And/Or by Sterling Brown, 1946
The magic trick:
Outlining the crippling injustice of Southern bureaucracy with regard to African Americans
“And/Or” is a story about bureaucracy. And if that sounds kinda boring to you, I’m sorry to report that this story will fulfill your expectations. It’s too short to be really be boring. I’m just not sure the rote details of a man’s unjust run through racist Alabama red tape are the best way to make this point.
However, there is no denying it’s an important point to make. The notion that the United States functions on a racially level playing field is a joke. “And/Or” might be a little dry in its detailed look at the world of permits and land deeds, but it’s excellent to have a record of the horribly unfair practices White America has maintained over the years in order to keep black people out of power. And that’s quite a trick on Brown’s part.
Knowing the ropes, Houston’s first strategic step to get the vote was to buy a radio at a white store and charge it. This was his first charge account in the town, but it meant a possible white sponsor to vouch for him when the polls opened. Two weeks later he applied to the Board of Registrars. He was asked, “Do you have three hundred dollars worth of taxable property?”
Houston said no, but added that he understood that the property qualification was alternative to the literacy qualification. He was told that he was wrong: he had to have three hundred dollars worth of property or forty acres of land. That seemed to end the matter as far as the Board was concerned. Houston waited a few minutes and then asked if he would be permitted to make out an application. He was granted permission with the warning that the Board would have to pass on his case, and that as he did not have the property qualification, the chances were against him. He was also told that he needed two residents of the town to vouch for his character. He named the merchant from whom he had bought the radio and a clothing merchant.
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