A White Man’s “Nigger”

Carteret fished from the depths of the wastebasket and handed to the general an eighteen by twenty-four sheet, poorly printed on cheap paper, with a “patent” inside, a number of advertisements of proprietary medicines, quack doctors, and fortune-tellers, and two or three columns of editorial and local news. Candor compels the admission that it was not an impressive sheet in any respect, except when regarded as the first local effort of a struggling people to make public expression of their life and aspirations. From this point of view it did not speak at all badly for a class to whom, a generation before, newspapers, books, and learning had been forbidden fruit.

“It’s an elegant specimen of journalism, isn’t it?” laughed the general, airily. “Listen to this ’ad’:⁠—

“ ‘Kinky, curly hair made straight by one application of our specific. Our face bleach will turn the skin of a black or brown person four or five shades lighter, and of a mulatto perfectly white. When you get the color you wish, stop using the preparation.’

“Just look at those heads!⁠—‘Before using’ and ‘After using.’ We’d better hurry, or there’ll be no negroes to disfranchise! If they don’t stop till they get the color they desire, and the stuff works according to contract, they’ll all be white. Ah! what have we here? This looks as though it might be serious.” Opening the sheet the general read aloud an editorial article, to which Carteret listened intently, his indignation increasing in strength from the first word to the last, while McBane’s face grew darkly purple with anger.

The article was a frank and somewhat bold discussion of lynching and its causes. It denied that most lynchings were for the offense most generally charged as their justification, and declared that, even of those seemingly traced to this cause, many were not for crimes at all, but for voluntary acts which might naturally be expected to follow from the miscegenation laws by which it was sought, in all the Southern States, to destroy liberty of contract, and, for the purpose of maintaining a fanciful purity of race, to make crimes of marriages to which neither nature nor religion nor the laws of other states interposed any insurmountable barrier. Such an article in a Northern newspaper would have attracted no special attention, and might merely have furnished food to an occasional reader for serious thought upon a subject not exactly agreeable; but coming from a colored man, in a Southern city, it was an indictment of the laws and social system of the South that could not fail of creating a profound sensation.

“Infamous⁠—infamous!” exclaimed Carteret, his voice trembling with emotion. “The paper should be suppressed immediately.”

“The impudent nigger ought to be horsewhipped and run out of town,” growled McBane.

“Gentlemen,” said the general soothingly, after the first burst of indignation had subsided, “I believe we can find a more effective use for this article, which, by the way, will not bear too close analysis⁠—there’s some truth in it, at least there’s an argument.”

“That is not the point,” interrupted Carteret.

“No,” interjected McBane with an oath, “that ain’t at all the point. Truth or not, no damn nigger has any right to say it.”

“This article,” said Carteret, “violates an unwritten law of the South. If we are to tolerate this race of weaklings among us, until they are eliminated by the stress of competition, it must be upon terms which we lay down. One of our conditions is violated by this article, in which our wisdom is assailed, and our women made the subject of offensive comment. We must make known our disapproval.”

“I say lynch the nigger, break up the press, and burn down the newspaper office,” McBane responded promptly.

“Gentlemen,” interposed the general, “would you mind suspending the discussion for a moment, while I mind Jerry across the street? I think I can then suggest a better plan.”

Carteret rang the bell for Jerry, who answered promptly. He had been expecting such a call ever since the gentlemen had gone in.

“Jerry,” said the general, “step across to Brown’s and tell him to send me three Calhoun cocktails. Wait for them⁠—here’s the money.”

“Yas, suh,” replied Jerry, taking the proffered coin.

“And make has’e, charcoal,” added McBane, “for we’re gettin’ damn dry.”

A momentary cloud of annoyance darkened Carteret’s brow. McBane had always grated upon his aristocratic susceptibilities. The captain was an upstart, a product of the democratic idea operating upon the poor white man, the descendant of the indentured bondservant and the socially unfit. He had wealth and energy, however, and it was necessary to make use of him; but the example of such men was a strong incentive to Carteret in his campaign against the negro. It was distasteful enough to rub elbows with an illiterate and vulgar white man of no ancestry⁠—the risk of similar contact with negroes was to be avoided at any cost. He could hardly expect McBane to be a gentleman, but when among men of that class he might at least try to imitate their manners. A gentleman did not order his own servants around offensively, to say nothing of another’s.

