Native Daughter: An Indictment of White America by a Colored Woman

From the April 12, 1940, Issue
This story is included in these collections

As a Negro, I have been greatly pleased to note the haste with which the literary world has acclaimed Richard Wright, author of the book Native Son, as the greatest writer of his race. I rejoice not only because, like Richard Wright, I am a Negro, but because I am also familiar with the obstacles that confront young Negro writers. Even in the literary world, there are those who find it hard to visualize a black Bernard Shaw or a Louisa Alcott with kinky hair. For us, therefore, Richard Wright's triumph is signal.

However it is not Richard Wright’s laurels that concern me so greatly. It is rather that in Catholic circles many have lamented the fact that the Negro writer who has arisen as the spokesman for his race should be a communist.

When Mr. Wright addressed a group of book lovers at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library on Thursday, March 7, I have been told that the young writer said he was a God-fearing communist. Be that as it may—if the young man said it, it only stresses his conversion to communism. I confess, by the way, that this is my first inkling that the communists included God in their ideology. I had also believed that these people feared Stalin only.

Yet as an American Mr. Wright is entitled to his own political and religious beliefs. And we must accept, even if regretfully, the fact that Richard Wright, acclaimed America's most powerful Negro writer, is a communist.

But Richard Wright was not born a communist. Existing social, economic and political conditions have made him so. I also doubt, very much, that Mr. Wright was taught to fear God by his communist mentors. We learned about Him long before the communists discovered us. And it is this inherent belief in God only that has kept all of us from turning to the isms that accept us as men and women despite our black skins.

There may be Catholics who will not read Native Son because its author is a communist. But, did you ever stop to think that Catholics may be among those who are responsible for some of the conditions that have led Richard Wright and scores of others into the ranks of the reds?
The time has come for Christian America to shed its coat of hypocrisy and admit its sin. Even today, years later, I sicken as I remember the manner in which the Negro's lack of human rights was etched upon my memory. It was soon after I had returned to Alabama from a school conducted by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. While well aware of the fact that I was a Negro, being colored did not seem strange, for so were my friends. True, I knew white people, but they were the nice white people whom my parents served. From them we received nickels, toys and many useful gifts. The atmosphere in our home was such that it gave no hint of the bitterness that corrodes so many black breasts.

There was the time, I'll admit, when I heard talk of a race riot. But being a dramatic child who welcomed any new excitement, I was intrigued by the hushed whispers and drawn shades. Being too young to understand the consequences, I was really disappointed when the scheduled riot failed to take place.

A Ku Klux Klan parade had been another one of the highlights of my childhood. How well I remember my mother taking me from bed in the middle of the night and carrying me in to the parlor. Father, in an old-fashioned nightshirt, with his fists clenched, was standing at a front window. On a couch sat the old woman who nursed my little sister, praying as she clutched the tiny baby to her breast. Outside there was the clatter of horses' hooves. As the light from a fiery cross, held high by white-robed men on horseback, flashed its warning of destruction to all Catholics, Jews and Negroes, I saw my father open the drawer of a nearby table. The reflection of the light glistened on the steel of a pearl handled revolver. My mother tightened her hold upon my arm. But, childlike, I broke away and pressed my nose against the window pane—the better to see the men in white robes who rode fine horses and carried fiery crosses.

As the last clop-clop died in the distance, there was a dreadful silence. My mother shook the old nurse. "Davie," she said, "you can stop praying now.  They've passed us by."

My Education

Time passed and there followed years under the watchful eyes of white Sisters. I returned to my parents a young lady. Ready to take my place in the world, the Sisters had said. And on that memorable night, when the plight of my race was so clearly explained, one of the neighborhood boys had borrowed a car and called to take me to my first party.

Now the business section of our town had spread until it fringed our neighborhood.  This had caused most of our friends to move to other sections of the city. The people who had moved into the houses they left vacant were unknown to us and, on the whole, a pretty motley lot. Even Aunt Lizzie, who had lived in the next house as long as I could remember, had moved to "the hill." And not only did we have a new next-door neighbor, but my mother said she feared they were "a wild bunch."

