From Black Boy

 

1938

 

[A Five Dollar Fight]1

 

One summer morning I stood at a sink in the rear of the factory washing a pair of eyeglasses that had just come from the polishing machines whose throbbing shook the floor upon which I stood. At each machine a white man was bent forward, working intently. To my left sunshine poured through a window, lighting up the rouge smears and making the factory look garish, violent, dangerous. It was nearing noon and my mind was drifting toward my daily lunch of a hamburger and a bag of peanuts. It had been a routine day, a day more or less like the other days I had spent on the job as errand boy and washer of eyeglasses. I was at peace with the world, that is, at peace in the only way in which a black boy in the South can be at peace with a world of white men.

Perhaps it was the mere sameness of the day that soon made it different from the other days; maybe the white men who operated the machines felt bored with their dull, automatic tasks and hankered for some kind of excitement. Anyway, I presently heard footsteps behind me and turned my head. At my elbow stood a young white man, Mr. Olin, the immediate foreman under whom I worked. He was smiling and observing me as I cleaned emery dust from the eyeglasses.

“Boy, how’s it going?” he asked.

“Oh, fine, sir!” I answered with false heartiness, falling quickly into that nigger-being-a-good-natured-boy-in-the-presence-of-a-white-man pattern, a pattern into which I could now slide easily; although I was wondering if he had any criticism to make of my work.

He continued to hover wordlessly at my side. What did he want? It was unusual for him to stand there and watch me; I wanted to look at him, but was afraid to.

“Say, Richard, do you believe that I’m your friend?” he asked me.

The question was so loaded with danger that I could not reply at once. I scarcely knew Mr. Olin. My relationship to him had been the typical relationship of Negroes to southern whites. He gave me orders and I said, “Yes, sir,” and obeyed them, Now, without warning, he was asking me if I thought that he was my friend; and I knew that all southern white men fancied themselves as friends of niggers. While fishing for an answer that would say nothing, I smiled.

“I mean,” he persisted, “do you think I’m your friend?”

“Well,” I answered, skirting the vast racial chasm between us, “I hope you are.”

“I am,” he said emphatically.

I continued to work, wondering what motives were prompting him. Already apprehension was rising in me.

“I want to tell you something,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“We don’t want you to get hurt,” he explained. “We like you round here. You act like a good boy.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “What’s wrong?”

“You don’t deserve to get into trouble,” he went on.

  “Have I done something that somebody doesn’t like?” I asked, my mind frantically sweeping over all my past actions, weighing them in the light of the way southern white men thought Negroes should act.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said and paused, letting his words sink meaningfully into my mind. He lit a cigarette. “Do you know Harrison?”

He was referring to a Negro boy of about my own` age who worked across the street for a rival optical house. Harrison and I knew each other casually, but there had never been the slightest trouble between us.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “I know him.”

“Well, be careful,” Mr. Olin said. “He’s after you.”

“After me? For what?”

“He’s got a terrific grudge against you,” the white man explained. “What have you done to him?”

The eyeglasses I was washing were forgotten. My eyes were upon Mr. Olin’s face, trying to make out what he meant. Was this something serious? I did not trust the white man, and neither did I trust Harrison. Negroes who worked on jobs in the South were usually loyal to their white bosses; they felt that that was the best way to ensure their jobs. Had Harrison felt that I had in some way jeopardized his job? Who was my friend: the white man or the black boy?

“I haven’t done anything to Harrison,” I said.

“Well, you better watch that nigger Harrison,” Mr. Olin said in a low, confidential tone. “A little while ago I went down to get a Coca Cola and Harrison was waiting for you at the door of the building with a knife. He asked me when you were coming down. Said he was going to get you. Said you called him a dirty name. Now, we don’t want any fighting or bloodshed on the job.”

I still doubted the white man, yet thought that perhaps Harrison had really interpreted something I had said as an insult.

“I’ve got to see that boy and talk to him,” I said, thinking out loud.

“No, you’d better not,” Mr. Olin said. “You’d better let some of us white boys talk to him.”

“But how did this start?” I asked, still doubting but half believing.

“He just told me that he was going to get even with you, going to cut you and teach you a lesson,” he said. “But don’t you worry. Let me handle this.”

