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In early spring of his freshman year, he made his first real acquaintance of someone of color. Sahaptin was lily white in almost all of its aspects, but the University was lightly integrated. Angie Mason had a deep ebony complexion and a rosy aspect. She fascinated him – first by means of a speech she gave during her campaign for the Board of Control, and later by the earthiness of her stories and personality after he’d gotten to know her at the daily coffee klatch they both regularly attended. Angie was a rarity at the University; a Negro from the deep South – a region as strange to Derek as Oz was to Dorothy. He angled to sit next to Angie whenever he could because he enjoyed their conversations.

On the morning before spring quarter finals began, Angie was the only other person at their regular table in the basement of the Student Union Building when he sat down. “Good Morning, Angie. Where is everyone?”

“Probably studying. Why aren’t you?”

“I’m maxed out. I always get to this point and relax the day before the fun begins. I find it keeps the mind sharper than grinding on. Lets me reflect on what I think I know.”

“What you think you know?”

“Sure! I’m about to find out, aren’t I?”

She laughed. “I guess so. You sound ready, at least. I think I am too, and I share your philosophy of backing down the tension before exams begin.”

He decided to take the opportunity to ask Angie something he’d wanted to ask for a long time but hadn’t known how to raise in a crowd. “Angie, can I ask you a question about growing up in the South?”

“Sure, if you don’t get too personal.”

“Well, I don’t mean to be personal, but I suppose the nature of the question makes it that way.”

“Go ahead,” she said, her eyes taking him in behind half-closed lids.

“Is it really as bad as the newspapers say?”

She stared at him with an intensity he found troubling. “Why do you ask?”

He took his time answering and drew a deep breath. “I grew up in Sahaptin, a place I assume you’ve never been.” Angie nodded, her stare unyielding. “Sahaptinites are overwhelmingly white. So nobody picked on anyone else because of color, although they picked on people for other reasons. And the way they picked on you was by keeping you in a place they chose and refusing to accept you as someone you’d rather be – not by violence.” He searched for a way to finish to his train of thought. “Certainly not by murder, arson, rape, or lynchings. I just don’t understand why anyone would do those things. It’s hard to believe that’s the way things are in the South.” He breathed, looked up, and asked, “So I’d like to know if your life in the South was really that bad, that evil.”

Angie relaxed somewhere in the middle of his speech when she realized he wasn’t a bigot in a cardigan. “All right, but let’s fix our terms first, OK? “Pick on?” That’s hardly the right term to describe unrelenting, purposeful discrimination against an entire people. “Refusing to accept them?” That’s hardly the right phrase for keeping us down by stepping on us literally and figuratively, by murdering us in so many different ways. Have you ever been to the South?”

“I’ve never been anywhere but Sahaptin and here.”

“Son, you have much to learn and Angie will be your guide. The press does have it wrong, but only because they never tell it as bad as it really is.” She dropped her smile. “By any chance, have you read Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley?” Derek shook his head. “Too bad. Read it someday, especially the last section. He’ll give you a taste of what it’s like for northern white males to visit the South for the first time.”

“You make us sound like a species of rare bird.”

“Where I come from, you are.”

“Where’s that?”

“Tuskegee, Alabama. I was born there in 1944, and never left until I came here.” She grinned. “So we do have something in common.”

“I’m willing to bet that’s about all.”

“It’s hard to know where to begin. All the local elected officials are white, and Macon County, where Tuskegee is located, has many more Negroes than whites. All of those officials believe Negroes are inferior.” She thought for a moment, then added, “No, it’s worse than that. All whites – every last one of them, whether rich or poor – believe we’re inferior. For that matter, some of us think so too, if it suits our pocketbooks. And those of us who do are just as eager to keep the rest of us down as any white man.”

“Why do they cooperate if it isn’t in their interest?”

“How many people do you know that think beyond next week?”

“I’ll give you that, but still … supporting a system that degrades your own people? Don’t they have any instinct for survival?”

“Of course they do, but in Tuskegee survival is a day-to-day struggle for a Negro. Cooperation is survival for some. If we aren’t careful, they bring on the really bad stuff.”

“Like what?”

“There are all kinds of violence. There’s the daily bullying of being called nigger and having to use separate bathrooms and sit in the back of the bus. And then there’s the truly bad stuff you read about in your northern papers: lynchings, rapes, arsons, and murders. All of it’s designed to keep us on the bottom.” She watched his face for a long moment, then, “Do you see it yet?”

“See what?”

“The grand strategy. Our everyday lives are mostly peaceful in the sense that we aren’t being constantly raped and murdered. But the promise of violence is always present. It’s part of the atmosphere we breathe. Every time they think we’re out of line, they begin hinting and smirking to remind us of what they’re capable of. There’s no one to stop them or to punish them after an act of physical violence, and they delight in reminding us of that. That’s how they keep us down – by unrelenting daily humiliation and intimidation, backed not only by the promise of violence, but by the real thing whenever it suits them.”

“You make it sound as if it’s all planned.”

“It is, but not in the sense of an annual planning session, if that’s what you mean. Intimidation in all of its forms is the cultural underpinning of the South. They hold all the power and feel the need to remind us of that fact on a daily basis. And if the local whites can’t do it all by themselves, they’re free to call upon the state or the federal government for assistance.” She sat back, “That’s how it all works.”

“I thought the feds were on your side, at least.”

“We’re not talking Washington DC here. Most federal officials in Alabama are from Alabama, and all of them are white, too. They were raised in prejudice and steeped in bullying. Washington doesn’t see everything they do and doesn’t try very hard.”

“So if there are more Negroes than whites, why not do something about it?”

