Nigger John

He hadn't been there long - just a few days in fact. It was 'out in the
middle of nowhere' - or at least so it seemed - and that was just fine with
him. He had always liked the idea of living far from town, and he was sure
that he would like the living just as well as the idea. Being a preacher,
he would need to meet the people in the community, a task he did not at all
mind, but being new to the area he knew that he would need a 'local' to
carry him around and, so to speak, break the ice. The farther out in the
country people are the more important it is that one have an "in" with them
if he hopes to get to know them. It is usually true that such people are
most courteous and kind, but it is the preacher's work to become a part of
their lives and that takes more than a knock on their door.

He was excited about his first 'full-time work', and about finding a church
that thought enough of his services to not only pay him for them but also
provide him living quarters adjoining the church property. He didn't have
many things, no furniture to speak of, not even a working television. The
old house trailer he moved into wasn't much to look at, but he liked it all
the same. The rooms were small, the walls were filled with nail holes from
previous residents, and the floor gave way in many places - but he didn't
mind. The couple that had just moved out left him a bed, a washer, a couch
and a chair. The trailer still had the stove and refrigerator it came with
decades earlier and the air conditioner and heater both worked. Though it
didn't bother him any, the well from which his new house drew water was
placed in the corner of the church cemetery. He would later joke that the
water was filled with mysterious nutrients as a result, and that while he
and his wife (who came along a little later) lived there they had two
children but that when they left they had none...

On his third day in his new paradise, one of the church-members offered to
take him around and introduce him to some of the people in the community.
The first visit was to be one of his most memorable. His guide, a local
educator and pillar of the congregation, said, "We'll start at Nigger

"Pardon me?"

"Nigger John's."

"Why do you call him that?"

"Well, he's the resident black man in the neighborhood."

"Doesn't he mind?"

"That's what he calls himself. He was raised out here and the old-folks
all like him very well and they've always called him that. They don't mean
nothing by it."

"And he doesn't mind it?"

"Not at all. You'll see, he'll introduce himself as Nigger John."

The two of them rode about a mile or so and came to the driveway - if
you'll call it that. Maybe years ago it had been a proper driveway, but now
it was little more than a series of gullies washed out of the sand between
the pine trees. The incline was sufficient to justify the washes. The
house was made of concrete blocks - as yet unpainted. It was nice enough,
just different. There was an old dog on the combination
porch-sidewalk-doorstep; so still and unconcerned with the unannounced
visitors that one was made to wonder if it was alive or dead. As they
exited the truck in which they were riding, his guide blew the horn and gave
a yell: "You home?"

The aged black man, clad in an undershirt and overalls, unshaven and
clearly indicating that it wasn't 'bath day' in every way, flung open the
door and answered, "Yeah, we're here. Y'all get out and stay a spell."

Each syllable seemed to fight against leaving his mouth. Chubby, his
guide's nickname, said, "This is our new preacher - he's single."

The host said, extending his hand, "Nigger John's the name. Proud to have
you in the community. You hunt?"

"Squirrel hunt a little."

"Ever chased a fox?"

"No, but I'm willing to learn."

"Me and Aldie'll learn you. You'll make it here just fine. Won't you come
in and meet the lady?"

Chubby said, "Of course."

On the ride over Chubby had told the young preacher that Nigger John's wife
was one of the best cooks in the area. He also said that she would offer
him food - angel food cake if he was lucky - and that it would be terribly
rude to refuse. Sure enough, when he entered he spied the cake box on the

Nigger John introduced the young man to his wife and the four of them made
the necessary small talk and then she said, "Young man, won't you eat a bit
of my cake?"

Remembering the advice he had received on the way over, he agreed. The two
men went outside to look at something and he took his seat at the table. It
was then that he first noticed that Nigger John wasn't the only thing on
that property that needed a good washing! The table was sticky - so much so
that it actually pulled the hairs on his arms when he went to remove them.
When the hostess took the lid off the cake box three of the biggest roaches
he had ever seen in his entire life ran out and he gasped aloud at the

"Don't worry none 'bout them, they's wood roaches; they didn't eat much"
the hostess said.

He wasn't in the least worried about how much they had eaten! She brought
a plate from the cabinet, lifted the tail of her dress, gave it a good rub
and placed it before him. "Let me find you a fork."

He wished that he were anywhere else in the world but where he was. She
brought a knife to cut the cake and a fork for him to use from a drawer,
took the same tail of the same dress and wiped them off and proceeded to
serve. "You'll need some milk with that."

He figured that she was right, for by this time he was having serious
doubts about the cake - or anything else, for that matter - going down. The
glass was brought and he noticed that it looked peculiar. It was supposed
to be clear, but one couldn't see through it! When the milk was poured one
could barely see it looking from the outside. When he received the
container from her he learned why - like the table (and probably the plate
and silver before the wiping), the glass was covered with a stickiness with
which he was then (and is still now) totally unfamiliar.

He remembered the counsel he had received before, and he didn't want to be
rude, so (being a young and frightened man) he ate and drank. He tried not
to think about it, but it was impossible not to think about. By and by his
guide returned with Nigger John and they said their good-byes and the
preacher and chubby left.

"Want to go see Uncle Huey and Aunt Mary?"

"Not today - I think I better get home."

"Join us for supper? Carolyn's got some good chili on."

"No, I don't think I could eat another bite."

Nigger John and his wife, whose name he never learned, are both dead now.
He and John would become friends, even good friends, over the next
three-and-one-half years, but the young preacher never entered his house
again. He did have an occasion to speak with John about the name by which
he was known, and he asked him, "What do you think about everyone calling
you 'Nigger John'?"

"Don't bother me none. Back when I was born, that's what they called all
us folks."

"Yes, but times have brought many changes."

"Maybe so, but they ain't changed me none. They don't mean nothing by it.
Do it bother you?"

"Well, where I came from there were no... well, how do I say it? There
were only white people."

"Weren't no niggers there, huh?"

"That isn't how I said it."

"Would it help you some to know another name to call me?"

"It might make me a little more comfortable."

"__________ is my last name, John D. __________. Most of my folks call me John D. That work for you?"

It would indeed work for him, and he and John D. often met at fox hunts, at
church, fishing, funerals, etc. He was the first black man the young
preacher ever spent much time with and after a few weeks he became the first
black friend the young preacher ever had. After a few months he became just
a good friend - neither black nor white - just a good friend.

H. L. Gradowith


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