Read Chapter VIII of Trial and Triumph, free online book, by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, on

“I never want to go to that school again,” said Annette entering Mrs. Lasette’s sitting room, throwing down her books on the table and looking as if she were ready to burst into tears.

“What is the matter now, my dear child? You seem to be all out of sorts.”

“I’ve had a fuss with that Mary Joseph.”

“Mary Joseph, the saloon-keeper’s daughter?”


“How did it happen?”

“Yesterday in changing seats, the teacher put us together according to the first letter in our last names. You know that I, comes next to J; but there wasn’t a girl in the room whose name begins with I, and so as J comes next, she put Mary Joseph and myself together.”

“Ireland and Africa, and they were not ready for annexation?”

“No, and never will be, I hope.”

“Never is a long day, Annette, but go on with your story.”

“Well, after the teacher put her in the seat next to me she began to wriggle and squirm and I asked her if anything was biting her, because if there was, I did not want it to get on me.”

“Oh, Annette, what a girl you are; why did you notice her? What did she say?”

“She said if there was, it must have got there since the teacher put her on that seat, and it must have come from me.”

“Well, Mary Joseph knows how to scratch as well as you do.”

“Yes, she is a real scratch cat.”

“And what are you, my dear; a pattern saint?”

“No,” said Annette, as the ruefulness of her face relaxed into a smile, “but that isn’t all; when I went to eat my lunch, she said she wasn’t used to eating with niggers. Then I asked her if her mother didn’t eat with the pigs in the old country, and she said that she would rather eat with them than to eat with me, and then she called me a nigger and I called her a poor white mick.”

“Oh, Annette, I am so sorry; I am afraid that trouble may come out of this fuss, and then it is so wrong and unlady-like for you to be quarrelling that way. Do you know how old you are?”

“I am almost fourteen years old.”

“Where was the teacher all this time? Did she know anything about it?”

“No; she was out of the room part of the time, but I don’t think she likes colored people, because last week when Joe Smith was cutting up in school, she made him get up and sit alongside of me to punish him.”

“She should not have done so, but I don’t suppose she thought for one moment how it looked.”

“I don’t know, but when I told grandma about it, Mrs. Larkins was in the room, and she said if she had done a child of hers so, she would have gone there and sauced her head off; but grandma said that she would not notice it; that the easiest way is the best.”

“I think that your grandmother was right; but what did Joe say?”

He said that the teacher didn’t spite him; that he would as lieve sit by me as any girl in school, and that he liked girls.”

“A little scamp.”

“He says he likes girls because they are so jolly.”

“But tell me all about Mary Joseph.”

“Well, a mean old thing, she went and told her horrid old father, and just as I was coming along he took hold of my arm and said he had heard that I had called his daughter, Miss Mary Joseph, a poor white mick and that if I did it again he would give me a good thrashing, and that for two pins he would do it then.”

“What next?”

“I guess I felt like Mrs. Larkins does when she says her Guinea gets up. My Guinea was up but I was afraid to show it. Oh, but I do hate these Irish. I don’t like them for anything. Grandmother says that an Irishman is only a negro turned wrong side out, and I told her so yesterday morning when she was fussing with me.”

“Say, rather, when we were fussing together; I don’t think the fault was all on her side.”

“But, Mrs. Lasette, she had no business calling me a nigger.”

“Of course not; but would you have liked it [any] better if she had called you a negro?”

“No; I don’t want her to call me anything of the kind, neither negro nor nigger. She shan’t even call me black.”

“But, Annette, are you not black?”

“I don’t care if I am, she shan’t call me so.”

“But suppose you were to say to Miss Joseph, ‘How white your face is,’ do you suppose she would get angry because you said that she looked white?”

“No, of course not.”

“But suppose you met her hurrying to school, and you said to her, how red and rosy you look this morning, would that make her angry?”

“I don’t suppose that it would.”

“But suppose she would say to you, ’Annette, how black your face is this morning,’ how would you feel?”

“I should feel like slapping her.”

