I wrote this essay a long time ago. It has never seemed quite right to me. From time to time I have gone back to tinker with it, but have never been satisfied. I suspect that some stories just can’t be told properly; this may be one of them. But certain recent public events have forced the story back into my mind, and I have decided to post the essay here, as is, with all its flaws.
All I can say in my defense is that I never hurled a stone at him, or shouted abuse. But I stood by, many a time, as others did those things, and I neither walked away nor averted my eyes. I never held anyone’s cloak, but then I was never asked to. I watched it all, gripping a rock in my hand as though I were preparing to use it — so that no one would turn on me with anger or contempt — and I always stood a little behind them so they couldn’t see that I wasn’t throwing anything. I was smaller and younger than the rest of them, and they were smaller and younger than him. In my memory he seems almost a full-grown man; I suppose he was eleven or twelve.
We called him Nigger Jeff. I have never doubted that Jeff was indeed his name, though as I write this account I find myself asking, for the first time, how we could have known: I never heard any of the boys speak to him except in cries of hatred, and I never knew anyone else who knew him. It occurs to me now that, if his name was Jeff, there had to have been at least a brief moment of human contact and exchange — perhaps not even involving Jeff, perhaps one of the boys’ mothers talked to Jeff’s mother. But we grasp what’s available for support or stability. It’s bad to call a boy Nigger Jeff, but worse still to call him just Nigger. A name counts for something.
Arkadelphia Road is a major artery on the west side of Birmingham, Alabama, becoming Highway 78 for a while before 78 veers off to the northwest and heads for Memphis, but for me it was simply a liminal space, a mighty boundary. My house on 11th Court West sat three blocks off Arkadelphia, and when I visited Snappy’s Service Station at the corner to buy soft drinks and candy, I could gaze across the four lanes of charging traffic into another world, a world inhabited solely by black people. Often I passed in an automobile through that world, but my feet had never touched its ground, and I knew no one who lived there. “Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.” It was not literally true in this case: those dark strangers could sometimes be seen hanging clothes on the clotheslines of our neighborhood, or taking the clothes in to iron them. (In my mind’s eye they always enact a limited repetoire of hieratic postures: hands raised to the clothespins, bodies bent to fill the baskets on the grass, hips angled slightly to receive the weight of the loaded baskets.) But really, neither side passed to the other: when they came to labor for us they always left something essential behind; maybe everything essential. I stood sometimes on the hot pavement of the gas station, straddling my bike, and while I drank my coke I would look across the blaring four-lane gulf. Then I would drain the bottle and ride back towards home.
Just past my house, the pavement ended, and a red dirt path, big enough for a single car, extended into fields of high grass that, when my father was a boy, were cotton fields. When I was very young a tiny cinder-block shack a quarter-mile down the path housed a radio station; I remember looking through my bedroom window as the tall antenna was pulled down, frightening the few cows in the field. Soon the cows were gone too, and the grasses grew higher. A hundred yards farther along stood the remains of an old greenhouse, with broken glass and a scattering of plastic pots. And a little further down still, on the other side of the path, stood a ramshackle old house. Jeff and his family lived there. There were no other houses, no other people.
This was the edge of the known universe to me. Much later, after we had moved to another part of Birmingham, my father told me that the path continued for a couple of miles farther and emerged into a small old airfield on Bush Boulevard; but I never found that out on my own. It was not that I lacked adventurousness: I and my friends habitually hopped the freight trains that passed a few hundred feet from my house — one summer day we rode to Mississippi and back — and often we wandered across the tracks to a water-filled abandoned rock quarry where we tried to kill water moccasins with slingshots. But Jeff’s house I never cared to pass, or even to approach. I don’t know whether he lived with both parents or one, though I seem to remember references to his mother, who probably worked in some white lady’s home. If he had any siblings I never saw them. All I knew was that sometimes, especially in the hot summer days, he would set off along the red dirt path, in his old dungarees and his bare feet, towards our neighborhood.
As I continue to recall these events, I am more and more troubled by my ignorance. Did Jeff go to school? If so, it would have had to be at the all-black school — on the other side of Arkadelphia, of course, up the hill towards Center Street. (It was the school to which, when zoning began, I was zoned, which precipitated my parents’ decision to move somewhere where I could go to school with other white people. Over five hundred children populated the school; I would have been one of six white kids, had we not departed the neighborhood.) But I never saw Jeff walking to school. Did his family have a car? I never saw one, and I feel sure that I would have noticed if they had had such transportation. So maybe Jeff didn’t go to school.
But that’s just one question among many. If they didn’t have a car, when and where and how did they get their groceries? Where did his mother, or his mother and father, work, and how did they get there? Did they receive mail? Perhaps they always headed in the other direction, west towards Bush Boulevard: a longer walk, but less likely to find conflict or even attention. I have no idea how these people lived, how they sustained themselves. I must have missed a great deal; there must have been many events to which I was oblivious, as children of course can be — and yet my obliviousness bothers me, because there are some things I remember so well.
