'I DON'T SEE MYSELF or most people I know in most things I see or read about black people . . . I wish you could read something or see a movie that would show the people just, well, as my grandmother would say, drylongso. You know, like most of us really are most of the time."
The speaker is a young black woman, talking into the tape recorder University who is both black and blind. Gwaltney's travels in search of an authentic self-portrait of black America have been collected into a set of 41 interviews published this summer. "Drylongso" -- ordinary -- became the title of his book.
What follows are excerpts from three of these interviews. Gwaltney encouraged the speakers, many of whom are people he has known for years, to speak frankly by guarding their identity with pseudonyms. The first speaker, "Hannah Nelson," is a 61-year-old widow who has been a domestic worker for most of her life. "Hanna Nelson":
WE ARE, by reason of the lives we have led, a suspicious people. We are the children of suspicious people, as were our grandparents and their grandparents. Now, if we were otherwise we would probably all be white or dead!
Every reasonable black person thinks that most white people do not mean him well. Every reasonable black person knows that many other black people cannot afford to treat him fairly. Most black people believe that most other human beings will seek their own advantage at the expense of other people. We do not really think it has much to do with the justice of a situation. People will do what profits them. We think white people are the most unprincipled folks in the world, but everybody bears watching. I believe we are righter to think in this way than any other, considering our circumstances.
We do not just imagine that most people we have to live with are against us. We live with people who sold us for things and forced every kind of filth upon us. Life is still hard for us. I am a woman 61 years old and I was born into this world with some talent. But I have done the work that my grandmother's mother did. It is not through any failing of mine that this is so. The whites took my mother's mother's milk by force, and I have lived to hear a human creature of my sex try to force me by threat of hunger to give my milk to an able man. I have grown to womanhood in a world where the saner you are, the madder you are made to appear.
I'm always being asked what black people want. I never answer the question, but I always think, "anything worth having." I would like to know what white people really want. If it's that they want schools, neighborhoods, hospitals, armies, post offices, police forces of their own, fine! Whatever they have, they seem to want most of whatever we have and that is bad for both of us. If they really think that we are their inferiors, why do they wish to remain in union with us? If they really believe in states' rights, why don't they just let us take a part of what we have built and govern ourselves?
I used to be a waitress, and I can still remember how white people would leave a tip and then someone at the table, generally some white woman, would take some of the money. She would try to do it secretly, of course, but most waitresses have had this experience and, of course, they are often seen sneaking those quarters and dimes off the tables. That is something I have never done when I was being served in a restaurant. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of black people I know who have done this. It is greed wanting to have everything and still be known as a generous person.
We are interested in having all those things the whites have taken from everybody else -- land and everything you can do with land. I don't know anybody who thinks you have to be with white people to enjoy all these things. It is being with white people which prevents us from enjoying these things. If, after all this time, white people have remained the same kind of people, it is dreaming to think the two of us can ever really share this land. White people will always take back a part of what is ours as long as they are strong enough to do it. When they are the weakest, we suffer least. When a foreign enemy threatens them, they give us a little more of the fortune we have earned. When their own Southern brothers threatened to become too greedy, they finally promised us freedom, but when they patched up that quarrel, the white people North and South took back that promise.
Now the whole matter is so mixed and complicated that nothing but a knife can put it anywhere near right. Each day that we live like this, with more responsibility than any other people and no authority at all, our people become more disorganized. TV, movies, drugs and school make our young men into walking disgraces, and we can do nothing about it so long as we live among white people. Do you think I would tolerate a school like that one Kwame goes to if I were running a school? Do you imagine I would create a welfare system which degrades women and children? What have I lost in Chile or Cuba or Southeast Asia? The next speaker, a 51-year-old woman, graduated from high school at 38. "Ella Turner Surry:"
I THINK black people are more reasonable then white people. I don't know, maybe the word is not "reasonable," but I think that we are much more clever than they are because we know that we have to play the game. We've always had to live two lives -- you know, one for them and one for ourselves. Now, the average white person doesn't know this, but, of course, the average black person does, If you sit on any bus coming from the suburbs and hear black people laughing about the fool things they have done at work, you'll know how many of us are playing this game.
