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On Being Black

I go to an optician and ask for a pair of goggles. My eyes are getting bad and my wife insists upon my getting them. For a long time I have hesitated to do so. I hated to be literary— that is, to look literary. It is a fad, I believe. On an afterthought I am convinced she is right; I need them. My eyes are paining me. Moreover, the lights in the subway are blindingly dark, and head swirling. Again, the glitter of spring sends needles through my skull. I need the things badly. I decide to go to the optician's. I go. It is a Jewish place. Elderly is the salesman. I put my cards on the table..."Fine day, isn't it?" He rubs and twists his pigmy fingers and ambles back to the rear. A moment later he returns. With him is a tray of jewelry—lenses and gold rings, diamonds and silver frames. Fine, dainty, effeminate things.

"Here is a nice one," chirps the old gentleman in a sing-song tone, as he tries to fit it on to my nose. "Just the right kind of goggles to keep the dust from going into your eyes. Only the other day I sold—"

At first I feel as if it is one of these confounded new fangled things. Overnight they come, these new styles. Ideas! Here, I whisper to myself, is a new one on me. But I look again. It has a perforated bit of tin on either side of it, like the black star-eyed guard on a horse's blinker.

"Oh, I can show you others, if you don't like that one. Want one with a bigger dust piece? I have others back here. Don't be afraid, I'll fix you up. All the colored chauffeurs on Cumberland Street buy their glasses here."

"But I am not a chauffeur," I reply softly. Were it a Negro store, I might have said it with a great deal of emphasis, of vehemence. But being what it is, and knowing that the moment I raise my voice I am accused of "uppishness," I take pains—oh such pains, to be discreet. I wanted to bellow into his ears, "Don't think every Negro you see is a chauffeur." But the man is overwhelmingly amused. His snow-white head is bent—bent over the tray of precious gold, and I can see his face wrinkle in an atrociously cynical smile. But I cannot stand it—that smile. I walk out. 

I am a stenographer. I am in need of a job. I try the employment agencies. I battle with anaemic youngsters and giggling flappers. I am at the tail end of a long line—only to be told the job is already filled. I am ignorantly optimistic. America is a big place; I feel it is only a question of time and perseverance. Encouraged, I go into the tall office buildings on Lower Broadway. I try everyone of them. Not a firm is missed. I walk in and offer my services. I am black, foreign-looking and a curio. My name is taken. I shall be sent for, certainly, in case of need. "Oh, don't mention it, sir... Glad you came in... Good morning." I am smiled out. I never hear from them again.

Eventually I am told that that is not the way it is done here. What typewriter do I use? Oh, ---. Well, go to the firm that makes them. It maintains an employment bureau, for the benefit of users of its machine. There is no discrimination there; go and see them. Before I go I write stating my experience and so forth. Are there any vacancies? In reply I get a flattering letter asking me to call. I do so.

The place is crowded. A sea of feminine faces disarms me. But I am no longer sensitive. I've got over that—long since. I grind my teeth and confidently take my seat with the mob. At the desk the clerks are busy telephoning and making out cards. I am sure they do not see me. I am just one of the crowd. One by one the girls, and men, too, are sent out after jobs. It has been raining and the air is frowsy. The Jewish girls are sweating in their war-paint. At last they get around to me. It is my turn.

I am sitting away down at the front. In order to get to me the lady is obliged to do a lot of detouring. At first I thought she was about to go out, to go past me. But I am mistaken. She takes a seat right in front of me, a smile on her wrinkled old-maidish face. I am sure she is the head of the department. It is a situation that requires a strong diplomatic hand. She does not send one of the girls. She comes herself. She is from Ohio, I can see that. She tries to make me feel at home by smiling broadly in my face.

"Are you Mr. ?"


"That's nice. Now how much experience you say you've had?"

She is about to write.

"I stated all that in the letter, I think. I've had five years. I worked for—"

"Oh yes, I have it right here. Used to be sectetary to Dr.---. Then you worked for an export house, and a soap manufacturer. Also as a shorthand reporter on a South American paper. That is interesting; quite an experience for a young man, isn't it?"

