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More acutely than ever before Emma Lou began to feel that her luscious black complexion was somewhat of a liability, and that her marked color variation from the other people in her environment was a decided curse. Not that she minded being black, being a Negro necessitated having a colored skin, but she did mind being too black. She couldn't understand why such should be the case, couldn't comprehend the cruelty of the natal attenders who had allowed her to be dipped, as it were, in indigo ink when there were so many more pleasing colors on nature's palette. Biologically, it wasn't necessary either; her mother was quite fair, so was her mother's mother, and her mother's brother, and her mother's brother's son; but then none of them had had a black man for a father. Why had her mother married a black man? Surely there had been some eligible brown-skin men around. She didn't particularly desire to have had a "high yaller" father, but for her sake certainly some more happy medium could have been found.
She wasn't the only person who regretted her darkness either. It was an acquired family characteristic, this moaning and grieving over the color of her skin. Everything possible had been done to alleviate the unhappy condition, every suggested agent had been employed, but her skin, despite bleachings, scourgings, and powderings, had remained black fast black as nature had planned and effected.
She should have been a boy, then color of skin wouldn't have mattered so much, for wasn't her mother always saying that a black boy could get along, but that a black girl would never know anything but sorrow and disappointment? But she wasn't a boy; she was a girl, and color did matter, mattered so much that she would rather have missed receiving her high school diploma than have to sit as she now sat, the only odd and conspicuous figure on the auditorium platform of the Boise high school. Why had she allowed them to place her in the center of the first row, and why had they insisted upon her dressing entirely in white so that surrounded as she was by similarly attired pale-faced fellow graduates she resembled, not at all remotely, that comic picture her Uncle Joe had hung in his bedroom? The picture wherein the black, kinky head of a little red-lipped pickaninny lay like a fly in a pan of milk amid a white expanse of bedclothes.
But of course she couldn't have worn blue or black when the call was for the wearing of white, even if white was not complementary to her complexion. She would have been odd-looking anyway no matter what she wore and she would also have been conspicuous, for not only was she the only dark-skinned person on the platform, she was also the only Negro pupil in the entire school, and had been for the past four years. Well, thank goodness, the principal would soon be through with his monotonous farewell address, and she and the other members of her class would advance to the platform center as their names were called and receive the documents which would signify their unconditional release from public school.
As she thought of these things, Emma Lou glanced at those who sat to the right and to the left of her. She envied them their obvious elation, yet felt a strange sense of superiority because of her immunity for the moment from an ephemeral mob emotion. Get a diploma? What did it mean to her? College? Perhaps. A job? Perhaps again. She was going to have a high school diploma, but it would mean nothing to her whatsoever. The tragedy of her life was that she was too black. Her face and not a slender roll of ribbon-bound parchment was to be her future identification tag in society. High school diploma indeed! What she needed was an efficient bleaching agent, a magic cream that would remove this unwelcome black mask from her face and make her more like her fellow men.
"Emma Lou Morgan."
She came to with a start. The principal had called her name and stood smiling down at her benevolently. Some one she knew it was her Cousin Buddie, stupid imp applauded, very faintly, very provokingly. Some one else snickered.
"Emma Lou Morgan."
The principal had called her name again, more sharply than before and his smile was less benevolent. The girl who sat to the left of her nudged her. There was nothing else for her to do but to get out of that anchoring chair and march forward to receive her diploma. But why did the people in the audience have to stare so? Didn't they all know that Emma Lou Morgan was Boise high school's only nigger student? Didn't they all know but what was the use. She had to go get that diploma, so summoning her most insouciant manner, she advanced to the platform center, brought every muscle of her lithe limbs into play, haughtily extended her shiny black arm to receive the proffered diploma, bowed a chilly thanks, then holding her arms stiffly at her sides, insolently returned to her seat in that foreboding white line, insolently returned once more to splotch its pale purity and to mock it with her dark, outlandish difference.
Emma Lou had been born in a semi-white world, totally surrounded by an all-white one, and those few dark elements that had forced their way in had either been shooed away or else greeted with derisive laughter. It was the custom always of those with whom she came into most frequent contact to ridicule or revile any black person or object. A black cat was a harbinger of bad luck, black crepe was the insignia of mourning, and black people were either evil niggers with poisonous blue gums or else typical vaudeville darkies. It seemed as if the people in her world never went halfway in their recognition or reception of things black, for these things seemed always to call forth only the most extreme emotional reactions. They never provoked mere smiles or mere melancholy, rather they were the signal either for boisterous guffaws or pain-induced and tear-attended grief.
Emma Lou had been becoming increasingly aware of this for a long time, but her immature mind had never completely grasped its full, and to her tragic, significance. First there had been the case of her father, old black Jim Morgan they called him, and Emma Lou had often wondered why it was that he of all the people she heard discussed by her family should always be referred to as if his very blackness condemned him to receive no respect from his fellow men.
She had also begun to wonder if it was because of his blackness that he had never been in evidence as far as she knew. Inquiries netted very unsatisfactory answers. "Your father is no good." "He left your mother, deserted her shortly after you were born." And these statements were always prefixed or followed by some epithet such as "dirty black no-gooder" or "durn his onery black hide." There was in fact only one member of the family who did not speak of her father in this manner, and that was her Uncle Joe, who was also the only person in the family to whom she really felt akin, because he alone never seemed to regret, to bemoan, or to ridicule her blackness of skin. It was her grandmother who did all the regretting, her mother who did the bemoaning, her Cousin Buddie and her playmates, both white and colored, who did the ridiculing.
Emma Lou's maternal grandparents, Samuel and Maria Lightfoot, were both mulatto products of slave-day promiscuity between male masters and female chattel. Neither had been slaves, their own parents having been granted their freedom because of their close connections with the white branch of the family tree. These freedmen had migrated into Kansas with their children, and when these children had grown up they in turn had joined the westward-ho parade of that current era, and finally settled in Boise, Idaho.
Samuel and Maria, like many others of their kind and antecedents, had had only one compelling desire, which motivated their every activity and dictated their every thought. They wished to put as much physical and mental space between them and the former home of their parents as was possible. That was why they had left Kansas, for in Kansas there were too many reminders of that which their parents had escaped and from which they wished to flee. Kansas was too near the former slave belt, too accessible to disgruntled southerners, who, deprived of their slaves, were inculcated with an easily communicable virus, nigger hatred. Then, too, in Kansas all Negroes were considered as belonging to one class. It didn't matter if you and your parents had been freedmen before the Emancipation Proclamation, nor did it matter that you were almost three-quarters white. You were, nevertheless, classed with those hordes of hungry, ragged, ignorant black folk arriving from the South in such great numbers, packed like so many stampeding cattle in dirty, manure-littered box cars.
From all of this these maternal grandparents of Emma Lou fled, fled to the Rocky Mountain states which were too far away for the recently freed slaves to reach, especially since most of them believed that the world ended just a few miles north of the Mason-Dixon line. Then, too, not only were the Rocky Mountain states beyond the reach of this raucous and smelly rabble of recently freed cotton pickers and plantation hands, but they were also peopled by pioneers, sturdy land and gold seekers from the East, marching westward, always westward in search of El Dorado, and being too busy in this respect to be violently aroused by problems of race unless economic factors precipitated matters.
So Samuel and Maria went into the fast farness of a little known Rocky Mountain territory and settled in Boise, at the time nothing more than a trading station for the Indians and whites, and a red light center for the cowboys and sheepherders and miners in the neighboring vicinity. Samuel went into the saloon business and grew prosperous. Maria raised a family and began to mother nuclear elements for a future select Negro social group.
