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Chapter 15: shades of colour.

The Negro is seen in Virginia under two aspects --an ideal aspect and a practical aspect.

In the library of the Capitol stands a figure called the Nation's Ward — a Negro boy, in all the freshness of his youth and all the impotence of his race. The Negro type is softened, but not into that of the African Sibyl, in which Story has enchanted into stone the sadness and pathos of a servile people. In the nation's ward, the face is rich in sunshine, and the figure ripples over with animal vivacity. The eyes seem lifted up in search of light. Free, and conscious of his freedom, the Negro youth is still perplexed. What shall he do with his great gift? Virile and plucky, strong to labour and quick to learn, he yet requires to see his way. Such is your ideal picture of the Negro child.

In the shop windows of Richmond appears a [160] version of the same figure treated by another artist The sun is no ideal etcher. A lens has caught the Negro as he is; sitting in the sideway of a builder's yard, abutting on the street, among a litter of chips and dirt. The yard wants cleansing, and the darky has been set to brush it up, but the seducing sunshine is too much for him. No Negro likes to work, and every Negro likes to loll and doze. Instead of sweeping out the yard, Sam has dropped among the chips and dirt. He trifles with the handle of his broom, and bends his cheek into his palm, and passes happily into the land of dreams. He wants no light to see his way. He only seeks to be left alone, that he may close his eyes, and let the sunshine burn into his back and feet. Such is your practical picture of the Negro imp.

“Guess you'll find most of our national wards asleep, like Sam,” laughs a friend. Some specimens of a class of Negroes who can hold their own, are found along the James River. We hear of men who, leaving the towns with all their vices, have taken bits of ground, and, after many struggles, have begun to make money, and to put their savings into farms. Several Negroes on the James River [161] have become small farmers, chiefly on the tobacco lands. Tobacco is a paying crop. These coloured people send their boys to school. Mulattoes have taken honours in American Universities and entered into liberal professions with a prospect of success. All these things count for good. It is a happy sign that such careers are open. When last in Richmond, I remember the surprise expressed in a drawing-room on my remark that on the day of my own call to the bar a Negro from Jamaica was also called.

“You admit a Negro into the Society of the Inner Temple!” cried a lady of the First Families.

“Yes, and by the accident of keeping terms, this Negro stood at the head of our list and answered for us when the benchers drank our healths.”

“But were you not ashamed?”

“Ashamed of what? This Negro was an excellent scholar and a polished gentleman. He made a speech of which the cleverest fellow in our company might have felt proud.”

“Still, he was a Negro! ”

“Yes, madam; one knew that as the lady said she knew Greek-by sight; but, though we are [162] said to practise the black art, our constitutions have nothing to say about the colour of a lawyer's skin.”

A coloured man can now be called to the Virginia bar.

But the examples of such calling are so few as to appear like special wonders. As a rule, the Negro is a toiler of the earth, content to be a toiler of the earth. He hardly cares to rise. He has no stinging wants. If not a waiter in the house, he is a worker in the field. In either case his labour is worth a fifth part of similar labour by a White man; yet his food of squash and green-corn is cheap, while he can live on the rewards of his unskilful and uncertain toil. He understands the value of a dollar; it will buy him grapes and bacon, beans, whisky, and tobacco; but he cannot see the value of a second and third dollar, since he can do no more than eat, drink, chew, and smoke all day. The morrow is the future; and a Negro's life is in the passing hour. One thing only in the future weighs sufficiently on a Negro's mind to shape his action. He is very anxious about his funeral.

“What makes us poor,” says Bill, the waiter in my room, “is de expens ob buryina us.” The [163] money spent on a Negro's funeral would keep his family for a couple of years.

“A frena ob mine die yesterday,” says Bill; “ dey bury him dis afternoon, and make much funeral.”

“Are you going to see the last of him?”

“No, sir, I am not in his society.”

“What society do you speak of?”

“De buryina society. Ebery culled person is a member of two or three societies. He pay much money. When he die, dey have all big sight.”