He patted my shoulder and went back to his machine. He was an important man in the factory and I had always respected his word. He had the authority to order me to do this or that. Now, why would he joke with me? White men did not often joke with Negroes, therefore what he had said was serious. I was upset. We black boys worked long hard hours for what few pennies we earned and we were edgy and tense. Perhaps that crazy Harrison was really after me. My appetite was gone. I had to settle this thing...A white man had walked into my delicately balanced world and had tipped it and I had to right it before I could feel safe. Yes, I would go directly to Harrison and ask what was the matter, what I had said that he resented. Harrison was black and so was I; I would ignore the warning of the white man and talk face to face with a boy of my own color.

At noon I went across the street and found Harrison sitting on a box in the basement. He was eating lunch and reading a pulp magazine. As I approached him, he ran his hands into his pockets and looked at me with cold, watchful eyes.

“Say, Harrison, what’s this all about?” I asked, standing cautiously four feet from him.

He looked at me a long time and did not answer.

“I haven’t done anything to you,”, I said. “And I ain’t got nothing against you,” he mumbled, still watchful. “I don’t bother nobody.”

“But Mr. Olin said that you came over to the factory this morning,, looking for me with a knife.”

“Aw, flaw,” he said, more at ease now. “I ain’t been in your factory all day.” He had not looked at me as he spoke.

“Then what did Mr. Olin mean?” I asked. “I’m not angry with you.”

“Shucks, I thought you was looking for me to cut me,” Harrison explained. “Mr. Olin, he came over here this morning and said you was going to kill me with a knife the moment you saw me. He said you was mad at me because-I had insulted you. But I ain’t said nothing about you.” He still had not looked at me. He rose.

“And I haven’t said anything about you;” I said.

Finally he looked at me and I felt better. We two black boys, each working for ten dollars a week, stood staring. at each other, thinking, comparing the motives of the absent white man, each asking himself if he could believe the other.

“But why would Mr. Olin tell me things like that?” I asked.

Harrison dropped his head; he laid his sandwich aside.

“I… I…” he stammered and pulled from his pocket a long, gleaming knife; it was already open. “I was just waiting to see what you was gonna do to me. . .”

I leaned weakly against a wall, feeling sick, my eyes upon the sharp steel blade of the knife.

“You were going to cut me?” I asked.

“If you had cut me, I was gonna cut you first,” he said. “I ain’t taking no chances.”

“Are you angry with me about something?” I asked.

“Man, I ain’t mad at nobody,” Harrison said uneasily.

I felt how close I had come to being slashed. Had I come suddenly upon Harrison, he would have thought I was trying to kill him and he would have stabbed me, perhaps killed me. And what did it matter if one nigger killed another?

“Look here,” I said. “Don’t believe what Mr. Olin says.”

“I see now,” Harrison said. “He’s playing a dirty trick on us.”

“He’s trying to make us kill each other for nothing.”

“How come he wanna do that?” Harrison asked.

I shook my head. Harrison sat, but still played with the open knife. I began to doubt. Was he really angry with me? Was he waiting until I turned my back to stab me? I was in torture.

“I suppose it’s fun for white men to see niggers fight,” I said, forcing a laugh.

“But you might’ve killed me,” Harrison said.

“To white men we’re like dogs or cocks,” I said.

“I don’t want to cut you,” Harrison said.

“And I don’t want to cut you,” I said.

Standing well out of each other’s reach, we discussed the problem and decided that we would keep silent about our conference. We would not let Mr. Olin know that we knew that he was egging us to fight. We agreed to ignore any further provocations. At one o’clock I went back to the factory. Mr. Olin was waiting for me, his manner grave, his face serious.

“Did you see that Harrison nigger?” he asked.

“No, sir,” I lied.

“Well, he still has that knife for you,” he said.

Hate tightened in me. But I kept a dead face.

“Did you buy a knife yet?” he asked me.

“No, sir,” I answered.

“Do you want to use mine?” he asked. “You’ve got to protect yourself, you know.”

“No, sir. I’m not afraid,” I said.

“Nigger, you’re a fool,” he spluttered. “I thought you had some sense! Are you going to just let that nigger cut your heart out? His boss gave him a knife to use against you! Take this knife, nigger, and stop acting crazy!”

