White Rat by Gayl Jones, 1971
The magic trick:
Using a story within a story to put forth the main theme
To tell the truth, I don’t totally know what to make of this story. I know it makes me incredibly sad. Jones paints a depressing picture of all-encompassing ignorance when it comes to southern race relations and racial identity. The most memorable single element of the story, for me, is the anecdote the narrator relates about a time he was arrested with some black friends. He is put in the jail cell for white men because his skin and features evidently appear to be those of a white man even though he claims African lineage. He presents the recollection as a lark, a funny memory. But the whole thing is just very sad – a heartbreaking sketch of a man and an indictment of a society in one. And that’s quite a trick on Jones’s part.
Cov’ton just standing there grinning, and don’t say nothing. I don’t say nothing. I’m just waiting. Grandy ask, “Cov’, where Rat?” Sometime she just call me Rat and leave the “White” off. Cov’ say, “They put him in the cage with the white men.” Crab Face standing there looking funny now. His back to me, but I figure he looking funny now. Grandy says, “Take me to my other boy, I want to see my other boy.” I don’t think Crab Face want her to know he thought I was white so he don’t say nothing. She just standing there looking up at him cause he tall and fat and she short and fat. Crab Face finally say, “I put him in a cell by hisself cause he started a rucus.” He point over to me, and she turn and see me and frown.