart.

As he drew nearer, his concern mounted to anxiety. Indeed, what could he say? How could he present so grave a message? He was right among them now. One of the negroes jostled him by striking around his body at another negro. Peter stopped. His heart beat, and he had a queer sensation of being operated by some power outside himself. Next moment he heard himself saying in fairly normal tones:

“Fellows, do you think we ought to be idling on the street corners like this? We ought to be at work, don't you think?”

The horse-play stopped at this amazing sentiment.

“Whuffo, Peter?” asked a voice.

“Because the whole object of our race nowadays is to gain the respect of other races, and more particularly our own self-respect. We haven't it now. The only way to get it is to work, work, work.”

“Ef you feel lak you'd ought to go to wuck,” suggested one astonished hearer, “you done got my p'mission, black boy, to hit yo' natchel gait to de fust job in sight.”

Peter was hardly less surprised than his hearers at what he was saying. He paid no attention to the interruption.

“Fellows, it's the only way our colored people can get on and make the most out of life. Persistent labor is the very breath of the soul, men; it—it is.” Here Peter caught an intimation of the whole flow of energy through the universe, focusing in man and being transformed into mental and moral values. And it suddenly occurred to him that the real worth of any people was their efficiency in giving this flow of force moral and spiritual forms. That is the end of man; that is what is prefigured when a baby's hand reaches for the sun. But Peter considered his audience, and his thought stammered on his tongue. The Persimmon, with his protruding, half-asleep eyes, was saying:

“I don' know, Peter, as I 's so partic'lar 'bout makin' de mos' out'n dis worl'. You know de Bible say—hit say,”—here the Persimmon's voice dropped a tone lower, in unconscious imitation of negro preachers,—“la- ay not up yo' treasure on uth, wha moss do corrup', an' thieves break th'ugh an' steal.”

Came a general nodding and agreement of soft, blurry voices.

"'At sho whut it say, black man!”

“Sho do!”

“Lawd God loves a nigger on a street corner same as He do a millionaire in a six-cylinder, Peter.”

“Sho do, black man; but He's jes about de onlies' thing on uth 'at do.”

“Well, I don' know,” came a troubled rejoinder. “Thaiuh's de debbil, ketchin' mo' niggers nowadays dan he do white men, I 'fo' Gawd b'liebes.”

“Well, dat's because dey is so many mo' niggers dan dey is white folks,” put in a philosopher.

“Whut you say 'bout dat, Brudder Peter?” inquired the Persimmon, seriously. None of this discussion was either derision or burlesque. None of the crowd had the slightest feeling that these questions were not just as practical and important as the suggestion that they all go to work.

When Peter realized how their ignorant and undisciplined thoughts flowed off into absurdities, and that they were entirely unaware of it, it brought a great depression to his heart. He held up a hand with an earnestness that caught their vagrant attention.

“Listen!” he pleaded. “Can't you see how much there is for us black folks to do, and what little we have done?”

“Sho is a lot to do; we admits dat,” said Bluegum Frakes. “But whut's de use doin' hit ef we kin manage to shy roun' some o' dat wuck an' keep on libin' anyhow, specially wid wages so high?”

The question stopped Peter. Neither his own thoughts, nor any book that he had ever read nor any lecture that he had heard ever attempted to explain the enormous creative urge which is felt by every noble mind, and which, indeed, is shared to some extent by every human creature. Put to it like that, Siner concocted a sort of allegory, telling of a negro who was shiftless in the summer and suffered want in the winter, and applied it to the present high wage and to the low wage that was coming; but in his heart Peter knew such utilitarianism was not the true reason at all. Men do not weave tapestries to warm themselves, or build temples to keep the rain away.

The brown man passed on around the corner, out of the faint warmth of the sunshine and away from the empty and endless arguments which his coming had provoked among the negroes.

The futile ending of his first adventure surprised Peter. He walked uncertainly up the business street of the village, hardly knowing where to turn next.

Cold weather had driven the merchants indoors, and the thoroughfare was quite deserted except for a few hogs rooting among the refuse heaps piled in front of the stores. It was not a pleasant sight, and it repelled Peter all the more because he was accustomed to the antiseptic look of a Northern city. He walked up to the third door from the corner, when a buzz of voices brought him to a standstill and finally persuaded him inside.