There was of course in such a small and haphazardly populated community some social intermixture between whites and blacks. White and black gamblers rolled the dice together, played tricks on one another while dealing faro, and became allies in their attempts to outfigure the roulette wheel. White and black men amicably frequented the saloons and dancehalls together. White and black women leaned out of the doorways and windows of the jerry-built frame houses and log cabins of "Whore Row." White and black housewives gossiped over back fences and lent one another needed household commodities. But there was little social intercourse on a higher scale. Sluefoot Sal, the most popular high yaller on "Whore Row," might be a buddy to Irish Peg and Blond Liz, but Mrs. Amos James, whose husband owned the town's only dry-goods store, could certainly not become too familiar with Mrs. Samuel Lightfoot, colored, whose husband owned a saloon. And it was not a matter of the difference in their respective husbands' businesses. Mrs. Amos James did associate with Mrs. Arthur Emory, white, whose husband also owned a saloon. It was purely a matter of color.
Emma Lou's grandmother then, holding herself aloof from the inmates of "Whore Row," and not wishing to associate with such as old Mammy Lewis' daughters, who did most of the town wash, and others of their ilk, was forced to choose her social equals slowly and carefully. This was hard, for there were so few Negroes in Boise anyway that there wasn't much cream to skim off. But as the years passed, others, who, like Maria and her husband, were mulatto offsprings of mulatto freedmen seeking a freer land, moved in, and were soon initiated into what was later to be known as the blue vein circle, so named because all of its members were fair-skinned enough for their blood to be seen pulsing purple through the veins of their wrists.
Emma Lou's grandmother was the founder and the acknowledged leader of Boise's blue veins, and she guarded its exclusiveness passionately and jealously. Were they not a superior class? Were they not a very high type of Negro, comparable to the persons of color groups in the West Indies? And were they not entitled, ipso facto, to more respect and opportunity and social acceptance than the more pure blooded Negroes? In their veins was some of the best blood of the South. They were closely akin to the only true aristocrats in the United States. Even the slave masters had been aware of and acknowledged in some measure their superiority. Having some of Marse George's blood in their veins set them apart from ordinary Negroes at birth. These mulattoes as a rule were not ordered to work in the fields beneath the broiling sun at the urge of a Simon Legree lash. They were saved and trained for the more gentle jobs, saved and trained to be ladies' maids and butlers. Therefore, let them continue this natural division of Negro society. Let them also guard against unwelcome and degenerating encroachments. Their motto must be "Whiter and whiter every generation," until the grandchildren of the blue veins could easily go over into the white race and become assimilated so that problems of race would plague them no more.
Maria had preached this doctrine to her two children, Jane and Joe, throughout their apprentice years, and can therefore be forgiven for having a physical collapse when they both, first Joe, then Emma Lou's mother, married not mulattoes, but a copper brown and a blue black. This had been somewhat of a necessity, for, when the mating call had made itself heard to them, there had been no eligible blue veins around. Most of their youthful companions had been sent away to school or else to seek careers in eastern cities, and those few who had remained had already found their chosen life's companions. Maria had sensed that something of the kind might happen and had urged Samuel to send Jane and Joe away to some eastern boarding school, but Samuel had very stubbornly refused. He had his own notions of the sort of things one's children learned in boarding school, and of the greater opportunities they had to apply that learning. True, they might acquire the same knowledge in the public schools of Boise, but then there would be some limit to the extent to which they could apply this knowledge, seeing that they lived at home and perforce must submit to some parental supervision. A cot in the attic at home was to Samuel a much safer place for a growing child to sleep than an iron four poster in a boarding school dormitory.
So Samuel had remained adamant and the two carefully reared scions of Boise's first blue vein family had of necessity sought their mates among the lower orders. However, Joe's wife was not as undesirable as Emma Lou's father, for she was almost three-quarters Indian, and there was scant possibility that her children would have revolting dark skins, thick lips, spreading nostrils, and kinky hair. But in the case of Emma Lou's father, there were no such extenuating characteristics, for his physical properties undeniably stamped him as a full-blooded Negro. In fact, it seemed as if he had come from one of the few families originally from Africa, who could not boast of having been seduced by some member of southern aristocracy, or befriended by some member of a strolling band of Indians.
No one could understand why Emma Lou's mother had married Jim Morgan, least of all Jane herself. In fact she hadn't thought much about it until Emma Lou had been born. She had first met Jim at a church picnic, given in a woodlawn meadow on the outskirts of the city, and almost before she had realized what was happening she had found herself slipping away from home, night after night, to stroll down a well-shaded street, known as Lover's Lane, with the man her mother had forbidden her to see. And it hadn't been long before they had decided that an elopement would be the only thing to assure themselves the pleasure of being together without worrying about Mama Lightfoot's wrath, talkative neighbors, prying town marshals, and grass stains.
Despite the rancor of her mother and the whispering of her mother's friends, Jane hadn't really found anything to regret in her choice of a husband until Emma Lou had been born. Then all the fears her mother had instilled in her about the penalties inflicted by society upon black Negroes, especially upon black Negro girls, came to the fore. She was abysmally stunned by the color of her child, for she had been certain that since she herself was so fair that her child could not possibly be as dark as its father. She had been certain that it would be a luscious admixture, a golden brown with all its mother's desirable facial features and its mother's hair. But she hadn't reckoned with nature's perversity, nor had she taken under consideration the inescapable fact that some of her ancestors, too, had been black and that some of their color chromosomes were still imbedded within her. Emma Lou had been fortunate enough to have hair like her mother's, a thick, curly black mass of hair, rich and easily controlled, but she had also been unfortunate enough to have a face as black as her father's, and a nose which, while not exactly flat, was as distinctly negroid as her too thick lips.
Her birth had served no good purpose. It had driven her mother back to seek the confidence and aid of Maria, and it had given Maria the chance she had been seeking to break up the undesirable union of her daughter with what she termed an ordinary black nigger. But Jim's departure hadn't solved matters at all, rather it had complicated them, for although he was gone, his child remained, a tragic mistake which could not be stamped out or eradicated even after Jane, by getting a divorce from Jim and marrying a red-haired Irish Negro, had been accepted back into blue vein grace.
Emma Lou had always been the alien member of the family and of the family's social circle. Her grandmother, now a widow, made her feel it. Her mother made her feel it. And her Cousin Buddie made her feel it, to say nothing of the way she was regarded by outsiders. As early as she could remember, people had been saying to her mother, "What an extraordinarily black child! Where did you adopt it?" or else, "Such lovely unniggerish hair on such a niggerish-looking child." Some had even been facetious and made suggestions like, "Try some lye, Jane, it may eat it out. She can't look any worse."
Then her mother's re-marriage had brought another person into her life, a person destined to give her, while still a young child, much pain and unhappiness. Aloysius McNamara was his name. He was the bastard son of an Irish politician and a Negro washerwoman, and until he had been sent East to a parochial school, Aloysius, so named because that was his father's middle name, had always been known as Aloysius Washington, and the identity of his own father had never been revealed to him by his proud and humble mother. But since his father had been prevailed upon to pay for his education, Aloysius' mother thought it the proper time to tell her son his true origin and to let him assume his real name. She had hopes that away from his home town he might be able to pass for white and march unhindered by bars of color to fame and fortune.
But such was not to be the case, for Emma Lou's prospective stepfather was so conscious of the Negro blood in his veins and so bitter because of it, that he used up whatever talents he had groaning inwardly at capricious fate, and planning revenge upon the world at large, especially the black world. For it was Negroes and not whites whom he blamed for his own, to him, life's tragedy. He was not fair enough of skin, despite his mother's and his own hopes, to pass for white. There was a brownness in his skin, inherited from his mother, which immediately marked him out for what he was, despite the red hair and the Irish blue eyes. And his facial features had been modeled too generously. He was not thin lipped, nor were his nostrils as delicately chiseled as they might have been. He was a Negro. There was no getting around it, although he tried in every possible way to do so.