(Once I called my father to see if he could solve some of these puzzles, but he didn’t remember much either. He did say this, though: that he believed that Jeff’s parents had at one time worked for Mr. Posey, the man who had owned those fields and even tried to grow some cotton on them. Only he put it this way: “I think they were Mr. Posey’s niggers.” In a large industrial city, in the second half of the twentieth century: “Mr. Posey’s niggers.”)
Especially I remember Jeff coming moving at his habitual level pace towards our world, a small world so comfortable to us but surely like some wall of flame to him. Of course we knew where he was going: not to us but through us, through our neighborhood to the one on the other side of Arkadelphia, where there must have been friends glad to see him and houses where he was welcome. But first there were the three blocks of our territory. And when we saw him coming we picked up our rocks.
When he caught sight of us, Jeff would stoop and collect a handful of good throwing-size stones for his own use. In another part of Birmingham, at this very time, Martin Luther King’s followers were practicing nonviolent resistance to the water cannons and police dogs of Bull Connor, but Jeff was no pacifist. Yet he never initiated conflict: he had somewhere to get to, and all he wanted was the quickest and most uneventful passage possible. If we threw our rocks he returned fire, and since he was bigger and stronger than any of us, that was something to be reckoned with. So often my friends inadvertently and unwittingly imitated me by simply holding their missiles in their hands; they contented themselves with curses and mockery. And Jeff, then, would simply walk on down the middle of the otherwise quiet little street, slowly and steadily. He never ran, and would only vary his even pace when he had to stop to launch a rock or two — though sometimes he had to walk backwards for a while to be sure we didn’t start pelting him when his head was turned.
We could have surrounded him, of course, but we were too cowardly for that. We were pretty sure that, as long as we huddled in a small group, he wouldn’t attack; but if we separated he might go for one of us. So we gathered like a Greek chorus to curse, and Jeff kept walking. Eventually his solitary figure grew smaller, and our throats grew tired of launching insults. We dropped our rocks and returned to our children’s games.
Sometimes I would be playing alone in my yard, and would look up to see Jeff walking by. My heart would then buck in my chest, but he never turned his head to acknowledge my presence. At the time I wondered if he knew that I never threw rocks at him, that I didn’t curse him — for, if my memory is not appeasing my conscience, I avoided that crime as well. But now I realize that he neither knew nor cared about the individual members of our cruel impromptu assembly: with rocks in our hands we were just mobile, noisy impediments to his enjoyment of some of the blessings of life — friendship, comfort, safety — but when unarmed and solitary we posed no threat and therefore, for Jeff, lacked significant substance. He kept his eyes on that day’s small but valued prize, and kept on walking.
Why didn’t I throw rocks at him? Why didn’t I curse him? Well, obviously, because I felt sorry for him. But not sorry enough to walk away, or to turn my back on the scene; and not nearly sorry enough to stay a friend’s hand or demand his silence. I was young, and small, and timid. I saw one valid option: to stand as a member of the chorus, grasping the rock that was the badge of our common identity. There’s no point now in trying to distinguish myself from the others. But I can’t help it.
Once I told this story to a friend. Her name is Billye, and she is a black woman from Elba, in southern Alabama. Like me, she lives in the suburbs of Chicago; like me, though a couple of years earlier, she graduated from the University of Alabama. In fact, one year she was Homecoming Queen there. Like all University of Alabama homecoming queens, she had her picture taken, at halftime of the football game, with the governor — Governor George Wallace, in her case. It was the custom for the Governor to kiss the homecoming queen (with the barest and most decorous brush of her cheek, lasting as long as the first volley of flashbulbs) but when the photographers asked Governor Wallace to meet the demands of convention, he declined with a quiet supposal that the citizens of Alabama were perhaps not yet ready for their governor to kiss a Negro woman.
After the game and the celebrations, Billye and her family drove back to Elba. Along the way, she realized that she needed to make a rest stop, and her mother pulled over at a gas station. But when Billye asked the attendant where the restroom was, he looked at her soberly for a moment from under the brim of his crimson cap, with its scripted “A” for Alabama, and told her that the restroom was out of order. She knew exactly what he meant. She walked back to her car, but not before noting the Crimson Tide pennant, matching the cap, tacked to the wall above the cash register. No doubt he had listened to the game, and perhaps even the halftime festivities, on the radio that stood next to the cash register. Did he hear the name of the Homecoming Queen announced? If so, what image filled the screen of his mind?
As I say, I told Billye the story of Nigger Jeff. In fact, she was the first person I ever told the story to. We sat in her office in silence for a little while. Outside, the Midwestern landscape was flat and gray, with a few bare trees; flakes of snow drifted in the air. But what each of us saw was Jeff walking up the red dirt road, coming into the white people’s territory, as ready as he could be for this daily gauntlet that was his cross — one of his crosses — to bear. “Poor thing,” Billye murmured. “Poor little thing.”