At the back end of a badly lighted store a circle of white men and boys had formed around an old-fashioned, egg-shaped stove. Near by, on some meal-bags, sat two negroes, one of whom wore a broad grin, the other, a funny, sheepish look.

The white men were teasing the latter negro about having gone to jail for selling a mortgaged cow. The men went about their fun-making leisurely, knowing quite well the negro could not get angry or make any retort or leave the store, all of these methods of self-defense being ruled out by custom.

“You must have forgot your cow was mortgaged, Bob.”

“No-o-o, suh; I—I—I didn't fuhgit,” drawling his vowels to a prodigious length.

“Didn't you know you'd get into trouble?”

“No-o-o, suh.”

“Know it now, don't you?”

“Ya-a-s, suh.”

“Have a good time in jail, Bob?”

“Ya-a-s, suh. Shot cra-a-aps nearly all de time tull de jailer broke hit up.”

“Wouldn't he let you shoot any more?”

“No-o-o, suh; not after he won all our money.” Here Bob flung up his head, poked out his lips like a bugle, and broke into a grotesque, “Hoo! hoo! hoo!” It was such an absurd laugh, and Bob's tale had come to such an absurd denouement, that the white men roared, and shuffled their feet on the flared base of the stove. Some spat in or near a box filled with sawdust, and betrayed other nervous signs of satisfaction. When a man so spat, he stopped laughing abruptly, straightened his face, and stared emptily at the rusty stove until further inquisition developed some other preposterous escapade in Bob's jail career.

The merchant, looking up at one of these intermissions, saw Peter standing at his counter. He came out of the circle and asked Peter what he wanted. The mulatto bought a package of soda and went out.

The chill north wind smelled clean after the odors of the store. Peter stood with his package of soda, breathing deeply, looking up and down the street, wondering what to do next. Without much precision of purpose, he walked diagonally across the street, northward, toward a large faded sign that read, “Killibrew's Grocery.” A little later Peter entered a big, rather clean store which smelled of spices, coffee, and a faint dash of decayed potatoes. Mr. Killibrew himself, a big, rotund man, with a round head of prematurely white hair, was visible in a little glass office at the end of his store. Even through the glazed partition Peter could see Mr. Killibrew smiling as he sat comfortably at his desk. Indeed, the grocer's chief assets were a really expansive friendliness and a pleasant, easily provoked laughter.

He was fifty-two years old, and had been in the grocery business since he was fifteen. He had never been to school at all, but had learned bookkeeping, business mathematics, salesmanship, and the wisdom of the market-place from his store, from other merchants, and from the drummers who came every week with their samples and their worldly wisdom. These drummers were, almost to a man, very sincere friends of Mr. Killibrew, and not infrequently they would write the grocer from the city, or send him telegrams, advising him to buy this or to unload that, according to the exigencies of the market. As a result of this was very well off indeed, and all because he was a friendly, agreeable sort of man.

The grocer heard Peter enter and started to come out of his office, when Peter stopped him and asked if he might speak with him alone.

The white-haired man with the pink, good-natured face stood looking at Peter with rather a questioning but pleasant expression.

“Why, certainly, certainly.” He turned back to the swivel-chair at his desk, seated himself, and twisted about on Peter as he entered. Mr. Killibrew did not offer Peter a seat,—that would have been an infraction of Hooker's Bend custom,—but he sat leaning back, evidently making up his mind to refuse Peter credit, which he fancied the mulatto would ask for and yet do it pleasantly.

“I was wondering, Mr. Killibrew,” began Peter feeling his way along, “I was wondering if you would mind talking over a little matter with me. It's considered a delicate subject, I believe, but I thought a frank talk would help.”

During the natural pauses of Peter's explanation Mr. Killibrew kept up a genial series of nods and ejaculations.

“Certainly, Peter. I don't see why, Peter. I'm sure it will help, Peter.”

“I'd like to talk frankly about the relations of our two races in the South, in Hooker's Bend.”

The grocer stopped his running accompaniment of affirmations and looked steadfastly at Peter. Presently he seemed to solve some question and broke into a pleasant laugh.

“Now, Peter, if this is some political shenanigan, I must tell you I'm a Democrat. Besides that, I don't care a straw about politics. I vote, and that's all.”

Peter put down the suspicion that he was on a political errand.