Finishing school, he had returned West for the express purpose of making his father accept him publicly and personally advance his career. He had wanted to be a lawyer and figured that his father's political pull was sufficiently strong to draw him beyond race barriers and set him as one apart. His father had not been entirely cold to these plans and proposals, but his father's wife had been. She didn't mind her husband giving this nigger bastard some of his money, and receiving him in his home on rare and private occasions. She was trying to be liberal, but she wasn't going to have people point to her and say, "That's Boss McNamara's wife. Wonder if that nigger son is his'n or hers. They do say...." So Aloysius had found himself shunted back into the black world he so despised. He couldn't be made to realize that being a Negro did not necessarily indicate that one must also be a ne'er-do-well. Had he been white, or so he said, he would have been a successful criminal lawyer, but being considered black it was impossible for him ever to be anything more advanced than a pullman car porter or a dining car waiter, and acting upon this premise, he hadn't tried to be anything else.
His only satisfaction in life was the pleasure he derived from insulting and ignoring the real blacks. Persons of color, mulattoes, were all right, but he couldn't stand detestable black Negroes. Unfortunately, Emma Lou fell into this latter class, and suffered at his hands accordingly, until he finally ran away from his wife, Emma Lou, Boise, Negroes, and all, ran away to Canada with Diamond Lil of "Whore Row."
Summer vacation was nearly over and it had not yet been decided what to do with Emma Lou now that she had graduated from high school. She herself gave no help nor offered any suggestions. As it was, she really did not care what became of her. After all it didn't seem to matter. There was no place in the world for a girl as black as she anyway. Her grandmother had assured her that she would never find a husband worth a dime, and her mother had said again and again, "Oh, if you had only been a boy!" until Emma Lou had often wondered why it was that people were not able to effect a change of sex or at least a change of complexion.
It was her Uncle Joe who finally prevailed upon her mother to send her to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. There, he reasoned, she would find a larger and more intelligent social circle. In a city the size of Los Angeles there were Negroes of every class, color, and social position. Let Emma Lou go there where she would not be as far away from home as if she were to go to some eastern college.
Jane and Maria, while not agreeing entirely with what Joe said, were nevertheless glad that at last something which seemed adequate and sensible could be done for Emma Lou. She was to take the four year college course, receive a bachelor degree in education, then go South to teach. That, they thought, was a promising future, and for once in the eighteen years of Emma Lou's life every one was satisfied in some measure. Even Emma Lou grew elated over the prospects of the trip. Her Uncle Joe's insistence upon the differences of social contacts in larger cities intrigued her. Perhaps he was right after all in continually reasserting to them that as long as one was a Negro, one's specific color had little to do with one's life. Salvation depended upon the individual. And he also told Emma Lou, during one of their usual private talks, that it was only in small cities one encountered stupid color prejudice such as she had encountered among the blue vein circle in her home town.
"People in large cities," he had said, "are broad. They do not have time to think of petty things. The people in Boise are fifty years behind the times, but you will find that Los Angeles is one of the world's greatest and most modern cities, and you will be happy there."
On arriving in Los Angeles, Emma Lou was so busy observing the colored inhabitants that she had little time to pay attention to other things. Palm trees and wild geraniums were pleasant to behold, and such strange phenomena as pepper trees and century plants had to be admired. They were very obvious and they were also strange and beautiful, but they impinged upon only a small corner of Emma Lou's consciousness. She was minutely aware of them, necessarily took them in while passing, viewing the totality without pondering over or lingering to praise their stylistic details. They were, in this instance, exquisite theatrical props, rendered insignificant by a more strange and a more beautiful human pageant. For Emma Lou, who, in all her life, had never seen over five hundred Negroes, the spectacle presented by a community containing over fifty thousand, was sufficient to make relatively commonplace many more important and charming things than the far famed natural scenery of Southern California.
She had arrived in Los Angeles a week before registration day at the university, and had spent her time in being shown and seeing the city. But whenever these sightseeing excursions took her away from the sections where Negroes lived, she immediately lost all interest in what she was being shown. The Pacific Ocean in itself did not cause her heartbeat to quicken, nor did the roaring of its waves find an emotional echo within her. But on coming upon Bruce's Beach for colored people near Redondo, or the little strip of sandied shore they had appropriated for themselves at Santa Monica, the Pacific Ocean became an intriguing something to contemplate as a background for their activities. Everything was interesting as it was patronized, reflected through, or acquired by Negroes.
Her Uncle Joe had been right. Here, in the colored social circles of Los Angeles, Emma Lou was certain that she would find many suitable companions, intelligent, broad-minded people of all complexions, intermixing and being too occupied otherwise to worry about either their own skin color or the skin color of those around them. Her Uncle Joe had said that Negroes were Negroes whether they happened to be yellow, brown, or black, and a conscious effort to eliminate the darker elements would neither prove nor solve anything. There was nothing quite so silly as the creed of the blue veins: "Whiter and whiter, every generation. The nearer white you are the more white people will respect you. Therefore all light Negroes marry light Negroes. Continue to do so generation after generation, and eventually white people will accept this racially bastard aristocracy, thus enabling those Negroes who really matter to escape the social and economic inferiority of the American Negro."
Such had been the credo of her grandmother and of her mother and of their small circle of friends in Boise. But Boise was a provincial town, given to the molding of provincial people with provincial minds. Boise was a backward town out of the mainstream of modern thought and progress. Its people were cramped and narrow, their intellectual concepts stereotyped and static. Los Angeles was a happy contrast in all respects.
On registration day, Emma Lou rushed out to the campus of the University of Southern California one hour before the registrar's office was scheduled to open. She spent the time roaming around, familiarizing herself with the layout of the campus and learning the names of the various buildings, some old and vineclad, others new and shiny in the sun, and watching the crowds of laughing students, rushing to and fro, greeting one another and talking over their plans for the coming school year. But her main reason for such an early arrival on the campus had been to find some of her fellow Negro students. She had heard that there were to be quite a number enrolled, but in all her hour's stroll she saw not one, and finally somewhat disheartened she got into the line stretched out in front of the registrar's office, and, for the moment, became engrossed in becoming a college freshman.
All the while, though, she kept searching for a colored face, but it was not until she had been duly signed up as a student and sent in search of her advisor that she saw one. Then three colored girls had sauntered into the room where she was having a conference with her advisor, sauntered in, arms interlocked, greeted her advisor, then sauntered out again. Emma Lou had wanted to rush after them to introduce herself, but of course it had been impossible under the circumstances. She had immediately taken a liking to all three, each of whom was what is known in the parlance of the black belt as high brown, with modishly shingled bobbed hair and well-formed bodies, fashionably attired in flashy sport garments. From then on Emma Lou paid little attention to the business of choosing subjects and class hours, so little attention in fact that the advisor thought her exceptionally tractable and somewhat dumb. But she liked students to come that way. It made the task of being advisor easy. One just made out the program to suit oneself, and had no tedious explanations to make as to why the student could not have such and such a subject at such and such an hour, and why such and such a professor's class was already full.
After her program had been made out, Emma Lou was directed to the bursar's office to pay her fees. While going down the stairs she almost bumped into two dark-brown-skinned boys, obviously brothers if not twins, arguing as to where they should go next. One insisted that they should go back to the registrar's office. The other was being equally insistent that they should go to the gymnasium and make an appointment for their required physical examination. Emma Lou boldly stopped when she saw them, hoping they would speak, but they merely glanced up at her and continued their argument, bringing cards and pamphlets out of their pockets for reference and guidance. Emma Lou wanted to introduce herself to them, but she was too bashful to do so. She wasn't yet used to going to school with other Negro students, and she wasn't exactly certain how one went about becoming acquainted. But she finally decided that she had better let the advances come from the others, especially if they were men. There was nothing forward about her, and since she was a stranger it was no more than right that the old-timers should make her welcome. Still, if these had been girls..., but they weren't, so she continued her way down the stairs.
