America, Look at your Shame

My friend Richard Coram sent me a reprint of a James Agee (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) essay—unpublished during his lifetime. It appeared in issue 43 of The Oxford American.

Agee (1909-1955) was born in Tennessee, educated at Exeter and Harvard, and traveled widely for his writing. This essay, “America, Look at Your Shame!” was written after the Detroit race riots of 1943, where hundreds were injured and thirty-four killed.

It’s a beautiful day in New York, and Agee, a week before his own induction interview, is on a crosstown bus. It fills with soldiers and sailors, who turn out to be from the South, and who greet each other with the delight and pride southerners show when they find each other on alien soil.

Their conversation turns to the niggers on the bus, and the God damned niggers in this f-ing town, and the f-ing niggers all over the God damned f-ing North.

The bus gets quiet as the servicemen’s language grows more cruel: what they would do if a nigger dared sit by a white woman in Atlanta. If they could get one of these northern niggers down there, you’d see what they’d do. They’d see a thing or two.

Agee pictures himself standing, grabbing the biggest sailor, and hitting him on his clean-shaven jaw. Sees the crowd of them beating the hell out of him, calling him nigger-lover. He tries to think of what he could say—wise words about the War, and isn’t this what we’re fighting for–to make it a free country for everyone? But he sits silent—as if his mouth is filled with cotton-batting.

He sees the big sailor stand and a small elderly Negro woman take his seat. She is crying a little and speaking softly: “You ought to be ashamed talking that way. People never done you no harm. Ain’t your skin that makes the difference, it’s how you feel inside. Wearing a sailor’s uniform. Fighting for your country. Ought to be ashamed.”

There is an immense quiet.

Agee is relieved, and revolted by his own cowardice—which he admits by telling us this story.

 

One who condones evils is just as guilty as the one who perpetrates it. -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)  

 

5 responses »

  1. Pauline Rusert

    Thank you Norma.

    Reply
  2. I am grieved and appalled by such racism and bigotry that has been, and still is displayed in such a wonderful country as the United States of America. Will it ever end? There will be no peace until it ends. I was not raised in a prejudiced home and I thank God for that. My mother’s comment on hearing blacks spoken of with degradation was “what are you going to do if God’s is black”. That usually shut up the offender. I took up my mother’s mantra and I am thankful that my children are free from such bigotry. I applaud the courage of that little woman.

    Reply
  3. James Agee, maybe my all-time favorite American writer. (Besides the book you referenced, he wrote the memoir ‘A Death in the Family’).. He didn’t live a long life, and thus didn’t leave a great oeurve, so to find a James Agee story I hadn’t read is a real gift. thanks,

    Jill

    Reply
  4. I love this story. I love how the whole of history can change direction, by a single sentence, or a word. Like Rosa Parks saying NO when told to move to the back of a bus. Sometimes our fear of physical violence keeps us from speaking up. But the women who fought for women’s right to vote were brutalized in prison, and never once were sorry. Sometimes it is more important to be injured ourselves, then to see another child brutalized in our place, or a whole race, or a whole world.

    Reply
  5. Mary Ellen Tracy

    You’re a force to be reckoned with, Norma!
    You are a clear and loud voice for Social Justice.

    Reply

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