In 1936, a few weeks after my arrival in New York City, I was lucky enough to be invited by an old hero and newfound friend, Langston Hughes, to be his guest at what would be my introduction to Broadway theater. I was so delighted and grateful for the invitation that I failed to ask my host the title of the play, and it was not until we arrived at the theater that I learned that it would be Jack Kirkland's dramatization of Erskine Caldwell's famous novel Tobacco Road. No less successful than in its original form, the play was well on its way to a record-breaking seven-and-a-half-year run, and that alone was enough to increase my expectations. And so much so that I failed to note the irony of circumstance that would have as my introduction to New York theater a play with a southern setting and characters that were based upon a type and class of whites whom I had spent the last three years trying to avoid. Had I been more alert, it might have occurred to me that somehow a group of white Alabama farm folk had learned of my presence in New York, thrown together a theatrical troupe, and flown north to haunt me. But being dazzled by the lights, the theatrical atmosphere, the babble of the playgoing crowd, it didn't. And yet that irony arose precisely from the mixture of motives__ practical, educational, and romantic__ that had brought me to the North in the first place.
Among these was my desire to enjoy a summer free of the South and its problems while meeting the challenge of being on my own for the first time in a great northern city. Fresh out of Alabama, with my junior year at Tuskegee Institute behind me, I was also in New York seeking funds with which to complete my final year as a music major__ a goal at which I was having less success than I had hoped. However, there had been compensations. For between working in the Harlem YMCA cafeteria as a substitute for vacationing waiters and countermen and searching for a more profitable job, I had used my free time exploring the city, making new acquaintances, and enjoying the many forms of social freedom that were unavailable to me in Alabama. The very idea of being in New York was dreamlike, for like many young Negroes of the time, I thought of it as the freest of American cities and considered Harlem as the site and symbol of Afro-American progress and hope. Indeed, I was both young and bookish enough to think of Manhattan as my substitute for Paris and of Harlem as a place of Left Bank excitement.
And yet I soon discovered, much to my chagrin, that while I was physically out of the South, I was restrained__ sometimes consciously, sometimes not__ by certain internalized thou-shalt-nots that had structured my public conduct in Alabama. It was as though I had come to the Eden of American culture and found myself indecisive as to which of its fruits were free for my picking. Beyond the borders of Harlem's briar patch__ which seemed familiar because of my racial and cultural identification with the majority of its people and the lingering spell that had been cast nationwide by the music, dance, and literature of the so-called Harlem Renaissance__ I viewed New Yorkers through the overlay of my Alabama experience. Contrasting the whites I encountered with those I had observed in the South, I weighed class against class and compared southern styles with their northern counterparts. I listened to diction and noted dress, and searched for attitudes in inflections, carriage, and manners. And in pursuing this aspect of my extracurricular education, I explored the landscape.
I crossed Manhattan back and forth from river to river and up, down, and around again, from Spuyten Duyvil Creek to the Battery, looking and listening and gadding about; rode streetcar and el, subway and bus; took a hint from Edna Millay and spent an evening riding back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry. From the elevated trains I saw my first penthouses with green trees growing atop tall buildings, caught remote glimpses of homes, businesses, and factories while moving above the teeming streets, and felt a sense of quiet tranquillity despite the bang and clatter. Yes, but the subways were something else again.
In fact, the subways were utterly confusing to my southern-bred idea of good manners, and especially the absence of a certain gallantry that men were expected to extend toward women. Subway cars appeared to be underground arenas where northern social equality took the form of an endless shoving match in which the usual rules of etiquette were turned upside down__ or so I concluded after watching a 5:00 footrace in a crowded car.
The contest was between a huge white woman who carried an armful of bundles, and a small n***o man who lugged a large suitcase. At the time I was standing against the track-side door, and when the train stopped at a downtown station I saw the two come charging through the opening doors like racehorses leaving the starting gate at Belmont. And as they spied and dashed for the single empty seat, the outcome appeared up for grabs, but it was the woman, thanks to a bustling, more ruthless stride (and more subway know-how) who won__ though but by a hip and a hair. For just as they reached the seat she swung a well-padded hip and knocked the man off stride, thus causing him to lose his balance as she turned, slipped beneath his reeling body, and plopped into the seat. It was a maneuver that produced a startling effect__ at least on me.
For as she banged into the scat it caused the man to spin and land smack-dab in her lap__ in which massive and heaving center of gravity he froze, stared into her face nose-tip to nose, and then performed a springlike leap to his feet as from a red-hot stove. It was but the briefest conjunction, and then, as he reached down and fumbled for his suitcase, the woman began adjusting her bundles, and with an elegant toss of her head she then looked up into his face with the most ladylike and triumphant of smiles.
I had no idea of what to expect next, but to her sign of good sportswomanship the man let out with an exasperated "Hell, you can have it, I don't want it!" A response that evoked a phrase from an old forgotten ditty to which my startled mind added the unstated line "Sleeping in the bed with your hand right on it"__ and shook me with visions of the train screeching to a stop and a race riot beginning....
But not at all. For while the defeated man pushed his way to another part of the car the crowd of passengers simply looked on and laughed.
