Clarence left home early. He decided to treat himself to breakfast, to mull over the events shaping his life.
As he drove, his mind drifted to that foreign planet, Mississippi of the fifties, which he so loved and hated, which would always and never be his home. That unforgiving landscape, forever frozen in his mind, that place of Third World conditions, where many blacks and some whites had lived in illiteracy, malnutrition, windows without glass, no running water, no electricity. Trips to the outhouse were as routine then as selecting CDs was for his kids now. Many couldn’t afford to take their kids to the doctor.
In those days Mississippi was the slowest movin’ place on God’s green earth. When you went to the store and sauntered up with a Dr. Pepper and a dime, the friendly Gomer Pyle behind the counter would say something like “Fixin’ ta buy ya a soda, are ya?”
In Mississippi Clarence had come to believe something he would later labor to overcome—that the American dream was a white man’s dream. For it was in Mississippi that the south drew its last line against the dreams of the uppity Negro.
Mississippi memories weren’t all bad. Most of them were good. He remembered the rolling store, usually a step van or panel truck. The white driver sounded the horn to announce it was coming. Crowds of barefoot children materialized out of nowhere. They had no refrigerator at home, so the ice cream was especially welcome. His favorite was stage plank—slender ginger bread—type cake with thinly spread icing, eight inches long and four inches wide. When you’re poor it’s quantity over quality. The bigger the better. They were two for a nickel. He and Dani would share one, then they’d save the other for later, sometimes in the middle of the night, devouring it over their whispers. Stage plank always tasted better in the dark.
Clarence pulled into the parking lot of Krueger’s Truck Stop. The restaurant itself triggered more memories. When he was a kid, his father would never stop at a Stuckey’s Restaurant because blacks weren’t welcome there. Instead, they’d buy sandwich fixins at a store and eat in the car, then stop to “use the restroom” by the side of the road when no colored restrooms could be found. When they traveled overnight, usually for family funerals or weddings, they’d drive up to hotels that had big “Vacancy” signs. But Daddy would come back out to the car and whisper to Mama, “They say there ain’t no rooms left.”
“Uh huh,” Mama would say, knowingly, not wanting to discuss it in front of the children.
“It’s all right, Mama,” Daddy’d say, forcing that winsome smile. “Better folks than us been told ‘no room in the inn.’“
As Clarence walked into Krueger’s, a black man walked out, holding the door open for him. They exchanged knowing looks and nods. As he walked past the man, he remembered his father greeting black folk. There would always be the side glance, the slight nod of the head, the mutual recognition like fog horns blown by passing boats floating on a great white sea. The acknowledgments looked outwardly similar to what two white men might exchange but inwardly they were very different. For two black men in America share a sense of camaraderie like two Englishmen in Saudi Arabia or two men in a foxhole. That’s why, Clarence thought, black men often call black men they don’t know “brother” and white men never do.
As he stood in the restaurant lounge waiting to be seated he caught what seemed to be a scornful stare from the white trucker seated in front of a nearly empty plate. He had that look of a Klansman without the sheet.
Just when one nigger finally leaves, another one walks in to take his place.
The man didn’t say that, of course. He might not have even thought it. The look of scorn might be because he had a thousand miles and an overdue load and a case of heartburn. A white man seeing the same look might think nothing of it. But Clarence was not white and he had seen too many similar looks later proven to be racist to assume this one was anything different.
A busy, blustering waitress, doubling as hostess, seated him. He knew what he wanted without looking at the menu. Like shells and seaweed, memories from his childhood washed up unto the beaches of his mind. Sometimes he could identify the winds and waves that carried them. More often he could not.
Now he was nine, Dani five. Vacations were mostly just for white folk, but this time Daddy added a few days to a family wedding and said, “We’s gonna kick up our heels, what you think about that?” They thought it was grand.
The highlights of their rare vacations weren’t the historic spots or natural wonders, but eating in restaurants. On this trip they went so far north that twice they were served by white waitresses. It seemed so strange. Clarence remembered how nervous he felt. Whites serving blacks. The very thought was incredible.
One particular day, they stopped to eat in the eastern part of Mississippi, past Meridian he recalled, right on the verge of western Alabama. On this day, forever engraved in his memory, Clarence’s family accidentally stepped into the wrong restaurant. They hadn’t seen the “Whites Only” or “No Coloreds” sign. Maybe there wasn’t one—in some places, smaller towns especially, this was simply understood. No sign was necessary, any more than a sign that said “Keep your hands off the grill.”
