‘Son In The Afternoon’ by John A. Williams


Son In The Afternoon by John A. Williams, 1962

The magic trick:

Showing how a lifetime of servitude winds up pitting grown man versus young boy

“Son In The Afternoon” highlights a very natural resentment that is baked into the old (and dangerous) line of the Old South that ‘Oh, they’re not slaves; they’re part of the family.’

First of all, no, that’s disgusting and ridiculous.

But in this story – set 100 years post-slavery in Hollywood – Kay, the rich, white homeowner, says, “Oh, Nora isn’t a servant. She’s part of the family.” Thing is, Nora is first and foremost the narrator’s mother. She is not part of that family. She has her own family.

Which brings us to that resentment. The narrator hates the boy in the charge of his mother. He sees the boy getting the attention and affection from his mother that he – her real son – never received.

So, even in the best-case scenario of that tired Lost Cause argument that “they’re part of the family,” it’s a cruel, cruel setup. And that’s quite a trick on Williams’s part.

The selection:

“Nora!” he tried to roar, perhaps the way he’d seen the parents of some of his friends roar at their maids. I’m quite sure Kay didn’t shout at Nora, and I don’t think Couchman would. But then no one shouts at Nora. “Nora, you come right back here this minute!” The little bastard shouted and stamped and pointed to a spot on the floor where Nora was supposed to come to roost. I have a nasty temper. Sometimes it lies dormant for ages, and at other times, like when the weather is hot and nothing seems to be going right, it’s bubbling and ready to explode. “Don’t talk to my mother like that, you little – !” I said sharply, breaking off just before I cursed. I wanted him to be large enough for me to strike. “How’d you like for me to talk to your mother like that?”


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