So on this particular night as I prepared to sally forth to my first party, I was not wholly surprised to see a car, occupied by two white officers of the law, drive alongside an automobile that was parked in front of the next house. But I was anxious to be on my way and called to my escort to come along.

"Wait!" my mother fairly hissed.

And having the sort of mother who meant what she said, I waited.

"Get out of that car!" I heard one of the police call to the two young Negroes who were sitting in the parked auto.

"And get out with your hands in the air!" the other officer instructed, as he leaped from his car with drawn gun.

"You boys got corn [whiskey] in this car, and we're gonna find it tonight!" said Officer No. 1.

"Well," asked the second officer, "what you standing there like two dummies for? You have got whiskey, haven't you?"

"No, Sir!" the Negroes cried in unison, their arms stretched heavenward.

"Well, we'll see!" and the policemen began searching the car.

As we watched from the porch, it seemed to me that they were making that car into a swell job for some junk dealer. Cushions were thrown in the street. Tools were scattered about, and boards ripped from the floor. But this was all in vain, for the zealous officers found nothing that bore evidence of any violation of the law.

"Well," one of them admitted, as he pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his brow, "we didn't get you tonight, but we'll catch you soon!"

The sight of the white men working so hard—and in vain—must have amused the smaller of the two Negroes (they called him "Shorty"), for he giggled.

"So it tickles you, eh?" said one of the officers. "Well, laugh this off!"

There was a succession of thuds, as the butt of the officer's service revolver cracked against the little Negro's skull again and again. Finally, his form lay crumpled on the asphalt street, as his friend stood helplessly by his black hands high above his head.

"I reckon this'll teach you not to be so smart next time," laughed the other fiend who wore a policeman's badge, as he walked over to the Negro's prostrate form and began kicking him. His laughter only increased as the Negro feebly groaned.

To me, it had all seemed like a page from some terrible story book. But that Negro's groan struck a note of reality.

"Why you dirty dog!" I screamed, "you're kicking a man who's flat on his back!"

Quickly a hand was clasped over my mouth. "You little simpleton,” my mother muttered, "don't you know that they can do the same thing to you, and I can't do a thing about it?"

In that moment, I fell heir to my heritage. I understood the whispers about the race riot. Again, I saw white robed figures and heard the clatter of horses' hooves, as an old Negro woman prayed and clutched a tiny baby to her breast. I understood why my father could not look me in the eye after the Ku Klux had passed by.

And, if that Negro who was kicked, at the point of a gun, as he lay flat on his back, is today a member of any organization pledged to overthrow the brand of order that allows such atrocities—who is to blame?

It is readily admitted that Shorty was no civic leader. I doubt if he was affiliated with any movement dedicated to human betterment. Yet he was a young man and might have been any number of things. Out of this same town came the Negro who, I am told, is the vice-president of the Communist Party in America. That is another example of the effect that unwarranted brutality has had upon many Negroes.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Most of us are familiar with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the wonderful and constructive work it has done. We black folk enjoy many privileges that might not be ours if there had not been such an organization as the NAACP. Right now, however, I am thinking of one of the cases in which the NAACP was helpless; there is no organization under the sun that has the power to breathe life into the dead. And that is the only solution that would have satisfied those of us who loved Edna D—.

Edna came to our home from a nearby school. The City Federation of Colored Women's Clubs had been contributing to the support and educational expenses of Edna and her sister, Nobie. Neither of these girls was particularly interested in an education.  As they were orphans, Edna felt she had been dependent upon others too long and left the institution. Nobie, who had lost both arms during early childhood, realized her handicap and remained at the school.

In those days there was a weekly deadline against which I had to write, and before long, Edna became the "head-lady" around our house. Two years went by with this happy arrangement. Then one day we were discussing the idea of my going to New York.

"If I go away, what will you do?" I asked Edna. "Oh," she replied, "you go ahead. If you go to New York and study, maybe you'll get to be a real good writer. But be sure and send for me just as soon as you get a place for us to stay."