The children didn’t look for the signs, but the adults were always wary, on guard, watching for the posted signs and the unposted ones—the ones you could see in the eyes and body language of the white folk who turned and looked when you entered.
They strayed this morning, trespassed as commoners into the king’s court. Harley, the oldest, followed his parents in, shadowed by Ellis, Darrin, Marny, Clarence and Dani. As the children smelled the pancakes and syrup and looked at the tall glasses of orange juice, Obadiah and Ruby Abernathy were watching something else—the icy stares of customers and employees. But they weren’t all icy, Clarence recalled. Some were pained and troubled. Maybe because they thought of themselves as good people, and good people couldn’t like what would happen next.
The waitress at Krueger’s yanked Clarence back to the moment, laying in front of him a massive side of crispy hash browns piled high, and his three eggs and three pancakes the size of Frisbees. Truckers demand not just good food but lots of it. Clarence came here because he was a trucker disguised as a journalist.
The thirty-five years between his mind and body rematerialized again, and he was right back in the entryway of that eastern Mississippi restaurant, smelling the delights, itching to be seated in one of those green upholstered booths. A Mississippi waitress—Clarence remembered her name tag said “Glenda”—stepped forward, in her white nurse-like uniform, only with a lower neckline and shorter skirt. Glenda looked like a lot of waitresses in small southern towns, about forty, made-up, flirtatious, efficient and hardened to the wise cracks and local gossip.
Clarence had met eyes with Glenda at the very moment she looked over at the doorway where the Abernathies entered. She closed her eyes in what seemed a distressed response. In his peripheral vision Clarence saw people at table after table stop chewing, nudge each other, nod toward the doorway. People reacted like that toward two kinds of people—those above them, such as rich folk and professional athletes and Hollywood stars, and those below them, largely limited to niggers.
Glenda stepped across the center stage of his mind. She was strong, to this day Clarence could envision her pouring ice water in the lap of a customer whose advances weren’t welcome. But she wasn’t strong enough that day to keep from doing what she did.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Obadiah and Ruby. “This isn’t . . . I mean, there’s a restaurant with a colored window down the way. It’s called Dottie’s. On your left just before you leave town.”
She hadn’t said “no coloreds here” or “whites only here.” What she did say meant the same, of course, but she would sleep better having said it that way. Clarence always remembered how she seemed to choke a bit, to hesitate. She was one of many white southerners who would never defend burning crosses, lynching black men, riding horses with bed sheets flying in the wind. She wasn’t one who invented the status quo. She was simply one who maintained it. A woman brave when it came to working hard and teaching her children to do right and telling off a man who didn’t respect her, but cowardly or ignorant or both when it came to resisting a degrading system so long in place, so long assumed to be right.
Mama’s eyes challenged Glenda, as they sometimes did when she sensed white guilt, when she knew a conscience was there. If it was a Klansman or a hardened racist she never bothered. Partly out of fear, partly because it was just no use. “Don’t cast your pearls before swine,” she’d said to Obadiah when he tried to convince a dogmatic and self-assured white minister that coloreds really did have souls.
But as Mama’s eyes tried to burn into Glenda the message, “We’re people too, you know,” the rest of Mama backed away. Daddy didn’t nod, as if not wanting to bend, but by ushering out the children, their hopes for the meal suddenly dashed, he bent. They walked back out to the parking lot, Daddy’s back straight as a board, as if to reclaim the dignity of which he’d just been stripped.
When they got in the car, Mama leaned over and laid her head down beside Daddy, as if her neck could no longer bear the weight. “Maybe that’s why coloreds exist,” Clarence heard Mama whisper to Daddy, in a despairing voice. “So poor white folk don’t has to spend their lives always lookin’ up to others. So they can has someone to look down on too.”
“Now, now, Mama,” Daddy said, and held her close with his right arm, his left on the steering wheel. Clarence heard what sounded like a deep moan, followed by deathly quiet. Though they’d never discussed it, Clarence somehow knew all his brothers and sisters could recount those moments as easily as he, whether or not they wanted to. He particularly remembered the silence.
“A colored window.” Clarence’s disappointment at those words was as palpable now as it had been thirty-five years ago. It wasn’t the disappointment of being told again he was inferior. He’d gotten used to that, so he told himself. It’s that they wouldn’t have the smells and sights that came from being inside a restaurant. They’d get food from the “colored window” all right, but they’d have to eat in the car, or at best a bench or sidewalk. After Daddy ordered through the colored window at Dottie’s, he commented “These folks believes all money’s created equal, even if all people isn’t.”
