page 1 of 2
One day, while Paul is reading by his favorite pond on his father's plantation, three black boys who work on the plantation approach him and begin to taunt him. When they mention Paul's "white daddy," Paul, fed up, asks them to get off his land. In response, the boys begin tearing pages out of his book until Paul starts to fight them. Suddenly, Mitchell appears and beats the angry boys off. Despite the boys' teasing, Mitchell avows that he will always stand up for Paul if the boys gang up on him again. That settled, he asks the boys to help him get a wagon out of the mud, and they comply. Mitchell returns to the pond to find Paul still reading, and Mitchell tells Paul that the boys had said Paul threatened to have them and their families put off the land. Paul admits with chagrin that the boys may have understood his words in this manner. Mitchell asks Paul how he can love and respect a man who once owned him and his mother, and he predicts that all of Paul's white family members will betray him. Paul insists that their bonds are stronger than the pressures of race.
A few days later, Paul and his father take a hunting trip, during which Paul's father tells Paul the well-worn story of his mother's father, a Native American who owned and loved the land before whites settled the area. Paul's father, reflecting on Paul's capabilities, suggests that Paul and Robert will be able to manage the farm prosperously as a pair. While Paul begins to daydream about managing the farm with his beloved brother, Mister Edward interrupts, telling Paul that he plans to send him away to Macon, Georgia, to learn carpentry, a trade with which he can support himself his entire life if necessary. Robert, he continues, will attend a boy's school in Savannah. At home later, Robert and Paul lament their upcoming separation, and Robert goes so far as to wish the two boys were full brothers. Paul senses that forces beyond their control are coming between the two.
Paul then explains the moment when, he says, he realized that he was a member of two separate families. Usually, he explains, he and Cassie eat at the table with Mister Edward's other children, but when company comes, the two black children ate in the kitchen. When he was young, this did not bother Paul, as Robert, too young to eat at the adult table, came to eat with him. However, when Robert is required to stay in the dining room and when Cassie has left home for Atlanta, Paul finds himself alone in the kitchen. On the occasion in question, however, his mother, and not his father, tells him to eat in the kitchen. Paul, burning with indignation, refuses to eat, storming out onto the back porch. Eventually, he stalks off into the woods, and Hammond follows him.
Hammond tells Paul about his own struggles with being a member of a biracial family. When he was young, Hammond had deeply resented Paul's mother, and the resentment only grew when his own mother died shortly after Robert was born. Finally, when he was fourteen, Paul's mother had talked straight to him and asked him what he expected she could have done when Mister Edwards, her importunate owner, had wanted to initiate a relationship with her. Hammond tells Paul that by now, as far as he is concerned, Paul is family no matter what. Paul reflects on the dual life that his mother and his father have given him. When he returns home, he speaks to her disrespectfully for sleeping with a white man, and she lights into him with fury, reminding him that she will always be his mother.
Distressed, Paul writes to Cassie, who promptly comes home. Cassie tells him of the trouble she has had in Atlanta, as many of the blacks resent her for being light-skinned, but she does not always pass for white, so the white community does not accept her. She tries to make Paul see how little choice their mother has had in the course of her life, and how hard she and their father have worked to provide them with a good a life. Suddenly, his mother appears in the doorway with a beautiful painted box in her hands. She explains that she wants the children to have something when she is gone, rambling on somewhat incoherently about the money she has managed to stash away and the few items of jewelry she owns. Without opening the box, she leaves the room.
Many scholars and activists argue that the grip of slavery on the United States was neither eased nor broken until the middle of the twentieth century, at the advent of the civil rights movement. Though the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution declared U.S. citizenship to African Americans, with all rights and freedoms attendant to that status, state and local governments—as well as social and economic practices—served to deny African Americans equality. Mister Edward, though an honest and fair-minded man, lived and profited by those customs. The Civil War had devastated the entire south, leaving infrastructure, crops, land, and livestock pillaged or ravaged. The people who were best equipped to reestablish economic viability were landowners, namely, the former white plantation owners and slave owners. Former slaves had no assets whatsoever, and, since the Reconstruction laws made no provisions to redistribute land or other assets to them, they were forced to work the land of the white plantation owners in a relationship that resembled slavery. Besides this, social customs and Jim Crow laws, which unconstitutionally deprived African Americans of their rights, enforced the continued subordination of blacks to whites. Mister Edward, who loves and respects his two mixed race children, has them eat at the table with his white children but not when company comes. He understands that the price both he and the two children would have to pay for this infraction of social norms would be too high. Similarly, both he and Paul's mother understand that it is acceptable for a white man to sleep with a black woman, but it is not acceptable for her to live in his house or eat at his table. Though Paul's father sees his black mistress and children as equals, society does not allow him to treat them as such. Social norms, and his decision to abide by them, infiltrate his relationships with his most immediate family members.
Take a Study Break!