Still, for all their noise and tension, it was not the subways that most intrigued me, but the buses. In the South you occupied the back of the bus, and nowhere but the back, or so help you God. Being in the North and encouraged by my anonymity, I experimented by riding all over NewYork buses, excluding only the driver's seat-front end, back end, right side, left side, sitting or standing as the route and flow of passengers demanded. And, since those were the glorious days of double-deckers, both enclosed and open, I even rode topside.
Thus having convinced myself that no questions of racial status would be raised by where I chose to ride, I asked myself whether a seat at the back of the bus wasn't actually more desirable than one at the front. For not only did it provide more legroom, it offered a more inclusive perspective on both the interior and exterior scenes. I found the answer obvious and quite amusing. But now that I was no longer forced by law and compelled by custom to ride at the back, what was more desirable__ the possibility of exercising what was routinely accepted in the North as an abstract, highly symbolic (even trivial) form of democratic freedom, or the creature comfort that was to be had by occupying a spot from which more of the passing scene could be observed? And in my own personal terms, what was more important__ my individual comfort, or the exercise of the democratic right to be squeezed and jostled by strangers? Such questions were akin to that of whether you lived in a n***o neighborhood because you were forced to do so, or because you preferred living among those of your own background. Having experienced life in mixed neighborhoods as a child, I preferred to live where people spoke my own version of the American language, and where misreading of tone or gesture was less likely to ignite lethal conflict. Segregation laws aside, this was a matter of personal choice, for even though class and cultural differences existed among Negroes, it was far easier to deal with hostilities arising between yourself and your own people than with, say, Jeeter Lester or, more realistically, Lester Maddox.
But my interrogation by the NewYork scene (for that is what it had become) was not to stop there, for once my mind got rolling on buses, it was difficult to stop and get off. So I became preoccupied with defining the difference between northern and southern buses. Of the two, New York buses were simpler, if only for being earthbound. They were merely a form of transportation, an inflated version of a taxicab or passenger car that one took to get from one locality to another. And as far as one's destination and motives were concerned they were neutral. But this was far from true of southern buses. For when compared with its New York counterpart, even the most dilapidated of southern buses seemed (from my New York perspective) to be a haunted form of transportation.
A southern bus was a contraption contrived by laying the South's social pyramid on its side, knocking out a few strategic holes, and rendering it vehicular through the addition of engine, windows, and wheels. Thus converted, with the sharp apex of the pyramid blunted and equipped with fare box and steering gear, and its sprawling base curtailed severely and narrowly aligned (and arrayed with jim crow signs), a ride in such a vehicle became, at least for Negroes, as unpredictable as a trip in a spaceship doomed to be caught in the time warp of history-that man-made "fourth dimension," which ever confounds our American grasp of "real," or actual, time or duration.
For blacks and whites alike, southern buses were places of hallucination, but especially for Negroes. Because once inside, their journey ended even before the engine fired and the wheels got rolling. Then the engine chugged, the tires scuffed, and the scenery outside flashed and flickered, but they themselves remained, like Zeno's arrow, ever in the same old place. Thus the motorized mobility of the social pyramid did little to advance the Negroes' effort toward equality. Because although they were allowed to enter the section that had been__ in its vertical configuration__ its top, any semblance of upward mobility ended at the fare box__ from whence, once their fares were deposited, they were sent, forthwith, straight to the rear, or horizontalized bottom. And along the way almost anything could happen, from push to shove, assaults on hats, heads, or aching corns, to unprovoked tongue-lashings from the driver or from any white passenger, drunk or sober, who took exception to their looks, attitude, or mere existence.
And even as the phantomized bus went lurching and fumbling along its treadmill of a trajectory, the struggle within scuffled and raged in fitful retrograde. Thus, as it moved without moving, those trapped inside played out their roles like figures in dreams__ with one group ever forcing the other to the backmost part, and the other ever watching and waiting as they bowed to force and clung to sanity. And indeed the time would come when such bus enscened pantomime would erupt in a sound and fury of action that would engulf the South and change American society.
But of this I had no way of knowing at the time. I only knew that southern bus rides had the power to haunt and confuse my New York passage. Moreover, they were raising the even more troublesome question of to what extent had I failed to grasp a certain degree of freedom that had always existed in my group's state of unfreedom? There was an Afro-American dimension in southern culture, and the lives of many black southerners possessed a certain verve and selfpossessed fullness__ so to what extent had I overlooked similar opportunities for self-discovery while accepting a definition of possibility laid down by those who would deny me freedom?
Thus, while I enjoyed my summer, such New York-provoked questions made for a certain unease, which I tried to ignore. Nevertheless, they made me aware that whatever its true shape turned out to be, northern freedom could be grasped only by my running the risk of the unknown and by acting in the face of uncertainty. Which meant that I would have to keep moving into racially uncharted areas. Otherwise I would remain physically in Harlem and psychologically in Alabama__ neither of which was acceptable. Harlem was "Harlem," a dream place of glamour and excitement__ what with its music, its dance, its style. But it was all of this because it was a part of (and apart from) the larger city. Harlem, I came to feel, was the shining transcendence of a national negative, and it took its fullest meaning from that which it was not, and without which I would have regarded it as less interesting than, say, Kansas City, Missouri__ or South Side Chicago. Harlem, whose ironic inhabitants described it a thousand times a day as being "nowhere," took much of its meaning from the larger metropolis; so I could only achieve the fullest measure of its attractions by experiencing that which it was not.
