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Authors: Langston Hughes

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“Oh, yes,” said Dr. Renfield, pursing his lips.

“And whether we should plan to keep him all summer, or just till we get someone else?”

“I see,” said Dr. Renfield.

And again he thought. “You say he can do the work?… How about the attic in this building? It’s not in use.… And by the way, how much did we pay the other fellow?”

“Ten dollars a week,” said Mrs. Osborn raising her eyes.

“Well, pay the darkie eight,” said Dr. Renfield, “and keep him.” And for a moment he gazed deep into Mrs. Osborn’s eyes. “Goodnight.” Then turned and left her. Left her. Left her.

So it was that Milberry entered into service at Dr. Renfield’s Summer Home for Crippled Children.

Milberry was a nice black boy, big, good natured and strong—like what Paul Robeson must have been at twenty. Except that he wasn’t educated. He was from Georgia, where they don’t have many schools for Negroes. And he hadn’t been North long. He was glad to have a job, even if it was at a home for Crippled Children way out in the country on a beach five miles from the nearest railroad. Milberry had been hungry for weeks in Newark and Jersey City. He needed work and food.

And even if he wasn’t educated, he had plenty of mother wit and lots of intuition about people and places. It didn’t take him long to realize that he was doing far too much work for the Home’s eight dollars a week, and that everybody was imposing
on him in that taken-for-granted way white folks do with Negro help.

Milberry got up at 5:30 in the mornings, made the fire for the cook, set the water to boiling for the head nurse’s coffee, started peeling potatoes, onions, and apples. After breakfast he washed up all the dishes, scoured the pots and pans, scrubbed the floors, and carried in wood for the fireplace in the front room (which really wasn’t his job at all, but the handy-man’s who had put it off on Milberry). The waitresses, too, got in the habit of asking him to polish their silver, and ice their water. And Mrs. Osborn always had something extra that needed to be done (not kitchen-boy work), a cellar to be cleaned out, or the linen in her closet re-shelved, or the dining-room windows washed. Milberry knew they took him for a work horse, a fool—and a nigger. Still he did everything, and didn’t look mad—jobs were too hard to get, and he had been hungry too long in town.

“Besides,” Milberry said to himself, “the ways of white folks, I mean some white folks, is too much for me. I reckon they must be a few good ones, but most of ’em ain’t good—leastwise they don’t treat me good. And Lawd knows, I ain’t never done nothin’ to ’em, nothin’ a-tall.”

But at the Home it wasn’t the work that really troubled him, or the fact that nobody ever said anything about a day off or a little extra pay. No,
he’d had many jobs like this one before, where they worked you to death. But what really worried Milberry at this place was that he seemed to sense something wrong—something phoney about the whole house—except the little crippled kids there like himself because they couldn’t help it. Maybe it was the lonesomeness of that part of the Jersey coast with its pines and scrubs and sand. But, more nearly, Milberry thought it was that there doctor with the movie beard and the woman’s eyes at the head of the home. And it was the cranky nurses always complaining about food and the little brats under them. And the constant talk of who was having an affair with Dr. Renfield. And Mrs. Osborn’s grand manner to everybody but the doctor. And all the white help kicking about their pay, and how far it was from town, and how no-good the doctor was, or the head nurse, or the cook, or Mrs. Osborn.

“It’s sho a phoney, this here place,” Milberry said to himself. “Funny how the food ain’t nearly so good ’cept when some ma or pa or some chile is visitin’ here—then when they gone, it drops right back down again. This here hang-out is jest Doc Renfield’s own private gyp game. Po’ little children.”

The Negro was right. The Summer Home was run for profits from the care of permanently deformed children of middle class parents who couldn’t afford to pay too much, but who still paid
well—too well for what their children got in return. Milberry worked in the kitchen and saw the good cans opened for company, and the cheap cans opened for the kids. Somehow he didn’t like such dishonesty. Somehow, he thought he wouldn’t even stay there and work if it wasn’t for the kids.

For the children grew terribly to like Milberry.

