Nov102009

“I Ain’t No Porter”

In July of 1943, Marjorie took a train to Michigan to visit a relative. She wrote the following about her arrival in Michigan in the opening paragraph of a letter to Norton:

There were no porters and I had to carry my heavy bags. I tackled an idle colored man in the Michigan Central station and said I was desperate for a porter and would he help me. He said insolently, ‘I ain’t no porter.’

What follows in her letter is a remarkable discussion of “the Negro question” in Michigan. As Marjorie’s opening foreshadows, black labor and white entitlement to service and deference dominate the racial discussion portion of the letter. But you have to hear it in her words to fully grasp the import. Here are the relevant passages:

The negro question in Michigan throws new light on the problem. I questioned everyone I met about it. There seem to be two angles to it in that section. Most of the people I talked to hate[emphasis hers - ed.] the negroes with a venom that is astonishing to those of us who love them [emphasis mine-ed.]. Then I ran into a woman who has charge of all the school cafeterias in Pontiac, (where there is still an Osmun Street, named for my Grandmother’s pioneer ancestors). Pontiac [a suburb of Detroit - ed.] is now a city of about 100,000. Negroes there have for years had “equal rights.” They have gone to the same schools as the whites, had the same advantages and opportunities, are not segregated in any way. These have made desirable citizens, some of them prominent lawyers and doctors, though this woman said that on the whole the negroes had never done as well in school as the whites. She said there has never been any trouble with these negroes. She has absolutely no [emphasis mine - ed.] race prejudice and said she would have no feeling about marrying a colored man if his character and intelligence were acceptable. She said the trouble is coming from the ignorant Southern negroes who are flocking to the high paid defense jobs and who are totally unable to appreciate their wages and privileges. She said, as did the other Midwesterners who hate the negroes, that this group is arrogant, pushing, without manners. They delight in intruding on white resorts and driving out the whites. It is they who have caused the race riots in Michigan. A General Motors executive, the sweetheart, or fiance, or what-have-you, of one of my cousins, who is among the negro-haters, (and who is a Fascist of the first water, incidentally) said that the white mechanics and factory workers resent having these ignorant apes move in beside them at the machines and draw the high wages toward which they have spent their lives working — and then be arrogant to boot. This checks with the story of a woman who has no race prejudice and shows one thing certainly: that the mass of Southern negroes is not ready for equality. Yet her story would indicate that under equality, the negro becomes a desirable citizen. Mr. Gay, who runs “the” store in Hawthorn, told me that negroes were being organized. He said that a group of twenty or thirty went by his house the other night, shouting things about their rights and what they meant to do. He said they were buying up all available guns and knives. Chet Crosby verified this. I wondered if foreign agents were behind this, in an effort to cause trouble, and Chet said that the FBI was investigating now in our section. If trouble comes, there is only one outcome, and it will be at the expense of the negroes. Even a diehard Southerner like Chet is in favor of education and better wages for the negro. It would be a great pity if the negroes were misled by spies and fifth columnists. It could not harm the country, but it would set the negro back a hundred years.

Well, I think that says quite a bit about the esteem in which Marjorie held her own conclusions about “negro” nature and the quality of the independent sourcing upon which she based them. What’s striking here isn’t the racism, which was probably fairly humdrum in its time, but the absence of rigor in assessing the basis for these conclusions. For a novelist and journalist who personally knew many individual black men and women of differing classes, who rendered them as individuals in her fiction and non-fiction writing, it’s striking how willing she is to lump them all into a formless abstraction easily summed up by people she met at dinner parties. And look at the sins for which she convicts them. Arrogance. Showing up at “white resorts”. Not appreciating their privileges. There’s not a single reference to actual documented bad behavior. Only generalization that can’t be disproven. Pointedly, none of her interlocutors even assert that the blacks are bad workers. It’s the ingratitude, the uppityness, the insolence they can’t abide — the idea that Marjorie might have to carry her own bags when a black man was nearby.

What’s often striking about grand racial theories is the flimsiness of their supporting data and how often they require the theorist to ignore basic human nature. In this case, Marjorie bases her point in large part on the testimony of people she blithely assures us have no race prejudice – because they told her so – and takes their word for sacred. You would certainly expect Marjorie to know more about human nature than that. But then we all have our prejudicial blind spots, which cause us to ignore things we know are true.

Beyond that, the importance of labor relations, as the defining aspect of race relations, shines through this letter. I’m reading a terrific book right now called “Emancipation Betrayed,” which is, in contrast to Marjorie’s sociology, exhaustively sourced. The author, Paul Ortiz, hones in throughout on the brutal steps white employers and business interests, aided by police and vigilantism, took to force blacks in Florida to work in Florida, on terms dictated by Floridian elites.

It’s important to understand the extreme totalitarian measures the white business interests of Florida took to keep this hated mass of “ignorant Southern negroes”, who Marjorie loved so well, from leaving Florida in the late 1910’s and 20’s and seeking those better opportunities in the north.

In one key episode cited by Ortiz, Jacksonville Mayor J.E.T. Bowden in 1916 ordered city police to prevent blacks from leaving from the Jacksonville train station. As blacks would assemble at Jacksonville’s Union Station, police would descend upon them with clubs and violence. It became impossible for a group of black workers to await a train bound for out of state. Instead, individuals played cloak and dagger with cops, dashing onto trains at opportune moments. And labor recruiters — carpetbaggers in reverse — helped blacks organize transportation outside of the train station. One wonders if Marjorie’s “insolent” non-porter was one of the men who risked his life to hop a train out of Florida. Impossible to know. But if he was one of the thousands of blacks who got out of Florida during the pre-depression migratory period, you can bet he carried his own bags.

– There’s a fun little postscript to this letter. At the end, Marjorie is discussing books with Norton and has this to say about one of them: “Dorothy Baker’s (Young Man with a Horn) new book is brilliant technically but the Lesbian subject-matter is repulsive. Can’t recommend it.”

Heh. That will lead us beautifully into my next post, when we’ll talk about the “mannish” women of the Cross Creek Trial and what role their, ahem, relative femininity, may have played in what happened.

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