“Not that at all, Mr. Killibrew. It's a question of the white race and the black race. The particular feature I am working on is the wages paid to cooks.”

“I didn't know you were a cook,” interjected the grocer in surprise.

“I am not.”

Mr. Killibrew looked at Peter, thought intensely for a few moments, and came to an unescapable conclusion.

“You don't mean you've formed a cook's union here in Hooker's Bend, Peter!” he cried, immensely amazed.

“Not at all. It's this,” clarified Peter. “It may seem trivial, but it illustrates the principle I'm trying to get at. Doesn't your cook carry away cold food?”

It required perhaps four seconds for the merchant to stop his speculations on what Peter had come for and adjust his mind to the question.

“Why, yes, I suppose so,” he agreed, very much at sea. “I—I never caught up with her.” He laughed a pleasant, puzzled laugh. “Of course she doesn't come around and show me what she's making off with. Why?”

“Well, it's this. Wouldn't you prefer to give your cook a certain cash payment instead of having her taking uncertain amounts of your foodstuffs and wearing apparel?”

The merchant leaned forward in his chair.

“Did old Becky Davis send you to me with any such proposition as that, Peter?”

“No, not at all. But, Mr. Killibrew, wouldn't you like better and more trustworthy servants as cooks, as farm-hands, chauffeurs, stable-boys? You see, you and your children and your children's children are going to have to depend on negro labor, as far as we can see, to the end of time.”

“We-e-ell, yes,” admitted Mr. Killibrew, who was not accustomed to considering the end of time.

“Wouldn't it be better to have honest, self-respecting help than dishonest help?”

“Certainly.”

“Then let's think about cooks. How can one hope to rear an honest, self-respecting citizenry as long as the mothers of the race are compelled to resort to thievery to patch out an insufficient wage?”

“Why, I don't suppose niggers ever will be honest,” admitted the grocer, very frankly. “You naturally don't trust a nigger. If you credit one for a dime, the next time he has any money he'll go trade somewhere else.” The grocer broke into his contagious laugh. “Do you know how I've built up my business here, Peter? By never trusting a nigger.” Mr. Killibrew continued his pleased chuckle. “Yes, I get the whole cash trade of the niggers in Hooker's Bend by never cheating one and never trusting one.”

The grocer leaned back in his squeaking chair and looked out through the glass partition, over the brightly colored packages that lined his shelves from floor to ceiling. All that prosperity had come about through a policy of honesty and distrust. It was something to be proud of.

“Now, let me see,” he proceeded, recurring pleasantly to what he recalled of Peter's original proposition: “Aunt Becky sent you here to tell me if I'd raise her pay, she'd stop stealin' and—and raise some honest children.” Mr. Killibrew threw back his head broke into loud, jelly-like laughter. “Why, don't you know, Peter, she's an old liar. If I gave her a hundred a week, she'd steal. And children! Why, the old humbug! She's too old; she's had her crop. And, besides all that, I don't mind what the old woman takes. It isn't much. She's a good old darky, faithful as a dog.” He arose from his swivel-chair briskly and floated Peter out before him. “Tell her, if she wants a raise,” he concluded heartily, “and can't pinch enough out of my kitchen and the two dollars I pay her—tell her to come to me, straight out, and I'll give her more, and she can pinch more.”

Mr. Killibrew moved down the aisle of his store between fragrant barrels and boxes, laughing mellowly at old Aunt Becky's ruse, as he saw it. As he turned Peter out, he invited him to come again when he needed anything in the grocery line.

And he was so pleasant, hearty, and sincere in his friendliness toward both Peter and old Aunt Becky that Peter, even amid the complete side-tracking and derailing of his mission, decided that it ever he did have occasion to purchase any groceries, he would do his trading at this market ruled by an absolute honesty with, and a complete distrust in, his race.

At the conclusion of the Killibrew interview Peter instinctively felt that he had just about touched the norm of Hooker's Bend. The village might contain men who would dive a little deeper into the race question with Peter; assuredly, there would be hundreds who would not dive so deep. Mr. Killibrew's attitude on the race question turned on how to hold the negro patronage of the village to his grocery. It was not an abstract question at all, but a concrete fact, which he had worked out to his own satisfaction. With Mr. Killibrew, with all Hooker's Bend, there was no negro question.