One afternoon, during his short period of rest between meals, he had walked down to the beach where those youngsters who could drag themselves about were playing, and others were sitting in their wheel chairs watching. The sky was only a little cloudy, and the sand was grey. But quite all of a sudden it began to rain. The nurses saw Milberry and called him to help them get the young ones quickly back to the house. Some of the children were too heavy for a nurse to lift easily into a wheel chair. Some couldn’t run at all. The handy-man helper wasn’t around. So Milberry picked up child after child, sometimes two at once, and carried them up to the broad screened-in porch of the Home like a big gentle horse. The children loved it, riding on his broad back, or riding in his arms in the soft gentle rain.

“Come and play with us sometimes,” one of them called as Milberry left them all on the safe dry porch with their nurses.

“Sure, come back and play,” another said.

So Milberry, the next day, went down to the
beach again in the afternoon and played with the crippled children. At first the nurses, Miss Baxter and Mrs. Hill, didn’t know whether to let him stay or not, but their charges seemed to enjoy it. Then when the time came to go in for rest before dinner, Milberry helped push the wheel chairs, a task which the nurses hated. And he held the hands of those kids with braces and twisted limbs as they hobbled along. He told them stories, and he made up jokes in the sun on the beach. And one rainy afternoon on the porch he sang songs, old southern Negro songs, funny ones that the children loved.

Almost every afternoon then, Milberry came to the beach after the luncheon dishes were done, and he had washed himself—except those afternoons when Mrs. Osborn found something else for him to do—vases to be emptied or bath tubs scoured. The children became Milberry’s friends. They adored him and he them. They called him Berry. They put their arms about him.

The grown-up white folks only spoke to him when they had some job for him to do, or when they were kidding him about being dark, and talking flat and Southern, and mispronouncing words. But the kids didn’t care how he talked. They loved his songs and his stories.

And he made up stories out of his own head just for them—po’ little crippled-up things that they were—for Berry loved them, too.

So the summer wore on. August came. In September the Home would close. But disaster overtook Milberry before then.

At the end of August a week of rain fell, and the children could not leave the porch. Then, one afternoon, the sun suddenly came out bright and warm. The sea water was blue again and the sand on the beach glistened. Miss Baxter (who by now had got the idea it was part of Milberry’s job to help her with the children) went to the kitchen and called him while he was still washing luncheon dishes.

“Berry, we’re going to take the children down to the beach. Come on and help us with the chairs as soon as you get through.”

“Yes, m’am,” said Berry.

When he came out on the porch, the kids were all excited about playing in the sun once more. Little hunchbacks jumped and cried and clapped their hands, and little paralytics laughed in their wheel chairs. And some with braces on had already hobbled out the screen door and were gathered on the walk.

“Hello, Berry,” the children called.

“Hey, Berry,” they cried to the black boy.

Berry grinned.

It was a few hundred yards to the beach. On the cement walk, you could push a couple of wheel chairs at a time to the sand’s edge. Some of the children
propelled their own. Besides the nurses, today the handy-man was helping for the sun might not last long.

“Take me,” a little boy called from his wheel chair, “Berry, take me.”

“Sho, I will,” the young Negro said gently.

But when Berry started to push the chair down from the porch to the walk, the child, through excess of joy, suddenly leaned forward laughing, and suddenly lost his balance. Berry saw that he was going to fall. To try to catch the boy, the young Negro let the chair go. But quick as a wink, the child had fallen one way onto the lawn, the chair the other onto the cement walk. The back of the chair was broken, snapped off, except for the wicker. The little boy lay squalling on the ground in the grass.

Lord have mercy!

All the nurses came running, the handy-man, and Mrs. Osborn, too. Berry picked up the boy, who clung to his neck sobbing, more frightened, it seemed, than hurt.

“Po’ little chile,” Berry kept saying. “Is you hurt much? I’s so sorry.”

But the nurses were very angry, for they were responsible. And Mrs. Osborn—well, she lit out for Dr. Renfield.

The little boy still clung to Berry, and wouldn’t let the nurses take him at all. He had stopped crying
when Dr. Renfield arrived, but was still sniffling. He had his arms tight around the black boy’s neck.

“Give that child to me,” Dr. Renfield said, his brown beard pointing straight at Berry, his mind visualizing irate parents and a big damage suit, and bad publicity for the Home.

But when the doctor tried to take the child, the little boy wriggled and cried and wouldn’t let go of Berry. With what strength he had in his crooked braced limbs, he kicked at the doctor.

