Cassy Morgan won first place in the poetry contest. This had an unexpected effect on her. It filled her with gratitude and rage. Gratitude that her white teachers had been open-minded enough to allow a colored girl such a rare victory; rage because she knewthat they saw themselves as being generous, noble, far-seeing, etc., in permitting her to triumph. But the simple truth was that Cassy’s nearest competitors hadn’t even been worthy. Competitors?
Eudora Potts. Are you kidding? That sweaty girl with beer-colored hair? That was the competition. That sweaty nail-biting girl who always smelled like medicine and signed her homework Eudora Persephone Potts, although everyone knew for a fact that her middle name was no such thing. She was the closest that Morgan Park High School, with its five hundred and twenty white students, could come to producing a non-Negro versifier who was nearly as competent as Cassy Morgan. The closest to being what Cassy herself might call careful with words. And what had Eudora Potts come up with? What kind of poem had she entered into the contest? Pseudo-Classical tripe. O azure-eyed Adonis and all that jazz. And Chester: he was sweet. He was really sweet. But hardly T.S. Eliot.
Cassy had felt her black face burn with almost life-threatening shame when Miss Calvert announced it: third place Chester Bain for Nine Pearls On A Diamond (a baseball sonnet!), second place Eudora Potts for O Beauty! O Love!, and first place…there was an audible gasp from the back of the room as Miss Calvert sounded the first hard syllable of Cassy’s name…Cassy Morgan for Does The Lamplight Teach The Darkness?
The audible gasp…Cassy knew that gasp. That disbelieving gasp. It was the sound of Moira McConnell being scandalized. That stiff little doll named Moira McConnell. In that one green blouse she always wore. With her brittle red curls and her plaster of Paris skin, which was rash-prone. Cassy recognized Moira’s gasp because she had heard it before.
Because Cassy had accidentally brushed against Moira McConnell on the first day of their Physical Education class together, seven months ago, naked forearm to naked forearm…they were in their sleeveless P.E. outfits at the time. It was bound to happen. To somebody. It was Phys Ed class and the girls were running and jumping and competing together…somebody was eventually bound to brush against the unclothed limb of the only Negro girl in that class at some point; it just happened to be Moira whom Fate fingered as the mortified victim. Physical Education indeed! Black naked forearm against white naked forearm: the silky hairs, even. Touching. Grazing. Oops. The horror! The Race Mixing! The…Moira jerked her arm away and…
‘She’s just jealous,’ whispered Chester Bain, taking Cassy aside in the hallway, after Miss Calvert’s English class was dismissed. Chester was Cassy’s consoler; Cassy was Chester’s defender. Chester was always there, soon after a defeat or a humiliation, to take Cassy by the elbow and steer her to a corner and whisper that somebody was just jealous. Chester could use jealousy to explain everything. If Cassy hadn’t made the audition for the school play? The Drama Teacher was just jealous. Abraham Lincoln? That second-rater John Wilkes Booth was just jealous. Pearl Harbor? The Japs were just…obviously…
Chester hadn’t been there in the Gymnasium to hear Moira McConnell’s first gasp, seven months ago, as Cassy brushed against Moira accidentally while playing basketball, but he could have been…he should have been. He was feminine enough to have been in that room with all the other girls in their blue and white P.E. outfits; he could have slouched pelvis-first through the steaming showers among thirty maidens in full pink lather and naked bloom and not a one would have screamed, or protested, unless they were trying to be funny. Chester? He was Oscar Wilde’s biggest fan. You were supposed to wink after you said that. Chester was sweet, as the Negroes put it…the three whole Negroes attending Morgan Park High School that year (and two of them were twins)…they all called Chester ‘sweet.’
‘She’s just jealous,’ he said , meaning Moira McConnell. ‘Cause everybody knows you’re the smartest girl in school, Negro or not.’ He nodded vigorously; a curved wire of his russety hair fell upon his soft white forehead and glowered there like a scar. ‘Not to mention the prettiest.’
The prettiest? Well, thought Cassy, that was taking things a bit far. She didn’t want to be prettiest, in any case. But she was the smartest. That was hers.
The other thing about Cassy: her last name. Her last name was Morgan. Her school was called Morgan Park High School (even though it stood right in the middle of Roseland); the neighborhood she lived in was called Morgan Park. Morgan Park hadn’t always been a colored neighborhood: it had once been predominantly German. Roseland had once been a part of Morgan Park, but when part of Morgan Park became predominantly colored, the part that remained white was re-christened Roseland. Why the school hadn’t yet been renamed…Morgan Park was considered a Negro name now…was a mystery.
Anyway: the school and neighborhood were the namesakes of a 19th century Robber Barron named Everett Jenkins Morgan. Everyone of course assumed that Cassy got her last name because some ancestor of hers had been the legal possession of some ancestor of Morgan’s. They all just assumed. Whether this assumption was true or not, it infuriated her.