In the bursar's office, she was somewhat overjoyed at first to find that she had fallen into line behind another colored girl who had turned around immediately, and, after saying hello, announced in a loud, harsh voice:
"My feet are sure some tired!"
Emma Lou was so taken aback that she couldn't answer. People in college didn't talk that way. But meanwhile the girl was continuing:
"Ain't this registration a mess?"
Two white girls who had fallen into line behind Emma Lou snickered. Emma Lou answered by shaking her head. The girl continued:
"I've been standin' in line and climbin' stairs and talkin' and a-signin' till I'm just 'bout done for."
"It is tiresome," Emma Lou returned softly, hoping the girl would take a hint and lower her own strident voice. But she didn't.
"Tiresome ain't no name for it," she declared more loudly than ever before, then, "Is you a new student?"
"I am," answered Emma Lou, putting much emphasis on the "I am."
She wanted the white people who were listening to know that she knew her grammar if this other person didn't. "Is you," indeed! If this girl was a specimen of the Negro students with whom she was to associate, she most certainly did not want to meet another one. But it couldn't be possible that all of them those three girls and those two boys for instance were like this girl. Emma Lou was unable to imagine how such a person had ever gotten out of high school. Where on earth could she have gone to high school? Surely not in the North. Then she must be a southerner. That's what she was, a southerner Emma Lou curled her lips a little no wonder the colored people in Boise spoke as they did about southern Negroes and wished that they would stay South. Imagine any one preparing to enter college saying "Is you," and, to make it worse, right before all these white people, these staring white people, so eager and ready to laugh. Emma Lou's face burned.
"Two mo', then I goes in my sock."
Emma Lou was almost at the place where she was ready to take even this statement literally, and was on the verge of leaving the line. Supposing this creature did "go in her sock!" God forbid!
"Wonder where all the spades keep themselves? I ain't seen but two 'sides you."
"I really do not know," Emma Lou returned precisely and chillily. She had no intentions of becoming friendly with this sort of person. Why she would be ashamed even to be seen on the street with her, dressed as she was in a red-striped sport suit, a white hat, and white shoes and stockings. Didn't she know that black people had to be careful about the colors they affected?
The girl had finally reached the bursar's window and was paying her fees, and loudly differing with the cashier about the total amount due.
"I tell you it ain't that much," she shouted through the window bars. "I figured it up myself before I left home."
The cashier obligingly turned to her adding machine and once more obtained the same total. When shown this, the girl merely grinned, examined the list closely, and said:
"I'm gonna pay it, but I still think you're wrong."
dFinally she moved away from the window, but not before she had turned to Emma Lou and said,
"You're next," and then proceeded to wait until Emma Lou had finished.
Emma Lou vainly sought some way to escape, but was unable to do so, and had no choice but to walk with the girl to the registrar's office where they had their cards stamped in return for the bursar's receipt. This done, they went onto the campus together. Hazel Mason was the girl's name. Emma Lou had fully expected it to be either Hyacinth or Geranium. Hazel was from Texas, Prairie Valley, Texas, and she told Emma Lou that her father, having become quite wealthy when oil had been found on his farm lands, had been enabled to realize two life ambitions obtain a Packard touring car and send his only daughter to a "fust-class" white school.
Emma Lou had planned to loiter around the campus. She was still eager to become acquainted with the colored members of the student body, and this encounter with the crass and vulgar Hazel Mason had only made her the more eager. She resented being approached by any one so flagrantly inferior, any one so noticeably a typical southern darky, who had no business obtruding into the more refined scheme of things. Emma Lou planned to lose her unwelcome companion somewhere on the campus so that she could continue unhindered her quest for agreeable acquaintances.
But Hazel was as anxious to meet one as was Emma Lou, and having found her was not going to let her get away without a struggle. She, too, was new to this environment and in a way was more lonely and eager for the companionship of her own kind than Emma Lou, for never before had she come into such close contact with so many whites. Her life had been spent only among Negroes. Her fellow pupils and teachers in school had always been colored, and as she confessed to Emma Lou, she couldn't get used "to all these white folks."
"Honey, I was just achin' to see a black face," she had said, and, though Emma Lou was experiencing the same ache, she found herself unable to sympathize with the other girl, for Emma Lou classified Hazel as a barbarian who had most certainly not come from a family of best people. No doubt her mother had been a washerwoman. No doubt she had innumerable relatives and friends all as ignorant and as ugly as she. There was no sense in any one having a face as ugly as Hazel's, and Emma Lou thanked her stars that though she was black, her skin was not rough and pimply, nor was her hair kinky, nor were her nostrils completely flattened out until they seemed to spread all over her face. No wonder people were prejudiced against dark-skin people when they were so ugly, so haphazard in their dress, and so boisterously mannered as was this present specimen. She herself was black, but nevertheless she had come from a good family, and she could easily take her place in a society of the right sort of people.
The two strolled along the lawn-bordered gravel path which led to a vine-covered building at the end of the campus. Hazel never ceased talking. She kept shouting at Emma Lou, shouting all sorts of personal intimacies as if she were desirous of the whole world hearing them. There was no necessity for her to talk so loudly, no necessity for her to afford every one on the crowded campus the chance to stare and laugh at them as they passed. Emma Lou had never before been so humiliated and so embarrassed. She felt that she must get away from her offensive companion. What did she care if she had to hurt her feelings to do so. The more insulting she could be now, the less friendly she would have to be in the future.
"Good-bye," she said abruptly, "I must go home." With which she turned away and walked rapidly in the opposite direction. She had only gone a few steps when she was aware of the fact that the girl was following her. She quickened her pace, but the girl caught up with her and grabbing hold of Emma Lou's arm, shouted,
"Whoa there, Sally."
It seemed to Emma Lou as if every one on the campus was viewing and enjoying this minstrel-like performance. Angrily she tried to jerk away, but the girl held fast.
"Gal, you sure walk fast. I'm going your way. Come on, let me drive you home in my buggy."
And still holding on to Emma Lou's arm, she led the way to the side street where the students parked their cars. Emma Lou was powerless to resist. The girl didn't give her a chance, for she held tight, then immediately resumed the monologue which Emma Lou's attempted leave-taking had interrupted. They reached the street, Hazel still talking loudly, and making elaborate gestures with her free hand.
"Here we are," she shouted, and releasing Emma Lou's arm, salaamed before a sport model Stutz roadster. "Oscar," she continued, "meet the new girl friend. Pleased to meetcha, says he. Climb aboard."
And Emma Lou had climbed aboard, perplexed, chagrined, thoroughly angry, and disgusted. What was this little black fool doing with a Stutz roadster? And of course, it would be painted red Negroes always bedecked themselves and their belongings in ridiculously unbecoming colors and ornaments. It seemed to be a part of their primitive heritage which they did not seem to have sense enough to forget and deny. Black girl white hat red-and-white-striped sport suit white shoes and stockings red roadster. The picture was complete. All Hazel needed to complete her circus-like appearance, thought Emma Lou, was to have some purple feathers stuck in her hat.
Still talking, the girl unlocked and proceeded to start the car. As she was backing it out of the narrow parking space, Emma Lou heard a chorus of semi-suppressed giggles from a neighboring automobile. In her anger she had failed to notice that there were people in the car parked next to the Stutz. But as Hazel expertly swung her machine around, Emma Lou caught a glimpse of them. They were all colored and they were all staring at her and at Hazel. She thought she recognized one of the girls as being one of the group she had seen earlier that morning, and she did recognize the two brothers she had passed on the stairs. And as the roadster sped away, their laughter echoed in her ears, although she hadn't actually heard it. But she had seen the strain in their faces, and she knew that as soon as she and Hazel were out of sight, they would give free rein to their suppressed mirth.