Funny what you remember.
Clarence looked around the room at Krueger’s, at all the white folk, outwardly indistinguishable from those in that other restaurant, which seemed like he’d been in only yesterday. Seeing those in this room here and now, he supposed he knew exactly what they too really thought of him.
Clarence’s mind moved from Glenda to Mr. Spelling, the golf course owner, four years later, where Clarence and his brother Ellis applied for jobs as caddies but were turned down because—because of why they were always turned down.
“Now, I’m no racist,” Mr. Spelling insisted. “Those are just the rules.”
Well, you own the golf course don’t you? You make up the rules. If you don’t like ‘em, change ‘em.
Clarence realized now Mr. Spelling spoke of “the rules” in a broader sense. It was just the way life was. He was apologetic. This made him feel better, not as guilty. He knew he was fair and open-minded, even benevolent. That’s what it was when whites thought it was okay for blacks to have more rights—it wasn’t simple justice, but benevolence, as if it took a special virtue to believe other people shouldn’t be treated as inferiors. Funny, people never thought of themselves as especially virtuous just for thinking stealing was wrong. But they thought a great deal of themselves for believing discrimination wasn’t quite right.
Clarence unconsciously pushed around the dwindling food morsels on his plate, as if they were pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. As if by looking underneath the potatoes he’d find the answers to life.
Glenda and Mr. Spelling, Clarence reflected, were what Reverend Sharo at the black Baptist church called “little racists.” Big racists were the KKK types, the cross burners, the ones that would call you “nigger” and spit on you and beat you up, as long as there were at least three of them for every one of you. But Reverend Sharo always said they weren’t the dangerous ones. Bad as they were, the devil only had so many big racists. But Glenda and Mr. Spelling were the nice people, the church-goers, school teachers, police officers, businessmen, mayor, milkman, and mail carrier. They made the community what it was, they made the wheels turn. The wheels of commerce. The wheels of benevolence. The wheels of oppression and injustice. They were the little racists.
Clarence recalled Reverend Sharo’s sermon on how the midwives went against Pharaoh and protected the Jewish boys. He talked about the Jews and Nazi Germany and what was later called the holocaust, while it was still fresh in people’s minds. Sharo said it wasn’t Hitler and the Nazi insiders who slaughtered the Jews. Dozens of the devil’s men, even hundreds or thousands of them, couldn’t pull off the murders of all those millions. The key was normal people, those who thought of themselves as decent folk. Those who wouldn’t kick a Jew to death, but would look the other way when someone else did. It was the normal people who made holocausts happen, the “good folk” who tolerated unspeakable evil.
Mr. Spelling and Glenda were nice enough white folk. They seemed hurt and irritated, as if they were being victimized, as if the Negroes ought to be more sensitive and not put them in these awkward circumstances by coming into a restaurant or asking for a job. The tragedy wasn’t so much the brutality of bad people as the silence of good people.
Where were Glenda and Mr. Spelling now, Clarence wondered. It seemed yesterday, but they’d be in their eighties or nineties or dead. If alive, what did they think now of what they had done? If dead, what was their perspective? Could they see their hearts and actions now through the eyes of eternity? Does moral blindness stop at the grave, or does it go beyond it?
“I’m no racist.” Why was it so important to Mr. Spelling to say that? Who was calling him a racist but his own conscience? Perhaps it was the God he worshipped on Sunday morning, but whose truths didn’t seem to make much difference week days.
Clarence looked down at his empty plates. Where had all the food gone? He tried to recount the pleasure of the tastes, but he’d missed them while absorbed in the videotapes of his memory. He took his last sip of coffee, paid at the counter, then walked briskly to the restroom, occupied by two white men. They were red necks he assumed, who pretended not to notice he was black. He straightened his tie, checked to be sure his Ferragamo shoes were still shiny, then headed out the door to a world that had changed since his childhood days, much for the better and much for the worse.
Clarence drove downtown and parked his car in the all day parking garage, on the fourth floor next to the elevator, then walked briskly toward the Trib. He was about to pass two older white women when one of them looked over her shoulder and saw him approaching. She stepped closer to her friend and clutched her purse tight. Clarence pretended not to notice, not to care.
Funny what you remember.
To read this book in its entirety, see Dominion.