“Why so; do you think because Miss Joseph-

“Don’t call her Miss, she is so mean and hateful.”

“But that don’t hinder her from being Miss Joseph; If she is rude and coarse, that is no reason why I should not have good manners.”

“Oh, Mrs. Lasette you are too sweet for anything. I wish I was like you.”

“Never mind my sweetness; that is not to the point. Will you listen to me, my dear?”

“Of course I will. I could listen to you all night.”

“Well, if it were not for signs there’s no mistaking I should think you had a lot of Irish blood in your veins, and had kissed the blarney stone.”

“No I haven’t and if I had I would try to let-

“Hush, my child; how you do rattle on. Do you think because Miss Joseph is white that she is any better than you are.”

“No, of course not.”

“But don’t you think that she can see and hear a little better than you can?”

“Why, no; what makes you ask such a funny question?”

“Never mind, just answer me a few more questions. Don’t you think if you and she had got to fighting that she would have whipped you because she is white?”

“Why, of course not. Didn’t she try to get the ruler out of my hand and didn’t because I was stronger.”

“But don’t you think she is smarter than you are and gets her lessons better.”

“Now you are shouting.”

“Why, Annette, where in the world did you get that slang?”

“Why, Mrs. Lasette, I hear the boys saying it in the street, and the girls in Tennis Court all say it, too. Is there any harm in it?”

“It is slang, my child, and a young lady should never use slang. Don’t use it in private and you will not be apt to use it in public. However humble or poor a person may be, there is no use in being coarse and unrefined.”

“But what harm is there in it?”

“I don’t say that there is any, but I don’t think it nice for young ladies to pick up all sorts of phrases in the street and bring them into the home. The words may be innocent in themselves, but they may not have the best associations, and it is safer not to use them. But let us return to Miss Joseph. You do not think that she can see or hear any better than you can, learn her lessons any quicker than you can, and when it comes to a trial of strength that she is stronger than you are, now let me ask you one more question. Who made Miss Joseph?”

“Why, the Lord, of course.”

“And who made you?”

“He made me, too.”

“Are you sure that you did not make yourself?”

“Why, of course not,” said Annette with an accent of wonder in her voice.

“Does God ever make any mistakes?”

“Why, no!”

“Then if any one calls you black, why should you get angry? You say it would not make Miss Joseph angry to say she looked white, or red and rosy.”

“I don’t know; I know I don’t like it and it makes me mad.”

“Now, let me explain the reason why it makes you angry to be called black. Suppose I were to burn my hand in that stove, what would I have on my hand?”

“A sore place.”

“If it were your hand, what would you do?”

“I would put something on it, wrap it up to keep from getting cold into it and try to get it well as soon as I could.”

“Well, that would be a very sensible way of dealing with it. In this country, Annette, color has been made a sore place; it has been associated with slavery, poverty and ignorance. You cannot change your color, but you can try to change the association connected with our complexions. Did slavery force a man to be servile and submissive? Learn to hold up your head and respect yourself. Don’t notice Mary Joseph’s taunts; if she says things to tease you don’t you let her see that she has succeeded. Learn to act as if you realized that you were born into this world the child of the Ruler of the universe, that this is his world and that you have as much right in it as she has. I think it was Gilbert Haven, a Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a man for whose tombstone I do not think America has any marble too white or any laurel too green, who saw on his travels a statue of Cleopatra, which suggested to him this thought, ’I am black, but comely, the sun has looked down upon me, but I will make you who despise me feel that I am your superior,’ and, Annette, I want you to be so noble, true and pure that if everybody should hate you, that no one could despise you. No, Annette, if Miss Joseph ever attempts to quarrel with you don’t put yourself on the same level by quarreling with her. I knew her parents when they were very poor; when a half dozen of them slept in one room. He has made money by selling liquor; he is now doing business in one of the most valuable pieces of property I see in East L street. He has been a curse, and his saloon a nuisance in that street. He has gone up in property and even political influence, but oh, how many poor souls have gone down, slain by strong drink and debauchery.”