Angie considered him a moment. “Ever seen a body hanging from a tree?”

“God, no!”

“Well, I have. A Negro of course. There aren’t any other kind. They leave the bodies for their families to take down the next day. Meanwhile, they just hang there for the rest of us to look at. You like music. You should listen to Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit sometime if you want to know how bad it is.”

“I know a lot of songs, but not that one.”

Suddenly, Angie began to sing in a passable, quiet, almost sultry low voice aimed only at him, transporting him once again to Brett’s basement as if they were dancing together with an intimacy and frisson that his first visit there had lacked:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

He was silent for several minutes, processing the image. “For the love of god,” was all he could think of to say.

“Powerful image, isn’t it? And such a pretty tune, too. But there’s nothing pretty about the real thing.”

She considered her next words. “And it doesn’t take much for one of us to get lynched. A grin or a look at the wrong time; failure to make way on the sidewalk for some white person. And we’re never sure when the wrong time is. Not up to us to decide.”

“Who does?”

“They do.”

“They?”

“Whites. And it’s not just the Klan, either. They’re all in on it, even the ones who act the nicest. Lynch mobs come out at night after some white person complains to a neighbor that one of us was uppity somehow.”

“Why don’t the police do something about the lynchings. They’re supposed to catch murderers.”

“Don’t be stupid! In most places the guys who did it brag on it, so there’s not much doubt who did it. But the police only go through the motions, and many times the guys wearing the hoods are police.” She emphasized the first syllable of “police”. “A murder or rape now and then keeps us in our place, so the police never try very hard to solve them. They’d have to arrest somebody, if they did. The police are a central piece of the system that keeps us down. The rules don’t allow for convictions.”

“Rules?”

“The ones we and they are forced to live by: the ones that have been in place ever since the first Negro was brought to the South as a slave; and the new ones thrown at us whenever circumstances change. The ones that keep us in the place they’ve chosen for us.”

“Sounds like Nazi Germany.”

“Does, doesn’t it? Read Steinbeck’s story about giving a lift to a poor Negro sharecropper, only to have the sharecropper get out and walk rather than answer questions about his life in the South – but only after first begging Steinbeck’s permission to get out of his truck.”

“Why did he beg?”

“Steinbeck’s white.”

Derek’s arms sprouted goose pimples. “He must have been really scared to think he had to beg.”

“Scared? That’s when someone jumps out of the night at you on Halloween. It isn’t terror either; that’s what happened when Orson Wells broadcast The War of the Worlds for the first time.” She leaned across the table. “We exist down South in a state of utter exhaustion. We live in darkened catacombs with no exits, watched over by white overlords who make it their life’s work to see that we run its paths in obedience to their caprice. You don’t dare be scared. If you are, you’ll make a really bad mistake, so you’re as cautious as can be all the time.” She sat back, adding in a quieter voice, “Caution springs from the fear of risk, and living in constant fear feels like being ground down ever so slowly by an emery stick. You’re always hoping they’ll pay attention to somebody else, so you won’t get caught – even when you’re not doing anything.” She stopped, looking bewildered by her own words.

“Jesus Christ!”

“At times He’s not much help either. Sometimes they get mad just because we have good times at church, so they burn them down with us in them.”

“You haven’t seen a church burning, have you?”

“No, but I saw a burned-out church once when my family went to a neighboring county to help rebuild. Nobody had been inside. The Klan said it was just a friendly warning.” Angie spat out the word “friendly.”

“I don’t know what to say! Makes my treatment in Sahaptin look pretty good.”

“That’s not all.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look around and tell me what you see.”

The cafeteria was now full of students seeking as much temporary relaxation as they could find. “A lot of people stressing out.”

“How many of them look like me?”

He scanned the room, then pointed. “A couple. Over there in the corner.”

“Not hard to spot, are we?”

He jerked upright. “And I just blend in?”

“Exactly! You changed your spots. I can’t.”

He shook his head. “Why didn’t I realize something that obvious?”

“Because we’re generally invisible despite our color – even in Seattle, although much less so than in Tuskegee. We’re only visible when one of you white guys wants to see us. Southern culture expects us to be invisible and we cooperate by trying not to draw anyone’s attention. The tension between the invisibility necessary for our survival and the fact of our humanity is what gets to us most. We either handle it by being docile, which leaves us feeling subhuman, or with anger, which brings out the worst in us if it isn’t channeled toward some good purpose. Either way, self-doubt sets in. And after awhile we need help to rekindle the flames that make you human – if we can find the energy to try. Some never do.”

~

An hour later, coffee cold and mentally exhausted, he felt newly born. “Geez Angie, I had no idea,” was his lame summation.

She inspected him and saw a change. “Not a nice picture to carry around, is it?”

“That’s putting it mildly. How do you live with it? For me, it’s just a story; for you, it’s reality. That must be hard – brutal even.”

“Took me awhile, but I put it down and got out. Just as I suspect you’re doing with respect to Sahaptin, even if Sahaptin isn’t so evil.”

“No one beat me, but they certainly tried to make me into something I don’t want to be, something they thought I deserved to be simply because of how I was born.” He stopped and looked at Angie, then added, “You must have something good and strong inside you to sit here and let a hick from eastern Washington ask you questions and then answer them even though they remind you of things you’d much rather forget. I apologize. I hope you don’t think I’m something that should be scraped off the sole of your shoe.”

She laughed. “No apology needed. I wish more would ask – well, maybe not right now as I’ve had more than enough of that for today.” She looked him in the eye. “You’re not a hick. The path to truth lies through hard questions, and you had the guts to ask. Makes you my friend.”

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Stephen Ellis is the author of Fortunate Son, a novel of Sahaptin Valley
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