Although Emma Lou had finished registering, she returned to the university campus on the following morning in order to continue her quest for collegiate companions without the alarming and unwelcome presence of Hazel Mason. She didn't know whether to be sorry for the girl and try to help her or to be disgusted and avoid her. She didn't want to be intimately associated with any such vulgar person. It would damage her own position, cause her to be classified with some one who was in a class by herself, for Emma Lou was certain that there was not, and could not be, any one else in the university just like Hazel. But despite her vulgarity, the girl was not all bad. Her good nature was infectious, and Emma Lou had surmised from her monologue on the day before how utterly unselfish a person she could be and was. All of her store of the world's goods were at hand to be used and enjoyed by her friends. There was not, as she had said, "a selfish bone in her body." But even that did not alter the disgusting fact that she was not one who would be welcome by the "right sort of people." Her flamboyant style of dress, her loud voice, her raucous laughter, and her flagrant disregard or ignorance of English grammar seemed inexcusable to Emma Lou, who was unable to understand how such a person could stray so far from the environment in which she rightfully belonged to enter a first-class university. Now Hazel, according to Emma Lou, was the type of Negro who should go to a Negro college. There were plenty of them in the South whose standard of scholarship was not beyond her ability. And, then, in one of those schools, her darky-like clownishness would not have to be paraded in front of white people, thereby causing discomfort and embarrassment to others of her race, more civilized and circumspect than she.
The problem irritated Emma Lou. She didn't see why it had to be. She had looked forward so anxiously, and so happily to her introductory days on the campus, and now her first experience with one of her fellow colored students had been an unpleasant one. But she didn't intend to let that make her unhappy. She was determined to return to the campus alone, seek out other companions, see whether they accepted or ignored the offending Hazel, and govern herself accordingly.
It was early and there were few people on the campus. The grass was still wet from a heavy overnight dew, and the sun had not yet dispelled the coolness of the early morning. Emma Lou's dress was of thin material and she shivered as she walked or stood in the shade. She had no school business to attend to; there was nothing for her to do but to walk aimlessly about the campus.
In another hour, Emma Lou was pleased to see that the campus walks were becoming crowded, and that the side streets surrounding the campus were now heavy with student traffic. Things were beginning to awaken. Emma Lou became jubilant and walked with jaunty step from path to path, from building to building. It then occurred to her that she had been told that there were more Negro students enrolled in the School of Pharmacy than in any other department of the university, so, finding the Pharmacy building, she began to wander through its crowded hallways.
Almost immediately, she saw a group of five Negro students, three boys and two girls, standing near a water fountain. She was both excited and perplexed, excited over the fact that she was so close to those she wished to find, and perplexed because she did not know how to approach them. Had there been only one person standing there, the matter would have been comparatively easy. She could have approached with a smile and said, "Good morning." The person would have returned her greeting, and it would then have been a simple matter to get acquainted.
But five people in one bunch all known to one another and all chatting intimately together! it would seem too much like an intrusion to go bursting into their gathering too forward and too vulgar. Then, there was nothing she could say after having said "good morning." One just didn't break into a group of five and say, "I'm Emma Lou Morgan, a new student, and I want to make friends with you." No, she couldn't do that. She would just smile as she passed, smile graciously and friendly. They would know that she was a stranger, and her smile would assure them that she was anxious to make friends, anxious to become a welcome addition to their group.
One of the group of five had sighted Emma Lou as soon as she had sighted them:
"Who's this?" queried Helen Wheaton, a senior in the College of Law.
"Some new 'pick,' I guess," answered Bob Armstrong, who was Helen's fiancé and a senior in the School of Architecture.
"I bet she's going to take Pharmacy," whispered Amos Blaine.
"She's hottentot enough to take something," mumbled Tommy Brown. "Thank God, she won't be in any of our classes, eh Amos?"
Emma Lou was almost abreast of them now. They lowered their voices, and made a pretense of mumbled conversation among themselves. Only Verne Davis looked directly at her and it was she alone who returned Emma Lou's smile.
"Whatcha grinnin' at?" Bob chided Verne as Emma Lou passed out of earshot.
"At the little frosh, of course. She grinned at me. I couldn't stare at her without returning it."
"I don't see how anybody could even look at her without grinning."
"Oh, she's not so bad," said Verne.
"Well, she's bad enough."
"That makes two of them."
"Two of what, Amos?"'
"Good grief," exclaimed Tommy, "why don't you recruit some good-looking co-eds out here?"
"We don't choose them," Helen returned.
"I'm going out to the Southern Branch where the sight of my fellow female students won't give me dyspepsia."
"Ta-ta, Amos," said Verne, "and you needn't bother to sit in my car any more if you think us so terrible." She and Helen walked away, leaving the boys to discuss the sad days which had fallen upon the campus.
Emma Lou, of course, knew nothing of all this. She had gone her way rejoicing. One of the students had noticed her, had returned her smile. This getting acquainted was going to be an easy matter after all. It was just necessary that she exercise a little patience. One couldn't expect people to fall all over one without some preliminary advances. True, she was a stranger, but she would show them in good time that she was worthy of their attention, that she was a good fellow and a well-bred individual quite prepared to be accepted by the best people.
She strolled out onto the campus again trying to find more prospective acquaintances. The sun was warm now, the grass dry, and the campus overcrowded. There was an infectious germ of youth and gladness abroad to which Emma Lou could not remain immune. Already she was certain that she felt the presence of that vague something known as "college spirit." It seemed to enter into her, to make her jubilant and set her very nerves tingling. This was no time for sobriety. It was the time for youth's blood to run hot, the time for love and sport and wholesome fun.
Then Emma Lou saw a solitary Negro girl seated on a stone bench. It did not take her a second to decide what to do. Here was her chance. She would make friends with this girl and should she happen to be a new student, they could become friends and together find their way into the inner circle of those colored students who really mattered.
Emma Lou was essentially a snob. She had absorbed this trait from the very people who had sought to exclude her from their presence. All of her life she had heard talk of the "right sort of people," and of "the people who really mattered," and from these phrases she had formed a mental image of those to whom they applied. Hazel Mason most certainly could not be included in either of these categories. Hazel was just a vulgar little nigger from down South. It was her kind, who, when they came North, made it hard for the colored people already resident there. It was her kind who knew nothing of the social niceties or the polite conventions. In her own home they had been used only to coarse work and coarser manners. And they had been forbidden the chance to have intimate contact in schools and in public with white people from whom they might absorb some semblance of culture. When they did come North and get a chance to go to white schools, white theaters, and white libraries, they were too unused to them to appreciate what they were getting, and could be expected to continue their old way of life in an environment where such a way was decidedly out of place.
Emma Lou was determined to become associated only with those people who really mattered, northerners like herself or superior southerners, if there were any, who were different from whites only in so far as skin color was concerned. This girl to whom she was now about to introduce herself, was the type she had in mind, genteel, well and tastily dressed, and not ugly.
Alma Martin looked up from the book she was reading, gulped in surprise, then answered, "Good morning."
Emma Lou sat down on the bench. She was congeniality itself. "Are you a new student?" she inquired of the astonished Alma, who wasn't used to this sort of thing.
"No, I'm a 'soph,'" then realizing she was expected to say more, "you're new, aren't you?"
"Oh yes," replied Emma Lou, her voice buoyant and glad. "This will be my first year."
"Do you think you will like it?"
"I'm just crazy about it already. You know," she advanced confidentially, "I've never gone to school with any colored people before."
"No, and I am just dying to get acquainted with the colored students. Oh, my name's Emma Lou Morgan."
"And mine is Alma Martin."
They both laughed. There was a moment of silence. Alma looked at her wristwatch, then got up from the bench.
"I'm glad to have met you. I've got to see my advisor at ten-thirty. Good-bye." And she moved away gracefully.
