The Meaning of White

            Suga Beet was no lawyer. But he could read. And that was enough for him to know how to vote for Mr. Lincoln.

            Suga Beet was called that for one simple reason: he loved sugar beets. His given name was Ishmael Abel Turnipseed. But he didn’t like turnips. He liked sugar beets. So that’s what everyone called him.

            Well not everyone. Some people called him nigger. But he didn’t pay much heed to them. He was Suga Beet. And that was enough for him. That, and he was going to vote for Mr. Lincoln.

            “How ya gonna vote for that man,” his mama asked him. “Ya know ya can’t vote. Ya ain’t white.”

            “That’s right, mama. I ain’t white. Not yet anyway.”

            “Not yet? Who ya foolin. Ya ain’t never gonna be white. Ya blacker’n dirt.”

            “Just you wait, mama. I’ll be white enough. You’ll see.”

            “Just a Tom fool. That’s what ya are. A Tom fool.”

            “I might be a Tom fool. But I ain’t no Uncle Tom.”

            “What ya talkin bout chile? Ya been readin again? I tol ya no good would come from ya readin.”

            “I know’s how to read mama. And I know’s how to vote. Just you wait and see.”

            On Election Day, our man Suga Beet went to the dry goods store down on Jackson Street and bought himself a can of white paint and a paintbrush. Then he went back home, stripped naked, and began painting himself, starting with his black toes and working his way up.

            When his mama walked in, she gasped. “Suga Beet, what in God’s green earth are ya doin, boy?”

            “I’m becoming white, mama. So’s nows I can vote.”

            “Ya already done become a fool, son. Ain’t that enough?”

            “I ain’t nobody’s fool, mama. I can read. And now I can vote for my man Mr. Lincoln.”

            “Ain’t nobody gonna let ya vote. You’s a nigger.”

            “I ain’t neither. I’m white. You can see that plain as the nose on your face.”

            “Suga Beet, I’m about ready to send ya to the nutty hospital.”

            “You go right ahead, mama, but first I gotta go and vote.”

            Suga Beet waited for the paint to dry. Then he put on his cotton shirt and leather breeches and walked to the polling station. The man at the table was looking down, reading the day’s newspaper.

            “Scuse me, mister,” began Suga Beet. “I’m here to vote.”

            The man looked up. His dark eyebrows furrowed as he stared at Suga Beet. “You ain’t neither,” the man said, finally. “You’s a nigger. Plain as the nigger nose on your face. And niggers can’t vote.”

            “I ain’t no nigger,” replied Suga Beet. “I’m white. And a man. And I’m 22 years old. And I done lived in this fine State of Minnesota since I was a baby. Thereby, under Article 7, Section 1 of the State Constitution, I got me the right to vote.”

            The man looked at Suga Beet, a bit of brown tobacco juice dripping down his hairy chin. He wiped away the juice with his stained sleeve. He dug through some documents and pulled out a couple pages of crumpled paper.  

            “Ah, here it is,” said the man. “Says right here on this here Constitution that niggers can’t vote. And you’s a nigger. So you can’t vote.”

            “I knowed how to read,” responded Suga Beet. “And it don’t say nothin bout no niggers on that paper. Says a white man can vote. And lookee here, I’m white. So I gets to vote.”

            The man wrinkled his brows again and scratched his greasy black hair. “Hey Ludvig,” he said after a spell, looking over at a group of men huddled around a fire barrel. “We’ve got a nigger tryna vote.”

            Ludvig walked over. “Ain’t no nigger can vote,” said Ludvig. “Says so right there.” Ludvig pointed at the Constitution.

            “It don’t neither,” replied Suga Beet. “Says a white man can vote. And I’m whiter than that there field in December. So if you wouldn’t mind none, I’d like a ballot please.”

            “You ain’t white,” said Ludvig. “You’s a nigger.”

            “Perhaps there is somethin wrong with your eyes,” said Suga Beet, holding out his hands for the men to look at. “Can’t you see I’m white?”

            “White ain’t about the color of your skin,” responded Ludvig. “It’s about the state of your soul; the nature of your character; the isness of your being. You’s a nigger. You ain’t white. And you ain’t ever gonna be white.”

