Before he started writing “costume novels,” Frank Yerby penned protest literature in the form of short stories and poems. The stories are in the vein of Richard Wright and other African American writers of the period. After failing to get his first novel length manuscript published, a protest novel, Yerby turned to what he called “costume novels,” historical narratives that subvert the plantation tradition. Today, I want to focus on Yerby’s 1944 story “Health Card” which originally appeared in Harper’s magazine and later went on to win the O. Henry Memorial Award for best short story of the year.
James L. Hill notes that Yerby’s short stories appeared at the same time as other works by authors such as Ann Petry, Chester Himes, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright, a moment that saw “a significant transition in the development of short stories written by African American writers.” Hill continues by noting that these authors “eliminated pathos from black protest stories,” introducing new insights, and they appeared not in African American publications like The Crisis and Opportunity but in mainstream publications.
“Health Card,” along with most of Yerby’s work, has not received the critical attention it deserves. That does not mean that scholars have not engaged the story; Jameelah Jones presented at Paine College’s Frank Yerby Centennial Celebration and Evelyn Etheridge Conference on the Harlem Renaissance last year on Black women, sexual shaming, and masculine protection of womanhood in “Heath Card.” Unfortunately, I was not at the conference, so I did not get to hear her presentation. I wish I could’ve been there because the topics she highlights are important to the story.
“Health Card” centers around Johnny Green, an African American soldier during World War II, and his wife Lily. Stationed the South, Johnny receives a letter from Lily in Detroit. The letter tells him that she will be coming down to visit soon because she misses him so much. Before his wife arrives, a confrontation erupts in town between African American servicemen and white Military Policemen after the M.P.s accost Mandy, an African American prostitute, and demand she produce her “health card” to show she is disease free.
Because of the fight, the commanding officer orders a month long non-leave policy for the African American soldiers, meaning Johnny will not be able to see Lily when she comes into town. Johnny must plead with the base’s Colonel so that he can go into town and spend time with Lily. The Colonel agrees but tells Johnny he has to be back each day by reveille every morning. When he picks Lily up at the bus station, the couple walk to the reverend’s house where they will be staying. On the way, they encounter two white M.P.s who perceive Lily to be a prostitute and they ask for her “health card.” Johnny speaks up, claiming Lily is his wife, but the M.P.s do not believe him. They feel that Johnny is being insolent. When Johnny tries to chase after the M.P.s when they leave, Lily stops him so he won’t get killed. This is where the story ends.
Lily is an important character in the story, and the ways that the M.P.s shame her and the ways that Johnny tries to protect are important discussions to have. The shaming of Black women begins early on in the story when Johnny sees Mandy and other women leaving “the joints” with African American soldiers on their arms only to get accosted by four white M.P.s who tell them to produce their “health cards.” They shove their way through the crowd with no regard for the bodies they touch or the people they come in contact with.
One of the women does not have a card, and the M.P.s call over a local officer, telling him, “Aw right, mister, take A’nt Jemima for a little ride.” Calling the unnamed woman “Aunt Jemima,” the M.P. displays his stereotypical view of the women he addresses. He devalues them because we never hear her name; rather, she becomes a racist stereotype. Standing to the side, the M.P. eventually notices Mandy and grabs her arm. She tells him to let go, but the M. P. continues, demanding she show him her card. Mandy bites down on the M.P.’s hand, and the all hell breaks loose.
Important here is the fact that the soldiers do not do anything until Mandy retaliates. They stand by as the M.P.’s question the women, not interfering or saying a word. There is no indication about the number of soldiers in the crowd, but we do know it was more than eight because Johnny sees eight come in “the meat wagon.” Outnumbering the M.P.s, the soldiers stand by during the interrogation. This moment mirrors, yet counters, the end of the story where Johnny stands up for Lily before the M.P.s beat him up.
The M.P.s are acting out of their belief that they should have ultimate power in policing black bodies, and they exhibit that power by making the women show their “health cards.” Fearing court marshal or even death, the soldiers don’t do anything. This scene plays out the long history of white men believing that they have control over Black bodies, specifically Black women’s bodies. Even though they do not sexually assault the women, they physically violate their space by “pushing their way through the crowd” and grabbing them. When Mandy refuses to be disrespected, the men step in, leading to some of them getting shot, but not killed, and a ban on leave for African American soldiers going into town for a month.
At the end of the story, Johnny tries to get Lily to the reverend’s house before two white M.P.s stop them. He does not make it, and just like Mandy, a white M.P. places his hand on Lily’s arm and asks for her “health card.” Again, the white man invades Lily’s space, which, as the story shows, is nonexistent for African American men and women in the story who are under constant surveillance. Johnny tells the M.P. that Lily is his wife and that she does not have a card, but the man does not believe him. The other M.P. intervenes and calms the first one down, and the one who starts the confrontation tells Lily she needs to get a card within twenty four hours.
At this point, even though Lily and Johnny can leave, Johnny responds, “[T]his girl my wife! She ain’t no ho!” The M.P. growls, but he does not attack Johnny. Before departing, the M.P. spits tobacco juice on the ground about an inch from Lily’s foot. Johnny tries to go after the two men, but Lily restrains him, pleading with him to stay there. He silently fight her, and both tumble to the ground.
Johnny sat there in the dust staring at her. The dirt had ruined her dress. He sat there a long time looking at her until the hot tears rose up back of his eyelids faster than he could blink them away, so he put his face down in her lap and cried.
Johnny, like the soldiers earlier, cannot protect Lily, causing him to feel like he is not a man because he cannot protect his wife. What is interesting, though, is that Mandy protects herself earlier by fighting back. She does not allow the M.P.s to walk over her and treat her as an inferior. With Johnny and Lily, Johnny fights back. However, he cannot save Lily the humiliation of being labeled a prostitute. In fact, Johnny now equates Lily with prostitution. The dirt ruins her dress just as the M.P. ruins her reputation and the way Johnny perceives her.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.