Though the girl was usually slow of comprehension, she had found out that we needed each other. Little did she realize, though, that she was slated for martyrdom.

Like most literary moths, I came on to New York. But life in the big city was not as easy as it had been pictured in the books I had read. Months passed and once in a great while there was a letter from Edna. Each one contained the same question: "Don't you think you'd better hurry and send for me?"

But the winds of winter were cold and there were times when my daily crust of bread was not enough for me, let alone another.  So I didn’t send for Edna.

Then one day a newspaper clipping fell out of a letter that my mother had sent on by airmail. The clipping was an account of the fatal shooting of Edna D——, a Negro woman [she was barely 18] by Detective —— for resisting an officer of the law. Once more I had been forced to swallow the bitter brew of America's farcical justice! Edna, as the story goes, had attended a party.

In the course of the evening, one of the young women present had drank a little more than wisely. Then someone lost a pocketbook and, after several heated discussions, the majority of the merrymakers decided that the lady who had tilted her cup so often had also taken the pocketbook. It seems that Edna had, for some reason, decided that someone else took the pocketbook. When the crowd began beating the silly woman, Edna became furious. And a furious Edna was something to reckon with.

Lacking about three inches of being six feet tall, with a frame well covered with flesh, Edna looked much like some African princess who had never been contaminated by the various bloods that race through the veins of most of us.

Though slow to comprehend, right and wrong dictated the course of Edna's actions. When she saw the crowd beating a woman she believed to be innocent, she went to the aid of the unfortunate woman and, singlehandedly, subdued the rest of the crowd. Innately kind, with more than her share of maternal instinct, Edna then went home taking the woman with her.

Of course the people at the party were very angry with Edna. And they decided to play a trick on her that they knew would give the girl a good scare. They called police headquarters and told the officers to go to "913 North 16 Street. There's a bad Negro woman there."

In a few moments, the police walked into Edna's room. She had put the intoxicated woman to bed and was changing her shoes. You see Edna persisted in wearing shoes that were smaller than her generously proportioned feet. Her first act upon entering the house was naturally to seek comfort for her feet.

And so when the officers said, "Put up your hands!" Edna, intent upon changing her shoes and always slow to comprehend, simply looked up to see what was happening. That was the resistance that caused an officer of the law to shoot Edna. There was an investigation, all the findings of which I do not know. I do know, however, that Edna's slayer kept his job and received no legal punishment.

Meanwhile, I prayed and waited. If this man escaped all punishment, I reasoned, surely I was following the wrong path.

Still I prayed and waited. Time passed. Then last year another clipping came in a letter I received. It was an account of the death of the man who had slain Edna D——. He met his death at the hand of another culprit who had resisted arrest. "Vengeance is mine!" saith the Lord. He had charted my course.

These unfortunate and inappropriate experiences have been recorded here not to spread hatred, stir up sectional strife, or arouse ill feeling. Neither have they been easy to share with you. But the cause for which I have written about these experiences is the salvation of millions of souls, and any suffering these memories might have re­ called is only a small part of the contribution hundreds of us are ready to pay so that our more handicapped and less articulate brothers may en­ joy the inherited rights of every man created to the image and likeness of God.

I would not have you believe that I have sought to paint a picture of a barbarous South. Indeed not! For I love my home, and some of my most highly esteemed friends are white. But my nice white friends, who are thoroughly familiar with these conditions, allow public officers to brutalize and murder helpless and inarticulate Negroes. It is this silence of kindly intentioned America that is causing Negroes everywhere to demand that those who call themselves our friends take their stand and let the world know about it.

Without a doubt, Mr. Wright is recording the harvest of hate that White America has, perhaps unwittingly, sown. Can you honestly blame him?

 

[For more from our 1940s archive, click here]

Ellen Tarry is a Negro convert to Catholicism from Birmingham, Alabama. She has taught school, write juveniles, now lives in New York.

This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Books
Collections