You know that there are two things that all blacks are supposed to be able to do. If you're black you are automatically able to hum a fine tune and do a fine tap. Singing and dancing is our thing! Now, I have two left legs and couldn't carry a tune in a bucket! I found that out in school. White people are terribly shocked if we cannot sing or dance. That was the one thing that was set aside for us. But there were other things that we were not allowed to do for no really good reason.
I'm not just talking about these days but when I was coming along or when any generation of black people was coming along. If you find a black doctor, you know that took blood, sweat and tears. Most black people think that they are mentally and physically better than white people, and I think that they are physically superior to white people. I think it goes back to slavery-time. I think that only the strongest of us were able to survive, so that gave us better stock to start with. In those days 99-pound weaklings just couldn't make it. Those fields separated the strong from the weak and only the strong were permitted to breed, generally, and they tried to inbreed the strong. We fought their battle while they sat on their verandas drinking their dern mint juleps! We were out there making it. Our bodies were conditioned by all that hard work and living in those huts. Only the strong could survive. We lost the weak by the wayside. So, therefore we are superior! As a race we are sturdier and made out of better material. Now, in the Depression we weren't jumping out of windows because we didn't have a steak. We simply boiled a pot of beans and kept on get'n up. If we lose a million dollars they won't be putting us away in mental hospitals. We can cope with adversity much better than they can. We've had our trial by fire, still are having it.
The next speaker, born in North Carolina in 1886, has been a teacher of biology and the classics. "Jackson Jordan Jr.":
THE BUSINESS of white men is to rule. They want their children to rule, even to rule them. It pleases them, no matter what they say, when their children are rude and overbearing, because that is a sign to them that those children are getting ready to rule as their parents have ruled. Now, our children must bear the rule of rude, weak, uncivil people, so they must always keep themselves to themselves. The white man must pretend to know more than he does, but we must always show less than we know.
This is the major part of the differences between the races. One set of people have got to bluff it out as rulers and the others have got to keep ahead of these rulers, who are always unsure of themselves. That brings me to another very important difference between white and black people: White people are very unsure of themselves.
I guess I would have to say that the biggest difference is in how we think. White people are hard outside and soft inside, and black people are hard inside and tough outside, too, because we have to be. That's what my uncle used to say. White men look up to their leaders more than we do and they are not much good without their leaders. Black people don't really have any leaders, I think, and that's too bad. Whites don't know how they really feel about anything, it seems to me. That's because they don't depend on mother wit and ordinary common sense like we do. You know that old street story about the white master who misplaced his member and asked his body servant where it was generally kept when not in use? Well, there is a lot in that. White people like to have books for everything. Don't you find it amazing that the Watergate people wrote down everything they did and even went so far as to record their unlawfulness? I really can't understand that kind of mind. You couldn't pay black criminals to do that.
White men are different from us because they have to live different kinds of lives. When we have as much power as they have now, we will be the kind of people they are now. I might be wrong; I hope that I am. But from what I can see after a number of years of looking, most people are weak and greedy. Now, that means that they are going to use power over others in such a way that they will be pulled down by the weight of their short-sighted greed. Those early white men were selfish, and now even the best of their grandchildren live in fear of justice. Black people love justice because it is denied them. White men say they love justice, which they fear worse than hell. If I were a good white man, I don't know what I would do. I would not want to see my children braggarts and cheats, but I would know that justice would be fatal for them.
I would like to be able to talk to white men as I am talking to you, and I can tell by looking at some of them that the feel the same way as individuals, but it won't happen because the commonality of white men will not have it so.
The generality of black men is better than the generality of white men because the blacks do not have to deny their civil natures. The best white men have told their brothers that they were wrong to live as they do. We know that they are. The decision to do wrong is a kind of chain too. They are prisoners and jailers too. To me, the knowledge that I am morally superior to white men is important. No one has to mention it. I don't recall every saying that to anyone but you in all my life. But I know it and they know it and there is nothing they can do -- even improving themselves -- which can change that fact. During all our history here we have been right and they have been wrong and the only man who cannot see that is a fool or a liar. The white man's rule is ending because he is weak and selfish. But I cannot swear that we wouldn't have been just as weak and selfish if power had been ours.