I’m about a third of the way through Kingsblood Royal (remember how I was talking about it?) and I’m finding it even better and more surprising than I thought it would be. The book is set in 1940 or so, and the titular character, Neil Kingsblood, has just found out that he’s 1/32 black. This, despite his ginger coloring or his daughter’s champagne-colored hair! Instead of going into denial, or brushing it off, he’s suddenly unsure of everything he ever knew about Negroes, and more importantly, himself.
Much of the book is clearly meant to be satirical. That Kingsblood almost immediately fears that people he’s known for 30 years will suddenly see his Negroid blood, his terror that blacks in his small Minnesota town have known all along and are waiting of the right moment to use that knowledge against him, his furtive visit to the black part of town and a black church so he can learn more about “his race”; all of these things are over-the-top and are obviously being used to illustrate how silly and wrong his racist views are. In one rather funny internal monologue, he concludes, “Captain, aren’t you kind of overdoing your glee in becoming a colored boy?” “Okay. I am.”
What I find somewhat extraordinary, is how human blacks are in this novel. They’re not just magical Negroes for Kingsblood to learn from, they’re presented as people with internal thoughts and lives. There’s also the acknowledgement of differences in attitudes toward equality, and even class, as in this passage:
And he was more certain that he could never become “colored” when he passed the Beale Street Bar-B-Q and saw the dark cloud of Negroes looking hatefully through the steamy window at the slumming white man; when he came to the Jumpin’ Jive night club which, he thought, belonged to Belfreda’s friend, the sardonic Borus Bugdoll, who had made light of the Kingsbloods in their own kitchen. It had been a store; the show-window was now filled with a gilded plaster seashell decked with silver pine-cones and poison-green ribbons, framing the blown-up photograph of an almost naked black dancing-girl.
The street was more alien to Neil than Italy in wartime, and it seemed to him that every dusky face, every rickety wall, hated him and would always hate him, and he might as well go home.
But all of this had taken only five minutes of slow walking, and in the sixth minute the sorcery was lifted and he was among people who, though their faces were more beloved of the sun, were like any other group of middle-class church-going Americans.
They were Dr. Brewster’s congregation, enjoying their weekly gossip before the church bell should summon them in: placid and well-shaven men, wearing the kind of Sunday clothes that people do wear on Sunday; Mothers in Zion, nervously thin or comfortably buxom, talking about their sons in the service; supernaturally Sunday-neatened small boys restless in tight shoes and little girls flaunting their Sunday splendor; elders with a long good life recorded in their etched faces; voluble babies who had not yet heard that they were Negroes and who assumed that they were babies.
It’s funny, beautiful, painful prose.