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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Section in Italics (I)

Chapters 12–13

Section in Italics (II)

Summary

Rufus's house is on the way to school for many children in the neighborhood, and he likes to stand outside his house and watch the boys and girls walk by on their way to school. He is envious of their school clothes and their many- colored books and packaged lunches. When any of the children look at him, he says hello. Some of the kinder older boys say hello back, and occasionally even ruffle his hair.

A group of younger boys come up to Rufus daily and ask him what his name is. He realizes after a while that they do this over and over not because they forget his name, but because they like to tease him about it. Invariably, one of the boys protests that he really does not know Rufus's name, and he persists in saying this until Rufus breaks down and tells him. The boys always seem so nice in their intent that Rufus is always deceived. As soon as he says his name they burst into laughter and begin to chant: "Rufus, Rastus, Johnson, Brown, / What ya gonna do when the rent comes roun?" Others would yell "Nigger's name! Nigger's name!" and then chant another verse Rufus has heard them yell to the backs of colored people: "Nigger, nigger black as tar, / Tried to ride a lectric car, / Car broke down and broke his back, / Poor nigger wanted his nickel back."

Rufus asks his mother one day if Rufus really is a "nigger's name" and if that is why the boys always make fun of it. Mary replies that it is a fine old family name—his Grandpa Lynch's name—and that Rufus should not pay attention to what the other boys say. Rufus tells the teasing children this information the next time they bother him, but they only use it against him, telling him that his grandfather must be a nigger too. Rufus cannot understand why they wanted to tease him, and he resolves never to tell them his name, even though he wants very much to be liked by them.

Later, the boys ask him to sing a song and dance that his mother has taught him, and again they do so in such a nice, sincere manner that Rufus believes them and obliges. The younger boys start hooting and laughing, but the older boys reprimand the younger ones so that Rufus feels the older boys are on his side. Later, however, when the older boys walk away, he can hear them making fun of him too.

Analysis

The italicized section about the boys who tease Rufus focuses on Rufus's point of view, allowing us to see what a kind, sensitive, and intelligent little boy he is. He is torn between wanting to be liked and being afraid that the boys will make fun of him. However, he persists in believing that at least some of the boys genuinely like him, so he keeps performing for them over and over. Some of the older boys realize that in order to keep Rufus performing the song, they must pretend to chide the younger boys who laugh at Rufus; this ruse is generally successful.

The specter of racism becomes evident once again in the boys' teasing, as they taunt Rufus with a rhyme including other names that black people used, such as "Rastus." The last line of the rhyme emphasizes the economic poverty of black people at that time, implying that blacks do not have enough money to pay their own rent. Indeed, the narrative takes place just fifty years after the end of the Civil War, a time when racism is still a prominent part of Southern society.

The narrative never tells us where Mary is from. If she is from the South, she must have been raised in an enlightened family that was not racist in any way. Indeed, this section is the second instance in the novel when Mary tells Rufus that there is no difference between black people and white people. She says that Rufus is a fine name for any person. Earlier on, she insists that Rufus never mention the way that Victoria smelled. Mary is clearly extremely sensitive to plight of black people at the time; even though Rufus likes the way Victoria smelled, Mary knows that any comment could be taken the wrong way due to the racially charged society of the time.

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