The general had observed Carteret’s annoyance, and remarked pleasantly while they waited for the servant’s return:⁠—

“Jerry, now, is a very good negro. He’s not one of your new negroes, who think themselves as good as white men, and want to run the government. Jerry knows his place⁠—he is respectful, humble, obedient, and content with the face and place assigned to him by nature.”

“Yes, he’s one of the best of ’em,” sneered McBane. “He’ll call any man ‘master’ for a quarter, or ‘God’ for half a dollar; for a dollar he’ll grovel at your feet, and for a cast-off coat you can buy an option on his immortal soul⁠—if he has one! I’ve handled niggers for ten years, and I know ’em from the ground up. They’re all alike⁠—they’re a scrub race, an affliction to the country, and the quicker we’re rid of ’em all the better.”

Carteret had nothing to say by way of dissent. McBane’s sentiments, in their last analysis, were much the same as his, though he would have expressed them less brutally. “The negro,” observed the general, daintily flicking the ash from his cigar, “is all right in his place and very useful to the community. We lived on his labor for quite a long time, and lived very well. Nevertheless we are better off without slavery, for we can get more out of the free negro, and with less responsibility. I really do not see how we could get along without the negroes. If they were all like Jerry, we’d have no trouble with them.”

Having procured the drinks, Jerry, the momentary subject of the race discussion which goes on eternally in the South, was making his way back across the street, somewhat disturbed in mind.

“O Lawd!” he groaned, “I never troubles trouble till trouble troubles me; but w’en I got dem drinks befo’, Gin’l Belmont gimme half a dollar an’ tol’ me ter keep de change. Dis time he didn’ say nothin’ ’bout de change. I s’pose he jes’ fergot erbout it, but w’at is a po’ nigger gwine ter do w’en he has ter conten’ wid w’ite folks’s fergitfulniss? I don’ see no way but ter do some fergittin’ myse’f. I’ll jes’ stan’ outside de do’ here till dey gits so wrop’ up in deir talk dat dey won’ ’member nothin’ e’se, an’ den at de right minute I’ll ban’ de glasses ’roun, an’ moa’ lackly de gin’l ’ll fergit all ’bout de change.”

While Jerry stood outside, the conversation within was plainly audible, and some inkling of its purport filtered through his mind.

“Now, gentlemen,” the general was saying, “here’s my plan. That editorial in the negro newspaper is good campaign matter, but we should reserve it until it will be most effective. Suppose we just stick it in a pigeonhole, and let the editor⁠—what’s his name?”

“The nigger’s name is Barber,” replied McBane. “I’d like to have him under me for a month or two; he’d write no more editorials.”

“Let Barber have all the rope he wants,” resumed the general, “and he’ll be sure to hang himself. In the meantime we will continue to work up public opinion⁠—we can use this letter privately for that purpose⁠—and when the state campaign opens we’ll print the editorial, with suitable comment, scatter it broadcast throughout the state, fire the Southern heart, organize the white people on the color line, have a little demonstration with red shirts and shotguns, scare the negroes into fits, win the state for white supremacy, and teach our colored fellow citizens that we are tired of negro domination and have put an end to it forever. The Afro-American Banner will doubtless die about the same time.”

“And so will the editor!” exclaimed McBane ferociously; “I’ll see to that. But I wonder where that nigger is with them cocktails? I’m so thirsty I could swallow blue blazes.”

“Here’s yo’ drinks, gin’l,” announced Jerry, entering with the glasses on a tray.

The gentlemen exchanged compliments and imbibed⁠—McBane at a gulp, Carteret with more deliberation, leaving about half the contents of his glass.

The general drank slowly, with every sign of appreciation. “If the illustrious statesman,” he observed, “whose name this mixture bears, had done nothing more than invent it, his fame would still deserve to go thundering down the endless ages.”