Emma Lou was having difficulty in keeping from clapping her hands. At last she had made some headway. She had met a second-year student, one who, from all appearances, was in the know, and who, as they met from time to time, would see that she met others. In a short time Emma Lou felt that she would be in the whirl of things collegiate. She must write to her Uncle Joe immediately and let him know how well things were going. He had been right. This was the place for her to be. There had been no one in Boise worth considering. Here she was coming into contact with really superior people, intelligent, genteel, college-bred, all trying to advance themselves and their race, unconscious of intra-racial schisms caused by difference in skin color.
She mustn't stop upon meeting one person. She must find others, so once more she began her quest and almost immediately met Verne and Helen strolling down one of the campus paths. She remembered Verne as the girl who had smiled at her. She observed her more closely, and admired her pleasant dark brown face, made doubly attractive by two evenly placed dimples and a pair of large, heavily lidded, pitch black eyes. Emma Lou thought her to be much more attractive than the anemic-looking yellow girl with whom she was strolling. There was something about this second girl which made Emma Lou feel that she was not easy to approach.
"Good morning." Emma Lou had evolved a formula.
"Good morning," the two girls spoke in unison. Helen was about to walk on but Verne stopped.
"New student?" she asked.
"Yes, I am."
"So am I. I'm Verne Davis."
"I'm Emma Lou Morgan."
"And this is Helen Wheaton."
"Pleased to meet you, Miss Morgan."
"And I'm pleased to meet you, too, both of you," gushed Emma Lou. "You see, I'm from Boise, Idaho, and all through high school I was the only colored student."
"Is that so?" Helen inquired listlessly. Then turning to Verne said, "Better come on Verne if you are going to drive us out to the 'Branch.'"
"All right. We've got to run along now. We'll see you again, Miss Morgan. Good-bye."
"Good-bye," said Emma Lou and stood watching them as they went on their way. Yes, college life was going to be the thing to bring her out, the turning point in her life. She would show the people back in Boise that she did not have to be a "no-gooder" as they claimed her father had been, just because she was black. She would show all of them that a dark-skin girl could go as far in life as a fair-skin one, and that she could have as much opportunity and as much happiness. What did the color of one's skin have to do with one's mentality or native ability? Nothing whatsoever. If a black boy could get along in the world, so could a black girl, and it would take her, Emma Lou Morgan, to prove it.
With that she set out to make still more acquaintances.
Two weeks of school had left Emma Lou's mind in a chaotic state. She was unable to draw any coherent conclusions from the jumble of new things she had experienced. In addition to her own social striving, there had been the academic routine to which she had to adapt herself. She had found it all bewildering and overpowering. The university was a huge business proposition and every one in it had jobs to perform. Its bigness awed her. Its blatant reality shocked her. There was nothing romantic about going to college. It was, indeed, a serious business. One went there with a purpose and had several other purposes inculcated into one after school began. This getting an education was stern and serious, regulated and systematized, dull and unemotional.
Besides being disappointed at the drabness and lack of romance in college routine, Emma Lou was also depressed by her inability to make much headway in the matter of becoming intimately associated with her colored campus mates. They were all polite enough. They all acknowledged their introductions to her and would speak whenever they passed her, but seldom did any of them stop for a chat, and when she joined the various groups which gathered on the campus lawn between classes, she always felt excluded and out of things because she found herself unable to participate in the general conversation. They talked of things about which she knew nothing, of parties and dances, and of people she did not know. They seemed to live a life off the campus to which she was not privy, and into which they did not seem particularly anxious to introduce her.
She wondered why she never knew of the parties they talked about, and why she never received invitations to any of their affairs. Perhaps it was because she was still new and comparatively unknown to them. She felt that she must not forget that most of them had known one another for a long period of time and that it was necessary for people who "belonged" to be wary of strangers. That was it. She was still a stranger, had only been among them for about two weeks. What did she expect? Why was she so impatient?
The thought of the color question presented itself to her time and time again, but she would always dismiss it from her mind. Verne Davis was dark and she was not excluded from the sacred inner circle. In fact, she was one of the most popular colored girls on the campus. The only thing that perplexed Emma Lou was that although Verne, too, was new to the group, had just recently moved into the city, and was also just beginning her first year at the university, she had not been kept at a distance or excluded from any of the major extra-collegiate activities. Emma Lou could not understand why there should be this difference in their social acceptance. She was certainly as good as Verne.
In time Emma Lou became certain that it was because of her intimacy with Hazel that the people on the campus she really wished to be friendly with paid her so little attention. Hazel was a veritable clown. She went scooting about the campus, cutting capers, playing the darky for the amused white students. Any time Hazel asked or answered a question in any of the lecture halls, there was certain to be laughter. She had a way of phrasing what she wished to say in a manner which was invariably laugh provoking. The very tone and quality of her voice designated her as a minstrel type. In the gymnasium she would do buck and wing dances and play low-down blues on the piano. She was a pariah among her own people because she did not seem to know, as they knew, that Negroes could not afford to be funny in front of white people even if that was their natural inclination. Negroes must always be sober and serious in order to impress white people with their adaptability and non-difference in all salient characteristics save skin color. All of the Negro students on the campus, except Emma Lou, laughed at her openly and called her Topsy. Emma Lou felt sorry for her although she, too, regretted her comic propensities and wished that she would be less the vaudevillian and more the college student.
Besides Hazel, there was only one other person on the campus who was friendly with Emma Lou. This was Grace Giles, also a black girl, who was registered in the School of Music. The building in which she had her classes was located some distance away, and Grace did not get over to the main campus grounds very often, but when she did, she always looked for Emma Lou and made welcome overtures of friendship. It was her second year in the university, and yet, she, too, seemed to be on the outside of things. She didn't seem to be invited to the parties and dances, nor was she a member of the Greek letter sorority which the colored girls had organized. Emma Lou asked her why.
"Have they pledged you?" was Grace Giles' answer.
"And they won't either."
"Why?" Emma Lou asked surprised.
"Because you are not a high brown or half-white."
Emma Lou had thought this, too, but she had been loath to believe it.
"You're silly, Grace. Why Verne belongs."
"Yeah," Grace had sneered, "Verne, a bishop's daughter with plenty of coin and a big Buick. Why shouldn't they ask her?"
Emma Lou did not know what to make of this. She did not want to believe that the same color prejudice which existed among the blue veins in Boise also existed among the colored college students. Grace Giles was just hypersensitive. She wasn't taking into consideration the fact that she was not on the campus regularly and thus could not expect to be treated as if she were. Emma Lou fully believed that had Grace been a regularly enrolled student like herself, she would have found things different, and she was also certain that both she and Grace would be asked to join the sorority in due time.
But they weren't. Nor did an entire term in the school change things one whit. The Christmas holidays had come and gone and Emma Lou had not been invited to one of the many parties. She and Grace and Hazel bound themselves together and sought their extra-collegiate pleasures among people not on the campus. Hazel began to associate with a group of housemaids and mature youths who worked only when they had to, and played the pool rooms and the housemaids as long as they proved profitable. Hazel was a welcome addition to this particular group what with her car and her full pocket-book. She had never been proficient in her studies, had always found it impossible to keep pace with the other students, and, finally realizing that she did not belong and perhaps never would, had decided to "go to the devil," and be done with it.
It was not long before Hazel was absent from the campus more often than she was present. Going to cabarets and parties, and taking long drunken midnight drives made her more and more unwilling and unable to undertake the scholastic grind on the next morning. Just before the mid-term examinations, she was advised by the faculty to drop out of school until the next year, and to put herself in the hands of a tutor during the intervening period. It was evident that her background was not all that it should be; her preparatory work had not been sufficiently complete to enable her to continue in college. As it was, they told her, she was wasting her time. So Hazel disappeared from the campus and was said to have gone back to Texas. "Serves her right, glad she's gone," was the verdict of her colored campus fellows.