In walking through Jackson's Ward towards the open country, for a peep at the picturesque ravines which surround the city and give it some rough resemblance to Jerusalem, we drop down a slope, leap over a stream, and are beginning to mount a second slope, when we are startled by a sob and moan that might have floated from the Temple wall. We turn to see the cause. Above us, on the height, is a cemetery with a few white posts and stones, and near the edge of this grassy slope stand a group of Negro women, sobbing at their utmost voice, while a Negro minister is screaming out texts, and four or five lusty Negroes are brandishing spades and shovelling earth. Before we reach the plateau, [164] their rite is over and the grave filled up, but as the mourners file away another group arrives; a handsome hearse, with glass sides, showing a coffin which in England would be that of a prince, followed by eight coaches, each drawn by a pair of handsome black horses, and accompanied by a dozen men in uniform, with eagles and furled banners.

“ Who is this dead man?” I ask a Negro loafer.

“ Guess dat Mose Crump?”

“ And who is Mose Crump?”

“ Him labourer.”

“ A field labourer?”

“ Guess dat ar.”

The horses prance and tear through the rough ground, and with a vast amount of noise and show, the coffin is brought to the hole in which it is to be cast — not a vault, hardly a trench-and here with furled banner, outspread eagles, and crash of music, Mose Crump is laid down. The family are all present-men and women, boys and girls. The groans and sighs are loud, but the Negro minister contrives to drown the voices of everyone save an old woman, who, with yearning pathos, sobs and screams: “ I nebber see my son, I nebber see my son [165] no more!” The preacher tries to storm her down. “You go your ways; you go and lib like him; den you see your son again!” The Black Rachel weeps and yells, refusing to be comforted, even by a minister of her own. When the men in uniform seize their shovels and begin to fill the grave, chanting a chorus like that sung by sailors as they haul in ropes, the old woman cries still louder: “No, I nebber see my son, I nebber see my son no more!” Poor soul, she knows the bitterness of her heart.

The younger people laugh and cry by turns, and when the grave is filled in, they scatter into groups, chat with their friends, and get into their coaches and ride away, passing through crowds of Negroes and Mulattaes dressed in blue shawls and pink bonnets, conscious that they make a big sight, and highly pleased that two strange gentlemen are looking on.

Mose Crump is left alone: a little soil above his head, without a stone to mark his grave. His family are also left alone, with little bread and few sweet-potatoes in their pantry, and without the father's labouring hands. The cost of that funeral would have fed the little Crumps for years to come. [166]

To train a negro to the habit of taking care of himself, requires much time. Long used to leaning on the White man, he finds it hard to stand alone. In many cases he understands personal freedom as the liberty of idleness. What, in his eyes, was the chief distinction of a White? Immunity from labour. A White man never put his hand to spade or plough. A friend of mine, who planted cotton on a large scale in Alabama, one day asked his White overseer to lend a hand to something needing to be done. The man refused. “No, sir,” he answered, with a jerk, “Guess I won't; for fifteen years I never do anything but oversee.” His right had been defined by usage, and my friend the planter had to put his shoulder to the wheel. It is the old, old story of the Magyar Prince who cleaned his own boots; of the Castilian queen who perished at the fire; of the English Governor-general who cooked his own rice. The Negro notion of liberty is the faculty of standing by and looking on while others toil and spin. He always saw the White man standing by and looking on. Why should not he?

Poor fellow, he is not yet wise enough to read [167] the Divine injunction that he who will not labour shall not eat. The Negro is a little world of whims and fancies, ecstacies and superstitions. He imagines life a comedy and a masquerade, in which the parts and costumes are dispensed by chance. If he could only change the parts and dresses! For the moment he is full of this idea. Fame and fortune, power and splendour, seem to him the fruit of a gigantic lottery called Public Life, and he is haunted by the notion that if he could only invest his fortunes in that lottery he might live in a fine house and have squash and sweet potato, whisky and tobacco, all his days. Hence, he is hot with politics, to the neglect of everything he has to do. Shall he come to the front? Yes, stand in front. To have a thousand faces turned towards him, to hear a thousand voices ring out: “Bravo!-dat is good,hock, hi, hi, hee!” is what he wants.

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