Thursday, October 10, 2013

How Sleeps The Beast, Don Tracy 1937

Jim, a Negro sitting in a small town jail in the south for a rape and murder he may or may not have done while drunk, is about to be lynched.  

White southerners from near and far arrive in town by the thousands when word got out that they'd "caught the nigger who did it." The town sheriff is in the unenviable position of carrying out his duties to the word of the law.  

Problem is the Sheriff is up for re-election in a year and many of the folks who wanna come in and "snatch the nigger and string'em up" are voters he'll be soliciting again come election time, folks who live next door to him, merchants who give him credit.  Even the sheriff's deputy has abandoned him to his fate.  He's got three options and none include calling in the National Guard for outside help. He's already told a higher up that he can handle the situation. And the situation is quickly coming to climax.

Option 1. Try to protect the jail and Jim, facing the lynch mob alone
Option 2. Rush Jim out of town and up to Baltimore where he'd be safe
Option 3. Hand Jim over to the lynch mob and let them do what they do

Meanwhile, one of the men from the town who'd gone to school up north and has recently returned is concerned for Jim and appalled by the injustice about to be carried out.  Al grew up with Jim as a boy, knows Jim's Aunt Ruby well and knows Jim to be a "good boy."  Al remembers Jim saving him once when he fell into a frozen pond while hunting.

The scene I'm about to share below has Al at home, sympathetic to Jim's situation, telling his elderly mother what's about to take place in town come sundown.  His mother is set in the old ways of the south and after hearing Al's accusations against speedy southern justice and uncivil behavior, berates him for being brainwashed by northern radicals and forgetting how his late father had raised him. Mother still believes a good lynching keeps the niggers in check and in their place.

Pulp-Fiction Writer Don Tracy captured what I'm sure many a white lawmen and townsfolk from the south must've faced during the dark days of lynch mob justice; the choice to side with civil justice or southern injustice.  The Negro had no choice in the matter. None!

How Sleeps The Beast, by Don Tracy
copyright 1937, 1938  
pgs. 53-56

"Justice!  Justice to give a man over to a blood-crazed mob to torture? You call that justice?

"But what purpose can this thing that's going to happen tonight possibly serve?  Do you think it'll reform bad niggers?  It won't!  There never was a lynching that wasn't followed by a crime wave.  Figures show that.  You can't change a bad man, a bad nigger, into a good man, simply by lynching another bad nigger.  It makes them worse.  They plan and scheme, determined to pay brutality with more brutality."

His mother's thin fingers tapped on the tablecloth.

"You give them credit for too great a mental capacity, Alan.  After all, they're little more than children or intelligent animals.  They don't reason as we do.  They have only one strong urge outside of the instincts of physical existence.  They all want domination, power, authority over the white race.  It's born in them.  In some the urge never is apparent to us.  In others it's stronger.  In a few it crops out in cases like today's murder."

"It's a natural urge," her son argued.  "If the situation were reversed, we whites would have the same urge."

"But the situation is not reversed.  And to prevent the situation from being reversed we must, at times, act swiftly and with force.  We must deal with primitives in a primitive fashion.  They need something like this to remind them that we can act.  That when they get out of hand, there's this waiting for them."

He stared at the white-haired woman across the table.
"Mother! he said.  "I never thought I'd ever hear you talk like that!  And about Jim!  Aunt Ruby's boy!  Jim!  He did everything but eat and sleep with me when we were kids.  You can sit there and say that about Jim?"

His mother pushed back her chair and rose.

"You're young, Alan.  You've been North to school and you've accepted as facts the things you've heard said by people who never lived in this part of the country.  Who know only what they've read in books about things like this.  Who have dealt with the problem only in the abstract."

"But they're the only ones who can be faithful to facts," he answered.  "They aren't obsessed by the pride that makes a shiftless, drunken oysterman hold himself worlds above a clean, industrious Negro."

His mother's knuckles rapped the table.

"That's enough, Alan!  I won't have you talking like that.  You were born on the Eastern Shore.  These people are your people.  Jim was a good boy when you two were children.  Now he's a murderer and a violator of a white woman.  He showed that girl no mercy when he attacked her.  Now he deserves nothing more than what he's going to get.  You've let your gratitude for what he once did for you unsettle your saner judgment."

"I'd feel the same way about any nigger," he answered.  "I'm sick of this rotten system that" -

His mother was a slender, quivering figure.  The chair which she had been sitting fell backward, thudding against the carpeted floor.

"I said that was enough!  If your college taught you only to condemn your home, your family, your friends, to become the defender of a drunken Negro murderer, then I'm sorry you ever went to school.  I'm glad your father isn't alive to hear all this.  He loved the Shore and the people here.  He'd throw you out of this house."

She left the dining room.  Al stood still, hands resting on the back of his chair, looking at his plate.  Kernels of corn were scattered around the edge of the slab of pot roast.  The coffee in his cups still steamed - but Perky would know.  Perky would understand.

The Girl Was a White Prostitute!
The Charge Was Rape
How Sleeps The Beast does not take place in the deep south,  but in middle-eastern civilized America.  It could take place, and maybe it did, in your own home town.

My Amazon Review 

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