I was afraid to look at him; if I had looked at him I would have had to tell him to leave me alone, that I knew he was lying, that I knew he was no friend of mine, that I knew if anyone had thrust a knife through my heart he would simply have laughed. But I said nothing. He was the boss and he could fire me if he did not like me. He laid an open knife on the edge of his workbench, about a foot from my hand. I had a fleeting urge to pick it up and give it to him, point first into his chest. But I did nothing of the kind. I picked up the knife and put it into my pocket.

“Now; you’re acting like a nigger with some sense,” he said.

As I worked Mr. Olin watched me from his machine. Later when I passed him he called me.

“Now, look here, boy,” he began. “We told that Harrison nigger to stay out of this building and leave you alone, see? But I can’t protect you when you go home. If that nigger starts at you when you are on your way home, you stab him before he gets a chance to stab you, see?”

I avoided looking at him and remained silent.

“Suit yourself, nigger,” Mr. Olin said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

I had to make my round of errands to deliver eyeglasses and I stole a few minutes to run across the street to talk to Harrison. Harrison was sullen and bashful, wanting to trust me, but afraid. He told me that Mr. Olin had telephoned his boss and had told him to tell Harrison that I had planned to wait for him at the back entrance of the building at six o’clock and stab him. Harrison and I found it difficult to

look at each other; we were upset and distrustful. We were not really angry at each other; we knew that the idea of murder had been planted in each of us by the white men who employed us. We told ourselves again and again that we did not agree with the white men; we urged ourselves to keep faith in each other. Yet there lingered deep down in each of us a suspicion that maybe one of us was trying to kill the other.

“I’m not angry with you, Harrison,” I said.

“I don’t wanna fight nobody,” Harrison said bashfully, but he kept his hand in his pocket on his knife.

Each of us felt the same shame, felt how foolish and weak we were in the face of the domination of the whites.

“I wish they’d leave us alone,” I said.

“Me too,” Harrison said. “There are a million black boys like us to run errands,” I said. “They wouldn’t care if we killed each other.”

“I know it,” Harrison said.

Was he acting? I could not believe in him. We were toying with the idea of death for no reason that stemmed from our own lives, but because the, men who ruled us had thrust the idea into our minds. Each of us depended upon the whites for the bread we ate, and we actually trusted the whites more than we did each other. Yet there existed in us a longing to trust men of our own color. Again Harrison and I parted, vowing not to be influenced by what our white boss men said to us.

The game of egging Harrison and me to fight, to cut each other, kept up for a week. We were afraid to tell the white men that we did not believe them, for that would have been tantamount to calling them liars or risking an argument that might have ended in violence being directed against us.

One morning a few days later Mr. Olin and a group of white men came to me and asked me if I was willing to settle my grudge with Harrison with gloves, according to boxing rules. I told them that, though I was not afraid of Harrison, I did not want to fight him and that I did not know how to box. I could feel now that they knew I no longer believed them.

When I left the factory that evening, Harrison yelled at me from down the block. I waited and he ran toward me. Did he want to cut me? I backed away as he approached. We smiled uneasily and sheepishly at each other. We spoke haltingly, weighing our words.

“Did they ask you to fight me with gloves?” Harrison asked.

“Yes,” I told him. “But I didn’t agree.”

Harrison’s face became eager.

“They want us to fight four rounds for five dollars apiece,” he said. “Man, if I had five dollars, I could pay down on a suit. Five dollars is almost half a week’s wages for me.”

“I don’t want to,” I said.

“We won’t hurt each other,” he said.

“But why do a thing like that for white men?”

“To get that five dollars.”

“I don’t need five dollars that much.”

“Aw, you’re a fool,” he said. Then he smiled quickly.

“Now, look here,” I said. “Maybe you are angry with me. .

Naw, I’m not.” He shook his head vigorously.

“I don’t want to fight for white men. I’m no dog or rooster.”

I was watching Harrison closely and he was watching me closely. Did he really want to fight me for some reason of his own? Or was it the money? Harrison stared at me with puzzled eyes’. He stepped toward me and I stepped away. He smiled nervously.

“I need that money,” he said.

“Nothing doing,” I said.

He walked off wordlessly, with an air of anger. Maybe he will stab me now, I thought. I got to watch that fool....

For another week the white men of both factories begged us to fight. They made up stories about what Harrison had said about me; and when they saw Harrison they lied to him in the same way. Harrison and I were wary of each other whenever we met. We smiled and kept out of arm’s reach, ashamed of ourselves and of each other.

