|1938 by Carl Van Vechten
Last post, I wrote about the lion and its symbolic nature in Arna Bontemps’ “Mr. Kelso’s Lion.” Today, I want to discuss “Heathen at Home,” another story from The Old South (1973). While reading “Heathen at Home,” my mind kept going back to Donna Lee in James Wilcox’s Modern Baptists (1983) and Hunk City (2007). In those novels, Donna Lee seeks to help those who are less fortunate than her; however, her “benevolence” carries with it a sort of paternalism and haughtiness that does not lead to any change at all in the conditions of the community or the people she tries to help. As I reflected upon Donna Lee, I also couldn’t help but think about Mr. Norton and the Board of Trustees in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952).
Even though the protagonist of Ellison’s novel escorts Mr. Norton around campus and the surrounding area, the white board member has no hands on interaction with the students he has dedicated his life to assist. However, rather than assisting, Mr. Norton views the students and the college as place to fulfill his legacy of “benevolence” and to solidify his place as a humanitarian to those less fortunate than himself. He tells the narrator, “But as you develop you must remember that I am dependent upon you to learn my fate. Through you and your fellow students I become, let us say, three hundred teachers, seven hundred trained mechanics, eight hundred skilled farmers, and so on” (45). Norton, who does not even know the Invisible Man’s name, sees his legacy not as individuals but as quantifiable numbers that can be flaunted to highlight his impact.
Likewise, Miss Abigail Conroy sees her spiritual legacy intertwined with the students at Mount Lebanon, a school for African Americans that she runs in Alabama. “Heathen at Home” begins with a description of Abigail’s desire to serve God through missionary work, but instead of working overseas, she chose to work at home: “The natives of Africa, she would explain, are no more superstitious, no more illiterate, no more benighted that are the poorer blacks of Alabama” (90). For the past twenty years, Abigail served at Mount Lebanon, and everything she “touched blossomed” at the school (91). Even during the Depression, the school succeeded, gaining prominence when the financial system seemed most dire.
All of her work, however, gets threatened when she has to look after her Uncle Homer at the school. Abigail asks the gardener Nimrod to look after Homer, and Nimrod sees that the man’s prejudices do not hide themselves behind a veneer of “benevolence.” At one point, he encounters a group of students, looks out at the landscape, and says, “All this land belongs to my niece Abigail. . . You don’t seem to understand. This place belongs to Abigail. These are Abigail’s mules, and all of you are Abigail’s niggers” (96-97). Homer’s description portrays Abigail as someone akin to Norton. Even though Norton does not use the same type of language, he sees the school and its students as nothing more than numbers, like his own property.
After Homer causes problems for Abigail, she ships him back to her brother with the caveat that she must hire her brother’s son as a teacher. Hal Jr. arrives and causes more trouble for Abigale with the students. Hal chastises the students for not working fast enough and even brings a gun into the classroom when he fears for his safety. All of this, and other instances, lead some of the students to present a formal complaint to the Board of Trustees to have Abigail removed.
Unlike the Invisible Man, the students at Mount Lebanon seek change; however, even though they pursue this avenue they do not achieve anything, The Board, which appears to be made up entirely of white “philanthropists,” hears the students’s complaints. As the hear the complaints, they placate the students, but they do not do anything rash. Instead, the story ends with the chairman of the board telling those gathered at the hearing,” I think we can assure these young people that we have their interests at heart, that we will do the very best thing for them. And if they will take up their work as usual tomorrow, they may be confident that the board will at least study their needs at the proper time. Nothing can be done in a hurry, of course” (109). With this, the students leave, smiling yet dejected, and Abigail continues to cry. This is where the story ends, with the false pretense of change.
Based on the story, we can assume that change does not come in any form. Abigail may leave the school; however, the board will maintain its control over the affairs at Mount Lebanon, adding to their earthly and spiritual legacies. What makes “Heathen at Home” compelling is the students actions. As stated earlier, unlike the Invisible Man, the students do not just think about the system, they actively speak about it and work to change it. Even though they ultimately fail, they take the agency, unlike the Invisible Man during his time in college. They become more than anonymous students who can appear as numbers on a spread sheet and report; they become human.
of stories in The Old South
deserves greater attention. Stay tuned in the future for more work on this collection and on the author himself. As usual, what are your thoughts about this topic? Let me know in the comments below.
Bontemps, Arna. “Heathen at Home.” The Old South: “A Summer Tragedy” and Other Stories of the Thirties. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1973. 89-109.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1980