“It ain’t bad liquor,” assented McBane, smacking his lips.

Jerry received the empty glasses on the tray and left the room. He had scarcely gained the hall when the general called him back.

“O Lawd!” groaned Jerry, “he’s gwine ter ax me fer de change. Yas, suh, yas, suh; comin’, gin’l, comin’, suh!”

“You may keep the change, Jerry,” said the general.

Jerry’s face grew radiant at this announcement. “Yas, suh, gin’l; thank y’, suh; much obleedzed, suh. I wuz jus’ gwine ter fetch it in, suh, w’en I had put de tray down. Thank y’, suh, truly, suh!”

Jerry backed and bowed himself out into the hall.

“Dat wuz a close shave,” he muttered, as he swallowed the remaining contents of Major Carteret’s glass. “I ’lowed dem twenty cents wuz gone dat time⁠—an’ whar I wuz gwine ter git de money ter take my gal ter de chu’ch festibal ter-night, de Lawd only knows!⁠—‘less’n I borried it offn Mr. Ellis, an’ I owes him sixty cents a’ready. But I wonduh w’at dem w’ite folks in dere is up ter? Dere’s one thing sho’⁠—dey’re gwine ter git after de niggers some way er ’nuther, an’ w’en dey does, whar is Jerry gwine ter be? Dat’s de mos’ impo’tantes’ question. I’m gwine ter look at dat newspaper dey be’n talkin’ ’bout, an’ ’less’n my min’ changes might’ly, I’m gwine ter keep my mouf shet an’ stan’ in wid de Angry-Saxon race⁠—ez dey calls deyse’ves nowadays⁠—an’ keep on de right side er my bread an’ meat. Wat nigger ever give me twenty cents in all my bawn days?”

“By the way, major,” said the general, who lingered behind McBane as they were leaving, “is Miss Clara’s marriage definitely settled upon?”

“Well, general, not exactly; but it’s the understanding that they will marry when they are old enough.”

“I was merely thinking,” the general went on, “that if I were you I’d speak to Tom about cards and liquor. He gives more time to both than a young man can afford. I’m speaking in his interest and in Miss Clara’s⁠—we of the old families ought to stand together.”

“Thank you, general, for the hint. I’ll act upon it.”

This political conference was fruitful in results. Acting upon the plans there laid out, McBane traveled extensively through the state, working up sentiment in favor of the new movement. He possessed a certain forceful eloquence; and white supremacy was so obviously the divine intention that he had merely to affirm the doctrine in order to secure adherents.

General Belmont, whose business required him to spend much of the winter in Washington and New York, lost no opportunity to get the ear of lawmakers, editors, and other leaders of national opinion, and to impress upon them, with persuasive eloquence, the impossibility of maintaining existing conditions, and the tremendous blunder which had been made in conferring the franchise upon the emancipated race.

Carteret conducted the press campaign, and held out to the Republicans of the North the glittering hope that, with the elimination of the negro vote, and a proper deference to Southern feeling, a strong white Republican party might be built up in the New South. How well the bait took is a matter of history⁠—but the promised result is still in the future. The disfranchisement of the negro has merely changed the form of the same old problem. The negro had no vote before the rebellion, and few other rights, and yet the negro question was, for a century, the pivot of American politics. It plunged the nation into a bloody war, and it will trouble the American government and the American conscience until a sustained attempt is made to settle it upon principles of justice and equity.

The personal ambitions entertained by the leaders of this movement are but slightly involved in this story. McBane’s aims have been touched upon elsewhere. The general would have accepted the nomination for governor of the state, with a vision of a senatorship in the future. Carteret hoped to vindicate the supremacy of his race, and make the state fit for his son to live in, and, incidentally, he would not refuse any office, worthy of his dignity, which a grateful people might thrust upon him.

So powerful a combination of bigot, self-seeking demagogue, and astute politician was fraught with grave menace to the peace of the state and the liberties of the people⁠—by which is meant the whole people, and not any one class, sought to be built up at the expense of another.