“Give me that child!” Dr. Renfield shouted at Berry. “Bring him into my office and lay him down.” He put on his nose glasses. “You careless black rascal! And you, Miss Baxter—” the doctor shriveled her with a look. “I want to see you.”

In the clinic, it turned out that the child wasn’t really hurt, though. His legs had been, from birth, twisted and deformed. Nothing could injure them much further. And fortunately his spine wasn’t weak.

But the doctor kept saying, “Criminal carelessness! Criminal carelessness!” Mrs. Osborn kept agreeing with him, “Yes, it is! Indeed, it is!” Milberry was to blame.

The black boy felt terrible. But nobody else among the grown-ups seemed to care how he felt. They all said: What dumbness! he had let that child fall!

“Get rid of him,” Dr. Renfield said to the housekeeper, “today. The fool nigger! And deduct ten dollars for that broken chair.”

“We don’t pay him but eight,” Mrs. Osborn said.

“Well, deduct that,” said the doctor.

So, without his last week’s wages, Milberry went to Jersey City.

12

——

MOTHER AND CHILD

“A
IN’T NOBODY SEEN IT
,” said old lady Lucy Doves. “Ain’t nobody seen it, but the midwife and the doctor, and her husband, I reckon. They say she won’t let a soul come in the room. But it’s still living, ’cause Mollie Ransom heard it crying. And the woman from Downsville what attended the delivery says it’s as healthy a child as she ever seed, indeed she did.”

“Well, it’s a shame,” said Sister Wiggins, “it’s here. I been living in Boyd’s Center for twenty-two years, at peace with these white folks, ain’t had no trouble yet, till this child was born—now look at ’em. Just look what’s goin’ on! People acting like a pack o’ wolves.”

“Poor little brat! He ain’t been in the world a week yet,” said Mrs. Sam Jones, taking off her hat, “and done caused more trouble than all the rest of us in a life time. I was born here, and I ain’t never seen the white folks up in arms like they are today. But they don’t need to think they can walk over Sam and me—for we owns our land, it’s bought and paid for, and we sends our children to school.
Thank God, this is Ohio. It ain’t Mississippi.”

“White folks is white folks, honey, South or North, North or South,” said Lucy Doves. “I’s lived both places and I know.”

“Yes, but in Mississippi they’d lynched Douglass by now.”

“Where is Douglass?” asked Mattis Crane. “You all know I don’t know much about this mess. Way back yonder on that farm where I lives, you don’t get nothing straight. Where is Douglass?”

“Douglass is here! Saw him just now out in de field doin’ his spring plowin’ when I drive down de road, as stubborn and bold-faced as he can be. We told him he ought to leave here.”

“Well, I wish he’d go on and get out,” said Sister Wiggins. “If that would help any. His brother’s got more sense than he has, even if he is a seventeen-year-old child. Clarence left here yesterday and went to Cleveland. But their ma, poor Sister Carter, she’s still trying to battle it out. She told me last night, though, she thinks she have to leave. They won’t let her have no more provisions at de general store. And they ain’t got their spring seed yet. And they can’t pay cash for ’em.”

“Don’t need to tell me! Old man Hartman’s got evil as de rest of de white folks. Didn’t he tell ma husband Saturday night he’d have to pay up every cent of his back bill, or he couldn’t take nothing
out of that store. And we been trading there for years.”

“That’s their way o’ striking back at us niggers.”

“Yes, but Lord knows my husband ain’t de father o’ that child.”

“Nor mine.”

“Jim’s got too much pride to go foolin’ round any old loose white woman.”

“Child, you can’t tell about men.”

“I knowed a case once in Detroit where a nigger lived ten years with a white woman, and her husband didn’t know it. He was their chauffeur.”

“That’s all right in the city, but please don’t come bringing it out here to Boyd’s Center where they ain’t but a handful o’ us colored—and we has a hard enough time as it is.”

“You right! This sure has brought de hammer down on our heads.”

“Lawd knows we’s law-biding people, ain’t harmed a soul, yet some o’ these white folks talking ’bout trying to run all de colored folks out o’ de country on account o’ Douglass.”

“They’ll never run me,” said Mrs. Sam Jones.

“Don’t say what they
won’t
do,” said Lucy Doves, “cause they might.”

“Howdy, Sister Jenkins.”

“Howdy!”

“Good evenin’.”

BOOK: The Ways of White Folks
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