            “I done read the Constitution. And it don’t say nothin about no soul or character. It talks about being white. And you’s can both see that I’m whiter’n a lamb.”

            “Nope,” said Ludvig. “You’s a nigger. Plain as day.”

            “I ain’t leavin here till I vote. I’m white, and I’s got a right.”

            “Bring him to Judge Kristiansen, Berg,” replied Ludvig. “We ain’t got time for these shenanigans. We’s got an election to run.”

            Berg walked Suga Beet down the dirt street to the courthouse. He told the clerk to get the judge. After a spell, a massive man in a black robe came out a door in the back of the courthouse and took his judgment seat.

            “What seems to be the problem boys,” began the judge.

            “This here niggers tryna vote, judge,” said Berg. “And we done showed him the Constitution. But he won’t leave us alone.”

            “That true boy?”

            “I knowed how to read, judge. And it says a white man can vote. And as you can see, I’s white. So’s I gets to vote.”

            The judge pulled on his graying beard. “Now you’s got a point there boy. You do look a good bit white. But you’s a nigger underneath, ain’t ya? Fess up now, boy.”

            “I ain’t no nigger. You can see that judge. I’s white.”

            “I don’t think that’s quite what my boys had in mind when they wrote that there Constitution.”

            “Then they shoulda used different words. I can read. And even I’s knows that words mean somethin. And white means white. And I’m white.”

            The judge tugged harder on his beard, then scratched his hidden chin. “Hey Andreassen,” he spoke at last, turning to his clerk. “Hand me that there dictionary.” The clerk handed him a large, bound book. The judge began reading to himself, pulling ever harder on his beard. Then he exclaimed, “Just as I thought. You ain’t white. You’s a nigger. You can’t vote. Now go on homeboy.”

            “Not so fast, Mr. Judge. I done knowed that there Mr. Webster’s words and what they say. White is an adjective. It means ‘being in the color of pure snow; snowy; not dark; as white paper; a white skin.’ Mr. Webster then goes on to say that white means ‘pale; destitute of color in the cheeks, or of the tinge of blood color; as white with fear.’ Now as you’s can see, under them there definitions, I’s white. And thus and therefore, I’s gets to vote.”

            The judge tugged on his beard, and then looked again at the big book in front of him. “Mighty fine, boy. Mighty fine. You sure can read. But did you read on? Our boy Webster goes on to say that white means ‘having the color of purity; pure; clean; free from spot; as white robed innocence,’ and then he says that white means ‘in a scriptural sense, purified from sin; sanctified.’ So’s seems to me that what my boys had in mind as a condition of votin is bein sanctified by the blood of the lamb. So’s I ask you, boy, you been sanctified by the blood of the lamb?”

            “No sir, Mr. Judge. I ain’t been baptized. Not yet leastwhys. But I’s gonna be. Soon as Hezekiah the circuit preacher man makes his rounds this a way again.”

            “Mighty fine, mighty fine, boy. But the problem thence remains. You ain’t been sanctified. Washed pure by the blood of the lamb. And so’s you can’t vote. Unless, of course, you’s was to be baptized.” A slight grin formed at the corner of the judge’s fat lips.

            “You mean right now?” asked Suga Beet?

            “Sure! Ain’t no time like the present to be cleansed by the holy waters of baptism. What you say, boy? Shall I fetch the preacher?”

            Suga Beet thought for a moment, then spoke. “And then I’s be able to vote for Mr. Lincoln?”

            “One thing at a time, boy. One thing at a time.”

            “Alright, Mr. Judge. I’ll get myself baptized today.”

            “Mighty fine!” said the judge. “Andreassen, go and fetch the preacher. We’s gonna have us a baptism! Come boy, let’s get down to the water.”

            Suga Beet followed Ludvig and the judge out of town and down the banks of the river. As they waited for the preacher to arrive, Suga Beet looked around. He saw hundreds of unleafed maples and oaks and cottonwoods on the banks, the muddy waters of the Mississippi flowing by. On the far bank, he saw a murder of crows sitting on a limb like a jury. On the near bank and just to his left, he observed a kit of pigeons, perched motionless as Roman statues.