The Christmas holidays for Emma Lou were dull and uneventful. The people she lived with were rheumatic and not much given to Yuletide festivities. It didn't seem like Christmas to Emma Lou anyway. There was no snow on the ground, and the sun was shining as brightly and as warmly as it had shone during the late summer and early autumn months. The wild geraniums still flourished, the orange trees were blossoming, and the whole southland seemed to be preparing for the annual New Year's Day Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena.
Emma Lou received a few presents from home, and a Christmas greeting card from Grace Giles. That was all. On Christmas Day she and Grace attended church in the morning, and spent the afternoon at the home of one of Grace's friends. Emma Lou never liked the people to whom Grace introduced her. They were a dull, commonplace lot for the most part, people from Georgia, Grace's former home, untutored people who didn't really matter. Emma Lou borrowed a word from her grandmother and classified them as "fuddlers," because they seemed to fuddle everything their language, their clothes, their attempts at politeness, and their efforts to appear more intelligent than they really were.
The holidays over, Emma Lou returned to school a little reluctantly. She wasn't particularly interested in her studies, but having nothing else to do kept up in them and made high grades. Meanwhile she had been introduced to a number of young men and gone out with them occasionally. They, too, were friends of Grace's and of the same caliber as Grace's other friends. There were no college boys among them except Joe Lane who was flunking out in the School of Dentistry. He did not interest Emma Lou. As it was with Joe, so it was with all the other boys. She invariably picked them to pieces when they took her out, and remained so impassive to their emotional advances that they were soon glad to be on their way and let her be. Emma Lou was determined not to go out of her class, determined either to associate with the "right sort of people" or else to remain to herself.
Had any one asked Emma Lou what she meant by the "right sort of people" she would have found herself at a loss for a comprehensive answer. She really didn't know. She had a vague idea that those people on the campus who practically ignored her were the only people with whom she should associate. These people, for the most part, were children of fairly well-to-do families from Louisiana, Texas, and Georgia, who, having made nest eggs, had journeyed to the West for the same reasons that her grandparents at an earlier date had also journeyed West. They wanted to live where they would have greater freedom and greater opportunity for both their children and themselves. Then, too, the World War had given impetus to this westward movement. There was more industry in the West and thus more chances for money to be made, and more opportunities to invest this money profitably in property and progeny.
The greater number of them were either mulattoes or light brown in color. In their southern homes they had segregated themselves from their darker skinned brethren and they continued this practice in the North. They went to the Episcopal, Presbyterian, or Catholic churches, and though they were not as frankly organized into a blue vein society as were the Negroes of Boise, they nevertheless kept more or less to themselves. They were not insistent that their children get "whiter and whiter, every generation," but they did want to keep their children and grandchildren from having dark complexions. A light brown was the favored color; it was therefore found expedient to exercise caution when it came to mating.
The people who, in Emma Lou's phrase, really mattered, the business men, the doctors, the lawyers, the dentists, the more moneyed pullman porters, hotel waiters, bank janitors, and majordomos, in fact all of the Negro leaders and members of the Negro upper class, were either light skinned themselves or else had light-skinned wives. A wife of dark complexion was considered a handicap unless she was particularly charming, wealthy, or beautiful. An ordinary-looking dark woman was no suitable mate for a Negro man of prominence. The college youths on whom the future of the race depended practiced this precept of their elders religiously. It was not the girls in the school who were prejudiced they had no reason to be, but they knew full well that the boys with whom they wished to associate, their future husbands, would not tolerate a clark girl unless she had, like Verne, many things to compensate for her dark skin. Thus they did not encourage a friendship with some one whom they knew didn't belong. Thus they did not even pledge girls like Grace, Emma Lou, and Hazel into their sorority, for they knew that it would make them the more miserable to attain the threshold only to have the door shut in their faces.
Summer vacation time came and Emma Lou went back to Boise. She was thoroughly discouraged and depressed. She had been led to expect so much pleasure from her first year in college and in Los Angeles; but she had found that the people in large cities were after all no different from people in small cities. Her Uncle Joe had been wrong her mother and grandmother had been right. There was no place in the world for a dark girl.
Being at home depressed her all the more. There was absolutely nothing for her to do nor any place for her to go. For a month or more she just lingered around the house, bored by her mother's constant and difficult attempts to be maternal, and irritated by her Cousin Buddie's freshness. Adolescent boys were such a nuisance. The only bright spot on the horizon was the Sunday School Union picnic schedule to be held during the latter part of July. It was always the crowning social event of the summer season among the colored citizens of Boise. Both the Methodist and Baptist missions cooperated in this affair and had their numbers augmented by all the denominationally unattached members of the community. It was always a gala, democratic affair designed to provide a pleasant day in the out-of-doors. It was, besides the annual dance fostered by the local chapters of the Masons and the Elks, the only big community gathering to which the entire colored population of Boise looked forward.
Picnic day came, and Emma Lou accompanied her mother, her uncle, and her cousin to Bedney's Meadow, a green, heavily forested acre of park land, which lay on the outskirts of the city, surrounded on three sides by verdant foothills. The day went by pleasantly enough. There were the usually heavily laden wooden tables, to which all adjourned in the late afternoon, and there were foot races, games, and canoeing.
Emma Lou took part in all these activities and was surprised to find that she was having a good time. The company was congenial, and she found that since she had gone away to college she had become somewhat of a personage. Every one seemed to be going out of his way to be congenial to her. The blue veins did not rule this affair. They were, in fact, only a minority element, and, for one of the few times of the year, mingled freely and unostentatiously with their lower-caste brethren.
All during the day, Emma Lou found herself paired off with a chap by the name of Weldon Taylor. In the evening they went for a stroll up the precipitous footpaths in the hills which grew up from the meadow. Weldon Taylor was a newcomer in the West trying to earn sufficient money to re-enter an eastern school and finish his medical education. Emma Lou rather liked him. She admired his tall, slender body, the deep burnish of his bronze-colored skin, and his mass of black curly hair. Here, thought Emma Lou, is the type of man I like. Only she did wish that his skin had been colored light brown instead of dark brown. It was better if she was to marry that she did not get a dark skin mate. Her children must not suffer as she had and would suffer.
The two talked of commonplace things as they walked along, comparing notes on their school experiences, and talking of their professors and their courses of study. It was dusk and the sun had disappeared behind the snow capped mountains. The sky was a colorful haze, a master artist's canvas on which the colors of day were slowly being dominated by the colors of night. Weldon drew Emma Lou off the little path they had been following, and led her to a huge boulder which jutted out, elbow like, from the side of a hill, and which was hidden from the meadow below by clumps of bushes. They sat down, his arm slipped around her waist, and, as the darkness of night more and more conquered the evanescent light of day, their lips met, and Emma Lou grew lax in Weldon's arms....
When they finally returned to the picnic grounds all had left save a few stragglers like themselves who had sauntered away from the main party. These made up a laughing, half-embarrassed group, who collected their baskets and reluctantly withdrew from the meadow to begin the long walk back to their homes. Emma Lou and Weldon soon managed to fall at the end of the procession, walking along slowly, his arm around her waist. Emma Lou felt an ecstasy surging through her at this moment greater than she had ever known before. This had been her first intimate sexual contact, her first awareness of the physical and emotional pleasures able to be enjoyed by two human beings, a woman and a man. She felt some magnetic force drawing her to this man walking by her side, which made her long to feel the pleasure of his body against hers, made her want to know once more the pleasure which had attended the union of their lips, the touching of their tongues. It was with a great effort that she walked along apparently calm, for inside she was seething. Her body had become a kennel for clashing, screaming compelling urges and desires. She loved this man. She had submitted herself to him, had gladly suffered momentary physical pain in order to be introduced into a new and incomparably satisfying paradise.
