Selma, Alabama, in 1906 was just a small, poor town. It was close to Montgomery, which was its only redeeming quality. Most of the blacks in Selma were uneducated. Most of the blacks were poor. All of the blacks were terrified of the Ku Klux Klan.
There were black restaurants and white restaurants, a black hotel and a white hotel, a black grocery store and a white grocery store. You name it, if it was a business, there was one for whites and one for blacks, except for drugstores and candy stores.
It was rumored, however, that Mr. Walsh sold some black women some candy because their children were pressing their little black faces against the windows and smudging them up with saliva. Walsh figured it was easier than washing the huge plate-glass window front.
The dilemma for Elijah and Benny at the present time was they couldn’t remember if Walsh let the women enter the store, or if they knocked and the storekeeper came outside to sell them the prized candy.
Nevertheless, candy was sold to black people, and Benny had a new girlfriend named Beatrice, and she talked endlessly about the new candy store.
* * *
Elijah Smith and Benny Jackson were best friends. They worked at the sawmill together. Their biggest ambition in life was to save up enough money between them to purchase a brand new 1906 Ford Model N.
It was an open-air type, no enclosure, with a seat that could fit four people, not so comfortably, but it was perfect to haul two fine ladies in nonetheless. They retailed for seven hundred and sixty-seven dollars at Montgomery Ford Automobile and Tractor Company. They would be known as the only black men in Selma, Alabama, with an automobile.
Elijah had pictured himself behind the wheel of a shiny red Model N ever since he saw that fancy white dude and his fancy white woman drive down Main Street the previous year, tooting his horn and putting on all kinds of fancy airs. He had to wait until the car passed before looking directly at the white woman, of course. It was unhealthy to do otherwise. He thought to himself that this was the way to live—a fancy-schmancy white-people lifestyle.
He often let swanky white people get into his head. He hated to admit it, but he also saw himself as a fancy white dude with a fancy white girlfriend. He wasn’t ashamed that he was black, it’s just that he would like to have been born white. Elijah would sometimes catch a nap under the big water oak tree by the mill during lunch breaks. His heavy eyes flashed scenes of himself with his fancy white tuxedo with his fancy white woman, all beautiful with all those locks of golden-blond hair and pretty white teeth.
The maître d’ bows politely as the door of the fancy white restaurant opens for him and he and his fancy white woman are ceremoniously escorted to the best table in the joint.
The waiter is acting—what’s that new fancy white man’s word he heard the other day, oh yeah, “obsequiously”—trying to earn himself a big tip for acting so fancy. The waiter wins, and Elijah decides to patronize him accordingly and reaches inside his fancy white tux and gently removes the bulging white man’s wallet full of white man’s money.
“Here you are, my good man,” he says in his fancy white man’s voice as he is trying to fold the bulging wallet back together.
Elijah wakes up from his dream, his eyes slowly opening.
He fixes his stare on the water oak tree’s branches. He looks slowly down his body and catches sight of the back of his very brown hands. The harsh reality rushes upon him, and he realizes who he is.
That was the only thing he hated about dreaming—having to wake up.
* * *
“I think there’s a white woman in there, Benny,” said Elijah with a loud whisper, taking hold of Benny’s hand to keep him from entering a store when a white lady was present. The consequences of looking the wrong way at white women in 1906 Alabama could be deadly.
“It’s all right, ’Lij. We ain’t going in till she leaves.” Benny repositioned himself nonchalantly by the door, leaning against the storefront while patiently waiting for the white woman to leave.
“Why don’t we just knock, Benny? Damn, I don’t like this.” Elijah was starting to lose his nerve.
“I done told you I wanted to see all them flavors so I can pick her out the right one just for her,” Benny said irritably.
“Why don’t we just leave and come back just before closing time so they won’t be nobody in there?” Elijah was getting more and more nervous standing in front of an all-white people’s store.
Benny looked at Elijah contemptuously. “’Cause we already standing here now, that’s why.”
Just then the candy store door flew open and the white woman was suddenly standing at the door, glaring at the two black men.
Again, for a black man in the 1906 South, there was a right way and a wrong way NOT to look at a white woman. The correct way was to slowly and unobtrusively turn away from whatever direction the white woman was approaching and stare down at the ground with your hands behind your back until she safely passed by. That was the respectful way to do it.
This would prevent the uncontrollable black-savage urge to snatch the white woman off to the woods and viciously rape her. This of course would render the white woman dead to society. She would be ruined.The exact wrong way to do it was precisely the very way they did do it.
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