Ben by Kay Boyle, 1938
The magic trick:
Portraying the black man as child-like and sympathetic, the old white man as rigid and uncaring
This might be a first on the SSMT blog. I’m highlighting a magic trick that one really shouldn’t strive to recreate. There is no denying that Boyle very successfully tugs at the reader’s heartstrings with this story. She has a 30-year-old black man loyally follow his employer around the house doing whatever he says, no matter how eccentric and pointless.
So having successfully reduced this character to that of a likeable, loyal dog, she then moves to make him a child. Less than a child, really. He is forced to admit he doesn’t know anything about colors. He breaks down and cries in front of his employer’s grandchildren on Christmas morning when his stocking is left empty.
Yes, we feel great sympathy for him. But is this a respectful characterization? No. It’s horribly condescending to the point of hateful.
No, I suspect this is actually what passed as liberal, progressive thought on Boyle’s part. I would not be surprised at all if she thought she was writing a story that fought for the rights of black Americans. You know, all those kind, sweet, loyal, adorable, little, child-like, domesticated pets.
The thing is, it’s a brilliantly written story. The portrait of the grandfather is original and damning. The portrait of Ben, though, is damning in its own way. Different times, I guess. If nothing else, it’s a very interesting study in the way time and politics can change the way a story is read. And that’s quite a trick on Boyle’s part.
“Come, come, Ben,” he said. “This is no way to talk. Perhaps your Christmas is coming later. Perhaps old Santy – ”
“That’s my Christmas,” said Ben before he went tiptoeing down the stairs, his shoulders stooped in pain. “There’s my Christmas hanging up, still waiting –” And we turned and looked again, holding our toys against us, at the long gray empty cotton stocking that nobody had ever worn.
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