I murmur unintelligibly.

"Well," continues the lady, "we haven't anything at present—"

"But I thought you said in your letter that there is a job vacant. I've got it here in my pocket. I hope I haven't left it at home—"

"That won't suit you. You see it—it—is a post that requires banking experience. One of the biggest banks in the city. Secretary to the vice-president. Ah, by the way; come to think of it, you're just the man for it. You know Mr.--- of Lenox Avenue ? You do! I think the number is— Yes, here it is. Also one of his cards. Well, if I were you I would go and see him. Good day."

Dusk is on the horizon. I am once more on Broadway. I am not going to see the man on Lenox Avenue. It won't do any good. The man she is sending me to is a pupil of mine! 

My wife's health is not very good and I think of sending her to the tropics. I write to the steamship company and in reply I receive a sheaf of booklets telling me all about the blueness of the Caribbean, the beauty of Montega Bay, and the fine a la carte service at the Myrtle Bank Hotel. I am intrigued—I think that is the word—by a three months' cruise at a special rate of $150.00. I telephone the company in an effort to get some information as to sailing dates, reservations, and so forth.

"I understand," I say to the young man who answers the telephone, "I understand that you have a ship sailing on the tenth. I would like to reserve a berth at the $150.00 you are at present offering."

"White or colored?"


Evidently the clerk is consulting someone. But his hand is over the mouthpiece and I can not hear what he is saying. Presently—

"Better come in the office and make reservations."

"What time do you close?"

"Five o'clock."

"What time is it now, please?"

"Ten to."

"Good," I hurry, "I am at Park Place now. Do you think if I hop on a Broadway trolley can make it before five?"

"I don't know," unconcernedly.

I am at the booking desk. It is three minutes to five. The clerks, tall, lean, light-haired youths, are ready to go home. As I enter a dozen pairs of eyes are fastened upon me. Murmuring. Only a nigger. Again the wheels of life grind on. Lots are cast—I am not speaking metaphorically. The joke is on the Latin. Down in Panama he is a government clerk. Over in Caracas, a tinterillo, and in Mexico, a scientifico. I know the type. Coming to New York, he shuns the society of Spanish- Americans. On the subway at night he reads the New York Journal instead of La Prensa. And on wintry evenings, you can always find him around Seventy-second Street and Broadway. The lad before me is dark, has crystal brown eyes, and straight black hair.

"I would like," I begin, "to reserve a passage for my wife on one of your steamers to Kingston. I want to get it at the $150.00 rate."

"Well, it is this way." I am positive he is from Guayaquil. "It will cost you $178.00."

"Why $178.00?"

"You see, the passage alone is $170.00—"

"A hundred and seventy dollars! Why, this booklet here says $150.00 round trip. You must have made a mistake."

"You see, this $150.00 rate is for three in a room, and all the rooms on the ship sailing on the tenth are already taken up."

"All right," I decide, "the date is inconsequential. What I want is the $150.00 rate. Reserve a berth for me on any ship that is not already filled up. I don't care how late in the summer it is. I have brought a deposit along with me—"

I am not truculent. Everything I say I strive to say softly, unoffensively—especially when in the midst of a color-ordeal!

"Well, you'd have to get two persons to go with her." The Peruvian is independent. "There are only three berths in a stateroom, and if your wife wants to take advantage of the $150.00 rate, she will have to get two other colored persons to go with her."

"I s-e-e!" I mutter dreamily. And I did see!

"Come in tomorrow and pay a deposit on it, if you want to. It is five o'clock and—"

I am out on the street again. From across the Hudson a gurgling wind brings dust to my nostrils. I am limp, static, emotionless. There is only one line to Jamaica, and I am going to send her by it. It is the only thing to do. Tomorrow I am going back, with the $178.00. It pays to be black.

This article was originally published in The New Republic in November, 1922.