Again Harrison called to me one evening as I was on my way home.

“Come on and fight,” he begged.

“I don’t want to and quit asking me,” I said in a voice louder and harder than I had intended.

Harrison looked at me and I watched him. Both of us still carried the knives that the white men had given us.

“I wanna make a payment on a suit of clothes with that five dollars,” Harrison said.

“But those white men will be looking at us, laughing at us,” I said.

“What the hell,” Harrison said. “They look at you and laugh at you every day, nigger.”

It was true. But I hated him for saying it. I ached to hit him in his mouth, to hurt him.

“What have we got to lose?” Harrison asked.

“I don’t suppose we have anything to lose,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “Let’s get the money. We don’t care.”

“And now they know that we know what they tried to do to us,” I said, hating myself for saying it. “And they hate us-for it.”

“Sure,” Harrison said. “So let’s get the money. You can use five dollars, can’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then let’s fight for ‘em.”

“I’d feel like a dog.”

To them, both of us are dogs,” he said.

“Yes,” I admitted. But again I wanted to hit him.

“Look, let’s fool them white men;” Harrison said. “We won’t hurt each other. We’ll just pretend, see? We’ll show ‘em we ain’t dumb as they think, see?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s just exercise. Four rounds for five dollars. You scared?”

            “Then come on and fight.”

“All right,” I said. “It’s just exercise. I’ll fight.”

Harrison was happy. I felt that it was all very foolish. But what the hell. I would go through with it and that would be the end of it. But I still felt a vague anger that would not leave.

When the white men in the factory heard that we had agreed to fight, their excitement knew no bounds. They offered to teach me new punches. Each morning they would tell me in whispers that Harrison was eating ,raw onions for strength. And from Harrison I heard that they told him I was eating raw meat for strength. They offered to buy me my meals each day, but I refused. I grew ashamed of what I had agreed to do and wanted to back out of the fight, but I was afraid that they would be angry if I tried to. I felt that if white men tried to persuade two black boys to stab each other for no reason save their own pleasure, then it would not be difficult for them to aim a wanton blow at a black boy in a fit of anger, in a passing mood of frustration.

The fight took place one Saturday afternoon in the basement of a Main Street building. Each white man who attended the fight dropped his share of the pot into a hat that sat on the concrete floor. Only white men were allowed in the basement; no women or Negroes were admitted. Harrison and I were stripped to the waist. A bright electric bulb glowed above our heads. As the gloves were tied on my hands, I looked at Harrison and saw his eyes watching me Would he keep his promise? Doubt made me nervous.

We squared off and at once I knew that I had not thought sufficiently about what I had bargained for. I could not pretend to fight. Neither Harrison nor I knew enough about boxing to deceive even a child for a moment. Now shame filled me. The white men were smoking and yelling obscenities at us.

“Crush that nigger’s nuts, nigger!”

“Hit that nigger!”

“Aw, fight, you goddamn niggers!”

“Sock ‘im in his f-k-g piece!”

“Make ‘im bleed!,

I lashed out with a timid left. Harrison landed high on my head and, before I knew it, I had landed a hard right on Harrison’s mouth and blood came. Harrison shot a blow to my nose. The fight was on, was on against our will. I felt trapped and ashamed. I lashed out even harder, and the harder I fought the harder Harrison fought. Our plans and promises now meant nothing. We fought four hard rounds, stabbing, slugging, grunting, spitting, cursing, crying, bleeding. The shame and anger we felt for having allowed ourselves to be duped crept into our blows and blood ran into our eyes, half blinding us.’ The hate we felt for the men whom we had tried to cheat went into the blows we threw at each other. The white men made the rounds last as long as five minutes and each of us was afraid to stop and ask for time for fear of receiving a blow that would knock us out. When we were on the point of collapsing from exhaustion, they pulled us apart.

I could not look at Harrison. I hated him and I hated myself. I clutched my five dollars in my fist and walked home. Harrison and I avoided each other after that and we rarely spoke. The white men attempted to arrange other fights for us, but we had sense enough to refuse. I heard of other fights being staged between other black boys, and each time I heard those plans falling from the lips of the white men in the factory I eased out of earshot. I felt that I had done something unclean, something for which I could never properly atone.