            “Well, hey there, judge,” shouted the preacher, coming down the bank. “I hear we got us a baptism, today. Who’s the lucky soul?”

            The judge smiled and pointed a fat index finger at Suga Beet. “That there boy right there,” said the judge.

            “You consentin to this here baptism, boy?”

            “Yessir,” said Sugar Beet. “I’m getting baptized. Then I’s castin a vote for my man Mr. Lincoln.”

            “Mighty fine,” responded the preacher. “I done already cast my vote today. But first things first. Why don’t ya strip to your drawers, and we’ll commence the ceremony.”

            Suga Beet took off his shirt and pants. “Alight boy,” said the preacher. “Come on out here now.”

            Suga Beet waded into the cold water and stood beside the preacher, his toes sinking into the mud.

            “Alright now, boy,” continued the preacher. “Lay back in my arms.” The preacher extended his arms like he was accepting a bundle of hay.

            Suga Beet leaned back and felt himself suspended on the water, the brown river flowing slowly past. The chill of the water bit at his skin. He looked up. He saw the brilliant, clear blue sky. Not a cloud in sight.

            Suddenly, Suga Beet felt himself plunged into the water.

            “I baptize thee in the name of the Father,

            Plunge

            “And of the Son,

            Plunge

            “And of the Holy Ghost.”

            Plunge

            Sugar Beet stood on his own two feet again, the mud oozing between his toes. River water ran off him like kids on a toboggin. He instinctively clenched his hands together at his chest, gasping for breath and warmth. He heard a flashing of wings. He looked up. From the far shore, the murder of crows had leapt off the limb, making for the near shore. While at the near shore, the kit of pigeons had come to life like marble touched by a god. They made as if one for another. Suga Beet wiped his eyes. The birds seemed as if two armies, descending or ascending toward some final, deadly conflict, the claws of each raised to the other. But when they met, their feet embraced, and they circled and embraced as children at a wedding dance. The two armies locked in the kiss of peace. And then they let go and flew off.

            Suga Beet again felt the mud encircling his toes. His body shook from the cold; his back and teeth ached from clenching. He looked down. He saw the once muddy water surrounding him had turned a pale white, the color of diluted whitewash. He brought his hand to his face. It was black as night, the white paint having washed away in the muddy Mississippi, made clean by the purifying waters of baptism.

            Suga Beet looked toward the shore and at the smiling judge, his hands laced over his fat belly enshrouded by his black robe.

            “Can I’s go and vote for Mr. Lincoln now,” asked Suga Beet, eyes still on the judge.

            “Well I am sorry, son, but look at you. You’s a nigger, clear as day. Even the mighty sanctifying waters of baptism couldn’t clean the black from your skin. Your soul might be washed by the blood of the lamb, but your nigger skin sure ain’t.”

            Suga Beet again looked at his hands. They were black, black as night. But not so his soul. Not so. The judge had said so himself. His soul was pure as any white man’s, maybe purer.

            He looked at the sky again. The fowls had disappeared, but the brilliant blue sky remained, the sun illuminating the horizon like a gemstone.

            “Alright, Mr. Judge,” said Suga Beet at last, looking in the dark eyes of the fat man. “You done won this one. I don’t need to vote none no whys. Mr. Lincoln still my man, though.” Sugar Beet walked out of the water and onto the shore. He put on his shirt and his breaches. He stood just a foot away from the judge. The judge stopped smiling, closing his fat lips over his yellow teeth. He tugged on his beard. Suga Beet smiled at the judge, his big white teeth framed by perfect blackness.

            “I know’d how to read, Mr. Judge. And I done read your book. One day, Mr. Judge, one day. The white wolf shall lie down with the black sheep. You shall see. One day.”

            Sugar Beet turned and began ascending the bank. And the judge remained standing, watching, pulling on his beard and scratching his head, watching as a lone pigeon and its dark mate descended from the sky and landed, one on each of Suga Beet’s proud shoulders, who then carried them on home.

Jeffrey Wald is an attorney and writer in the Twin Cities. His work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in periodicals such as Dappled Things, Philosophy Now, The Agonist, Stinkwaves Magazine, and Shotgun Honey.

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