Not for one moment did Emma Lou consider regretting the loss of her virtue, not once did any of her mother's and grandmother's warnings and solicitations revive themselves and cause her conscience to plague her. She had finally found herself a mate; she had finally come to know the man she should love, some inescapable force had drawn them together, had made them feel from the first moment of their introduction that they belonged to one another, and that they were destined to explore nature's mysteries together. Life was not so cruel after all. There were some compensatory moments. Emma Lou believed that at last she had found happiness, that at last she had found her man.
Of course, she wasn't going back to school. She was going to stay in Boise, marry Weldon, and work with him until they should have sufficient money to go East, where he could re-enter medical school, and she could keep a home for him and spur him on. A glorious panorama of the future unrolled itself in her mind. There were no black spots in it, no shadows, nothing but luminous landscapes, ethereal in substance.
It was the way of Emma Lou always to create her worlds within her own mind without taking under consideration the fact that other people and other elements, not contained within herself, would also have to aid in their molding. She had lived to herself for so long, had been shut out from the stream of things in which she was interested for such a long period during the formative years of her life, that she considered her own imaginative powers omniscient. Thus she constructed a future world of love on one isolated experience, never thinking for the moment that the other party concerned might not be of the same mind. She had been lifted into a superlatively perfect emotional and physical state. It was unthinkable, incongruous, that Weldon, too, had not been similarly lifted. He had for the moment shared her ecstasy; therefore, according to Emma Lou's line of reasoning, he would as effectively share what she imagined would be the fruits of that ecstatic moment.
The next two weeks passed quickly and happily. Weldon called on her almost every night, took her for long walks, and thrilled her with his presence and his love making. Never before in her life had Emma Lou been so happy. She forgot all the sad past. Forgot what she had hitherto considered the tragedy of her birth, forgot the social isolation of her childhood and of her college days. What did being black, what did the antagonistic mental attitudes of the people who really mattered mean when she was in love? Her mother and her Uncle Joe were so amazed at the change in her that they became afraid, sensed danger, and began to be on the lookout for some untoward development; for hitherto Emma Lou had always been sullen and morose and impertinent to all around the house. She had always been the anti-social creature they had caused her to feel she was, and since she was made to feel that she was a misfit, she had encroached upon their family life and sociabilities only to the extent that being in the house made necessary. But now she was changed she had become a vibrant, joyful being. There was always a smile on her face, always a note of joy in her voice as she spoke or sang. She even made herself agreeable to her Cousin Buddie, who in the past she had either ignored or else barely tolerated.
"She must be in love, Joe," her mother half whined.
"That's good," he answered laconically. "It probably won't last long. It will serve to take her mind off herself."
"But suppose she gets foolish?" Jane had insisted, remembering no doubt her own foolishness, during a like period of her own life, with Emma Lou's father.
"She'll take care of herself," Joe had returned with an assurance he did not feel. He, too, was worried, but he was also pleased at the change in Emma Lou. His only fear was that perhaps in the end she would make herself more miserable than she had ever been before. He did not know much about this Weldon fellow, who seemed to be a reliable enough chap, but no one had any way of discerning whether or not his intentions were entirely honorable. It was best, thought Joe, not to worry about such things. If, for the present, Emma Lou was more happy than she had ever been before, there would be time enough to worry about the future when its problems materialized.
"Don't you worry about Emma Lou. She's got sense."
"But, Joe, suppose she does forget herself with this man? He is studying to be a doctor and he may not want a wife, especially when...."
"Damnit, Jane!" her brother snapped at her. "Do you think every one is like you? The boy seems to like her."
"Men like any one they can use, but you know as well as I that no professional man is going to marry a woman dark as Emma Lou."
"Men marry any one they love, just as you and I did."
"But I was foolish."
"That's right Be unconcerned. That's right Let her go to the devil. There's no hope for her anyway. Oh why why did I marry Jim Morgan?" and she had gone into the usual crying fit which inevitably followed this self-put question.
Then, without any warning, as if to put an end to all problems, Weldon decided to become a Pullman porter. He explained to Emma Lou that he could make more money on the railroad than he could as a hotel waiter in Boise. It was necessary for his future that he make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. Emma Lou saw the logic of this and agreed that it was the best possible scheme, until she realized that it meant his going away from Boise, perhaps forever. Oakland, California, was to be his headquarters, and he, being a new man, would not have a regular run. It was possible that he might be sent to different sections of the country each and every time he made a trip. There was no way of his knowing before he reported for duty just where he might be sent. It might be Boise or Palm Beach or Albany or New Orleans. One never knew. That was the life of the road, and one had to accept it in order to make money.
It made Emma Lou shiver to hear him talk so dispassionately about the matter. There didn't seem to be the least note of regret in his voice, the least suggestion that he hated to leave her or that he would miss her, and, for the first time since the night of their physical union, Emma Lou began to realize that perhaps after all he did not feel toward her as she did toward him. He couldn't possibly love her as much as she loved him, and, at the same time, remain so unconcerned about having to part from her. There was something radically wrong here, something conclusive and unexpected which was going to hurt her, going to plunge her back into unhappiness once more. Then she realized that not once had he ever spoken of marriage or even hinted that their relationship would continue indefinitely. He had said that he loved her, he had treated her kindly, and had seemed as thrilled as she over their physical contacts. But now it seemed that since he was no longer going to be near her, no longer going to need her body, he had forgotten that he loved her. It was then that all the old preachments of her mother and grandmother were resurrected and began to swirl through her mind. Hadn't she been warned that men didn't marry black girls? Hadn't she been told that they would only use her for their sexual convenience? That was the case with Weldon! He had taken up with her only because he was a stranger in the town and lonesome for a companion, and she, like a damn fool had submitted herself to him! And now that he was about to better his condition, about to go some place where he would have a wider circle of acquaintances, she was to be discarded and forgotten.
Thus Emma Lou reasoned to herself and grew bitter. It never occurred to her that the matter of her color had never once entered the mind of Weldon. Not once did she consider that he was acting toward her as he would have acted toward any girl under similar circumstances, whether her face had been white, yellow, brown, or black. Emma Lou did not understand that Weldon was just a selfish normal man and not a color-prejudiced one, at least not while he was resident in a community where the girls were few, and there were none of his college friends about to tease him for liking "dark meat." She did not know that for over a year he had been traveling about from town to town, always seeking a place where money was more plentiful and more easily saved, and that in every town he had managed to find a girl, or girls, who made it possible for him to continue his grind without being totally deprived of pleasurable moments. To Emma Lou there could only be one reason for his not having loved her as she had loved him. She was a black girl and no professional man could afford to present such a wife in the best society. It was the tragic feature of her life once more asserting itself. There could be no happiness in life for any woman whose face was as black as hers.
Believing this more intensely than ever before Emma Lou yet felt that she must manage in some way to escape both home and school. That she must find happiness somewhere else. The idea her Uncle Joe had given her about the provinciality of people in small towns re-entered her mind. After all Los Angeles, too, was a small-town mentally, peopled by mentally small southern Negroes. It was no better than Boise. She was now determined to go East where life was more cosmopolitan and people were more civilized. To this end she begged her mother and uncle to send her East to school.
"Can't you ever be satisfied?"
"Now Jane," Joe as usual was trying to keep the peace
"Now Jane, nothing! I never saw such an ungrateful child."
"I'm not ungrateful. I'm just unhappy. I don't like that school. I don't want to go there any more."
"Well, you'll either go there or else stay home." Thus Jane ended the discussion and could not be persuaded to re-open it.
And rather than remain home Emma Lou returned to Los Angeles and spent another long miserable, uneventful year in the University of Southern California, drawing more and more within herself and becoming more and more bitter. When vacation time came again she got herself a job as maid in a theater, rather than return home, and studied stenography during her spare hours. School began again and Emma Lou re-entered with more determination than ever to escape should the chance present itself. It did, and once more Emma Lou fled into an unknown town to escape the haunting chimera of intra-racial color prejudice.
Copyright © 1929 by the Macaulay Company
Introduction copyright © 1996 by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip