A Reading List is Not a Syllabus, Part III

See part I and part II.

A steam powered train from the early 20th century, moving from left to right across the image.
There were a lot more trains in the Olden Times

Another text I found to be impactful and which might enhance an anti-racist reading list is Ralph Ellison’s posthumously published short story “Boy on a Train.” It is a somewhat unique story in its switching of perspectives, and it centers on a young boy on a train ride from Oklahoma City, OK to McAlester, OK with his mother and baby brother. It is a story told with gentleness and a sharp understanding of the way children see and feel the world around them, while emphasizing the danger and pain of Jim Crow. Because this story is so emotional and so realistic, students respond effectively to its portrayal of Jim Crow oppression and the generational trauma it caused.

The story begins with the young boy, James, and his perspective, but switches to his mother’s perspective early on as she nervously anticipates the return of the white butcher through the train car she is in. The butcher had “tried to touch her breasts” on his previous pass through, and she defended herself by spitting in his face. “She hated him. Why couldn’t a Negro woman travel with her two boys without being molested?” This is a key moment that demonstrates the particular position of a Black woman in this time; it is presumed that any white man can touch her, but when she defends herself, she risks retribution on the butcher’s return. Compounding her feelings is the fact that this all took place in front of her children, cementing their status under Jim Crow as inferior citizens with no rights. And all she wants to do is sit on the train without being molested – it is a simple human right, and yet she cannot count on it happening.

The rest of the story is presented from James’ perspective, who is sad to be leaving Oklahoma City. We learn that the boys’ father died and so the family is moving back to McAlester, where the mother had previously lived. Ellison’s portrayal of James’ emotions is quite deft, I think, as it captures both the way a young child might mourn, even as the child does not fully understand the whys or hows of their current situation:

The boy felt funny whenever he thought of Oklahoma City, like he wanted to cry. Perhaps they would never go back. He wondered what Frank and R.C. and Petey were doing now. Picking peaches for Mr. Stewart? A lump rose in his throat. Too bad they had to leave just when Mr. Stewart had promised them half of all the peaches they could pick. He sighed. The train whistle sounded very sad and lonesome.

As the story continues, James begins to see himself as his mother’s protector and the “man of the house,” who mustn’t cry when he sees his mother shedding tears. He isn’t sure what to do, or even who to blame, but he implicitly understands his mother is oppressed and that it is not right:

James wanted to cry, but, vaguely, he felt something should be punished for making Mama cry. Something cruel had made her cry. He felt the tightness in his throat becoming anger. If he only knew what it was, he would fix it; he would kill this mean thing that made Mama feel so bad. It must have been awful because Mama was strong and brave and even killed mice when the white woman she used to work for only raised her dress and squealed like a girl, afraid of them. If he only knew what it was… Was it God?

James ultimately determines that his mother’s pain is not merely due to his father’s death, but that “it was something else,” and whatever it is, even if it is God, then he will kill it. “I’ll make God cry, he thought.”

As the story concludes, Ellison shifts the tone to joy – another crucial aspect of this text. While the pain, fear, and cruelty of Black oppression is undoubtedly central to “Boy on a Train,” Ellison leaves the reader with examples of Black joy, which exists despite the efforts of every white person to stamp it out. Lewis, the baby, sees a cow and mistakes its call for that of a dog: “‘Bow-wow?’ ‘No, Lewis, it’s a cow,’ James said. ‘Moo,’ he said. ‘Cow.’ The baby laughed, delighted. ‘Moo-oo.'” As Lewis moos, both James and his mother laugh, and the family is united in their ability to find joy and laughter on this train ride. Beyond joy, there is also a sense of resilience for the young boy: “he looked out the window, resting his chin on the palm of his hand, wondering how much farther they would have to ride, and if there would be any boys to play football in McAlester.”

This story is beneficial to anyone looking to learn more about Jim Crow and Black oppression, in part because it allows the reader to see how the violence of racism and oppression in the United States is a generational trauma. James may not understand everything, but he knows the butcher upset his mother, and he knows how his mother’s trauma makes him feel. While James is somewhat able to shake this off at the story’s conclusion, the constant forward movement of the train and the opening imagery of “colored leaves” being scattered in the “white cloud” of steam suggests the pain will not end here. The sense of resilience James demonstrates is also prefigured in the opening imagery, when the same colored leaves “danced in the steam like leaves in a white wind.” Although the “colored leaves” are deliberately scattered, they also dance.

Once encouraged to read a little more closely, my students caught on to the imagery of the leaves and understood Ellison’s metaphor. It is important when reading and discussing this idea of resilience not to fetishize it as a Black person’s superpower or a way to excuse racism. Black persons in the US have been forced to be resilient for centuries, simply to survive. And as Black women in particular have said, (#citeblackwomen) the perception of Black persons as “strong” can work against them especially in healthcare, when doctors assume Black patients have a higher tolerance for pain, or that their skin is (literally) thicker than white skin. So be sure to keep that in mind before reading the conclusion to “Boy on a Train” as an unqualified happy ending.

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