I’ve read William Melvin Kelley’s Dem (1967) and A Different Drummer (1962). After reading Eli Rosenblatt’s piece on Kelley in May at Public Books, I decided to dig further into Kelley’s work, beginning with his short story collection Dancers on the Shore (1964). Immediately, two stories stuck out to me from the collection, “The Only Man on Liberty Street” and “The Servant Problem.” Over the next couple of posts, I want to explore each of these stories in a little more detail.
“The Only Man on Liberty Street” opens up the collection, and upon initially reading it, I could not help abut think contemporaneous works from the period like Ernest Gaines Of Love and Dust (1967) and “Bloodline,” Frank Yerby’s Speak Now (1969), and Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976) along with older texts such as Lydia Maria Child’s “The Quadroons.” Kelley’s story centers around a young girl named Jennie, the daughter of a mixed-race woman named Josie and a married Irish immigrant named Maynard Herder. Even though the story is third person point of view, we get the narrative through Jenny’s eyes, seeing what she sees and hearing what she hears. In this way, we experience the psychological effects of racist thought on the children of interracial relationships when the law openly condemns such relationships but privately condones them.
Liberty Street is the street where white men come to have liaisons with “Negro” women. At the beginning of the story, we see Jennie playing in the yard as Maynard rides up to the house. In fact, “[s]he knew him. Her mother called him Mister Herder and had told Jennie that he was Jennie’s father.” Only women and children lived on Liberty Street; the men would come and go back to their own houses and their wives when finished. From the outset, Jennie knows that Mr. Herder is her father; however, she does not have any interaction with him.
On the day that the story opens, Maynard rides up to Josie and Jennie’s house and tells Josie that he plans to stay on Liberty Street, leaving his white wife, Josephine, and staying with Jennie and her mother. Maynard wants a relationship with his daughter and Josie. He moves into the house, and immediately, the space takes on a domestic tinge. Maynard tells Josie to refer to no longer call him Mr. Herder but to call him by his first name, and he informs her that he will not return to Josephine because he only knows what “home” means when he comes to see Josie and Jennie. The scene turns domestic immediately after this when Joise tells Maynard, “Dinner’ll be on the table in a half hour” before she takes up Maynard’s carpetbag and carries it up stairs.
Everyday, Jennie waits outside for Maynard to return home from work, and everyday he turns the corner and walks home. While he is at work, Jennie sees a carriage roll past the house daily with a white woman riding the back while a Black servant drives her around. Eventually, the carriage stops and the servant comes to the door with a letter from Josephine (the woman in the carriage). We do not see what the letter says, but the assumption is that it is a scathing and threatening letter telling Maynard to return home or something bad will happen to Josie and Jennie. At this point, we find out that Josie is, in fact, whiter than Josephine; however, her mother was a slave, thus making her, legally, “Negro.” She is the daughter of the mayor, Dewey Wilson, and thus Jennie is the mayor’s granddaughter. Maynard throws the letter on the fire and declares he will never go back, even if he children in masks come to the house.
The scene ends with Josie looking at Jennie and telling her daughter, “Jennie, you’ll be right pretty when you get grown. . . . Promise me you’ll go up North. Promise me if I’m not here when you get eighteen, you’ll go up north and get married.” Jennie does not totally comprehend, but she agrees. While Maynard has the ability to stand up to the community because of his “whiteness,” Josie knows that Jennie will face violence and sexual aggression because, even though her skin is even lighter than Josephine’s, she is a Negro.
The story concludes with Maynard taking Jennie to the annual shooting match in town. Josie doesn’t like the idea of Maynard taking Jennie with him, but he promised the young girl that he would take her. He tells Josie, “I take her. We do not discuss it. Those sneaking cowards in their masks . . . ” Again, Maynard appears strong, and because of his “whiteness,” he demands that Jennie goes with him. He wants to stand up to the “cowards,” but he does not totally understand the experiences that Josie has endured and her trepidation about Jennie going into town with her father.
At the match, Maynard wins, and he climbs the stage to get his medal from Dewey Wilson. Standing off of the stage, Jennie hears some of the conversation. Wilson tells Maynard that “[e]verybody knows about Liberty Street,” essentially accepting the extramarital affairs that occur there. Wilson comments that he even had a woman down on Liberty Street to which Maynard replies, “She’s your own daughter.” Wilson knows that Josie is his daughter, but he refuses to have anything to do with her because she is a Negro. This, of course, calls to mind he ways that Bonbon treats his sons in Of Love and Dust.
Wilson tells Maynard that he can’t hold the men in masks, and Maynard simply retorts that he will shoot them dead if they attempt to do anything to him. At this point, Wilson brings up Jennie, telling Maynard that nothing he would do would matter “after they’d done something to her.” Wilson acknowledges his granddaughter and even tells Maynard that he doesn’t have to forget her; he just needs to go home to Josephine. Maynard then takes Jennie’s hand and walks away, angry.
Sitting down on a bench with her father under the gaze of a “stone soldier,” Jennie looks around and sees a poor, white man with a doll. The man smiles at her, pulls the dolls legs apart, and “jammed his finger into the rip between the doll’s legs.” The sexual imagery here is explicit, and when Jennie asks Maynard what the man was doing, her father looks at the man and the man repeats the show. Maynard rises furiously, screaming, “I will kill you for that!” It is at this point that Maynard realizes what Josie and Jennie must endure. He asks Jennie to adhere to the promise she made her mother that she would head North when she turned eighteen, and he gives her his medal, telling her, “Always remember I gave it to you.”
With that, Maynard returns home. Jennie tries to stay awake to see her father return, but he doesn’t. She waits for him the next day to come around the corner, but he doesn’t. She waits for the woman in the carriage to appear, she doesn’t. Maynard does not stay; he succumbs to the strictures of the society that he, Josie, and Jennie inhabit. Even though he wants to protect Jennie, the best way ends up being the worst way. Jennie and Josie both suffer because the “legal fictions” that make up the community refuse to allow them to be together as a family solely on the basis of race. All of this recalls Kathy and Harry’s relationship in Speak Now, Pauline and Bonbon and Louise and Marcus in Of Love and Dust, Tee Bob and Mary Agnes in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and countless other fictional and real-life incidents.
Love does not even get to blossom in the face of “legal fictions.” What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.