‘Hair like the Queen of Sheba,’ continued Chester, ‘and hazel eyes, and a real graceful neck, and a well-formed bosom, and a slender waist.’ He was enumerating her charms on his fingers: he had to hand her his school books to continue counting on the other hand. ‘Exquisite long legs, a regal nose, a generous mouth, nun’s fingers…’
‘And inky black skin,’ said Cassy, with cool distaste. With utter finality. With a despair that she’d tamed into bravery. ‘Black. Black. Black.’ Three dusky syllables descending the scale.
‘What of it?’ countered Chester with his faded Southern lilt. His accent was like a lurid carnival poster that had been bleached into subtlety by a few long years of Yankee sun, and rainfall. ‘Can’t black be lovely? Doesn’t the Song of Solomon, in the Bible, teach us so? Can’t black be a lovely color too, Cassy?’
Cassy handed Chester’s books back. ‘In a cat,’ she said , ‘or cabinet.’ She eyed Moira McConnell as Moira McConnell rounded the corner at the end of the long hall ahead, going left towards the cafeteria. ‘Not a girl.’
Chester sighed. He knew he wasn’t going to win this fight. This fight was congenital. This fight would have to be fought by finer orators than himself, in loftier venues, and, besides, his great-grandfather had owned slaves, for god’s sake…he was lucky that his Negro-loving sentiments hadn’t already burned his lips with two and a half century’s worth of patrimonial irony. Who was he to be selling the notion of blackness to a black girl?
Chester shrugged, as though he meant to capitulate by saying it, and said: ‘Well, anyway, I’m proud to have come in third place in a poetry contest that you came first in, Cassy Morgan, because you are a whiz, and I’m proud as a peacock to know you.’ He hugged his books to his chest and held his chin up and smiled.
And then they rounded the corner at the end of the hall, going left, and entered the cafeteria, where five hundred white faces (and two identical black ones) turned to watch them enter. The identical black ones…the neatly dressed twins…you know what their classmates called them? Twiggers.
And the year was 1947.
The Spring of. She could smell the rich wet Earth as it warmed itself with regional languor, and roses erupted like velvety crystals of their own deep smell. Her favorite part of school was walking home from it.
Not because she hated school, but because she loved to look at some of the big houses she passed enroute to Morgan Park. She’d go out of her way…sometimes it took her nearly an hour to walk home…to walk along the nicest streets in Roseland and gaze upon the houses. One house in particular, at the corner of Throop and Pulaski, with a brass plate on the front gate that said The Frederick R. Birch House. It was not so big, but really grand. Cassy loved the extravagant topiary: the mitered and corniced hedges as thick as fresh bundles of paper money; the gables like genteel fortifications visible above them: in the Winter the little windows were always steamed up; indirect evidence of the humans living there.
‘Cassy Morgan, is that you?’ came a voice from the street. In a car.
‘Hey, Mr. Wallendorf,’ cried Cassy, waving. Wallendorf’s car sat in the middle of the street, puffing impatiently on the muddy cigar of its exhaust pipe: a little blue cloud wandered over her and made her cough. It was clear that the only way to escape the cloud was to get into the car and accept the ride that Mr. Wallendorf was offering her.
‘You must be five miles from 114th street, and it’s well nigh suppertime. Were you lost, girl?’ He didn’t wait for an answer, but continued: ‘Well I just have to run one quick errand and then I’ll get you home.’
The Vice Principal of Morgan Park High School personally chauffeuring the colored girl Cassy Morgan to her very own door step in his brand new ’47 Cadillac? Cassy could hear Moira McConnell gasping. She could hear Moira McConnell’s lung collapsing. She enjoyed the thought.
‘Cassy,’ said Wallendorf, as he worked the controls of the auto…it felt as though they were flying…’That’s short for Cassandra, yes?’
She gently corrected him. She had to say it twice; the first time he missed it. The second time she could feel her name spread itself out in the car like a peacock fanning its tail feathers. There was barely room left for either Cassy herself or Mr. Wallendorf in his own Cadillac when her name had properly revealed itself, taking full possession of both of their thoughts for the rest of the trip to her house.
Copyright © Shawn Casselle 2003
Shawn Casselle was born in Los Angeles, California, and has lived in Chicago, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Brooklyn, San Diego, London, Berlin, Hamburg, and Stockholm. He attended a very expensive private college (on a pity scholarship) and summarily dropped out.
He has worked as a professional singer, an Undertaker’s assistant, a Catalogue Writer for The First Bank System of America’s Art Collection, the floor manager for an Art House cinema, an electric razor repair man, the ash-tray emptier in a nightclub, a screenwriter, and on a road crew with tight-trousered louts in East Berlin (remind me to tell you about the time that those bastards…).
He currently earns(?) his ‘living’ with screenwriting (and its accessories), and resides in Berlin.
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