Prior to stumbling onto Tobacco Road, I had already encountered some of the complexity evoked by my probings. As the guest of a white female friend who reported musical events for a magazine, I had occupied a seat in the orchestra section of Carnegie Hall without inciting protest. But shortly thereafter I had been denied admission to a West Side cinema house that featured European movies. Then I had learned that while one midtown restaurant would make you welcome, in another (located in Greenwich Village, Harlem's twin symbol of Manhattan's freedom), the waiters would go through the polite motions of seating you but then fill your food with salt. And to make certain that you got the message, they would enact a rite of exorcism in which the glasses and crockery, now considered hopelessly contaminated by your touch, were enfolded in the tablecloth and smithereened in the fireplace.
Or again, upon arriving at a Central Park West apartment building to deliver a music manuscript for the Tuskegee composer William L. Dawson, you encountered a doorman with a European accent who was so rude that you were tempted to break his nose. Fortunately, you didn't, for after you refused to use the servants' elevator he rang up the tenant into whose hands alone you were instructed to make the delivery, Jacques Gordon of the Gordon String Quartet, who hurried down and invited you up to his apartment. Where, to your surprise and delight, he talked with you without condescension about his recordings, questioned you sympathetically about your musical background, and encouraged you in your ambitions to become a composer. So if you weren't always welcome to break bread in public places, an interest in the arts could break down social distance and allow for communication that was uninhibited by questions of race__ or so it seemed.
As on a Madison Avenue bus an enthusiastic, bright-eyed little old Jewish lady, fresh from an art exhibition with color catalog in hand, would engage you in conversation and describe knowingly the styles and intentions of French painters of whom you'd never heard.
"Then you must go to galleries," she insisted.
"Stir yourself and go to museums" she demanded.
"This is one of the world's great centers of art, so learn about them! Why are you waiting? Enough already" she exhorted.
And eventually, God bless her, I did.
But then, on another bus ride, a beautifully groomed and expensively dressed woman would become offended when you retrieved and attempted to return the section of a newspaper that she had dropped when preparing to depart, apparently mistaking what was intended as an act of politeness for a reprimand from a social inferior. So it appeared that in New York one had to choose the time, place, and person even when exercising one's southern good manners.
I had hoped that in NewYork there would exist generally a type of understanding that obtained in the South between certain individual whites and Negroes. This was a type of southern honor that did little to alter the general system of inequity, but allowed individual whites to make exceptions in exerting the usual gestures of white supremacy. Such individuals refused to use racial epithets and tried, within the limitations of the system, to treat Negroes fairly. This was a saving grace and a balm to the aches and pains of the South's endless racial contention.
Only years later would I learn that during periods of intense social unrest, even sensitive intellectuals who had themselves been victims of discrimination would find it irresistible to use their well-deserved elevation to the upper levels of their professions as platforms from which, in the name of the most abstract__ and fashionable__ of philosophical ideas, to reduce Negroes to stereotypes that were no less reductive and demeaning than those employed by the most ignorant and bigoted of white southerners.
Fortunately, that knowledge was still in the future, and so, doing unto another as I would have had him do unto me, I dismissed my chance acquaintance as an insecure individual, and not the representative of a group or general attitude. But he did serve as a warning that if I wished to communicate with NewYorkers, I must watch my metaphors, for here one man's cliché was another man's facile opportunity for victimization.
I was learning that exploring New York was a journey without a map, Baedeker, or Henry James, and that how one was received by the natives depended more upon how one presented oneself than upon any ironclad rule of exclusion. Here the portals to many places of interest were guarded by hired help, and if you approached with uncertain mien, you were likely to be turned away by anyone from doormen to waiters to ticket agents. However, if you acted as though you were in fact a New Yorker exercising a routine freedom, chances were that you'd be accepted. Which is to say that in many instances I found that my air and attitude could offset the inescapable fact of my color. For it seemed that in the hustle and bustle of that most theatrical of American cities, one was accepted on the basis of what one appeared to be. So, to enjoy the wonders of New York, I assumed a mask which I conceived to be that of a "New Yorker," and decided to leave it to those whites who might object to seek out the questioning Tuskegeean who was hidden behind the mask.
Today, looking back, I suspect that for many observers, my masking was all too transparent. But what remained hidden from them, as from myself, was the possibility that such playacting was also a process of self-transformation__ a process through which I was becoming neither an abstract "ex-southwesterner" nor a sophisticated "New Yorker," but an individual variation upon a national type that, after two hundred years of grappling with its racial, religious, and geographical diversity, is still in the process of achieving a full measure of self-consciousness : a product of that democratic hope, uncertainty, and turbulence in the mind and heart which identifies the "American."
Answered By: Ryce An6eL - 6/26/2006