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)