I: Twenty-One

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On the way back to Cleveland an amusing thing happened. During the trip to the border, several American whites on the train mistook me for a Mexican, and some of them even spoke to me in Spanish, since I am of a copper-brown complexion, with black hair that can be made quite slick and shiny if it has enough pomade on it in the Mexican fashion. But I made no pretense of passing for a Mexican, or anything else, since there was no need for it—except in changing trains at San Antonio in Texas, where colored people had to use Jim Crow waiting rooms, and could not purchase a Pullman berth. There, I simply went in the main waiting room, as any Mexican would do, and made my sleeping-car reservations in Spanish.

But that evening, crossing Texas, I was sitting alone at a small table in the diner, when a white man came in and took the seat just across the table from mine. Shortly, I noticed him staring at me intently, as if trying to puzzle out something. He stared at me a long time. Then, suddenly, with a loud cry, the white man jumped up and shouted: “You’re a nigger, ain’t you?” And rushed out of the car as if pursued by a plague.

I grinned. I had heard before that white Southerners never sat down to table with a Negro, but I didn’t know until then that we frightened them that badly.

Something rather less amusing happened at St. Louis. The train pulled into the station on a blazing-hot September afternoon, after a sticky, dusty trip, for there were no air-cooled coaches in those days. I had a short wait between trains. In the center of the station platform there was a news stand and soda fountain where cool drinks were being served. I went up to the counter and asked for an ice cream soda.

The clerk said: “Are you a Mexican or a Negro?”

I said: “Why?”

“Because if you’re a Mexican, I’ll serve you,” he said. “If you’re colored, I won’t.”

“I’m colored,” I replied. The clerk turned to wait on some one else. I knew I was home in the U.S.A.


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This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.